Friday, September 7, 2018

Peaceful on the farm

Orange bougainvillea outside our bedroom window.

September 7, 2018
In troubled times it's peaceful on the farm.

"I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief... 
 For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free." (Wendell Berry)

Once again we're at the end of the dry season (May to September) and hoping for rain to replenish the creeks, the springs, the water table. Our little town of Cocalzinho has already experienced one day without water, and the electric company is charging extra (red flag) because water in the reservoirs that provide hydroelectric power is low. The whole region sits uneasily on the unpredictable area where climate change could result in more yearly rain (to the southwest) or less rain (to the northeast).

Moon rise over the dry cerrado.

What shall I tell you about our lives on the farm since November 2017, when I wrote my last blog entry? In January we discovered a new fruit in the woods, above the bridge we cross when we walk to my son's house - it's pretty and tasty and abundant though we never found out it's name.

In March Guy and I went to the 8th World Water Forum which took place in Brasilia. At first we were excited and hopeful that we would learn much and make connections that would help us in our work with the association we helped create in Cocalzinho, Associacão Nascentes do Cerrado (see Facebook page). Soon we realised however that the Forum was run by corporations, banks and governments with little room for activists that might challenge the establishment. Do corporations want to maintain a sustainable supply of water? Of course - but on their terms, for their profit. Small farmers beware. At the alternative water forum, sponsored by university faculty and students, we saw a film depicting a situation in Peru where an agrobusiness at the foot of the mountains, raising asparagus to ship to Europe, funnelled water from the hills above in cement channels, leaving small farms and pastures high and dry. And another film about Nestle's predatory grab of water around the globe.

We met a few wonderful groups, doing good work protecting headwaters, teaching agroforestry and permaculture, and modelling grassroots techniques of saving and storing water. A group of artists - women who embroider panels showing the rivers and waters of their towns and regions - blew me away. It's a traveling project that this group takes to communities where they teach women  to create their own panels. I'll show you a few that were exhibited in the National museum in Brasilia:

We've continued to work on our cob house, with the help of our neighbor Marli. We finished the walls, built a porch, and worked on the floors.
The back walls of the house

Our chickens enjoying the shade on the new porch

The final layer of the floor

One of our favorite outings was up to the remote road in the hills behind our farm where we found a supply of sand to add to our soil for the floor mixture.

Sand around the road up in the hills                 
Sunset on the way back home
At the end of May we witnessed up close the truck strike that paralysed Brazil for over a week, stopping deliveries of fuel, food, and most other amenities. The majority of the population supported the strikers who were demanding lower diesel prices because the increases had reached an untenable level. Brazil adds very high taxes to fuel prices, close to 50%. 

People from Cocalzinho marching to support the truck drivers - "Together for a better Brazil, We are all truck drivers."
We traveled to the States for a family reunion in July, and visited Zeke and family in Massachusetts, and Sofia and family in Maryland, as well as Guy's cousins and other friends in the Lehigh Valley.

Browne Clan Family Reunion 2018, Catskills, NY 

Back home on the farm we find peace with our trees and flowers, and animals.

Bougainvillea outside the window, quaresma in the background
Cows in the babaçu pasture behind our property.

Susie and Lolita who watched over the farm while we were away.

Signing off, Greta and Guy

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

November 2017

One of the oldest houses in Cocalzinho

Time has flown by and the rainy season has arrived once more. We give thanks every time it rains because the sustainability of our area is in question as headsprings collapse due to agricultural practices, and streams shrink and sometimes disappear. While we’re aware of climate change around the world, we’re uncertain of its effects in this part of Brazil, but the trend seems to include less rain each year and a decrease of water in the aquifer that sustains this large biome called the Cerrado. Guy and I are working with a few other local people to found an association - Associação Nascentes do Cerrado – that intends to dedicate its efforts, among other things, to restoring the headsprings of our river- the Rio Corumbá. (We have a Facebook page: Associação Nascentes do Cerrado - Asnace)
A few members of our association took a field trip to look at the headsprings of our river.
Thick woods should surround this area where we found a spring that has mostly dried up.
Lacking a good fence to protect the area, cattle break up and tamp down the soil, and winds and flooding wash sand and soil into the stream bed where they choke it.  This is one of three springs at the very top of the Rio Corumbá system - as it dries up the river's flow decreases.
Our group requested an audience with County Council to present an official request that the council members vote against a developer's request to expand the city's urban limits. We know that this developer intends to clear the land around a lush spring and wetland that currently lies outside the city limits.

On the farm we see the results of our first five years on this land. (Guy points out that five years is longer than a college education.) Trees that we planted have begun to bear fruit: bananas, coffee, pitanga, and oranges. 

We have four varieties bananas growing near our house: prata, nanica, maçã, and marmelo.
These are nanica, and they ripen all at once so we had to give more than half of them away.
We are self-sufficient in eggs year round, and in milk during the time that our goats are producing – that would be in the ten months after they give birth. Polly had her second set of twins early this month, and Nellie is supposed to give birth in January, though I see no evidence  - maybe she’s just fat and sassy.

We’ve lived in our brick and mortar house for these five years and it truly feels like home. We designed the house so that we would experience the elements of nature – the view of the sky in the day and at night, sun, moon, and the feel of wind, rain, lightning – while still having enough protection to stay dry and safe. Those of you who’ve been here during a fierce rainstorm know that we’re truly in the midst of it, but also when the sun shines and the breeze blows gently, or when the moon is full, or the night very silent and dark, we experience it all. We’re not always comfortable – right now my feet are cold because the day is wet and dismal – but I prefer some discomfort rather than feeling cut off from the outdoors.

Buit-in openness - October 2012.

Our first house viewed from the site that now holds the cob house.

In the meantime the last wall of the cob house has been completed!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

 July 2017
Happy Vacation Days
                        (This is an essay I wrote in Portuguese* to commemorate the World Day of the Environment on June 5. I read this passage to the County Council members in Cocalzinho on June 9.)

We all live in the environment. Our families, our children, our animals – all of us live in the midst of the natural environment. Air, earth, water, plants, woods, the sun, the rain, the wind, all of this is our natural world.
You don’t even think about it – you walk out into the middle of the environment. It’s all there from the very start. When we were children we learned to take for granted the earth, the air, the water, the sun, the rain.
It’s like our mother, always there, always supporting us. We have Mothers’ Day, we give thanks for our mothers, and promise them our love.
It happens that sometimes we do things that hurt or damage our mother. She seems so strong, so powerful, but she’s not always so perfect and sweet. However we recognize that she gave us our life, took care of us. Worthy sons and daughters look after their mothers.
Likewise worthy human beings look after the environment, take care of the earth, the water, the air. We recognize that our well-being, our very life, depends on Nature – and when we damage it we’re damaging our own selves. Bared earth no longer produces fruits, and the water dries up. Polluted water can no longer serve as drinking water, and impure air ends up killing. On our natural environment depends the viability of our living area and the very survival of our children and grandchildren. Let’s take care of it. 

We’re more than half a year into the incredible Trump-era and looking at the tearing up of many hard-won advances in the fields of social justice and the environment in the United States of America. It’s like the take-over by a ruthless agro-business of a piece of land that has been carefully tended for fifty years.

We live in something of an island here in the Cerrado of Central Brazil. Fifty miles away and creeping toward us are huge fields of soy and corn, and the tomato business regularly plows new tracts of land, several acres at a time, for a one-year crop, moving to a new tract the next year and leaving the abandoned land bare and fruitless. But right where we are small farmers still maintain their diversified lands – one or two hundred acres of pasture, orchards, vegetable gardens, and yearly subsistence crops of corn and manioc. And acres of shrub-studded cerrado and riparian woods still stand.

Our little fenced in half-acre within my son’s one-hundred acre farm is surrounded by pasture and woods. Cows stick their heads through the fence to nibble at the ‘greener’ grass on our side, and our chickens roam during their hours of afternoon freedom into the pasture as well as into the woods.  

Not long ago this 40-inch rattlesnake wandered onto our property, where the grass had been cut for hay, to bathe in the winter sun. Guy walked right past it, within ten inches, on his way back from the goat pen, and he reluctantly killed it, with a hoe, because of the danger it represents to us and all our animals.

The dry season has settled in, with temperatures around 70° F in the daytime and as low as 45° at night. The blue skies often have no clouds at all and the sun is very hot this close to the Equator (16˚ latitude south), though the breeze and shade keep us cool. Humidity varies between 30% in the daytime and 80% at night. There’s no danger yet of our water supply running out, but we remain watchful because we know that the water table is low and it might not rain for another three or four months. Our bananas are taking forever to ripen but the bougainvillea puts on a radiant show.

Banana prata - my favorite variety

Banana marmelo - good for frying and cooking green in stews
I planted this bougainvillea in 2013

We’ve welcomed several visitors in June and July. First was a couch surfer from nearby Anapolis, who rode his bike the 50 miles to spend the night in our cob house. It was his first experience as a couch surfer and our first as hosts.

José biked 80 miles from Anapolis to take advantage of our couch surfing offer (

Then came the long-awaited vist from my son, Zeke, who lives in the Boston area, and his two sons, Luke (14) and Isaiah (11). What a wonderful treat. Zeke first came to this farm when he was a baby, in 1974.

Zeke and Greta in 1974.

Luke, Guy, Greta, Isaiah and Zeke, in 2017
They stayed in the cob house.

Luke warms up in the morning sun.

Isaiah enjoys the shade in the afternoon.

My granddaughter, Camila, who lives in Brasilia, came out to the farm to spend several days with her cousins.

Camila and Isaiah feed the goats. 

Luke and Isaiah pick cotton - the large white stuff in the background isn't cotton, it's Greta's hair.

Lolita had a special surprise for us. 
This is before the fourth puppy was born - a full six hours later than the others.
I knew she was pregnant but thought the puppies wouldn’t arrive until late in July, two weeks after my grandsons' departure. But she was very antsy one night, keeping us awake, and on July 8 I realized that her behavior over the last couple of days probably meant she was due to whelp. Sure enough – that day she birthed four puppies, two males and two females, to everyone’s delight. She’s proving to be an excellent mother.

"Be careful with those babies, boys."

Cob house update

Work on the cob house stopped during the month of August – we’re preparing for the final wall to go up in August. But a lot happened in May and June.

Guy, the designer
Removing the support for the arch.
Greta tries out the new space.

Luke keeps his stuff in the semi-finished alcove.

The floor in these two areas got covered with another layer of cob.

We put in a cob bench in the living room. 
And this bench in the master bedroom.

Preview of plans for August

The final wall, to enclose the living room and mini-kitchen, should be up by the end of August. 
In addition to two doors we'll have two window in this wall.
Next photo from this angle will be very different. I'll miss the open space.

* Portuguese version (original)
Dia Mundial do Meio Ambiente – dia 5 de junho
Todos nós vivemos dentro do meio ambiente. Nossas familias, nossos filhos, nossos animais – todos vivemos no meio do ambiente. O ar, a terra, a água, as plantas, as matas, o sol, a chuva, o vento, tudo isso é o nosso ambiente.
A gente nem pensa - sai andando no meio do ambiente. Está tudo aí desde que nos demos por gente. Quando éramos crianças aprendemos a contar com o chão, o ar, a água, o sol, a chuva.
É como a mãe, sempre presente, sempre nos sustentando. Temos o dia das Mães, agradecemos a Deus por nossa querida mãe, prometemos amor a carinho a ela.
Acontece que às vezes fazemos coisas que ferem ou prejudicam a nossa mãe. Ela parece tão forte, tão poderosa, mas nem sempre é perfeita ou tão boazinha assim. Mas se pensarmos bem, foi ela que nos deu a vida, que cuidou de nós. O filho digno zela da mãe.
Assim tambem o ser humano digno cuida do meio ambiente, zela pela terra, a água, o ar. Reconhece que o seu bem estar, sua própria vida, depende da natureza, - e quando a prejudica está prejudicando a si mesmo. A terra desnudada deixa de produzir seus frutos, e as aguas secam. A água poluida não serve mais para beber, o ar impuro acaba matando.  Do nosso meio ambiente depende a viabilidade do nosso município e a própria sobrevivência dos nossos filhos e netos. Vamos cuidar.