Resurgence of Life on a Natural Farm

Oriental Garden Lizard

When we acquired Navilu Kaadu in February 2018, the scales were tipped towards gifting our two boys a childhood amidst nature over profiting from a farming venture.  

The rectangular patch of earth came fitted out with a tube well and drip irrigation to water the land, a solar fence marking its boundary, saplings of coconuts and mangos, several yielding trees of tamarind, lush banana plants, a little white cottage and a can of ‘Roundup’, the commercial moniker for Glyphosate, the deadly weedicide.

It seemed like the perfect test bed to realize our holy grail of natural farming. We booted out the killer can and embraced the rest.

Full Moon
Full Moon on Guru Poornima; Photo – Arnav

We hoped to grow chemical-free food, let the land heal and nurture it into a refuge to any being that chose to make it home. We embraced natural farming, a methodology perfected and propagated by farmer scientist Subhash Palekar, that among other principles, hinges on nourishing the soil and increasing the population of native soil microbes rather than pump the earth with deadly poison in the form of chemical fertilizers and weedicides.

Three years on, we have made middling progress with the practice of natural farming, albeit with a profusion of holes in the proverbial pocket. Running a farm remotely is akin to navigating a boat on choppy waters. Consequently, breaking even, if not profiting, has furtively made its way into our list of priorities.

When one is up against a surfeit of opposing forces such as truant labour, unreliable power supply, whimsical climate patterns, and the challenge of relentless upkeep, an appreciation for the sublime beauty of the natural world around can make all the difference in how one experiences farming and perceives profits.

Most ascribe ‘profits’ to the narrow confines of monetary gains. And I am not counting the many marginal Indian farmers who live off tiny land holdings with nary a dream of any profits, other than the financial kind.

There is however more latitude than many are willing to attribute, to the word ‘profit’. At Navilu Kaadu, profit takes many guises, inestimable in currency notes.

We added turmeric to the crop diversity last summer. We herald spring with a harvest of sweet-sour tamarind. Bats and parakeets love feasting on the ambrosial, chocolate-hued fruit. A burst of lavender adorns the fields during the monsoons as the cow pea blooms.  

Billowing altocumulus clouds blaze a fiery orange as the Sun sinks beneath the western horizon and stages a splendid rebirth in the east the next day. The clean, crisp air is scented with the heady fragrance of wildflowers mingling with that of the jasmine climbing up the Indian mesquite tree (Banni mara in Kannada) in a sensuous embrace. The symphony of birdsong at the crack of dawn plays on unceasingly, until night casts her star-spangled blanket, when the insect choir takes over.

Jasmine on the Indian Mesquite or Shami Tree

Last summer, we watched in delight as new dwellers took up permanent residence with us at the farm, signaling the gradual healing of a land once poisoned by chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Remarkable among the new arrivals was a family of Calotes versicolor, commonly called Oriental garden lizards, hitherto never seen on the farm.

We first spotted a handsome male on the trellis in front of the cottage. He wore his crest proudly, his black neck patch and rust-coloured dewlap in sharp contrast to his golden scales.

‘Verso’ and ‘color’ are latin for ‘turn’ and ‘color’. So, we called him ‘Turncoat’ to honour the species part of his scientific name.

‘Turncoat’, our Oriental Garden Lizard

He positioned himself at the top of the trellis and bobbed his head up and down to ward-off potential contenders to his territory. As he deliberately made his way down, ‘Turncoat’ executed a mean moon walk. I saw him the next evening on the Indian mesquite tree, the gold now a dull grey on the grey of the tree bark. He sensed me and moved sideways along the trunk as I tried to capture him in my camera. Eventually he skittered up the tree.

Oriental garden lizards keep pests at bay. They are considered bioindicators of pesticide contamination and cannot survive in farms poisoned with chemical pesticides and weedicides. That ‘Turncoat’ and his ilk have made Navilu Kaadu home, is an all-important cue that our efforts at creating a haven for all critters are beginning to pay-off.

Early one overcast morning, a metallic ‘piu, piu’ rang through the curtain of birdsong. It was a call I had never heard on the farm. I quickly made my way towards the mesquite tree from where the call appeared to originate.

A Jacobin cuckoo perched on one of the branches against a slate-grey sky. The bird lifted-off into the western horizon even as I rushed out with my camera. Soon after, the heavens opened-up brining down torrential rain.

Jacobin cuckoos, also called pied cuckoos, are considered harbingers of the monsoons, and find mention in ancient Indian poetry as the ‘Chaathaka Pakshi’.

On one of the days, as I sat at the front porch, I sighted a large raptor-like bird settle on the Malabar neem tree along the fence. The faint flapping of its wings was audible even from a distance. A closer look through the binoculars revealed a handsome Oriental honey buzzard. The bright orange and black eyes were hypnotic.

Oriental Honey Buzzard
Oriental Honey Buzzard on the Malabar Neem tree

The pair of Indian grey hornbills gliding gracefully between the tamarind tree and the Malabar neem tree early in the mornings, now bring along noisy family and friends in pairs of fives and sixes at dawn and dusk.

Indian Grey Hornbill
Indian Grey Hornbill on a Malabar Neem tree

We frequently stumble upon small colonies of dwarf bees (Apis florea) or Kaddi Jenu in uncleared patches of bushes and shrubs, with hives hanging from twigs. The honey is infused with healing properties from the nectar of wildflowers. We leave the bees and the hives undisturbed to help us pollinate our crops.  

A Colony of Dwarf Honey Bees (Apis florea)

Late one afternoon, as we sat under the dappled shade of neem trees by our coconut plot, a long, scaly tail disappeared around the stem of one of the coconut saplings.

A few days on, while clearing the moringa plot by the coconut plot, one of our farm hands pointed to a freshly shed snakeskin amidst clumps of overgrown grass. The ‘spectacle’ marking at the nape revealed the identity of the erstwhile wearer of the skin, a spectacled cobra (Naja naja) that is possibly making a meal of the rodents on the farm.

Peafowls are the apex predators in our tiny ecosystem, and feed on snakes. They are now a major presence in and around Navilu Kaadu, announcing themselves with haunting calls throughout the day.

Our resident white-throated kingfisher usually stations himself on the lower boughs of the tamarind tree or the electric line at the rear of our cottage.

The resident White-Throated Kingfisher perched on a Tamarind tree

With the onset of the monsoons, he moved his perch higher up on to the bare branches of the lofty Indian mesquite, turquoise-blue glinting off his back in the morning sun. He would sit there screeching with all his might early in the morning. His raucous pursuits bore fruit and he was soon joined by a lovely lady. We frequently saw them chasing each other around Navilu Kaadu, but never could locate their love nest.

Purple-Rumped Sunbird
Purple-Rumped Sunbird on the Drumstick tree

The tall native drumstick or moringa tree (Nugge mara) next to our porch livestreams the busy routines of many little birds as I sit on my dear departed mother-in-law’s cane chair reading, writing, working, having meals with the family or supervising the boys’ schoolwork.  Purple-rumped sunbirds, cinereous tits and tiny flowerpeckers twitter and hop from plant to plant, feasting on the nectar from clusters of white moringa blooms.

Nesting Indian Silverbill with Rose Natal Grass

In our first year at the farm, scaly-breasted munias nested in a nook of the awning of our front porch. A pair of dainty Indian silverbills refurbished the same nest this summer. They made for a pretty picture as they glided about or rested on the boughs of the moringa tree with strands of rose natal grass in their tiny beaks, for nesting material. The chicks go into a cheeping frenzy every hour or so when one of the parents return to the nest with a treat.

Scaly-Breasted Munias in formation on the Drumstick tree

Green bee-eaters flit about uttering soft ‘tree, tree’ calls. They show off their acrobatic prowess as they hunt bees and insects mid-air before finding a suitable resting place to dislodge the sting of the bee and making a meal of it. When it rains, several pairs of bee-eaters perch on the moringa tree savouring the showers in quiet companionship, necks shrunken into their still bodies.

A pair of Green Bee-Eaters enjoy the rain perched on a slim bough of the Drumstick tree

The solitary mud nest of the barn swallow beneath the platform holding the overhead water tank, has grown to three. In between aerial calisthenics, the barn swallows make a neat line along the electric wire, the cotton clouds in a cobalt sky forming a dramatic shifting backdrop to their dainty forms.

Even as we chip away at creating a cozy safe house for wild critters losing their habitats to human avarice, we realize that this little patch of paradise has plenty to go around.

Larva of Crimson Rose butterfly

As for profits, we rake them in with every heartbeat of a bird that sings, swoops, and soars over Navilu Kaadu, as crimson rose butterflies daintily flutter over blue porterweed, and black-naped hares hop about among wild hemp and black nightshade, soaking in the golden rays of the sun beaming through melting monsoon clouds.

*All images were shot within Navilu Kaadu.