The way to Manoj Kumar IB’s house is a rudimentary mud path hemmed in by undergrowth. Very large trees on either side of it cast their benevolent shadows in which we walk to the house. It stands in a clearing amid a mini forest.
The one-acre at Edavanakkad was painstakingly made into a forest by Manoj; he had to fend off attempts from his family who wanted to clear out the “jungle”, prune wild bushes and spruce up their living space. He often found himself at odds with people, who could not comprehend his philosophy of letting things be. Of not tending to the brambles and weeds, of doing a lot of things by doing nothing. He finally had his way, and the forest around grew and thrived. His mother has come around and at times even participates in plucking fruit and leaves that are edible.
An electrical engineer, Manoj was drawn to Nature and environmental conservation early on by virtue of his association with environmentalist professor John C Jacob. The concepts of natural living, nature cure and natural hygiene inspire him, but he does not claim to be an environmentalist or an activist.
“I have always loved Nature without expecting anything from it.” His outlook towards life is hugely drawn from American writer Daniel Quinn’s ideology of not isolating man from Nature. “The two are not mutually exclusive. Man is a part of Nature, it is when we take ourselves out the equation that problems arise,” he says. Manoj is among the people who helped organise a weekly organic farmers’ market at Kakkanad where small-time farmers come together to sell their produce.
Data recovery is his area of professional expertise, but his free time is devoted to encouraging organic farming and community farming initiatives in and around the Panchayat. ‘Fruitful Future’, a concept he is working on, aims at creating fruit forests. “It is not a romantic concept at all. Anyone who has a piece of unused land can cultivate one. It could be a random selection of fruit trees such as guava, passion fruit, papaya, chickoo, mango or jackfruit. A fruit forest can even be set up atop a terrace,” he says. The idea is to plant as many saplings in a limited space. “Even if they are planted close to each other, they would grow depending on the availability of sunlight.” For this, he draws from Japanese farmer-philospher Masanobu Fukuoka’s ‘do-nothing farming’ principle. “The only things we need to do to create a fruit forest is to prepare the land first. Clean it out and prepare it for mulching by layering the space with organic waste as much as possible. Then let it be as it is and reduce human interference. Very soon, earthworms and other micro organisms appear and the land is ready. Sow the seeds of fruits randomly. Slowly, they grow and over time, become giant trees bearing fruit.”
Permaculture, agro forestry and water harvesting are subjects he is in the process of learning, he says.
Manoj is particularly passionate about jackfruit, his own “forest” has easily over 200 jackfruit trees alone. He collects seeds and brings them home where he creates soil beds and sows the seeds. Once they grow into saplings, he gives them away to those who want to plant them. When he gets large orders, he charges a nominal fee per sapling. Manoj has helped create a fruit forest for a friend in Thrissur and he is in the process of talking to schools and colleges to encourage the idea of a fruit forest. He uses cloth grow-bags for the saplings in order to completely eliminate plastic. “The larger idea is to make people aware of community gardens, which a group of people can do together and benefit from,” he says.
He has not bought vegetables and fruits from shops for over three years now. Everything is available at home—from yam to pumpkin, banana and its blossoms, a multitude of spinach varieties, drumstick, chikoo, jackfruit, papaya, lemon, mangoes and coconuts to begin with. The tree variety is as diverse—njaval, anjili, ilanji, palm, cinnamon, wild chembakam, sindoora varikka (red-fleshed jackfruit) and even young teak trees. In summer, Manoj survives on fruits that the trees give in plenty. “There is so much fruit, I give them away to friends.”
His land has two ponds and a small stream running through it, which swells and ebbs according to the tide. (Edavanakkad has the Vembanad lake on one side and the ocean on the other). Butterflies, bees, birds and creepy-crawlies are regular inhabitants, says Manoj, who adoringly cajoles a moth caterpillar (kambili puzhu) into crossing over a twig towards its family.
Manoj takes care of a scared grove a little away from his house, which belongs to his extended family. “Sacred groves have native trees and encourage biodiversity. Even today, houses with land can replicate a model of a sacred grove by planting trees native to the region.”
Manoj is not driven by an agenda, he speaks about things that he is passionate about unsentimentally. His forests and gardens are not manicured and what is considered aesthetically pretty. “I just want to make the land I live on fertile, so that other living beings can benefit from it, or not, I don’t know. If there is unused land, give it to me, and I’ll grow a forest in it.”
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