It was hard leaving Finca Amrta, tears were shed but the journey was made easier by catching a lift direct from farm to farm with Tim, Tess and baby Talula. Recent residents of The Costa Rica Center for Natural Living (CRCNL), Tim is coordinating the new volunteer programme and as the inaugural volunteers we were made to feel very welcome. Tess continues work as a masseuse which suits her calm demeanour and their beautiful smiling Talula is the paragon and a tranquil baby. Ever sociable they invited us into their new home on our first night for a wonderful meal, handsomely homely with lit candles and background music it all felt very London as we spoke about all sorts with proper cutlery. A very amicable and super friendly couple it was really nice to be received with such love and interest.
[Tim, Tess, baby Talula]
CRCNL is located outside San Isidro in the foothills of the tallest peak in Costa Rica, Cerro Chirripó along the Rio San Pedro. The land begins at the river bed and ascends up hill as the dirt road cuts the land into three sections as it winds back and forth. Bordering a coffee and peach palm plantation CRCNL has installed food forests and extensive agroforestry systems as well as other delightful examples of permaculture techniques.
Their vision has been a huge inspiration for us. Founded by Brendon and Sarah six years ago, CRCNL has the plan of becoming an organised community of family homestead units working both independently and together on all sorts of projects. They are also the parents of three delightful little nippers who we had the great honour of getting to know. Sarah is also home-schooling their eldest, Solé with her Waldorf training.
[Brendon with his jet pack spray, don´t worry the fertiliser is 100% organic]
[Sarah on daily milking duties]
[The delightful Solé, Avi and Juju]
CRCNL is the creation of years of hard work and a little bit of luck. In 2011 they had the good fortune to have been courted by an angel donor that allowed them to hire the services of the Bullock Brothers - think the Kray twins of the permaculture world but much nicer. The Bullock Brothers´ Company Terra Phoenix carried out an extensive report of the site and of Brendon and Sarah´s ideas and produced the master plan which you can take a peak at HERE. It is a large family scale homestead where permaculture is taken as a serious enterprise not just as an exercise in self-sufficiency.
[Bumper crop of Nampi, a delicuous tropical root for humans and pigs alike]
They have already achieved a hell of a lot and we were impressed with their organisation, methods, implementation, drive, commitment and passion for an alternative way of living. (can you tell we fell in love with them a wee bit?)
They have many systems in place which was great to see having just participated in a permaculture design course giddy with ideas and possibilities.
First up here’s some pictures of the food forest of young trees that we helped to clear, label and map. A lot of these were sourced in Costa Rica with the help of Costa Rica´s granddad of permaculture Peter Kring, and are native to the Americas and similar climates in south-east Asia. It was a great task to care for these super important trees that will feed these families in the coming years and to see some familiar crops as saplings.
Their bio-digester was the best example we’ve seen so far- best bit being no need to get our hands armpit deep in cow shit like our friends at Rancho Mastatal. And there’s something perversely satisfying about the life/ death cycle of cooking dead pig fuelled by its own shit. For those that don’t know a bio-digester is a supremely simple and effective technology. It takes the pig shit (other shits can be used, humans included but pigs are best for this purpose) and mixes it with water. In an anaerobic decomposition, fermentation takes place and gives off methane, which naturally rises through pipes into your stove! In this design, the shit is hosed down through a drain in the pig house and the mixture is left to ferment in a giant plastic sausage rising and falling as gas comes and goes. Once processed, the ‘manure tea’ is fed underground towards a useful place like heavy feeding trees. In this case the pigs were rotated having one week in the bio-digester house and then weeks playing in the mud in a large temporary enclosure helping prepare the soil for plantings.
Other animals systems included cows, goats and poultry, all of which were impressive to have seen done in a way that had the least impact as possible and priority was given to keeping the animals happy and healthy. The cows changed pasture field every day, the goats were fed fresh cut forage and had lots of space to roam, the chicken had the best house design we’ve seen so far with ample outdoor areas for foraging. All were fed homemade feed which included ‘mm’ (micro-organismos de la montagna), which is a lovely concoction of healthy microbes to keep the animals and their house clean and healthy. In return the animals gave us delicious milk and eggs, Sarah made some mean herbed goats cheese and Lauren made ‘arroz con leche’ Tico style and we enjoyed the best banana smoothie in the world after a day sweating in the jungle.
An man’s toilet is a cherished thing. Having a good crap is an important aspect of daily life. To pooh with a view and ample space and know that your shit is as good as gold makes anyones butt cheeks worthy of royalty. In short Phil had a fabulous time crapping in the excellent compost toilet as evidenced in the lovingly taken photos.
The idea of waste, of something unusable, reveals a incomplete understanding of hw things work. Nature admits no waste. – The Toilet Papers, Sim Van der Ryn
Other tasks included making fresh batches of bio fertilizers based on a simple fermentation with added minerals for example magnesium, phosphorus etc. They smelt pretty funky especially when dripping down your back when using the spray backpack!
We organised and re-bagged many sad looking trees that were left over from the previous rainy seasons 1000+ plantings. It was cool to learn the different soil mixes they used for fruit trees or plant seedlings and we were happy to leave with a smarter looking nursery.
A project especially for the volunteer program is the community garden, a mandala shaped veg garden for volunteers´ use. We enjoyed planting, preparing and amending beds, watering and drawing a map of the garden for keeping track of what plants are planted where.
[sheet mulching a bed for kitchen greens]
[The best pizza we´ve ever made]
[Lauren making sauerkraut]
[How to do it CRCNL style!]
[Catherine, long lost friend from Finca Amrta a few weeks back]
[During our stay we fet the lovely Melissa and Fabio on their research trip for some land to start a small land co-op. Kind and generous spirited we had a great time with them and Fabio from Colombia drew us a map of what became our route]
During our stay we were invited up the hill to Brendon and Sarah’s house. They pulled out the big guns and had us eating home raised, happy organic bbq-ed pig which we can’t say we didn’t enjoy.
As an aside we still feel very ambivalent eating other sentient creatures and we’ve justified that act by knowing in our minds they had led lives that fit in with a healthy and ecological view of the world. This however does not exclude the fact that animal intelligences feel, fear and have thoughts that they can’t communicate to us. So the jury’s still out.
This cuts to the very difficult and, for us, important issue of food. To re-emphasise food is one of the ways we came to permaculture. If we take our definition of politics to be a combination of choices and values, and one recognises the fundamental universality of food, then it can be argued that what we eat is one of the most political acts we do
On our travels, food choices have been a consistent challenge raising many important conversations about how to navigate the confusing, corrupted, contradictory culinary landscape, made even harder in countries that have less transparency in terms of labelling, certification and regulation and of course where we are not as familiar with the lay of the land.
In terms of eating meat there are so many things to consider.
Firstly land use. We have seen forest clear cut for pasture animals such as cows, sheep and goats. The soil, the origin of most of our food, is left to degrade and compact under the heavy use of such animals with little rotation. If these animals were adding an extra function to a piece of land, as we have seen on some permaculture sites, or even if they were part of a closed energy cycle (the systems producing all the necessary inputs like food, water, medicine and making use of all of the outputs like meat, dairy, offspring, manure) with ample pasture rotation then the situation would be much better. But the mainstream methods in the countries we have travelled through tend to devastate a piece of land and move on to the next. In the case of the tropics, soils are nutrient poor compared to the temperate climate and so without the cover and function of vegetation land quickly goes to waste. Trees will secure the health and stability of soil, when they are cut down on a slope in a rainy environment, the fertility of and the soil itself washes away quickly. It has been shocking to see, but at least in these countries the animals are often feeding on pasture grass rather than mono-crop grain such as corn and soy as in the factory farms of the United States which leads to whole different array of problems for the land, the animals and the farmers.
Another point to consider is the wellbeing of animals – a rarely prioritised factor in the industrialised system. When the animals are living unnaturally, eating corn or soy with no ample space to move, their natural behaviours and health are stifled leading to use of antibiotics and hormones and of course a shit life. Even in traditional subsistence farming in the Americas the wellbeing of animals is barely considered. It is difficult to see pigs and cows tied on a short leash outside a home, or left to roam in rubbish yards but here animals are seen just as meat and/or money and their happiness is understandably not more important than putting food on the family table.
Thirdly, permaculture has helped given us an understanding of the basic laws of thermodynamics. In any system there are inputs and outputs and permaculture seeks ways to create a closed energy cycle. It is striking how animals require intensive inputs (medicine, grain feed, water, housing, lighting, heating) for relatively little gain. Compared to the yield of the grain or even better food forest, in any given size of land, meat performs badly in these traditional and linear systems when taking into account the full picture of inputs and outputs. What is tricky in countries like the States and England is that these expensive inputs are masked by government subsidies and the relative abundance of cheap oil. Entering the market economy many small scale farmers that get hooked onto the use of herbicides, fertilizers, pesticides, grain feed etc are embraced by the deadly clutches of debt and it becomes very difficult to withdraw from such damaging practices. This is as much a question of agency and recognising that the system is flawed so not laying all the blame at the feet of the farmers.
Having recently read the book Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture, thoughts have included the importance of animals living naturally, meaning as close to how they would live if they were wild. His farm in Austria is an inspiring example of he raises animals practically wild with the animals finding all of their own food, water and medicine in a habitat designed, planted and built to fulfil their natural needs.
Bringing this topic back to the wonderful CRCNL, it was heartening to see an example of farmers caring for their animals and their land within a thought out permaculture system but we still wander if animal rearing is ever the best use of a piece of land on a large scale. We have deepened our understanding of the realities and felt consequences of eating meat which will be difficult to escape, even in England when if buying organic one is freed of guilt, is it as simple as that
As we were. Brendon and Sarah’s house sits overlooking the valley up a number of steps the long corridor with the bedroom, kids room and bathroom to the right leading to an open plan half indoors half outdoors kitchen living space. The outside balcony is strewn with kids toys and a huge blackboard that serves as a tool for Sarah’s home-schooling. We sat outside at the large table having prepared a venerable feast where we talked about everything and anything, we redesigned a permaculture design course, spoke about plans for the farm and how CRCNL organises itself.
[The view from Brendon and Sarah´s house]
Between mouthfuls and playing with the kids on the huge trampoline (which was perhaps the most hilarious thing), cooking, making and sharing we really felt an affinity with Brendon and Sarah. We enjoyed their pragmatic attitude as they just got on with things in such an organised, practical and effective way. It was refreshing having witnessed a fair amount of dreamers along our travels!
Again, we left with heavy hearts and sincerely hope to return one day to see how the little trees and people have grown.
To find out more about CRCNL visit their website HERE.