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.

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.

Namibia’s secret lakes

Don’t be fooled; Namibia really does have water.  It is not this dried-up-raisin of a country that it pretends to be.  That giant desert?  Just for show.  Check it out:

Apparently, this was the best picture I took of it.

Lake Guinas.  One of two, count ’em, TWO, natural lakes in Namibia.  I was astounded to hear of their existence (and a bit perturbed that no one told me about them earlier), but lo and behold, there they were on the map, practically neighbors.  As we were already in the region for a business excursion, it seemed sacrilegious not to visit.  Besides, it was hot, and we wanted to swim.  The time had come.  The girl from the Great Lakes state, the fresh water capital of the US, was going to see the oasis of her adopted desert home.

In the car on the way to the first one, Lake Otjikoto, Jay and I became as excited as two little kids talking about how we could camp there for the night, cook our dinner over the fire on the beach, go swimming under the stars, etc, etc.  It would be perfect.  Pulling into the parking lot was already a relief; big trees hung down low as if to take pity on us weary travelers.

As Jay approached the park-rangerly-dressed lady, I got sidetracked by the snakes-in-the-jars.  There, outside the gift shop, was a bench with five or six rather large snakes coiled up inside big glass bottles with some kind of yellow liquid preservative.  I must apologize, however, for the lack of photograph.  I was so excited to go swimming, I forgot I even owned a camera.

I then turned around and the ranger informed me that the dog had jumped out of the car.  “He’ll be ok,” I said and waved my hand like “no big deal”.

“No”, she said, “no dogs allowed”.

I looked around at this big, green, shady (and empty) park and then at Jay, hoping he would tell me this was a joke.

It wasn’t.

“No camping or swimming either”, he said.  I felt my heart implode.  The lady informed us that a man had drowned in the lake in 1927 and no one has been allowed in since.  Just to see the lake was N$25 a person.

So we respectfully declined, put our offensive dog back in the car and drove for the second lake, Guinas.

These two lakes are sinkholes, something like 110 meters deep, says a geophysicist friend of ours.  Rumor has it that they are actually connected underground- when a colored dye was put in one it eventually surfaced in the other.  What a trip that must be.  They even have their own endemic fish species, the Otjikoto tilapia, listed, not surprisingly, as critically endangered.

After a few long dusty roads we arrived and found a big white sign that said “Welcome to Lake Guinas.  No fishing, no swimming, no shooting.” So, it turns out, although Namibia has water, no one is allowed to use it for any sort of fun-inducing activity.  You just look at it.

Look, water.

At this point we were too hot to bother with frivolous things such as rules and since this lake was on private property, there were no rangers to scold us.  Besides, the sign was in Afrikaans and if asked, we decided, I would promptly reply in my best American accent that all I understood was the “Welcome to Lake Guinas” part.  So in we went.  At long last, relief from the heat.  Floating around, I envied the birds cheeping from the cliff edges.  How lucky they were to have this natural wonder as their home.

Sniffel, not a fan of swimming, wonders why we would do such a thing.

On our way out we brought with us a few of the many beverage bottles that littered the path down to the water.  Apparently, the rarity of this landscape in Namibia was not enough reason for people not to trash it.  We could only imagine how many had been chucked in and sunk forever.  And wondered if this was the reason all fun had been banned.

Visiting the lakes made us curious what else Namibia was hiding underground.  Once back home, we immediately began looking for cave entrances in the hills around our house.  I am quite determined to find our own massive body of water so we can go swimming whenever we want.  And the sign out front will read:

Welcome to Lake Scorpion.

Dogs and camping welcome.

Drowning and littering prohibited.

Violators will be fed to the tilapia.

Top 5 farm things I try to avoid

As much as I try to help on the farm, learn the five separate languages I might encounter, what this switch operates and what that button does, what each of the 13-letter-name medicines in the fridge’s butter cubby are for, and what to do when an angsty rabid kudu comes to the front gate, there are some things that I just do not gel with.  Here’s the top 5 I’ve determined that are best left to the professionals.

1. Genny the generator

Genny is, no doubt, an important part of the farm.  Since Nampower, Namibia’s state-run (and only) electricity supplier, decided our farm was too far out to hook up to the grid (even though all our neighbors are), this lady provides a lot of our power.  While we are trying to move more towards solar, she still carries a chunk of the load.  But to get her going, it takes a good couple swings of the crank, and take my word, the crank is, proportionally, just as big.  It ain’t for woosies, or otherwise meager-armed folks such as myself.  I’ve certainly tried, sweat and swear words flowing, but she just groans a little and lays back down, like my cats when I disturb them at nap time.  My main job in regards to Genny, therefore, is to turn her off when the batteries are charged and that’s no easy task either.  Just take a look at the accompanying circuit box:Indeed, to stop her thunderous revolutions, I first must enter the room and remind myself that she will not tear herself free of the concrete floor and chew me to pulp.  If I keep all extremities clear of her moving parts, I should remain whole.  (To this day, I have only injured myself once with this intimidating piece of machinery, and that was when my knee came to rest on a metal tube which I quickly learned was the exhaust pipe).  After that, I need only flip four switches, push a button, pull a thingy down until she stops her sputtering, and then disconnect her battery.  I believe that is as intimate as I shall ever be with the giant engine and her labyrinthine electrical box.  Any more than that and one of us will no longer work properly.

2.  Keys

A single key is harmless enough, but when they congregate, I prefer not to be present.

I know it’s a farm and all, we have doors and gates and things with locks, but I do not believe we have so many of them.  This isn’t even the only key bundle nor are bundles the only place in which keys are kept.  So, to avoid acute key anxiety, I do as I do with Genny, keep it simple.  I know the keys to the rooms which hold things important to the continuation of my life, and the rest I have absolutely no idea what they do or to what treasures they have access and I’d like to keep it that way.

3.  The slaughter shed

This is where animals go once they’ve been shot.  Normally, they are shot to feed the farm staff to prevent poaching.  Sometimes, hunters shoot them so they can put the heads on their walls.  Regardless, here, they are strung up by their hind legs, gradually reduced to pieces which includes the use of that handsaw on the back wall, and their blood and other excrement drains into the large hole in the floor.  I have actually helped in this process before, really only because there was no one else to do it.  And while the biologist inside me was sort of interested in this massive science project, it’s not something I look forward to.

4.  Water intersections

This is another one that seems innocent.

But one must know that water pipelines run throughout the farm, each one connected to the next.  If I close or open just one pipe, the water is going to go somewhere else and I never quite know where that is.  For example, if we pump water to the house, it can either go to the garden and water the orange trees, it can go to our reservoir so that we can shower off the cow poop at the end of the day, or it can bypass us and fill the workers’ water tank.  For each of those things, the pattern of open and closed valves must be just right or I’ll end up watering an oasis somewhere in the Namib desert. To make things more complicated, sometimes water is pumped to the house using the engine at the windmill down by the main road and sometimes it falls on Genny’s shoulders.  Sometimes they are both running and I don’t know who is doing it.  But if our reservoir is full and begins to overflow, I need to stop it.  Do I stop Genny or the engine at the windmill?  Do I need to open or close the valves at the house or the valves at the main road?  Do the workers need water?  Or do I need to fill the big reservoir that feeds the rest of the farm?  Answer quickly now, the water is a-wasting.  And these intersections are all over the farm. If any of the miles of underground pipe breaks then the water must be closed at one or more of them and who knows which one that might be.

5.  Saws

This last one is probably the most important for me to avoid for genetic reasons; I’ve inherited a calamitous gene which earned me my nickname “Disasterpants”, one that has caused countless injuries to me and my family for many years now.  As such, I stay as far away from this thing as possible:

This saw cuts our wood, wood that we use to heat our water, post our fences, or to otherwise build or burn, but why must it be so big?  Namibia is not known for its gigantic trees and even if it was, I would rather chop all my wood by hand than to have to come within slicing distance of Spikey here (although I may do just as much damage to myself with an axe).  If I have to gather some logs for the fire, even when it is not connected to a single watt of electricity,  I move quickly, deliberately, and then get the hell out of there.  I can feel it watching me.

Same goes for the handheld spinning blade, known as a grinder (enough reason to leave it alone):

And ditto for the meat saw:

This blade moves up and down very quickly and very loudly.  Some people on the farm saw their meat just fine with this thing; fast and smooth, no worries, no problem.  And that is why I call them the professionals and let them saw or slaughter or lock and unlock whatever they want and I go feed the baby chickens.

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.