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.

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Our island

Jay and I are reading a book right now (we like the same kind of books and it was just easier to read together than read over the other’s shoulder) by Linda Greenlaw of The Perfect Storm fame, about her life on “a very small island”.  Jay and I have always envisioned ourselves living on an island and our conversations on the topic have reignited while reading this book.  The less people the better, we figure, even if it were just the two of us, plus the cats and Sniffdog, obviously, for company and entertainment.  The peace, solitude, and freedom sound ideal to us.  Running around naked, living off the land, free to be ridiculous. But I realized, when it comes down to it, we basically do that already on this place we call a farm that is located just west of the middle of nowhere.

Although it would be fabulous if we needed a boat to get here, we do need to drive quite a hefty distance (about 45 minutes) from the nearest town where our mail is delivered and beer is bought.  The journey even comes with dangerous animals to avoid, though they have legs and not fins.

We hunt for our meat (and by “we” I mean “not me”) and scavenge for fruits and vegetables in the wilds of the garden (but I am learning wild edible things).  Fresh water is up to us to haul out of the ground and we are not hooked up to an outside source of electricity.  Solar panels and a generator, though not homemade, power our fridge and computer.

Occasions do pop up when we run around naked.  Usually when it is very hot and the farm workers have (hopefully) left for home.  In fact, we would probably be naked more often if it were considered an acceptable form of attire and would not frighten the people who have to work with us.  Our ridiculousness is also reigned in as to not lose all respect of the staff, although I’m quite sure they already think I am completely weird, like when they catch me talking to the cats.

Sometimes we even get time when it is just the two of us, no sounds or sights of other people.  We are surrounded by our animals, with a beer in hand, as the sun is leaving for other parts of the world.  It is one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been or can imagine.

So while our farm is fairly remote, private, and serene, I would not be upset if a big, fat body of water were to take up residence at the edge of it.  It would be swell indeed to run for beer in a trusty lil’ sailboat.

I think I’ll have to keep dreaming on that one.

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.

Forbidden fruit

Imagine a ripe, red, round tomato.  It hangs from its hairy, green vine in a clump with its friends among the twist and tangle that is a tomato plant.  Unable to resist, you pluck the fruit, admiring its smooth, shiny skin before popping it into your mouth.  One squeeze of your teeth and its juice explodes outward, filling your mouth with seeds still warm from the sun.  You chew slowly, savoring the homegrown sweetness and then slide it all down into your belly.

It’s a nice image, no?  Unfortunately, it’s as close to that ripe, red, plumpy,  deliciousness as I’m ever going to get.  At least while living in this complicated land called Namibia.

It’s no secret that she and I have a rocky relationship, otherwise this blog would be titled something like “Cavorting with Cupcakes”.  Our latest quarrel: my vegetable garden.  Apparently, growing my own food, rather than eating the plants she provides, each and every one covered in thorns, is completely unacceptable.  And punishable by biblical plagues.

The tomatoes were the first to go.  I had six plants growing like it was a race, leaves and flowers sprouting left and right.   Gradually, the little tomato balls began to form and I was already listing delicious recipes in my head.  Then, just as gradually, the plants began to whither away.  Moving from one side of the bed to the other, yellowing, drooping leaves replaced the green ones.  I watered and watered but no fruit ripened, and my imaginary recipes remained just that.

Then one day, Jay, who is much smarter than I, came to visit me in the garden.  While I lamented the death of my friends, the tomatoes, he knelt down to have a closer look and after a minute asked what those little spider webs were all about.  Confused, I knelt beside him and indeed, saw little spider webs encasing stems and undersides of the leaves.  I’ll go with the excuse that they were really quite small and that is why I had never seen them before.  And I had never seen any spiders, and still didn’t.  A subsequent “tiny spider webs on my tomato plants” google search revealed the culprits; not spiders, but spider mites.  Tiny varmints that chew holes in the veins of the plant, suck out all the water, reproduce every three days and are very difficult to get rid of.  Super.

In an effort to keep the garden organic, the option of pesticides was ruled out.  So I tried a variety of other deterrent sprays: coffee water, chili water, stinging nettle tea, everything that anyone ever recommended.  Either the sprays didn’t work or they didn’t work fast enough and soon the plants were nothing but skeletons.  Namibia just laughed as she sent forward her next blight.

The zucchinis were another plant that used to grow not only well, but so well, that I didn’t know what to do with all of them.  Last year, I became an expert on different ways of eating a zucchini.  This year, the mice have.  I find it especially charming how they eat part of each fruit rather than all of just one or two.  But that would be too lenient on me, the sinful vegetable grower.

This time, however, I had back-up.  I called in the cats.  I could tell they took their jobs seriously by rolling in the dirt, lounging in the shade, and eating grass and then vomiting it up again, but they only cocked an ear, if anything, toward the rustling in the grass.  No amount of encouragement from me could entice them to investigate and the zucchinis continued to be reduced to inedible stubs.

My attempt at a counterattack was not received well by my opponent.  Soon after, the mice began consuming the flowers as well, allowing no fruit whatsoever to grow.  But I was not willing to watch the zucchinis follow the tomatoes into the grave, so again, I raised the stakes.  I put a match to the grass surrounding the garden, the grass that protected the mice.  I watched those flames with a gleam in my eye and a smirk on my face and went to bed feeling the victor.  I was not.  The zucchinis now have worms.

Next came the locusts.  Giant, yellow, armored locusts with appetites as big as themselves.  I countered with marigolds, the so-called workhorse of the pest deterrents.  They were simply chowed down to nubs.  The carrots stood no chance.  The onions disappeared.  Lettuce gone.  Cabbage ppbtthh.

But I fought back.  I fortified.  Either with sliced-up Pringles cans, yogurt containers, or strange, black plastic lining that Jay uses for more important things.

In case of survivors, Namibia turned up the sun.  In a single day, seemingly healthy plants were fried lifeless.  So, up went the shade-netting.

I’ve got a scarecrow.  I’ve got a fake snake.  Companion planting, crop rotation, piles and piles of manure.  But is it enough? How many plagues are still to come?  Will Namibia and I ever sit at the table of sisterhood and break those cupcakes together?  Only, I imagine, if she has made them herself and covered them in thorns.

An ode to rain

Rain is a precious thing in Namibia.  It’s precious in a lot of places.  But I grew up surrounded by water; every season was a rainy one.  Sunny days were the golden nuggets in the world of the perma-cloud.  However, here it is the sun, the sun after sun after sunny day that makes one depressed.

Crap

In case it’s not obvious, we’ve been stuck in a dry spell.  It gets hot early, before we’ve even had breakfast.  The plants wilt although I water them everyday and Jay’s horde of chocolate turns to goo, that is if it even had the chance overnight to solidify.

It becomes the first question folks ask in greeting: “Hi, had any rain?  How’s the wife?”

Then, they compare measurements: “Yeah, we’ve had 100 mms so far.”  They COUNT.  They have little books in which they record and date each precipitation, no matter how small.  I saw such a book not one time in my American years.

We always wished for a white Christmas back then, now it’s a wet one.  But we didn’t get a wet one.  We got a scorching hot, dry one.  It made for good swimming but with the whole farm staff on vacation, our thirsty orchard of citrus, papaya, and olive trees ensured ours was not a restful and relaxing holiday season.

But no matter how merciless the sun may be in its spotless blue sky, I never give up hope.  I check, maybe too often, for those cumulus clouds and whether they are up to something.  I look for other clues like a bullfrog chorus at night or if the flowers don’t open in the morning.  Maybe if the sugar pot has declumped or if the moon is near full or if the tortoises are on the move.  But nothing is a promise and it seems more like luck than anything if yours is the sky to fall.  The neighbor can be flooded and you can still be Farm Death.

Please, please, please, please…

So, I calm my heart when the thunder in the distance turns out to be an old truck lumbering by.  Or that first raindrop on my head was only a bird with a lame sense of humor.  I wait patiently(ish) for the temps to fall, the plants to perk up, and the wild mushroom scavenger hunt.  I look forward to the coziness when the cats huddle around or hide under the blankets when the thunder is overhead.  And the feeling of being small, which is unusual for me, and the comfort that nature is taking care of things for a while.

The rain never lasts long here and you never know when it’ll be back so I always try not to piss it off.  I don’t turn my back on it, but rather watch the land drink.  I hold in my sarcastic remarks and try not to curse the laundry I left on the line.  I even try to accept the consequential mosquitoes.  Which does not mean I cannot still squish them, it just means I accept them as nature’s worst idea ever.  I also try not to get too excited, as if I were gloating.  I wouldn’t want to be rude.

So when the drops finally graced our parched life today, I simply joined the lumps under the blankets, watched it fall, and hoped this year will be a wet one.