Learning the equine way

In an effort to use less diesel, not be so lazy, and use the 13 horses that roam the farm, free of cares and responsibilities (though they do mow the lawn), we decided to get ’em dressed and do some farm work horseback-style.  Plus, they offer a great vantage point to search for mushrooms (FYI: I’m researching Namibian fungi).  So although, at 9:30, it was a little late into the morning, Jay and I saddled up and headed out in search for some missing cattle.

On mowing duty

Jay chivalrously gave me his horse, Trooper, so named from a long ago accident and his unexpected recovery.  He’s now 22, but in good shape for an old guy.  Jay then took Tissy, a female born on the farm.  He said though Tissy may be more receptive, she scares easily (which was proven later with a surreptitious warthog), and as the more experienced rider, he had less of a chance of being thrown off.  So I got Trooper, the most stubborn horse I’ve ever met.  Though to be fair, I haven’t met many.

Literally, right out of the gate, Trooper wanted to go the opposite way as Jay and Tissy.  With my attempts to turn him left, and his refusal to do so, we ended up in a jackknife in a slim corner between a fence and a tree.  I eventually won the battle, but he got the last laugh, for as we turned left, my face and I got dragged through the acacia thorns, which in turn, stole my hat and threw it on the ground.  So while Jay and Tissy waited for us up ahead, I quickly slid off and back on the smug Trooper, and later, picking a thorn out of my eyebrow, decided that he should have a waiver each rider must sign before leaving, that they might know what to expect.  I imagined it would read something like this:

1. Ride at your own risk.  Horse is not responsible for injury to person or property.

2. Speed and direction are subject to change without warning.

3. Eating breaks may be determined by horse at any time.

P.S. Horse trips a lot for no apparent reason.

Though Trooper was certainly tricky at times, he was not completely to blame – it became clear that I was simply not a good rider.  As Jay said, the horse needs to know who’s boss.  My light tugs on the reins were lost on Trooper who promptly walked off the road for some grass.  After a few complete circles we made it back onto the road, where I had a split second to ask Jay, as we walked diagonally across his path to the other side of the road, what was wrong with this horse.

“Hold the reins tight”, he said. “The horse needs to know his rider is there.”

“I’m trying to be nice”, I explained.  I already felt bad for making him leave his high life of grass-eating all day to carry my ass all over the farm on a hot day.

“It’s like us carrying a backpack”, Jay said.

Maybe a backpack with a sack of potatoes inside, I thought.

“Plus, the horses know this road.  They know if they turn around, they get to go back home where food and friends are waiting”, he added.

So with a tighter grip on the reins, so to speak, I slowly established a relationship with Trooper, and we managed to walk in a straight line for a while.

Once off the main road and heading into the farm, Trooper seemed more interested in our journey and picked up speed, so much so, that he started trotting without any signal from me, and I did one of those cartoon things when the bottom half of your body goes on ahead without the top half.  Thankfully, the saddle had a little handle to grab on to, otherwise, I would’ve tumbled right off the back.

Jay came by with some more advice.  “He needs to know you’re in control.  That you have a direction, and are paying attention.”

This made it clear that I was not meant to be a horse rider.  I daydream easily and often, and I was looking for mushrooms more than at where we were going.  So as soon as Trooper fell into a decent saunter, not turning suddenly, tripping over his feet, or stopping to fart, sneeze, or crap, the cool breeze and rhythmic saddle squeak sent my mind a-wandering.  And as soon as he realized this, he took the opportunity to lead us off in whichever direction he deemed worthwhile.

Getting Trooper through gates was another task.  If it required turning right, he wanted to continue straight, and if it was straight ahead, he would want to turn around.  With talking and tongue-clicking and rein-tugging, I’d eventually get him through, but usually only with enough clearance for him.  The horse had no concept of space.  I inevitably needed to lift my legs over the fence poles, or duck under trees or dodge bushes, wires, etc.  As long as he fit, that was good enough.  Anyone on his back had to take care of themselves.  This resulted in a lot more thorns in my skin and a new hole in my pants.

Late morning we wandered into a relatively open field, and fell into one of our rare understandings when Trooper walked straight and turned in response to the reins.  I was even allowed to take a couple of pictures from horseback.

Of course as soon as mushrooms were spotted and I tried to get a closer look, Trooper resumed his own mysterious horse mission, and we’d do donuts, fighting for control.

Lunchtime meant a water break and a detour, specifically to bring the horses to a water point.  Trooper seemed to realize this and picked up speed again.  Whenever Trooper liked the direction we were heading for whatever reason, he walked much faster.  Tissy and Jay struggled to keep up and often had to trot, but then quickly fell behind again.  However, it turned out that the horses didn’t want water, and didn’t care for the grass under the shady tree we picked for lunch, so as we ate our bread and cookies, this was my view:

As the day grew warmer, the clouds grew in size and number and sometimes hid the sun.  When coupled with a breeze, these were the only times that I stopped sweating, and somewhere along the way, we managed to bring in some cows.

Moseying toward home in the late afternoon sauna, I realized I had learned a little about the appeal of horse riding.  In general, the draw is beyond me.  Maybe if it was the wild west and they were your companion, like a trusty dog but one you could sit on and that carried your stuff.  But just to ride horses for the sake of riding horses always seemed to me like making them work for my pleasure.  Yet as I got a feel for Trooper’s idiosyncrasies, it was like making a new friend, and getting to know his buttheaded, yet somehow charming, personality.  Nevertheless, I think we were both happy when we got home.  I got to use my legs again who were close to joining forces with my butt in mutiny.  And after being up high for so long, when I plopped onto the ground, I felt short, a rare occasion for me.

As Trooper slurped down his bucket of grains, I wondered how this episode of our sustainable farming would progress.  Regardless, the most important lesson of the day was painfully clear: don’t forget the sunscreen.

Advertisements

Use it or lose it: a novel concept

Rainwater harvesting.  One of those ingeniously simple ideas, probably soon- to-be new green-living fad, that should just be common sense.  I mean, how many zillions of times have I watched water run through the streets, or collect in ditches, or create little rivers in the sand?  Yet it never occurred to me to catch it and put it to use.  I think it was because I grew up in a place wealthy with water; we took it for granted.  It took desert-country living to get the idea through my ignorance shield that it is true wealth falling from the sky, not pretty little shiny things to watch disappear.  And even then, this discovery was an accident.

Somehow with my innate mixture of environmentalist and cheapskate (my desire to lighten our load on the earth and stop spending so much money on diesel to pump water), I began researching permaculture.  This is a practice of designing land systems that are sustainable and self-sufficient.  Yet even though the creator of this concept hails from fairly dry Australia, the bulk of permaculture information is for temperate climates.  And understandably so; it’s much easier to do there.  The one book I eventually found for dry climates was about rainwater harvesting and how the author, who lived in Tuscon, Arizona, one of the driest and hottest places on earth, turned his desert home into a green garden using not much more than rainwater.  Although Arizona gets rain throughout the year and not in one seasonal clump like Namibia, they often get less than our farm, so I figured this could work for us, too.  And naturally I recruited Jay, a native Namibian, a man famous for putting buckets under leaky gutters, a born rainwater harvester.   Also a guy with a bulldozer.

Our farm is big though, and long neglected in this department, so it’s going to take a while.  The good news is, we are at the foot of a huge hill so although we are now well-eroded, we also have a lot of runoff to work with.  We’ve started then, with the water which is always running straight through our yard and out the front gate.  It wasn’t complicated work, only about two days work in all, and Jay does not consider it “work” when he gets to use the bulldozer.

Here’s a before shot featuring the dozer and the huge hill in the background:

The water would always come down the dirt paths, one of which is visible in the picture, and continue left, flowing right out the front gate.  Our plan was then to rather have it head straight down past the gate and into these citrus fruit trees:So employing one of my newly learned rain-harvesting strategies (berms) and a channel Jay plowed in front of the gate, we turned this:

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAinto this:

2013 1003And a month later, without watering, this:

For lack of a more sophisticated expression: it’s awesome.  In the meantime, another gutter has gone up on an old shed with a big roof.  An abandoned diesel tank is waiting dutifully underneath ready to catch, and later pass into our veggie garden, what falls.  I am now eager to launch more transformations and curious if we’ll see even a glimpse of the current farm ten years down the road.

So thanks, big momma nature, for giving us rain.  And thanks for the plants that grow food.  And also for the intelligent people, to help the rest of us figure out what to do with the first two.

A new chapter

It’s slightly ironic that I have finally escaped town/apartment life to live on a farm and have ample room to grow my own food but that farm happens to be in the driest part of Africa south of the Sahara.  I’ve struggled with gardening for a few years now, occasionally reaping harvests of tomatoes or zucchinis but my plants are often sabotaged by bugs or droughts or other such things.  I’ve not given up though.

This year I’m knuckling down.  Not only could our farm be more self-sustaining (like cutting loose the imported food and fuel), it could prove that even in a place as seemingly inhospitable as Namibia, people can provide for themselves.  Governments, the UN, NGOs and universities are in the news a lot these days making official statements from their plethora of conventions about how things such as food security, poverty eradication, combating desertification, and soil and water conservation should be at the top of our list of things to do.  But when I go to the websites of these organizations looking for info about what I can do in my own area, I find only mission statements and visions and proposals.  Where are the stories of feeding people, restoring land, and what’s actually being done?  It seems we have to make those stories ourselves.

So with Jay’s engineering-genius help, we’re going to make the farm our story, the story of what can be done in semi-desert country.  And I’m going to share what we find, learn, and royally muck up here.  I hope it will be a resource to others in dryland situations.  And to those other people, if you find me, please feel free to share your own ideas, tips, materials, successes and failures.  I know there’s an awful lot of people, in this country alone, who could benefit from it.