A Peek into Permaculture

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While in Costa Rica, at Aquas Sagradas, an up and coming organic cacao farm created by a middle aged california hippie, I dove (or was thrown) into practicing the art of permaculture.

We (the other volunteers and I) worked hands-on at the farm with Max Myers, one of the current leaders in the field of permaculture. He made this information digestible to us, so I owe him credit for my current knowledge of the subject.

What is permaculture you say? Permaculture is grounded in several principals: everything is connected to everything else, everything has more than one function, and the needs of one thing can always be filled by another.

The overarching premise is a symbiosis with everything around us, and turning problems into solutions while expending the least amount of energy and creating functional, diverse ecosystems.

Permaculture is rooted in natural cycles, and it uses basic tools and culturally appropriate material to create sustainable habitats for humans and the environment. Human habitats catered to specific environments create empowered, healthy, and self sufficient individuals and communities. It’s a beautiful fusion of design and ecology, and it creates an ease and flow for all systems involved, as it doesn’t yank or strain any one system.

Merriam Webster may put it as “an agricultural system or method that seeks to integrate human activity with natural surroundings so as to create highly efficient self-sustaining ecosystems.

While many have the notion that “going green” is difficult and requires more time and effort than necessary, I found the solutions encountered through a permaculture lens to be profoundly… basic.

Modeling our human-made settlements after the natural ecosystem of our environment, so that everything can flourish, is just so intuitive, so… un-American. After all, it seems we will do anything possible to avoid simplicity and ease.

My experience with permaculture in Costa Rica reminded me of some radically simple solutions:

– Growing and harvesting our own food. We grew a variety of food and spices at the farm: ginger, beans, vanilla, potatoes, all spice, papaya, lemongrass, mangoes, cinnamon, you name it. We blended up fresh almonds to make almond milk, and created our own chocolate from harvesting cacao.

Creating a biodigestor for scrap food. In the biodigestor, scrap foods will ferment and produce a gas, which can power other areas of living: cooking, lighting, etc.

Digging swales for maximized water flow. Enhancing the natural routes in which water already flows, and growing food along these routes, allows for the best possible use of water.

-Composting. Food Scraps can be composted to create rich fertilizer for plants and gardens. (As you can see, a common theme of permaculture is taking waste and converting it to new sources.)

If permaculture lived inside the box, it would look like a very complex equation between plants and animals and humans per square inch of land in order to equal complete sustainability and synchronicity.

But often we don’t see that nature already lays this foundation for us. Exhibit A: The vanilla vine needs shade and likes to climb, and cacao trees provide the perfect girth and height for the vine, creating the perfect symbiotic relationship between chocolate and vanilla. The opponents of the inevitable first date question grow together. Who knew?

Max continually reminded us that with permaculture, nothing is impossible, our only limits lie in the mind, and he used this specific example:

We cannot feed everybody in the world. (False!) 11% of the worlds rooftops could provide all the food for everyone in the world. Permaculture screams, WAKE UP! Lets utilize space and resources, and grow food on top of the rooftops! Nature provides us everything we need, problems are solutions, done.

I find that the principals of permaculture can not only be applied to nature, but the way in which we live. As we are constantly careening in and out of each others lives, we must remember that we are connected to everything else, and the more diverse webs we create, the better.  Most importantly, we have all the solutions, and in order to find these solutions, we must first be mindful and embrace simplicity and abundance.

[I traveled to Costa Rica with Volunteers for Peace (VFP). To read more about VFP, check out my previous blog post http://wordsofawanderer.com/2012/03/08/volunteers-for-peace/ or visit their website at http://www.vfp.org/ ]

Rumble in the Jungle

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We were hopelessly lost in translation. After retracing our steps several times through the jungle trails on the mountainside adjacent to Nauyaca Waterfall, and after several hard falls due to the misty rain, which slicked the trails, our directions in English and Spanish just weren’t matching up anymore.

We should have learned by now that “short-cuts” in the jungle were actually non-existent to foreigners. We hiked back down the steep mountainside, continually grasping the skinny, mossy trees for balance. We took off our shoes and waded through the base of Nauyaca Waterfall. Exhausted already, we trekked out of the park only to walk over a mile in the wrong direction in attempt to get to the casa de Jeffrey. (Travel tip: when asking directions, DON’T point your finger in the direction you think you need to go; if the person doesn’t understand, they will just point their finger in the same direction and nod.)

Now we were the farthest and most opposite direction from home base we could possibly be, and we had stopped talking long ago to conserve our energy supply, which was dwindling quickly. We had no mediums of contacting anyone; alas, we had no choice but to take the dreaded two-hour trek back the only way we knew.

Dark comes quick in Costa Rica; the cotton candy sky teasingly dimmed down faster and faster. The scenery proved different on the way back; the rain had demolished our trail, and as each step pulled our feet into an abyss of caramel-colored mud, we honed the mindset of being creatures of the jungle.

However, even if our trail was unidentifiable and indistinguishable, the five, flavorful personalities that made up our group were far from. Robin, the buff African American woman made up her mind that if she ever made it back to civilization, she would hail the first taxi, and it would take her to the airport. The Gringo, me, reverted to survival mode, by keeping my head down, my mouth shut, and my eyes focused on the path in front of me.

Vicki, the Slovenian, power walking at an insanely inhuman rate, urged us forward by exerting terse commands in broken English: “HURRY FAST! YOU STILL YOUNG!” Salah, the Moroccan provided comic relief with his klutzy almost-falls, and Frank, the Mexican, pulled out his large trusty flashlight and provided a central light, which would keep us all close in its circumference.

For the next two grueling hours, our spirits and physical capacities were beaten down and pulverized by the Costa Rican jungles.

Finally, we began to recognize the outskirts of the property we were staying at. Straining our eyes in hopes of seeing something familiar, we saw the beautiful silhouettes of our tents, and the instantaneous jolt in our energy became apparent.

In the community house, we sat around the red auburn table and toasted to our survival with mugs of smooth Trapiche Wine.

There was something primitively comforting about not having electricity; the warm glow of the candles in their wine bottle holders created the gentle ambiance we needed in order to recharge ourselves.  The mellow light lit the gentle, relieved expressions on my amigos faces, and the screened-in room allowed us to be completely present to the soft murmur of insect voices outside.

We kept recounting our adventure in broken bits of myriad languages.

And though we couldn’t understand each other completely, that’s what gave this night a hilarious, soul-striking charisma. Our over the top gestures and frantic words facilitated more miscommunications, which exponentially increased our rages of laughter.

We imitated each other’s actions during this stressful situation where true personalities had crept in. Each time Vicki started to talk, the rest of us stood up and pretended to crack a whip while mimicking her stern commands.

Devious smiles continually crawled up to our ears, and when our mouths opened, we unleashed laughter in deafening cracks of joy with no hint of restraint. I threw my head back to let out another shrill cry as I madly stamped my feet on the ground. We doubled over, our throats unleashing ungodly sounds, and we spend the hours of the night unsuccessfully gasping for more air. I saw the sting of breathlessness come over everyone, and our cheeks kept rising to scrunch our glossy eyes into crescent moons. My core burned, and my eyes filled up with tears, which involuntarily leaked down the side of my face in moments of unadulterated delight.

We doubled over, tripled over, and quadrupled over with laughter as we feasted on tamales. And not one of us shared the same culture, and we obviously could not speak the same language, but ohhhhh could we laugh.

There we were, the African American, the Mexican, the Moroccan, the Slovenian, and the Gringo. It may seem inappropriate to categorize so hastily, but tonight we demanded of each other to claim our differences. The jungle wouldn’t thrive without it’s distinct birdcalls, monkey howls, and insect noises. Similarly, our cultural backgrounds, experiences, and skin colors mingled to create an electrifying presence, which streamed through us and comfortably embraced our souls in profound rapture.

In this cosmic crescendo after a rumble in the jungle, it was then and there at the auburn table when we decided that we had made up the diversity in the jungle tonight. After all, we are all creatures in this jungle of life.

Photo credit to my good friend Rachel Leibowitz.

Nauyaca Waterfall, Costa Rica. January, 2012.

Pura Vida

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Many countries have a catch phrase that sums up the nature of the inhabitants, while capturing the eternal state of the country.

‘Pura Vida’ is the catch phrase of Costa Rica, and an abundant manifestation of the way of life.

Pura Vida is a please and a thank you, a kind gesture, and a constant reminder to never take life too seriously. In a rough translation from Spanish to English, it’s the pure, full life.. the good life.

How are you? I asked my Taxi driver in Spanish. “Pura Vida” he answered with a simple nod and a knowing smile. How are you? How do you feel? It’s an answer to many questions. And as Magdalena, the owner of Nomadas Hostel told me in Spanish, “you can even say it to your mom!”

Pura Vida captures the yin and yang of the lifestyle of the Ticos, Costa Rican natives.

It embodies the wiry jolt received only from fresh Costa Rican coffee, needed to begin strenous work in the daytime sun. Several hours later, as the effects of these potent coffee beans wear off, the sluggish state that follows is received warmly by hammocks, which provide intense bouts of relaxation.

Pura Vida is also reflected by the weather. The whole country is under a soft, constant mist, as if the countries of the world made up a grocery store, and Costa Rica is the needy vegetable, which need to be misted most frequently. As earth needs water in order to thrive, this soft rain always brought about a buzz from the locals and the landscape grasped onto even greener shades than before. Bits of brilliant colors peeked out through the green spectrum.

Back in the city, although McDonalds and Wendy’s plagued every street corner like a bad infection, the streets still oozed with a vivacious, lighthearted people.

My new years exuded the aspects of ‘Pura Vida’ from its pores. We generated an irresistible fusion of mangy gringos and trendy Tico’s with dreadlocks, which made for a wonderful night of Tecate’s, tents and fires along the rocky beaches of Dominical. With a flavorful group of people, all whom I had know for less than 24 hours, we rang in our New Years together: new friends, new experiences, and the lessons of Pura Vida to help us in the approaching year.

For me personally, Pura Vida took into account the backbreaking work of digging swales, gardening, creating beds for the plants from organic materials we gathered, and planting every fruit I’ve ever wanted to know. As life in Costa Rica would have it, this work would sometimes call for a fiesta afterwards, which could be appropriately accompanied with copious amounts of ‘contrabando’, the pungent handmade liquor, which was created with the local, abundant sugar cane.

Pura Vida was knowing that the afternoon jumps in the private rivers would always prove to be more refreshing and cleansing than any shower. It soothed the bug bites on our bumpy, red legs and never failed to be an experience with nature, which continually renewed our relationship with Mother Earth.

My spirit was consoled and cajoled as I stood under a waterfall and felt the weight of falling water pound on my head, and I could focus only on laughing, because…. I dunno, at the time, that just seemed like most logical and natural thing to do.

The oh-so-refreshing jumps in the hidden rivers and waterfalls tucked behind fields of green was enhanced with the sounds of the distant howler monkeys and the fact that we could always gaze up at the small, sleek toucans with the signature fiery, lime green circle around their beady, black eyes.

Pura Vida was knowing that the ‘Morpho’ butterfly with a deceivingly brown outside would fly past the screened-in deck just about the time when we were all sitting down to breakfast. It would reveal its brilliant blue inside wings as we gathered to eat together and enjoy the food we had just harvested.

Pura Vida encompassed the ever-average combination of rice and beans, and if you you got tired of rice & beans, you could have Gallo Pinto… rice and beans pre-mixed together… this, folks, is the simplicity of Pura Vida at its finest.

This attitude and mind-set makes it impossible to neglect the little things; the sharp blade of the machete coming into contact with the juicy, fleshy, inside skin of the coconut made for an ideal afternoon pick-me-up.. far from insignificant.

As our amigo Jeffery, a Tico, said in practiced English, “when you need to do something important,.. there will be a problem.” This is the last thing most people want to hear, yet, a wise observation. As in many other countries, the Ticos are well-versed with life not going as planned, but with a nonchalant, ‘Pura Vida’ attitude, nothing is ever a catastrophe.  In fact, the biggest news story of the day will probably be that a crocodile ate one of you cows.

Pura Vida is a stability and steadiness of all opposites. It comes down to a very simple equation, which is really a question that wish I could ask myself more:

How can I do this outdoor work most efficiently so that my hammock time is maximized?

It’s finding that sweet balance of working hard, and relaxing just as hard.

I’ll take advice from the Ticos; balancing work and play with unscripted equilibrium is the radically simple solution for living our lives.

If I can lay in a hammock with a good book after a productive day, with not even a hint of tomorrow lingering in my mind, then, by golly, I’m living ‘Pura Vida.’