Friday, January 24, 2020

Twenty-Twenty Vision.

A new year, a new decade. And not without real significance - there has been a falling-into-place of people arriving at Várzea da Gonçala over the last months, as well as events unfolding here, which have kicked twenty-twenty off on a great high. A TOP year anticipated. 

Starting on the 5th January, we had a big gathering of neighbours here for the first communal working day of 2020 - this has become a local institution since the end of last summer, and it was the Várzea's turn to host this one.  I named it "large mammal day" and involved about 15 of us some-larger-than-others mammals stomping through the mostly dead and dying pioneer scrub under the re-generating woodland on the north-facing slope here.

The object being to put next to the ground to rot the otherwise flammable material, which can't collapse down on its own due to bushes etc in the way.  Now it can nourish and cover the soil.  Fun was had....

...with food and beers and table-tennis after.  

We used to have these working days a few years ago.  Now, after the water crisis we were facing at the end of last summer, we got together to address what we could do to generally improve the land in our locality, and this was a positive response.   

I need to introduce the line-up of people for 2020 here at Várzea...

Arrived in the beginning of autumn, Mariano from Terra del Fuego, Argentina and partner Zarala, from Spain, for the long-term, and just a few days before new year, Zarala gave birth to little Leo.  

Then, also in December, out of the blue yonder came Eduardo and Natalie, in their large camper-bus, joining the place as if it was their natural home, with energy and great, giving, natures. 

Damon, an old friend and regular from past years, arrived in November.  Pavel, Indian by origin, a friend of Damon, always full of good cheer and willingness, came about the same time, and looks set for a good while!      This is Natalie...

Then there are the  regulars here...           Ben, currently renovating our top-house, having played such a big part in the total re-construction of one of the guest-houses last year. That's him in the second photo, above....                                                                        

...And Aga, our head gardener, full of life and ideas always.   Here with wheelbarrow...                                                                                                                               Then there's myself, and Megan, now turned 12.                                         

Also, as guests, since the first days of January, we have Holger and Farnaz - with (another!) baby-on-board due in a month or so -who are also come to stay long-term, that is, at least a year - which is the longest ahead I can usually plan for in terms of people at least. Also as guests, for the rest of the winter, Nima and her 4-year-old son Mattheu.   

That's a pretty big lump of people.  Thing is, with this lot here (16 and counting...) it's getting tricky to insist that we are not a "community"! (-:

2019 was historically the driest summer ever, in terms of river and water-table level here in our valley.  Parts of the river which have never been known to stop flowing, were reduced to lonely pools.  When told of the condition, old Portuguese who used to live in these lands were incredulous that this could be the case.

It is, as most will know, not just our local issue.  But the cause is not a secret, and I am not talking about climate change either, you'll be happy to hear.  I talk about our valley, but the logic applies to everywhere.

Water that enters the earth is retained in the land by organic matter - humus - in the soil.  Soil without organic matter has little ability to hold water, and it soon drains away.  So the ability of the land in the catchment to hold the water that lands on it is dependent on the amount of organic matter in the soil throughout this area.

In earlier times - only 50 years ago in our valley - the hills for the 30km or so to the river source were covered in oak forest, which not only kept the land cool and fully abundant with every manner of life. The healthy ecosystem went hand-in-hand with soil rich in organic content. The land held it's life, and with it it's water.

In these days the people who inhabited these lands grew their crops and grazed their animals and moved the water for irrigation in ways that maintained a happy and fruitful lifestyle.  Don't buy the myth that life was hard, eaking out a living off the reluctant earth.   We know better, from the stories of the old folk who lived here only 50 or so years ago - life was comfortable, fun, rich in culture, enjoyable.  Food was plentiful, and the people knew how to live well, with social gatherings, music, singing and dancing, and plenty of the local spirit, medronho, distilled from the fermented wild fruits of the bushes of the same name.

Back to the present.... 

The vegetable garden is flourishing again.  Here are Edu (front) and Pavel, in said garden.... 
(that's "said" not "sad"(pretty happy in fact)).                                         Meanwhile I have been carrying on my steady year-on-year plantings of trees with plenty of good help from Edu and Pavel.    Another 150-odd mixture of portuguese oaks, pyrenean oaks, holm oaks (azinheiras), seed-grown cypresses, and medronho bushes (arbutus unido) on the hills, a few fruit and nut trees and some pretty bushes for near the houses - time to get more flowers and colour around the place too.  Finally, this week, 15 baby Paulownia trees - a new one for round these parts, kind-of experimental, we shall see (check it out on the web if you're interested)

Given the uncertainties of water-supply in the summers, I am intalling a large - 75 cubic metre - tank, this winter, to be filled by pumped river-water (which otherwise drains out to the Atlantic ocean), which is sufficient for one and a half months of irrigation and domestic use if called for.  A far better option than trying to suck more water out of a dry land in the summer.

I am going to wrap up on this note, with a new-decade's resolution to update the blog frequently.  No kidding!

Saturday, May 18, 2019

A time of changes

Ok, ok, I haven't blogged for quite a while.  It has been full-on!  With work, and with transforming dynamic happening.   This spring is a time of big change.

Chaym and Petra have departed, after 4 years. We have a new couple, Ian and Aga, in charge of the vegetable garden - but with a contribution going well beyond that. And Ben, my wife Krissy's son, is occupying the house vacated by C and P,  and with a contibution going well beyond occupying the house, he is taking the innards apart and reconstructing it.

The new energy is, after some months of limbo, good for the spirit.

Here is the section of the garden which we have re-created, with all-new design, over the last 2 weeks..

... and the part next to it which is now undergoing the same kind of transformation....

The change has come about quite naturally,  Chaym and Petra made a great contribution here, and,  having come from Israel after many years there, staying at the Várzea allowed them to make connections, settle, and have a home for their growing family.

Here is a picture of our new co-gardener and overall inspiration helping to give whole new spring-clean to the energy here at the Várzea, Aga....

.... her partner Ian is presently in the UK and I don't have a photo to put up yet, but shortly....

The people dynamic of the Várzea isn't something that can be so easily managed.  Humans are full of  complexity, and you never know what you're going to get next.  So I always feel privileged when I get to live and work with people who are happy, creative and with enthusism for action.

Meanwhile, we are in the thick of making a complete re-construction of another of the main houses here - the second guest house, which, due to strange internal geography, could never be a great space for living in.  This year, finally, we are making the big changes. contemplated for a decade.

Ben, with my labouring help, removed all the internal wall render and re-did it with lime instead of cement - the lime breathes and with our traditional rammed-earth walls, this is the traditional, and best, way.  A ton of lime and over 4 cubic metres of sand wheel-barrowed up to the work site  Now, re-tiling the whole floor area of the house, and the kitchen and bathroom walls, and plumbing, electrics - for sure I'll be happy when 'tis all done, and we have a re-modelled house, with living room leading to the outside terrace instead of 2 bedrooms at the front.

And meanwhile, the month of May has flown in, with the first heat of the year - temps in the 30's for t he 3rd day today. Not welcome, with the river very low already after a dry winter and spring.

My brother John was here again recently, always great to see, also for Megan, for whom he's a big favourite.  Here's a super local beach, Carriagem,  where we spent an afternoon    Beautiful, what?.

In between-times I shall be cutting again the 2 hectares or so of nascent food-forest - for fire-protection, land-health, and aethetics.  Despite dryish conditions, spring brought monster growth - reflecting the general improvement of soil health.  

Satisfying work, bring my developing food-forest out of the chaos of spring growth madness, prior to getting the irrigation systems running again.

I anticipate this being the last year when I need to cut so much.  Next year I intend having half a dozen more geese, as well as at least one donkey to help with the job. In fact more use of animals generally, as part of the continuing development of the project.

I also anticipate it being a year of opening, pickup up the energy of evolution of Várzea in several directions. Mostly things that have been here for a while,  not yet fully materialised, and things that have been in the pipeline, which may now come into the daylight.

More of that anon..

Here now I'm getting this blog up onto the World Wide Web, with intentions to pump them out more snappily hithertofore....

Até já!

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Emerald land and wild sea - autumn power 2018

It was a little late but the rain, and autumn arrived in the middle of October,and within a week or so, the land turned emerald. 

Here are scenes from the future-food-forest today.....

.... a feast for the senses!

  We're now, after a deliciously wet November, basking in calm sunny days, working with shirts off!   

Just to wind up those in the "old country" (-:

A while ago we had Hans visit us again with his tractor-driven wood-shredder (Sean here helping with the feeding)...

... a full-on 5-hour session to yield  two nice piles of creme-de-la-creme woodchips , one from coppiced and riverside willow, and one from the river-cana, the bamboo-like "invador" of the river margins (just being loaded in, in the foreground). Like most "invasive species" they only need to be used in an intelligent way, so their vigour works for us, not against.  They make wonderful mulch when shredded, or, as in previous years, can be cut and used as slow-breakdown habitats for many life-forms, and as shelter-nurseries for tree-plantings.

Most of my energy and time over the last weeks has been dedicated to first finishing Megan's yurt, and then taking down the original 6-metre one and adjusting the level and re-erecting it. A rather more involved procedure that I imagined.  The yurt was, 3 years ago, put up on a slightly sloping base (about 20 cm higher on one side to the other) and very gradually the structure leaned over, to the point where something had to be done.  A useful bit of advice there - if you're building a yurt, do it on a flat base!

Neighbour Dan did a beautiful job on the lime and sand floors for both yurts, with beeswax coat in funky colours.  Above is Megan's all-new one. Not quite finished  - just the cotton inner lining to put on....

Now, finally, I get to get myself into the earth.  First mulching with aforementioned wood-chips....

Next, planting trees!   My annual delight. I just collected my first consignment of 144 azinherias, or holm oak, Quercus ilex, which is a missing part of the ancient ecosystem, one of the native oak family that used to be plentiful in the region but now almost absent. Another 156 to come....

Another big part of the ancient forest was the sweet chestnut, castanheira, which, 150 years ago, was a dominant part of the hill and valley ecology, this information passed on in first-hand knowledge by Manuel, now 75 years old, a veteran of the Angolan colonial war in the 60's, who's grandmother lived the 95 years of her life at Várzea da Gonçala. She told Manuel how the valley and hillsides were full of these trees, until the chestnut blight all-but-destroyed their presence in the late 19th century. In those days, "bread" was made from the flour of dried sweet chestnuts, as well as of the acorns of the aforementioned azinheira oaks.  Organic, nutritious, and gluten-free!

I have about 50 seed-grown chestnuts in the future food forest - mostly pretty small, but here are a couple of may babies, grown from local nut-seeds, on their way....

.... anyway, there you have it - tree-based agriculture, practiced here way before the annual crop system.  Manuel relates how is was the demise of the chestnuts which led to the change in land use, and the associated elaborate irrigation systems, and, later, wells and bore-holes necessitated by the increasing scarcity of water which will always result from the loss of trees in this region.

Allow me to digress...

Why did the chestnuts get so decimated?  The simple reason is diversity-loss. Over several generations the make-up of the tree-based ecosystem was modified by people selecting out the oaks
for their prized wood, and neglected replanting as the chestnuts grew faster and gave a better food-yield. The cork-oak remained as they gave a constantly renewable resource - the cork, but the  balance of forest diversity was compromised. 

Why is this a problem?  Because each tree has it's own balance of associated fungi living in symbiosis with it's root system - the mycorrhizal fungi.  Now the chestnut blight was caused by a type Phytophthora, parasitic fungi.  These are always present in the soil, but in the altered circumstances of the time, they proliferated out of control, and demolished their host.  No secret - the diversity of fungi in the soil ecosystem had lost it's resilience and system of checks and balances which would normally prevent the Phyophthora from going beyond it's normal role, of weeding out the weaker chestnut individuals.

Now, the same land is more-or-less abandoned, since big agro rules the roost of supply and demand and, fueled by oil, easily out-competes small scale production for price. 

And the people? 
Gone to the cities.  
So, another step has taken us farther from natural balance, and our from this.... this...

When we get further from the natural balance, we need always more energy input to maintain that separation - this was an insightful observation of the great Japanese practical philosopher, Masanobu Fukuoka,  and it seems almost an inevitable progression of the human relationship with nature.   

We get the story in our valley: first was a wholly sustainable (as in, no external inputs required) tree-based agriculture, with grazing animals, bees, and the rest of nature participating, with garden areas for vegetables.  Then came the era of annual crops, made possible by the people-power of large family units and plentiful water.  This system collapsed when external influences, economic and political, took away the local interdependence while cutting the value of land-produce.  In the outside world, people-power was substituted by oil-power, in the form of machinery, fertilisers, and pesticides.  Ever more separation...  The next step?  

Meanwhile, back in the here and recent past...

Brother John visited us again recently and one highlight was going to nearby cliffs to see some monstrous seas and blow-holes....

... it was all fantastic until one super-wave smashed me down, and necessitated a bedraggled and pretty bloody trip to Lagos hospital for stitches in my forehead. Bruised and battered but, lucky me, nothing broken. 

Respect the power of nature....

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Blinding with Positivity!

The summer recess is over, and it is time to get blogging again.  Long summer - again - 5 months of zero rain, and counting... September hot again, with regular 30c.  But the cork oaks are looking in great condition, and have been actively growing over the last weeks. Other features of this year, figs extremely late, just a few maturing now, but most for sure won't make it - last year we were harvesting and drying them by the bucket-load every day from early September.  Medronho berries, very late too, grapes, very good - we shall have wine!

It was a "tame" summer's start, as it was a beautiful spring...

Low stress for the new additions to the artificial indiginous "ecosystem" which I am slowly integrating with the roots of natural succession.  Friendly intervention is the overall plan.

I put in this photo of rampant green from last spring because it looks so unworldly now, compared to this summer picture with our 3 Várzea girls....

Left to right, Jaya, Megan, Ayla

So what's been going on at the Várzea?   Summer is the quiet time, for the land and for us. I irrigate, we harvest and dry, go to the beach, camping trips in the local nature, there are festas, I go on cycle-rides... that's summer.,.

Then at the start of September, there's the "eek" moment, when I realise that actually there are a lot of things to be done before it rains. Only we don't know when it is going to rain.  "Usually" any time from the beginning of September but this year (again) we are in October without wetness.  Good for me in some ways, as I am just completing Megan's new yurt....

.... it's just about ready to move in to now, in fact, but it looks nice as the skeleton. (keen eyed observers will spot the resident-to-be on top of the original yurt behind...)

She's 10 now and our present 6-metre one just ain't big enough for the both of us anymore. The new one is 5 metres and designing the skeleton took a fair bit of head-scratching and maths. Thankfully the canvas was scavenged from an old marque-tent we had lying around for many years (since the European WWOOF conference here in 2013 in fact).

Helping me out for the last couple of months has been Sean, originally from Bromsgrove, England, and veteran long-distance walker.  Brilliant news is that he looks to be here for the winter - it's a pleasure to have a great-natured, as well as skilled and conscientious, assistant, for a good spell of time, helping with the many projects, presently, and on the agenda for this winter.

Here he is helping us amass a gigantic pile of cut willow from the riverside, a semi-regular coppicing, all ready to be put through the industrial shredder next week. I did extol the magic of small-branch wood-chip on a previous blog - it is the best of the best for stimulating and feeding the underground fungal networks, the mycorrhizae, which are the elixir of life to the developing food-forest.

Also gigantic piles of horse manure and straw, ready for mulching in the winter (this is just one).

My big water feature/ponds still not finished, but not far off, and it will be ready by the spring, promise!

In a couple of weeks I'm off to a plant fair near Faro to collect my order of native seedling trees and bushes to be planted as soon as the ground gets wet.

Star among these will be a couple of hundred "azinheiras", or Iberian holm oak, which are (at least in my experience) impossible to find around this region, though with little doubt they were once a big part of the ecosystem in the days of the native forests. Cut for their prized wood, they were slowly taken out of the ecosystem over centuries. They resist drought more than the other oaks, and in good time I hope they can once again become part of a strong diverse nature-scape.

I do whinge about the late rain, but nature doesn't do regrets or recriminations - these are human things. If you've ever destroyed an ant-colony,  the remaining ants just carry on... put into human thinking, you would say that they stand at that moment and say "this is where we begin!" 

Reminds me of this identical quote by, prefixed by "everything that happened before is RUBBISH!",  by Malcolm McLaren, the instigator of the Sex Pistols in the seventies, summing up the attitude of the music and energy. Plenty would disagree with the sentiment, but the positivity is unquestionable, and liberating. 

I believe that all the aspects of nature, plants and animals and the rest, feel their version of joy, as an expression of positivity.  Life is a positive force - it dismantles the whole physical law of entropy - ask any physicist how this can be and they will, if they are honest, tell you it is bamboozling!  This is what is at the basis of life, it embodies positive force, harnessing energy for creativity

The blog title? I couldn't resist this little reference to a couple of feedback comments from our permaculture internship of a couple of years back. It was a strange time, and an eye-opener to how disconnecting the act of thinking can be.  Feel your feelings. Don't think about them. Then only positive will prevail. This is the natural process.

More in a few weeks - honest!  Maybe even green grass....

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Spring 2018, wet, green, perfect!

Rainy and windy here on the west Algarve.  A perfect day to be taking it easy in our yurt and writing the new blog.  Having contemplated a severe drought the coming summer, March finally gave us bountiful rain.  Our depleted river, dry in some places in wid-winter, is now big and shiny!...

Equinox 2018. 11 years since our inaugural equinox party of 2007,  a memorable occasion, because it was the first time really that I properly encountered the denizens of the microcosm of our small valley of the Cerca river.

It left a lasting impression, I guess because the people were so different to those I'd known before, and the atmosphere of  the place I had come to spend the second half of my life was just opening to my senses.  We had a gigantic bonfire, burning mostly huge lumps of soggy burned cork oak, victims of the big bush-fire which had destroyed the woods here 3 years previously.

My wife Kris had just found out she was pregnant (after 2 miscarriages) with our daughter Megan, now 10.  We had only closed the deal on Varzea da Goncala a few weeks before, the land was wild and the houses were awash with water running through the walls.

This Blog will focus on people.  The people here now are a kind of new generation, just 11 years on, from those whom, mostly crazy Germans, who had come to sparsely occupy the valley in the aftermath of the abandonment of the then beautiful lands by the previous generation of Portuguese, some 30 or 40 years previously.

Ravaged by fire and floods in recent years, these lands were a sad shadow of the fertile cultivated meadows and animal-grazed wooded hillsides of a half-century ago. The recovery process is painstaking and very slow, but under way.

It is only people's activity who can and will make the valley beautiful again. As I put in a previous blog, we are the new ancestors.

Allowing time to work for us, not against us, for the long term. Not to enhance next year's crop, but to make the land fertile, productive, and beautiful, for our children and grandchildren, for them to want to make it more so for their grandchildren.  That way of seeing things.

Ecosystems are functional networks, and are prime examples of many self-interested parties getting on to make the whole function.  They are not the embodiment of an idea that nature is a model of altruistic cooperation, neither is it cut-throat competitiveness, each organism for itself.  It is both, intertwined. The "balance of nature" is based on the constant striving of the myriad individual elements giving their all to thrive by being creative. The intricacies and functioning of this great network are astonishing and marvelous.

The change in the modern era is that humans now dominate the global ecosystem, and our activities are compromising the functioning of the network. Our new rational brain is a double-edged sword - it allows true interactive wisdom, and also the power of destruction.

Common responsibility? If you like that concept.  A million times better, go do something.  It is positive action that talks to the world and to the future.

The Varzea.  Our little microcosm nestling amongst the hills....

We do what we can, knowing that nature readily responds to human guidance. Everything we do here contributes to the health, diversity and functionality of the network which is the local ecosystem.  Through the fourth dimension of time, hopelessly neglected in most human thinking.

The fruit trees have had lots of attention and pruning this winter, with enormous help from our neighbour Dan. Having also been a cool winter, we are hoping for a best-ever crop of fruit and nuts.   Here is our old plum tree in blossom after a thorough pruning...          .... and the younger trees looking pretty too.
It has been a busy time cutting and clearing.  I completed my 2-yearly cut of the 3 hectares of land which is my designated Clear Area,  but as well this year we have been clearing crowded groves of willow, and 3 big trees near the houses have had to be cut back to comply with the national directive, being implemented this year after last year's catastrophic fires.  Here Kris and I are in the thick 
of the work...

...finally, all the prunings and cuttings were dragged to the open area, and just this week Hans, with his tractor and industrial-size shredder, came and turned a large area of branches into beautiful wood-chip...     Great help too from Chaym, Damon and Karen, and also Ilf, our Belgian friend and outstanding naturalist, coming with his family for just 2 weeks this spring with wife Lies and 2 daughters.


... so we ended up with about 7 cubic metres of soil fungi's most favourite food, for mulching, digging in, and fabricating the elixir of soil health.    If you want an inspirational book, get "Mycorrhizal Planet" by Michael Phillips, and you won't ever think of soil as boring again.  Or call it dirt!

Damon and Karen have been a wonderful help this winter, and have now finished their contribution, so many thanks to them both.  Karen is staying on to assist with our forthcoming PDC, while Damon is already planning his return next autumn....   damn, I forgot to get a good pic of them before Damon left.   

And I must mention the garden, in which Petra, deserves overdue praise for her huge contribution in making so much wholesome organic FOOD...

The future belongs to the present, which also contains the past.  We people can't comprehend time - it is one swirling interacting cosmos.

Finally (I really must get this episode off, it's just that it's been so damn busy::) .. we had a minor flood this week, to cap a beautifully wet 6 weeks, with about 35cm (14 inches) of rain - that's 350 litres on every square metre of land, or 3500 cubic metres per hectare!  Cooool...

Revel in the spring...........

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Sense, common and crazy...

I have a semi-regular issue with my neighbour Dan, over what is meant by "common sense", the meaning of which, to me at least, is common sense..   anyhow, here's a great youtube link, courtesy of my brother John, the second section of which puts it very well.  Also 2 wise American Indians spot on the money.  Well worth a look (the first 20minutes in particular)

The dry, and cold, weather continued here on the west Algarve, with the Cerca, out little river which originates in the Serra de Monchique, 30km to the east, dry in certain sections - in the middle of February.  Coming after a summer when the river and ground-water were around the lowest in living memory, is has been cause for concern.  Now, for the last week, RAIN!  Beautiful wet stuff. About 10 cm so far, with more falling as I write. Bring it on!

On the smallholding of Varzea da Goncala, pretty things under way.... is good and the winter work is progressing nicely.  The last few weeks we have focussed on landscaping the space around the track and chess-board, below the houses and in the kids' play area.  Many stone-missions on the hills and to the river, and jigsaw-style building low walls and steps.

As mentioned in the last blog, the atmosphere and camaraderie at the Varzea has been great this winter - positivity abides!  Daniel is now gone, but Karen and Damon remain. I have a habit of making the point that positivity of spirit comes from action, movement, and not from the plethora of "spiritual development" schemes and rituals that abound. One can accompany the other, but mind stuff on its own tends to be no more than psychobabble. To connect, get your hands dirty!

Before I go on, an honourable mention is due to our faithful Carina, that is, our old Toyota Hiace van, veteran of 10 years of wood, stone, manure, and multifarious materials missions at the Varzea.

Broken seats, broken doors and floppy mirrors, dodgy brakes, but she definitely enjoyed getting her axles dirty! 

Here, she is being taken to her final resting place...

The authorities are making a big push this year to make sure landowners clear the scrub vegetation on their terrano, and also trees too near the houses.  It's necessary stuff, after the catastrophes last September, which saw, in one weekend, the burning of 5% of the land mass of Portugal. There was a great deal of publicity about the disasterous fires in California, but it is not appreciated that what occurred in just 2 days in central Portugal burned an area 3 to 4 times the whole area of the California fires.  In line with directives, a few trees overhanging the buildings have had to be cut back drastically.... chainsawing in bare feet - they don't tell you these helpful tricks on chainsaw courses.

On the same theme, of fire-protection, a few weeks ago now, we had Fernando with his Corta-mato machine here, creating, with a whirling chain behind a tractor with catarpillar tracks, a wide fire-break encompassing the horse-shoe of ridge and hill around Varzea da Goncala.  Addressing this force that has the power to wreck all our human schemes. 

Here he is, finding his way onto the hillsides....

The internal work is under way also, my task every second year, which means this year, cleaning the terrano of resurgent highly-flammable scrub vegetation on the established clear area.

This is an area of approximately 2 hectares (5 acres) which is slowly but steadily re-growing a forest of native trees, mostly medroneiras (Arbutus unido) and cork oak (Quercus suber).  I am slowly re-introducing the other previously co-dominant oak variety, Quercus fagineia (in Portuguese, carvalho portuguese).  The emphasis on s-l-o-w-l-y!    Swales, hand-dug ones, which now cover most of this hillside area, are a definite benefit.    The time will surely come when I bring in animals to help with the task of re-forestation, but not, probably, for another 2 or 3 years, just for logistic reasons.

The land, and particularly the hills, need animals.  A study recently published has, for example, shown the correlation between lands not grazed by animals, and the fungal parasite killing large numbers of cork oak.  

It's inspiring stuff - the underground fungal networks, (which, if you know your onions, means mycorrhizal networks working in mutually beneficial relationships with the tree roots) are stimulated in a positive way by interaction with animal manure, allowing the trees to fend off hostile attack. Or, more accurately, the oak's fungal associates fend them off.   Nature is crazy-amazing, so how come we don't realise that working with it is beneficial to us all?

When people came into the landscape and removed the wild animals, it was fine for the health of the ecosystem so long as they brought also their own domesticated animals.  But now, when the old practices disappear, this vital link to nature's health is removed.  The primary cause of fire as well, because the imflammable understorey is the fuel source of the intense distructive fires of these years.

To finish on a lighter note... case anybody was wondering (extremely unlikely), the budgies are enjoying their theme-park, are loving the current windy weather, and are getting quite interactive.  Here with Megan at breakfast....

Still some places on our April 16 to 29 Permaculture Design Course - between the spring's new and full moon....

All the best from Varzea,  back soon.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Finally, the autumn Blog....

Raining - the sound and smell of it is so beautiful!  Those in the cool rainy temperate zone to the north just won't understand my feelings for this liquid delight!!  My washing's out on the line, sheets dripping. Yippee!!    I have little doubt that the joy I feel is largely reflected emotion from the relief and joy from the plethora of life until now long-suffering in the dry earth.

Even some robust cork-oaks had been toiling at the end of the long summer, a good few dying from stress-related disease, this late summer. The grasses and weeds are growing a lot slower this year, still without really significant rainfall.  Here is the well-area, while the well was being dug, and now.....

Workforce from the Aljezur camara (council)  installed our new footbridge, whose predecessor rotted away and fell last spring.  A good strong bridge, first the foundations,
then the structure itself....

...pretty, eh?

I love winter here. We can DO things! Whereas in summer the ground is impossible to dig and you can't plant anything anyway, now the earth becomes pliable and seeds and trees can be planted and can grow.    The garden is looking vital, with the winter vegetables well on their way.

My volunteer helpers are here, actually good returning friends. Damon and Karen have been here several times and for quite a while on each occasion, and it's great to have them back. And from Geneva, a returning friend from last winter, Daniel (in the middle), until the end of February.  A great trio, and we get on with the things each of us enjoys doing - perfect!  I will show our works and works in progress in the next blog.

Acorns have been in abundance this year from the "Portuguese oak" (Quercus faginaea) after 3 years of scarcity. This variety of oak are rare in this region now, though a century ago they were an important part of the ecosystem.  So I am actively planting them to accompany the already-numerous cork oaks (Quercus suber).  I believe in diversity, and that one of the reasons the cork oaks seem to be struggling these years is that they miss their cousins.  For sure, oaks in general are the most social of trees, and to be isolated is not something they enjoy.

The acorns go in pots (usually recycled tetra-packs) or (mostly) directly into the ground on the hillside swales.   Long-time blog readers will recognise that this is an annual activity with low individual success rate, but time will work for us always if we use it wisely.  If only 10% succeed one year, and only 10% the next, then after 10 years we have (check my maths if you like), over 65%, or 2 thirds, success.  Time will work for us.

If your head is fixed on immediate results and your temporal horizon is mostly measured in days, you are not really inhabiting  the timescape, and will be at the whim of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. 

I have been having plenty of earfuls in recent times about "living in the moment", "the power of now" and all that.  I do know what is meant, but doubt that many understand.  I believe if we are truly in the moment, we present expands to the past and future. The past is within us as our guide, and the future is intimately connected to every action, or even thought, in which we are participating.   This being so, how can the future not be already part of the moment?   

This is a different thing to speculating, which, as an intellectual activity, can be amusing or scarifying, but it is only fantasy. We make our world through our positive action.

Loads of good projects to do these winter months.  The chickens have move to a new, neighbouring patch, with their old pecking and pooping for 2 years now a fertile ground for root vegetables.

Acutally I have to say, "the chickens" have not really been moved, as all but 2 have been eaten, to be replaced by a new, young, thrusting, egg-pooping hens from a reliable source.   Our hens were getting old and scraggy, and egg-laying diabolical.  Sorry, vegans, but eating half a dozen hens after a good life, and giving another 6 or so also a well-cared for life, is somewhat better than buying eggs to support a gross industry.  

Here is their new house, in construction, and in use - Megan's started the mural, which should be finished soon....

So what else is on the agenda for this productive winter?   The Várzea's at a formative stage in its development, and I see this winter as an important one for shaping the future.

The guiding principles, as always are:   Create Beauty, and  Bring the Land to Life.   It isn't just about production, it is about creating, or allowing nature to create for us, a place to live and enjoy, and for the children to be creative and have fun.

For this winter's meddling with nature, I intend....

Plant another 50 trees on the flood plain, to add to the 320 or so already in place growing.  This will complete the tree-plantings of the future food-forest.  I won't bore you with the make-up, but I'm sure I won't be able to resist elaborating when I actually plant them.   The idea is to make shapes in the projected landscapes, looking at future open apaces, pathways through the trees, trying to project the likely development of the living architecture.   

On the hillsides, I keep planting acorns.  Oaks are in some areas almost an endangered species with the ascendancy of eucalyptus, but they are the custodians of the wisdom of the land.  I also have a couple of new hopes for nitrogen-fixing trees, the quest with which I have not yet met with success.  We have been germinating Ziziphus spina-cristi, or christ-thorn tree, and a non-invasive Acacia, A.salicina.   Nitrogen-fixing Casuarina and Tea-tree are strong and pretty tolerant of clay.  As well as planting on the swales, all 300 or so healthy Medronheiras (Arbutus unino) bushes will be given a chance of a companion on their shady sides.  No more swale-digging this year - after 4 winters of digging, we have already covered most of the 2 hectares of cleared hillsides.

There is always more: with the trees come the birds and animal life, and the diversity of nature that we can be part of and live from and with.

Here's a truth, which is what we, as a species surviving off the earth, which we are presently depleting, need to understand:  Live with trees, and land will flourish.  Without, the earth will not sustain us.

Please accept apologies for the tardiness of this Blog, and expect a more frequent, shorter, format for the future....

Happy 2018, and drown your smart-phone....

Monday, October 16, 2017

Deep and long... summer's end 2017

It's been a long slow summer.  14th October today, and still summer, 35 degrees on the thermometer in the shade.  Drought conditions have persisted in our part of the valley, which put several wells out of use, including ours, from the middle of August, and we here at the Várzea, until the start of September, were using river-water from our tube, running 500m from the upriver pools, for all purposes.  Happily, these maintained their water, but it was a close call, and if the summer here had been hotter, it would have been disasterous.

So, at end of August I commissioned a new well to be dug.   Zé Gato wth his JCB digger, and a delivery of eleven 2 metre-wide concrete rings, each of half-meter height, arrived on the 31st August.  By the end of the day the Várzea had a spanking new well, with 1.5 metres depth of life-giving water at the bottom.  At a cost of 1750 euros, a priceless resource.

First arrived the big yellow monster....

...who then made a ramp to make a lower staring point, to....

dig the hole....

.... to five metres deep.  At  this depth, we were going through bedrock, so that was as far as was possible.  Then went in the 2 metre diameter concrete rings....

... and finally the lid.  This is necessary mostly in case of beasties falling in, or a flood inundating the well and filling it with mud....

Ze Gato is an old accomplice and tremendous excavator operator, over the last 10 years having done many works here.

Crises do tend to have positive sides, and the water-situation has served to get neighbours realising the we need to work together to do what we can to improve the retention of water for future years.
So we had a very hippy-style talking circle, to talk about these things, and what to do....

Co-operative digging of swales and terraces on the hill-slopes, planting trees, making dams on the gullies, diverting winter water onto organic-matter-rich land. Either manually, or sharing costs of a machine where the land could really use it.  It is a good example of how an issue which could, and has done in many places in many times, be divisive to a neighbourhood, can instead become a unifying cause.

Slow times and warm summer days are not conducive to work, neither to Blog-writing, as you may
have noticed.  Apart from judicious irrigation and keeping an eye on the water, drying tomatoes, and, more recently, figs, we've had plenty of beach time, and some small constructions.  Here, with Megan, a budgie cage....

... new chicken-house nearly finished...

  ... and there are the regular things, like the friday night kids film show...

The summer school holidays here in Portugal are over 3 months long and it's been good spending quality time with Megan, and with friends.
One amazing place, 50km north of Aljezur, is known as the turtle lake, a fantastic oasis arising from only a tiny stream in a not-especially-interesting little valley.  Here we were celebrating a birthday....

The turning of the seasons has its own interplay with the psyche, and the continuing learning process, which will always be happening when one is in such close connection with natural systems

I find the cycle of the year is continually instructing my outlook, the main lesson of which is to go with this flow and react to it creatively, rather than making plans and impatiently waiting tor the opportunities to carry them out.  The old folk fully realise the wisdom in this mentality, which is why they never get stressed, and yet do everything necessary with minimum energy, making it all look so easy.

So now, we have a positive prediction of rainfall for the next week!  This is so welcome.  The arrival of rain sparks a whole new start in the plans for the land, and I have many ideas and schemes just waiting for the opportunity to be carried out, land and infrastructure improvements and, of course, a lot of tree-planting again.  

From the start of November I have good help here also, with 3 friends from last winter returning each for a few months on a volunteer basis.  The tree-nursery has been refurbished ready for numerous cuttings and seedings of acorns, chestnuts, walnuts, and also more exotic nitrogen-fixing trees.

This year's long drought helped foster the Daoist mentality of an open-minded acceptance of the conditions, and with that an understanding of how to be one with the flow, or lack of it.   To a global consciousness tending always towards a more rational-based, head-based outlook these considerations aren't easy to understand.

The trend continues, global mentality being increasingly divorced from its source, the commonality of our DNA with all the natural world. 

It is the humility of the Doaist approach which allows wisdom.

"The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao"
"The name that can be named is not the eternal name"   

This, at a stroke, dismisses all religious and doctrinal 
"certainties" as unessessary, or at best incomplete.  

In my personal outlook, we, through our DNA, are antennae to the information and energy pervading the world around us.  Our rational mind is a tool of interpretation.  Taking the view that it is what  controls, or can control, our lives on its own, is one reason many peoples lives are plainly rediculous.

So, this is signing off the summer at last.  I hope to be woken up in the early hours tonight by the poetic patter of rain on our yurt roof..... Yaahoo!!!! will shout me, and the land...