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March 3rd, 2018

Marathon Rice

BY Christian Ford

It was a wise architect who once pointed out that the most important quality of sustainable building was loveability. He didn’t mean that a structure needed charm.  He meant that if people didn’t form an emotional attachment to a building, then it was doomed.  That’s because no building can survive long without human caretakers, and if no one has  a stake in one’s existence, then it will, sooner or later, cease to exist.

But there’s another way to look at this intersection of love and survival. For something inanimate like a building — or a book, a language, a painting, a recipe, a street, or even a currency — survival means having a relation with something alive.  This is, in our technology besotted moment, an intriguing thought.

Our culture is rife with metaphors of bodies as machines and brains “wired” like computers, but this is really propaganda from the land of the technology. Though the mechanistic metaphor has been a useful scientific tool for several centuries now, we have clearly begun for forget the metaphoric part. That “Dude, you’re a machine” is considered a compliment ought to tell us something.

If I were to point out ways that we are not machines, I would mention that we are self-repairing, that we transform ourselves to fit our physical and mental circumstances, that our constituent parts have uncertain boundaries, that they perform multiple functions, often at once, and are connected in so many and mysterious ways that really comprehending what we are on a scientific level seems to grow ever more remote. (The sequencing of the genome was supposed to be the Rosetta Stone, but instead we are discovering that it’s much more subtle than that.)

Okay, you rightly question, what does our culturally required self-image as computer-driven flesh machine have to do with food and culture? Quite a bit.

A piece in the New York Times outlines the delightful rediscovery of a grain thought long lost. It’s called red or bearded upland rice and it has an unusually interesting history. For the full version, take a look at the Times piece.  The thumbnail take is that upland rice doesn’t need to grow in paddies. Even around circa 1800 America, people knew that living beside a swamp was a good way to shorten your life, and so there was great interest in finding a rice that could be grown on higher and drier land.

The red rice was good at that, but southern plantation owners preferred the higher output of other varieties, swamp or no swamp. Still red rice didn’t vanish, because many slaves of West African origin recognized the grain and well they should have — it came from their home.

So while upland red rice never made it as a cash crop, it found a home in the provision gardens of slaves. Here’s a fuller explanation of how the garden patch in front of their shacks was essential to survival in the bad old days, but what we need to know here is that upland rice – which turned out to be fully capable of growing in swampy lowlands — became an invaluable part of those provisions gardens, all the way out to lowland and sea island Georgia and South Carolina, the home of the Gullah culture.

But — Trinidad? Well, it turns out that during the war of 1812, the Brits made an offer to free slaves who would join the fighting on the British side.  Be emancipated and get a chance to kill your ex-enslavers?  Not surprisingly, six regiments of freedmen joined up as Colonial Marines.  When the Brits lost the war, they then offered each veteran a retirement of 16 acres in Trinidad.   Off they went and the red upland rice went with them, too.  One has to wonder how it those seeds made it to Trinidad. Did the freedmen tuck some away in their belongings when they first signed up as Colonial Marines, just in case their side didn’t win the war? Or did they, after the war was lost and they dared not return, make a surreptitious voyage to the sea islands to gather this most precious heirloom?

Rice was still grown in the US after they left, but during the 19th century, international trade in the form of tremendously cheap Honduran rice effectively killed American rice production.  So that entire piece of our culinary culture simply vanished.  Or so we thought until last year, when descendants of those freedmen, known locally as “Merikins,” were “discovered” still working the same land their Colonial Marine ancestors had been given and still growing the red upland rice.  Now that the red rice has been rediscovered by the culture that lost it in the first place, the former denizen of provision gardens is making the rounds of sophisticated restaurants and slow food aficionados.

That’s charming and more than a little ironic.  But what really strikes me is how this, truly, is an exemplar of sustainability.   The red upland rice is considered the most significant grain of African-American culture, but it survived nowhere but in the fields of the Merikins.  The Merikins themselves are a small and unique culture which has endured more than two centuries.  This bespeaks something more than simple preservation, this is the dance of sustainability. A plant half a world away from its homeland in Asia and people twice removed from their homes together formed a new home in a place native to neither.

They employed the key trait of living things and adapted, and because of their mutual effort, they helped each other to survive.  I do not doubt that some of the Merikin farmers love their rice just I am certain that the rice had no opinion at all about the hands that sowed them. But they are woven together, these two kinds of lives, the boundaries between farmer and farm blurred and the myriad connections too myriad and subtle to ever be fully known.  The most sustainable technology, their example suggests, isn’t technology at all but a relationship that transcends any one lifetime.

 

Pix:
Slow Rice by Yutake Seki
After the Harvest by Jiri