Saturday, December 8, 2012

Settling in and planting a small plot

December 7

We’ve moved in. I think we’ll be very happy in our own place despite the lack of many comforts and conveniences – no flush toilet, only an outdoor privy, no electricity, no hot shower unless we heat water on the stove and put it in the plastic camp shower. But we have beauty all around us, darkness and silence at night, good soil and water and plenty of sun and rain. Eventually we’ll probably have solar hot water, electricity and the internet.

My gardening workstation right off the porch. Could also serve as a tiki bar.

The view from our bed.

Brick wood stove with cast iron oven. Haven't baked anything yet but it's big enough for pizza.
Waiting to get electricity gives us the opportunity to explore other ways to meet our energy needs. It would be easy to simply connect to the grid, install the electric shower, get an electric pump to provide water for irrigation. For now we burn a kerosene lamp and a battery charged LED camp light for our nighttime use. I have a wonderful solar flashlight that someone gave me when I was “walking for the climate.”
We have one small solar panel that will charge Guy’s iPod but not much else. We hope to add a couple more panels and some storage batteries as our friend Mark, at Gaia Grove near Gainesville, Florida, showed us. From his years of experience aboard boats he learned many things, including how to use solar energy for light, radio and a fan.

Last weekend we spent the day planting a 200 sq. feet area according to the agroflorest principles that Guy and Sofia learned at the workshop in October. We had the help of one of our closest neighbors, Felipe. We planted mostly small fruit trees and vegetables of all kinds. Hopefully I'll be able to post more photos as the plants  develop but here are a few from last Saturday.

Guy and Felipe begin the work.

Sofia joins them. Straw hut, privy and Peugeot in the background, mango tree to the right,
babaçu palms center and left.

Work progresses, granddaughter Camila plays alongside. Access bridge to the property in the back.

Sofia adds organic fertilizers to hole for planting a tree.
Rows of vegetables will be covered with straw to hold in moisture and protect from sun.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Mushrooms and a rainbow

Another short update to share a couple of photos.

I've gotten to know the mushrooms in Eastern PA pretty well and have enjoyed eating several delicious varieties. But I don't know my mushrooms here in the Central Plateau region. I know there are psychedelic 'shrooms that grow in cow dung. Yesterday I found these gorgeous specimens pushing up through the leaves in the woods next to our homesite. Iridescent blue butterflies flew around while I went over to check these out, but were gone by the time I got my camera.

The stripped down cerrado is still beautiful! The trees are eucalyptus and the road is the dirt road that leads to our farm.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


Reflections from the blogger

What’s the point of posting for all to see and read the little facts of our life here on the Areias farm? Why tell our story, which might end up being very ordinary or even an abysmal failure? Who cares if we plant a few vegetables and a dozen trees on an acre-plot high on the central Brazilian plateau?

These are age-old questions for the writer who shares her own experience with her readers. Even a letter writer has to choose how much to tell about his own troubles and successes rather than sticking to more objective matters. And today it’s the email writer, the facebook poster, and the bloggist who walk the line between writing about other people, historical or scientific facts, or impersonal humor, and spilling their own guts and singing their own praises. 

I’ve taken my cues from a lifetime of reading - my own experience of learning about life from that intimate sharing that poets and novelists and essayists offer as they tell me about what it’s like to be them.
So I’m choosing to trust that our sharing of our life here might be worth something to our readers, whether it be information about the Brazilian Cerrado, and permaculture and agroforestry, or insight into the lives of retired ex-hippie activists, or inspiration for this age of climate change and 99% awakening, or simply entertainment.  

A report on the Agroforestry Course by Sofia Hart

About two weeks ago Guy and I attended a 4-day course on Agroforestry. Agroforestry is a way of farming that takes into account the needs of the earth, so that rather than just exploiting and depleting the soil and surrounding resources, farmers enrich the soil organically and grow food in cycles and combinations that complement each other. It is "pluriculture" (vs. monoculture - the big plantations of soy, corn, etc.) in that farmers are planting vegetables, legumes, root vegetables, fruits and nut trees, plants for biomass, and other kinds of trees in the same area.  Agroforestry exists in many varieties around the world, but in its manifestation here in Brasilia, we might plant things such as banana trees, mahogany, pineapples, coffee, tomatoes, manioc, lettuce, and arugula all in the same area.  The short cycle plants (the vegetables, etc), will produce first, then the medium cycle (bananas), and then the long cycle (mahogany). But while you wait for the longer cycle ones to grow, you can benefit from the shorter ones in the same plot.  I thought the concept of agroforestry was brilliant, but I witnessed just how labor-intensive it is. In the wake of the course, I planted a wonderful little garden at the farm.  So far, I've planted tomatoes, lettuce, arugula, okra, mustard, collards, cucumber, radish, and nasturtium (an edible flower).  I still plan on planting more things, including some flowers around the house.  In a couple of months, we'll have more vegetables than we can consume, and brilliant flowers blooming beside the porch.

The two photos, taken at Brasilia's Botanical Garden, model the agroforestry that many sustainable farmers are using to recover the Cerrado while growing food and trees for timber.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

House finished - first garden beds planted

Just a quick update for those who check:

Looking down at the house from the West. 
Note jaboticaba tree at left - it's full of ripening fruit.

From the North. The water line is being laid today and tomorrow - soon the tank you can 
see at the back will be full and we'll finally have running water. 

 First garden beds, full of lettuce, radishes, arrugula, collards, mustard and more. At the front of the photo is a two cubic foot hole for our first trees: 
papaya, coffee and pitanga, I think. 

And here is Guy at our bedroom window - he's busy today sanding the concrete walls in order to paint next week. I'll be waxing the glazed cement floors in the meantime. As you may remember, we're not too happy with so much cement, but we needed to move ahead and this was the best we could do right now. From now on we hope to be greener, using more Earth-friendly materials. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Fruits of the Cerrado

First an update on the house - we're adding a porch around three sides of the house, plus a water tower that will double as a shower room. We don't have running water yet but hope to set up a gravity-delivered system drawing from the stream that comes down from the spring above my son's house. Photos will follow when we start working on that project, hopefully next week.

The tiles should be in place by now and the porch floors - glazed cement - will be set by next Tuesday or Wednesday. Notice in the photo below how green the vegetation is becoming now that the rainy season has really arrived. Soon Guy will have to be cutting the grass with his scythe.

The rains also bring in the fruit and one of the first to arrive is the wild cashew fruit of the cerrado. My daughter, Sofia, collected a bag-full yesterday morning - here she is removing the pulpy fruit from the shell that holds the cashew nut, one nut per fruit.

Sofia and Guy made hand-churned cashew fruit ice-cream for Victor's birthday.

One of the goals of our new life project is to find ways to use the products of the cerrado that grow around us. For local people to stay on the land they need to be able to meet their economic needs as well as finding activities that are satisfying and pleasurable. You could argue that as retirees with a small but steady income (our SS checks) we have the privilege of enjoying the activities of collecting fruits of the cerrado and making ice-cream, jam, and other products, while such activities would be very labor intensive if they were intended to support one's family. Very true - but we see examples around the world of cooperatives developed by local people to ensure the economic viability of this kind of project. Hopefully we'll show many other products as we explore them in the next few months and over the years. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

House almost done - on to the planting

The building is coming to an end - the little house itself is complete but our friendly masons are putting in a porch on two and a half sides of the house, partly to keep the rain out, but also because it will be so pleasant. 

      Front of house, facing South.

       North face of house.

Despite the negative aspects of the current local building techniques (high carbon footprint for factory-made bricks and cement due to fossil fuels for baking, processing and transportation, and land degradation for extraction of materials), we are pleased with the simplicity of our house. We are installing a water tank that will be filled by gravity-delivered water; we will most likely have dry/composting toilets, solar heated water, and a draining system that will recycle gray water for irrigation. We plan to use solar cooking as much as possible, with gas and wood stoves to supplement.

And we are moving into the planting phase. This past week we paid a fine young biologist, Juã Pereira, who specializes in agro-foresty, for an onsite consultation, and next week Guy and Sofia, my daughter, will take a four-day course in agro-forestry. More on that in a future post. We are grateful to our friends from Lepoco who in July gave us a generous donation to help with this project.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Reviewing the motivation: Plan B 4.0

Sept 23
A Challenge Without Precedent
Given the need to simultaneously stabilize climate, stabilize population, eradicate poverty, and restore the earth’s natural systems, our early twenty-first-century civilization is facing challenges that have no precedent. Rising to any one of these challenges would be taxing, but we have gotten ourselves into a situation where we have to effectively respond to each of them at the same time, given their mutual interdependence. And food security depends in reaching all four goals.                                from Plan B 4.0, Lester Brown

Let it be recorded that this year our first real rain, with thunder and lightening, and significant downpour, occurred on this date. A typical time for the rains to start. Now the trees and other plants will respond with flowers and fruit, and new growth everywhere.

What will happen with our unfinished house?There is still some plastering to do on the outside of the building, and the floor must be cemented and glazed, after which it needs to dry for three or four days. We’ve moved back to my son’s house – about 1000 feet away - for the week, to keep my daughter company, and it’s just as well. We don’t know yet but the straw hut may leak with this kind of rain.

Have you read Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, by Lester Brown? Published in 2009, while I was walking from New Orleans to the Canadian border along US Route 11 (“For All the Grandchildren”), Plan B first summarizes the major catastrophes threatened by climate change and continued population growth. Food, says Lester Brown, is the weak point that may very well bring down our civilization. In the second part of the book, Brown offers the major solutions that could mitigate the devastation that looms over humanity.

When I read Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, by Mark Lynas, in the Fall of 2008, I absorbed the predictions of major and worldwide devastation due to climate change. I found these forecasts frightening. I worried especially about my own grandchildren and then all the little ones of the world, the anawim, including the poverty-ridden peoples who would be affected the most and the soonest by rising sea-levels, droughts, forest fires, desertification, and food shortages. My outrage at the indifference and greed - that were, and still are, keeping world leaders from enacting the changes required to allay climate change and its consequences - led me to take the 1,100 mile walk.

I needed such a walking meditation, an action that allowed me to calm my own anxieties while communicating with people along the way, sharing the message, a wake-up call that may have been a tiny part of the shift in consciousness among Americans who now rate climate change as a major concern.

Now, four years later, I read Lester Brown’s account of the situation described by …  - same scientific data, same predictions – and realize that many of the events they forecast have already come to pass, such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and the increase in forest fires in the US Southwest. However, Climate Change conferences come and go and still the world refuses to mobilize to the degree that’s necessary to avert catastrophe. It seems ever more likely that immense suffering, especially for the anawim, lies in the close future.

But I am no longer overly anxious.

The effects of my walking meditation linger on. Guy and I have come to a place where we can do our small part: lower our carbon footprint, plant trees in a sensitive area, grow our own food, join others in experiments with solar cooking, building with earth (bio-construction), and other alternative tools and technologies. Permaculture and agroforestry hold promise for the recovery of soils, water, and habitat and the sequestering of carbon.   

Friday, September 21, 2012

Preview of Guy's privy

Have you been wondering what Guy's up to? Perhaps he'll write about it but here are the pictures. The privy will be complete in a few days. It's a race to see which will get to use first, the house or the privy.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


Sept 19    Last night was cold – in our tent inside the straw hut, we slept in our clothes under three blankets. I remember such nights here in the middle of winter – late June thru mid-August – but by September the nights were always warmer and the days were hot. People around here are saying that it’s hotter than usual – high 80’s, even 90. I suspect this is our version of climate change. As long as it keeps raining we’ll be fine, but we’re on the edge of the region where desertification is likely to occur with advancing global warming. This is why we plan to build cisterns and rain catchment systems despite the fact that the local people consider it unnecessary.

We have no piped water yet – all our water is brought up from the stream in buckets.

 We’ve been drinking straight from the stream as there are no houses upstream and the spring is within sight, about a mile west of our homestead. However, two or three times a day cattle comes down to drink and muddies the water. The best time to draw water is early in the morning. And we will buy a water filter in the next few days. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we’re not already full of parasites or other disease. No tummy aches so far. We took our cues from the local workers who drink straight from the stream.
Today the workers are treating us to a “galinhada” – a big pot of rice, chicken and corn. On the last day, hopefully day-after-tomorrow, we’ll treat them to a festive meal. They’re a good bunch – friendly, they tell stories and jokes, and ask hundreds of questions about the States, the English language, our former occupations, relationships, etc. They know that we’re environmentalists and make endless comments – both serious and humorous – about our food, our systems, and our attitudes. They talk about religion a lot, debating creationism versus evolution – were the first people Adam and Eve or were they monkeys, and creationism versus the big bang; and the true nature of Jesus, and of so-called prophets such as Muhammed. They ask me if I believe in God, if humans come from monkeys, if homosexuality is a sin against God. I answer honestly – no, yes, no – and all is well. 
One of them is the typical evangelical believer, so common currently in Brazil, replacing the complacent and easy-going Roman Catholics. They think that the world’s greatest preachers are American, starting with Billy Graham. It scares me.
Spring here begins officially this weekend, while for our friends in the northern hemisphere it will be the Autumn Equinox. Each holds its own beauty and promise.         

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A preview of our house

Today the internet is very slow and I'm having trouble sending much of a blog. So here's a picture of our house as it stood several days ago. By now it's covered and most of the walls are plastered. Hopefully it will be ready by the end of the week and if the internet cooperates we'll send more photos.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Inspired by the Nearings

September 7, 2012

This is the big week – we’ve moved onto our own little piece of the property. Until now we’ve availed ourselves of Victor’s hospitality and stayed at the main house on the farm, built in the same place and style as the house my ex and I built in 1974, and lived in until 1980. Zeke was just a year old when that house was built, and Sofia and Victor were born while we lived there. Now the grandchildren visit.

        My daughter, Sofia, and granddaughter, Camila.

Helen and Scott Nearing inspire us as we begin our life in the country, and we hope to emulate them by living simply and sustainably. Back in the 60’s, when as retired professionals Helen and Scott moved from the city to the countryside in Vermont, the cutting edge of enlightened living meant back-to-the-earth simplicity, organic gardening and building one’s own house and infrastructure. Today we continue to value voluntary simplicity and organic gardening but look to permaculture, ‘agro-floresta’ and bio-construction as the means to lower our carbon footprint, and live in a way that could be shared by most of the Earth’s population (99%). We intend to inhabit our space in a way that will preserve the soil, the water, and the air for our grandchildren and their grandchildren unto the seventh generation.
For many reasons – because the rainy season will arrive soon, because we’ve never built a house before, because Guy is still learning Portuguese, and we’re both educating ourselves about the appropriate techniques for building and farming in this part of the world – we’ve decided to contract our first living space to a local building team. They will use mostly the conventional methods and materials for this area: a squared-off building of bricks and concrete.

We have no electricity or running water for now. The building crew must fetch their own water from the small creek that runs by our place, about one hundred feet down a steep path. We too will fetch our water every day, but we’re looking at building a bicycle pump as soon as we can. The model for which we have printed plans can pump 10 gallons a minute on a level area – water in a pond to a site at the same level – or as little as 1 gallon a minute on a steep incline. I expect our situation to fall between those two points. Eventually we plan to collect rain water, and to install electricity as a backup.

For cooking we’ll use my original solar cooker, which I’ve had for several years now, supplemented by a two-burner gas stove. The sun at this time of the year is always bright and hot from about 10 am to 3 pm, and will cook beans, rice, soup and even bake bread. Soon we’ll have a wood stove as well, built into the house, but I hope to continue to utilize mostly solar cooking.

Guy is completing two projects – our first privy and a kitchen table. He can tell you about them the next time we post.

This morning the macaws flew over our straw hut, chattering as usual in their rough cawing voices. As we drank our coffee, sitting outside in the sun, a brilliant turquoise bird with a coal black face alit on a tree nearby and sang a welcoming song for us. Last night, the first night we slept here, the stars were magnificent in the dark sky, and looking at it from outside the straw hut was magical as the light from the lantern shown through the lacy pattern of the palm fronds. We snuggled in our tent with three blankets to keep us warm because the winter air at 3000 feet gets down close to 50° F.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Save the Cerrado

August 31, 2012
Experimental stage. I have just created this blog - there will be many changes in the coming weeks. I hope to post at least once a week and to include many photos. Below is a posting that I wrote two weeks ago. I expect that Guy and I will publish many photos, such as this one that shows him clearing the area where our first house will be built. Behind him are babaçu palm trees.

August 19, 2012
Today is our anniversary – Guy and I have been married for 17 years. The week we got married we signed the lease, and during the following months we set about preparing for the opening of the Green Café.
In something of a parallel, this coming week we hope to contract with Joaci and Ariston to build our first house, and then we’ll prepare in the next months, before the rains arrive in full force, to occupy it as our new home.
Despite the extreme dryness of the season, for it doesn’t rain here from mid-May until mid-September, life flourishes around us in many manifestations: two new calves, born about a week apart, follow their black mothers about on wobbly legs; a large chestnut horse that waited at the gate yesterday until someone let him in as they passed through, is keeping company today with the farm’s mare (the one that gave birth to a filly on our anniversary five years ago); the mango and cashew trees flower copiously;

and at night the chorus of frogs, crickets and nocturnal birds echoes as loudly as ever.
The wind blows continuously, too much for comfort, slamming doors and raising dust clouds, so that a fine layer of dust lies atop the piano. But I like the loud whisper of the wind in the swaying eucalyptus trees and well as its rustling in the fronds of the babaçu palms near our little piece of land. The wail of the wind in the plains of Montana scared me and made me think of lonely women who felt life wither inside of them as they listened to that howl day after day with no mother or sister or friend to comfort them. This wind is gentler and more friendly, though it can get tiresome, like a friend who goes on too long.
We’re staying in Victor’s house for a few more days, until the 31st, which is our deadline to be out of here. Then we’ll sleep and cook and wash up on our own place, in and around the straw hut. Part of me is excited – it will be an adventure and we’ll be living practically in the outdoors – but I feel cautious as well because it will be uncomfortable and might be somewhat dangerous. The recent spate of theft means that there are unscrupulous people in the area, who will take the opportunity to steal what they can given the chance. If they also enjoy the sport of scaring and hurting people that could be horrible. But fortunately that hasn’t been the case in this part of the region.
I work at spreading peaceful energy and thoughts of kindness and goodwill around the house and the whole farm. I took a walk up the road to where I could see the hills and valleys of our Rio Areias headwaters, and I stretched out my arms asking for  blessings for all its inhabitants.     
May nothing evil cross this door …
and, though these sheltering walls are thin,
may they be strong to keep hate out
and hold love in.

Breakfast – coffee and oatmeal
Lunch – rice, beans*, pan-fried sweet potato, fried eggs, guacamole
Supper – angel hair pasta with homemade tomato sauce, lettuce salad, avocado dessert**
*Brown beans – Usually we eat black beans but in Goiás pinto or brown beans are more popular. Some Goianos believe that black beans, which are eaten in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador da Bahia, make men less virile than the brown beans, though no statistics would suggest that the population in Rio or Salvador is increasing at a lesser rate than in Goiás.
**Avocado dessert – Brazilians eat their avocados with sugar, either in smoothies with milk and other ingredients, or mashed with lemon and sugar, which is what we had for dessert this evening. We’ve been eating avocado twice a day because of the abundance; they’re rotting by the dozen under the trees in the orchard.