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Planting Time Ties People to Their Land

More than just an exercise in farming, the cultivation of rice in Cambodia is a timeless custom in which neighbor works with neighbor.

Interrupted in the middle of an August morning, the Cambodian sun climbing toward its apex, Sot Saphea pauses in her labors to say a thing or two about why she and her neighbors are bending over in a field of muddy water.

All over Southeast Asia at this time of year men, women, and children (but mostly women) transplant rice seedlings from the paddies where they germinate to those where they mature.

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The idea is to plant the seedlings much less densely the second time around, giving them more room to grow.

Some Asians take this agricultural activity very seriously. The Japanese emperor transplants a few seedlings himself every year, a ritual that symbolizes Japan's reverence for nature's gifts and creates a nice photo opportunity.

In Cambodia, working in the paddies sometimes stirs troubling memories.

From 1975 to 1979, a fanatical rebel movement ruled the country, trying to create a cashless, classless, and completely agrarian society. More than a million people perished during what is called the "Khmer Rouge time," some because they were tortured to death or executed, many because they were exhausted from forced labor.

Ms. Saphea and her fellow villagers seem to be working too hard to ponder such complexities. They have gathered to help a neighbor transplant her seedlings, and Saphea explains that many of the same people have already done this work in paddies that she and her husband own.

It looks backbreaking - what with all the bending over - but there isn't a lot of heavy lifting involved. Instead, the replanting of rice is a matter of touch, even finesse.

Saphea demonstrates. First you take a bundle of rice seedlings and separate three or four from all the rest. You grasp these seedlings in a loose fist, so the ends with the little stringy roots come up in front of your thumb, and the green stalks poke out past your pinkie. Your hand should look as if you are making an upside-down "thumbs up" sign.

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Then you assume a three-point stance similar to the one used in American football. Instead of springing forward, you push the seedlings into the warm mud, roots first - and here's where the touch comes in. "Not too deep," says Saphea, or the rice won't grow properly. But the bundles have to be planted deep enough not to fall over. It's tougher than it sounds.

Then you take a step back, reloading your fist with another few stalks of rice, and repeat. An experienced transplanter can do this about 60 times a minute, including time to unwrap a new bundle of seedlings.

For Saphea and her fellow villagers, the process marks the beginning of a long wait for the rice to mature - about four or five months. They raise only one crop of rice a year, a meager output in a region where centuries ago clever irrigation systems enabled peasants to harvest twice a year. More modern rice strains and fertilizers have also increased output, and some farmers in Southeast Asia easily get two or even three rice crops out of their paddies each year.

Saphea and her neighbors are pretty unanimous about what they need most. "Money," they say, "to buy fertilizer."

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