Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The emperor has no clothes


10 May 2020...

The glorious spring rains continued until last week.

Fantastic thunderstorm in the middle of one night, lighting up the lands with the fire of life.

Did you know, that a lightning storm, as it cracks through the atmosphere, also cracks open the triple-bond of the nitrogen, N2, molecules, which make up 78% of the air,  allowing it to combine with oxygen, then dissolving into the rain droplets, carrying it into the earth to be available to plants.

Lots of updates from the last blog to enthrall all the ever-growing numbers of Várzea Blog enthusiasts...

Here is the garden of Eduardo and Xander this week....

 (check out the pictures from the same place in the last blog)


.... and that of Holger and Farnaz....









.... not to forget the main garden.  Here is Aga in the jungle of the perennial section...



Meanwhile, our water tank is fully installed, sunken in its hole and in-filled around, and now full of 74000 litres of river-water....    with the surroundings about to turn green with summer Sorghum - see it in the next blog!  Here is Pavel with the new path he and Edu made...



Rob is continuing with his structures for the climbing vines and kiwis (mostly vines), while Xander has completed the giant spring hillside cut, and now he and myself are giving the final cut to the floodplain (várzea) which is the developing food-forest... 


But not today.  Today I am sitting in my yurt with the doors open and the rain steadily pattering on the roof, grasses, bushes, trees outside all deliciously drippy.  Bloody marvellous!

And we've fruit, oh yes, a lot of.   The first fruit of the year are the nesperas, as they are known here, but, more commonly, as loquats (Eriobotria japonica), delicious orange fruits similar in size to plums but a different family.  Temperate zone people most likely aren't familiar with them as they can't ripen north of the mediterranean zone (in the USA, I wouldn't know). They are native to China and the far east.   Anyway, we have a great many of these trees, and we've been drying, jam-making, crumble-making. Next time round, wine and spirit.  Got the still, but still need to get better wine-equipment.  The current batch of drying....




... with Rob, making a break from his structure-constructions.

17 May, sunday....
A week on, the sun has hit, and looks like summer in initiated.  Today I got sunburned on the  beach.  Maybe that's our rain for 4 months - next week we are predicted a heat wave.  

The mission for this week:  fruit drying and processing.  Still bucketloads of nesperas, and next, soon, peaches and apricots...


How to convey the mood of the times? Tranquilo.  When I am asked, and I am honest, I reply "never better!" and it is so.  I sense rejoicing in nature.  The natural bond between friends is stronger, and there is more genuine contact between people in "mundane" situations. 

Like having a beer outside the local petrol station among locals, sharing this modern-day "speak-easy" with all the cafés closed.  That kind of camaraderie everywhere, as here and among our valley neighbours.

There are plenty of things to blether and harp on about, but it's a beautiful time of the year, made so by the spring rain, so here are 1 or 2 pictures I took here today...




                   








A project 13 years in the process from an abandoned landscape,  still in it's formative phase.

And here is a picture of the tireless blog-writer, relaxing after a hard session...


... adios amigos.

And keep those disgusting masks off - they are really bad for your health!

Saturday, April 25, 2020

April, green, wild and vital!


April IS spring.  Green and beautiful, nature in full celebration of life.   Meanwhile, human life here at the Várzea has rarely been as positive and harmonious. 

Rain has been falling, and our river is flowing at it's healthiest since December, very well timed for the month in which about half of the year's growth happens. "Em abril, aguas mil" is the portuguese saying, and this year it has been living up to the reputation.

Our merry bunch here has been keeping busy.  Rob's been working on the new structure for the wild vines area...


... in a year or two it will be covered in the vines for the small and sweet green grapes.  This area has a lot more pretty old vines and several parts to be lifted in similar fashion, and with this, making shady chill-out spaces.   


A lot more of this development to be exposed in the next blog - stay tuned! 

The see-saw is also now in place and functioning - here are Jonas and Mattheu demonstrating...


A wonderful positive coming out of the current Blah, is that all of our volunteers and guests have taken on themselves to create their own vegetable gardens - a completely spontaneous development. 

Here is the garden of Edu and Xander...

... and of Holger and Farnaz, our german guests, and friends living close-by....



...fantastic!   



Meanwhile, I am very grateful to Xander for helping me out massively, by taking on the majority of the hillside cutting this winter/spring.  A few sections still to do, but the hillsides are looking fresh and lovely!...




... here's the man...








Not forgetting the veg garden, where Aga (with belly starting to expand - baby due in August) and Ian are in full swing with the spring seeding and planting...





Potatoes too - here being earthed-up...


The recent rain has meant that the storage tank has still not been installed as advertised, but no worries here, as the reason for urgency in putting it up has also been removed by the rain - namely, the need to fill the 74.000 litres by pumping from the river, which should now be running for at least another month or so.

Today is an immaculate spring sunday - all as chilled as can be, and myself feeling doubly so after a great hilly 140 km cycle yesterday. The roads so quiet, even the cities of Lagos and Portimão that I passed through with few cars moving. The people I did see out and about were open and smiling, sharing our common humanity - something usually taken for granted but now celebrated.

We, that is, all people, are blessed with being participants in this amazing, unfathomable mystery of life. We are living antennae, interacting with the energy that pervades everything.   We have an open choice in the world - embrace life, doing, creating, sharing, being open and giving.     Or we can let ourselves be addicted to manure fed to us 24/7.  I really feel for the millions made to stay in their little boxes, negativity and stress non-stop - this will be the real killer.  Get out and enjoy the spring!

Those who live between the earth and sky should not cringe.  I end with a quote from the great Shawnee chief and warrior, Tecumseh: "So live your life that the fear of death cannot enter your heart".

... 





Monday, March 30, 2020

Embrace the energy of life!

Spring equinox, and the northern hemisphere tips towards the sun. Time for planting, and marveling in the creative energy of spring.  The Várzea is a beautiful haven of normality in a rediculous world.
Here is the view from my yurt this morning...




Some welcome rain has been happening.  Not so much, but enough to gee up the spirits of all the 100 or so excellent little seedling trees planted this winter, as well as the fungi to start the recycling rotting-down of the cut material, so to make an armour for the soil, against the double-edged sword of the summer sun.

Garden planting is in full swing.  The potatoes are coming up nicely, and Aga and Ian are filling the prepared beds with stuff to feed us in the months ahead.

A change of mood, Rob is making a see-saw for the kids' play area - an indispensable piece of equipment to any smallholding, Not finished yet, but here's a sneak preview...





Zanda is helping with the cutting/strimming, while Pavel and Edu have been in the food forest, mulching hard!  

Next projects are re-doing the wild-vine area with a proper strong structure to climb on over the next years.


We've been having fun in the river too, making small V-shaped weirs along the length of our local stretch, to help the water back-up into pools, which contributes to raising the water-table in the important time of the spring, when actively growing tree-roots supply the spring growth to the slowly-developing canopy of the food-forest here, and the lowland trees in general.


The V-shape? Neighbour Dan is an aficionado of Victor Schauberger, maverick Austrian genius who devoted his life to the understanding of the behaviour of water in motion. It is all to do with the dynamics of flow, temperature gradients, density, nutrient-exchange, ecology, the causes of drought, that kind of stuff.  Those interested should check out a good 15-minute documentary  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0IJlBfH3m4 on youtube.

What about the water-tank I talked of in the last blog??  Well, until now I couldn't arrange the excavator to prepare the site, but now here he is... 



...and here is the finished hole....



.....and now this morning, just before some rain, we tidied up the new earth and I planted sorghum grass - a dry-resistant summer grass resembling maize (corn) to cover the ground in the summer.  Meanwhile a good part of the soil from the hole was dumped on top of a mountain of cut branches and large tree prunings, to make "hugelkultur" hill - great for long-lived future fertility.

The current of life is flowing in and through all of us - THAT is what is relevant, and to be opening to - all the creative energy that that life is about.  Not hiding away.

Making everyone scared, stressed, malnuirished couch potatoes probably drinking too much, and generally creating poisonous atmospheres indoors for families by the million.  A great way to promote a healthy immune system.  Teddy has been studying these things, so he knows....



... and says, get out and enjoy the spring!!


Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Headless chickens.

The merry month of February wizzed through with blue skies, spring blossom coming out, lush greenery abounding, no rain in sight.  Now in March, indeed, spring is here, but, without a wet spell in March or April we'll be in big doo-doo come August. More on that anon...

Plenty going on at Várzea, especially in baby-production...  attentive readers will know that we already have had 2 new mini-humans born to the place in the last 3 months.  And in the summer, our Aga will be adding one more!  Ian (in picture below) to be the next new dad.   Meanwhile our neighbours Daphna, with Arturo, will be adding one more to their 3 in April.   The papers tell us that Portugal is having diminishing births, aging populus and the rest, well our valley is in a continuous baby boom, with no end in sight. Any couples having difficulty in making a family, come to Várzea da Gonçala baby-farm for your holidays!


There has been plenty other stuff too!   I'm busy with new greenhouse construction, Aga is gearing up for he spring planting season.  The potatoes are just in - so fast that I didn't get a photo, it was a blurr...  Now, with Ian and Edu's help, setting up the garden irrigation.....




Some cool landscaping going down too, with finally a new path and steps coming down from the communal kitchen/chillout area to the new greenhouse and pond, terraces and all.  Here are Edu and myself at work (well, taking a "pausa") in the developing area...



And we are super-happy to have here, in there buses, Rob and Zanda, who are good practical people as well as great to have around.  They have already re-made the crumbling railings up to the barbecue area...









....next they put up a new support for the grapevine to cover the barbecue/terrace area in front of the guest-house....




The big next (well, for me) is the annual cut of the 3 or so hectares of hillside I keep maintained.  Worth a quick recap..  What's with the hillsides?   It's like this....

A hectare or so of Várzea da Gonçala's land is on the plain of the valley floor - this is the meaning of the portuguese word "várzea".  The remaining 7ha or so is on the slopes, and, of these, about 3ha are actively managed with the long-term plan of re-establishing a healthy native forest - which existed before 2 destructive fires in the last 30 years.

Speaking of hillsides, which I nearly was, Pavel has been making cool steps on one of the paths going up the hillsides...


The annual cut is for fire-prevention.  The main reason for big destructive fires in recent years is that there are very few grazing animals to keep down the scrub growth in the winter and spring, which then is then super-incendiary in the dry warm summers - "must decay biologically".  But it does not decay and return to the soil where no animals are there to squish it in and poo it out.

It's a difficult pancake for sure.  But get this, if you don't get anything else, and it is very simple...
The water that falls on the land must be held in the soil.  How much water the land holds depends on the amount of organic matter that is in the soil. This is allied to the amount of ground cover - if there is nothing to shelter the soil from the sun, it gets warm and life abandons the soil and organic matter is lost.  Trees do this, ground-cover plants also, mulch too, but trees are best.  In the words of The Pixies's song "Monkey gone to heaven".. "if the ground's not cold everything is gonna burn".

But good news...   Time will work for you!  People see time as outside of themselves. It is the very stuff of our existence. Then others talk about the power of now, without getting the point, that now extends through past and future in total connection.  The geese understand this,,,



Accept that time is our friend and not the enemy, and our horizons are opened. We are in the flow, and can modify the flow by every action.  Not talking, or facebooking, but by acting. 

We are intervening in the future all the time, and to be wise is to do so holistically, to anticipate the effects well, not for the immediate results, but for the long-term.  To do this we must understand the landscape of time. 

My action this week is finishing re-setting the tree-irrigation network.  Then the digger is soon coming to prepare the site of my 74 cu metre water-storage tank, and the tank is here! In bits, to be assembled.    Enough for now - more action-adventure coming soon!!!

And not a line about you know what!  HA!!!  See yous soon....





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....  


...to 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....