The mushroom bugs

I’m not a big fan of bugs.  It’s not because they’re creepy or gross (though they certainly can be), it’s mainly because they eat my vegetables and sting me all the live long day.   My mortal enemy, the mosquito, is a bug.  But some are good, like ladybugs, who eat other bugs.  And the honey bee is amazing and the bumblebee is adorable.  But termites, well, termites are in a class by themselves.

I wrote this other post over here about them, so I won’t go into all the helpful things they do.  Instead, this post is about the glory that is the omajowa (oh-ma-yo-va), the giant edible mushroom that these tiny termites grow this time of year.

“Omajowa” is Herero for “mushroom” and is the name most Namibians use for these things.  In Latin, it’sTermitomyces schimperi.  In German, Termitenpilz.  In English, extraordinary.  A termite mound will sprout only once a year, if at all, but often with legions of these fungi, enough to feed the foraging folks who find them, and their family, all for free.  Only rain is needed.  And those crazy little termites.  They actually cultivate them, in an underground fungus garden from which they feed.  And for some reason, between December and February, the fungus gets out of control and shoots skyward.

So when a “weather expert” told us shortly after New Year’s that the rain was gone – what we got til then was all we were going to get – I wanted to punch him.  Instead, with memories of last year’s long days of drought and the realization that we hadn’t found a single omajowa this year, I cried.  No joke.  I take the rainy season just that seriously.  But someone took pity on us, and after three dry and depressing weeks the rain came back, and that is when I found this:

It may not look like much, but after a few years of rainy seasons in this country, I’ve learned to pick out white blobs at the bottom of termite mounds, no matter how obscure they might be.  If you want mushrooms, you learn.  And that wee white bit at the bottom left of the mound, turned out to be this little dude, not even open yet:

And around the back, these guys were pushing up through dirt so hard we needed a shovel to get them out:

All in all, we found 13 mushrooms on this mound.  I was so terribly excited that I ripped my shirt on the acacia trees while running back and forth from mound to car – first to get my camera, then to put it back and get a shovel, then back to get the camera again, then once more to load the booty.  Due to my bumbling, I’m afraid Jay ended up doing most of the work. He didn’t seem to mind though, omajowa are worth it.

Since we had more work to do on the farm, lunch had to wait, but still I searched for mushrooms.  The hunt is half the fun – your senses, along with your heartbeat, pick up a notch knowing that they could be lurking around any corner.  So about an hour later, when more were spotted, we scooped them up in triumph.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERABut these aren’t just pick-and-run mushrooms; you have to carefully wiggle them out.  Beneath the ground is a chunky, yet fragile, stem that’s perfect for battering and frying.  And bonus points if you get the tail, too.  It’s too hard to be palatable, but it’s weird and, therefore, worthy of acknowledgement.

the tailAnd so with another 8 loaded onto the truck, enough for a feast for us and the entire farm staff, the world felt right again.

The rain has continued on and off since then, at least enough to keep the mushrooms growing.  When we found the record for this year, 25 on one mound, we had to lay some of them out to dry.  Two meals a day of mushrooms (incomprehensibly, Jay draws the line at breakfast) was not enough to eat them all before they expired.  The all-time record though, was a couple of years ago.  One mound, 36 mushrooms.

And here’s probably the biggest I’ve ever found:

So the termites have confirmed their spot on my acceptable bug list, and though they would improve their rating should they start eating mosquitoes, there they will remain as long as they keep making mushrooms.  Because without the omajowa, life in Namibia just wouldn’t be as much fun.

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.

The unexpected harvests

Jay always says “Namibia is full of surprises”.  While it’s true, they tend not to be surprises one would appreciate (like this).  Now and then, though, this country comes through with something pretty cool.

It started with the oranges; a significant happening for us because last year we got to eat exactly zero oranges, thanks to one of Namibia’s plagues that it periodically inflicts upon people.  Some sort of citrus fruit fly stung each and every fruit on our ten trees, causing them to rot from the inside out before they ripened.  So this year fly traps were constructed out of old two liter soda bottles collected from the dump.  These were then filled with cow poop, spoiled milk, moldy meat, and other smelly things and hung amongst the baby fruits.  I never found many bugs inside them but there were lots of maggots.  Don’t know whose maggots, but certainly it was better to have them in there than anywhere out here.  And it seemed to have worked.  Though a few fruits are still lost, many more hang on the branches awaiting our stomachs.  We eat armfuls everyday which I plan to continue until we, or something else, have consumed them all.

Then there’s the honey, which is a small chunk of miracle.  The drought this year didn’t do great things for our bees’ pollen supply.  Every time we checked on them the combs were nearly empty.  As a result, we’ve been safeguarding our last bucket of honey, expecting no more until November when things begin to bloom again.  The bees, however, have defied the lack of rain and suddenly found a mysterious yet plentiful source of food and filled their boxes up anyway.  Leaving a bit behind for their winter reserves, we’ve harvested over 100kg from our 13 swarms.  Everything in the kitchen- the floor, the counters, the stove, all the silverware, the refrigerator, the dog- was covered in honey for about a week, but it was worth it.  And only one sting in the entire operation, on my foot, when I stepped on a little guy roaming the floor for spillages.

Strangely, the last harvest came at the same time as the other two, and though it was more of my own doing, it contributed greatly to my bewilderment.  For a while now I’ve been trying to wrangle mycelium, the parent organism of fungus, into growing oyster mushrooms for me.  I took a class at the University of Namibia back in November and have been bumbling through the process ever since with very little success.  Until this week, we’ve reaped a total of 5 mushrooms from my efforts.  Somehow, my temperature, humidity, water, nutrients, light, oxygen, hairdo, or facial expression just wasn’t right.  Eventually, the mushrooms got tired of waiting for me to figure it out and just went ahead and grew without me.  Normally, I would need to open the bag of mycelium and the surge of light, water and air would stimulate the oysters to sprout.  Mine, however, sprouted inside the closed bag which I didn’t know was possible.  When I finally caught up and got them opened and watered, they provided Jay and I with three scrumptious meals with more still on the way.

It’s been a crazy week with not a small amount of work, but well rewarded.  And delicious.  It seems Namibia either took pity on us after the past few months she put us through and thought we deserved it, or she’s busy plaguing someone else at the moment and will be back with us at her earliest convenience.

More than it seems

A bit of home maintenance the other day made me realize that I may not be giving Namibia as much credit as it deserves.  Sure, it likes to make life difficult by not raining or sabotaging attempts to grow food, but maybe it’s all just an effort to make us humans a little more resourceful.

See, I’m trying to grow mushrooms – a possibly futile venture to grow something in this country that is not meat. The old building I’m using as the growing room was exactly that, old.  It had a few holes between the cement walls and the tin roofing which were allowing my crucial humidity to be sucked out into the black hole of water that is Namibia.  But rather than using plaster to plug them up, I decided to go natural and brought in some termite dirt.

Indigenous folks around here have long used it to build houses, and still do today.  Mixed with water, the dirt from termite mounds turns into a paste.  Sometimes, cow patties are added for stability and then they pack this stuff around a wooden frame.

The walls of old house on the farm, not used for 14 years, still has some termite dirt standing strong.

So I packed it, sans cow patties, into the holes in my mushroom house.  It was free, took about ten minutes, and seems to be holding the moisture in.

Amidst the packing, I became rather impressed with the termite dirt and what a wonderful job it was doing.  My curiosity about what made it sticky prompted a bit of research.  Surprisingly, the information was not readily available and required digging, but the extra effort was worth it, uncovering much more than what I was seeking.

It seems mound-building termites, such as our local Macrotermes genus, have an “adhesive secretion” which binds the dirt together, allowing them to build their impressive mounds, some reaching more than 3 meters (over 9 feet) high.  It is this secretion which makes the paste, allowing us to build houses or plug holes in walls.

What’s more, this termite dirt, compared to surrounding soil, is loaded with nitrogen, an essential element for plants to grow.  Farmers throughout Africa have figured this out and use termite dirt for fertilizer or simply grow their crops on the mounds.  It can boost production by as much as 5 times that of average harvests.

The dirt is high in other nutrients as well, including calcium, and pregnant women in rural areas have been known to consume this dirt, a process called geophagy, helping with milk production and bone formation of their child.  It is a common practice for undernourished children as well.  So not only do people consume the termites and the mushrooms they grow, but they eat the mound itself.

For me, that is the essence of Namibia; one species providing food, shelter, and medicine.  It’s not really an abundance kind of place, you just need to know where to look.

So it seems I have a lot of learning to do.  But still, I think a little rain wouldn’t hurt….

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.