A Wonderful Soil!

By Jheri St. James

New Guinea, located north of Australia, is the world’s second largest island. It became separated from the Australian mainland when the area now known as the Torres Strait flooded after the last glacial period.

The name Papua (derived from a Malay word describing frizzy Melanesian hair) has long been associated with the island: The western half of the island contains the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua, while the eastern half (see map) forms the mainland of the independent country of Papua New Guinea, site of this soil collection by Rose Salayau. Rose is an employee of DHL Express, the Common Ground 191 shipping company, in Papua New Guines. She heard about the project from another employee, Sylvia Rogriguez in Washington. It seems even the employees at DHL are excitedly talking about our project and eager to participate, for which we are thankful.

The jungles of Papua New Guinea next to
the desert of Australia

The Independent State of Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a country in Oceania consisting of the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and numerous offshore islands. Located in the southwestern Pacific Ocean in a region defined since the early 19th century as Melanesia. Its capital and major city is Port Moresby. Unique facts about this land include: 1) one of the most diverse countries on earth (over 850 indigenous languages); 2) one of the most rural; 3) one of the world’s least explored, culturally and geographically; 4) many undiscovered species of plants and animals are thought to exist in the interior of Papua New Guinea.

The soil of traditional societies and subsistence-based agriculture is so important here that the nation’sconstitution expresses the wish for traditional villages and communities to remain as viable units of Papua New Guinean society and for active steps to be taken in their preservation. The PNG legislature has enacted various laws in which a type of tenure called “customary land title” is recognized, meaning that the traditional lands of the indigenous peoples have some legal basis to inalienable tenure. This customary land nationally covers most of the usable land in the country. Freehold title can only be held by Papua New Guinea citizens.

The country’s geography is diverse and in places extremely rugged. A spine of mountains runs the length of the island of New Guinea, forming a populous highlands region. Dense rainforests can be found in the lowland and coastal areas. This terrain has made it difficult for the country to develop transportation infrastructure. In some areas, planes are the only mode of transport. Human remains have been found dated to about 50,000 years ago; many of today’s citizens live in extreme poverty on less than $1.25 per day.

Mount Tavurvur

Jesse Wolf Hardin is teacher and founder of Animá in Reserve, New Mexico, a nature-informed practice, and author of seven books. He and his partners offer empowering online Medicine Woman, Shaman Path and Path of Heart correspondence courses, as well as online counsel and healing consultations. In a recent article in Awareness Magazine, Mr. Hardin contemplated “Indigenous Roots; The Lands Human History:”

“We are all affected by our immediate relationship to place, to the spirit and energies felt there, the fauna and flora of the region we have picked . . . it is rooted in both what and who came before. . . One can try descending into a nearby canyon or arroyo, or finding a spot where a highway has been cut through some ridge, and read what is as much her-story as history. Instead of from left to right, read from the surface down, beginning with the scant few inches of humus, a hundred years of composting leaf and bug and bone. …Belts of ancient ground lay above the bedrock of an ancient sea studded with the shells of Precambrian mollusks. Seams of primeval coal.

“Every foot down may represent centuries of the eroding mountains and up-thrusting continental plates, of species that have been birthed and extinct, of cultures flourishing and collapsing, populations rising and falling like the slow inhaling and exhaling of the great earthen body. This rooting is more than a matter of natural history. The soil that holds the fossils holds also the artifacts and bones of a human past. Not even a wilderness is free of a history of human association, all the more powerful that it was never written down, passed instead mouth to mouth in myth and song and the resounding petroglyphs of desert canyon walls. It is a story told in the shadows of its forests, the trails winding above its rivers, and its powerfully painted caves...

“The ethnography of a neighborhood may have changed several times over the course of the last 200 years, from Indian to Spanish and French, French to English, an Italian quarter now considered part of the Cuban enclave, extended Irish families supplanted by Afro Americans, in turn replaced by buyers of diverse racial backgrounds who by chance or fortune can afford the rising cost of its real estate . . . What native tribe once gathered shellfish from the edge of the bay and walked the narrow trail where the interstate now lies? And who preceded them?

“The natural world can seem like a foreign and even frightening place to many of us these days, but it is nonetheless our original, formative context, the set of forces and qualities that first conceived and equipped us. What we now call ‘nature’ once meant everywhere, and everything, including us . . . It is the force that stressed our developing beings and thus made us strong, the natural systems that provided not only physical sustenance but the avenues for the love and loss that is the genesis of human compassion. It feels less strange and more like home the deeper that we experience it, but also the more intimate we become with both its natural and human histories…In this way we acknowledge those spirits and life forms that gave way for our emergence or that sustain and enrich us still. We honor those peoples whose relationship with the land predates our own, including our personal ancestors and all those peoples who ever knew themselves as being native to our current or chosen place.” (Awareness Magazine, July/August 2009)

(A Huli Wigman from the Southern Highlands and a resident of Bago-bago, an island in the southeast of Papua New Guinea, both bear a resemblance to Papua New Guinea’s coat of arms and the frizzy hair called “papua” here.)

Papua New Guinea’s lands have evolved through 50,000 years of human population: Southeast Asians coming there (who originated in Africa), followed by the domination of Portuguese, Germans and Australians. After being ruled by these three external powers since 1884, Papua New Guinea gained its independence from Australia in 1975. It remains a Commonwealth realm. All this happened on the surface of the soil there. But at the base is the earth and the indigenous cultures which are now being acknowledged in Papua New Guinea. What a wonderful soil!





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