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.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The dry season begins

May 2017

The dry season has arrived in central Brazil and the good news is that in our area the rainfall for the rainy season (October 2016-April 2017) surpassed each of the last three years according to Guy’s approximate measurements: 
2013/14 - ? millimeters (I'll fill this in as soon as I can.)
2014/15 – 1272 ml 
2015/16 – 1057 ml 
2016/17 – 1500 ml 
However we’re learning that the depletion of the water table in this area has been going on for many years -decades - and that one good year won’t have much of an impact as more land is cleared and more water used to supply growing populations and to irrigate increasing monocultures of soy, corn, sugarcane and other crops.

The pump is dangling by black hose in the deepest water hole, just down from our house.
We’ve installed a pump (electric) to draw water from the creek that flows by our property. The water isn’t as clean as the water that comes half a mile from the spring above my son’s house whose water system we tap into. But our own water supply will work for irrigation and for emergencies if the other system gets low. We’re also planning to build a cistern to collect rain water, and a pond that will hold water in all but the driest years.

What way will this region go as climate change progresses? Wetter, drier, mixed? Experts are telling us that if forests are protected and replanted it will rain more, but agro-business, promoted by the government, is taking us in the opposite direction. And the small effort I agreed to initiate with a local friend, an organization that would protect the local waterheads, is proving difficult to get off the ground. People are too busy, their personal lives too compelling – justifiably or not – to attend meetings, organize events, actually plan the reconstruction of a spring that’s been degraded. (Sound familiar?) I haven’t given up so stay tuned.

Our young male goat, next to his dam.
As for our personal projects here on the farm, the big news is that we butchered our first young goat, a six-month-old wether. We raised this cabrito with kindness, in a nice pen large enough for him to run and play with other goats. We had him castrated by a neighbor who is our stand-in for veterinarian counsel and action due to his long experience with animals, especially the sheep that he cares for for his boss.

Roast leg of goat - very tasty.
Now a roast, two legs and two racks of ribs fill our small freezer, after we roasted the first hind leg when my daughter and her partner came to visit from the US. I had to learn how to marinate it so that it would be tender and flavorful, and it was a wonderful success. And we gave one of the front legs to our friends in town. We find that most people around here are loathe to try food they’re not used to, like goat milk and meat, but a few people are curious or have traveled and welcome the opportunity to experiment.

We raise goats partly to explore the advantages they represent over the prevailing and growing beef consumption. Around the world people have learned to equate prosperity with having abundant meat on their table. Cattle raising means hundreds of acres of land cleared for pasture, both here in the cerrado (our richly bio-diverse savannah) and in the Amazon.

Permaculture teaches us to think small and efficient, focusing on the resources of the land under our feet and the vegetation that surrounds us. Goats can be raised on small farms and even in large backyards, providing milk and meat in exchange for corn, hay and the prunings of bushes and trees.

We don’t try to keep a male goat to impregnate our does. Instead we transport our pretty ladies to a neighboring farm where a herd of goats roam a fairly large area of grass and woods. Male goats are difficult in close quarters due to their ornerish personalities and a distinctive and very unpleasant odor. Our place is too small.  

This variety of banana is called 'nanica,' which means 'small.'

The two bunches on these trees are 'banana prata.' We also have 'banana maçã' and 'banana marmelo.'

The banana plants we put in two years ago (May 2015) are finally producing bananas, which look like they’ll all ripen – it takes months – at approximately the same time, hopefully when my son and grandsons visit in July. 

Our eight hens are laying four or five eggs a day, fewer than a month ago due to the shorter days – supposedly hens require fourteen hours of daylight to produce an egg. Right now the sun rises at about 6 am and sets at 6 pm. The mama hen doesn’t lay eggs while she cares for her brood, but eventually she’ll start up again and her little pullets should start laying in September.

Mama hen and chicks enjoy a dust bath.
And here's a look at the latest stage of the cob house, outside and in. Notice that the walls are finished all the way up to the roof. Next steps include new layers on the floors, ceilings in the bedrooms, and some cob furniture - seats along the walls, an alcove, and a bookcase.

I look forward to hearing from you. Leave a comment if you please.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The big cob-house update

The last time we showed you our cob house the roof frame was beginning to go up, back in October. I'm taking a step back to show the whole process of getting the roof up. By the end of this post the house will have developed dramatically. I hope you enjoy these photos.

October 17, 2016 - The house unprotected. For a year we had a tarp over the house to protect it from the rain. Guests slept in the rustic rooms with good windows and doors but only a large blue tarp to cover it.
Oct. 19 - The roof structure goes up.

The recycled tiles are made from used milk boxes - heating and molding the aluminum and plastic remains
into strong but  lightweight and pliable tiles.
We hired a local builder and his brother to put up the roof.
The weather cooperated, cloudy but without rain.
Nov 10 - The finished roof, nicely rounded with a small circular saw.
Another view of the completed roof.
The space between the wall and roof must now be filled in. Eventually the roof
will be supported by the wall and some of the posts will be removed.

Handing up the cobs to be added to the top of the wall.
Cob meets roof.

We created vent holes with screening. 
Dec 28 -The walls of the two bedrooms and the bathroom are almost completed.

Jan 17, 2017 - Now it's time to work on the two level floor:
living room above, entry-level kitchenette below.

Guy empties one of the unending wheelbarrows of gravel. At the back sits a
handmade water level. 

Lolita and Cindy inspect the premises while Guy starts filling the lower level.
The tamper is used to make the floor as solid as possible.

Stones, gravel and sand are delivered just outside our property since the
bridge isn't strong enough for heavy trucks.

It's a pretty stretch but long after about twenty cartfuls. 
Especially since its' uphill.

Feb 1 - The next floor layer is made of earth, sand, gravel and straw.
It's pocked so that the next layer will adhere. 

We decided to make a ramp between levels since we have a wheelchair-bound
friend. And, who knows, we might need it ourselves in the future.

Feb 7 - Now we're placing the used windows we bought back in October. 
The three large windows have to be propped and tied in place until
the walls go up around them.

We get an idea of what the windows will look like from the outside. The space looks smaller from this perspective.

Today, a week later (February 22) I took the final photos for this update. 

The cob has gone up almost two feet, holding the windows firmly in place. 

Since we've decided to wait a few weeks before building the front wall with its doorways and window, the cob wall has been tapered so that the next piece of wall supporting the main doorway will join more securely.

                     The space looks inviting in the morning sun. The tall window at right will open into an alcove.
(I just realized I should have a photo taken from the same angle as the first photo in this post. I'll take that picture and get it posted as soon as I can.) Feb 23: Here it is:

The cob house as of February 23, 2017