Monoculture in Nature: A man-made phenomenon

Sumana Roy | Updated on September 13, 2019

Line of control: The geometric alignment of trees, shrubs and plants in parks and gardens offers humans a place of rest, but it rarely brings calm   -  REUTERS/FAYAZ KABLI

The desire for oneness, for the proliferation of only one kind at the expense of all others, is a maniacal one

As the bus moves towards the road which takes us past the TDI Mall in Haryana’s Sonipat, I check to see whether what I see outside the window is really what it is. The first few days of this short ride to the university where I teach pass like this, until I begin to accept that this is not a performance of the imagination. Dividing the road — the entire stretch, I must emphasise — are the same trees: White plumeria, that we also call frangipani. Disoriented by the desert-like heat, my mind had imagined these white flowers as snow on trees. This was momentary and was followed by the truly disorienting realisation — the fact that all the trees in this large area were of the same species. Quite obviously, this hadn’t happened naturally. This was part of the landscaping plan. What I saw therefore were not the trees as much as the handiwork of man. It wasn’t the gardeners I thought of but the people who’d decided on this — the violence of their imagination that saw beauty in sameness, in oneness, in only one kind.

I cannot exactly say what it was about this sight that made me uneasy. At some point, words fromThe Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World, Michael Pollan’s remarkable 2001 book, began to return to me. Pollan is writing about the potato, how most of its species were sacrificed to man’s need for control, to “monoculture”, the privileging of only a few kinds of potatoes over all that once was. He reminds us of the “dubious satisfaction of having our way with nature: The pleasure of beholding the reflection of our labor and intelligence in the land. In the same way that Niagara or Everest stirs the first impulse, the farmer’s methodical rows stitching the hills, or the allies of pollarded trees ordering a garden like Versailles, excite the second, filling us with a sense of our power”.

What I see on that road in Sonipat — and what is to be seen almost everywhere now, particularly on highways where the road divider is planted with only one kind of plant or tree for kilometres — is the scariness of this monoculture in operation. I’d use the word ‘boredom’, instead of a synonym for fear, had it been just that — the sense of sameness created by the school uniform, for instance.

Pollan writes: “No monoculture could succeed under such circumstances, so the Incas developed a method of farming that is monoculture’s exact opposite. Instead of betting the farm on a single cultivar, the Andean farmer, then as now, made a great many bets, at least one for every ecological niche. Instead of attempting, as most farmers do, to change the environment to suit a single optimal spud — the Russet Burbank, say — the Incas developed a different spud for every environment.”

To Western eyes, he writes, the resulting farms look patchy and chaotic. “...the plots are discontinuous (a little of this growing here, a little of that over there), offering none of the familiar, Apollonian satisfactions of an explicitly ordered landscape. Yet the Andean potato farm represented an intricate ordering of nature that, unlike Versailles in 1999, say, or Ireland in 1845, can withstand virtually anything nature is apt to throw at it.”

Pollan identifies the human eye’s need for order, and yet we know, from experience, that it is the forest, with its last resistance to human ordering, that we prefer over the park. The park, with its geometrically aligned shrubs and manicured trees, offers us a place of rest, but it rarely brings calm. We long for places beyond human ordering, outside the folds of human power — only there is diversity of the truest kind, beyond our interference. The forest, more specifically the jungle, sleep, death — only in these places can we truly rest, because they continue to remain outside human control.

Passing by the monoculture of white plumeria perhaps filled me with fear because of the display, however unintentional, of human power, a warning against inter-breeding, a phenomenon that is at the heart of biological and artistic life. It reminded me of a slogan that I did not want to recollect, for fear of it coming true: “One people, one empire, one leader”. The desire for oneness, for the proliferation of only one kind at the expense of all others, is a maniacal one. It is the opposite of ‘unity in diversity’, which, in spite of its inelegant phrasing, had managed to sneak into our consciousness, in the way we understood both the social and natural life-order. Darwin’s words — natural selection — and reports about the high rates of foeticide in Haryana clash in my mind as the bus passes through the plumeria-lined road. I’d always found the uniform — both noun and adjective — uninteresting, in art and in life. Now it scares me. Who knows when it might be my turn to be rejected, or yours, to be weeded out for this monoculture that my beautiful country might become.


Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became A Tree; Twitter: @Sumana Siliguri

Published on September 13, 2019

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