She wakes at 4 am and starts her day. Now she is not one to have read seven habits, or even heard of such a thing, but she embodies routing, efficiency and productivity. It never stops. With balanced breaks for food, tea and beetle nut, she plants, makes animal food, makes seedlings, transforms gardens and propagates from pre-dawn to past dusk. She is old but tireless.
We don’t actually know how old Karo is, but we are guessing mid to late ’70s and maybe more. She doesn’t walk so well upstairs anymore, and she suffers arthritis in her knees and a sore lower back. But given her ox-like determination to push through and carry the weight of work for her less able husband, she is remarkable. Further, she and her husband, Bulang have raised their grandson James up until he arrived here with them and he became village raised, and they still have a hand in his raising.
Karo spent most of her life in Karo land, North Sumatra. She is named after her people because she is a matriarch, but that wouldn’t mean much to her. She says she wants to be buried here now, that this is now her home. It’s more a case of not wanting to go back to Karo land than wanting to be here in Sundaland that motivates this concern. So, she grew up and married and had four children, two boys, two girls.
They owned land from her father over the mountain in the next valley from the village. She and Bulang walked there every day, over the mountain and into the next valley, for the best part of 40 years. There they had their farm. Now you would think they had studied permaculture, but they never heard of it. Instead, it was like an instinct, this agricultural world of theirs, or more like entwined DNA. They were in the land, and the land was in them. They raised their children in the land and watched the land lay ahold of their children.
So here is Karo, growing food, making traps and hunting small mammals and other local creatures, including wild boar. Harvesting the vast array of produce, carrying it back to the village and selling or trading it in the market place was a daily routine, not to mention the chickens, the cows and the house.
Food had to be cooked, and there were always many things to do around the house. So it was good that she had children. Of course, it was the girls who worked hard. She said the boys didn’t listen to her. They were often with their friends and didn’t come home. One of them particularly never lifted a finger to help with anything. In the culture, this was acceptable, but it was still painful to Karo to see her boys run wild and not contribute and expect to be looked after like little kings.
The patience of agriculture is a different kind of patience. It is a rhythm, it is slow, it moves without stopping for long periods. It tills the soil and prepares the ground in toil and swelter, slowly – foot by foot, up and down the rows – readying the area for the next planting. It plants seedlings in rows, one after the other. In the sun, in the wind, in the heat of the morning. It keeps moving across and down, slowly, consistently until hours pass and you look up and see that the landscape has changed and is now full of frilly green spots, neatly lined up in a symmetrical dance ready to grow.
Same with tending. Again, this is a different kind of patience. Tending requires observation and concentration – watching, looking, paying attention. This vigilance doesn’t cease for the duration of the growing season. It begins the day the seedlings are planted in the earth and continues until harvest. This patience nurtures. It speaks to the plants, and it prunes, weeds around and removes pests. It carries the plant from baby to child, from child to teen, from teen to adult. This kind of patience is the patience of a mother. It is the patience of care and nurture.
Then comes the harvesting. For some foods, like tomatoes, eggplants and okra, harvesting is ongoing. For others, it all happens at once, like sweet potato or peanuts. And for each, there is a separate method, a different set of laws.
Some foods are easy to process from harvest and can be eaten or used straight away. Others need time to lay fallow, and steps to prepare. Rice, coffee, sesame and many others all need processing from the husk. Some need to dry out first. Others need to be soaked, washed or cured in different ways.
These are all different types of patience. The tasks cannot be rushed. And certain kinds of people are suited to specific tasks. Some are good at planting, some at tending, and some at harvesting and processing.
Karo, well she has always done it all. She makes seedling pockets all day. She plants seeds in them as she makes each one. She will do hundreds in a day, patiently sitting there wrapping a banana leaf into a cylinder and filling it with a seed soil mix. And once they are all in trays, she doesn’t miss a beat. She is all over them for the tending. She watches them closely and nurtures them from the cradle to the stage when they can be planted.
Of course, she then will go through all the steps we have mentioned with not hundreds but thousands of individual plants, nurturing them and guiding them, mentoring the soil and teaching the weather to work for the plants. Watering, weeding, composting, removing pests, pruning, securing, thinning, and protecting.
I often meet people who are good at aspects of these processes. The planters, the tenders, the harvesters, these all represent works of patience, yet Karo is good at them all. And as she raised plants, she raised animals in the same way, perhaps with even more care. I have never seen someone work so diligently, so silently and consistently without being told, without an external boss. Karo has the same integrity when she has worked in the past as a daily worker for a boss. But she maintains utmost integrity to the work she does every day without anyone asking her or directing her.
The animal food – well, she makes it by hand twice a day to feed them three times a day. She collects the different leaves, stems, trunks, tubers and scraps and cuts them, crushes them and cooks them. Bulang (her husband) helps her cutting the banana trunk into thin slices. And they mix this all with rice bran and sometimes turmeric or other natural remedies.
Bulang helps her carry the food in big buckets and feed the animals. She tends their vast habitat. Makes their ponds and breeds snails for them to eat the eggs. Plants and protects trees for them. She ensures their safety. Bulang helps with the heavy work of it. Same thing when they had cows or goats or other animals at different times. They would treat them like children and nurture them never giving a thought of what it cost them in energy, strength or suffering. All out they would give, and Karo would drive the direction and purpose and plan.
So here she is in her 70’s. Maybe slower and not as strong. Maybe she rums more balm on now and has longer rests when she does the beetle nut. But she still works harder than any of the men who we employ and longer hours and achieves a lot more. Another factor is that she doesn’t talk much. Nor does Bulang. And yet she is a wealth of information and knowledge, mainly from old tradition. It takes interviewing her to get her going, and when we do, we always find out new and vital things.
She cried for a long time, many months when she discovered her father couldn’t send her to school past the primary. She was good at maths. She loved learning. She stuffed it and shoved it down and put her energy into work at the age of 11. But she listened and watched and learned in the field. She watched her grandfather make potions from medicinal herbs. She watched other families, and village elders use ancient systems and techniques to store rice, build tools, traps, containers – choose the right wood, bark, sap – know the time and the place where it would be ready for harvest, hunting, and gathering.
Karo learned it all and kept it inside, and when we ask, she has usually got some mysterious process or answer or hidden knowledge. In this way, she schooled herself. In this way, she raised her girls and the boys tagged along. In this way, she is our humble matriarch who says we can put her anywhere and she will be happy enough.
Karo is a mystery who awakens a new reality about how to live without the lust and desire of the modern world, in the essential and straightforward every day, old school subsistence manner. She is a new role model in an age where we need to learn her kind of resilience.