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.

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.

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….

Rain or death: in pictures

The rainy season in Namibia, roughly November through March, is by far the best time of the whole year.  The otherwise dead and dry land, with just a bit of water, suddenly turns into a lush, green (almost) rainforest.  When the clouds hang low over the hills, I half expect to meet a mountain gorilla out there.

waterberg

When it rains, work out on the farm becomes something to look forward to.  Not only do the clouds give us a break from the heat, but once out of the front gate, life turns into one big treasure hunt.  For the rainy season is omajova season – the termite mushrooms are out.

omajovas

I could write a short book about the joy that is the omajova, one of the most peculiar yet fantastic things about this country.  And I might.  But for now it will have to suffice to say that searching for omajovas makes every day more interesting and finding them, spotting that bit of white through the green, is like Christmas; a feast is sure to follow.

truly namibian feast

Once infected with omajova fever, you are always on the lookout.  Trips into the bush become devoid of conversation; everyone is far too busy looking for mushrooms.  And with this heightened awareness, you see much more than termite mounds.  You fall into a trance of the life that rain created.

rain road

You’ll see the oryx, hartebeest, and eland have given birth to fuzzy and awkward calves.  The warthogs too, have their wartlets at their side, all of them covered in a fresh layer of mud.  And with newborns come predators.

leopard!

The flowers are out; fire lilies creeping through the bush, their charm belying their fatal poison.

Fire lily

For me, it’s as if all the plants and animals are saying exactly what I am thinking, it’s a great time to be alive in Namibia.

Or it was.  Before the rain disappeared.

At first, I thought it was maybe my fault, that I had pissed old mama Namibia off with my recent post about the garden.  But we were actually the lucky ones.  Most parts of the country look as though they skipped the summer entirely and went straight back into winter.

crispy namibia

With the new year, the sun that Namibia is famous for, so characteristic that it’s on the nation’s flag, that ball of fire insistent on baking us all to raisins, came back.  For days, and days, and days, only sun.

SUN

With time, the clouds began to pop up again and there was hope.  We’d talk about very little except the latest development in the sky.

“The clouds are pretty fluffy today.”

“Yeah, but it’s a west wind.  No good.”

“It’s almost new moon, maybe that’ll bring rain.”

But it didn’t.

moon 'n clouds

Then came the army worms.  Appropriately named, these inch-or-so-long worms moved through the fields like soldiers, systematically eating each blade of grass down to the nub as they went.  Thousands of them filling their ever-hungry stomachs.  All the grass we watched so happily spring up after the rain, the thick, green grass we were saving for the winter, turned into a horde of worms.

worms, worms everywhere

Word on the street said the only way to get rid of them was rain.  Buckets of rain to wash them away.  The one thing we didn’t have.  And so we regressed into the dead brown phase just like everyone else, reminded of it with every step.

goo shoes

But the clouds kept coming.  Every afternoon we watched with utmost anticipation as they grew thicker and darker.  A few droplets, prayers that they wouldn’t stop, but they always did and the sun returned and the worms ate on.  Eventually, hope conceded to the sun.

dark vs. light

Yesterday brought blue skies and the same old story.  By late afternoon, the same puffy clouds.  As they grew bigger and bigger, hope bubbled up again, but I did my best to ignore it.  And then just before sunset, this:

rain art

Not just water, but a painting.  As if to reward our patience, and remind us all is not lost.

No one can say if it’ll stick around, relieve us of worms, return us to green, but I do know one thing: whoever wrote that “rain, rain go away” song never lived in Namibia.

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.