08 February 2023

A song of terraced paddy fields

I may have never heard of Barclay Jones if one of his students, Kanishka Goonewardena, hadn’t chanced upon some terraced paddy fields in my company. 

Barclay G Jones, Cornell professor of city and regional planning and regional science, I now know, was a noted expert on protecting historic structures from earthquake damage and on the social and economic devastation of national disasters.

He was Kanishka’s assigned supervisor when he began reading for a doctorate at Cornell in the Department of City and Regional Planning. Kanishka remembers him as someone who had vast empirical knowledge and a man of integrity.

Anyway, as we walked along a ridge high above the waters that would eventually fall into the Heen Ganga with paddy fields descending from the foot of the towering mountains beyond presided over by the majestic Lakegala whose peak was cloud-shrouded that morning of light drizzle and damped pathways, Kanishka shared with me an observation made by the professor, as he remembered it.

‘I have seen all kinds human and natural environments in the world and I can understand how all these were produced or evolved—except terraced paddy fields. I simply cannot understand how anyone could have planned and constructed such intricate and marvellous landscapes. They just boggle my mind.’

And he spoke about hillside houses, hundreds of them, in certain areas of Europe, particularly Italy. These were probably built over a long period of time, with increasing population and growing demand resulting in empty spaces being used to build houses. In the manner of typical urban expansion. They are picture-postcard-pretty, but then the long view tends to be. Tiny spaces, lack of greenery and lots and lots of brick and cement might not make for easy breathing.

It’s one thing to build houses on such terrain and quite another to cultivate. Given that they require irrigation systems which enable optimal use of rainfall or water sources across a territory with multiple owners, certain solidarities are implied. More importantly, as Kanishka pointed out, it must take something special for anyone to look at a sloping landscape covered in thick jungle (‘like all this,’ he said, waving his hand to indicate the mountains surrounding the area, all covered in jungle) and visualise terraced paddy fields.

While terraced cultivation has been practiced in mountainous regions in South America and Northern Portugal, terraced paddy fields are almost exclusively found in Asia. Those of Japan, Nepal, Indonesia, Vietnam and China are truly spectacular. In these regions too, a long time ago, people would have cast gaze on hills covered in trees and visualised a treeless landscape, all terraced tinged in blue-grey hue or gold as the grain ripens. They would have calculated the difference in elevation of adjacent terraces, figured out how best water could be diverted to the top most terrance and how it should be released to the one below and the one below that and so on.

It could not have been, unlike in the case of destroying the upper catchments to plant tea, a meticulously planned affair taking into account weather patterns, soil composition, the possibility of erosion etc.

Theoretically, any hill could be transformed into a terraced landscape. Which hill, though? How and for what purpose? For how long? For whom? Such questions don’t come easy to the mind. After all, how many reading this can claim that they saw a hill and thought ‘could be turned into terraced paddy fields’? How many over the centuries looked upon deserts and thought, ‘someday all this will become infrastructure’? How many experienced processes of political economy and thought, ‘state!’   or ‘deep state’? How many saw a population and saw a people, saw people and thought ‘community,’ imagined a community and designed strategies that tapped into or generated solidarity?

The hills are alive with…the sound of music? Sure. The hills were not terraced paddy fields back in the day, but there was a song about rice, land preparation, irrigation, cultivation, harvests and food. Only, not everyone heard. Some did and among those who did there were special kinds of planners, visionaries and practitioners who saw and could turn vision into reality.

We see hills but don’t see paddy fields. We see paddy fields and don’t see the forests they replaced? We see a rock but don’t see ‘the Thathaagatha,’ we see the Thathaagatha but not the rock from which a sculptor one day drew out the Enlightened One.     

Barclay G Jones, who died in 1997, saw terraced landscapes. He may have reflected deeply on the phenomenon, asked relevant questions and was perhaps inspired to plan and implement transformations of one kind or another. One thing is certain. He planted a seed in the mind of a student many years ago; some fruit was harvested.


Other articles in this series:

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road