WORK SONG, part 2: A Vision
~

If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it…
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides…
The river will run
clear, as we will never know it…
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields…
Memory,
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisaical dream.
Its hardship is its reality.

- WENDELL BERRY -

For me, this poem resides in the heart of my experience of Brook’s Bend Farm.  Since going there in the latter part of June, I think back to its brooks winding through swathes of thigh-high ferns, and the small-town charm of a place that has not lost touch with its agricultural roots.  Remembering Brook’s Bend inspires me to act confidently in my pursuit of an ecologically regenerative livelihood.  For upon traveling to the middle of Massachusetts, I made my landing on a farm that actively develops its carrying capacity for people living wholesome lives on the land.  One manner by which they accomplish this feat is by offering courses like the one I attended there in June, on advanced permaculture design.

During a permaculture design workshop, any manner of things might happen.  Fortunately for myself and the other participants, our course came straight from the playbooks of Dave Jacke and Jono Nieger, two of the northeast’s foremost professionals in the realm of permaculture design.  Both of these gentlemen give vast amounts of energy and attention to the continual development of Brook’s Bend, building up an impressive bounty of information for ambitious designers to draw from.  Each course and planning session builds on the last in this way.  The resulting complexity built into the challenges facing the design teams creates a sensational learning experience.  Not surprisingly, these exceptional teachers hold that the design process itself becomes the student’s greatest guiding force.  The teacher’s main function tends increasingly towards giving tools, demonstrating how to use them, and making sure the play goes well.

I found this to ring true as my design team was turned loose on 50 + acres to do an assessment of the property and to create a design for an integrated forest use and management plan in 3 days.  The potential for exploration and the resources at our disposal set off a design frenzy that kept us up into the wee hours, night after night.   Our design team congealed into a veritable force of nature as the data poured in and the deadline drew near.  Of course, in most any professional design scenario, the design team would have much more time than three days to work at such a task.  We had no such luxury.

Allow me to digress for a moment on some of the luxuries we did have…

1) The food was extraordinary.  Chief Cook Mira Nussbaum nourished us to our core twice a day with local, organic foods prepared in an unusual little kitchen on wheels which was built around a “cadillac” cook stove (see photos below).

2) We were able to journey out on some field trips to full-on forest gardens nearby.   I found myself struck with awe upon finally seeing skirret, gooseberries, currants, and 10 year old trees copious with paw paws, after reading about these mysterious plants for years without knowing they really existed.  We visited Jono Neiger’s backyard paradise, and there was a trip to one of his client’s homesteads as well (which I missed, unfortunately).  To top it all off, some of us were fortunate enough to visit Eric Toensmeier’s urban forest garden site in downtown Holyoke.  This place was incredibly dense with productive perennial plants, and the soil was pulsing with fertility, in testament to the power of carefully designed ecosystem dynamics.  Eric kindly assured us all of how easily accomplished just such a garden can be.

3)  Every participant contributed substantial greatness to the group.  The opportunity to collaborate with such an incredible assortment of folks just doesn’t come along all that often.  Just sharing company with that caliber of people does something to you.  I felt like I added several IQ points just from the osmosis factor in the room!

If it wasn’t for all the hard work going on during those nine days, it might have felt like a vacation.  Let me assure you, it takes a specific sort of individual to enjoy themselves under the expectations that come along with the work load we were under during this intensive.  And although I proudly consider myself one of the cheerfully obsessive minority, I must recognize that working toward such ambitious goals can benefit dramatically from a larger appropriation of temporal resources.

The time crunch had an interesting effect on the nature of our designs.  There were great flourishes of whimsy, such as ovoidal tree house pods for the interns and taco shacks for campesinos in need of a break, which may or may not have much practical merit.  Most of us were aware that the more well thought-out and financially responsible plans were more likely to see the light of day, and generating fully-realized, landscape-level designs with human-scale social structures, appropriate technologies, and impeccably crafted business plans was the shared intention going into the assignment.  Yet, however lofty our ambitions, and flashy our drawings and diagrams, I felt as though simply engaging in the design process from beginning to… “end” had much more to teach us than we could ever hope to impart upon our audience with our rushed-out design presentations.  That is the beauty of cleverly-crafted experiential exercises after all, especially where design is concerned.

I will say, at the risk of endangering my tone of modesty, the presentations were awesome!

So were the festivities around the campfire that ensued.

Breaking away to leave Brook’s Bend was truly a struggle.  The farm exists as just the sort of place that Wendell Berry conjures up in the poem opening this blog.  The forest floor felt spongier than anywhere I’ve set foot.  Health and wisdom seemed to be on an exponential growth curve.  The traditions of the past were connecting with the solutions of the present day in a timely, organic fashion.  The people coming together at Brook’s Bend Farm can take pride in the lives that their lives are preparing.  Certainly, the awareness of what that feels like gave us something to share upon returning home.

 

credit: Jorge Espinosa for photographs 2,3,8,& 9

Robinson Jeffers became even more admirable to me when I read Stewart Brand’s ‘How Buildings Learn’ and found out that Jeffers constructed his hand-built home from granite stones smoothed by California coastal tide.  The home is incredible on so many levels. It was named ‘The Tor House’ after the craggy ‘tor’ on which it was built, jutting out into the seashore.  I can only imagine the way that place must sing with details built in during years of careful attention. Not to mention what it must have felt like for Jeffers sitting down to write in a place he was so very intimate with.  It calls to mind one of my favorite pieces of his work:

“Boats In Fog”

Robinson Jeffers

1887-1962

Sports and gallantries, the stage, the arts, the antics of dancers,

The exuberant voices of music,

Have charm for children but lack nobility; it is bitter

earnestness

That makes beauty; the mind

Knows, grown adult.

A sudden fog-drift muffled the ocean,

A throbbing of engines moved in it,

At length, a stone’s throw out, between the rocks and the

vapor,

One by one moved shadows

Out of the mystery, shadows, fishing-boats, trailing each other

Following the cliff for guidance,

Holding a difficult path between the peril of the sea-fog

And the foam on the shore granite.

One by one, trailing their leader, six crept by me,

Out of the vapor and into it,

The throb of their engines subdued by the fog, patient and

cautious,

Coasting all round the peninsula

Back to the buoys in Monterey harbor. A flight of pelicans

Is nothing lovelier to look at;

The flight of the planets is nothing nobler; all the arts lose

virtue

Against the essential reality

Of creatures going about their business among the equally

Earnest elements of nature.

SUPERADOBE Dome Building Workshop with natural builder Biko Casini

July 9th – 14th, 2012 at The Farm in Summertown, TN

BE PART OF BUILDING THE FIRST SUPERADOBE DOME IN TENNESSEE!

By building Earthen Domes, we create superstrong, inexpensive, natural houses in tune with our environment.

We will Learn:

PRINCIPLES OF ARCHES AND SHELL STRUCTURES – BUILDING DESIGN & LAYOUT – FOUNDATIONS –SUPER ADOBE BASICS

NATURAL PLASTERING – WATERPROOFING – BUILDING DOOR AND WINDOW OPENINGS

This week long workshop is great for people who dream of building their own home or starting an alternative community.  Building this beautiful type of earthen structure is fun, easy, empowering and accessible to people of all ages.  The Main thrust of the workshop will be to completely build one permenant superadobe dome.  After completing this workshop you will know everything you need to safely build your own earthen dome.

SUPERADOBE :  a building technology based on double curvature shell structures (domes) made from stabilized earth.  This method was developed by architect Nader Khalili at the CalEarth Institure in California.  visit:  http://www.calearth.org

THE FARM :   an intentional spiritual Commnunity located in the green woods of Tennesse. This community has been a pioneering force in appropriate technology and community living since 1971.  For more information and to find out about staying at The Farm during the workshop please visit

http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/visiting-accomodations

BIKO CASINI :  Was trained at a young age in masonry by his father Francesco Casini. Together they worked restoring plantation homes and churches in the South. Biko spent years as a student and employee at the Ecovillage Training Center where he worked with many natural builders and permaculturalists to design and build the ETC campus. He studied sustainable building and development in South Africa at the Thlolego Development Project (thlolego.org) . With 16 years of natural building experience, he has built with Stone, Cob, Straw Bale, Adobe, Straw Clay Slip, and Cord Wood in the US, South Africa, Italy, India, and Ghana. Biko recently completed a 3 month internship at the Cal-Earth Institute of Art and Architecture.

TO REGISTER FOR THE WORKSHOP: Contact Biko at bikounity@gmail.com or call 404 769 6726

$500 WORKSHOP FEE INCLUDES FREE CAMPING 

Farm fresh food and cooking facility available – shared meals encouraged

Checks Payable to Biko Casini, 218 Schoolhouse Rd., TN 38483


Back in late September 2011, I attended a 9-day Edible Forest Gardening Design Intensive workshop with Dave Jacke, Penryn Craig, Juliette Jones, and Cliff Davis in Summertown, TN.  The experience traced more than a few new ripples in my brain.  The course consisted of what I would describe as nine days of very intense, sun-up to sun-down, forest gardening boot camp.  Our days were filled with classroom time alternating with on-the-ground field work intended to prepare our fledgling selves to create legitimate ‘edible ecosystem’ designs for four different plots on Cliff Davis’s homestead, known as Spiral Ridge.  As our design teams became increasingly familiar with the terrain and the techniques for applying the forest gardening canon, tangible and shovel-ready ideas began to crop up like so many coppiced trees after a clear cut.  Many challenging design sessions and illuminating exercises later, each design team made their final presentation to instructors, peers, locals, and, of course, Cliff and his family.  I returned home inspired by the top-notch instruction and empowered to implement my newly developed skills.  As luck would have it, several opportunities immediately presented themselves for designing and planting small ‘inoculations patches’ and I’ve relished each of them as the learning process continues to unfurl.

As we have all hoped, Spiral Ridge is delivering on its promise to host a follow-up course in 2012.  This year I will gain the privilege and pleasure of participating as an apprentice teacher!  If anyone is interested in participating in the course, please visit http://www.spiralridgepermaculture.com for more information.

*NOW OFFERING: POST COURSE PRACTICUM*

Here’s what my friend and colleague Jessie Smith has to say about what you can expect if you plan to attend the practicum:

Through thoughtful design, an edible forest garden can provide food, fodder, fuel, fiber, farmaceuticals, fertility, and fun for your family and surrounding community for generations to come. The Edible Forest Garden Practicum focuses on preparing a site, installing a forest garden, and maintaining an edible ecosystem.

This course teaches proper tree planting techniques, basic plant propagation, pruning, soil building, earthworks, polyculture design, fertility and nutrient management, plant selection, site layout, and basic forest garden design.

The practicum educates through actively installing a school yard edible forest garden at The Farm School.  You’ll also gain experience working with children in gardens and a general overview of funding for nonprofits.  An early succession edible forest garden will be visited.

The price of $600 includes camping, meals, and instruction.  For more information, contact Jessie at TheNectaryProject@gmail.com.  The practicum staff includes Cliff Davis, Wade Austin, Jessie Smith, and guests.

 

The inspiration came to me to pay a small tribute to some people who have played an important part in the lives of many a builder and gardener.  A common thread runs through the fabric of this group.  Each person on my list has helped to revive or is currently reviving certain aspects of the richest traditions and accumulated wisdom of pre-industrial craftsmen and agrarian peoples.  Because of this peculiar claim to fame, many of these names are not as widely known as, say, Steve Jobs or Henry Ford.  Yet, in the hearts and minds of many like myself, the role that ‘revivalists’ such as these play for the sake of humankind supplies them a high brand of venerability.

Imagine what a life it would be if no one ever thought to try out orange juice again after the space-age beverage, Tang, came on the scene.  Well, let me just tell you, for several decades after the discovery and widespread success of the ‘balloon framing’ techniques using lightweight studs (2X4′s) and sheathing (drywall) to erect a building in a matter of days, it must have seemed as though no one would ever entertain the idea of revisiting the laborious and heavy traditional methods of mortice and tenon timber framing.  Now, I don’t know about you guys, but freshly squeezed orange juice just tastes better than quickly stirred-up tang, and it’s more wholesome too.  The same can be said for timber framed houses.  When done well, they almost always taste better!  Without intrepid characters like Jack Sobon and Steve Chapman revisiting the traditions of their ancestors and assiduously investigating the qualities of timber framed buildings that made them so enduring both structurally and aesthetically, modern timber framing would not be nearly so widely popularized and may indeed have withered away completely as the last little enclaves of old-timers senesced into obscurity.  So it goes with many of the would-be ‘timeless’ traditions as the military-industrial juggernaut continues to forge its ever-accelerating manifest destiny.  For instance, think about how readily it may be forgotten that ladybugs eat the aphids on the beanstalks if chemical pesticides destroy them both for a few generations.  It takes the brave souls like Masanobu Fukuoku to remind us that there is a very natural way of farming the earth and that we can choose from farming techniques bestowed to us by forty centuries, not just the last forty years.  Some revivals come after a long absense.  Some happen just in the nick of time, as the last remaining purveyors of the craft are still seeking an apprentice.  Still other revivals can be known to occur every planting season, or every harvest time, or every community barn raising, in countless culturally-intact communities all around the world.

My purpose for this blog is simply to shine a little light on some folks who have helped make life all the richer through preserving some incredibly important aspects of the greater cultural heritage.  These ‘revivalists’ took the initiative to share wholesome traditions with a broader audience through their books, public works and appearances, and, in some cases, their institutions.  This list is by no means comprehensive, it merely scratches the surface of this huge topic, and hopefully encourages a more profound and extensive understanding of the people stewarding these fields.  I welcome anyone who wishes to add a name to the list to comment.  I’d love for this list to go on for several pages as we trace back the roots of our nourishing traditions.

*In no particular order:

First the Building Traditions:

1) Steve Chapman and Jack Sobon – timber framing and the associated technologies

Steve teaches here: http://www.foxmaple.com/primer.html

&  Jack teaches here: http://www.heartwoodschool.com/whonew.html

2) Robert Laporte – light clay straw and other earthen timber frame infill techniques

http://www.econesthomes.com/

3) Ianto Evans – cob construction, now known as ‘oregon cob’

http://www.cobcottage.com/

4) Adam Weismann & Katy Bryce – natural building in the UK

http://www.clay-works.com/blog/

5) William Copperwaithe – the yurt and handmade goods galore

http://www.yurtinfo.org/theyurtfoundation.php

6) Ben Law – Woods crafts and round pole timber framing

http://www.ben-law.co.uk/

7) Matts Myhrman and Judy Knox – Straw Bale building (recognizing that it is a stretch to classify straw bale building as a revival, but even relatively recent inovations can be lost if their value is not recognized and carried on)

http://www.thelaststraw.org/history/roots.html

8) Bill and Athena Steen – Straw Bale building

http://www.caneloproject.com/

9) Joseph Jenkins – Slate Roofing and Composting Toilets

http://www.josephjenkins.com/

10) Carole Crews – earthen plasters of the SW US

http://carolecrews.com/

Now Over To Agriculture:

1) Bill Mollison and David Holmgren – co-creators of the permaculture core curriculum and methodology which draws from very deep traditions, as well as modern science

http://www.holmgren.com.au/

http://www.tagari.com/

2) Joel Salatin – pasture raised and finished livestock – grass farming – thriving small farms

http://www.polyfacefarms.com/

3) David Blume – intelligent ethanol fuel production (formerly a major domestic fuel source here in the U.S.)

http://www.permaculture.com/

4) Robert Hart – forest gardening in a temperate climate

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Hart_(horticulturist)

5) Masanobu Fukuoku – natural ways of farming

http://www.onestrawrevolution.net/One_Straw_Revolution/One-Straw_Revolution.html

6) J.I. Rodale – the U.S. contemporary of Lady Eve Balfour and Sir Albert Howard who promoted the revival of organic gardening and founded the authoritative Rodale Institute

http://rodaleinstitute.org/

7) Geoff Lawton – application of permaculture systems worldwide

http://permaculture.org.au/

8) Rudolf Steiner – cosmic and other subtle influences over agriculture – Biodynamics

https://www.biodynamics.com/steiner.html

10) Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier – Edible Forest Gardens for the temperate deciduous climate

Eric T. - http://www.perennialsolutions.org/

Dave Jacke - http://www.edibleforestgardens.com/

My hope is that people of all colors and creeds will give more attention to finding the information and inspiration to apply some basic wisdoms of our elders in their daily lives.  We mustn’t undervalue the things that many of us take for granted, such as the roofs over our heads and the water that we drink.  If we can come to understand even a small fraction of the minor adjustments and constant revisions that have gone into developing the building systems and the food growing processes that have proven enduring and robust, then we might start to see many things that we once considered mundane as fascinating and well-adapted.  Such an understanding could make us an entirely different lot altogether.

“There is some of the fitness in man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest.  Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and their families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when so engaged.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854

TWO TRAMPS IN MUD TIME

by Robert Frost

Out of the mud two strangers came
And caught me splitting wood in the yard,
And one of them put me off my aim
By hailing cheerily “Hit them hard!”
I knew pretty well why he had dropped behind
And let the other go on a way.
I knew pretty well what he had in mind:
He wanted to take my job for pay.

Good blocks of oak it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good,
That day, giving a loose my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.

A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume,
His song so pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom.
It is snowing a flake; and he half knew
Winter was only playing possum.
Except in color he isn’t blue,
But he wouldn’t advise a thing to blossom.

The water for which we may have to look
In summertime with a witching wand,
In every wheelrut’s now a brook,
In every print of a hoof a pond.
Be glad of water, but don’t forget
The lurking frost in the earth beneath
That will steal forth after the sun is set
And show on the water its crystal teeth.

The time when most I loved my task
The two must make me love it more
By coming with what they came to ask.
You’d think I never had felt before
The weight of an ax-head poised aloft,
The grip of earth on outspread feet,
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.

Out of the wood two hulking tramps
(From sleeping God knows where last night,
But not long since in the lumber camps).
They thought all chopping was theirs of right.
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
They judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax
They had no way of knowing a fool.

Nothing on either side was said.
They knew they had but to stay their stay
And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man’s work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right–agreed.

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

 

~

 

The following photographs offer a glimpse of my most recent efforts in furniture building.  On one hand you will see a densely-designed table featuring a reclaimed heart pine top on a finely-painted sugar maple base complete with dovetail and mortice & tenon joinery.  The other piece featured here is a very simple bookshelf built for Alan Booker’s extensive collection.  It is crafted of locally harvested and milled yellow pine and stained to a nice ‘coffee’ shade with water based stain.

While I had a few minutes on my hands, I took some big heart pine drops and made them a little more functional and a lot more attractive. They can be used as side tables, stools, or even a coffee table.

Here in the south there exists an infinite array of fences.  To the untrained eye, any two fences may be just the same.  Yet, upon further inspection, the permutations abound.  One trip through a historic neighborhood could produce half as many types of fences as there are houses on the streets, and each one tells a bit of a story about the neighbor to one side or the other.  Since I started paying attention I have noticed some absolutely incredible fences here in my own neighborhood.  Some of them really make me wonder about the predilections held by whomever commissioned their construction. Still others maintain an almost mystical manner as they rise to meet the challenges of upholding the duties of fence-hood.  On the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans, I was surprised to see razor wire perched atop the eight foot tall wooden pickets.  I also witnessed living fences on Adam Turtle’s farm in Tennessee made of consecutive rows of blackberry brambles and thorny trifoliata oranges, also known as ‘the flying dragon’.  Neither of the previous examples mean to be welcoming and hospitable.  The former attempts to repel the vandals and vagrants of the French Quarter and the latter intends to keep the deer away from the corn, beans, and squash.  Unfortunately, both thankless tasks are becoming increasingly necessary in many places, especially for someone trying to get a decent crop of produce.

The following photographs offer a few glimpses of a fence I completed earlier in the year at the residence of Michele Sneed.  The cedar picket fence with an arbor welcomes guests to the house, while the game fence bordering the three sides facing the fields and forest will deny access to the burgeoning and hungry deer population of the area.  With a few ripe muscadines dangling from arbor out front, hopefully this fence will remain welcoming and hospitable, meanwhile keeping those hungry deer at bay.

http://www.thefarmhousehuntsville.com/OrganicFarming.html 

Jump on over to the link to see more about the series of three courses being hosted on the Sneed Farm in Huntsville, AL, where I’ve done a lot of my work (more posts pending).  Cliff Davis of Spiral Ridge Permaculture will be leading each of  the following one day courses:

September 10th             Gardens & Soil fertility w/ hands-on projects
$45.00
9am-4pm

October 15th                     Water in the landscape w/ hands-on projects
$45.00
9am-4pm

Novovember 5th                           Edible Forest Gardens w/ hands-on project
$45.00
9am-4pm

It’s a great value and, hey, where else in North Alabama are you going to find a backyard permaculture workshop?  See you there.

Lucky for me, Heartwood Homesteads is still very much involved in the research and development phase.  As I am not one to stifle my own inquisitiveness or quell potential creativity, on December 10th, 2010 I left Birmingham, AL on an Amtrak train for the R&D trip of my dreams.  The exhausting yet enchanting four day journey eventually brought me to the site of a cooperative farming business just outside Huatusco, Veracruz in the Republic of Mexico.   “Las Cañadas”, the place is called, alluding to the gullied condition of the terrain when the rehabilitation of the former cattle ranch began.  The once overgrazed ravines now ripple with an incredibly diverse and verdantly productive agroecology.  This remarkably hospitable farm provided the setting for my wintertime efforts to research first hand just what it is that makes an incredible enterprise such as Las Cañadas not only viable but vibrantly resilient and to develop my own personal skills to contribute to similar efforts back home.

Let me go ahead and say that one need not be completely irrational to travel into Mexico.  Las Cañadas offers a top choice as a destination for an eco-geek like myself in need of a winter R&D trip to a tropical clime.  On many levels, my dreams for Heartwood Homesteads are embodied by their cooperative business.  One look over the list of courses reveals a well-rounded approach to community self-reliance.  The instructors (guests and staff) are well-versed in the likes of renewable energy sources, bio-architecture, bio-intensive gardening, edible forest gardens, healthy cooking, cheese production, animal husbandry… the list goes on.  Another attractive attribute was the semi-tropical location in a cloud forest ecosystem, which is ever so rare upon this increasingly homogenized planet.  The temperature generally rode a mellow diurnal cycle between 50 degrees F and 75-80 F.  Low cloud cover was a constant presence, permeating everything with abundant moisture and biological activity.  When the skies were clear, the vistas were made that much more spectacular by the long absence of the distant mountains, most notably Pico de Orizaba.  The people were generally wonderful and kind, and the local culture refreshingly down to earth.

In spite of all these glowing bulbs on the marquee, I would never have known heads or tails of this amazing place, with its totally spanish website, had it not been for a course I attended on Forest Farming.  During this course Eric Toensmeier, co-author of Edible Forest Gardens, made several references to the remarkably productive systems that Las Cañadas has been able to establish over the last fifteen years.  With Eric’s help, I realized that I had an excellent reason to make my first trip beyond the borders of the US and into the less-frequented mountainous region of Veracuz.

Eric put me in touch with his good friend Ricardo Romero.  Instantly, I was drawn into Ricardo’s story, also the story of Las Cañadas.  Ricardo’s father is the man whose cattle overgrazed the land that comprises the farm today.  Upon inheriting the land from his father, Ricardo’s astute powers of observation began to inform him that careless grazing practices were certainly not improving the family’s land, even though at that point he knew very little about the alternatives.  Ricardo had acquired a degree in agronomics from a well renowned Mexican University; yet, the sterility of the cost-benefit analysis would not suffice.  So, in 2007 when he took a friend’s advice and participated in David Holmgren’s Permaculture Design Course, his perspective, and his farm, were forever changed.

That's Ricardo hopping in a close third behind two volunteers.

With optomistically-protracted collaborative planning and big bold initiatives Ricardo and friends set in motion an evolving process which has proven to be a powerful force in improving the lives of the cooperative members and positively influencing countless others.  Then, of course, there is ‘la tierra.’

Here’s a video of Ricardo giving a very concise description of the operation:

(en español) http://www.bosquedeniebla.com.mx/video/intro.htm

~

Upon crossing over to the other side of ‘La Frontera’, one can’t help but notice that the central gulf coast of Mexico is indeed a vastly different place from Alabama in many indisputable ways.  With that said, Mexican farming traditions face very similar challenges to those faced by our even less deeply-rooted small farms back home.  In my experience, agriculture has tended to exist on a spectrum ranging from integrated small centers of production in harmony with the local ecosystem on one end, to massive-scale monoculture farms that utilize industrially-produced inputs at every opportunity in an effort to dominate mother nature and achieve the highest yields at the lowest cost on the other.  In a global, market-driven economy, it is an immense challenge for any self-promoting, small-scale grower to make a decent living and uphold his or her highest values.  Not only is a compromise of values hard on the farmer, but very often, it turns out to be bad for the land, especially over the long term.  At Las Cañadas, an elegant solution to this dilemma is daily levered into action.  This solution exists not in improved seed varieties or highly-subsidized technical adjustments.  From a modern perspective, Las Cañadas has completely overhauled the mainstream farming experience, essentially returning a farm which was destined to erode away to the ocean with another decade of bad grazing practices to a regenerative village-based agriculture.  Therefore the main thing distinguishing the cooperative I visited from any other rancho in Mexico, or Alabama for that matter, is their fundamental structuring of the farm as a community that looks out for itself first and foremost.

Las Cañadas did not just immaculately begin with all of it’s foundational ducks in a row.  The farm has permitted itself to learn and grow, and it’s open minded, pragmatic approach to developing a robust core of principles and traditions has manifested some incredible outcroppings.  Twenty-two ‘socios’, or members, constitute the Las Cañadas cooperative, which maintains that all positions are ‘socio-trabajadores’ or member-workers as opposed to some being ‘patrones’ (bosses) and some ‘campesinos’ (farmers.)  There are positions within the working group for familiar roles such as office manager, director, and head chef.  There are also people posted to jobs that may seem anachronistic or even completely unheard of to some of us here in the global north, such as the man who maintains the roads and trails with a machete and a hooked stick, the milpa farmer who often employs oxen to manipulate the soil, or the young fellow in charge of maintaining the forest garden – often found doling out the prescribed amount of fermented urine or humanure to a macadamia tree or a citrus.  Even with such widely varied responsibilities they all earn their pesos from the funds generated by the courses they offer and with a set ratio (3:1 I believe) of least paid position to most not to be exceeded.  Within their system, most people do not do work directly associated with the bi-monthly courses.  The work of the cooperative is in providing for the needs of their community.  They produce a large percentage of their own food from a plethora of sources cultivated across the grounds, including two large ‘milpa’ fields which provide all of their maize (corn) and frijoles (beans), the foundation of the traditional mexican diet.  They generously distribute firewood and building wood amongst the associates.  Each member also receives daily milk jug refills and a weekly artisan cheese score.  The list of the land’s provisions do not stop there, as human resourcefulness is allowed to flourish and manifest delicious foods from the most unlikely places.

a capacious hand-made oven


In addition to the copious produce, the eco-technologies fund is a collective fund that pays for each member to add one important technology to their own home each year, five or six different technologies are currently available: including water catchment, rocket stoves for showers or for cooking, composting toilets, and biointensive raised beds.  The ‘eco-tech’ fund is another ingenious manner of dispersing both the ideas and the nuts and bolts of self-sufficient living.

Uncommon forces shape the very local economy of Las Cañadas.  Soil depletion concerns at Las Cañadas are amongst the factors that have led the economic engine away from marketing their produce to the general public.  Since the socios eat the food they raise and generally use the composting toilets strategically placed around the acreage, the soil is taxed and exported far less and food expenditures are kept at a level that would appear quite parsimonious to the majority of the global north.  Also, the desire to focus on improving their productivity as farmers made it necessary to divert their attention from operating solely as an ecotourism site.  The cooperative members now enjoy nearly all their produce to feed themselves and utilize their ecotourism cabañas to house volunteers, like myself, who work to improve the core functions of the cooperative.  The focus on offering courses (about two per month) allows for the rest of their time to be put into managing the farm and all it’s many facets.  The associates do not have to convene for a strategic meeting every week; they tend to abide by a very established set of roles and responsibilities suited to their individual strengths.  Only minor adjustments to the routine are necessary to keep the heart of Las Cañadas pumping strong.  During the high seas of the rainy season, the socios pull together and keep a tight ship.  During the most blustery days of the winter, there is still an impressive lot of produce to share.  Including all the elderly and children of the 22 workers in the cooperative, there are around 77 people dependent upon the yields of this growing cooperative.  It is amazing how much they are able to accomplish together, meanwhile maintaining the roles of the community in a tranquil and tropical sort of way.  I found it especially encouraging the amount of gifting that went on amongst the old and new friends of the community.  Las Cañadas has indeed achieved a certain sort of wealth that has become unfamiliar to many of us here in ‘gringolandia.’    

Casa de Karla's share of the eco-tech program.

 

To make it as a well recognized educational farm, the cooperative at Las Cañadas must earnestly maintain some very important differences in comparison with the other farms in their region.  Characteristic of these bootstrapping campesinos is the way they carefully deliver precise doses of trace micronutrients to soils in need of, let’s say, cobalt or iron instead of applying massive amounts of broad spectrum, soil-sterilizing ‘fertilizers.’  They also keep very accurate logs on the volume of urine being distributed to the trees making up the forest garden.  Their food systems are not left up to chance and it shows in their abundant yields.  The culture of close observation and constant improvement is alive and well.  Some research is done on the farm by volunteers arriving from nearby universities, however, a lion’s share of R&D is done regularly by Ricardo Romero and a few other core members of the staff.  An incredible gardener with two long revolutionary braids named Karla Arroyo is constantly improving the seed bank, which includes the gardener’s choice of varieties well suited to the region.  So, the farm has it’s own seed collection and continues to improve the varieties they like the best and to disseminate those seeds liberally amongst their neighbors.  The production of the incredible edible egg is also constantly being improved upon by Ricardo’s wife, Tanya; as is the canon of wholesomely delicious recipes rendered up by the ‘artistas’ on the kitchen staff.

In solidarity,  Las Cañadas prominently posts the fundamental assumptions that provide bearing for all of their major ‘community-scale’ decisions.  They are as follows:

  • The environmental crisis is real and of a magnitude that will certainly transform modern global industrial society beyond recognition. In the process, the well-being and even the survival of the world’s expanding population is directly threatened.
  • The ongoing and future impacts of global industrial society and human numbers on the world’s wondrous biodiversity are assumed to be far greater than the massive changes of last few hundred years.
  • Humans, although unusual within the natural world, are subject to the same scientific ‘energy’ laws that govern the material universe, including the evolution of life.
  • The tapping of fossil fuels during the industrial era was seen as the primary cause of the spectacular explosion in human numbers, technology, and every other novel feature of modern society.
  • Despite the inevitably unique nature of future realities, the inevitable depletion of fossil fuels within a few generations will see a return to the general patterns observable in nature and pre-industrial societies dependent on renewable energy and resources.

Needless to say, the volunteering adventure at Las Cañadas is a good one.  I often found myself working extra diligently due to a sense that I needed to maintain some parity of exchange with the farm’s kitchens.  Upon arriving, my attention was quickly invited in on several projects and I was allowed to apply my energy wherever I best saw fit.  The first design problem that I latched onto  involved creating a new timber framed structure to support a circular, spanish tile roof with a cupola over the round meeting space toward the end of the forest garden.  This proved to be a worthy challenge for my scale ruler and I.  After several inadequate iterations of various forms and frames, and several consultations with framing savvy friends back home, we settled on a beautifully trussed up design based on an epic ski lodge in Vermont.  My hope is to someday make the return trip to execute these designs.

Another major project I had the pleasure of making my own was to create the model wall design for the new office space being added onto the roof of the existing office.  I designed a large window to provide ample day lighting for the room, then built the frame from walnut cut from the farm and had a local craftsman cut the glass to fit.  Another volunteer and I suspended the window in it’s place in the wall cavity so that it may then be infilled around with the local variety of what I call waddle and daub.

That's my 1st Walnut Framed Window in an Earthen Wall

Once the women of the kitchen discovered that I had some fairly decent carpentry skills, they promptly put me to work building walnut bar stools to ease the strain that delicious hand-made tortillas put on their backs.  So, my first true experience with building all wood, mortice and tenon furniture came in a very unlikely little workshop in Veracruz.

All the while, to add to these fascinating projects, there were fiestas and weddings to attend, miles of trails through the cloud forest to hike, and some serious culinary adventuring to make happen.  I was also able to attend an incredible, week-long course titled ‘Agroecologia y Cultivos Biointensivos’ (Agroecology and Biointensive Gardening).  I took twenty pages of notes during the week long course on agroecology and all in Spanish: a testament to how rapidly one can learn a new language when immersed in a super stimulating and familiar field of work.  I barely knew how to tell the taxi driver where I needed to go when I arrived in Huatusco.  In case you are still wondering, to volunteer for Las Cañadas is a truly illuminating experience.  As an interesting side note, Samuel, another college-age volunteer, recounted a tale of being involved in a potentially fatal car accident that he survived because an avocado tree cradled the impact of his vehicle.  This salvation by avocado tree experience transformed his life’s direction such that he is now pursuing a degree in sustainable agriculture engineering.

On the final day of the agroecology course.  All the mental super-saturation was followed by a traditional meso-American Temazcal.  It was my profound privilege to experience two temazcals while at Las Cañadas.  Due to the steep learning curve, the first one was mostly sentiment and heat; whereas the second one was a breakthrough into my new language, complete with synaesthetic imagery and keen insights.  The temazcal offers a truly deep drink of traditional meso-American culture – una bebida muy profundo.

~

During my stay at Las Cañadas the absolute necessity of good design really set in on me.  As with many upstart, “ecotopia”, sort of places, many of the early stages of the infrastructure had been built prior to gaining the full recognition of design considerations for the site.  On the other hand, the water delivery systems, the food production systems, and many of the later-model systems that are being implemented at Las Cañadas ring with the song of ingenious simplicity.  I saw clearly and wholly that fully embracing and employing the design process early and often will save a lot of subsequent headaches and pay considerable dividends.  This applies all the way from toilet bowl design (separating pee pee from poo poo) to carefully adjusting the dynamics of interconnected economic centers.    Las Cañadas gives cause to hang a big ole question mark on a whole litany of givens I’ve assumed to be best practice over the years.

The little cooperative business striving toward wholesome community exists as living proof to the profound role that a leader with a noble vision can play in creating an incredibly beautiful place.   Through persistent advocacy and guidance Ricardo and the administrative team deftly encourage the local culture to give life to the cooperative’s business structure.  In my humble opinion, it works miraculously well.  I, for one, could not help but feel inspired and all the more grateful to have set out in pursuit of the more inclusive, albeit messy at times, permaculture field instead of getting too entrenched in a strictly academic agroforestry path as I had once planned.

Back on the smooth-paved streets of North Alabama, we pass a particularly discouraging novelty shop sign and an unbelievably long line at the MacDonald’s drive through, a friend of mine shakes his head and says, “The dharma is decreasing…”  I reckon Las Cañadas is one of those noteworthy places where one could honestly say that the dharma is palpably increasing.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.