The edge effect

As is the human body, so is the cosmic body
As is the human mind, so is the cosmic mind.
As is the microcosm, so is the macrocosm.
As is the atom, so is the universe.  
                   –          The Upanishads.

A little disgression – this was the first time I voted. I wanted to see the process first-hand. Inspite of all the massive hype, there was no reason to believe that the next leader would be any different.  I voted for AAP (the Aam Aadmi Party), although they didn’t put a well-known candidate. The results were a surprise, not in terms of the outcome, since the established players have tricks to keep the regular voters in their fold. It is just that the AAP candidate got only about half a percent of the votes, about 6000 out of more than a million votes. Of course there could have been lots of silent supporters, too lazy to vote. But a party that was new, and promised to be different, from the corporate puppets with  the industrialization of anything and everything mantra, and that had apparently captured the imagination of ordinary people (if the media were to be believed) barely registered with the voters. There was money involved, the established players were distributing money. It is not hard to get to the truth, because people who took the money, don’t keep their mouths shut. And if they don’t get that information out, then the parties can’t purchase votes for cash. But then if you are the media, you want to keep yourself on the right side. Who wants to miss out on the big fat full page ads? So no investigations of the money trail! I wouldn’t worry too much about the cash distribution either. All those vehicle checks for cash, only caught businessmen and ordinary people. At least it seemed that the police were doing it that way. If people get cash for votes, then they get a leader they deserve. Not that they would get someone better otherwise.

Anyway the voting process itself was quick. The voting machine had big buttons, with the party symbol and name. A green button at the top of the machine was supposed to light up, to indicate it was ready. It never came on. When you press the button for your candidate, the button light turned red, and sounded a beep. I was under the impression you get to see the printout with your choice, so that you know the machine worked as expected. The printout was supposed to be behind a small glass window on the machine, but this one had no such thing.  And you can’t be sure, how much testing these machines go through, its error rate, and the mechanisms by which they may get compromised. One thing though for people who value their privacy – all the voter records were put online, and a few companies and people were busy downloading and analyzing for various purposes. Easy data either for some nefarious purpose, or for something good. So if you value your privacy, keep yourself out of the election process. Or Google search. Or having a credit card. Ok, ok, there are too many ways to lose your privacy these days!

There goes the election process. We have a new leader, who could be different. But then you never know. The rise of Obama, the anointed-one, in the US, was a great disappointment for many. They now see him as  a puppet who was allowed to indulge in a bit of narcissm with his “gift” of rhetoric, while handlers from the military-industrial-medical-financial-and-whatever-else pulled the strings. But like most things in life, sometimes good “leaders” have caused more damage, than bad ones. Putin was bad for some, but kept the oligarchs under control, and atleast so far, proved good for his people.

Now back to the topic. Nature has certain patterns that have so far been successful. Most of natural farming proponents look to these patterns for inspiration. In forests, life is rich, the water pure, the air clean, and the trees full of nectar for the bees, or fruits for the animals.It is not plowed, or fertilized. Nature is rich in edges, the boundaries between river and its banks, forests and meadow, leaves and air, roots and soil, etc. It is these niches offered by the edges, the micro-climates, and flow of nutrients within these that makes nature support the diversity of life. But if you look at a small village today with just a few houses, you will see a straight line ditch, with mucky, stinky water. The reason – PURA (which stands for Provision of Urban infrastructure in Rural Areas, or something of that sort), and the goal is really to improve hygience. So you have dirty clogged drain right in front of your porch, in a minor village with a few houses, the perfect environment for mosquitoes. To kill the mosquitoes, either bleach is used, or the ditches are fogged. This monumental vision (sometimes ascribed to Dr Abdul Kalam, former President) just breeds pathology. Frogs or dragonflies, predators of mosquitoes don’t survive in the muck. Yet this solution is widely prescribed. I even found this in a village near a tea estate, with 45 degree incline. The solution works for people who make money out of it, the contractors, the politicians, and the unfortunate workers who have to clean it once a while.

This obsession with cleanliness through straight lines and technology, has only lead to more problems. People have adapted to these problems, and they assume that is how things will be. The sweet healthy water from the Siruvani mountains is now more often than not mixed with a little sewage. Water than apparently got its sweetness from the gooseberries (Amla) in the forests, and acquired other organic acids and nutrients during its flow through the forest, is heavily chlorinated to prevent disease. Shouldn’t people drink the rich, living water instead?



This waterfall is in Kotagiri. In spite of everything that goes on in the forests, this living water, rich in organic acids is healthier.




Tree on a rock

Tree on a rock

Here’s a tree that is on a rock, thriving. You wouldn’t expect the rock to be a good place to start.




Palmyra tree

Palmyra tree


This palmyra tree has a peepul and banyan tree growing from it. Although the seeds grew from the base of the dried leaves, where the birds dropped them, the roots have now gone underground, and over a period of time,  will prevent the palmyra tree from growing.  Never give an edge to your competitors.





Micro-organisms and fungi in the soil play a major role in the growth of plants and trees, often assisting them in absorbing the nutrients in soil. What makes them effective is the amount of edge that is available. The total leaf surface area of a banyan tree can be several acres. And then you have the stems, and hundreds of thousands of fruits when the tree is in season. With all that edge, a banyan tree is an ecosystem by itself – birds and bats eating the fruits, wasps pollinating it, and leaves used as fodder. The dead leaves on the ground, plus the live roots provide for the soil ecology – the worms, beetles, fungi, and micro-organisms. Life is enriched by the niches provided by the edges. The larger surface area can clean the air, reduce wind speed, and make the dust and pollutants settle down. While the fungi in the soil, can clean the water that seeps into the soil. Most plant life do increase the edge, infact the increase is exponential, before space or resource constraints slow things down, after which things get into a certain dynamic balance.

Among the most popular natural farming proponent would be Subhash Palekar, who introduced zero-budget farming, based on his observation of forests. Farmers influenced by the university driven agro-pathology usually burn the organic residues after cultivation, but Palekar advises that the soil be mulched. And the various concotions (Panchakavya, Jivamrita) from the native cows are used to enhance the soil life, that makes plants flourish. It takes a season or two to see the difference, and natural farmers who have seen their farms enriched, are unlikely to go back to conventional agriculture.


Thorny tree in flower

Thorny tree in flower

This thorny shrub’s bark was used as a flavoring additive in distilling country liquor.  The many flowers offer nectar.




Thorny shrub

Thorny shrub

Another shrub with nectar and honey bees.  




Most farms in Tamilnadu, even in dry areas were fenced with trees and small shrubs. This edge between cultivated fields, provided a habitat for birds, small mammals, bees and insects. The plants also provided other useful materials and medicines, slowed erosion due to wind and water, and was host to useful micro-organisms and fungi. In fact in Palekhar’s natural farming, it is this soil on the bunds, that is used in Jivamrita to boost benefical organisms.

Peacock eggs

Peacock eggs

Peacock eggs hidden behind the leaves and undergrowth.





Modern agricultural practices with its misleading calculations of efficiency, encourage edge-to-edge farming with hedges removed. They also sometimes request that people uproot “weeds” around the fields, so that they can’t host pathogenic organisms. A fear tactic that has been successful in keeping the farmers dependent of pseudo-science, that prevents natural balance of prey and predators, beneficial and harmful micro-organisms.

Lakes and ponds, streams and rivers.

Water in the fields

Water in the fields

This picture shows water in the fields after the rains. The edges of this transient pool, is where the tadpoles hide. Although it has been a while since I saw any frogs in the farm, I’m sure atleast a few of them survive. 

Water is the basis of life. We are drawn towards it, and expect to something swimming, wriggling, or floating on it. But today the overriding concern is dengue, and water-borne illness, our success in fighting those illnesses have only increased the fear of water.  One nice thing, the local government pushes Papaya leaves, Nilavembu, and malai vembu as cure for dengue.

I remember on my first trip to the US, we were returning from Mount Rainier in Washington State. On the way back, the snows were melting, but there was a place where some snow was left. And where it melted there was a clear pool, with a few salamanders. The observation of life in vernal pools from the melt-water in spring, is a favorite with some.

Lakes that are natural, do not have straight edges. They are supplied water from many small streams. During the rainy season, the native fish in the lakes swim up the streams, and rivulets to breed. The bottom of the lake is filled with clay (from the streams), and organic matter. This combination, decaying organic matter and clay, seal the bottom, and reduce water seepage into the ground. Now we have buffoons who “desilt” the lakes, without understanding the process, destroying this impermeable layer. The native fish is mostly replaced by the commercial carp varieties, and the lake itself is auctioned off. So when the carps have grown big enough, they just bottom troll the lake, killing other life and harvesting all the fish. Now with all the fertilized, pesticide, and weedicide run-off, it is possible that only the carp varieties survive. Also most fields are leveled, and the streams through the fields, are usually blocked, destroying a useful source of food and water.

Amazon River Basin

Amazon River Basin from wikipedia

Rivers that originate in the forests do not carry much silt. The fungi holds the soil, and water generally seeps underground, and comes out through cracks in the rocks. Any river basin is not much different from the Amazon river basin, except for the scale. Such self-similarity or scale invariance is a constant theme in nature. This probably has helped us discover or intuit the laws of nature.
There is a certain depth to the meaning in the verse above, from the Upanishads, it is not a simple observation of scale-invariance.
Vedas are a topic for another day. In the same way the mountains let out clean water, we can design our sewage systems, that use biological mechanisms and similar edge effect, to keep the water clean. That would mean we share our space with marsh plants, frogs, insects, bats, and other life. It will not mean a Singapore like sterility, with straight lines, and fake grass. Rain water will have to be slowed down using simple pits by the side of the roads, or compound walls of the houses. There is little or no need of ditches, sometimes renamed as storm-water drains. And it will also mean that people build smaller houses, and not pave everything within the compound. Rain-water harvesting requires the ups and downs, and the simplest and effective rainwater harvesting structure is a pit in the ground. Will the administrators, contractors, and builders like this alternative? Or will it be high-tech treatment with modified micro-organisms in concrete pits, concrete and more concrete?

Recently there was a dispute about concrete-lining some canal so that people downstream can get water. If canals have be laid down with concrete, it is but a small step to line the rivers too. Why did God not think of that?
Permaculture believes the best way to store water is underground. And permanent streams and rivers happen to run throughout the year, because water springs out from underground aquifers, much after the rains have stopped. This slowing down off the water and re-charging of the aquifers is an essential part of nature. We can have more water, and easy access to it by following what nature does. But then there is “borewell Reddy” ( who thought he’ll be better off digging bigger, and deeper borewells. There are a couple of problems with going deep, and using too much water – the salination of land, that can make it unfit for cultivation. Rain-water harvesting can keep the salt levels down, and water table reasonable high and easier to extract.


If you are planning on using the edge effect in farming, a good article is here –


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