house of happy

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Friday, 21 November 2008

Permed or Straight?

To be clear: I'm talking about the land; I mean permaculture. We like permaculture, we do. We have the books, we have the films and we have the friends. We like the essence, we support the principles. Our children discuss the folly of fertilisers and recognise nitrogen-fixing plants. We are all on the band wagon. The whole truth? We are also a bit scared of the permaculture... culture. It's so intense.

Look at us. Really, we know nothing of working the land or producing our own food. We can't tell a tomato seed from a pepper. We have never had a vegetable garden (except in Nairobi where we planted stuff and instantly forgot about it, and remembered only when Nikita, then 5-year old, pulled out several shrivelled carrots; they were the size of small wax crayons; nothing else had grown). We have no clue about weeds or bugs. We might (perhaps) recognise the odd oak, but not much more. At this point Moona will tell me to speak for myself. Fine, just to add that, to date, I managed to kill every potted plant that was left in my care.

And now we have almost half a hectare, all lush south-facing garden-to-be that has been waiting for a loving gardener for the past 30 years. And what a job our predecessors did: they are legendary in the village for their fruit, their wine, their vegetables, their endless hard work, their vision. The stories never end.

How then to fill in the glorified footsteps of Senhor Felix? “Watch the neighbours” - says the village. “Map your land, build your swales, plant your food forest, mulch-mulch-mulch” - intones the permaculture crowd. We are frozen in the cross-lights.

The neighbours do things that, in a permaculturist's eyes, are akin to putting out cigarettes on the mother's breast that fed you before sending her into orbit strapped to a firework. They use pesticides and chemical fertilisers. They irrigate massively. They scrape the land bare and build biomass bonfires. Everything is scorched before re-planting. One such fire, I was told, burned everything above ground and then went deep under and fed on roots, and continued to smoulder. It kept popping up in odd places for days afterwards; the firemen had to be called before it reached the Algarve.

In the other corner is the stuff much raved-about in perma-lore. This, we realise with a shudder, will scandalise the Alto Minho to such an extent that pitchforks and torches would not be unthinkable. Planting mimosa – a nitrogen-fixing plant – seen locally as the lowest, most disgusting weed? Leaving brambles and leaves on the ground, to rot and turn into mulch? Covering the land with cardboard to prevent the regrowth of weeds? Building swales? Scattering lime powder and wood ash onto the land to enrich it? Throwing seed mixtures everywhere to create untidy food forests? Then, horror of horrors, peeing on one's most prized plants to give them extra-nutrients?

We clearly need to tread carefully. At the moment there are tolerant smiles and good will on both sides. These may later be replaced by much head-shaking and a measure of distaste. And the question is: at what point thereafter would our farmer-neighbours, or the perma-folk, or both, write us off for good? What to do? What to do?

For now, I only know two things we won't do: won't buy the chemicals; will also refrain from peeing on the prize-peas. The rest remains up in the air. And maybe, maybe some day the land will tell us.


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