Saturday, July 12, 2003

The mud of life

A missionary doctor, Paul Brand, well-known for his work with leprosy patients, died earlier this week. The Christianity Today magazine website republished an article Dr. Brand wrote in 1985 called "A Handful of Mud." Soil is life. Can we preserve it for future generations?

Dr. Brand begins the (very long) article by recounting a story from his childhood in India. He and some friends were playing in terraced rice paddies and broke down an irrigation channel so that mud from the paddies was washed away.
One of the boys had spotted an old man walking across the path toward us. We all knew him as "Tata," or "Grandpa." He was the keeper of the dams. . . .

[T]he elder stooped down and scooped up a handful of mud. "What is this?" he asked. The biggest boy took the responsibility of answering for us all.

"It's mud, Tata," he replied.

"Whose mud is it?" the old man asked.

"It's your mud, Tata, this is your field."

Then the old man turned and looked at the nearest of the little channels across the dam. "What do you see there, in that channel?"

"That is water, running over into the lower field."

For the first time Tata looked angry. "Come with me and I will show you water." A few steps along the dam he pointed to the next channel, where clear water was running, "That is what water looks like," he said. Then we came back to our nearest channel, and he said again "Is that water?"

We hung our heads. "No, Tata, that is mud". . . .

He went on to tell us that just one handful of mud would grow enough rice for one meal for one person, and it would do it twice every year for years and years into the future. "That mud flowing over the dam has given my family food since before I was born, and before my grandfather was born. It would have given my grandchildren and their grandchildren food forever. Now it will never feed us again. When you see mud in the channels of water, you know that life is flowing away from the mountains."
Dr. Brand documents other examples of erosion he encountered throughout the world, and then he asks,
Is there a common thread? It is not ignorance in all cases. Nor is it dire poverty (although that sometimes leads to the cutting of the trees for fuel). No, there would be enough for all if it were not for greed. More profit. Faster return on investment. A bigger share for me of what is available now, but may not be available tomorrow.
He goes on to write,
I would gladly give up medicine tomorrow if by so doing I could have some influence on policy with regard to mud and soil. The world will die from lack of pure water and soil long before it will die from a lack of antibiotics or surgical skill and knowledge. But what can be done if the destroyers of our earth know what they are doing and do it still? What can be done if people really believe that free enterprise has to mean absolute lack of restraint on those who have no care for the future?
Dr. Brand's hopeful answer?
The sense of concern for the earth is still transmitted by person-to-person communication and by personal example better than by any other method. Old Tata still lives on. He lives in the boys who played in the mud, and they will pass on his concern for the soil and his sense of its importance to future generations.

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