From Dirt to Forest

This video is a time-travel demonstrating 7 years of evolution of a forest-garden – from nitrogen-fixing ground-cover through to a autonomous and perpetuating food-forest.

Planting a Tilia Tree

Saturday we drove out to our land by ourselves for the first time. We came with the intention of planning a Tilia tree (that we got the day before). It was a beautiful sunny day.

We stopped at our next-door neighbors to ask borrow digging tools. That led to a lengthy and pleasant conversation over coffee and cakes. We got a little better acquainted – they too have recently (a year ago) returned to living on and working their family’s land. We found much in common. We talked about organic farming and permaculture and water and the road that needs to be fixed so that there is reliable decent access to our properties.

We then moved on to our property and began a tree planting ritual. This was an event dominated by Andreea’s wishes and intention and she led the way for us. It was a transitional ritual … letting things from the past come to a rest so that more new things can grow in our lives.

We dug the hole and filled it with water. This turned out to be an excellent water percolation test – we already new that our soil has high clay content – but now we also know that it is very slow percolating as well (something that needs to be factored in our grey water system planning and good for making future ponds). We left the hole and the water to settle and we parted energies for a while. Andreea stayed and I roamed.

Our neighbor’s cows were grazing on our fresh green hill.

I began walking up the long hill that makes up the majority or our arable land.

This time I went all the way up and realized how large it truly is. The top part flattens out so that it is invisible from the bottom. At the very top I found these fresh blossoms:

And then this view to the south-west – at the foot of the hill I am standing on you can see a part of the “road” that reaches our property – currently passable only with a 4×4 vehicle.

As I headed back down I saw Andreea was stil engaged …

By now the sun had moved to the west and offered excellent light on our small valley – so I paused to take yet another panorama (click to zoom in):

I rejoined Andreea and we completed planting the tree and setting up an improvised fence around it to protect it from wild-sheep that roam the area.

Andreea stopped to say hello to the cows, especially a young calf that was grateful for her attentions:

We also revisited the new house markings we left behind during our previous visit and decided to leave our house oriented with the natural curve of the land instead of the precise magnetic north-south alignment. We decided where we will build our compost pile … and finally I took advantage of our car’s 4×4 capabilities and took Andreea up the hill too:

On the way out we stopped by the neighbors to return the tools we borrowed and we were gifted with fresh milk (from the above mentioned cows) and eggs from their farm. It was soooooooooo wonderful to be out there. We hope to complete the acquisition process in the coming weeks and to move out there at the beginning of June.

We will be heading out again this week to meet, together with our neighbors, with the mayor to discuss the issue of the road which needs to be fixed for us to be able to bring in construction materials.

 

Another 1st: Our Car

We wanted to live without a car but we chose to live in a rural area and self-build our home – which pretty much forced us into getting a car. We deliberated what to get for many weeks … we put off making a decision as long as possible. We were intimidated by another large expense taking a bite out of our finite “creating a home” budget. We were also intimidated by the actual act of buying a 2nd hand car in Romania. Finally it became a hindrance and  we had to take action.

Our needs were:

  1. 4×4 to give us access to and from (and on) our land all year long (including snowy winters and muddy springs).
  2. Automatic – Andreea is not used to driving a stick-shift … and thinking into the future of driving with kids in the car … convinced us to go with an automatic.
  3. Not a pick-up truck – although it would have probably been very useful in the short term (construction project) it was (a) too expensive and (b) yearly taxes are higher because it is considered a commercial vehicle.
  4. Limited engine size (2.5L) – again a tax consideration – the larger the engine volume the more expensive the tax – and it rises drastically.
  5. Powerful enough to tow a loaded carriage (instead of the open bed of a pickup truck).

We narrowed our search to Kia Sorento, Nissan X-Trail and Hyundai Tuscon. We had the opportunity to ride and witness the capabilities of the Kia thanks to Horatiu (our architect) who owns one – including driving to and arriving at our property. So we focused on the Sorento.

We were strongly advised against purchasing a 2nd hand car in Romania (poor maintenance, poor roads, unknown and untraceable history, plenty of devious ways to disguise car problems). Instead, we were told to purchase a car in Germany. This used to be a good option until the end of 2010. Then Romanian lawmakers imposed extremely high registration taxes for foreign cars. The tax is based on the car pollution/ecological rating – naturally the older the car the lesser the rating and the higher the tax. These taxes made it irrelevant to bring a car from Germany (or any other country for that matter).

So we started by lots of online searching. At one point, to bring more focus into our efforts, we visited a very large car-market outside of Cluj city and that only fueled our fears. The market was overwhelming and according to rumors (which we could feel in the air) is dominated by local organized crime. So we headed back home happy to have made the effort, but dismayed by its results.

We hit the online searching again and found a very few (we only need one!) appealing cars. We had two primary cars listed (both Kia), one in Bucharest and the other in Costanta (we also had one or two other cars as secondary options in both cities). We were still inhibited and had no specific travel plans (~9 hours by train to Bucharest + another ~4 hours to Costanta) until Horatiu came to our karmic rescue and invited us to join them on a drive to Bucharest. We still deliberated until the last day but decided to jump into the water.

The owner of the Kia in Bucharest was kind enough to come and meet us where we arrived in Bucharest (near Horatiu’s in-laws). We looked over the car, it’s service record and spoke to the owner. Horatiu was again with us and supported us in looking at the car and communicating with the owner. It looked well kept, immaculately serviced and loved by its single owner. It already had a tow-hook installed (valuable for us) and many other extra amenities (less valuable to us). Andreea and I each looked inside our hearts and bodies and then at each other and decided to go for it.

We made an offer that the owner was reluctant to accept. We openly shared with him that we had another similar car waiting in Costanta but that we would be relieved to spend a weekend in Bucharest instead of having to travel to Costanta and happy to buy his car. We asked him to consider it and let us know by the end of the day, so if need be we could prepare to continue our travels the next morning. Later that night he called and agreed.

Despite all the warnings about buying a Romanian car and the nagging bureaucratic processes involved we had a smooth and great experience. The owner was pleasant, understanding and supportive. We drove around the city (making arrangements) with him an entire day and were happy that he was a safe and pleasant driver (not typical of Romanian drivers) which also reflected on his use and care of the car. At the end of the day, having recognized our discomfort in navigating the vast and unfamiliar city, he left us where we were staying and took a taxi back home. He was sad to part with the car. He also invited us to contact him if we have any questions on using and or maintaining the car  … really a great all around experience … and this is now our car:

We are happy to add this to our magical list of firsts:

  • The 1st taxi driver – the one that drove us from the airport when we first arrived in Cluj (and also moved us into our current apartment) was also the driver who took us on our 1st and only tour of the county to Mociu where we found our land.
  • We are currently living in the 1st apartment we saw (though we did see more apartments we came running back to it).
  • Horatiu is the 1st and only architect we met with.
  • Our land in Mociu was the 1st property we listed in our spreadsheet and the 1st and only property we saw.
  • Our house plans, though they have gone through numerous iterations, are true to the 1st sketches Horatiu drew for us.
  • Our car is the 1st car we physically saw.

Our process repeatedly involves a lot of waiting, thinking, feelings, talking and research followed by clear and focused action yielding magical results. We usually arrive with an odd mix of clarity and doubt that together seem to guide us with phenomenal precision.

Today we are going in our 1st car to to our 1st land to plant a 1st tree:)

The Woodman’s Cottage

This comes to us, and you, complement of our architect who, amongst other things, today, presented us with a first 3d model of our future house … and this inspiring movie of a beautiful house:

More behind (and in front of) the scenes of the this project … and this is the construction method – Roundwood Timber Framing:

 

Natural Swimming Pools

Beautiful, inspiring, fun … something to look forward to creating in coming years 🙂

Available on DVD

Lawton’s Guide To Permaculture Design and Strategy

Here’s another 5 part series which demonstrates the diversity of considerations which lead to diversity of crops and foods in permaculture forest-gardens. At least watch the last two parts for a system overview and tour of an actual eco-system which demonstrates the concepts described in the first three parts.

 

We Won’t Be Building with Romanian Hemp, but …

After weeks of observing a sample of the hemp-shivs we found piled up in Carei we decided to use it for construction. But, for reasons too boring to go into here, we had to move the hemp from the huge outside pile into a temporary storage (we could not yet ship it to our house because heavy trucks cannot get there yet and insufficient storage space). Yesterday we headed out to Carie together with Sabin to move our hemp. With the help of our local supporters we managed to find a construction company that agreed to both transport and store the hemp for us.

We started the day (after a 3 hour drive to Carei) by visiting the storage place – which was ample but needed to be cleared out and cleaned a bit. It was south facing which was great as air and sn would have continued to dry the hemp (not to ourselves: Andreea had a bad feeling from whn we arrved at the storage facility).

We thendrove back to the hemp-pile where we met again with Rodica Maxi. It took some time for things to get moving (a tractor for loading and a 30 cubic meter truck for moving transporting the hemp). By this time we were preparing ourselves for an extended visit including one night. It was etsimated that each truck load (including loading, driving and offloading) would last 40-60 minutes. We were planning to move ~14 trucks (for 2 houses) which meant that the job wasn’t going to be completed in a single day.

Finally (at around 12:00) we got a call that the truck was arriving so we headedot to greet and direct it. Here are (left to right) Andreea, Rodica and Sabin waiting for the truck (note o ourselves: a dog got hit and badly injured by apassing truck right before our eyes – we saw it coming and couldn’t do anything about it).

The truck arrived and we headed to work. The top layers of the hemp pile were clearly rotten (not good for construction) and they needed to be pulled off. But as the tractor came in and started moving it around we realized that the rot went deeper.

Though there was plenty of usable material it was mixed in with many rotted pockets and there was no clear or consistent pattern that we could work around. Also, it seemed that the tractor’s gross action was actually messing up what good pockets of material that were still there. So we attempted some manual intervention.

But it just wasn’t meant to be. We looked around, touched the material, dug some holes and there was no feasible way to separate out the good material. The only solution we could come up with involved lots of careful ad caring manual labor (10 people over a week) to create a potentially usable pile of material. That, together with other considerations such as the weather (expected rains) and logistics (loading, moving and storing) piled up to an unattractive solution. So, content with our effort to build with Romaian hemp we decided to abort. Here is Sabin taking one more trip around the pile before we walked away.

This hemp can be a wonderful fertilizer but not much more. In fact Rodica took with her a sack of what looked like beautiful half-composted humus to use in her flower garden (I envied her, I would have loved to have this pile as compost for our land!).

We were only slightly disappointed – as we knew from the start it was a shaky upill effort. We were really hoping to salvage the last available hemp in Romania for the first hemp-lime construction but it didn’t work out.

It was agreat opportunity for us to spend some more time with Rodica who refused to give up, harnessed our passion and energy, made a few calls and an hour later (as were having a late lunch together in a restaurant in town) she informed us that she has probably found an alternative source in Hungary (close to the Romanian border). It is going to be more expensive per ton (minus all the transportation and storage overhead we were ready to endure) but much cheaper then most of the industrial hemp we found in Europe. It is a better quality material, clean and probably packaged. Rodica said she wll be visiting the manufactrer in the coming weeks, she will see the material and send us a sample and also offered assistance in arranging shipping (when we need it, where we need it) through her company. How wonderful 🙂 and the journey continues 🙂

Sepp Holzer – Terraces & Raised Beds

If you start inquiring about permaculture you are bound to run into Sepp Holzer – an Austrian farmer that has been evolutionazing farming for over 40 years. Also, if you start inquiring about permaculture you may, like I still am, feel lost and detached. On the one hand permaculture is a common-sense approach that works with nature, on the other hand it is a vast and intricate web of knowledge and best practices which I have a feeling can best be taken on through years and years of practice.

To me the challenge in making sense of permaculture was where to start. The first step is (by now) obvious to us – observing our land and seeing it’s natural potential and qualities. The next step has been gradually appearing. Though we want to quickly reach personal sustainability (growing our own food) it has become clear to us that we first need to rejuvenate and revive the land (which has been plowed and harvested for many years). But how to do that? Today I found, in a seriese of videos with Sepp Holzer, what looks like the most promising and actionable step in achieving that – terraces and raised beds.

This last video is less about terraces and raised beds and more about logistic, financial and social aspects of Holzer’s work:

Visiting Mociu with the Pros

Last Friday (April 1st) we visited our land in Mociu a 3rd time, this time with a team of professionals. Every visit has awarded us a different color – the first was snow-white, the second earth-brown and this visit was dominated by fresh-greens. The last kilometer of road to our property can hardly be called a road (can only be accessed by a 4×4 vehicle or horse-drawn carriages) so we were fortunate enough to have had a few dry days which meant that the two non 4×4 vehicles managed to get to the property (with their gear) in a round-about way.

The first thing we did was decide on an approximate location for the house. We then planted a first stake to mark the south-east corner. Then the geological testing guys setup their drill in what we later realized was pretty much the center of the house …

… and began drilling to test the composition of the soil which needs to be taken into consideration in designing the foundations.

At first they drilled to a depth of 2 meters and then to a depth of 5 meters. They did an initial analysis using good old human touch (which showed tightly compacted clay) and then packed the materials in plastic bags that were sent off to a laboratory for analysis which will result in a detailed geological report. Here they are going over the findings with Andreea and Horatiu (our architect) as an audience.

Darius is an intern who works with Horatiu and will be involved in our project. He also had a long day of work making sketches and taking measurements of the existing structures. This will help us in landscaping work and in future renovations.

We also had with us a couple who do topographical maps. They set out to measure and map our terrain and the precise location of existing structures and other elements (such as the well) on the property. Here you can see the measurement laser being setup and in the background our neighbor plowing his land.

This was the first time we realized just how large our property was – especially back into the hills behind the existing house.

For the first time, in our presence, someone actually walked up the hill to the border of our property (supposedly marked by a corner-stone). Yes it’s the hills across the valey – and just to give you a sense of distance:

For someone who grew up in a lifestyle where 500sqm was large and 1000sqm was huge … this continues to be mind-boggling … but I am quickly getting used to it (more on that in the future). Here Andreea is explaining where our property ends to the east.

Which is that line of trees behind them:

Meanwhile we completed roughly measuring and marking (with stakes in the ground) the periphery of our future house. Here you can see Andreea stretching a thin rope to mark the periphery and then Horatiu placing the last stake that marks the end of our spacious front porch.

… and then Andreea, having made a full circle made her way back to the first corner post before jumping in joy and giggling crazy 🙂

Andreea and I walked up on the opposite hill to have a look at our property from it’s other end (though we only climbed up half way!).  On the way we encountered the neighbouring property covered by sheep we had seen earlier traversing the top of the hill.

Finally I asked Andreea to walk back ahead of me and to go stand on our future porch – and again to give you some sense of scale:

It was a spectacular day – a huge leap forward. Though it wasn’t physically demanding it was emotionally very intense! Our dream is transforming into a living reality 🙂

 

 

Visiting Malin Hermitage

On the last weekend of March we finally got to visit Malin Hermitage run by Philippe & Adriana. We went for a first of a series of educational & social weekends organized by EcoRuralis that will be taking place there. I gladly accepted an invitation to come and teach Yoga there. We wanted to see the place a few weeks ago while we were searching for land but didn’t get around to it because Mociu appeared in our lives.

The place was cold – too cold – a recurring problem in Romania and an inspiration for us as we hope to demonstrate that better living can be achieved with hemp-lime construction. Though it wasn’t as cold outside as the freezing winter months it was still cold. We slept in sleeping bags on beds in an attic room (you can see the entry to it at the top-right of the image above). When we left the room in the morning it was colder inside then it was outside. It’s a shame that this was a dominant part of our experience – but there it is.

It was spectacular to be on a farm so close to nature and far from a city. There are no phones (lines or cellular) and no electricity  – at night we sat by kerosene lamps. In this “natural” setting nature has both an awesome and obvious presence – it is a huge deal and no big deal at the same time. On Saturday I also witnessed my first Romanian spring rain – it arrived very suddenly and it poured loads of water on us. Water is an amazing natural resource here, which, together with plentiful land makes this country a rich and promising place!

We arrived on friday just after dark – and this is what we woke up to the following day.

Donkeys are the main working animal on the farm

And when they are eating the fresh spring grass they don’t make great conversation and don’t care to be disturbed. This donkey stopped eating long enough to signal Andreea to leave him alone.

The property has two streams running on it. They had a soft flow and according to Philippe they can dry out during peak summer (doesn’t look like enough flow to effectively create hydro-electricity – at least not at this time of year).

Apparently Romanian farmers have an  environmentally destructive habit of clearing fields with fire. It is driven in part by laziness and in part by government regulations. When you own land in Romania you are responsible for maintaining it and not letting it grow wild. Lighting a field on fire is the easiest way to clear it. So to discourage this behavior laws were passed illegalizing the burning of land. So now, Romanian farmers light fires and run away (so as not to get caught and blamed for the fires) leaving the fires to burn out of control. Philippe’s neighbor did this and his fire burned out of control, spread onto Philippe’s land and nearly spread to the neighboring forest:

During the day we sat on the porch behind Phillipe and Adriana’s residence where we had talks and lectures:

Philippe uses old windows to create an incubation space for seeds. Phillipe digs a 60cm deep space in the ground – fills it with 40cm of donkey manure (from a composting pile kept nearby) and then 20cm of composted soil in which the seeds are planted. The manure ferments and generates heat which is locked in by the window which I am assuming also acts as a solar heater too!

A mix of donkey manure water and clay is also used to create a protective “paint” placed on tree trunks to discourage potentially damaging insects.

And despite the vast quantities of rain-water there were plentiful examples, on almost every roof, of water collection barrels using natural forces of water pressure and gravity to provide irrigation.

Finally, one of the greatest gifts of this weekend was some time I spent reading in a two-volume book about Forest Gardens – an evolutionary form of farming/gardening where a forest-like eco-system is created and planted with a diversity of perennial plants. These plants all work together naturally (as do forests) to support and complement one another in creating a low maintenance and abundant eco-system. This means no more plowing the land, no more moving fertilizers from one place to another and no more dependency on oil and fuel for growing food.

I was greatly inspired (and relieved!) by the potential of forest-gardens and it will definitely have a strong effect on the kind of agricultural work we will be doing on our land. I invite you to watch A Farm for the Future to get you started on this path. Stay tuned for plenty more as another of my major pre-conceptions about the world comes crumbling down.