Does Your Sabzi Scale?

Posted by Rezwan Razani on Mar 17, 2014 at 08:52 PM

Happy Nowruz to All!  This Nowruz, don’t just bling out your haft sin table.  Hear its call to action. Scale that Sabzi!

Persian New Year (Nowruz) occurs the moment the sun crosses the equator on the Spring equinox.  It’s the same moment all around the world - the first moment of Spring. 

Every nowruz, each Iranian household sets their haft sin table, complete with a plate of grass (sabzi).  It’s an elegant tradition that invites you to meditate on the state of the environment and encodes a systematic call to social and environmental action. Thanks to @Ahjeel for pointing out this great video on the tradition by 1001 World Production:

What is “haft sin?”

“Haft” هفت is seven: ۷ is 7.
“sin” سین refers to the letter “s” - س  and is pronounced “scene”.

To mark the occasion of Nowruz, Iranians set a table with certain symbolic objects, including seven things that start with the letter “s” (the eponymous “haft sin”). Apparently, this is a recent tradition, per this great post on NPR, “Persian New Years Table Celebrates Nature’s Rebirth Deliciously

For more Haft Sin information, see also Fig & Quince’s Norooz 101 and check out these visual examples: pictures of haft sins on Pinterest, and haft sins on Tumblr.

The item from the Haft Sin that takes the most work is, of course, the sabzi (سبزی - greens).

Sabzi - سبزی

Did I say, “plate of grass”?  ّIt’s basically sprouts.  Sabzi also means greens, or “green-ness.”  Here are DIY instructions (BRAVO, Fig & Quince!) on how to grow sabzi

You can tell a lot about a person by the state of their sabzi. #NotJudging. Looking forward to #FacebookQuiz where you can analyze your personality based on what your sabzi most resembles.

State of the Environment: Sabzi vs. Tree Metrics

What does sabzi say about Iran’s arid environment?  Compare the growing of sabzi to the Christmas tradition of celebrating the seasonal holiday by cutting down an entire tree.

The major environmental differences - inequalities - between wet and arid environments are embodied in these two traditions.  On the left we see hydroponically nurtured plates of sprouts in Iran.  On the right, overgrown tree farms in New Jersey, USA.

In these holiday vegetation choices lies an insight so obvious, most people ignore it: Some people have environmental abundance (more water and resulting biomass), some don’t.

Those who don’t, don’t have a margin of error. They need to be the most environmentally conscious people on the planet.  That’s Iranians.

Those in temperate climates, blessed with regular rain and reservoirs, can afford to chop down a tree - or 33 million of them each year. It’s sustainable!  Fake trees are worse for the environment.  The tree farms are on a ten year cycle. You chop 10% of the trees each year.  330 million trees planted at any given time.  Major eco abundance.

Scarcity of Trees

Meanwhile, in Iran, trees are few and far between. And SO IS GRASS!  The ground is mostly barren.  Don’t be fooled by photographs.

Take this lovely picture of a Persian garden above.  It looks like you’re in a forest with a waterfall. 

Zoom out, and look at the same place in the daylight.  There it is on the right. bAqe shAzdeh, aka bAqe shAhzAdeh. 

Things haven’t gotten any greener for the BSZ since 1977 as we see on Google Maps today.

Call to Action: Restore the Grass; Restore the Water

The haft sin sabzi contains an immediate, urgent call to action.

Nowruz festivities are bracketed by two events related to the sabzi.  First, you have to grow it.  Then, at the end, you have to find a river, and release the grass into it. This corresponds to the dual calls to action of building topsoil, and managing water.

Restore the Grass: Building Topsoil

When you coax a plate of grass to life, you are meditating on the practice of building topsoil.  The good news is, it’s not hard to get a plate of grass to grow.  We do it every year. It doesn’t get any simpler. 

The trick is to scale that grass to the whole country.  This requires a better understanding of building topsoil, and managing people, animals, the climate, over large expanses. As the pictures above show, Iran’s topsoil is mostly depleted. We need to systematically add organic material back into it. In effect, we need to grow a lot of sprouts and mix them in with the soil.  Some idea of how that works comes from Managing Wholes website -  Building Topsoil:

In order for new soil to form, it must be living. Life in the soil provides the structure for more life, and the formation of more soil. Building new topsoil is much like building a house (Bushby 2002). A good house is one which is comfortable for the occupants. It requires a roof, walls and airy rooms with good plumbing. Soil with poor structure cannot function effectively, even when nutrient and moisture levels are optimal (Bushby 2002).

The roof of a healthy soil is the groundcover of plants and plant litter, which buffer temperatures, improve water infiltration and slow down evaporation, so that soil remains moister for longer following rainfall. The building materials for the walls are gums and polysaccharides produced by soil microbes. These sticky substances enable soil minerals to be glued together into little lumps (aggregates) and the aggregates to be glued together into peds. When soil is well aggregated, the spaces (pores) between the aggregates form the rooms in the house. They allow the soil to breathe, as well as absorb moisture quickly when it rains. A healthy topsoil should be about half solid materials and half pore spaces (Brady 1984).

It’s all about the soil, people.  What is soil? 

OK, soil is important, but what is the ACTION here?  It’s one thing to grow a plate of grass in your house and then toss it.  How would we actually scale this?  How would we collaborate and coordinate our grass growing to turn it into a national topsoil regenerating movement? I don’t have the answers, but know this is what we need to be having more national conversations about.  Some people who are having this conversation, from Iran’s National heritage Symposium:

Dr Taghi Farvar’s presentation on the traditional role of indigenous communities in managing the scarce resources of water and rangelands was followed by a comprehensive report by Dr Stephane Ostrowski on Iran’s flora, fauna and natural habitat and the challenges that climate change and lack of enforcement resources are causing to forests, rangelands, and endangered species. Mrs Laleh Daraie finished the presentations for the day with a presentation of the success of the UNDP/GEF Small Grants Programme in engaging local communities in environmental regeneration programmes in Iran.

Restore the Water

Part two of the Nowruz sabzi saga comes on the thirteenth day of the new year - sizdah-be-dar.  At the conclusion of the spring festivities, we seek out a body of flowing water to release the plate of grass into.

And how do we act on the water issues?  Again a point of departure from Iran’s Natural Heritage Symposium:

In a passionate keynote speech Gary Lewis suggested that Iran’s most fundamental environmental challenge of this century is its depleting water resources. Per capita water resources have dropped from 7,000 cubic meters in 1956 to 1,900 cubic meters in 2014. With the population growing to 90 million by 2025 Iran would need access to 30 billion cubic meters of extra water, an impossible objective at the current rates of consumption and depletion. “The water crisis is the biggest challenge to Iran’s human security.”

Dr Kaveh Madani, of Imperial College took up from Gary Lewis’ theme of water scarcity and provided a concise picture of the causes of Iran’s water crisis. Some 90% of Iran’s water is being used in agriculture, an industry which is heavily subsidised and is allowed to use water as a “free resource.” Dam building has been the centre–piece of Iran’s water policy for decades. The policy has neglected the social and environmental impact of interfering with water systems and caused serious damage to sustainability of supplies. “A holistic approach to water management, backed by pricing water as a precious resource, is the key to addressing Iran’s water crisis.”

Happy Nowruz my friends!  Nowruz resolution.  Let’s restore the soil, and restore the water.  And have many more wonderful Nowruz’s to come!


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