Once again, on the first day I’ve arrived, I feel like I am completely in the wrong place.
Marta, the kitchen lady with a giant blue skirt and white apron, shows me my first task – weeding a garden area in front of one of the family houses. It seems normal enough, but I become more and more frustrated with the task as I continue. She has asked me to uproot everything, except the obvious large ornamental plants. This is my first point of annoyance – the edible gardens have been downsized in the last years, while the ornamentals remain. In a country with so much poverty and 25% of people with hunger, for an organic garden and eco-lodge, this is unthinkable. I remain yet more affirmed that I will not grow ornamentals for ornamental’s sake – I’m interested in permaculture, not Miss World: Plant Edition – and only if they serve some other ecosystem function.
My greater frustration comes from the fact that I feel like I’ve just been asked to enter a room with some thousands of babies, been handed a pistol, and been given six hours to shoot every last one down.
“Martita,” I go up to the kitchen after fifteen minutes and say, “I just wanted to clarify, you want me to remove everything? Absolutely everything? Until there’s nothing but earth left?”
“But,” I press on, “You have so many useful small plants in there – you have clovers which are great nitrogen-fixers, plantain which is excellent groundcover, angelica, and many others, like relatives of fennel, plantain, yanten, wild strawberry, which help collect other minerals, keep the earth moist by providing groundcover or green manure, prevent erosion, create habitat for insects and microbes, give nutrition to the soil…”
“Nope,” she says cheerfully, “We want just the big plants that belong in the garden.”
“But I don’t understand,” I say to this poor Bolivian women, who has probably never studied high school biology, let alone anything past primary school. I’m not even certain she knows how to read. “These plants are so helpful.”
“We want it to look beautiful,” she beams, and bustles back into the kitchen.
I stare, dumbfounded.
What is this, a beauty pageant for plants? I find the whole task absurd for many reasons. First, Fukuoka and Natural Farming – weeding in an indiscriminate manner entrenches the warrior mentality, the control-dominate-and-conquer mentality, which is embodied in gardens that only have certain plants we want and nothing else, neat, delineated rows, and the appearance of being ‘clean’ and ‘tidy’ – in stark contrast to the polycultures bursting with life we see in natural ecosystems, which appear, rather, arranged in a haphazard or near-chaotic manner, and where the aim is to maximize biodiversity and productivity, rather than destroying every last plant besides the ones we understand or like the look of. I feel a little at odds with the pick I’ve been given – it feels much gentler on the earth to just take out the crabgrass, which I know is a nightmare, and it’s long runners of roots, rather than the rest. Everything else is fine.
Secondly, in the long run, this is just making more work for ourselves. If there is one thing I have learnt from hours of weeding in other places, it is this: groundcover is possibly one of THE most important elements of an organic garden system. It could be ‘green manure,’ in the form of clover, vetch, vetiver or kumara, or it could be dry grass or dry leaves mulched around the plants we want – either way, the soil should be covered, always. This protects it from excessive drying out from the sun and wind, allows for slower and more effective absorption of water from rain or irrigation, slows evaporation, maintains a more regular soil temperature, creates shade for insects and microbes underneath (and the moisture content of the soil also helps attract earthworms and so on), creates nutrition in the form of leguminous or nitrogen-fixing groundcover or simply as slowly decomposing mulch or fallen leaves, confuses predators, increases biodiversity, holds soil together on slopes – like the one I’m working on – to prevent erosion, and overall mimics the layers in a forest ecosystem.
If we strip it away to bare earth, it’s an ecological disaster as far as I can tell.
Bare earth dries out faster, so plants grow slower as the roots receive less moisture over time. This means more work, because we need to water more and more often. Martita has also asked me to strip all the lower dead leaves off the plants, an act which I also find pointless and somewhat barbaric – those leaves will fall off with time and return the nutrients to the soil. So removing those leaves and the groundcover and tossing to one side means more work, because we now need to actively make compost rather than passively leaving it to make itself, because we’re removing the nutrients from the soil without replacing them. It means more work, because having a groundcover we want, such as clover, would mean permanently not having weed problems – in contrast, bare earth means the weeds come back and this has to be done over and over, ad infinitum.
“How often do you do this?” I ask the owner, Roxanna.
“Three times a year,” she says, instructing me that I have failed to remove every last tiny green thing – most of which would probably sizzle out and die in a day, giving nutrition to the soil – and that I need to work harder.
Given how many gardens there are in the four hectare oasis, I cannot imagine why one would make more work for themselves doing this whole process thrice a year when one could simply broadcast clover and alfalfa seeds and let nature do the rest.
Thirdly, I ask Martita what we will do with everything we’ve just pulled out. Will we just ‘chop and drop’ – as we say in permaculture – or compost it to the side?
“No,” she says, “We will burn it.”
I am flabbergasted. “Why?” I blurt out, unsure how to even broach the topic of climate change and loss of nutrients.
“Because it has eucalyptus leaves in it.”
I stare at the ground like an idiot. “Oh,” I say, “You mean, I have to remove the dry leaves fallen on the ground too?” These leaves are basic compost material.
“They’re poisonous,” she says.
I think she means allelopathic, but then I wonder: if this place was created 30 years ago then what on earth were the owners thinking, planting (or leaving) invasive eucalyptus trees that aren’t even native right beside their precious ornamental gardens? Surely, they would be aware that this would be a perpetual nightmare with fallen leaves and general flammability during the dry season?
So I’m annoyed that what I’m removing isn’t even going to nourish the soil in the end – and I’m fairly confident eucalyptus, like those endless bracken ferns I composted at Kadagaya Project – can be hot composted; the heat would destroy the allelopathic elements and the soil would be able to be used as-is. Burning is barely ‘organic’ and the fact that the Bolivians have done this for ‘many generations’ (aka since the Spaniards arrived) hardly justifies the practice in this instance.
Fourthly, the tools we are using. A human hand would do the job just fine; a little slower, but more carefully. Instead, I have a scythe and a pick, both of which seem as useless and as destructive as each other, the pick perhaps more so, especially given the density of plants in certain areas. I’ve been used to picks of all sizes and this is by far the smallest I’ve used – and it’s still difficult not to accidentally be-head an ornamental plant while wildly hacking at the rest. I’m also concerned about all this soil-turning we are doing – completely unnecessary given that the roots of the plants I’m pulling out would have separated the soil somewhat in any case, allow aeration, and that this only serves to cause more erosion. Not to mention, entrenching the ‘warrior’ mentality, as Eilif terms it.
I’m also trampling all over the soil in the process, obviously compacting it, which nobody seems particularly perturbed about. Oh well, that happen; you’re turning the soil too so just move from bottom to up as you go. Which effectively means trampling over newly ‘aerated’ bits of soil on the bottom to get to the upper areas…the reverse would possibly just cause more erosion.
A few days later, I ask Johnny, the German-Bolivian grandfather and husband of Roxanna, why we are pulling the useful plants out. No sirven, he says, they’re useless. I point out the uses and he nods and in the gentlest of voices says, they steal nutrients from the other plants. There is so much I want to say in return, but I don’t know where to begin. Perhaps – they give so much more than they take would be a good start.
This feeling, of being completely in the wrong place passes, usually, with time as I come to enter the world of my hosts more and empathise with them. I may still disagree on an intellectual level with many things but at least we come to see heart-to-heart after a while. And I realise today is not the best of days to sit down and have a good ol’ chat with Roxanna and Johnny, the owners of probably over sixty years old, given that the whole extended family has arrived to celebrate the great grandfather’s birthday.
Regardless, when Roxanna comes to join me for a round of merciless weed-bashing, I think of Eilif, and his slow, gentle manner, his plant-in-between-the-beneficial-wild-plants approach of leaving nature as undisturbed as possible, and I blurt out, once again, “Roxanna, why are we removing these plants, when so many are beneficial and act as great groundcover, living compost and nitrogen-fixers?”
She doesn’t miss a beat. “Because they’re not part of the garden,” she snaps, and that is that.
“Will you be here on Tuesday?” Sylvain asks me, in French, of course.
I furrow my brow. “Why wouldn’t I be?” We’ve met all of half a day ago and he knows I’m set to be here about three weeks. Today is Friday.
“I mean, how it’s all going and everything.” He gestures to the work I’m doing grudgingly.
“Oh.” I say. “I think so. Most likely, yes.”
I haven’t even had a chance to talk with the owners yet, and I at least want to give them a chance. To explain themselves, if nothing else. I have endless questions about the history of the site, what on earth the eucalyptus trees are doing here, how they built the buildings and the earth-bottle solar shower, what was grown here, names of plants, if they have beehives too, what the cows and chickens and ducks and rabbits eat. I wonder if they eat the rabbits, and it strikes me that that would probably be an excellent and easy source of animal protein, given the breeding rate. I want to know if either has ever learnt anything about permaculture, and if they have, then why all the gardens are just spotless-perfect, squeaky clean beds of grass with a few pretty things planted in between, and why they aren’t growing so many edibles anymore. I want to know why the kitchen ladies spend so many hours daily raking all the dry leaves up and throwing them off the side of the hill into the riverbanks when the grass is dying for nutrients and the cow is desperate for feed.
Sylvain is reminding me, of course, that I don’t have to be in a place where I feel my integrity – and the ecosystem integrity at large – is being compromised. It’s a choice.
“You could always stay for longer and tell them about permaculture, or what you know of hot composting,” he suggests. He’s been here almost two weeks himself, working for the lowest Bolivian pay for a bamboo and earth construction on site, after having given up on the difficult owner of El Virgil, a nearby permaculture-hotel.
“Oui, voilà,” I reply, shrugging. They’re old; I’m not convinced that if they haven’t changed yet or learnt these things yet, that they’ll be particularly open to learning them. At least, not Roxanna, anyway. Johnny I could easily chat with, but it’s his wife who manages the gardens.
“I guess if I can just shut my brain off,” I muse, “It’s like meditation. If I just don’t think about the reality of what I’m doing.”
“Shooting babies in a white room with a pistol?” Sylvain grins.
I grimace. “Yeah, it’s funny how you can just turn your brain off, be in flow with any task and forget the wider implications of what you’re doing, and it’s still meditative.”
“Besides the back pain,” he points out.
“Yes,” I say, lapsing into silence once more.
I look out over the four hectares of paradise, wistfully. Just the night before, I had arrived, tired, happy, and collapsed on the bed almost crying with joy at the sheer beauty of this place. There is a swimming pool, little wooden picnic tables, sunbathing chairs galore, maybe over ten earth, stone and plaster fairytale cottages, guava trees, the best avocado trees in the world, a veggie patch, a roaring river with a bridge, and the deep silence of nature here. There is a solar shower made with glass bottles embedded in earth, open to the skies. There are chickens, ducks, bunnies, a cow or two, dogs, cats and the cutest kitten that cuddled up to me earlier this morning. There are plenty of places to lose myself, draw, write, read, sit, and the view from my window is complete with the purple-flower roof of the restaurant/kitchen, the little village up on the hill and the breathtaking mountains – cordilleras – of the Andes against a deep blue sky. Every time I’ve ended up in a place I though paradise and been anguished to leave, I’ve somehow found another paradise, it seems.
It’s only day one, and, as has happened in many past volunteering experiences, I’m reminding myself that I’m not trapped, that coming here is a choice, that I can leave anytime. Many of those times prior, however, I’ve had time to connect with the owners better and after a while, the work becomes less important than our friendship, and I hold out hope that with time, accepting them and loving them as they are may facilitate an openness to change on their part. I remind myself, that few young people are as lucky as I am, to live completely for free in a place like Altai Oasis, with food provided, and with a chance to work outside in the sunshine all day long and just the music of nature to keep them company.
I remind myself that everyone deserves another chance, and that changes in others I once thought impossible have somehow come to pass.
Regardless, as I stand and watch the plants I’ve just pulled out go up in flames by the eucalyptus trees, I feel a wave of sadness pass over me. I grab hold of the pick, turn my back, and crouch down to continue once more.