This week I moved down to Nicaragua. After categorically listing the journey I intend to take, I have decided to start on that road by building a small-scale intensive garden for a connection of mine I made when I was previously on Ometepe Island. Morgan, the owner of the hostel for which I’m building a garden, is the kind of man that continuously makes you raise your eyebrows in heartfelt surprise at the many tricks of knowledge he has up his sleeve. On the face of it, his hostel appears as a drinking haunt for half-arsed backpackers trawling the same trail as all the other fish in the sea. But when you look slightly closer at the inner sense of community within his circles, you see a glorious mix of locals and internationals intermingling to get all the jobs done and Morgan flitting between them all with equal understanding, appreciation, and eagerness for each.
When I first suggested to him that I come down and build a garden for his restaurant, I was aware that his whole site was a menagerie of tropical trees and flowers planted himself. However, when I first visited a year ago, I wasn’t looking through permaculture lenses so in reality the true depth of the intricacies of his plantings had never occurred to me. No doubt it doesn’t occur at all to the backpackers who travel through there, distracted by the excitement of their short breaks from regular life, juiced up on alcohol and adrenaline from all the wonderful places they’ve swooped through. It’s not fair to say people don’t notice the beauty, but they don’t necessarily notice the multifunctionality of the beautiful site; me included.
However, this time around I was entering with a new perspective and a different purpose. This enabled me to pop on my observation googles to notice what was hiding among the jungle chaos of the place. I was headed to build a garden on a spot which had previously been used for growing, but had become overgrown. Before I even got to the garden, I noticed that the bar itself is surrounded by a plethora of fruit trees and various other edibles. Mangoes, pineapples, squashes, coconuts, bananas, and plantains are casually hanging around dripping with goodies, and that’s just from a quick glance.
The thing is that the intricate density of all the green that splurges across this climate and landscape is difficult to comprehend. You need to have a helping hand. Often in permaculture we can be a little…let’s say know-it-all. The principles set out by Bill Mollison and David Holgrem have served as a fantastic manual for working; the issue is that often we butt heads with local people when we come in with our white people club of new age farmers and tell them how they should be doing it. I’m not doubting the validity and excellence of permaculture and regenerative agricultural methods, but nobody knows the land better than the people who have had their hands in it every day of their lives.
I’ll be honest, when Morgan introduced me to the garden guys, local guys who had worked there for many years, I was intimidated. These guys have done this every day in the blistering heat, wearing jeans and knocking back whisky while they get the job done. I couldn’t see them really taking my ideas, physical self, or vision seriously. While we want to think that our brand of feminism is the way forward, there’s no escaping the fact that traditionally, women do not work in the fields here. I was prepared for them to reject my capabilities. I was wrong.
They welcomed me into their team with open arms and spent a great deal of the first couple of days helping me with observation. And here is the key. If I had been observing that land on my own, I would have missed many an interesting attribute. These guys helped to point out native foods to me which I would have considered ornamental or weeds, such as the Indian Lettuce and the wild beans that grow here. Equally, they were able to show me where to find wild chillies and neem trees so that I could deal with the insects which ravage non-native plants (another phenomena they told me about).
In the same breath, I was able to describe to them the issue with the slightly wonky terracing, while also explaining sheet mulching as a method to help hold the soil and the water, to assist with the job of the terrace.
Here is the crux; by bringing both sides together, we can expand our belt of knowledge to understanding not only the principles, but site-specific application. It’s really comforting to join an encouraging team and to increase the social diversity to bring all our ideas together. Not only are they ready to listen to my thoughts, they are willing to share their insider knowledge with me, which has been crucial in helping me to design a garden which won’t be reclaimed by the hunger of the tropics!