Sunday, 23 October 2016

Fast


Will a month's trial as a garden volunteer at a organic yoga paradise in southern Spain bear Winter fruit? Or will the reality of wet boots in a soggy rustique way of life prove one step too far?

Today is a day I've waited for since the end of summer. It's been a year of achieving some important dreams - taking my mum to New York City for her birthday, training to be a yoga teacher and finally learning how to garden in southern Spain. A trip to see a friend allowed a new connection where my excitement to learn about permaculture and ecological land management practices was met with a resounding "yes"! So I am now back at the impossibly beautiful Suryalila Retreat Centre, where I volunteered for 3 months last summer and cared for the chickens, and attempted to build a pond...

Finding time to study and learn about yoga has been a part of a hectic schedule. So this, finally, weekend has been the beacon of relaxation I've been waiting for. Seasonal torrents of rain are also encouraging me to stay put under a mountain of blankets with a flask of lemon ginger tea. Ah what bliss. Going through old photos and files is just what a soggy Sunday needs.

Where am I? About 1.5 hours from Seville, in the middle of nowhere where swathes of eager yogis come to learn more and a smattering of cityphiles and their families come for a slice of the good life. The centre has horse-riding facilities as well as a natural salt water pool and serves 3 meals a day that are fit for the King of Spain; I'm sure he wouldn't notice the lack of jamon. The majority of dishes are vegan while the cheese is sourced from local suppliers using sheep or goat's milk. There's also a juice and smoothie bar, so I know the little savings I have left will dwindle as my tastebuds go to the stratosphere.

This time I am volunteer in the horticultural team. The huerto supplies the kitchen with a small amount of produce and with the help of this newfangled team, that percentage will steadily grow. So far (I arrived on Wednesday) I've been preparing beds for kale, cabbage and more roquette. I've also been removing olive sprigs from around the base of the olive trees and making hot compost. There's also loads of faces from last year which is a fantastic welcome.

The soil here, having been battered by intensive monoculture for a while, has long since said farewell to the rich ochre earth that still supports a few oaks in the distance. Some are estimated to be more than 500 years old. Our closest village, Prado del Rey, literally translates as "pasture / meadow of the King" so if etymology is any indicator of history, that fact remains fossilised in the area's past.

This design inspired the chicken coop makeover last summer
I'm working with a great team of 5 guided by an ambitious plan to turn things around. And already the parched ground is providing the kitchens with some salad and greens, and when I visited last year, we had an abundant harvest of figs. There are citrus trees and of course olives, and to keep the place beautiful, many landscaping succulents, lilies and banana trees. There are plenty of herbs too with the parsley, coriander and basil doing well and kitchen staff embellish the Moroccan-style serving dishes with borage flowers, calendula, nasturtium leaves and rose petals. We're visiting the vivero this week and I'll be pushing for lots of aloe vera so thirst-busting "AloePops" can get on the juice bar menu.

Alongside growing, the project manager is keen to install plenty of ways to preserve the harvest, the most obvious one being solar drying. This is a really easy and quick way of preserving excess and when I used this method at Sunseed Desert Technology, the most successful eats were aubergine slices (great for rehydrating in curries and stews) and stoned fruits which were chopped up before drying. Figs can be tricky if the maggots get there first. He's not come across a hay box before so I am excited to build a simple one.

The pond in April this year
I'm on a month's trial here before I commit to an extended period. If things go well, I imagine leaving before the intense heat of late Spring kicks in. The biggest challenges for late Autumn and Winter are going to be maintaining a strong sense of personal space as so much is shared and meeting new people is addictive. I also need to be realistic in preparing for the wet, windy and cooler weather which is one skill I've never mastered hence my fleeing from UK. Temperatures stay reasonable and the Winter is short - last year, nearby Seville was still seeing 24 degrees at the end of November - but outside of the city, life is squelchier and damper. I'm hoping that when a room becomes available at the volunteer house, I can swiftly move there. Despite my dreams of wildness, I am a walls and hot showers / radiators / slippers / heated towels / wifi kind of a person.

At the moment, I share with 3 other guys in a large tent. One makes his bed every day to hotel standards which impresses me. The others move around remarkably quietly. There are compost loos and outdoor showers nearby, the more homely bathrooms inside the main building. I've learnt that I'm a fairweather outdoorsy type; this weekend the winds have been lashing around the canvas and the rain drops more than pitter-pattering all around. While reading novels about wild weather appeals, enduring the reality is less romantic. It's a far cry from camping exactly but I feel lost without hangars and a maiden for my smalls. Last month my adventuring friend tried to encourage me to loosen up my white-knucked grip on civilisation with a camping trip on the beach. That was truly wild...no tent, no camping mat. Just us with a sleeping bag against the Milky Way and concerns about being washed away alleviated by a Gin Tonic nightcap. I smiled and tried, I did.

All in all, I am excited to be following a very longheld dream of living in Spain while growing. I will finally have to get to grips with being realistic about bad weather challenges. Despite training as a Forest School Leader in the UK a few years ago, bloodcurdling screams emit from my insides in worse weather, so I'm lucky to be somewhere where the temperatures stay quite civilised. My suitcase has only allowed me to pack so much (read: shorts and evening trousers) so the rest I can borrow (or beg or steal?). As long as I remain looking reasonably civilised so as not to shock the gentle yogis, I will be happy at the end of the month.

I shot the evolution of a caper / caperberry by gathering the plant at its different stages







Friday, 16 September 2016

Disposable Reasoning


I follow the work of George Monbiot, a passionate environmentalist keen on re-wilding  as am I. His latest article, Disposable Planet, can be found here. As a Romantic as well as someone who values scientific reasoning, I find much to critique especially since his views are typical of many people I meet on my path to finding an ecological and sustainable way to live. The response I sent is below which will make more sense if your read his article first!

Post your comments below.



Hello George

Thanks for your latest article, Disposable Planet. Incisive as always...and also despairing and hopeless, leaving me with that unsettling feeling similar to the dread in the belly during a parental telling-off. "You're using the car again...despite the planet going down the plughole!" ..."Your shower lasted 8 minutes...do you know how much water that could provide to a drought-struck village on the African continent??" Forgive me, Father. I'm also about to critique your reasoning. 

De-capitating Logic

So, I recently discovered a new way of thinking thanks to constellations which, like most things, suddenly seemed obvious. The Plough, Orion, the Great Bear...and all such named constellations, despite being individual stars light years away from each other, make very sketchy outlines for us humans... although simply an abstract handful of white dots in space. Why? Because we are making sense of the world around us (note - not necessarily the world we are entrenched in, but that's another story).

This "constellation" tendency is how many mortals flex their muscles with the things they've come to know. And it's a shame that the tone of your articles, as much as I enjoy reading them, fall into the same trap: a dying population here, extinct animals over there, melting ice here...and then industry growth over here, and blithe consumers shopping malls or on futuristic devices with 1,000 Apps promising every convenience. That's cause and effect, right? Surely any fool would agree. And, then, wham! you're reasoning wings are stuck in the glue! 

The intellect, like the internet, makes bold promises of a world that's understood and relatively neat and organised...and seems to hint a glimpse of world without physical limitations. But we aren't just heads on legs, or fingers tapping at keyboards - we are absolutely bound to gravity, despite our spiritual yearnings. Yes, you, too. Sorry about that.

Any breadth of knowledge doesn't exempt you from the hairy contradictions and compromises we are all forced to negotiate in order to be, firstly, human and, secondly, as informed individuals, sane, happy and motivated to act from a courageous space rather than a fearful one. Not recognizing that can dislocate the relevance of your message since a reader could be forgiven for imagining that you are beaming your blogposts on fairy's wings from a self-sufficient idyll only the enlightened seers inhabit (they had accrued enough carbon-offset points).

And yet, here we both are...stuck in fleshy bodies while able to communicate without having met...through complicated technological platforms that govern and shape our lives/perceptions which make no more sense than a fairy's wing. But isn't that also a great metaphor for the sophisticated infrastructure that we're inherited from our ancestors...complete with its socio-psycho-cultural matrix? I think a writer who is full of idealism (that's my attraction to your work) as well as one who endeavours to make sense of the incomprehensible bonkers-ness of it all, has much more weight. Of course, I see all that you do, too - this is about relationality (even though Microsoft doesn't seem to recognize that word).

It's no surprise to me that The Guardian (or similar) at once recommends a healthy tuna salad and reports the abominable nature of the fishing industry; it's more shocking that you have reached this point and only highlight the paradox rather than have anything deeper to say. Informed readers aren't oblivious to the many contradictions and hypocrisies in which they can flourish or fall.

Your knowledge, coupled with your power as an articulate and well-known writer, offers you a responsibility to soften the potential blow ("real" facts about catastrophe reeled off in your article is simply that well-known journalistic tool, sensationalism). Can you offer solutions...come back to your fellow inhabitants...rather than beautifully present heartbreaking and bleak summaries of impending extinction, that leaves some of us clutching for the Kleenex and Seroxat, rather than feeling elated and aspiring for excellence and betterment? And not for the sake of sugar-coating and the nicey-nice, but for tenderness and a sense of "we're all in this together"ness? We all need a continued sense of wonder that you so elegantly express when in the presence of wilderness and the animal kingdom. We are as majestic as those phenomena and deserving of as much respect. It's not apparent in your tone that you agree...directly from the Pulpit of Doom.

....unless I'm being terribly naive and Monbiot has evolved into a brand whose USP features lamentation, sorrow and that last bastion of hope for mankind? I thought I could watch any new channel for that.

Awaiting a reply,

Mark

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

The Bee & The Butterfly


A Sea Shanty

A boy stands feet together before his Majesty, sand sinking up between his toes. The string from a balloon dashes above and around his head, begging to be let go as the many fingers of the wind clutch at it. He smiles softly and shares his attention between its wild yellow thrashes and the crashing waves that gain momentum, threatening licks at his ankles and lower legs. His thinking softens, the larger part of his mind already immersed and occupied within the ocean's fiery gemstone blues and crested white kisses.

Hours go by, perhaps a decade or so, perhaps no time at all. He will only dare to reason again once the strange trance subsides and recedes. For now, the singular yellow balloon tosses in the curling gusts, like a young shark urgent to gain over its prey, conducting a slippery rhythm from the excited wind.

Barely perceptible crystal stars of salt dust the boy's lips, like early spring pollen on 2 petals of a red flower, and he moistens them with 3 considered licks of his tongue. And did he just miss the sight of a dolphin...or a whale, revealing its muscular form between triangles of water? He resumes his focus, promising by a slight frown not be distracted again. He even pledges not to blink. He wants to become the dolphin, if only for a second. He wants to know what it sees, and where will it sleep tonight, and how. Is the dolphin's vision the same as when the boy is submerged and attempts a glance through the wobbling glass without the defiant tilt of his head allowing his ears to drink the water?

He doesn't like to hear what they teach at school. Numbers and facts about the sea bed, the rocks, why there is water and from what matter it's composed, when it evaporates, or might flood low places. It matters much less than these naked moments of ragged wild silence.

Existing in 2 worlds as the coast line relentlessly defines itself, his feet enjoy the impression of the collision. Rather than a line, it is just a restrained spill of the waves, teasing... like the vagueries of the poet, feeding each other like lovers at a banquet, marrying and separating, relentlessly. The intimacy of the sea is not diminished  by the 1,000s of pairs of eyes that have soaked it in. It belongs to no-one, it doesn't need to. And still, it is not unlike a hopeless animal caged in a zoo... gazing sadly at the shore, and menacingly, with a dark primal heart in its blue twinkling eyes, capable of swallowing buildings, continents, promises.

For now, its loose invitation apparently extends to the boy and his yellow balloon, absorbing him into its private circle. The still boy, the exotic tango of the balloon, the sea busying itself  adorning them both, baptising them perhaps, with illusory eternity or some more beguiling gift. The sea and its many blue pencils draw boundaries around definitions of freedom, isolation, of tremendous union that the boy has heard about in handed-down fairy-tales.

Suddenly, he laughs absurdly. This blue watery soup before him seems silly, unknowable. The balloon seems to nod in agreement then continues dancing idiotically, its yellow hips at odds against the tulip blue sky. He looks at the end of his finger, bloated and pale as the string has tightened. Ah...and another glistening metallic lump diminishes as he turns to look...has he missed the dolphin again?

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Why Kale Really Is A Superfood

Credit: sondibruner.com

There are many things in life that I am proud of. However, the greatest must be that I have got my dad to drink smoothies. Not some flouncy soft-core syrupy foppish frappé (that's basically just melted ice cream) - I'm talking home-made rustic (Morphy Richards wand) with kale, turmeric and kiwis. Kale, turmeric and kiwis are 3 species that have never been unearthed by Planet Poppa before. And not only drinking them, but he's actually asking me to make them.

Nothing about my dad screams smoothie to you. He turns 71 at the end of this year, reads AutoExpress and lives for football. His dad was a miner from the North East. He has never heard of Gillian McKeith and wouldn't forgive her if he had witnessed the way she treated KitKats.

Since I was catapulted from the outer galaxies in to this family 35 years ago, I have challenged everything my parents have done and said. Annoying, awkward - that's me. Some invisible force has propelled me to shine a light on everything they do and show them that my way is superior. Even when presented with my mum's favourite brisket stew, that had simmered away for hours then lovingly finished with a nostalgic-looking crust, my face would contort as if it was a pouch of Felix.

So how did I peel my Pop's taste-buds away from Sprite and midnight glasses of semi-skimmed milk to this fine oxidant-busting beverage?  Simple: I shared the joy!

Normally, I would hammer my way around the house...be aghast at 99% of the things they did and never alight the soapbox (I blame the Aries in me). But I've just been approaching things in a more joyful way. I love smoothies, so Pops...wanna try some? Magic. From a place of floating around on flimsy dinghies in the vast blackened parental oceans of life, we're suddenly, if briefly, rowing together, smiling,......with bits of kale stuck between our teeth.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Get Rich or Die Studyin'


Tonight was the 3rd week into my study group for Napoleon Hill's Think & Grow Rich. The themes of this week's chapters (since Week 3 and 4 have been rolled into one)... are entitled Imagination (tick), Organised Planning (what happened to Week 3?), Persistence (tick) and Decision (double tick - I ordered a burrito, followed by nachos). The author reminds us in no uncertain terms that those who lack decisive action and quiver in uncertainty are doomed to a penniless life. Or in his terms, "will not succeed in any undertaking". Harsh.

Napoleon Hill wasn't the only one eager to have his opinion heard. While a few of us were chatted about what being rich means, a pair of beady eyes bored holes into the air around us. Then as our discussion branched off between 2 of us, he erupted...with a violent declaration that we were all wasting our time. My friend and I looked at each other, then looked at him. He continued, with an incredulous expression, telling us that everything was "in here" (poking his own head) and that he didn't need anyone else. I eyed up the empty pint glass that sat gloomily before him.

"No man is an island!" I graciously declared hoping that the attempt at melodrama would dissolve any escalating aggression. But to my dismay, his response was defiant and sufficiently animated:

"I am!" and without irony, "I am a painter and sculptor!". Then, more cheerfully, "I'm as mad as a box of frogs". I was mostly surprised that this was the first time I'd heard the expression being used self-referentially. But perhaps that's what islands are destined to have to do.

Then, after a short pause, regurgitated more instructions: "You -- *pointing to my bewildered friend* --- need to get on with your life, and YOU --- *turning to me*---need to F*** off!"

My poetic exclamation had obviously done nothing to sedate him or gentrify the situation. But I somehow succeeded in moistening the vile glue of this strange conversation envelope and posting it back from whence it came (an unnameable monstrous island)...then the box of frogs gathered his coat and hat. Even deranged amphibians need clothes.