Swale: A Word for and of the Land

Years ago, an uncle of mine, D.V. Sridharan, started the crazy, impossible, madcap project of restoring a wasteland in a rural area near the city of Chennai in India, and turning it into a sustainable farm. The reason this has anything to do with my own crazy, impossible, madcap occupation, writing books for children, is that his endeavor too had to do with words.


Oxford, England

Words like “swale”: Roll it on your tongue. How round and beautiful it is. How it creates a resonance in the air. Swale. A low tract of land contiguous with higher ground, a swale follows the contour line, so it catches water when it rains. Holding the blessing of spring rains or the rush of a monsoon shower, the swale in turn recharges underground water sources. Streams flow. The slope grows green.



Mesa, AZ

In the tropics or desert, during the dry season, aquifers and wells can remain refreshed from the renewal made possible by the shape of the land.

Swale. The thing is as magical as its name.

The name of that restoration project was “point Return.” The capitals were intentionally placed, intentionally withheld. The point, Sridharan said, was to return. To come back again and again to the places and the ideas that give us sustenance and hope, that are generative and regenerative in nature, that keep us going, that lead to a larger sense of who “we” are.

The project went through its own cycles of success and experimentation, setbacks and failure. Today there is a school on the land and the original hope has been handed off to others. This is the way with story as well. Consider this narrative report my uncle posted about the effect of Gandhi’s teachings on one man’s life.

Thinking of story as cyclical in nature rather than linear, with a beginning, middle and end, changes everything. The swale may run from Point A to Point B, but the way the water follows it anything but linear. The possibility of returning reminds me to stop rushing after answers, grabbing the first one that comes along. It allows me instead to live with questions.

I am happy to say that I have managed to make a modest career out of living with questions.

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