Going Wild

(I apologise in advance for the long post… I was too beWILDered by this topic)

I often say that it would be great if humans can go back to our caveman days – to lead simple lifestyles and have ourselves integrated back into the ecosystem. It would solve so many of the world’s current problems: waste, climate change, poverty, even mental health. But if I think about it, would I be able to lead such a life? I don’t think so. I can’t even climb a mountain without following a set, man-made path (we had to circle the mountain we wanted to hike up and nearly gave up because we couldn’t find the entrance…). We can’t even tell what kind of plants are edible – we ended up foraging on the path up the mountain as there were so many sweet-smelling fruits, but we had no idea if they were poisonous. It hit me then that we were so used to just picking up anything at the supermarket that we don’t actually have the ability to tell whether what we were holding was edible. On top of that, having lived a sedentary lifestyle as a stressed and lazy student for almost all my life, my body is so weak that I find simple farm work tough. I am inevitably stuck as a modern, spoiled human being who is weak, delicate and unable to survive in the wild. Perhaps I can adjust to it, but it will take a long time and require many uncomfortable changes to my life.

When we think about food, something we don’t often think about but is vital is where our food comes from – whether it is farmed or wild caught. Previously I never really distinguished between the two, but experiencing life in the Ishikawa prefecture has made me think twice. While farming organically is great, the concept of farming in itself is destructive. It requires massive land use change. I often wondered to myself what land we stood on looked like before it was transformed into the farm it is now: was it a temperate forest? Or perhaps grassland? We will never know, but even for something that is touted to be great like organic farming, there are hidden tradeoffs like the destruction of landscapes (although this would probably have happened very long ago). Even the natural plants/animals that reside in these areas are labelled as ‘weeds’ and ‘pests’ by us humans and forcibly removed, whether by hand (organically) or by herbicides/pesticides. And even with organic farming, if the soil is not treated well, the topsoil can be easily eroded and lack the nutrients it requires to sustain farming.

Farmed animals then come with a whole new set of problems, to do with ethicality. Are the animals treated well? Do they have sufficient space/freedom/food to sustain themselves healthily (both physically and mentally)? Even with such intimate contact with our hosts at the poultry/dairy farms, it is impossible to answer these questions. For one, we’re not animal experts, and we have no idea what the hosts do when we are not around. Labels such as cage-free and organic feed may not be all there is to the picture – it’s also about where they buy their animals from, how they treat them, whether their ‘cage-free’ space is large enough, and more often than not these factors cannot be controlled.

However while farming has its cons, Yuuji, one of the owners of the organic farm we first visited holds a life philosophy: that we learn the most when we try to do things by ourselves – which includes creating your own food. He made his own tofu recipe from scratch with a lot of experimentation (which is super good by the way), and is making upgrades to his house all by himself (like building a second floor and solar panels). Unlike many other farmers, he comes from Tokyo so he’s had a taste of city life and comfort, yet he decided to move to the countryside and farm for many years now, which must have been a leap of faith, motivation and lots of courage. We remarked during one of our dinner conversations that the farm looked perfect; the veggies looked and tasted great and we’re always so amazed by everything he does, and wondered how he even did it. And he told us about a Japanese proverb ‘石橋を叩いて渡る’ (which means to tap on the stone bridge before you cross it). It teaches one to not stop oneself from doing anything because you’re afraid of failure, because the bridge is stronger than you think. And he told us that the reason why he’s able to look so successful now is because he’s made many mistakes and failed at everything he’s done, which allowed him to learn how to succeed. He only knows what to plant because he’s had the experience of failing to grow and harvest his plants, and I’m so inspired by his attitude and there’s so much to learn from him. We almost expect him to be this really perfect person, but then he starts telling us about how his solar project is totally failing right now – and I find it so admirable. The other farmers we visited also followed similar philosophies, although they didn’t articulate it. For instance, the farmer in Noto, Ishikawa learned to forage and eat whatever he could find in the mountains and sea by himself – he asked questions (especially ‘why’), but always seeked the answers by himself. This is also how he perfected the feed he produces for his cows, and learned by himself how to keep the soil healthy through experimentation. They are really proud of what they have done, and have learned so much in the process. Farming one’s own food has its virtues too – and I am in absolute awe of the philosophy behind farming.

In Kaga-shi and Noto-shi in Ishikawa, where we stayed with a poultry farm and dairy farm, the farmers consume wild boars caught from the mountains, and fish wild-caught from the sea – the Ishikawa prefecture is flanked by mountains, valleys, rivers and the Sea of Japan. As environmentalists, we often try to keep to a plant-based diet in order to reduce our carbon emissions and eat more sustainable food. However, observing their diets in the Ishikawa prefecture has entirely changed my perception of what makes food ‘sustainable’. I felt really weird and my conscience pricked at me for eating wild boar and sashimi so often for meals because I don’t usually consume so much meat (I’m a flexitarian).

But in this area, eating meat-based proteins may actually be sustainable, as long as they’re caught sustainably. Wild boar populations boomed after the loss of predatory species such as wolves (in Kaga), and when they moved into areas where wild boar are not native to due to extreme weather in other regions (in Noto, from colder areas like Niigata). As I learned in Ecology and Ecosystems, a module I took this semester, the large increase in population of any species can upset the balance of the ecosystem and cause the destruction of landscapes, as large numbers of wild boar feed excessively on the shoots and trees in the area. This makes wild boars a pest to nature, and hunting them down can actually ripple into a positive effect for the environment, as it allows the forests to recover from excessive grazing.

My usual dinner at Noto – with イノシシ (wild boar) and saba sashimi

As for fish, because we’re literally right beside the sea, there are little food miles incurred when we consume local seafood, and because they are not farmed, there is little carbon footprint incurred in the process. However, the question of sustainable fishing still remains and will remain unanswered – otousan was trying to convince us that the locals fish sustainably by ensuring that they don’t overfish, but it is impossible for us to verify this information of course (unless we stay with fishermen – but unfortunately we won’t have the chance to do so). But judging by the price of fish in the supermarket, you can buy an entire fish for less than 200yen (ard $2.50), which is absolutely insane, the fish in the area might really be in abundance. It was also really interesting to consume local fish, which is different from what we normally see in other areas. In Noto, we had fish like あじ aji (horse mackerel), れんこ鯛 renko tai (crimson sea bream) and 鯖 saba (mackerel) caught fresh in the morning and eaten as sashimi (otousan will always emphasize that you can’t have these fish as sashimi anywhere else as it isn’t fresh enough – he also fillets them himself, and is self-taught) or grilled. We also occasionally went to the shore to catch 栄螺 sazae (turban snails) along the seawalls, and otousan even broke them apart for us to try raw right there and then. All this felt like such a luxury, but I was appalled at how cheap and available everything was. The concept of sustainability is complex, and requires a deep understanding of the local environment – there isn’t a single one-fit answer, and it isn’t always the least luxurious sounding option.

Fish at the local supermarket

The sazae we caught!

Otousan is always so excited to introduce us to good food, and often splurged on food. He called himself (and us) 食通 shokutsu, which means a gourmet/foodie, and was always really excited to have good food; sashimi is his favourite food. Of course good food doesn’t just include extravagant food, as he also appreciates other foods such as sea snails, wild mulberries, random roadside flowers and his own vegetables and milk. But this made me think a little – while an extravagant diet happens to be somewhat sustainable and available in this area, it’s not a lifestyle that everyone can and should strive to afford (especially people living in cities, or places like Singapore where all food is imported etc.). Are we, as humans, entitled to eat good food?

Through this trip, I realised how much happiness food can give to people – on top of being a necessity for survival, it is also vital for one’s wellness. The happiness I feel having good food – a huge privilege – can energise me for the entire day and warm my heart, and I acknowledge how powerful this can be. Many are food insecure, and more are food secure but lack access to a variety of foods – just having grains for every meal for instance can be detrimental to one’s health and wellness. As someone who doesn’t usually have access to luxury foods such as sashimi and wagyu (many things I’ve had on this trip were a first for me), I was honestly really touched and grateful for the random and very casual opportunity to try such great tasting food. On one hand, I wish everyone had access to such food which can really boost one’s well being, but on the other hand, is it a necessity? It’s not sustainable for everyone to live like this and have access to such foods, and it can create inequalities especially in large cities where the price of such foods is hiked up due to increased demand. This effect is going to be exacerbated as climate change hits, and food availability drops even further. I don’t want to imagine the day this will be a reality, and this impending crisis makes food sustainability even more important than ever.

Blogpost #2 Hello Siem Reap: Lotus stems & miracle thread

16 hours’ worth of bus rides and a day later, we arrive in Siem Reap.

Crossing the thailand-cambodia border was no easy feat. The little in-between town was filled with people yelling and engines blaring; the lone traveller would surely be no match against the criss-crossing alleys and misleading dirt footpaths that all seemed to lead to the arrival checkpoint. Memories of it include the intense smoke and heat, and the 100 baht we had to pay the immigration officers to get across the border. (Kimberly, on our daily expenses, wrote the words “corruption-300 baht”. Its not a lot of money in a sense, but its still something that we weren’t used to as Singaporeans with “the best passport in the world”)

The bus rides have been long and winding so far, but also a great time for reflection and some sleep. Our experiences with the artisans in Phrae have left us with wide-eyed wonder for the hidden communities and trades that we never considered previously. We were awed by the knowledge of the ladies we talked to about both natural indigo dyes (Hom) and weaving fabric, and their almost instinctual connection to their surrounding nature and process. Process, for them, is something slow, thoughtful and dignified – it was something that gave them economic benefit and value, as well as something that gave their life purpose. Artisanship is as much about the people as it is about the final product – the artisans, their friendships with each other, and the support it gives to their families and loved ones, as well as the wider communities these sustainable processes benefit.

Artisanship becomes a far wider concept than we could possibly frame within a singular definition. It is both a product and process, and it concerns both the beginning, the middle and the end of the production process. Yet for the people at Mai Kam Fai, it was a way of life, a living wage, and an intimate community of women. Artisanship was also “folk wisdom” – knowledge passed down from their ancestors that they strove to preserve and pass on,

So here in Siem Reap we were excited, but cautious. After our experiences with the weaving community in Mai Kam Fai, we wondered how Siem Reap would be like. We were visiting Samatoa Lotus Textiles, which was a far more international brand than Mai Kam Fai. What would be their focus? How would they differ from what we had already seen? Sometimes, the fear lies in not liking what we might see.

My scepticism faded after conversing with the owner of Samatoa. A Frenchmen who began a lotus thread weaving workshop in Cambodia, Awen told us that his main concerns were the natural environment, and the process of craft. One thing that struck me was his belief that our human processes should fit and adapt to our surrounding environment, rather than the other way around. This was evident in the practice of the artisans and thread weavers there – I remember staring, mouth agape, when I saw the women pulling apart lotus stems to reveal the many microfibres within them, and then pulling them and rolling them into strong looking white thread. A loom stands in a corner and two women sit on it, weaving long rolls of fabric. All from the lotus stems!

I was shocked to see how the tiny fibres in between lotus stems could form such strong, beautiful fabric. The women worked simply in a wooden workshop, shaded from the sun, with knives to cut the lotus stems and water to wet the thread. “A lotus is a living thing, so water is an intrinsic part of the process,” says Awen. The process was unbelievably simple, and ingenious. Typically, lotuses would be harvested in Cambodia for the flower and the seed. The stems would be discarded or composted, but now the stems have led to sustainable fabric being produced, and more women working in safe conditions with a fair wage. It is amazing to see how thinking alongside nature, and adapting our processes to our natural environment, could have such great results.

The loveliest thing, I think, was to see the circular economy at work in this workshop. The focus on process was evident in every small step in the process of making lotus textiles. Yesterday, we saw the lotus stems being turned into thread, than fabric. Today, we visited the nearby lotus farm where Samatoa works with farmers to get their lotus stems. The farmer was a lovely bespectacled old man with a dog named “Shorty” in Khmer. He was a jolly man who laughed a lot at us young girls with our cameras and equipment. He told me how he had to stay in a hut near his farm so he could make sure no one stole his lotuses. Because it was summer season, he was using some of the fields to plant rice, and would only start planting lotuses when the water level rose. Being able to see the origins of the lotus stems, the exact person and farm who grew them, brought me unexpected joy and warmth. It was the first time I could safely see each and every single person who contributed to the making of my clothes, and recognise their simple yet important stories.

I think the farmer was intrigued by my curiosity, and he went around his farm to get me a bunch of lotuses so I could eat its seeds. I wish I got his name! (and not just the name of his dog) But in the moment I was too busy trying to convey with my nods and smiles that we were immensely grateful he let us tour his farm and talk to him, and basically give us the time of day!

A lotus bouquet full of edible seedy goodness!

Of course, my team and I have recognised over the trip that our goal is not to “convert” everyone to artisanship. Artisanal goods are still considered expensive and inaccessible to the usual mall crowd. But we have come to see it as more than just a good, but a concept and way of viewing consumption and production. Artisanship is a lens we can use to view the world around us – placing process, rather than product, at the forefront of our considerations. The question “who made my clothes” will no longer be a far-off concept but the first one that comes to mind when we finger a fabric. It is a way of thinking that reminds us that there are always people and communities behind the final products we use and see, and that they are not as far away or as unrelatable as might think.

These are the girls who work at Samatoa lotus textiles. Most of them make thread, some of them weave. (I told them to do a funshot!)