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Long-listed in the 2021 Explorers Against Extinction Stories For Survival writing competition, Jay Ngo writes of his Grandfather and the power of Udum flowers.

Grandpa was an artist. I say grandpa was an artist, not a farmer, even though he spent more time working the rice field than sitting at home drawing, because at heart he was an artist. The farmers in the village, when they were not working the fields, would sit around drinking rice wine, smoking bamboo pipes, playing chess. When grandpa did not work the fields, he would sketch. His drawings were all charcoal on white paper. I don’t know if charcoal was his medium of choice, or forced on him by circumstances.

Back in those days, even white paper was a dear commodity, such artist trappings like oil, paint, paintbrushes, canvas, would have been out of reach. He sketched something or other everyday, most of his works he gave away. But sometimes the villagers did pay him, not in coin, but with a dozen of chicken eggs, a bunch of bananas, a bag of corns, a bag of sweet potatoes, whatever their little farms could spare. Those things don’t sound like much to us nowadays, but back then food was scarce, and they showed people’s appreciation for his talent. That was probably why grandma let him indulge in his impractical labours, when work around the house was always too much and hands too few to do them, because his indulgence sometimes paid.

One time grandma picked up a newly rendered lotus pond, looked at it, and made a throaty sound that could either mean “Nice”, or “Nicer if you could give me real lotus seeds for the soup”, and went on her way. Even that amount of appreciation from her was rare, sparing a few seconds between coming back from the fields and rushing to feed the screaming hogs, or tending to the drying crops in the yard, then back to the fields, then rushing home again before dark for house chores. Life taught her to be practical. Be practical or be hungry.

There was one drawing by grandpa, however, that grandma kept. It was a simple yet beautiful plant-like structure, a dozen of shiny and slender stalks like wineglass stems, growing in parallel out of a twig, their tips gracefully bent down with white globs that looked like tulip heads. They were called udum flowers. The drawing was not hung on the wall or perched on the chest to be admired but installed on the family altar. I assumed that, other-worldly looking as it was, it was there for the enjoyment of our ancestors’ spirits along with the offerings of food and fruit and fresh flowers. After grandpa passed away, his drawings disappeared one by one, some given away to relatives, some just vanished, and the udum flowers on the alter became the only artwork left to us by him, to which grandma still prayed to every full-moon.

After graduating from the Agricultural College, I went to work as research assistant in the Agricultural Research Institute. One day, while waiting in the staff room for the water to boil, I flicked through a scientific magazine and came across a picture that looked very much like grandpa’s udum flowers. Except for the fact that the photo was colour, the flowers were upside down, and growing from a leaf instead of a twig, they looked just the same. Curious, I read the caption and was told these were lacewing eggs. Intrigued that these insect eggs should look like the alien flowers, whose artistic replica was so sacred grandma kept and treasured and prayed to all her life, I took the magazine to my desk to study some more. However, work deadlines of the day prevented me from pursuing such a personal matter, and the magazine picture lapsed into oblivion.

It was some time before I saw the udum flowers again when we went back to the country to visit grandma. I asked her if she had ever seen the udums in real life. Yes, she had seen them many times throughout her life. Whenever they appeared, that year promised to be a particularly good year, harvests in abundance, orchards bursting with fruit, people happy and prosperous. So we prayed to the Buddha to grant us many of the udum flowers. She told me one year they were offered discounted pesticides, and she used it for her crops. To her horror, some time after the spraying, pests and insects seemed to multiply tenfold, and all the udums that had appeared before vanished. It was a disastrous year. They prayed fervently for Buddha’s forgiveness in destroying the sacred flowers, and resolved never to use the diabolical chemical again. She had stopped working the fields long ago, sold some of the land and retired in comfort. But she still prayed for the Buddha’s udums to come and bless the land with its good fortunes.

Later I researched the lacewings and learned that they were natural enemy of many pests that plagued farmers around the world. In warm climates, they lay large amounts of eggs, when hatched their enormous appetite will cleanly wipe out the noxious insects in their environment. They can be relied on instead of insecticides for sustainable and organic farming. Grandma did not know this. She did not know that she and farmers like her were among pioneers in organic farming, not through scientific research or modern equipment, but through direct observations of natural phenomena. She treasured Buddha’s udum[1] flowers just as modern farmers cultivate and protect lacewing eggs, though in her case the uncertainty from lack of scientific knowledge also inspired a sense of wonder and deep, reverent gratitude.

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