Deeply ensconced in Jaffna right now I still don't want to let go of the lessons I learned in Anuradhapura. One of those lessons involved tank vegetation. And the weeks building up to the beginning of my Fulbright in Sri Lanka I had read everything I could about the tank ecosystems. After all, my first stop after couple of days in Colombo would be Rajarata University, where I was slated to do fieldwork with colleagues and students as well to give a lecture. I hoped I wouldn't go in completely clueless.
Well completely clueless is one thing and just plain old clueless another. Having diligently memorized the terms and relative placement in the tank of vegetative features like gasgommana and perehana I kind of thought I was prepared. And I was kind of prepared. Except that there are probably about a dozen other terms that are relevant to the micro ecosystem of the village tank. One of these is the catchment area upstram of the tank, pronounced "touweleh," very much like our word towel but with a softening umlaut or two. Like a towel, the touweleh absorbs and holds moisture. The soil samples I took last week with my friend Dr. Nimal Abeysingha will in part measure how effective the absorptive capabilities of the touweleh at Ulankulama are.
It didn't take long in the field to realize that that gasgommana (protective girdle of trees that grows inside the tanks) and the perehana (grasses and reeds that filter water coming into the tank) are part of the touweleh. In fact, I soon realized that there were stands of trees interspersed with grass and reeds, so that vegetative components of the tank were neither distinct nor separate.
Since my work here in Sri Lanka is in cultural landscape ecology it only made sense that I should come to realize a finer grained picture of the vegetative parts of the tanks I walked through. I also came to realize that cattle grazing, which is at once a common practice and also a potentially destructive practice, is part of what the villagers typically do in the catchment area. So animals it would seem, both wild and domesticated, are part of the biotic features of a tank. Accommodating them and embracing their presence is part of how the village tank system functions.
I could have read about these things for another several months or even years without realizing the relationships among them. It kind of goes back to my grand philosophy of teaching and learning, in which I see rote learning, even the most ardent kind, as ultimately less than productive. So learning to practice what I preach is part of the exciting growth potential of this nine month Fulbright in Sri Lanka. Coming to grips with the complex, for example the complex interactions of the village tank system, is something I need to have more practice with. Thinking about complexity, something I'm always preaching to my students, is something I can improve upon too. As a matter of fact there's nothing we've observed here, no matter how simple it seems, that is not deeply complex. So it would seem that a simple island and its gracious people present more than the eye can see at a glance.