Curiosity #47: Plant Envy


In hills of Imogiri, in the fields beyond Yogyakarta’s borders, is a small farm at the forefront of Indonesian permaculture. The farm’s owner—once a hippie wasting away on shrooms and LSD, later a businessman cashing in on capitalism—traded his long hair for a Muslim cap, his Balinese mansion for a farm cottage, and his fast-track success in international business for the slow-blooming movement of self-sustainable farming. This has since become his Jihad.

I visited the permaculture farm on a Saturday with a professor of Sufism who wanted to investigate the mystical potential of agriculture. After driving down a secluded road, the farm’s owner greeted us in the driveway. He was a towering 6’2’’, about 60 years old, and—with facial features lent by half-English blood—looked like the child of Cary Grant and a dark-skinned countess. No ordinary man; certainly no ordinary farmer: he collected the feces of farm animals in neat bins beneath a row of rabbit cages, harvested vegetables with fertilizer enriched by decomposing horns of cows, met his wife—now a craftswoman of homemade mulberry jam and organic “men’s enhancement capsules”—in the jungle while he was searching for his soul.

The interior of the farmer’s cottage looked not unlike a open-air cabin from the American West. On the floor were Muslim prayer mats laid beside glassless windows. The walls were polished and decorated with Indonesian art. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, I sipped a fermented beverage thickened with goat’s milk and munched on multi-grain bread. Eager to know more about how a man once freed by wealth and narcotics could possibly choose a life of field labor and spiritual rigor, I asked the farmer about his path. Smoothing out his Sufi beard in that wise-mentor-sort-of-way (or perhaps this was just my imagination), my host told me all about his initiation into the world of plants and the intimate channel between God and humble forms of life.

Islam, he said, was the religion that placed the most emphasis on the relationship between God and the earth. To him Islam was the only religious path that adequately emphasized the importance of man’s coexistence with nature. He quoted a well-referenced Islamic Hadith:

“The Earth is green and beautiful, and Allah has appointed you his stewards over it. The whole earth has been created a place of worship, pure and clean. Whoever plants a tree and diligently looks after it until it matures and bears fruit is rewarded. If a Muslim plants a tree or sows a field and humans and beasts and birds eat from it, all of it is love on his part.”

A significant population of modern Muslims follow the environmentalist effort. Some believe that Global Warming is the result of humankind’s cruelty against God’s creations, and the best way to solve the globe’s environmental crisis is by abandoning plans for new supermarkets and tree-chopping and instead give the land some hands-on love. The universe “gives back” what its inhabitants deliver, so humans gain nothing by distributing more trash than growth.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the farmer’s philosophy came from his mystical, almost envious, approach to plant-life.

God made virtuous things smell sweet, said the farmer. Plants have no pig-headedness or pride preventing them from living symbiotically with God’s other creations or from absorbing divine power. Plants bend appreciatively towards the sunlight, enrich the soil, and filter ambient air so other forms of life can prosper alongside their roots. In return, God blesses plants with the sweetest of smells, (in some cases) hundreds of sex organs, longevity, and an almost super-natural sensitivity to the world’s phenomena.

“Think about the kind of pleasure a plant experiences over the course of a lifetime,” said the farmer, “and about what humankind can learn from them.”

Perhaps I am too congested with pride to funnel supernatural energy like a plant, and perhaps I am too dependent on the expressions of humanity to accept the sympathy of a drooping flower. But there is logic in the benefits of putting out more growth than harm, and there is a sort of spiritual impasse to pushing forward with human-centric aspirations for high reputation and “personal growth.”

Perhaps the old farmer was right; perhaps the real graveyards are in the carpentry sheds among shelves of fallen wood. Perhaps our bottle-wasting, paper-crumpling, meaning-searching lives will actually limit our potential for spiritual fulfillment.

Maybe if I had the opportunity to trade my human-centric ego for other-worldly happiness, I would do it. But I can’t help the excitement I feel at witnessing art inspired by grapplings for the “self”, and I can’t help but plunge with gratification into earthly experiences that would not exist without human agency, pride, and—from time to time—the willingness to waste.

Perhaps this latter approach to life will bear me no fruit. Or perhaps it will give birth to something more temporary; just as tasteful for the soul.

One thought on “Curiosity #47: Plant Envy

  1. Interesting article, Julie. Nothing like listening to a wise old farmer who looks like Cary Grant to enrich the soul–and the soil. Perhaps in the future you should get in touch with your Uncle Scott who’s busy working with the Gates Foundation to introduce disease-resistant crops like cassava, etc. to ensure more sustainable agricultural production in Sub-Saharan Africa. Maybe a more scientific path and the innovations of Western scientific thought can work side-by-side with Muslim teachings to feed the hungry of the Third World. Great writing, sweetheart. Keep the stories coming!
    Love, Daddy

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