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Momi “The Survival of Human Beings”

There are unseen treasures right beneath our noses, under toe, between the cracks, in the shadows and hidden in plain view. How do I miss them, what does it take to see them? I must slow down a little, exhale fully, take a deep breath then open my eyes as if for the first time and they will appear.

About four years ago a mate mentioned that he was heading out with his biker crew to go see the Wild Rice Carvings somewhere out on the Arnhem Highway. I had no idea what he was referring to but it sounded interesting… “The whaaaat? Going where? What wild rice carvings?”.

I had never heard of them before, but the idea was really appealing, I became obsessed with seeing them and a couple of weeks later I borrowed my mates bike and headed down the highway with some vague directions of how to find the site… Somewhere just past Mt Bundey granite mine, opposite an information shelter, cross a fence, through the scrub toward a rock… Thar be wild rice carvings and giant ants carved in the igneous protrusion.

After a bit of stumbling and faffing about I stumbled, skillesly onto the lower end of a long tapering outcrop of granite… into the granite was carved, with a sharp and defined relief… an effigy of Wild Rice… named ‘MOMI’ by its creator, Japanese Sculptor, Mitsuaki Tanabe San!

Apparently the primary sculpture is 82 meters long! It represents stalks of native rice which grows in the tropical wetlands, now threatened by weeds and changes in land use, it had been a staple carbohydrate for indigenous people prior to colonisation.

I’ve been back a couple of times but never in the wet season, until last week! The site is so surprisingly beautiful in the wet. Aside from the way water sits in the carved rock to accentuate the rice grains and leaves represented in the carving, the wet season plant life was stunning. Native ginger, flowering in sheltered havens beneath rock shelves and crevices, attracting bees and other insect to it’s stunning flower. A peculiar pair, one gold and brown banded the other blue and black buzzing in a dance together in and out of the inflorescence, between the rocks and grass.

What’s so special about rice? Ask the Japanese! I have heard they have a 1000 metaphors relating to rice. Rice is not just rice!

Wild rice carving January 2023

I am fascinated by the native wild rice because it is another of the remnant plant species that has resisted extinction and the colonization process… Though it is threatened, it persists as a reminder of another economy, another way of life that was connected to seasons of natural abundance and most importantly it is a link. A conduit between the natural world and human need for stored energy… i.e. grains and tubers containing carbohydrate! I am sure that without these elusive forms of carbohydrate, survival would have been far more precarious for indigenous people in Australia and throughout the world. The possibility of our modern lifestyle is an extension of this basic principal. Resources stored for use at a later time. Grains and carbohydrate are a form of stored energy that permit humans to live beyond hand to mouth.

Tanabe was a sculptor who had a strong connection to the natural world, as a naturalist he understood the necessity of protecting biodiversity not just for it’s own sake but for “The survival of human beings.”

Unfortunately Tanabe passed away in 2014 at the age of 72 before he could finish his sculptures in Mt Bundey, however his son was committed to completing the fathers work and returned to finish the project.

Wild rice in Australia is not as abundant as in other countries. I believe the Great Lakes in the USA (Turtle Island) still contain large quantities of their own species of wild rice. In Northern Australia Yam’s would have been a more reliable source of carbohydrate, they hold a special place in the creation stories of Indigenous people and are a totem for some. Though it is not so plentiful, and to harvest it people must enter crocodile infested waters… (No thanks), it would surely have provided nourishment and added greatly to the productivity of our wetland regions.

Visiting the carvings and reading about the sculptors mission to increase awareness of the primal connection between wild plant species and the nourishment that propelled us humans into the world we know today, I am reminded of a book I once read. The One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka. Fukuoka allowed his fathers farm to go fallow, turning his back on traditional high intensity farming practice he observed natural processes and learned to adapt farming practices to a more ecologically sound way of addressing productivity needs. I am also reminded of the intricate balance of the rice terraces in Bali where the landscape has been dramatically altered but due to the observance of natural processes and laws the farming practices and management of water have allowed rice farmers to create a reasonably sustainable supply of precious grain, while finding balance with natural forces rather than eradicating wild species of plants and animals. Crop rotation, field laying fallow and use of ducks for pest control rather than chemical sprays allowed for far greater diversity than the modern farming practices. The spiritual life of Balinese Hindus was central to farming practice, Offerings made, Scourges averted.

Penestanan Padi

A project in embryo: A few years ago, at my wits end, I was hanging out in Bali and went to visit a place I’d stayed in a bungalow in the rice fields about 20 years ago. At the time there were only a few basic bungalows at the top of the stairs on the other side of the river from Ubud township. The homestays were run by local People, rice farmers and artist who maintained the old village practices and kept their business to themselves. They still worked the rice fields and tourists could stay in the middle of it all… (you can still find plenty of places like this today.) While I was there on the last visit I saw that tourism had taken over the place and a lot of the rice fields were isolated, cut off from the water and had become covered in weeds. My dream at that time (in the middle of a bit of a nervous breakdown) was to return to Penestanan, meet the owner of a particular field and see if there was any way I could learn how to work the field and restore it to a productive rice padi… (Yep… I know, it’s an indulgence of privilege!) I do not kid myself that this would be of any benefit to local people, it would likely cost a fortune, people would have to be employed and in my fat unhealthy state the work would probably kill me… But as art and meditation I figured at the time it was what I needed to do to save my own soul… Then Covid struck and the world turned inside out… Now as I think of it, I can see just how crazy the plan was…

I see ‘Momi’ now as a link, an opportunity to open my eyes and be awake to the signs of these intrinsic connections to the lifeforce that sustains us. The sculptor Tanabe saw it, the outcast and reluctant farmer Fukuoka knew it, the tradition and religion of many indigenous people, hold it as fundamental to their identity and inseparable from life! Here I am, simply exploring the idea as a concept for consideration, contemplation. My world can proceed as it always has without giving a single thought to this crucial connection… The behemoth of industrialized agriculture will continue to feed me for the foreseeable future. But for Life… what do I truly need?

In my opinion, The Wild Rice Carvings ‘Momi’ are of far greater value than just a touristic curiosity. These ambitious carvings are a priceless offering to the delicate balance of nature and humanity. They are as the quote suggests a finger pointing to “The Survival of Human Beings”. I am in awe of Mr Tanabe’s vision and sensitivity. He has left a great gift that will be testimony to our success or failure in managing keystone species for the survival and viability of humanity on this land. When I visit I am compelled to meditate on that. In fact rather than a curiosity I see the Wild Rice carving site as a place of spiritual energy that dares us to stop and connect with the root source of our existence.

Pray on that brothers and sisters.


Published by David F

Disorganised Dilettante

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