Book Review: The Garden of their Dreams by Brian Griffith

By Nayanika Singh
Published: Friday 28 February 2003

-- The Gardens of their Dreams: Desertification and Culture in World History By Brian Griffith Published by Zed Books USA 2001

This book eloquently documents the changing nature of interaction between ecology and humans over the past 7,000 years. It explores the complex socio-cultural aspects of desertification while weaving in fascinating information from different regions of both northern and southern hemisphere. In simple words, it's a story of how people faced desertification. Some people died, others fled and some learned to survive, while nurturing the earth.

Brian Griffith, a Canadian writer, tells this intriguing saga of our ancestors' practices in destroying as well as in healing nature. His seven years of working experience in the villages of India and Kenya has enriched this manuscript with local beliefs, attitudes, habits, struggles, dreams and hopes, thus making it much more than a regular ecological history book. It is like a short story collection, conveying a simple yet very powerful message -- 'whatever land you have, take care of it' -- specifying the bottom line requirements for nature and humanity to survive.

A vast working knowledge from Somalia, China, Egypt, India, Morocco and Europe has been intelligently covered in 15 chapters. The entire 368-page volume revolves around three basic though related issues: (a) the impact of expanding wastelands on people's understanding of nature, women, politics and religion; (b) how waves of ecological refugees from the arid lands, including Aryans, Huns and Mongols have influenced communities from China to Europe; and (c) the escape routes taken by the locals to this backbreaking environmental poverty. The connection between violence and domination on the one hand, and environmental degradation and desertification on the other is powerfully highlighted. On the basis of the climatic conditions, Griffith divides the world into minor (Australia, native America and South Africa) and major deserts (rest of the world) to argue that "where the earth seemed hostile to humanity, culture grew hostile to earth." Irrespective of the regional difference, harsher climate has invited harsher restrictions and degeneration of customs and traditions. Thus, the cultural patterns prevalent in minor deserts are relatively different from the ones found in major deserts, since the former rarely degenerated into true deserts.

However, regions like Sahara were caught in the vicious cycle of desertification primarily due to human intervention. Griffith sites: "The sediments show that between 40,000 and 23,000 bc North Africa was a green country. Soil samples from that period often hold enough organic matter to suggest 300-400 mm of annual rainfall, but some of the same locations only get 10 mm of rain, today".

Scarcity affected everyone, though differently. But its impact on women continues to be grave. Griffith traces this remarkably. Each pathetic step that gradually reduced women from primary breadwinners to an unproductive sex has been detailed. Ironically, the difficulties for women were initially environmentally imposed, but over time they became socially imposed as well. As Griffith puts it, "An inherited social inferiority evolved, sanctified by force of custom. And women came to be considered dependent, in spite of doing backbreaking work."

Another notable aspect of this work is that it shows how in lands of scarcity, means of coercion gained prominence as compared to the means of production. Such a state of affairs invariably brought religion on the forefront.

Coming back to the present, Griffith shows how the movement of human civilization towards an industrialised economy seemingly reduced the burden on nature. And how human neglect, causing an imbalance between tradition and science, has put ecology under stress.

The book ends with two stories of villages and people, who are enriching the nature as they grow. The first one focuses on nature's power of self-renewal in Southwest America. The other takes us to Kenya, showing the strength of traditional farmers to transform their lives. It's an encouraging story of a group of women, who took up reforestation work to save the land beneath their feet while rekindling the local productive system.

The book inspires hope. Turning people back towards the path of regaining the lost garden of their dreams. Griffith's stories have a direct implication for our times and the choices that we must make for a better future.

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