Thursday, January 31, 2013

Nuisances and dangers

Jan 31

One of the principles of permaculture involves identifying the nuisances and dangers that your surroundings pose to your space and its inhabitants. Once identified, we include provisions to address them in the permaculture plans. Typical nuisances are noise, smells and visual blights. Dangers include theft, fire, flooding, and other weather related events. 

On our half acre plot we enjoy silence and pure air, and wonderful dark nights. Probably ants constitute  our greatest nuisance at this point and we're studying options to eradicate them. A little black ant with a fierce sting lives under our house and when the new inhabitants are kicked out to go establish their own community - which seems to happen once or twice a week at this time of the year - they come up into our bedroom.
The reddish worker drones of the black ant colony under our house. 
The swept-up dispersing ants that collected in our bedroom one afternoon.
Other insects plague us as well, such as the huge green caterpillars that eat the tender new leaves of our manioc (cassava, yuca) plants. I pull them off one by one to get rid of them. 
Caterpillars on manioc stems.
We also have grasshoppers on the citrus fruit trees, aphids, ants in the okra and probably some unidentified insects eating away at our produce and fruit. I have successfully sprayed the okra leaves with an infusion of tobacco and coconut soap.

So far the monkeys haven't become a nuisance - we actually really enjoy watching them when they occasionally pass through the trees along the creek corridor. But the mangoes on one of the trees close to the house are golden ripe and one recent morning I heard the monkeys chattering in the tree. If you look closely you'll see one of the monkeys as they beat a retreat. This little guy stood up to get a good look at me before he scampered away.
Monkey in the tree next to the mangos.

I've probably left out some of the nuisances but I'll move on to the actual dangers. The first week that we slept in our new house we were robbed. There really isn't a lot of crime in our area but drug-related crime is arriving from the cities and we believe that Guy's guitar and an empty propane tank were taken for their quick resale value. So we're upgrading the locks on our doors and windows, and we had this handsome gate put in right at the entrance to our property. This photo is looking out from the property toward the public road on the other side of the grassy area.  

Bridge over the creek at the entrance to our plot. 
Another danger is fire, that can sweep through dry pastures especially in the dry season.  As you can see in the photo, the area on both sides of the fences gets cleared regularly, usually a meter on each side.

Fire gap between the pasture (low, grazed grass) and our property (tall uncut grass that hasn't experienced
Guy's scythe yet). The climbing vine is a passion fruit plant. 
Right now it's raining a lot, one of the wettest months ever in the Brasilia area, but we have no significant flooding because we are high up on the central plateau. At most the roads might get washed out or a bridge swept away. But it's pretty flat here, with no developments on steep hill sides to be destroyed by mudslides as is the case elsewhere in Brazil.

Poisonous snakes represent a danger to keep in mind, but there's little we can do about them except to remain vigilant. Actually if we kept geese or guinea hens I'm told they eat the baby snakes. Lightening is another danger, killing more people than snakes, but again the solution is paying attention.

All in all, we feel quite safe and serene in our lovely home.

Friday, January 11, 2013


Jan 11

Just outside our kitchen, under the mango tree.
A bit more about mushrooms. Both of the films I watched just recently, Dirt and 2012: Time for Change, mention the work of mycelium, the network of fine white filaments that permeate the earth we walk upon and farm and pave over or coat 
with lawn. This vegetative part of fungus and mushrooms helps to form the 
soil by decomposing the organic remains of trees and other matter as it 
falls and returns to the earth.

Mushrooms have fascinated me for decades. I first became aware of their beauty and diversity on a damp fall afternoon as I wandered through a bit of woods in the Catskills. Everywhere I saw mushrooms and fungi of amazing shapes and colors, and I couldn’t restrain myself from collecting the finest specimens. I took them back to the cabin I was visiting and spread them out on the floor, becoming an amateur mycologist then and there. I’ve hunted and picked mushrooms in the Lehigh Valley and elsewhere, occasionally enjoying a gourmet omelet or stirfry with chanterelles, boletus or the humble puffball.

On a more controversial note, the narrating journalist of 2012, Daniel Pinchbeck, mentions the importance of mind altering experiences, often brought about by nature’s substances – eg. iboga in Africa and ayahuasca in South America – in bringing about the new consciousness necessary for deep cultural change. In this part of Brazil, similar in some ways to the highlands of Mexico, the sacred mushroom grows on cow dung. The local people don’t ingest it and as far as I know they don’t even talk about it. Once, about 33 years ago, I shared some here with a few city friends and would consider doing it again under the right circumstances. (I’ve started reading Simon G Powell’s book, The Psilocybin Solution: The Role of Sacred Mushrooms in the Quest for Meaning, to gain insight into his claims that the sacred mushroom should play a role in reconnecting our civilization to the Earth.)

But there are many other mushrooms popping up here and there – shelf mushrooms on logs and dying trees, little brown mushrooms in the fields and woods, and others like the beautiful yellow specimens that I am reposting from a couple of months ago. I have found no resources yet for learning about them and discovering if any of them are edible, but I do know that they are all performing the essential function of transforming organic matter into soil.

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Saturday, January 5, 2013

Reflections for the new year

 Jan 5, 2013

Cooking rice and lentils on our wood stove  
Four weeks without posting! I mean to post more often but things got in the way, I guess, among which, bouts of pain and hay fever, a theft at our house, and the holidays with family visiting from Brasilia.

One thing we have in abundance here is time to read, and we’ve downloaded numerous Kindle books on permaculture to help us develop our land in sustainable ways. Peter Bane’s The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country (2012-06-26, New Society Publishers. Kindle Edition), focuses primarily on gardens and farms in the US and Canada, so it leaves something to be desired for our rural area here in Brazil. But much is applicable and some of his analysis is universal. The following passages struck deep chords in me. The first helps explain my attraction to Brazil where a much larger percentage of the population remains connected to farming.

Today only 0.3% of Americans and 2.2% of Canadians derive their primary income from farming.  This is the smallest proportion of the population devoted to farming in the history of either nation or in the history of the world. No other societies have made our basic connection to the earth and the garnering of sustenance such a marginal specialty. Are we, as economists and prophets of progress proclaim, more evolved and more efficient, freeing up labor from the drudgery of farming to perform more complex and rewarding tasks in industry or the creative professions? Or have we so lost ourselves in thrall to the logic of the machine, that we will sacrifice everything to it — the quality of our food, our health, the land, even our very souls? 

This agro-forest bed planted on Dec 1 is doing really well.
Unfortunately “progress and efficiency” march on relentlessly in Brazil as well, and “the basic connection to the earth and the garnering of sustenance” is becoming “a marginal specialty.” Guy and I are part of an effort to reverse the trend toward huge monocultures and mechanized agriculture. We’re working with others to develop and model viable ways for young people and families to sustain themselves on small properties, raising much of their own healthy and diverse food. I believe this is a way to reclaim our souls.

Here’s the second passage from The Permaculture Handbook that I want to highlight, with its familiar critique of the suburbs and its surprising outlook for them.

The depression of the 21st century, outwardly visible from 2008 onward, has been the occasion of much writing on the link between energy supply, settlement patterns and the shaky basis of the US economy. Social critic and geographer James Howard Kunstler has called the suburbs “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.”  There can be little doubt that paving over much of the nation’s best agricultural land and cutting old growth forests to frame shoddily built McMansions was a tragedy of epic proportions, but the question is not whom to hang but what can be done with it now?
However disreputable its causes, the emptying out of many American cities and the spreading of the population over broad metropolitan regions marks a necessary and inevitable turn toward a state of lower social and technological complexity that will develop progressively as energy supplies decline. 

Guy can tell you how often I’ve remarked, when driving by large suburban properties in the US and gawking at the enormous lawns, that a whole third world village could feed themselves from that amount of land. Well maybe it’s the American suburbanites that will rise up as the new farmers, maybe it’s already happening. Our property here is about half an acre, most of which was pasture until we closed it in. We expect to raise enough vegetables, tubers and fruit to get by on if we had to, and if we raise chickens and perhaps a mama goat, fish, and rabbits, we’ll eat very well.

Our wonderful mango tree - don't you think you should start planning your visit?