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Lessons from plants

 
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Thean Teik
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PostPosted: Thu May 12, 2011 8:26 pm    Post subject: Lessons from plants Reply with quote

Good Morning Chegu Luke, Saudara Saudari,
When I have nothing much to do I write - not to make a cent but just to slow down the downward spiral of the brain. May I suggest that each of us do the same and perhaps we can get this site into a pleasurable and educational forum. Below is what I wrote recently. I send a copy to our 'strong guard', Prof. Chin and he liked it.
Peace
Thean Teik

The Shy One

When I was a child, I always roam around bare feet. Nothing bothered me except the Mimosa pudica. The English call it Sensitive Plant or Touch Me Not while the Malay call it SiMalu, the Shy One. Oh, how I hated these low creeping plants. It has fine plamately compound leaves that open during the day and close at night. The leaves react quickly to touch – closing and drooping as soon as they are touched. The leaves also close when the plant is experiencing moisture stress. The closing of the leaves is a defense mechanism to reduce the chances of been eaten and conserve valuable moisture. The lovely global light purplish red flowers are excellent nectar and pollen sources for bees. When ripe, the seedpods curl as they open and seeds are expelled with some force to propel the seeds far away from the mother plant to colonize more land. The prostrate wiry stems radiate from a central shoot to form a round circle on the ground and they are armed with thick and stout back curving thorns at regular intervals. (Even the leaf stalks are armed.) Bees and goats may like them but to a young unenlightened kid like me it appeared they are placed on earth just for one purpose – to draw blood or be embedded into the flesh to cause misery to humans. It is native to Brazil and why anyone would introduce the plant into the country was beyond me. I remember how glad I was to see young seedlings when I was helping my Dad in hoeing the field. It was so sweet to take my revenge by hoeing them out.
I thought this SiMalu was bad but when I went to the Agriculture School I learned there was another more vicious species, Mimosa innerves. The plant is green, extremely vigorous and completely covered with thorns. I remember ploughing a field where they were so thick that they were climbing over each other to a height of six or seven feet.
On the 18 of February 1968, school was over. Except for some 1st year students who were on the compulsory field tour, and a handful who stayed back to work as laborers on campus during their vacation break, all the rest had already left and it was very peaceful. I stayed back another day because my father’s boss had kindly bought my parents and I plane tickets to fly home to Penang. That was the first time in three years that I felt empty. With nothing on my mind I walked out to sit under one of the Ketapang trees, Catalpa terminalis in front Pak Hamid's quarters to ruminate. (Pak Hamid was the kind hostel steward.) I was wondering what to do for I wasn't very sure I was well equipped for the job in extension in the State of Perak, a job I was to start on March 1st. I was also ruminating the three wonderful years in Serdang and felt sad I had to leave. The hostel sat on top of a small hill and from where I sat, I could see a big area of campus – the playing fields, administrative building, lecture theatres, laboratories and the various crop fields beyond. Each brought back adventures and fond memories. Finally my eyes drifted to that patch of almost bare ground right in front of me; the slope between the hostel and the road that separated the hostel from the rest of campus. That fully exposed slope was mostly rough laterite and very stiff clay without topsoil - an extremely hostile environment for any vegetation or animal. Even the love grass Eragrostis minor an extremely wiry and tough grass was struggling to survive. The administration planted two mangosteen trees Gacinia mangostana, drought tolerant fruit trees there, and in spite periodic watering were just hanging in like the old saying hidup ta’mau mati segang (doesn’t want to live but shy to die.) How ironic, every field was luxuriant with crops and pastures and this bad, bare patch was right in front of the hostel. Were they trying to challenge the students? Is so, they were badly mistaken for I doubt any of us saw it that way. But on that day I saw an oasis in that desert. On the far side near the road on my right, I noted a small patch with luxurious vegetation. It consisted mainly of love grass and carpet grasses Paspalum conjugatum and Axonopus compressus, and SiMalu. I asked myself why was this tiny patch so luxuriant?.
Several hypotheses floated by and in the end I attributed everything to the SiMalu. Nitrogen is one of the most important nutrients plants require to grow well but the fully exposed slope was extremely deficient or devoid of this and other nutrients. This is further exuberated by the soil type and slope. There was no or little moisture on the slope but the rainwater had time to soak into the ground in that patch where the slope was more gentle. The SiMalu being a member of the Leguminosaea or bean family was able to capture the nitrogen from the air and fixed it into the soil for its own use. In the process it also made more than it could use and the love grass and carpet grasses being members of the grain family that require high nitrogen to grow, benefited from the generosity of the SiMalu. I was confident that it was a matter of time before the SiMalu colonizes up the slope and creates more hospitable environment for the carpet grass to follow.
I was glad that I sat there instead of sitting in the Common room to watch TV. On that day the SiMalu taught me valuable lessons. I learned to be tough, self-sufficient, humble and share with others to create a better world. I should arm myself to face the hostile world but use it only for self-preservation or to deter others from harming me. But like the SiMalu folding its leaves, delicate and restraint ways are just as effective. Force should only be a last resort and even then others have to take the first step. Not all resources are presented and if it is not available, make and share it. By fixing nitrogen for itself and others, the SiMalu changed the hostile environment to a hospitable one for itself and others. It may appear that others are parasitizing, taking full advantage of the SiMalu but the love and carpets grasses are indirectly helping to improve the environment too by adding organic matter and opening up the soil to facilitate moisture penetration and retention. They also shared the load should a herbivorous animal come by to graze. That was a perfect case of ‘you rub my back, I’ll rub yours’.
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Luke Tan
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PostPosted: Fri May 13, 2011 11:45 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hi Pheh,

Thanks for sharing your memories in your little write-up. As usual, your uncanny ability to recall past events in your life in great detail, plus your keen sense of observation, are most admirable. These are ingredients that make for successful writing. So I highly encourage you to continue in this fulfilling endeavour that you have embarked upon.

As for me, of course, I can't write the way you do because I can't remember details the way you do and I do not see things the way you do. I guess I'm just not that sentimental or passionate about common, everyday things the way you are. Without much passion, my style suits just boring factual write-ups. Maybe its still not too late for me to learn to put some passion into what I write... Heh-heh...

As for your lessons learnt from the Mimosa, they were very personal, i.e. they came through your personal perception/reflection of what you saw. Others, seeing the same situation may not see things the way you did. In fact, some may even learn lessons directly opposite to yours...

For e.g., they may see the Mimosa as a very hostile plant, armed with thorns that can hurt anyone touching them. It's their weapon to be one-up on their adversaries in this world that favours "survival of the fittest". Even their production of nitrates can be seen as planned for their own survival only, not a thing to be shared with other neighbouring competitor plants who are out to "steal" it from them. Again, their ability to close their leaves when touched can be seen purely as a selfish defence mechanism that prevents them from being eaten by pests or grazed by herbivorous animals who will choose to eat their neighbouring plants instead. Surely this cannot be the case of ‘you rub my back, I’ll rub yours’, but more like 'every man to himself'?

Hope I'm not misunderstood as being critical of your observations you shared. The point I'm trying to make is that we all learn from life - from the things we see, hear and experience. However, we're all so unique - each one of us - we don't see everything the same way and so do not learn the same lessons from the things we all experience together. People say this is what makes life so interesting. Didn't they say that "variety is the spice of life"?

So we share our thoughts, opinions and experiences and lessons learnt - all for our enrichment. Thanks again for sharing yours here.

Cheers,
Luke
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Thean Teik
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PostPosted: Fri May 13, 2011 8:39 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Good Morning Chegu Luke,
From your respond, I can only say one thing, Lu boleh tulis, Chegu. So please give yourself more credits. I had the same feeling until I met Dr. Bai. He was an old man who came to see me about growing ginseng and fruits around 99 or 2000. He introduced himself as David and a budding farmer. He stayed for about any hour and then he came every week on the same day and same time. I told him there were specialists and I was only an ormanental tech but I entertained him because he was a pleasant man. With each visit, there were more and more questions for which I had no answers. Then I told him not to waste his time and mine and I'll introduced him to all the various specialists with PhD on site since it's their job as researchers and extension officers to provide farmers like him. He reached out and tapped my hands and told me "Son, please don't tell me where to go" It was then that he said he also has a PhD and he's a professor at the UofA. He gave me his business card and asked me if I have written down all the information I had given him. I told him with my level of education I will be casting pearls before swine. He gave me a piece of his mind and adviced me to write if it is not for others at least for myself when I get old. That's when I started writing. With a job to attend to, I was doing it for short periods during the weekends. It was an uphill battle and there were more days that I wanted to give up than wanted to write. Luckily the cut and paste technology of word processing made writing for a man like me who cannot think logically in sequence a lot simplier.
Your views of the Minosa are very interesting and educational. I see your potentials already. Your inputs are not critisms but illuminating. I failed to see those things as in the words of Dr. Devendra 'On the other side of the coin'.
Yes, I recently started corresponding with Dr. Chin. I asked him to criticize my floral diagram of the ginseng. He is very supportive and has been encouraging and pushing me along. He may appear strict but he is a friendly and kind man. (I found that out even during our days in Serdang.) He is still interested in his old students.
Peace
Thean Teik
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Luke Tan
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PostPosted: Mon May 23, 2011 8:39 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hi Pheh,

Thanks for your very encouraging words regarding my writing potential. Coming from you, I take them as sincere compliments and not mere flattery. (As a rule I do not find us Asians that generous in giving due credit or compliments unsparingly).

I hardly wrote in English before my retirement, for, as you know, when we were in the Government's employ, we only wrote in Malay for all our reports and communications. Not much chance in writing in English then. My limited experience in writing in English has therefore been the greatest demotivating factor for my taking up writing seriously now. Moreover, as I've already told you before, I'm not as passionate about agriculture now as I was years ago.

As for you, go ahead and continue your writing endeavours. Good luck.

Nice to hear you're in communication with Prof Chin. Yes, we've misunderstood him as students, 'cause he's really quite friendly and kind as you noted. I'm sure he's all too glad now to be of help to anyone of his past students as you've already found out.

Cheers
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Thean Teik
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PostPosted: Fri May 27, 2011 8:09 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Good Morning Chegu Luke,
I understand the problem of writing in English after spending so many years wrting in Bahasa. Another problem was kita bertutor dalam MalayanEnglish. I'm still having this problem over here and since my mouth moved faster than my brain, sometimes I see my audiences looked at each other with their mouths opened. I can see and hear them saying "Apa dia cakap?'.
You need not have to write on agriculture. You have valuable lessons on life and that's what is lacking in today's society that have given in and use "cents" rather than sense. It's too materialistic and we got to get back to basic rather than going down the mad, mad world of rushing everywhere but going nowhere. Remember that song by Ricky Nelson? Can't remember its title but it's something like Everybody running in the mad mad world.
Peace
Thean teik
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Luke Tan
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PostPosted: Thu Jun 02, 2011 8:49 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hi Pheh,

It is interesting that you mentioned MalayanEnglish, the rojak form of the English language that we all have been using for communicating amongst ourselves. I have opened a new forum for this topic as I feel there is much room for further inputs here, in the form of comments and stories related to it.

Your observation about today's society being too materialistic is so true. In a way, society itself has chosen this path when it booted out all forms of spiritual or religious practices from Government and public life. Yes, now everybody's rushing in this mad, mad world, with nobody going nowhere.

Ricky Nelson's song was titled "Mad, Mad World", recorded in 1962.

You can hear it on Youtube, for example from here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4cAIAkt0uwM

Or here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRqByK8jmaA

For the lyrics, you can get them here:

http://www.sweetslyrics.com/576766.Ricky%20Nelson%20-%20Mad%20Mad%20World%20.html

Happy listening,

Cheers,
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Thean Teik
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Posts: 197

PostPosted: Thu Jun 02, 2011 8:17 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Good Morning Chegu Luke,
Thanks for the sites. I will definitely check them out as soon as I find some time. Very busy now with spring work. Over here the saying 'you snooze you lose' is very true. Miss or delay any spring work and you'll pay dearly since we only have 110 frost free days. I'm almost done everything that needs done and after that I just have to pretend to be the jolly old man and go 'Hoe, Hoe, Hoe'. My gut feeling is a dry year and that means watering and more watering.
Peace
Thean Teik
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Luke Tan
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PostPosted: Thu Jun 09, 2011 3:33 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hi Pheh,

I still can't understand why you chose to be holed up in a place so far up north where the winters are long and severe. I mean, if you're interested in farming, why go to a place where plants do not grow for the better part of the year? And for the short period when you can do farming work, you have to toil frantically (like mad dogs?) lest you 'lose because you snoozed'? It's a mad challenge, I'd say, -- but I don't think you went there for the challenge?

Anyway, I don't begrudge you for having to work so hard in those 110 frost free days. When you're done going 'Hoe, Hoe, Hoe', I hope you'll find some time to 'smell the roses' and maybe listen to Ricky Nelson's "Mad, Mad World". The song is only about 2 minutes long, give or take a few seconds. Come to think about it, it shouldn't be a problem listening to it even if you're going to be very busy with your spring work!

Cheers
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Thean Teik
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PostPosted: Thu Jun 09, 2011 8:24 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Good Morning Chegu Luke,
Yesterday was a miserable day - cool, cloudy and very light rain, more like misting, now and then. So I did listen to Ricky Nelson. Thank you for the sites. Coming Friday and Saturday are supposed to be cold and wet.
Gardening in this cold and short growing season is actually very challenging and lots of fun. There are constaints and we just have to find ways to circumvent them. On the positive sides nature forces us to rest for a good part of the year and there are also relatively fewer pests and diseases. Of course it can also be very frustrating. I always try to beat the gun and seed much earlier than the rest. Some years I win, some yuears I lose. My beans and potatoes were already up when a frost on the 29th May 'toasted them'. It was more frustrating when I checked the weather records - the lowest temperature was only -1.7C and there were only two hours of below 0C. The potatoes will resprout from underground but I have already reseeded the beans.
Peace
Thean Teik
PS. During the forced rest I spend many hours analysing the year's work, what to improve and what I want to do when spring rolls in. So actually it's a year round exercise.
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Luke Tan
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PostPosted: Mon Jun 13, 2011 5:12 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hi Pheh,

I guess we all adjust and adapt to conditions surrounding us and make the most of what we have. That's how we have people living in the cold artic conditions as well as in the sweltering heat of the Sahara! Once we get used to constraints and limitations we're stuck in, we invent ways to minimise our problems and not complain much. There's no perfect place to stay on this earth anyway. There're just pluses and minuses in any part of the world.

I suppose, with the distinct seasons you have over there, there're always specific things to do for each period of time for the year. And, if we go by Parkinson's Law, we'll tailor the amount of work according to the time we have available for its completion. (Remember the law that states, "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.")?

Happy working,
Cheers
Luke
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Thean Teik
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PostPosted: Mon Jun 13, 2011 7:45 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Good Morning Chegu Luke,
Parkinson's Laws - very interesting. I never heard of it until 1974 when I got mad and told my PPN what's on my mind - no filtering, just black and white (you know what I mean). He was shocked. A couple of days later he send me a mail. In it was the condensed version of Parkinson's Law. He underlined the one, I believe was the first. (Remember in those days there were no highliners yet.) It states never to disagree with your boss. Even if you know he/she is dead wrong appear to agree. For example if he/she says the board is black although it is white as snow, you either say "Ai, Ai Sir" or "I think it's a little off black."
Peace
Thean Teik
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Thean Teik
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PostPosted: Thu Jul 21, 2011 7:50 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Greetings Saudara/Saudari,
Certainly most of you have good and memorable experiences with plants. Please tell us your story-lah. Please don't let me hog this page. Here's another despised plants that taught me lessons.
Peace
Thean Teik

The Lalang

When I was a little kid, there was a relatively large patch of lalang, [i]Imperata cyclindrica, not far behind the house. Aside from 4 or 5 unproductive coconut palms there was no other species growing in the patch. The patch was solid vegetation to about 4 feet. Walking through it was difficult but not impossible. However, who would want to go through it anyway? The long leaves were erect and stiff with sharp edges that could lacerate exposed skin if one was not careful, and the emerging suckers were pointed and hard and could puncture the most callused soles of the feet if one was barefooted. We paid no attention to it other than the few occasions when we would cut the straightest and stiffest leaves to play. Each leaf was shortened to about a foot and a short potion, about an inch, was torn on one side of the midrib. Holding this torn off potion, we would swing it forward and stop abruptly, sending the leaf forward like a rocket. Sometimes we would aim it skywards. The one whose ‘rocket’ travelled the furthest or highest was the winner. The highest was always questionable and resulted in lots of arguments.
That was the extent to which I knew about this grass until when Papa developed an allergic reaction to it or when he had to expand his vegetable garden into the patch. He first cut down the tops and set them aside to be used as mulch later. When I asked him why didn’t he just burned the tops, he told me that if he did that, the grass will reemerge and produce thousands of seeds to infest other areas. He then proceeded to dig the ground inch by inch, breaking up each lump carefully and removing every single bit of rhizome and threw them into piles. It was hard backbreaking work but Papa said he had no choice as each piece he accidentally left behind would grow, compete ferociously with the vegetables and quickly re-colonize the place. Papa turned the piles regularly to expose them to dry and when they were dried enough, he piled them on top of a low mound of soil before placing more soil on top. He then set fire to the dried rhizomes. They burned slowly and he said that way he could capture some of their nutrients that he later distributed evenly on the vegetable beds.
I paid no attention to this grass until I went to school. Dr. Wang drilled it into us how obnoxious this weed can be and its presence in the plantations will result in immediate firing from one’s job. Nevertheless he also mentioned that it’s better to have a groundcover of lalang than fully exposed bare soil. Fires or storms only kill its top, and after the disaster it comes back stronger, more luxuriant and more productive – flowering and seed production to colonize more land. Cultivations only break up the rhizomes, forcing and encouraging it to multiply unless one is as meticulous and patient like my Papa. Only systemic herbicide can eliminate this weed. The weed colonizes through massive rhizome proliferations, eventually knocking off others or hogs so much nutrients that any crop growing around it will produce poorly. I firmly believe that the grass secretes an allopathic chemical to help it along. New colonies are generally established through seeds. The good news is they generally do not produce a crop unless the entire tops are destroyed, usually through fire. The leaves are so tough that few animals graze on it. The water buffaloes are about the only animals that will graze it although new succulent growths are eaten by goats and cattle.
A lalang patch is relatively dull – monotonously dull green, light brown when dry or pure white when the seed heads are ready for dispersal. I never like it until one day sometime in 1974. I was in charge of the Lekir Agriculture Station then. The State Director was very fond of making surprised visits after office hours. As such I never saw him. One day I stayed back to finish some work and he came. He started ripping me apart for things that I could not control. One of the issues was the stagnant water near the hostel. His simple mind told him it was just a simple matter of digging a deeper drain to connect to the Irrigation and Drainage Department’s facility (DID). To inexperienced eyes, myself included, the land was flat and level like a table but in reality there were differences. I was lucky because there was an elderly Peace Corp working in the station who told me otherwise. Fred retired from farming before joining the Peace Corp. He found life very boring and unbearable as he was not allowed to do anything. When I was transferred to Lekir he was just waiting to be transferred. In the short few weeks remaining, he showed me the differences and he bet there was at least 1.5 feet difference between the hostel and the first DID drain. I found it hard to believe Fred could tell that small a difference over more than 100 yards by sitting on his heels and eyeballing the terrain. I checked with the Technical Assistant of DID who said the DID drain was over two feet higher than the hostel’s drains. According to a staff member living on site, on each visit the boss just stood by the office and complained that the fields were weedy. With the number of workers, I could only keep the rows clean and allowed the vegetation in the inter-rows to grow as groundcover. These were mowed at regular intervals. He never went into the field and as such he was never aware of the cleaned and weeded areas under the trees. I did not know if it was the way I explained the situations or he did not like being challenged; his final remark was in future he would only have ladies running the stations as they did better jobs. That struck raw nerves and I hit back. I told him he was giving me the proverbial “beri saya satu tiang, suroh saya bena satu rumah” (give me a pole and ask me to build a house.) He stared at me in disbelieve when I told him to do his homework. One of the stations he referred to was less than 50 acres with half under fully matured rubber, coconut and durian trees, the other was under 30 acres. The former had 10 labourers and the latter had 30! Lekir was 1001 acres. Although only slightly over 100 acres were developed, the trees were immature and required more labour. But, there were only 2 labourers. I had written to him before on the situation and offered proposals for the station but he said he never saw my letters.
The following morning at work, his remarks troubled me and for the first time in my working life I felt empty. I needed solitude, time and space to contemplate. So after detailing the day’s work to the two workers, I hopped onto the Honda Cub motorcycle and rode ‘into the horizon’ - to the far undeveloped portion of the property, an area I had never visited before. I rode along the poorly marked trail along the DID main drain, actually reconstructed Lekir River. This river separated the property from those of private ownerships on the west side. The land was relatively flat and soon there was nothing but solid patch of lalang.. I rode as far as I could go, enjoying the cool wind blowing in my face until the trail ended in a small clump of bamboo. I dismounted and sat in its shade. It was on slightly higher ground and in front of me was a sea of lalang, moving and swaying in the strong wind. It moved in rhythm and resembled waves in the open sea. Other than the sound from the blades as they brushed against each other and those from the bamboo leaves blowing in the wind, there was tranquility and I felt at peace with the world. The longer I looked the more beautiful and inspiring this greatly despised weed appeared.
My mind started to ramble and I began to think of its morphology and physiology. I visualized the journey of the lalang. Someone must be mad and set it on fire or mowed it down. The plants reacted by sending up floral heads, nothing showy but functional with stamens dangling loosely. The slightest breeze was enough to set the pollen afloat and land on the stigmas. Within weeks, the seeds were ready and a few must have rode the wind and landed on this deserted land. (It was under illegal cultivation and those farmers abandoned the venture after realizing the soil was too sandy and infertile to make a living.) The seeds found Eden and began to grow. Their mothers were very thrifty and stingy too; they had to with so many seeds to provide for. The seeds were so very tiny that no animal was interested in them and so Mamas had to devise a way to disperse their children far and wide. They attached a tiny parachute to each seed to ride the wind. There was so very little food packed away that each seed must germinate and immediately produce her own food. There was no room for error or taking life easy even for a little while. She had to make hay while the sun shines, and could not afford to waste time and energy to adorn herself. Instead she grew quickly and armed herself such that no creature was interested in her. She went about quietly and unobtrusively, careful not to draw any attention but producing as much energy as she could while growing underground. Before long, she had a massive network out of sight to all above. Then without warming she cloned herself and together with her sisters and nieces struck hard and quick to colonize the entire area and the entire land was theirs and theirs only.
That session under the shade of the bamboo opened my eyes. Each step in her march ran almost parallel with mine. The only difference was my parents provided me with more reserves and I could afford to shoot the breeze once in awhile. Perhaps the bigger difference was I was egoistic and an exhibitionist, boasting and showing off but going nowhere. In spite of the strong wind, not a blade was broken or pushed down. The children story of an arrogant, huge and robust tree and the little lowly humble grass rushed through my mind. I remembered how boastful and bullying the tree was until a big storm hit. The tree resisted, was broken and uprooted while the grass rode the storm and emerged unharmed. The words of a hymn ‘trees do bend though straight and tall, so must we to others’ call’ started to ring in my head. The words of one of my mentors, Wan Adam bin Wan Ismail, Ángin salak bukit, bukit ta’kan rumtoh’ (dog bark at the hill, the hill will not fall down) also surfaced. And so did my Papa’s words, ‘don’t be boastful, work quietly and save for the rainy day. Overcome difficulties and rise up stronger and wiser’. A single lalang would have been blown down by the wind but there was strength in numbers. What farmers found as extremely poor land, the lalang found goldmine. Opportunities abound if one is patient and committed enough to work diligently and consistently just like the old saying ‘belakang parang di-asah pun jadi tajam’ (grind the back of the machete it will become sharp).
Oh, Lalang, Lalang, we were together since the day I was born. Why have you kept me in the dark? What other wisdoms are you withholding? What offerings must I scarify at your alter? Are you only a comforter to the desperate and destitute? You have so much to give but choose to remain silent. Do you belong to a different world and will only dish out a little at a time to wanderers, those high on hallucinating substances or those down and out?
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atancan



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PostPosted: Fri Jul 22, 2011 7:03 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hi Pheh,

Most interesting pieces. You always captivate your readers with your writing - very informative and in laymen's lingo. Please continue to share your knowledge.

Best

mh
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