Saturday, April 29, 2017

Spring action

The frogs are croaking in pond and the tree-frogs are beeping, and it's about time I got this latest blog posted!  Yes, they indeed beep, a kind of electronic-type sound, very musical.  I was a wee bit skeptical, until our friend and neighbour Dan really saw and heard a tree frog, on a tree, not so long ago. Small and green. Here's one....

Due to delays in publication, I need to backtrack to late March, when Varzea da Goncala was in PDC fever...  18 participants are here for 12 days for what is our 12th Permaculture Design Course. It's always a great occasion with shiny happy people everywhere with permaculture dreams in their heads.  Cue group-photo....

Permaculture is often laid claim to as being something new, whereas you only have to go back a couple of generations, in Portugal at least, or to traditional agriculture anywhere, to find that then everything was permaculture.  In this context, I understand the criticism of those who talk of it as a novel concept.

Sustainability simply means living without external energy input, and in the days before cheap oil or solar cells, there was no other way. Period, to use US parlance.

But the transformation of agriculture, fueled by cheap oil, leading to general abandonment of old ways and wise, sustainable practices, justifies a new way of thinking, and permaculture represents an approach based on choice rather than absolute necessity. This is what makes it interesting.     Since it is often asked, what is permaculture, I will give my best shot...

The term was coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Australia in the 1980's as an amalgamation of the words permanent and agriculture.

The philosophy is based on following nature's ways, where systems are self-sustaining in the long term.  By interacting judiciously with natural systems, and intervening in ways based on observation and awareness, permaculture aims to bring out the best of nature's inherent power and productive potential.  

Permaculture can also be seen as a respecting of ways which were well-known and practiced throughout human history, simply because where external inputs were not available, the maximum output by necessity had to be made of the local natural system, in order to grow food to survive, as well as to allow interactive community relationships to flourish.  Humans used to be an integral part of nature, and permaculture is an expression of the fact that we need to recognise this as our future salvation..

We can see permaculture as a philosophy, and a call to understanding, as opposed to a set of instructions to be followed. This philosophy is thankfully grounded in the connection with the earth, so that ideas that are flawed simply don't work.  And the lasting success of permaculture is based on the fact that it works.

Its power is in how it can act as a focus for practical creativity, based on ancient wisdom and modern science, putting ideas together, to be tried and tested in our very real world.

As the late, great, Bill Mollison said, "it can get as simple or as complicated as you like".

Straight after the PDC, we had Chaym's Holistic Gardening course, with 7 students for 6 days in a very practice-based workshop.  Here are the most of the gang, on my session with them, planting in the future food forest on the irrigation channels (still then, awaiting the spring-cutting)....

A completely different type of event, with people getting their hands dirty and a few sore muscles and blisters from hefting enxadas!  To me, this is critical to learning - it can't be only mental. No connection is made without action.  

To quote Bruce Lee, a philosopher as well as legendary exponent of martial arts....  “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough: we must do.”  And a favourite Bruce Lee contribution, his concise interpretation of "right action" from the Toaist noble eightfold path - "You must Act!"    

The issue of action, or lack of it...   It is my contention that the only real learning comes from action, and, further, that this learning tends to take place when you don't realise it's happening. All the stuff that people think they are learning, because they are filling their heads with conceptualisations and imagining possible enactments, is just brain-blah, ready to be returned to nothing it came from (then usually replaced by some other mental version of shangri-la-la). 

We have a steady stream of dreamers here (all good people, don't get me wrong) who just love to talk, and talk.... Doing, is quite something else, which, for most would-be world-changers, is a step too far.

Meanwhile, our Bridge came down - that was a great bit of action!  It had been slowly rotting away underneath, and leaning ever more, then supported by ropes. But the week before the pdc I took a good look under, and decided it had to come down to avoid this happening with people on it.  A great spectacle for all the valley kids, as a pre-friday-film-night show. Ben cut the ropes, it teetered, and then had to be pulled lightly to bring her down, after 20 years.  Over the next couple of days, Ben knocked up this replacement out of the remains....

The weather!    Warm and sunny for about 3 weeks. Not typical April weather, though "typical" isn't a very relevant word these days.   The cistus flowers are in full display....

At the Várzea, construction in the kids' area is still in progress, and the spring cutting is nearly done and early setting up of irrigation needed by the dry spring.  Every year the biomass to cut is more, and the spring cut, before the end of the rains, has multiple functions...

It blankets the ground with still mostly fleshy green growth, which has a chance to partially rot down before the summer dry, also providing a mulch (that's a term for anything which protects the top layer of the soil, keeping it moist and full of soil life).  Next, it triggers a reaction from the plants to downsize their root network, so creating a huge food recourse for the microbial systems and soil life in general, while opening up pathways for drainage and oxygen infiltration.  Finally, it also means less flammable dry biomass above ground, lowering the summer fire-risk.

Amazingly, this procedure of spring, and then end-of-summer cutting, has, over a period of 9 years, built up at least 10cm of quality topsoil in areas which were severely eroded by floods over the 20 or so years of abandonment.

And Chaym's garden's looking GOOD!...                       

and here are Chaym and Petra in the greenhouse tropical zone...

Alex and Nicky, and their boys Theo and Phoenix, have gone back to UK plc.  Mostly provoked by education choice,  I am sad to see them go, and miss them as good friends. For what it's worth, I see it as a regression, prompted by unnecessary values.

Many people are disillusioned and feel trapped by "the system", but mental escapism is rife. Head-based "solutions" are everywhere, either conjured by well-intenders or money-makers.  I just opened a link to an organisation called the "8 shields" (you may check it out, and maybe it will greatly enhance your life, as I am told it has many). I see 8 varieties of head-stuff, a clichéd mix of words like regenerative, immersive, etc - it fact more buzz-words than you can shake a stick at.  And the glaring absence of any reference to ACTION.  Oops, there I go again...

Only, please spare me the gurus, spiritual-mongers and conspiricists - if you want to connect to your spirit, you could plant a tree, bake a cake, or a bird-box, or make a anything you can relate to positively. I think you may find it works a whole lot better than meditating for an hour (you may also find it helps the meditation work too - see, you get a feedback system working then).

I really must send this blog out into the ether and synapses of the vast world wide web, and give, also, some credit to the assistance at the Várzea at the moment given by Ben and by Kevin, Lili, and Jana, all of whom have been here for both spring courses and are now helping with mulching, irrigation, chicken-husbandry, and such like.

Well, here are Lili and Kevin anyway (the dog's name escapes me)...

Enjoy a creative spring, and thanks for reading and putting up with my rantin.!


  1. It was a pleasure to finally meet the magical Várzea and do some ACTION. :)
    Indeed, some conceptualizations are incomplete without the proper action and outer manifestation.

    Good luck for the spring cutting. Maybe I'll find some left to help!

  2. Another interesting blog....they keep coming. Glad to see everything's going well at the Varzea. Keep up the good work and providing the opportunity for people to experience this fulfilling way of living.