The potential for beauty

I love this space – I don’t know if its “the one”, settling in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language well, and quite far out in a rural area, is going to be hard work, so I’m taking my time chosing.  But this was one of the first places I saw, the soil looks absolutely glorious – rich dark and loamy, still full of moisture even though temperatures were around 40 degrees C.  I’d have to do quite a bit on the house, there are massive stone storage, barns, sheds and a long basement area, and a very wacky add-on with a suspended pink bathroom which probably sounds better than it looks.  Kitchen has an old fashioned (I’m talking medieval) fireplace, and the floor is solid beams with nothing underneath – so you can hear the animals, and they can warm the house a bit on winter days.

Back in Portugal again next week to take another look around at other similar but larger properties – this is only 3500 sqm so may be too small, as I’d like to teach Permaculture and we’d need a food forest space as well as a woodland to really get into it, but there’s a lot of rural land around in Portugal – and always the potential to just rent a bit for specific things.


Week 5&6 on the Caribbean coast

Have settled happily in a small casa (house) on the property of Ana Piedra, a justly-famous Spanish proferssor, and her fascinating German/Costa Rican husband Alex. It’s in a garden full of crotelaria bushes, trees and birds, an oasis to the surrounding crowded and over developed suburbia.

Strangely, while this is “rural” Costa Rica, we have all the services although like many places in CR the water is probably not good for my european-trained stomach (so bottled water only 4 me) and the sewage system doesn’t like paper which gets disposed of separately. And the neighbours mostly believe they are in a disco or deaf so the noise levels are unbelievable for anyone who hasn’t lived in a South Indian town where they have the same mind-set. Its not so much loud music all night although we’ve had some of that, as revving car engines for hours and very early morning metal cutting (try 6am) in some backyard home workshop 1 house down. I think as overall noise levels outhere with no freeway, trains or planes, are so low, its really noticeable.

The pollution issues are classic 3rd world – most local people still seem think its really ok to collect their own rubbish and plastics and then burn them behind their house, but if it’s not their family’s rubbish and at home, it’s quite ok to leave it – on the beach or in the bush between the tropical wildlife, orchids and ancient trees that the tourists come for.

There are a few erstwhile folk down at the beach who painfully and very publicly sweep up plastics and bottles dumped by their partying mates the night before, but a lot of that seems to be only in the presence of tourists, many of them are disabled so it seems to be a way to make money as a tip of some kind from me the tourist, for the effort, is pretty much expected (monetary of course, and they take dollars and beers). Kind of “you want to enjoy a clean beach, so pay for it – because our governing bodies certainly don’t”.

Much like my own country, ZA, around this beach at least, there doesn’t seem to be a sense of civic or national pride shown by locals, in their amazingly beautiful country.

The Espanol classes with Ana, and sometimes with Alex, are provi g really useful. Every afternoon for 3 hours on the porch of the large casa I share with Alex’ 15 year old son, Daniele. The casa is painted a wonderful tropical green and tiled and full of windows and fans and cool breezes, and spotlessly clean. A real delight. 2 bedrooms, a bathroom, and half the house a long high-ceilinged open-plan living area with desk, handmade wooden chairs (v v comfortable!!) And kitchen – all the basics, and its enough.

The neighbours, however, are loco. On the day I arrived one cut down a small copse of banana trees and other flowering shrubs and bushes next to the fence, sadly on the outside. Apparently that space is nominally defined as a public thoroughfare- but as one side connects to a tough and aggressive neighbour so is now pretty much private property and inaccessible, and it doesn’t actually connect anything, clearing half seems incredibly pointless. The gorgeous plants that were hacked down with gay abandon and some malice methinks, hosted a number of large iguana, a black/red squirrel, and any number of birds, but in spite of cajoling and sensible arguements from my hosts, this nutter continued on his “civic duty” to make this space accessible. Now his kids who should be in school hare up and down there during classtime, smashing sticks against the fence. Neighbour problems but with some profound long term impact on the overall area.

Behind Alex’s 3 hectare property, and also a block away, closer to the main national road, similar manic destruction of treed areas is happening. The excuse of the landowners apparently being that the land is up for sale and new owners will want it cleared. My heart just breaks to see them hacking down really really tall trees – 20\30 metres, old growth, and then burning them to clear the ground, as they’ve not been felled for timber why do anything else with the wood? Its brainless savage destruction and there’s absolutely no policing or municipal regulations to prevent it. In rural areas along waterways (these two examples are neither rural nor on water) the trees may not legally be felled within 50m of a waterway to prevent erosion problems. There, you can report someone who clear trees, but it will usually be after the event in which case nothing can be done to save the trees, and according to the various horror stories I heard in Puriscal, near the farm, only a small fine is sometimes levied – depending on whether the landowner has “friends in high places” or pays bribes.

So while millions are being spent to protect trees in certain areas and to painfully, carefully, reforest other areas, wilful manic massive destruction of the country’s assets continues unashamedly and very very quickly. Its quite horrific to see an acre of forest disapear within a day and then see massive smoke plumes for the next few days as those divine trees are simply burned, releasing all that carbon and making the air poisonous, this aspect of Costa Rica is totally freaking me out ( as you may have realised…)

However, I simply watch it all. This is not my country and I don’t have any leverage to encourage change or a way to educate people in appreciating the intrinsic value of what they are destroying. Anyway, we aren’t doing any better in South Africa or the U.K., and much worse in India, three other countries I love, and know well.

Now just recently we see massive floods again in the UK, a seemingly annual occurrence now, within totally de-forested and untreed agricultural areas in the UK, and causing mass destruction of towns and homes. So a result we could learn from. However, rather than talk about giving land back to nature and keeping it covered in trees, which was its natural form in much of the U.K., all we seem prepared to do is blame the current (3 year old) government, and suggest massively destructive “solutions” like dredge rivers deeper so the rain can rush out to sea faster – along with all that english topsoil.

it is horrific, sitting here watching the process happen from a little earlier in the social development of a young country. First capitalistic greed takes hold, they apply the “rules” of the World Bank and US trade agreements, following religiously the “growth principle” and enforcing each landowning citizen’s total right to “property value increase” and viz a viz right to destroy that land – or whatever you want to call our current philosophy or economic principle, it’s certainly taking shape and gaining force in Costa Rica.

However, its a no-brainer to reach the conclusion that we in the so-called first world really have no value to bring or advice to give. We ourselves have no idea how to care for the planet or prevent our environments from becoming totally inhospitable. We are absolutely all in this together, wanting nice holiday hotels with big lawns but continued access to primary forest (!! ????), super cheap food at home from fields denuded of their organic matter and nutrients, easy access on wide straight roads and trainlines to absolutely anywhere we feel we want to go, there’s a long list. With a massive environmental charge we are simply not paying at the moment.

But we will. And so will the iguanas, the howler monkeys, the last few jaguars and macaws and dolphins, and the rest.

I’m not feeling very proud to be a human being at this time.

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Week 5 Puerto Viejo Carribean Coast

This is me at coffee shop “bread and chocolate” ( can’t go wrong, name like that) with new friends, Katy and Connery from the Verdenergia farm, who I just ran into on the other side of the country in a beach town called Puerto Viejo, where I’m doing Spanish lessons and they’re doing party party party ( and the occasional coffee and lunch with old friends like me)

Verdenergia ecofarm community visit lasted for 3 weeks. Completed a Permaculture certificate, while enjoying incredibly energising yet peaceful environment, fab food too! Amazing sustainable perspective infiltrates everything they do- farming like this is really complex and detailed, to keep the process sustainable and eco-friendly, most things are done by hand. Like sufar drom cane, flour from potatoes. Its very low key, for example they don’t own a vehicle and use Omar, who lives nearby and has a great little truck, for all the town trips (still need plumbing and electrical materials etc. Although they are working on hydro-electric…) so Omar does the realky heavy lifting in his truck, because the horse is for pleasure riding, and the cow, who’s great at making milk usually, doesn’t lift things as she’s making a calf right now… fertile place – Chopa the dog had 11 (ELEVEN) puppies during my visit (These going free to a good home…? Organically raised…. )

So actually only the chickens are part of the production side…. they get to peck and dig weeds while laying as many eggs as possible.

Loved that I got time to know the individuals, it’s a big community (49 full shareholding tribe members, 12 were visiting at different times while I was there, and about 10-15 volunteers who came and went) and such setups are always complex, the interactions between people from incredibly different backgrounds choosing to live together (that’s why they call it intentional community)… are interesting, boy people’s lives get complicated.

:-):-):-) Beautiful group of individuals tho, like-minded Souls. Feel i made a lot of new friends.

The Permaculture course was great, now have a firm grasp of what permaculture is (as opposed to organic farming, which it incorporates, but covers much much more). Blog posts being formulated on my discoveries and inspirations. More later.

My teacher is a gorgeous Dutch guy, called Douwe, (‘dove’), experienced in agro-forestey and Costa Rican fincas. (Farms). He owns another farm adjoining the national park, and is helping this Verdenergia tribe reforest the land. Deeply knowledgeable,Douwe has lived all over the world mostly working with agro-forestry,but knows permaculture backwards…. one of his heroes is an Austrian called Sebb Holzer…. the Austrian rebel farmer, another character! 😉

We watched inspiring movies, studied and read a very large textbook (the bible of permaculture by an ozzie forestry specialist Bill Mollison), dug swales and made gardens and took soil samples and made potting soil mix from the wormery and spoke to the devas abd the Spirit of Verdenergia, Findhorn style, and cooked with raw chocolate, homegrown pinto beans and picked salads to blow your mind with the incredible flavours.

Also had a fairly serious Permaculture design project, which I’ll tell you about one day as it was a funny story …. the permaculture design client from hell….

Finished course, presented design (sans client???!) and got our certificates alongside a talent show on Tuesday,then a whole bunch of us moved on from the farm Wednesday in a bus with Chico Mora. Another character.

Local police man and driver,knows and is known globally along the San Jose/Puriscal road (in effect if not literally) river-shrimp-catcher deluxe, does pushups after fixing tyres….so….he’s the Man.

Enjoyed a group trip with him, to ‘ the ark’ organic herb farm in the central valley, to get some trees for Verdenergia. Sweet parting from the gang, at my point of origon the Airport. Then I chilled at a city hotel for two days. Just to catch my breath and catch up on emails and Facebook….. which I almost have.

Had an absolutely amazing drive down the escarpment in the capable hands and minibus of Rafael – a local who worked in Boston, USA for 6 years then came home, and now drives tourist shuttles as Walmart closed his small school supply import company down…. nice company, those W people, pretty much universally evil then?

Much of the route from San Jose to Limon on the coast is covered (along the main highway pass, at least) in primary rainforest…. besides the suico (sp??) River which is an incredibly dirty yellow… naturally.

Now am staying at Ana’s place, in Hone Creek, 6kms from Puerto Viejo (and learning a lot about local buses as its far too hot/humid to walk), a gorgeous Caribbean surfer paradise on Caribbean coast of CR.

Will be here for a week or three. Intention is to get some basic Spanish into my multi-linguified brain, on top of my English, Afrikaans, German, Dodgy Portuguese, really dodgy Malayalam (from Kerala) abd snippets of French; we hope to interlay a new Spanish carpet. Ana and Alex, su esposo, are profesore de espanol. Super cool.

More later.

Profiles – a great blog post about Verdenergia


Permaculture Training with Douwe Wielstra at Verdenergia

Initial pictures – still need to add the detail of some of the great practical sessions we had, this selection currently is mostly images from a presentation we prepared for a “client” in relation to his property, a finca with coffee and sugarcane and cattle, which has the potential to be a permaculture paradise, if only a community could be formed – first step was planning the inital community house (with a natural swimming pool that flowed into a pond….)

Amanda prepared an absolutely beautiful diagrammatic map showing our suggested layout, and
Lauren prepared a huge planting list with great suggestions of what to plant, relevent to the area, erosion issues, reforestation requirrments and altitude, which I’ll add later too.

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A finca with some differences – Verdenergia

Wow time flies when you’re having fun…. Class was ongoing all week except Sunday …which was Fun day…
(and boy, these guys sure know how to party – work hard, play very hard!!)

I’ve not been able to upload photos which are ssssoooooo much more interesting than words, but will have to tell my story somehow or miss posting this week….

But lookout for a photo gallery or two, we’ve done some fieldwork and this is a very photogenic place so I’ve taken some great images.

Every day has been quite different but there is a kind of rhythm… every morning after 1st breakfast of costa rican coffee and some tropical fruit at 5:30, we meet for permaculture class in the yoga studio at 6 or 7, while every one else goes to the fields or to work on the construction of John and Kylie’s cob and bamboo house, or Chris and Marie’s wood, bamboo, cob house.

In class, we’ve been working our way through the bible of permaculture, Bill Mollison’s 800 page tome, “Permaculture, a designers manual”, a chapter every morning,  with very practical exercises on how to do it,  as the farm tries to implement permaculture concept as purely as possible or affordable.

Saturday we covered trees and their role in the water cycle, so to keep concept close to practicality, we clambered down a rocky path through the really moist, lush area around the creek next to the tribe’s house where the forest is still naturalised (it’s illegal to cut or clear, although not unknown in Costa Rica,  15m and closer to water sources, although not well-policed except maybe by neighbours).  We took soil samples there, and then at the total opposite –  a steep grassy slope, which was  cattle pasture before and the tribe is now trying to reforest with puny quick growing small unfussy trees, which will hold the soil and create shade and humus for the next group to be planted –  taller more hardwood forest trees.   At the moment however it looks like a tree nursery on a steep lawn.

What’s amazing is to take a simple soil sample from each area and compare – very similar base clay red soil – but so much more organic material in the forest soils, insects as much as brokendown plant material.  And we see the incredible diversity of plants and tree growing along the stream, under the tall tree canopy. This is so obviously the best way for plants to thrive!  The main plant nursery/ greenhouse is in a small sunspot in the middle of the jungley forested bit of the farm, taking advantage of all the benefits of the tree cover and rich soils.

Friday we discussed water- collecting rainwater and runoff with swales and dams, and recycling grey and toilet water.  There are so many possibilities, and using kilolitres of fresh drinking water to wash our toilet bowls clean is a really mad thing to do.  Biogas from humanure could very easily drive cooking stoves across the city of london and save the world a load of drinking water by not washing all that valuable matter away (and, as you soon realise in Permaculture, where exactly is “away” anyhow?

There are some serious challenges to be overcome in developing sustainable agricuture here, the climate is fairly extreme with hot and harsh equatorial sun, and monsoon rains, and there are zillions of unfriendly insects and plant  diseases. On the positive side there is a lot of water, but much of the available agricultural land was previously farmed with cattle, and has been  seriously degraded, compacted and cleared, and eroded, during that time, it’s only now with ‘gringos’ coming to settle in Costa rica and bringing views on organic, bio-friendly, permaculture to farming, that things are changing.

We eat exceptionally well here.  There is early breakfast of fruit, homemade yoghurt and amazing costa rican coffee, at 5:30, I’ve been helping with that as my little room is over the kitchen and whoever’s chopping pineapple wakes me up, so I may as well do it myself.

At 8:30 we have a main, later breakfast – eggs and veggies and usually dosa ( made with beans and rice dough, and fermented for at least 24 hours to make it sticky, absolutely delicious).  Lunch at 12:30 ends the mornings work, usually quite a substantial meal with yukka, chinese potato, rice, sometimes beans, cheeze, salad and a ton of veggies. We have had shakes – milk, fresh and unpasteurised from a local farmer, whipped with bananas, homemade cane syrup, cinnamon and slices. Yummy.

Dinner has been everything from sushi (Chris is a wizard and they have all the makings and seaweed and stuff – papaya and cucumber and banana make for amazing fillings) to delicious tomato, cheeze and homegrown basil pizza made in a fabulous handmade cob pizza oven that does really huge pizzas. Joshua the tribe leader is a very inventive chef, one meal he made a sauce for dosha with avocado, banana, garlic, yoghurt,  pepper, and some other secrets from the leftovers in the fridge, which was possibly the most amazing dressing I’ve ever eaten, bar none, I took a photo but it doesn’t quite capture the amazingness.

All the cooking duties take most of the day and keep the kitchen humming, there are usually 2 cooks and a cleaner upper per meal,  as we are 10-20 people per meal.  The farm is all about happiness and ‘pura vida’ – the pure or good life, so much of what is done here revolves around food – from growing it to preparing it, they dry and grind their own flour, collect local honey, eat dried herbs from the garden, make sugar syrup from cane, make yoghurt from start, teas from flowers and leaves out the gardens, eggs are collected from their own chickens.  They’re not 100% independent foodwise, but are happy to buy local veggies, bananas, and products created by their neighbours like milk and a lady dropped about 30kg of pinto beans at the farm 3 days ago, enough for months, we had to haul them onto sacks to dry in the sun, and have been grinding them for dosa batter.

Its really fun to see things turn into meals, didn’t enjoy the skinning of one of the rabbits for what was apparently an amazing rabbit stew, but otherwise its fascinating.

10 days left here, to finish working through the topics in the Permaculture book, take two field trips, and come up with some sustainable ideas for Jim’s farm as our group project.

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Rancho Mastatal fieldtrip

Founded in 2001 by permaculture wunderkinders Robin Nunes and Tim O’Hara, this is a dreamfarm. We visited as part of the field-studies of the Verdenergia Permaculture course, #totallyworthit

I’ll let the pictures do the talking

Rancho Mastatal -somewhat down the road from San Jose, and Salitrales.

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Verdenergia Permaculture farm

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