Author: Tim Hewitt-Coleman
Has the time come for us to start re-ruralizing?
It’s a grey and dreary winter’s day. My thoughts go to Youth Day as I drive down Buffelsfontein road toward my regular Walmer coffee spot. My mind dwells on the sad truth that the passenger seats in my car are all empty. My children have now grown and left this town for a brighter future. No youth in my car this youth day.
My gloomy sadness is interrupted though, by an unfamiliar sight by the side of the road. A makeshift water station on the verge with a number of emergency taps on light blue plastic standpipes. Our answer to “Day Zero,” I am told, has been to drill boreholes in strategic spots and allow people to fill containers of water enough to drink and cook and clean with. Later, over coffee, I can’t help but think, that if ever there was a monument built to mark the failure of government in this town of ours, then these blue standpipes are it. No political argument, no beaming Politian’s picture in the press or free pop concert for the masses can argue away these pipes. They are there standing boldly as monumental evidence of our inability to manage the affairs of this city region. The unavoidable truth is that government is failing at the most basic and fundamental level. Running water and flushing toilets are not rocket science. Running water is the most fundamental and non-negotiable starting point of what we have come to expect from urban living.
I am sorry to tell you though that I really don’t have any answer to the water problem. I’m simply using this very visible failure as an excuse to talk about a question that’s interesting to me right now:
Is it not time we begin to re-ruralise?
Is it not time that we accept that our current system, just does not have what it takes to effectively manage towns and cities? I mean, have you driven down the main road in Humansdorp lately? It’s one continuous pothole. Makhanda has had water problems for years. Mthata is chaos!!
Is it corruption? Is it white monopoly capital? Is it the construction mafia? Is it lazy officials who earn fat salaries but don’t deliver? I’m not interested in those questions right now. I am interested rather to zoom out a bit and consider the slightly larger question of why it is that we, as a civilisation, have decided to build cities and towns in the first place and whether the conditions that seemed to make cities and towns a good idea way back then, still prevail.
I can completely understand why the first towns and cities must have sprung up all those thousands of years ago in Iraq and elsewhere. Back then it was so much easier to get all the cool stuff you needed by living in a city like Eridu. The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker were all right there. By contrast, your rural cousin had to figure out how to make what ever cool stuff he wanted all by himself. Living in the countryside was a ball ache!
With time, through the growth of civilisation, the industrial revolution and right up to the 21st century, cities became increasingly sexy. The city meant, running water and electricity. It meant education for your kids. It meant music and entertainment. It meant fun church and religious activities. It meant access to more potential romantic partners. It meant access to better health care. City living though (for all but the very rich) came at a huge price. City dwellers contend with crime, bad food, air pollution, overcrowding and worst of all; jobs to pay for all these conveniences and cool stuff. But perhaps the biggest price we paid was the loss of our connection with the land, the fresh smell of rain on the soil and the feeling of being part of the glorious living organism that is our mysterious planet.
What I see lately though is a glimmer of an exciting shift brought about by rapidly advancing technology. A discernible adjustment in focus from urban to rural. Thanks to solar and battery technology, we no longer need to live in a city to run a fridge or computer. Thanks to cheap electric pumps and plastic piping, rural homes can have running water and flush toilets. Very soon, even remote rural areas will have super-fast satellite internet. This will give rural people access to the highest quality education through apps like Udemy, the highest quality preaching for the religious-mined though apps like YouTube. It will give access to a huge pool of potential romantic partners through Tinder and Instagram. Sure, living in the city will still give you somethings that you just don’t get in the country, but I am open to the idea that the scales will begin to tip. As city living becomes increasingly less bearable, as we are no longer able to shower or water our tomato plant and as rural living becomes slightly less tedious, we make be shocked to see a landslide of people beginning to Re-ruralise. Of course, this trend will begin with the rich, but as we have seen with all technological change, these trends spread very, very fast to the poor. (Remember how cell phones were first just for millionaires and rock stars?)
Will Banana Circles save the planet?
No they wont. But I have a lot of fun making them : )
How about, Lets work toward a re-ruralised future??
For a very long time the general consensus has been that progress equals Urbanisation. While I can see how the past that we come from relied on technologies and conveniences that were just not available to people in the rural areas, I can see now that a shift in technology (and its nudging along by Covid) has helped many of us to beginning to imagine a re-ruralized future.
I really quite enjoyed this piece below that speaks to some of the key drivers in re-ruralisation thinking.
Swallows at the dam
Architects of the world, please remember the buildings and landscapes you design are habitats for wildlife too. Swallows must make their nests, bees and butterflies must do their thing! There is room for all of us on the planet. It just takes a little mindfulness in the part of decision makers.
The Forgotten Art of Subtraction
Though it really seemed impossible to me at times, I have eventually settled in back at the cottage at Pebblespring Farm. I had set for myself the clear intention of having Christmas lunch with my family at the cottage. I am happy to say, we achieved this objective.
Its been a lot of work getting the cottage into a semi-livable state again . I am not at all happy at all with the way in which the tenant I had treated the place. But I get the sense now that we will chip away at this project in our own time for as long as it takes.
There is something deeply satisfying about being here. Committing my energy to projects that feel that I “own” in someway. I am not exactly sure about why it feels so good, but the “why” of theses things is never really as important as just observing and taking note of the energy as it presents itself in my body and in my sense of well being.
I have been resting as much as I can in between the various cottage and farm projects. In my resting time at the dam in the morning, with my coffee, I have time to think a little. This morning I spent some time thinking about the work I love doing on the farm and in the forest. I notice that this work, over the last few years, has largely to do with taking away what I don’t want. It has largely to do with “subtracting” and not to do with adding. When I am working with the chainsaw removing the alien invasive Inkberry (Cestrum laevigatum) or the Long Leaved Wattle (Acacia longifolia), my strategy has been to remove what I don’t want, quite surgically, then sitting back and watching as the new forest, new life and new beauty emerges. In the forest, I do not plant the new trees. I do not introduce the new life or the new beauty. It simply rises up, as if by magic, after my work of removing and subtracting what it is that I did not want.
When I take the time to sit and think, I notice how so much of what is going on in my life, with Pebblespring Farm for example , is some kind of metaphor, as if though,(in ways I can not possibly understand) my life is “fractal”, where the part reflects the whole and the whole reflects the part. Let me explain what it is that I think I mean. I can see that in my life my task becomes to remove those elements that do not suite me, that are not beautiful to me. Because my life, this existence, what I experience as reality is a living dynamic organism. The forest has a life of its own. It creates new and beautiful things all the time, especially if I can just help it along be subtracting that which is not good and which is not pleasing. (if the forest were pristine, and not infested and invaded by unnaturally introduced alien species, I would of course not need to intervene at all!) The forest is not inanimate. I must do my part, but the forest responds by making making beautiful spaces and views and habitats. I did not make these beautiful things, but here they are, clear as the light of day. And so perhaps in my life, I must be less anxious about what new stuff I feel I should build for myself, but rather spend time focusing on what it is that I must subtract.
I have seen that there are people that have followed a path of “spiritual” discovery that took the dramatic step to remove all the things from their lives. In the ancient way of the Sharman or the Monk, they give up all of their possessions, their loved ones, everything that they may have valued. But is this not perhaps the equivalent of bringing bulldozers to Pebblespring farm and flattening everything down to barren sand and rock. (Incidentally this is exactly what my late neighbor, Richard Hall, did next-door about five years ago at his place and I can tell you the land is lifeless and dead to this day.)
That is not the path I have chosen for Pebblespring Farm and that is not the path I have chosen for my life. Rather than flattening everything I have chosen rather to specifically and surgically remove those parts that do not work for me. In my life and at Pebblespring Farm I have also not opted for an “anything goes” approach. I do not just let the unsightly alien invasive bush take over, I do not allow my life to be taken over by social media or booze or carbohydrates or people that abuse me me. Perhaps the way I have chosen is a “middle way”?
In spite of all of what I have already subtracted, I am acutely conscious that there is still a lot in my life that does not work for me. Commuting does not work for me. Mindless admin does not work for me. Inhuman bureaucracy does not work for me. And people who do not love me. People who do not respect me. People who I do not “vibe” with. (“Vibe” is actually quite a nice word to use in this instance. It hints a the mysterious and unfathomable vibration that is beauty and attraction.)
I have already done a lot in the last few years to make my life simpler. (COVID has been helpful in this regard actually!). There is still a lot of work for me going forward to remove these unwanted aspects from my life. I am conscious that it will take a lot of time. But I must work methodically and consistently, but not so hard that I loose myself, and that I forget what I am trying to do in the first place. I must not allow myself to become so numb and so beaten that I cannot see the beauty. Because if I cant see the beauty, I will loose the energy I need to continue in the exercise of subtraction.
Perhaps I will report back on my progress here on this blog from time to time. Who knows??
Self and other
I have been spending evenings lately listening to Alan Watts. He has a whole bunch of stuff on YouTube, all recorded before he died in 1973, but lovingly uploaded more recently to the internet by followers from all over the world. He speaks so incredibly eloquently about matters of Zen and Tao an so much of what we says resonates very deeply with me.
What I am thinking of tonight is the phenomenon that Alan Watts speaks of in our tendency to for us to obsess about separating our “self” from the “other” and how actually if one looks closely enough, we begin to see how it is we are in fact a lot more integral with the reality around us than what we say we are. It seems to me that we make attempts all the time to play this game of separation: We see ourselves as separate from nature, even to the point where forget we are animals. We see ourselves and different and distinct from the thousands of gods we have embraced across many civilizations and cultures. We see our gods as the “other”.
We take this idea of “self” and “other” even further into the game we play within our own species where at a group level, we separate, our class, our religion, our nation as distinct from the other. We have often even made war along these lines. Killing and maiming ourselves in the process.
But is it not interesting to see that we are not happy to stop even there. Rather we insist even in our individual selves to create separation. We great a separation between our role as son and as father, as lover and as worker. We even wear separate “uniforms” at work and at home. We have a separate uniform for going to church and for playing golf, we even have pajamas as our “uniform” for sleeping. All of this in a desperate attempt to convince ourselves of the illusion that everything is separate. Well it is not! Everything is part of everything else. This is just the simple truth.
So in a small way perhaps, I see the move back to Pebblespring Farm and other lifestyle design steps I have taken, as an attempt to work against the drive toward separation. Because if there is no separation between work and home, perhaps it is a simpler task to get to a point where these is no separation between attraction and action or work and leisure. Where there is no separation between my health and the health of my business and there is no separation between the health of my business and the health of the people I employ and there is no separation between my prosperity and the prosperity of my clients.
There was a time when I was self conscious of over thinking things or sounding “too philosophical” But now as I am older. I am wiser. I realize that actually that is exactly the game I like to play. The game of “seeing the world in just one grain of sand” The game of treating what comes to me in my life every day as having some special, mystical meaning and significance just for me. Life’s just more fun this way! It makes me take everything that much more seriously!!!
Back to the Land (again)
1 October 2021
So, I have told you before about how what I thought was going to be a 3 week “camp” at the flatlet at my office for the Covid lockdown became a slightly extended affair. I very soon realized that I would not be able to get back to Pebblespring Farm any time soon. So, I made the very painful decision half way through last year to let out the cottage on the farm. I was relieved to find a tenant and was very happy to see that they were even able to do some small farming in the time they were there. If I had left the place unattended I have no doubt that it would have been vandalized and overrun by vagrants and poachers (in the same same way it was when I found it before buying the place). As we speak though, the tenant’s 12 month lease now comes to an end on the first of October and I am eagerly counting down the days until I can restart my adventure at Pebblespring Farm.
But some things have changed in my thinking over the period of Covid and the various categories of lockdown we have lived though. Firstly, I have really gotten quite used to the idea of living where I work. While I know that for many people across the world this has meant that they have been able to work from home, for me it came to mean that I was required to live at the office. But the point is that I quite like it that way. I quite like the idea of not having to commute. I quite like the idea of having only one internet connection, one armed response, one garden to rake the leaves up out of, one bathroom to keep clean, on fridge in which to keep the milk for my tea…… I think you follow my thinking here.
So as I write these words (and perhaps the reason I am writing these words) is that I am thinking through the detail of my next step. What I am sure of is that I will begin to get the cottage ready for me to move into it as soon as the tenants move out. What I am equally sure of is that I will then move back to the farm. What I am not sure of is, if, how and when I will get the office to follow me there. There are a number of things to think about:
1 – I will have to beef up security here at my office, if the dogs and I are no longer sleeping here. But this is of course a short term problem. While I can see that there may be a transition period where I am again sleeping at the farm and commuting to the office, the idea is to remove myself from the the Walmer property completely. (if I do remain involved with it, it will be as a developer and and investor, not as a tennant)
2 – My colleagues working for me, may not be too happy about commuting out to the farm every day, but then again its only 20 kms or so and it is against the flow of traffic. I do quite like the idea of physically working together in one space for a good portion of the day. While I have found that during hard lock down, we could work apart, I see that there are definitely some efficiencies that come from us being just a “shout over the shoulder” away from each other.(in fact I am even a little worried about making this post because – I have not yet sat down with and spoken through the detail of the move, mainly because I am not clear on the details)
3- What I have noticed is that the need for a boardroom for client meetings has drastically reduced. And also, if there were a need for a client meeting, it can easily be redirected to another venue (what I am saying is there would be no need to inconvenience clients by having them drive out all the way to Pebblespring farm for a meeting.)
4- It is also really quite handy to have an easy to reach address (like sixth avenue Walmer, where things can get dropped, either by Takealot or Checkers sixty60 or by clients, contractors of suppliers)
5- Then the other concern I have is the “what will they say?” concern. And I suppose that is one of those questions that lurks in the back of my mind and then once I expose it to scrutiny kind of evaporates. Who is the “they”? Why do I think that “they” will have anything to say at all? I do suppose there is something to say for PR – It would not be useful to me in business if the “talk” was that my moving out of Walmer was to be understood in some way as me closing down or scaling down my business.
6 – There are a whole lot of things that I like about living in Walmer – I like to be close to the gym. I like the place where I drink coffee in the mornings. I like the fact that I can get things delivered quite easily here.
So if those are the top 6 things that are bugging me. Let me think through here what options I have.
Firstly I think it is important to have some presence in town. I suppose I can achieve that by partnering with a friend in business – Perhaps put up some signage at their office gate – so if someone were to drop something for us they would see us. Maybe even a place where one of us could work for a short while, though, I think a coffee shop is perfect for that. Or perhaps we have no presence at all (in terms of signage) – We simply have a “drop box” an address in Walmer from which things can be collected or at which things can be dropped. The more I think of it, the more that I see that it is really not a very big issue.
There may be a need for a boardroom table from time to time, but these events will happen with such advance notice that theses meetings could very easily be held at the offices of a friend in business or at at coffee shop, or in extreme case at hired meeting spaces.
The problem of my colleagues commuting: The obvious answer there is to clear my vision in my head as best as possible and then to sit down with each of them individually and work out a solution. It may be that I need to increase a salary slightly to accommodate the increased monthly fuel bill. It may be that I would need to agree to greater “work from home time” I don’t know, but the meetings will guide me.
Then there is the matter of what is the PR message here? And I thing that can play out very well. I think the idea can be celebrated as a time appropriate response to the times. I can be celebrated as a leveraging of the technology that we not have to begin to live and work more where we choose and not where we are compelled to because of convention. Yes – I think I can get this message out there in a way that it is seen as positive and progressive.
But on a personal level. What do I do about my gym routine? What do I do about my coffee routine. I quite like the light an loose social interactions here. I don’t see myself driving all the way in the morning to the gym here. That would be counter-productive. I suppose the answer is, we will just have to see what new routine and rhythm grows up out of this change – and you know what – worst case scenario – move back to Walmer – for heavens sake – all of this is undoable!!
The Tao of the Farm
The true story of one common soul’s search for his own nobility.
These few essays are not about the Tao, nor are they necessarily about farming, but rather I would say it is about freedom. I would say it is about coming to see how your and my freedom has been slowly and systematically taken away and more importantly it is about what actions you and I can take today to reclaim this lost freedom. Because you, like me, are probably living a modern urban life. You probably have a job. Your kids probably go to school and you are probably paying a mortgage bond. In all likelihood, you have a routine of working at a job during the week and taking weekends off to do the things you like to do or perhaps even just rest enough to be able to face another workday at your job that you dread going back to on Monday mornings.
The reason you, and me and other people we know put up with this routine; this pattern, is because “everybody knows” that there is no other way. “Everybody knows” that this is the best we can do, and that we are far better off than those people starving in Somalia, who do not have a modern economy that affords them the luxury of having a job and being able to send their kids to school. Even in your own city or town you see that you are better off than the guy on the street corner begging for coins or the people we see on the news that are dying from Cancer, Aids or Diabetes. In this way we begin to censor ourselves. Censor our own thoughts. When, in the rare moment, we are not numbed by TV or beer, we hear the faint thought that asks: “Is this all there is?” or “Does it have to be so hard? We immediately censor the thought as self-pity or as outrageous, stupid fantasy. We crack open another beer and flip through the channels. Confirmation and comfort comes in the form of explicit graphic images of some war ravaged, disease infested shit hole somewhere in the world that is much less comfortable than your fake leather couch. “And anyway there’s a match on this afternoon, let’s see when that starts”.
My programing, my default view, has therefore become, “this is just the way things are”. Go to school, get a job, have wife and kids, stick with it, it will all be over soon and then I’ll die. Your programming may be like mine. I suppose the belief I have somewhere in my sub-conscious mind is that this is a “Law” of sorts. Perhaps like the law of gravity or the law that governs the speed of light. It’s just there and to push against it is just a futile waste of time that makes everyone unhappy. This law of “the way things are” does make provision for one or two of us to be rich and have more stuff. This requires hard work, luck or the risk of prison. So you, like me, have probably opted for hard work, because we know that we have no control over the forces of luck and we fear that our families would be uncared for and unhappy if we end up in prison!
As it turns out, we are now made to understand that the very way we are living (this way of living that makes us so miserable) is also the cause of massive, probably irreversible damage to the planet. The way we live uses up huge amounts of fossil fuels sending millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere, where it will probably, for come complicated and technical reasons, cause global warming and destruction of all the ecosystems our history has ever known. The way we live, we are told, is also causing billions of people to live in real poverty, with real starvation (the kind where there is no food to eat). We are told that because of unfair international trade, or urbanisation or global financial turmoil, or over population, that these people are required to face a miserable future. So, in summary, because of the “middle class” urban lives (that make you and I miserable), we have a sick planet with a lot of starving people. This “inconvenient truth”, makes us even more miserable, as we find that the very lifestyle that is making you and I feel trapped into, is also devastatingly destructive and completely unsustainable. So, on top of our boredom with the nine to five, on top of our frustrations with uncaring, machinelike corporations and institutions, we now have to deal with the guilt of destroying the planet. But we do deal with it, we do move on, because we know that this is “the law”, this is “how things are”. It’s like the “law of the jungle”, “survival of the fittest” and “dog eats dog”. I reassure myself that there can be no other way.
But what if my middle-class urban existence is not the inevitable reflection of a series of predetermined laws? What if there is another way? That’s the question I ask in this book. I ask this question now, at this time, because it’s been something I have been thinking about a lot the last while, especially since 2014, when I bought Pebblespring Farm, a discarded and marginal 10 hectare piece of land on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth. There is something that attracts me to live on a farm, and something that has attracted me to this particular site. I see in it so much beauty. When I am on the land I feel a deep love of the place. I don’t understand it completely, I am just sharing with you that there is some kind of strong and positive emotional connection to the land. And also perhaps that the beauty I see at Pebblespring maybe be something that not everybody sees. The reason I suspect that this is the case is because the farm has been abandoned for probably 20 years. No one has seen enough beauty to convince them to make the purchase. I did make the purchase. I was able to do so because, in line with the law of the middle class, we were favoured because of hard work and luck.
The point though, is that working with this land over the last year has led me to ask:
- “Is there not another law or set of laws that could order our lives?”
- “Is there not a law that is in place, but that we have been ignoring?”
- “Is it not possible, that we have been hurting ourselves and the planet because we have forgotten about these laws? “
So I ask the question:
“Have we forgotten THE TAO OF THE FARM?”
But why am I talking here of the Tao of the Farm, but not of the law of the factory? Why not the law of the butchery or of the bakery or the law of candlestick making? What is it about the farm that makes it significant? Why not the law of the hunter or the law of the gatherer? I would say that I am pondering the Tao of the Farm because farming is not just another job or another way to make a living. I see the farm rather as a concept of how to care for the earth. When we, as humans, invented the idea of the farm, we began for the first time to explore the possibility that we can live on this planet by caring for it not just taking from it. We began to explore the idea of being custodians of a small patch of land and looking after it in such a way that is houses us, clothes us and feeds us. To this day all of us, anywhere in the world remain part of the farming idea and the farm economy every time we eat breakfast, lunch or supper. Every time we wear cotton or leather, every time we put sugar in our tea or cream in our cappuccino. But today of course, what we call farms and where we get out food is very far away from the early ideas that gave birth to the concept of farm. Contemporary farms resemble factories or mines. Factory chickens, factory pigs, poisoned orchards and mechanised milking parlours. No, this is not the picture I hold in my mind when I consider the Tao of the Farm. Rather the picture I have is the small, mixed use family farm that I know from nursery school stories of the English countryside with Peter Rabbit, old Macdonald and Postman Pat. The picture in my head is of the farms that I have read about in China, Korea and Japan, where small patches of land have been farmed productively and continuously for the last four thousand years and farmed in such a way as to add to their fertility and to their biodiversity. This is the picture I have my head when I speak of the Tao of the Farm.
The idea of the farm has of course been hijacked by feudal lords in Europe, Central government in China and more recently the massive corporations of the US and of international capital. In many ways the “agri-business “has come more and more to resemble the attitude of the hunter gatherer. “Let’s take all we can now and hope it grows back”. This strategy was of course completely appropriate to the hunter gatherers that predated the invention of agriculture because the populations were so sparse that there was never really a problem when we needed to move on to the next virgin forest or wide open savannah when we had killed of all the mammoths or fallow deer or whatever it was we were harvesting form the environment. The difference, that of course any grade three can point to, is that once agri-business has poisoned the soil and stripped it of all its nutrients in exchange for a few good years of soya bean, maize, sugar cane or wheat, it cannot move on to the next wide open savannah or virgin forest. We are all farmed out! New land is just not available at the rate that agri-business is destroying it.
So, to be clear, agribusiness does not understand the Tao of the Farm and agribusiness is not what I am talking about when I use the term “farm” in this book.
But what about the term “law”? Well, in my work and career as an architect I have come to see that understanding the “law” does not limit or inhibit creativity. I suppose law would be the opposite of creativity, if all I did was to learn the laws and then live in fear of breaking them. But I have come to see that by learning the law of the brick, its properties, what loads it can bear, when it will crack, what weather it can resist, I come to be able to shape it, to create walls of many shapes, housing many functions. And so with the law of glass, the law of timber, the law of oil on canvas, the law of steel and aluminium. By knowing the laws of materials and components and by knowing how they respond to each other, the skilled architect is able to make beautiful spaces out of plain objects. In this way too, for me to build a life that is rich and beautiful, I have to make every effort to discover what are the “laws” that govern how things are. What are the fundamental properties of modern existence? Because if I know these laws I can design a life for myself, my family and my community that is beautiful and that is so much more than the stuff, the resources, the materials we have employed to build it.
What follows in these pages is not an attempt to hand down a new list of laws. Like Moses tried to do when he came down from Mount Sinai. No! Not at all. Rather, by just reflecting one small part of my own life experience, and pointing to the obvious ”laws” that reveal themselves there, I know that I will open your heart and your mind to the possibility that your sub-conscious has been sold the idea that our lives are governed by a whole lot of laws, that we can actually consciously replace with a whole lot of more useful ones.
This is my wish for you.
Tao of the Farm – Principle Number 1:
“One plus one equals three.
In the last few months, I have been planting fruit trees and nut trees on the farm. In between them I have been planting berries. I have taken quite a bit of effort to prepare the land using a system of swales constructed on contour that will help to retain moisture and soil nutrient. As these swales weave their way through pasture and bush, I have cleared to unwanted invasive species and have used their timber in the base of the swale mound to form the basis for composting that will take place over time. It’s a very old system of planting and I have done what I can to read as much as I can about it. But regardless of the preparation I have done for my apples, mulberries, figs and lemons, it comes down to digging and hole and planting a tree. (One hole plus one tree). Every one of us knows since we were two years old that one hole plus one apple tree does not give a hole and a tree, rather it gives and abundance of apples, shade, blossoms, wood and pleasure for a hundred years. In the case of the apple tree one plus one does not equal two. It equals two million perhaps.
I suppose one hole and one apple tree does only equal a hole and a tree in some laboratory somewhere, which will control the environment in such a way as to ensure that there is no sunlight causing photosynthesis, that there is no water in the soil to feed the roots, that there are no organisms to transform the organic material into beneficial nutrients. Then I am sure the tree will not grow, proving that one plus one does equal two. But thankfully we do not live in that laboratory. Where we live and where I plant my trees on the farm one plus one does definitely not add up to two. But where we work and where we play out our middle-class lives, those that try to sell us stuff or buy our time present “one plus one is two” as a fundamental law of the universe. One month’s work equals one month’s wage, because “money does not grow on trees” One hamburger can be bought for the cash price required of one Hamburger, because “you get nothing for nothing”.
There is of course nothing wrong with arithmetic. On a chalkboard, in a grade one class, one plus one must remain two, but in so many other situations the law is not useful to us at all. It is especially not useful to us in the way in which corporations and institutions make every attempt to make us believe this law in order to remained trapped in the systems that they need to keep us trapped in, using schemes like:
- One lifetime dedicated to one corporation equals one pension funded retirement.
Now, let me look at my own life. What can I do with my new understanding of the law “One plus one equals three?” Not everyone has a farm on which plant apple trees of course, but what can we do that will show massive dividends later? What can I do today that has a lasting impact that does not require me to labour over it day and night? What lasting things can I do today, that keep on paying dividends? What if I did one thing a week that would have lasting impact? So much of what we do is wasted. If I wash my car today, I have to wash it again tomorrow. If I watch TV tonight, I have nothing to show for it in the morning. But if I tile my bathroom, or arrange photos in my photo album, or paint a picture, or write a poem, these things are lasting and keep on giving much more than once. This is where our focus must be. Where we must do things or buy things that are temporary, let’s set a rule. Let’s not buy anything that will not last five years. Be it shoes, or a jacket or a cap or a skateboard. Let these items keep paying dividends for years. Let’s make a rule to cut down on those things we spend time and money on that don’t deliver dividends. I am not saying you should not from time to time splash out and have a great steak at a restaurant, but to invest time and money in drinking a R200.00 bottle of wine every night is to become addicted to a passing pleasure that could rather have been a lasting gift.
The Fashion industry is capitalisms mechanism for making us all believe that we must keep on paying. Fashion tries to get us as close to the ideal of “use it once” as they can. I know women that will not be seen in public wearing and outfit that they have already been seen in. (I am sure that there are men who behave in this way, it’s just that I have not yet met them) The fashion mind-set began with clothing, but there are clever “marketing gurus” that have managed to shift the focus into music, automobiles and electronic devices. I am not suggesting that the new car is not better than the old one. I am saying that we are motivated to buy the new gadget only partly because it is better and largely because it is more fashionable to do so. What I am saying is that the iphone 3 is a fantastic piece of technology. There are very few practical reasons why we could not allow the gift to keep on giving, but we don’t allow it to do so, we buy the iphone 4, then the I phone 5, then the iphone 6. We do this because we are not open to the idea of investing once and then allowing ourselves to receive multiples of one. We are not open to the idea that one plus one can be equal to more than two.
In relationships we are the same. We limit ourselves. We do not invest in a handshake, or a smile or a bit of meaningless banter with a stranger, because “it’s not worth the effort” We expect in return at best only a smile, or a handshake or a bit of meaningless banter. (at worst we fear that we won’t even have the smile returned, and we will be left in deficit) If though, in our minds we can begin to expect, even demand, that a smile will be returned as a smile and perhaps a warming chat, or an exchange of useful information, or a hug, or a kiss, or a lifelong relationship including seven children and big house in Plettenberg bay, then we will begin to receive those in return. We must though, begin with the expectation that it is absolutely normal and natural to receive a lot more than we give. That is the way of the living universe. That is the Tao of the Farm.
Tao of the Farm – Principle number 2:
“If your hens don’t lay, you can’t eat omelettes.”
I have been struggling to get our chickens into proper accommodation. I moved them to the farm a couple of months ago already now as part of a massive back yard clean-up campaign in the build-up to the big party we had at home toward the end of last year. The chickens were hurriedly put into a two metre by two metre box. Well it’s not really a box, more like a frame, a box without a top or a bottom. It was built hurriedly in July last year as a temporary structure to hold the newly born puppies that were running amok and getting themselves drowned in the pool. I am generally reluctant to throw good stuff away and thought it was very creative of me to re purpose the puppy box into a chicken box. I moved it to the farm, put a bit of chicken wire over the top nailed a little egg box in one corner and we were in business, we had a portable structure that we could use to pasture our hens. Moving them to fresh grass everyday where they can scratch and dig and set there manure down in such a way that it is a huge benefit and not a toxic problem requiring hours of our precious time to clean, cart and sanitise. And after all, we had tried pasturing poultry this before with broilers in the suburbs so I was pretty pleased with myself for the quick thinking re[purposing project. Taking a pile of old wood that was surely headed for the tip and turning it into an egg producing, pasture fertilising machine. Absolutely brilliant!
The mongoose, or whatever it was that found the pastured poultry pen on night number three, had other ideas. On the morning of day four we found a hen dead and with a hole ripped in its stomach and its intestines ripped out. On the morning of day five we found another hen, this time with its head gone and a similar problem of missing intestines. The best that I could figure is the chicken thief was squeezing under the frame in the small gaps between the timber and the grass. It was killing and eating inside there and then getting out the way it came in after it had had its fill. I was deflated. You and the family were kind. You only went on with “why didn’t you just…” and “wouldn’t it be better if?…” for about a week. I was let off lightly. But we did find a solution, after reading the farming a permaculture websites and forums, I came across and American farmer, Joel Salatin’s suggestion that foxes on his farm are discouraged by a metre wide “apron” of chicken wire around the pen. Apparently the fox is not bright enough to know not to start digging a metre before the pen to dig under the apron. I tried it out and yes it works (on what I still only suspect is a mongoose problem.) The chickens have survived every night since then, but still no eggs. I am not sure what the problem is, perhaps they are being harassed so much every night that they are too stressed to lay? Perhaps the ratio of roosters to hens is now wrong (since the mongoose took hens and not roosters? I don’t really know. But there are no eggs.
Now to make matters worse we have puppies in the house again. Our beautiful mommy dog, a gracious, gave birth to 11 lovely puppies, five weeks ago. This week one little puppy accidently got out of the secure area and stumbled into the swimming pool and drowned. Everyone was in tears. We had a crisis. I have been having a busy time in the office so the best solution we could come up with is to hire a trailer, go fetch the puppy box, which has now become hen box and turn it back into a puppy home. This is what we did. The problem of course is that the chickens are now in very temporary accommodation and I am hoping will all survive the sly mongoose until tomorrow, Saturday, when I can spend the morning making more permanent accommodation for these incredible animals.
In a roundabout way, what I am saying is the seemingly simple task of getting eggs from the chickens actually takes a lot of care, effort and management. Those that do it well make it look very easy. I soon will become one of those that make it look easy. But right now, even though my hens are not laying, I am still eating omelettes. Through some fortune, I am able to sell some other goods and services in order to get money to buy eggs. There is nothing wrong with this system of trade. In fact it is a very clever mechanism; it can though cause us to begin to create in our minds a distorted view of reality; a view that dislocates the desire to eat omelettes from the desire to learn how to care for hens. Our system can create an illusion in our minds that in some way those that live around us, in the same city or the same country owe us omelettes or owe us a living. That we are somehow entitled to be given stuff.
Giving is a very good thing to do. In fact, I make the effort to give as often as I can, especially to people I can see really need help. But when I give, part of my duty to the person receiving is not to allow his mind to be poisoned with some irrational belief that he should expect me to keep giving to him. If I fail in my duty, he may come to forget that it is a fundamental law of how things work that you have to put in the effort, physically, mentally and spiritually. He may come to forget Tao of the Farm – Principle number 2: “If your hens don’t lay, you can’t eat omelettes”. I may even have left him worse off that when I found him if I don’t take the effort to help him see this. So, in my life I try to remind myself, as often as I can to stay real in that way. I try to stay observant. If things are coming too easy, yes, I celebrate, but no I don’t take it for granted. I don’t expect it will stay good forever, because I know time will correct the situation because of the fundamental laws that are in place. If I have not made the effort, then I should not expect any reward. If something has come my way out of luck, I count it as a windfall, a lucky break and I make every effort not to allow my mind to expect it to happen again. This is the Tao of the Farm!
Tao of the Farm – Principle number 3:
“You can’t become a shepherd by reading about sheep”
Perhaps a real adventure is one where you really don’t know where you are going to end up. I can see now that our adventure of perusing the farm Goedmoedsfontein has been just such an adventure. I am still not completely sure where the adventure is going to lead, but for better or worse we have caught the train and we are headed out of the station.
In March 2013 I secured and option to purchase this beautiful 10 hectares. It has spring, a stream and a dam. It has some forest, some grassland and some marsh. It is just the right distance from town, in the country, but still allowing our kids to go to school in the city. Just close enough for people to be able to drive out to the farm and buy their weekly supplies of eggs, chicken, boerewors and other fresh produce we dream of marketing from the little shop (or a ruin of a shop that we intend to renovate back to a shop) that is on the farm.
We managed to sell some property to raise the cash that helped us secure the difference between what the bank would loan us and what the sellers wanted. The funny thing is that I didn’t feel so much that the “train had left the station” when the sellers accepted our offer, or when the bank approved the finance or even when I paid the deposit to the conveyancers. In fact, I only felt it on the weekend we brought nine of or our cattle to the newly purchased farm from where we were keeping them in Tsitsikama (a hundred and fifty kilometres away to the west)
I had worked hard the week before to create fenced pasture for them. It measures about 40 by 60 metres. The pasture is good. I rigged up a water supply from a rainwater tank which I haphazardly installed to catch some runoff from the roof of the cottage. We loaded these cattle up on a hired trailer on the Saturday afternoon and drove them to the farm. It was the first time had loaded cattle or pulled them on a trailer. It was quite scary. Number one it’s a heavy load and you can’t go very fast and number two these guys kept jumping around causing the trailer to sway uncontrollably. It was not fun.
After this exhausting journey we got the trailer as close as we could to the new paddock (but this was still the other side of the stream). We let them off the trailer and they scattered in all directions. If my son, Litha was not there I don’t know what I would have done. But we eventually got them herded together and moving slowly in the direction of the paddock into which we managed to secure them. I was exhausted by the time I got home, and a bit shaken by the experience. The next morning, Sunday, Litha and I drove to the farm. All nine seemed quite restful. Some were mooing for their mothers (even though they were quite a bit over 12 months old they had not been weaned at Tsitsikama) All seemed fine, but when I came back on Sunday afternoon, I found the whole herd out. I was alone. I ran around like crazy at first trying to direct them back, but they were determined to get away from the paddock. I called my neighbour, Richard. Luckily, he was in he and a friend came to help. We got them in, and I spent the rest of the evening trying to make the fences more secure. But the more I tried the more I could see that two black cattle were absolutely determined to escape they pushed at the fences and then over they went. By this time, it was about 8 pm. I called Litha. I stayed by the fence that had just been jumped to be sure the others would not also come out. They did not and eventually the you and the family arrived and herd to two black cattle back from the tar road where they had got to so that I could get them back in the paddock.
With family back home preparing for the first day of school the next day, I sat in the dark at the farm watching the fence, stepping up every few minutes to beat a cow back from the fence it was trying to trample. It was a losing battle. By about 10 pm as the rain was starting to come down, the two belligerent black cattle again jumped the fence. I had no choice but to let them go. I was hopeless to try no again to find them in the dark and what’s more the remaining seven cattle seemed reasonably complacent and not intent on leaving the paddock any time soon. I went home, defeated and depleted, to sleep. In the 20 minute ride back home I could not shake the stress. I was upset. I was rattled and I was exhausted. I did not sleep well. My mind was racing, fearing the sort, fearing the whole herd was now dispersed all over the neighbouring farmlands. But I knew there was nothing that I could do till the morning.
I left home at 5:30 am. I found a job seeker next to the road near the farm before 6 am (I could not believe my luck that there would be someone there that early – his name was Marius) Marius and I found the two black cattle heading toward us on the side of the road. They were reasonably easy to herd back and seemed quite relaxed and content to be re-united with the group they had abandoned the night before. I was relieved that the others had not also jumped the fence. Marius worked the whole day with Boyce to get the fences as strong as we could get them. I had to go in to the office for some crucial meetings. By the time I got back to the farm in the afternoon the cattle were all still in, but the two black cattle were mooing loudly again and looking agitated. As sure as anything right in front of my eyes the two black cattle jumped the fence again.
Richard from next door gain came to my rescue, suggesting that we separate the two black cattle out. He arranged for them to be located on his neighbours land were 2.4m high electric fence contained them that night. I kept the remaining seven on my side that night and set up the portable electric fence for the first time. When I went the next morning to drop Marius, they were happily inside the paddock. As I write this now at home 20 km away from the farm, I am feeling less anxious about the cattle on the farm. I don’t feel anxious about them at all. A year has passed since I brought the cattle to Pebblespring, but I look back and see how bringing them there definitely jolted me into a place in which I was uncomfortable. This was not theoretical anymore. I was not a spectator to the spectacle.
I had read a lot about cattle. I had quite liked Joel Salatin’s book “Salad Bar Beef”, I had tried to wade through Alan Savoury’s “Holistic Management”. I had even ventured beyond the printed page and run some cattle down in Tsitsikama by proxy, with other people doing the dirty work. But reality of this experience was large and in my face. It threatened my resolve, it got me thinking an doubting in a way that no book could do, because at the end of the day there is no way we can ignore Tao of the Farm – Principle number 3 “You can’t become a shepherd by reading about sheep”
But you know that I do not want to talk to you about sheep. You know that I am trying to point out how you and I can benefit significantly from getting out hands dirty with real experience, real risk and real discomfort. Of course, we must read, of course we must research, this is what distinguishes us for the other species, the ability to learn from each other and from generations that have passed. But there has been no generation like this one, so completely obsessed with media, so completely obsessed with reading writing, watching and listening. So much time spent spectating and only perhaps commenting, when we feel energised and confident, on the spectacle. We have become consumers of other people experiences and other people’s lives.
What do I say to all of this? Just don’t fall into the trap. Rather do something, take action, physical action. Run a race. Play and match. Climb a mountain, chop down a tree, plant a tree. Sure, talk about it if you have done it. Write about it if you have done it. Post videos on Youtube if you have done it.
But first do something!
Tao of the Farm number Principle Number 4:
“You are not the first person to plant a lemon tree”
As I write this, I have just returned from a weekend visit to “Babylonstoren”, a beautiful wine farm somewhere between Paarl and Stellenbosch. It has beautiful vineyards and fine examples of historic Cape Dutch architecture, but more than anything else, it is the gardens that leave a lasting impression. The three-hectare garden is expansive and is set out as a long rectilinear grid and irrigated with a water channel that runs along is length down the gently slope.
The gravel pathways form blocks which frame different zones of fruits, vegetables, poultry, herbs and flowers. It is a beautiful place, but at the same time is a fully functional, productive garden producing the highest quality produce for the three restaurants and shop on the site. The gardener is highly knowledgeable, as have been the gardeners that took care of gardens just like Babylonstonern in the cape since the time on the Company Gardens in Cape Town in the 1600s. The point of course is that gardening is not something new. People have been perfecting this art for thousands of years. Each generation of gardeners has worked to make slight improvements and modifications to the work of the previous generation. No successful gardener has ever plunged themselves into an open field armed with only muscles and a spade. Of course effort is the key ingredient. But in as much as the Tao of the farm – Principle Number 3 is true when it says that reading about sheep does not make you a shepherd, it is also true that there is a huge volume of information available to be passed on about any conceivable subject, including becoming a shepherd and including planting a garden.
At Pebblespring Farm, I have planted one or two lemon trees, but I simply don’t have 10 years to wait to see if this particular variety grows well in the particular spot I have chosen for it, with its particular soil and moisture characteristics. To short cut this process, I talk to other gardeners, I read books, I Google, I travel to Cape Town and visit places like Babylonstoren. Why? Because it’s all been done before and if I am thorough in my research, I will be sure to able to take advantage of the learning hundreds, perhaps thousands of years of lemon tree planters across the world. By playing my cards right I can obtain the power and clarity that would otherwise only be available to me if I had lived for many generations.
This is of course true whether I am interested in planting lemon trees, learning the art of Kung Fu or the craft of knitting a jersey. Invariably what we are trying to do has already been done, and if we look hard enough, we are able to find the stories of those that have done it. I have seen though in my own life, that finding the information is not difficult. What is often difficult for me is that, faced with the huge quantity of available information, the process of trying to consume it becomes all consuming. The balance between research and action becomes distorted and I end up binging on information: books, movies, travel, blogs tweets and Facebook pages. In the same way perhaps as the obese load up with so much energy giving food that they eventually become so heavy that they are not able to move to use up the energy, causing them to become immobile and to the point where the only action they are capable of is to take in more food.
My view then is that we must rather be led by action than be led by research. Let us push forward with our mission to the point where we can see that we can no longer advance because of our lack of knowledge. We will know when we have reached this point because a question will begin to formulate in our mind. We will start digging the hole for the lemon tree, and a question will begin to formulate. “How deep should this hole be?” Once we know the question, it’s quite easy for us to know where to look and to find the answer. The research then directs our next action. We dig the hole to the required depth only to be faced with the question of soil preparation. Should we fill the hole with compost, or should it be manure? Do we need to increase the acidity; do we need to make it more alkaline? As we proceed in our action, we are prompted in research. The research then prompts us into further action. It sounds obvious I know, but actually what I am suggesting is completely in contradiction to our contemporary education system which at very least creates the impression in people’s minds that education and training is what happens in that part of your life before you start working. So we” frontend” twelve or seventeen years of schooling into a young life at an age where working is frowned upon and even illegal. Once this stage is over, we enter our working lives where research is most often seen as a diversion or a destructive waste of time to the point where Google may be disabled on your company PC.
But don’t worry about all of that. Rather you just be sure that:
· Number one, you know your mission.
· Number two, you take the first step.
· Number three, you recognise when you are stuck,
· Number four, you find answers to the questions required to get you unstuck.
· Then proceed, re-check to be sure that you are still on mission and repeat steps one to four.
You can’t go wrong!
Tao of the Farm – Principle Number 5:
“A Cow eats grass and produces Manure; soil eats manure and produces grass.”
Cows are beautiful to watch in the pasture as they munch away at the grasses that they seem never to get bored of. We only have two cows are Pebbeslpring farm. The land is big enough to take between 10 and 20 cattle, but right now the pasture is small with so much of the ground having been overtaken by the terrible invasive Port Jackson Willow (Acacia Saligna) and the even more nasty Inkberry (Cestrum laevigatum). The Inkberry likes the lower lying wetter areas and is poisonous to livestock. The cattle find the Port Jackson quite palatable. I will see them fighting each other to get to the port Jackson if I have just let them into new pasture. The problems with the Port Jackson, is it grows so dense that the cattle find it difficult to penetrate and the leaves grow high and out of reach because the density caused it to be too dark for leaves near the forest floor. Also, because the Port Jackson are so densely packed, grasses can’t grow on the forest floor, again not good for the cattle because they like grass much more than leaves. But also, with no grass or any other growth on the forest floor under the port Jackson, the soil on the steeper slopes begins to wash away in times of heavy rain. So, my attitude toward the Inkberry has been to remove it wherever we find it. We cut it down as close to ground level as we can. When it sprouts again we cut it again. Eventually it stops growing. The Port Jackson however, I have been more selective with. I have begun rather to cut them in such a way as too leave behind a savannah of sorts. Trees spaced in a pasture in such a way as to allow enough light for light to get to the soil and allow the grasses to grow. I have noticed that, at least in the summer months the grasses seem to be taller and greener in that part of the pasture near the edges where the trees are. I guess it has to do with the fact that there is a little less evaporation there because of the shade. Perhaps there is extra nitrogen there because the cattle lounge there to keep out of the heat, perhaps because the Port Jackson willow is nitrogen fixing, the grasses are able to absorb this critical nutrient near the tree and grow greener. I don’t really know why the grass grows taller and greener where the trees touch the pasture, but I know that it does, and my attempt is to mimic it to see if I can replicate the results.
Of course, all of this stuff about pasture is quite possibly more interesting to me than it is to you. Books have been written about pasture. Entire library shelves filled. The important thing to take from the pasture is that we are dealing with a living system. In a very real way, the cattle and the grass and the soil are part of the same organism. The grass has evolved to look, taste and behave the way it has because of grazing animals like cattle. Cattle have evolved size, shape and biology because they have evolved in the pasture eating the grasses that they do. In the same way the predators shape the herbivores and the herbivores shape the predators. But these are not just curious facts of anatomy and biology. These are fundamental truths, absolute laws that whether we choose to or not are a governing force in all of our lives. It may appear that I as an individual am a separate organism to the people around me and to the things that I consume and to the things that try to consume me, but in truth, with the perspective of evolution and of time I am not.
So much of what I see around me attempts to convince me that I am a separate organism, that I am able to survive even without the planet, that I am separate from the earth. The spectacular project to send a man to the moon, walk around up there and take photographs of the blue planet from that far off position, is one in a sequence of events since the beginnings of consciousness that have made us feel more and more comfortable with the argument that we, human beings, are a separate organism. Perhaps consciousness itself, in its infancy asks the question, “who am I?” Am I simply the effect of other causes? The newly conscious mind begins to see that it has a will of its own. It sees that it is not like the birds of the sky or the fishes of the sea. The conscious mind chooses what it will do. The newly conscious mind may then begin to see itself as independent completely of the ecosystem, of the environment of the earth. “I can fly to the moon! You see! The earth is not an organism, and I am not merely a cell or a piece of tissue of that organism. I am separate.”
Of course, the illusion of separateness of those on board the Apollo missions is evident to any 10-year-old who may ask questions about food, water and oxygen, but somehow the illusion of separateness endures.
So, when I sit in the pasture. When I observe the earthworm, when I appreciate the cattle, I let the picture remind me of who I am. I let the picture remind me that I am a part of an organism, an organism that is beginning to show signs of disease caused largely by people, very much like me, that they have somehow come to forget the obvious truth that they are a small (yet very important) part of a big organism. Perhaps the disease afflicting the planet is like the disease of cancer that afflicts so many of our bodies. A disease that killed my father. The doctors say that a cancer cell is a cell that has forgotten that it is part of an organism. It consumes energy and replicates, but it has forgotten its function in the organism it grows and grows until it kills the body that it forgot that it was integrally part of. The cancer cells form tumours that are fuelled by excess sugar. People form cities fuelled by excess fossil fuels. Tumours and cities behave in this way because they have forgotten the Law of the Farm Number 5 “Cows eat grass and produce Manure; soil eats manure and produces grass”
Tao of the Farm – Principle number 6:
“You can do it alone, but it’s better with family”.
As I write this I am sitting at the table inside the “long room“in the farm cottage. It’s a warm summer Sunday afternoon and we have been here since lunch time yesterday. But what makes this weekend different is that my family is here with me. You see, the cottage has now been repaired to the point where it is now just about weatherproof. (Depending on exactly where in the cottage you stand during a rainstorm) The cottage also has running water, lights that switch on and off and it has a toilet that flushes. (All off grid I am proud to say) These simple conveniences make it possible for my wife, my daughter, my sister in law and her son to stay over with me at the farm last night. It was the first time for my wife to sleep over here, so I count it as a bit of a milestone. The thing is though, it just feels better to me for me to be going about my chores, moving the cattle, feeding the chickens or watering the fruit trees with my wife and family here on the farm. Yes, we had a fun braai outside last night and a pleasant breakfast this morning, but for the most part it’s just about knowing that we are here together, not necessarily that we are having deep, meaningful conversation or helping each other physically. When, as I have been doing for over a year now, I work on the farm over the weekends leaving my family at home in town, it feels different. It feels more rushed, strained perhaps. As if though a part of me feels that I am stealing time from them. I don’t know. I have not consciously recorded thinking that I am stealing time, it’s just that when we are here together allowing time to pass slowly together, it just feels so much better. It feels very right. It feels as if though it were meant to be. So perhaps this too is a lesson from the farm, one of the laws of the farm, that are true to the farm, but true also to our civilisation.
Let’s think about this a little. Because the idea of family and its “usefulness” seem in some parts of the world to have become caught up in politics of polarity , where the term “family values” have become used as a code to mean, conservative, male dominated and religious. I am not talking about that here. Rather what I am observing is and process of evolution, where our species has grown to become strong and prosperous by holding together in family groups or perhaps larger clan groups in the time of our foraging forefathers. Other species have evolved in such a way so as to make them highly successful to live alone for the most part. On the farm here we often see bushbuck. Sometimes a big impressive grey black male, will reveal himself for a few seconds before bounding off into the forest. At other times the female will peer through the shrubs, smaller and brown. We have not yet seen them together, as a couple. It seems Bushbuck are quite successful at living apart from each other for most of the time. But the ducks that visit the dam are always in a family group. Sometimes there are four of them together, other times just two. I have not yet seen a lone duck on the dam. Ducks seem to be family birds. I notice that the monkeys are always in a group when they raid the ripening cherry guavas.
Of course, humans have big brains and an impressive amount of will power, we can chose to do many things that may go against our evolutionary programming. We could live completely by ourselves and we have proven it. Every now and then there is some record broken when some brave person circumnavigates the globe single handed in a yacht, even smaller than the previous brave person who did so. Of course, it’s possible. What I am working on though in my own life, is to observe in me, what are the “laws” what is my evolutionary programming? In order that I can embrace it and work with it. In order that I can understand when I feel down or lonely that it is probably that I am feeling removed from my family. And by contrast, perhaps the reason (or maybe one of the reasons) that I am feeling energised and reconnected with farm and with my life and with my mission, is that I feel I am together in this with my family. We are on a joint mission. We are working together. We work at different speeds and we need different things to make us comfortable and relaxed, but we are all on the same mission.
Tao of the Farm – Principle number 7:
“The Sun will set at sunset – regardless of what is on TV”
When I got home from the office last night, Hlubi suggested that we take a drive to the farm. She had a stressful day. Being summer, the sun goes down nice and late and the evening was pleasant after the light rain of the day. We lingered at home though. We did not leave straight away. No big deal, but Hlubi fiddled in the kitchen, got dressed, took a few calls and spent some time waiting for an item to come up on the TV News. By the time we got to the farm it was almost dark. We missed that magic time just before sunset, when the birds go crazy, when the wind has died down and the sky is filled with a special light. That time where everything feels slightly electric, poised, pregnant. We ate our supper at the farm. We boiled the kettle on the gas burner, made a cup of tea and then we were off back home again. It was nice and it helped me remember that this too is a law of the farm. The sun goes down at sunset. There are no extensions of time. There is no appeal processes. It does not matter how big a crowd you are able to muster in political protest; it does not matter how much money you have. The sun will set at it designated time. This is a law of nature and it is the law of the farm. Why is it important to reflect on such an obvious fact? Why? Because we have moved into an era where many of us are led to believe that there is nothing constant, anything can be negotiated, changed or postponed. We can “re-wind” television for heaven’s sake. We can get a re-mark on our test. We can return the crème bule to Woolworths if it was a little too lumpy. We can vote out our governments. We can sell our shares. We can divorce our husbands. We can enlarge our breasts and whiten our teeth. Those of us that are distracted and have little time to ponder may develop the world view that nothing is constant, that we as individuals are the centre of our universe and all can be modified to meet our desires and our feebleness. But the farm tells us that life is not like that. The sun sets at sunset. The apple ripens not when you want it to, but when it has spent the adequate amount of days on the tree sucking in the nutrients built in the leaves from the rays of the sun. The rain will fall when the clouds become too heavy for them to hold onto their moisture anymore. The rain will not wait for you to have brought the goats in from the field; the rain will not wait for you to have completed the repairs on the dam. The rain will come, ready or not.
Because there is a softness that comes over those of us that think that everything is flexible, and anything can be negotiated. A certain lack of urgency descends over us. Without an order or a rhythm, we descend in to a timeless binge of Xbox, beer and pornography. Nothing matters, everything is the same and “what does it matter anyhow?” We see this when casinos and malls are trying to trap us to give them our time, our money and our energy. They do all they can, they don’t want us to know when the sun rises, when the sun sets, when the rain falls or when the wind blows. The clever minds that run these awful places know that even a little contact with the absolute rhythms of the earth, like day and night, winter and summer, may jolt us back to a reality and out of the clutches of the trap that they have invested so heavily in constructing for you and me.
The farm gives a rhythm and an everyday reminder that something’s are just not flexible. Not everyone can live on a farm, but all of us can begin to live a life that puts in place some non-negotiable. How about a half an hour of quiet reading in the morning before everybody else wakes up? How about a 30-minute run or a few push-ups in the bathroom before your shower? How about 15 minutes quiet time writing in your journal with your 10 o’clock coffee? Do this every day. Make it non-negotiable, because you say so, because you insist, because you know that you come out of a line of ancestors that moved to a rhythm you have now been robbed of. Because you know that if you don’t give yourself this time, it will somehow be stolen, be wasted away to the TV, Facebook, beer, soccer and shopping. They win. You lose. They gain your life and your energy; you lose your freedom!
Tao of the farm – Principle number 8:
Two Tilapia tanks are better than one, Four tanks are even better
I have been growing Tilapia for some time. They are a fantastic fish species. I have only recently moved them to the farm, from where I kept them in the backyard in Walmer. I built a hot house for them, because they seem to do even better in warmer water. They survive in the wild in our region in the rivers and streams though; to I am not sure how much worse they would have done without the hothouse. At Pebblespring farm, I have now released the Grey Tilapia I had into our far dam. Other I gave to my neighbour Richard who released them in his dam. Richard’s have been in the dam through the summer and winter and have done very well. I released them as fingerlings no larger than 5 centimetres and he has been fishing them out pan sized. My plan is to not fish any of ours out until next summer; giving them time to establish and grow our dam is a lot more alive with bulrushes, edge plants and duckweed, so I am expecting even better results that Richard has had.
There are a whole lot a great things about Tilapia, once I start talking about them I tend to go on a bit. What I like most about them is that they are omnivores. In fact, they can survive almost entirely of a vegetarian diet. They love to eat duckweed. Duckweed (Lemna) in itself is an amazing species. It is a flowering plant that floats in the surface of the water. Apparently, it is the smallest of all the flowering plants. On a dam or pond, it would look like a green carpet, but on closer inspection you will find that the carpet is not a mass at all, but rather a collection of little plants including leaves, roots and flowers. One little plant will comfortably fit on a fingertip. These fantastic plants can grow very quickly if the conditions in the water are right. It is not uncommon for them to double their population within a twenty-four-hour period. The best part of all is that they are a very good Tilapia feed, or chicken or pig or cattle feed. I have heard it said that duckweed has a higher protein content that Soya Beans and that it is eaten as salad of sorts in Vietnam or thereabouts. I have eaten a mouthful or two. It’s quite crunchy and fresh, but a little tasteless to my tongue.
The next best thing about Tilapia is they taste great. I am a very fussy fish eater. We have caught too many great tasting fish in the ocean to be able to tolerate poor tasting fish. Tilapia is excellent, not at all muddy or mushy, but very good tasting. Other than that, they are on my favourite list because the species I grow (Orochromis Mossambicus) are indigenous to my province and because they tolerate a wide range of water quality and temperatures. Which brings me to my story here. Tilapia do well in tanks, and they are easy for an amateur like myself to attempt to grow. But even Tilapia need the basics in place. They need Oxygen, then need filtration and they need food. In fact in that order of priority. I keep my Tilapia in 1kl tanks salvaged from Industry rubbish heaps in town. I have noticed that while they can go without food for some time, especially when the water temperature is low, they definitely cannot live very log without the water being oxygenated. They can survive a longer time with a filtration system broken down, but if the electricity goes down and the bubblers stop working you could have only a few hours before the fish start gulping on the surface then die. I have lost fish like this a number of times. It’s a risk that comes with keeping fish in high density tank environments. One of the ways to guard against disaster is not to have all the fish in the same tank, rather have two tanks, with two filtrations systems and two aeration systems. It then becomes less likely that disaster will befall both tanks. Even better have four tanks, or forty or four hundred. Even better have each tank with a different species or strains. Equip each tank with a separate power supply for the aeration and filtration system; because safety does not just come in numbers, it comes in variety. One hundred fish in a two-kilolitre tank is not as good a two on kilolitre tanks with 50 fish each. By the extension of this logic, it is in fact much better to have the fish in a series of dams and ponds where there is a variety of temperatures, plant species, crustaceans, water depth and oxygen levels. Variety is what brings stability.
Variety is what we strive for in Pebblespring farm. We are interested in different animal species, different plant species and different varieties of species. In this way when disaster strikes not everything is destroyed. The thing about disaster of course is it always strikes. Variety is the defence against disaster. Variety allows disaster to be a sculptor instead of an executioner. Variety allows the stronger, more appropriate varieties live, thrive and reproduce. This is why we have no interest in planting the whole farm, to mielies or sweet potatoes or geraniums. While “mono-cropping” may at first seem sensible, it is in fact high risk. It seems sensible, because you only need to run one set of machinery, one set of training to grow and harvest, one supplier of seed stock, one buyer of your output, one category of staff to labour on your fields. Or course we can see though that it also just needs one category of insect to get out of control, one Seed Company to hike their prices or one buyer of your goods to undermine your prices. Suddenly monocultures seem very risky, and I am not just talking about farming, what I am talking about is the way we prepare ourselves to face the world. I am talking about how we educate ourselves, becoming highly specialised, becoming a “one trick pony”. All of the advice I ever here coming out of our schooling system advises that we become more and more specialised, more and more focused. More focus less variety. When we reach the top of the education pile, we so highly regard that we referred to by a different name. We are now “Dr” Smith, no longer “Bob”, no longer “Mr Smith”. There is no similar incentive or encouragement to develop our lives in such a way as to nurture a range of skills, experience and passions. To be clear, I am not trying to introduce a new concept, I am perhaps rather trying to point out how far our modern urban system has wondered from the ideals of even classical Greece or Renaissance Europe. Leonardo da Vinci’s idea of the Renaissance Man was the idea of a life of variety spanning athleticism, scientific mindedness and artistic inclination. In our working lives, in our businesses, we are easily tempted to occupy a very small niche and to do only that thing. Bad idea! Not only is it boring to wake up every morning for the rest of your life to look forward to doing exactly the same thing, but it is counterproductive. The economy changes, it breathes in an out, sometime the economy wants beach towels, sometimes the economy wants raincoats. You and I must be flexible enough to move with this. Just because we are expert raincoat makers does not mean we “deserve” that it should rain. The universe does not understand the word “deserve” the farm does not understand the word “deserve”. The universe and the farm understand about variety though. This is the way it has always been. This is the way things are.
Variety and balance in a life, in a family and in a community is what we should hold out as a fundamental objective. It is a theme that should be non-negotiable because it is derived from an observed fundamental law of the farm which states that: “Two Tilapia tanks are better than one, four tanks are even better”
Tao of the farm – Principle number 9:
“The fence works because the bull chooses to stay behind it.”
I did not get a chance to watch the State of the Nation address last night. Things were a little busy. I made a presentation to a community meeting in Gqebera about a project, then I went to a function at the Radisson Hotel, introducing their new chef. But when we go back home, we watched some of the footage from the debacle. The EFF were forcibly thrown out of Parliament, the DA walked out in protest. The discussion this morning on Facebook and Twitter is about how irresponsible it is for the EFF to walk out and to be disruptive. I am not that interested in politics. I get the sense that the energy I may commit there is so indirectly applied. My feeling is that I should be making more direct action right now. I am interested though in the principles, the fundamental laws that are illustrated by everyday events like the EFF being “goose-stepped” out of Parliament. Because we see this again and again around the world, when a dominant group abuses its power, those that resist them are left with no alternative but to break the rules. We saw this with Apartheid, where the inflexibility of the National Party, lead to the ANC eventually resorting to the armed struggle, “breaking the rules”. We saw this will the Palestinian Liberation Organisation “breaking the rules” in its response to Israel evicting Palestinians from their homeland. More recently we have we seen AL Qaeda and Osama bin Laden broke the rules very dramatically, flying passenger airlines into the World Trade Centre, breaking even the rules of international terrorism. These acts of “breaking rules” are a pattern that repeats itself again and again no matter how far back in history you would choose to look. Oppression by the powerful will inevitably result in revolt, and very often the revolt is violent and ugly. Where the powerful have been successful in holding onto their power is where they have set up process, that make those that have less power feel included, to feel as if though there is remote chance that by participating in the processes that they will be able to impact the way things are. The other thing successful powerful groups have over the millennia, is to exercise grace and restraint. They have not wielded all the power they have been able to wield; instead they directed a fraction of this power to making sure their citizens were happily distracted. The Romans built the coliseum to house the gladiators, the Americans built Hollywood to house the movie industry.
The point that becomes clear is that a hungry, unhappy population that feels that is not being taken seriously, is a very serious threat to the entire system. (including the unhappy population that are a part of it) The dynamic between the powerful and the powerless is governed by fundamental dynamics. It is governed by a “law”. This is a law that applies to the way people live together, but it runs much deeper, it applies to the way organisms live together and interact. You see, the fundamental law that applies to these relationships is Tao of the Farm – Principle number 9: “The fence works because the bull chooses to stay behind it.”
There was a time (before I owned my own livestock) when I believed that the fences I saw between the cattle on the side of the road and the highway that sped past on, was what was keeping the animals from wondering into the traffic. I was wrong. A cow is an incredibly big animal; it can weigh 500 kg and more. If it decides that it would rather be on the other side of the five strands of wire that divide it from where it would want to be, then it will jump over, or walk through. Believe me I have seen this happen in front of my eyes, many times. In fact, when I first began to buy calves to build our cattle herd, I was amazed at how these seemingly docile creatures were able to be such accomplished escape artists. My strategy then was to buy three-month-old calves that had just been weaned from their mother. I had negotiated to make use of some land in Tsitsikama, where Hlubi’s family had some historical connections to community land that had been returned to the community by the government. It’s a long story, but Hlubi’s mother’s family is part of the Mfengu grouping, who were granted land by the British in the 1800’s in exchange for loyal service as mercenaries during the hundred year Frontier wars that raged in the eastern cape between the British and the Xhosa. The Mfengu were forcibly removed from the land by the apartheid government in the 1970s, but returned (in part) in the 1990’s when the democratic government came into power.
In 2009 we put our first nine calves onto grazing in Tsitsikama. I negotiated with Rasi, the “Isibonda”, the headman. He agreed that we could make use of the “Bull Camp” until such time as our calves were completely self-sufficient and no longer taking the nutrient rich pellets they were being fed every evening. We were very pleased to have access to the “Bull Camp” because of all the hundred and seventy two hectares that make up the Wittekleibos farm, which was home to the Mfengu community, this one hectare camp was by far the most secure, with very sturdy fences. It was the camp that the prize breeding bull would be secured in and into which cows would be brought in order for the bull to do his business without too much running around all over the extensive grassland.
The calves seemed content enough as they were released into the camp. They had been raised by a redheaded farmer just ten kilometres up the road. His name is Gerhard. He is maybe ten years younger than me but insists calling me “Oom” in the respectful tone reserved for when one speaks to elders. Gerhard’s business model is to buy these calves in from farmers in the district that have no need for them, usually because they are running dairies and find the calves to be an unnecessary inconvenience to their operations. Gerhard takes great care to then rear these calves by hand, initially bottle feeding them three times a day and then slowly introducing pellets and grass.
By sunset on the day that they arrived, the calves were beginning to become restless and noisy. “Moo-ing” loudly at the top of their voices and pacing up and down the fence line. One by one each of the them found some way through the fence and were headed up the gravel road toward where they must have believed Gerhard’s farm was. When they were chased back into the Bullcamp (not an easy job to chase nine belligerent, single minded calves in the opposite direction to which they have got their minds set on) they would settle for a few minutes only to be headed up the gravel road toward the national highway again. The problem was only resolved by enclosing the calves in a very small; completely escape proof kraal for two weeks. By that time they were settled and had come to accept that this was now their new home.
Now years later, when I drive past the Bull Camp at Tsitiskama and see the giant majestic glistening bull gently lounging behind the fence, I know that he is behind that fence (that can’t even hold in my puny weaner calves) only because he chooses to be behind it. If the bull were so much as lean on the fence he would flatten it. He could leap over it without building up a sweat. Of course, this is so completely true of us and our everyday lives whether we live in the city or the farm. We all, in some way or another live out our lives behind barriers that we choose not to challenge. We stay in our jobs, we stay in the suburbs and townships we were born into, we stay in our relationships and or in our circle of friends. Sometimes we even complain that we are contained and limited by the “fences” of class or family or race or gender or education, but seldom do we challenge the “fences”.
The bull does not challenge the fences because the farmer makes sure he has enough water and grazing (and a willing cow now and again). By giving a little to the bull, the farmer makes his own life easier, and spends very little of his time driving up and down looking for runaway bulls. Where the farmer becomes greedy though, perhaps rather using the bull camp to build a shopping centre and constraining the bull to a small enclosure, without grazing or water or cows, he will find the bull becomes unhappy and becomes determined to be elsewhere. Our society is a little like this. An angry population becomes determined to break the rules (perhaps like the EFF in parliament) To respond by sending in armed police or building higher fences around the secure complexes of the rich is to not understand the problem.
The truth is that the poor and hungry don’t need very much to remain placated and stay within the boundaries that the rich and powerful have historically set for them. The rich and powerful elites know that if the poor and hungry challenge the boundaries and run amok they become a great danger to the order of things. This law is fundamental. Every society that has tried for extended periods of time to make the lives of the miserable more miserable than what can be tolerated has paid the price in a big way. A wise farmer knows not to abuse the power he holds over his animals and in the same way wise powerful elites will only survive if they know this to be true of the economy and the politics that gives order to it. That’s just the way things are; it’s the law of the farm.
In fact, it is quite easy for the elite to contain the masses and the individuals that make up the masses when these masses have no vision; when they have no idea of a place they would rather be. Even a heavy powerful bull will wither away in a field with just a little grazing and some muddy water. The calves in my story are however a different matter altogether. Presented with the same grazing and the same water that was good enough for the bull, they were not content. They “knew” they belonged somewhere else. The knowledge made them challenge the fences. And so it is with us. The few that do challenge the boundaries and limitations are those that know where they want to be and believe that they belong in that other place beyond what is currently appearing to constrain them. I suppose my calves who believed so strongly that they belonged back at Gerhard’s farm, that they were prepared to challenge and to overcome the fences that contained even the biggest and strongest bulls of Wittekleibos. So too, it is a clear vision we need to develop in our minds that must drive an unwavering passion and desire to be beyond those factors that we have come to believe are limiting us. This is the way we will become free, because this is an observed and recorded fundamental law of the human condition and a fundamental and observed law of the farm.
Tao of the Farm – Principle number 10:
“Observe the stream before building the Dam”
The most precious and important thing about Pebblespring Farm is that it has water. Water rises up in springs on the valley floor, just inside the fence line to the west. The water is always there, no matter how dry the season. Gavin Flanagan, over the road from us, says he have not seen the springs run dry since he has been visiting there as a child in the fifties.
A small stream runs from where it wells up in the ground, first into a little marshy area overgrown with bulrushes (cattails to the American reader) and Poplar trees. Then into a dam that has probably been there since the seventies. When I first came to the farm it was all very overgrown. It took me more than a month of weekends to even find the dam. I could see it on Google Earth. I have heard the dam spoken of by the old people, but the bush was so thick than I could not find the dam. I would try hack a straight line through the bush in the direction I reckoned the dam to be from the maps and aerial photos. But I would go off course and miss the dam to the east and come out on the pasture on the other side of the forest, or I would miss the dam to the east and find myself trudging through the marsh and the bull rushes before coming again to the pasture. I began to think the dam had washed away completely in a big flood and that my aerial photograph was just out of date. Eventually though, we found the dam. Cutting through the bush we came to a depression and a bank with a bed or bulrushes in from of us. It looked like it could be the dam we had been looking for, but had to scale a tree on the edge to be able to see over the tall bulrushes to the small patch of open water in the centre of what remained of the dam. Slowly we cleared a path along the dam wall. We were working then with hand saws and garden pruners. I had not yet bought the chainsaw. The going was slow, especially in those places that were thick with brambles that would rip through the skin on forearms and legs. Jeans were ripped to threads at the thigh. I would come home bleeding and exhausted I the evenings.
When the bush was cleared enough, we could see that a donga (erosion trench) had formed through the dam wall toward the south pasture. Soon we were able to do a small repair, adding an overflow pipe. A very practical idea inspired by an Austrian farmer, Sepp Holzer. He refers to this device as a “pope”, basically a vertical length of pipe fitted onto the horizontal piece that is buried under the dam wall. The basic principal being that the water level in the dam can rise only to the level of the “pope”, thus protecting overflow that could damage the dam and cause it to wash away. This temporary arrangement has held. We widened the path on the dam wall enough to take a quadbike and then later to be able to take a car. We currently use this route as our driveway, and it has worked quite well. The truth though, is that I have not spent enough time observing the stream and the dam. We have not yet had a big down pour like the one in 2006 or the one in 1968. I can only guess what will happen to the dam wall under those circumstances. I am though aware that my role is to observe how things work. To observe the land as it changes through the seasons and through the years. Out of this observation, it is for me to take guidance from the land, from the farm. This guidance will inform me of the actions that I need to take. Wendell Berry, in A Gift of Good Land, says: “To see and respect what is there is the first duty of stewardship”
This idea of stewardship informs my approach not only to the stream and the dam, but to the forest and the marsh, the pasture and the brush. My approach is to observe. To see where I can help. To see what intervention, I must make to assist the land to achieve the fullness of its potential. The role of steward is an important part of the land and of the farm. It is a role that I treasure, but it is a role that is different on Pebblespring Farm to what it would have been on the next door farm or on a farm 100km way or 1000km away. It is a role that is different in every different place because on the significant portion of time that is spent and must be spent in observation. I spend time observing the pasture, what plants come up at what times of the year? I spend time up on the hill, observing how the water is washing the topsoil in the big rains. I spend time observing the dam, noticing how the water level rises for two or three days after a downpour. I notice how the Tilapia become active on the surface when the water is warm. I observe how the duckweed on the dame looks different when it regrows after the Tilapia have eaten it. I observe how the green algae from the floor of the dam rises to the top after the Tilapia feed at the bottom.
I could not have approached the farm from a distance and with predetermined idea of what to do there. I could not have sent in the bulldozers, flattened everything to achieve what I may have put on paper as a vision for the site. This though is the conventional approach. It is an approach that is forced on us by people with accountant and lawyer minds. It is an approach that separated design from implementation for practical “cost control” reasons. This is the approach that government takes when it takes on developments. This is the approach that corporate sector takes when it takes on development, but it is not the kind of approach that makes sense if we are looking for the most effective response to the challenge. Because it is while I am working that I am observing, and out of observing comes design, and from design comes work. These things flow seamlessly into each other and form each other.
But I am talking here about observation. How critical it is to the farm and how indispensable it is to any project. Whether your attempt is to date a girl, raise a child or win a soccer match. We must immerse ourselves in the observation of the activity. We must begin to see the patterns; we must know the activity intimately. We must give ourselves time to formulate our plans and when we act, we act in such a way as to be able to observe the impact of our actions, and then modify our actions in response. At first glance Law of the farm number 10: “Observe the stream before you build the dam” may seem at odds with the contemporary truism “Go big or go home”. No its not. “Go big” we must. There is no time for pussyfooting around, in relationships, in healing the planet or in business. What I am saying is that, in order to “Go big” you must invest time and effort into observation otherwise there can be little doubt that you will “Go Home”
So, start today. Take time to observe the taste of the morning coffee. Notice how the dog feels when you stroke it when it comes to greet you. Take note of how the bacon smells as it fries in the pan. These are small steps but trust their significance. Even when the bad stuff happens and some idiot cuts in front of you in the traffic, or spills Coca-Cola on your new white T-shirt. Observe your anger. Notice how it feels in your chest, notice how it migrates to your stomach after a few minutes. Feel the heat as it rises in your face. Just observe it. Take notice of it. Don’t try to stop any of this. Don’t intervene; just get into the habit of observing. The time for action will come and at that time your action will be informed by a deeper level of awareness. Your actions will be reflective of a consciousness that informs them.
Tao of the Farm – Principle Number 11:
“The Guava, the Granadilla and the Gooseberry have no need for the grid.”
Load shedding makes us all angry. We are frustrated with Eskom. We are disillusioned with the slow progress with the building of new power stations. We are angry about dodgy deals with the Russians to build Nuclear reactors. Many of us are investing a very large quantity of our emotion and passion in this negativity. Well, I don’t really buy into all of that. I don’t get the sense that if we were all just pissed off enough that suddenly the grid would work the way we would like it too. I see it as wasted energy. I am rather investing my energy in doing what I can to move away from the gird in whatever small steps I can. I am speaking about this because I see that so much of the discussion about “off grid living” generally comes from one of two extreme positions. Firstly, there’s the guy that is living in his 1974 Volkswagen camper, who powers his whole existence from a wind turbine he built by re-wiring an old desk fan he found by the side of the road. He doesn’t need to cook; because he eats all his food raw and he avoids hot water because “everybody knows” that washing is part of a grand Illuminati conspiracy. The second extreme position is that of the billionaire Houghton resident who builds a state-of-the-art solar panel system bigger than my house. It tracks the movements of the sun by means of clever engineering and software developed by the SKA project. The power is stored in batteries just like the ones on the Mars rover. The whole system does cost about the same as a cabinet minister’s annual salary, but comfortably runs the said Houghton residence including air conditioning, 90-inch TV’s, heated pools and a mini ice rink.
Caught between these two extremes, most of us simply give up and rather focus on wording clever status updates that ridicule the executives at Eskom. But I am here to tell you that there is hope. There is real and immediate action that you and I can take toward moving off grid.
We have just recently installed an off-grid power and water system at Pebblespring Farm. It’s a small power system four 250-watt solar panels, a 1 kW inverter and a battery bank of 9 deep cycle batteries. This gives me enough power to run the lights in the cottage, the fridge, a computer and a TV as well as the small pressure pump we have installed to give running water to the taps from the rainwater we store in the 5 kl JoJo tank. It didn’t cost me an arm and a leg. In fact, it cost me round about the same as what it would have cost me to get water and electricity brought to the farm by the municipality. Hear what I am saying! The cost of installing a system that will generate free solar electricity and clean rain water in perpetuity is the same as what the grid would have charged me just for the privilege of being connected to them and being billed by them with ever increasing rates regardless of the reliability of their supply. Of course there will be some on-going costs, but there won’t be load shedding, there won’t be the mindless standing in queues at the “customer care” centre when they get my bill wrong, there won’t be the lying awake at night with the guilt of knowing that I am pumping huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere every time I switch on the lights.
You may not think that our situation on the farm is relevant to everyone reading this, but what I want to tell you, is that solar panels and rainwater tanks are only part of the story. There are two other important aspects.
Firstly, if we are serious about this, we must re-think what it is that we have become dependent on the grid for, remembering of course that the idea of a “gird” dealing with our electricity, water supply, sewerage disposal, telephone and internet is all reasonably recent in the bigger scheme of things. There is no reason we can’t step away gradually from the grid, in the same way as we slipped slowly into the habit of becoming dependent on it. Do we need to use so much? Do we need the aircon? Do we need the heater? Do we need the ninety Inch TV? Do we need the welder in the garage or the toaster in the kitchen? Do we need to plant our garden full of plants that have beautiful flowers but that will die without the quantities of water they evolved to become accustomed to in the swamps of the amazon? There are thousands of actions we can take today to consume less energy and water and to produce less waste.
Secondly, after we have taken the obvious step of consuming less, we must do what we can to diversify our consumption and waste. What I am saying is, it may cost the same to cook on gas, but it is unlikely that the gas supply grid will go down at the same time as the electricity supply grid. What about rainwater? You may not have enough storage to make you independent of the municipal system, but you may have enough to be able to use the municipal system as a backup and not a primary supply. Even just to irrigate your garden would be a step in the right direction. Cooking and heating with firewood is not a bad idea, in fact it’s fun and romantic. What about processing some of your waste in a compost heap, grey water system or septic tank?
What I am talking about I suppose is migrating off grid in small steps, the first by consuming less, then by transitioning into a hybrid situation, where each time the grid goes down it is less of a disaster to you and your family.
There are things we can do; we are not helpless and doing these things makes us feel a lot better than when we are bitching about Eskom. Don’t you think? Because I struggle to see how building a grid can be the cleverest way to service everybody with electricity or with water or with waste removal. At first it may seem efficient, but soon as is the case here in South Arica we begin to see that the system is very dependent on massive, expensive and unwieldy bureaucratic processes. We come to see that taxpayers are called upon time and time again to pay for this, massive infrastructure. But what if we designed a system that resembled more closely the way things work on the farm. The sunflowers, the granadillas and the gooseberries don’t need a grid. Yes, they live in a community with their own and other species but each and every plant harvests its own energy, manufactures its own fuel and processes its own waste. The small farms that have supported human civilisation for thousands of years did not need a grid for water or heat of for waste removal. Their populations were kept in balance by the environments ability to provide fuel, food, water and its ability to process its waste. There was a natural order on the farm. I can see that our civilisation cannot return to that order tomorrow, we have become committed to the cities we have built and the grids that support them. I can also see though that we must develop an understanding that the shape and form of this city is in contradiction to the natural order of things. Perhaps by becoming conscious of the contradiction we can begin to take the small steps we can away from the grid, away from this unnatural and unsustainable pattern of human habitation. It won’t happen overnight, but it has to start somewhere.
Toa of the Farm – Principle Number 12:
“The Porcupine does not consider digging up bulbs as work”
Of course, I don’t know what goes through the porcupine’s mind when it digs up the bulbs of our arum lilies. In fact, I don’t even know for sure that it’s is a porcupine that is destroying these beautiful plants with their distinctive white cone shaped flowers with the bright yellow poker protruding from the centre. I am assuming it is a porcupine because when I post pictures of the damage on Facebook, my clever friends tell me that it is only a porcupine that makes that kind of damage and that porcupines absolutely love arum lilies. I was actually secretly holding out for the hope that we had bush pigs on the farm. That would be exciting. Perhaps we have porcupines and bush pigs? It’s very hard to say because these animals move around in the dead of night and are very shy. But whether it is a porcupine or bush pig destroying my prized plants, I strongly suspect, that when they are digging the deep holes in the soil required to access the tasty bulbs, that they do not for a second think that they are “working” in the way that you and I may think we are working when we report to the office and begin to wade through our inbox or finish the report or sit through the meeting or return phone calls. When I see pigs digging for roots or rolling for the mud, they look to me as if though they are having a huge party. In fact, many clever farmers have now taken to sprinkling a few kernels on grain into massive compost heaps that need to be turned. The pigs go crazy having a great time turning over the mountains of compost at the cost to the farmer of a few handfuls of grain.
But you and I have been conditioned differently. It’s not that we are afraid to exert ourselves mentally or physically. We are quite happy to exert ourselves on the soccer pitch to the point where our legs burn, and we spit blood. We are quite happy to put our brains to the test playing scrabble or Grand Theft Auto. We have come to buy into the idea that these are “leisure time” activities and that it would be crazy to build up a sweat (or a headache) doing any productive work outside of office hours or school hours. Well, call me crazy, but I love to do physical work. I love the feeling of using my muscles, my arms and my legs. I love the rhythm of thinking and doing. I love the feeling of physical exhaustion in the evening. I love the supper time retelling of the achievements of the day and I love the deep satisfied sleep that follows it. (I especially remember the very satisfying time working with my late father on his wooden house in the forest)
It seems strange to me therefore, that I have put so much time and effort in my life to ensure that I don’t have to do any physical work at all. My twelve years of schooling in maths, literature, history and science required no “doing”, no lifting or pushing. It did though; prepare me for another five years of study at University which would eventually deliver to me the degrees I required to become an Architect and be guaranteed of never having to push a wheel barrow, thrust a spade into the ground or cut firewood.
On leaving University, life as a young professional was clear, nobody ever handed out a rulebook, but the understanding was that we must put in time at the office to earn our money, but if we put in too much time we will break down, so we must take some of that money to buy “leisure”. That leisure must not involve doing anything productive or meaningful. We may choose from a vast array on mindless sporting or cultural pursuits. We may participate or spectate. If the mindlessness of the leisure becomes unbearable, we may numb ourselves with alcohol, sugar or nicotine. This is just how it is.
I can see how in the headlong rush to get to the ‘top of my game” I have moved further and further in my career, away from actually doing any work. Like lifting a pencil, to sketch a chimney detail or calculating the fall and cover of a drainage installation. All of that is “outsourced”, because that is the law of competition and the law of competition says that, if I am an expert at running an architectural practice, I can’t be “wasting” my time actually being an Architect. I must spend my time delegating, checking what others have done, motivating, admonishing, fighting with debtors, apologising to creditors because that’s what we do when we get to the top of our game.
Does any of this ring true for you in your life? Perhaps, what each of us needs to do is sit back and look at the route we have walked to get where we are in our careers. Each of us needs to get down and do the dirty work of thinking through how we have been conditioned to look down on anyone doing physical work. Even in our homes, when we can’t resist the instinct to get our hands in the soil that we are married to, we make every attempt to dress up our gardening activities as “leisure”. We call gardening a “hobby”; we don’t call it “work”. When we can absolutely not resist the instinct to grow fruit and vegetables, a productive pursuit, we hide these away in the back yard.
So, what I am doing in my life about my dysfunctional relationship with work? I suppose, I am slowly beginning to participate, wherever I can, in actually doing stuff. I am also looking for family traditions and practices that involve real work, even if it just taking the time to cook the mother’s day meal. Some families in our region are fortunate to belong to a tradition where work is still honoured. If you drive through the streets of New Brighton or NU 7, on any given Saturday you will find clan groups participating in “Imisibenzi” (literally translated as “works”). These traditional functions mark a range of special occasions, but what is interesting, is that everybody attending the function works. From the slaughtering of the beast, to the processing of the meat to the brewing of the beer and the peeling of the carrots. Hosts and guests work together. Honouring tradition and honouring the idea of work and how it is in fact not separate from leisure. To a lesser degree, but not entirely dissimilar, on any given Sunday in the suburban backyards of Summerstrand and Sherwood we find family groups around the braai, spicing the meat, turning it on the flames. The hosts and the guests working together, some in the kitchen with the potato salad and toasted sandwiches and others outside with the chops and the wors. These are important traditions to hold onto, where the tendency is toward the American situation where 43% of all meals are no longer prepared at home and where work is generally regarded as something you sell in exchange for cash.
So more and more I come to see that any activity that helps me understand that work is not separate from leisure and that work is more than just a commodity for sale, is where I want to be spending my time.
Because this separation of work and leisure, is not of the natural order, it’s certainly not way of the farm, in fact it contradicts the law of the farm which states that: “The Porcupine does not consider digging up bulbs as work”
Tao of the farm – Principle number 13:
“Some low life scumbag will steal your chainsaw”
After this month’s livestock auction on Saturday morning, we stopped off at the farm on the way home. I noticed that the front door of the cottage, which is off its hinges for painting, was lying flat on the floor of the cottage. Normally it’s propped up in the door frame. It had been quite windy on Friday so, I dismissed it, but could not help to feel a little suspicious. I unlocked the storeroom, immediately looking for the chainsaw. I looked high and low scratching through boxes and unlikely places in some kind of denial and disbelief. It is nowhere to be found. Mandoza says he last used it on Thursday. He suspects the casual labourer that we employed the week before. A guy called “Sticks”
The door to the storeroom was not forced open, it had been opened with a key and the key had been returned to its normal hiding place. Mandoza thinks that Sticks may have seen the hiding place for the keys. Anyway, I am really upset. I am angry that we have thieves moving around on the farm, I am angry with myself for not being more vigilant with security and I am worried that I now have to find money to replace this piece of equipment that I really liked. In this soup of emotions that are now still floating through my brain as I write this on Monday morning in the coffee shop just up the road from my office. As I sit here in the smoky interior with the familiar seventies music soothing softly in the background, I struggle to remind myself of Tao of the farm – Principle number 13: “Some low life scumbag will steal your chainsaw” Or as some American hippy once said “shit happens”. The mongoose will eat your hens, the bubbler in your tilapia tank will fail, ticks will infest your cattle. These setbacks are constants. They will happen. The extent to which they happen and the degree of damage they cause may be variable, but they will happen. I try to console myself with the truth of this law. It helps a little, but maybe tomorrow I will be OK. Maybe tomorrow I will come to see that we have become softened by the illusion of comfort offered to us by our lives. Perhaps I will come to see that we are lead to believe that nothing can go wrong. Everything happens at the flick of a switch. Even here in South Africa, and especially if you are urban and middleclass, you may go through very long periods of time where nothing ever goes wrong. The bottle store never runs out of beer, the soccer is on the television every Saturday, the mall keeps it opening times as advertised and the lotto draw happens as scheduled every weekend. When things go wrong, they are small, they are temporary and we are shielded from the crisis, by layers of government and corporate structures. When the farmer’s potato crop is destroyed by a swarm of locusts, we somehow magically still get our Lays lightly salted from the all night convenience store. The massive corporate chain makes sure they import potatoes from some other part of the province or some other part of the world, we do not so much as notice a difference in crispness of our favourite snack. Everything we consume is in this way filtered to be free of risk, to the extent that when our restaurant scrambled eggs aren’t exactly the correct degree of softness, we feel completely obliged and entitled to feel miserable and to throw a tantrum. What I am saying is that governments and corporations have very effectively come to create the illusion that rule of the farm number 13 does not exist. It does. Some low life will steal your chainsaw, and the sooner you (and I) wake up an begin to live and plan our lives according to this law, this non-negotiable constant, the sooner we can be more closely aligned with the way things work. Delusion may be comfortable but making peace with the brutal truth brings us into closer union with the universe and its laws. And in this way we make ourselves free, not by selling ourselves into slavery to pay for the cost of the triple insurance premiums of comfort, safety and security.
Tao of the Farm – Principle Number 14:
“A cottage with a leaky roof is still a cottage.”
(10 February 2015)
We had friends around at the farm last night for a braai. It was really nice to be able to share the joy of the farm with people that are close to us. I have been talking so much about the farm, so it is useful that our friends have been able to see first-hand how beautiful the place is and how daunting the project is that we have taken on. We set up the cottage beautifully with the long table decked in a lovely white table cloth, flowers and crystal cut glasses. I prepared chicken, lamb and boerewors on the fire outside. We had plenty of fine wine and good conversation. It was really nice. All of this is spite of the fact that work on the old cottage is far from complete.
A lot has been done in the past months, but it still has a lot of work needing done. The cottage I speak of is the one we found on the farm when we got there. In fact the old cottage was probably one of the more appealing features of the land. It really is quite hard to say how old it is, but the land was first surveyed in 1816, when the farm Goedmoedsfontein was granted to a Dutch settler, Johannes Kok. Oral history that has come to my ears, says that the little cottage where we had supper last night was the original farm house for the entire farm, which over the years has been slowly subdivided off to the point where the cottage now sits on 10 hectares of the original farm which would have been hundreds of hectares. It is quite likely that the first parts of the cottage would have been built in the first years after the Kok’s arrived there in 1816. What is clear to me from the bricks and other building materials that the house has been added onto continuously for the last 200 years or so? When we first came to the property, the cottage was in a process of collapse. A chain of events had set in where the corrugated iron roof had become rusted and leaky allowing water to rain in on the walls. The wall being made up of unfired bricks began to melt and dissolve, causing the roof to further collapse thus letting in even more water to melt the walls. Actually unfired bricks can stand for a very long time, as long as they are kept dry, but when they are exposed to water, the process of deterioration can be very rapid.
The crisis was so urgent that I began, even before taking transfer of the property, to rip off the old rusted corrugated Iron sheets and replace them with new ones keeping the walls from crumbling and saving Kok’s cottage from sure destruction. The work on the cottage over the last few months has moved slowly to install a new floor and replace and repair the old windows. We have also got electricity and water working, by collecting rainwater from the roof via rain tanks and electricity from the sun via photovoltaic panels. But even now, this morning if you stand in certain spots in the house you will feel the rain drops coming through. The roof has still not received its flashing against the gable ends. (Partly because the builder I paid to do this ran away with the flashing and the money that I paid him to install it) But in spite of its incompleteness and its imperfection we have been able to sleep thee some nights, we have been able to use it to store our equipment. We have been able to use it to rest from the weather when we are working there over weekends and holidays. And even, last night, we were able to have a very nice dinner party there. I love that spirit. I love that attitude and I can see how this spirit is very different to the kind of thinking that has become a widespread disease of our time. The disease of “fake it till you make it” and “Keeping up with the Kardashains”. The kind of disease that causes young people to rather walk the streets in the rain than be seen driving in a 1983 Mazda 323. The kind of disease that causes men and women of all ages to stay lonely and celibate rather than be seen in public with a partner that is pimply or too fat or too thin or too bald or too hairy. It is the kind of disease that causes husbands to think that their wives are no longer good enough for them to invest their love and attention in. It’s the kind of disease the causes wives to constantly work to “improve” their husbands. It’s a disease that sees us never satisfied with what we have. Always imagining a future, just around the corner where things will be better, things will be acceptable, things will measure up to some standard that we always find very difficult to express. I am sure there are those who will explain that this feeling of discontentedness is the result of some conspiracy on the part of the huge marketing machine that is our modern economy. Always trying to sell us next year’s fashion, better houses, faster cars and more exotic vacations. It could be a conspiracy. Who knows? The important thing I think rather is for me to become conscious of the secret thoughts that are racing through my own head. The thought that says “what will my friends think of me if they see the rain falling in though my broken roof”. I have seen in my life that the trick is not to try to stop these thoughts, but just rather to become aware that they are running through my head. In this way I am able to engage with the small minded part of my sub conscious that generates these thoughts of inadequacy and to be able to consciously say “hang on a second. That’s a lot of bullshit! This cottage is perfectly OK for a dinner party with friends” or “This 1983 Mazda 323 is perfectly Ok to get me from A to B”. or “This hairy, spotty overweight husband is perfectly OK to receive my love and caring” So law of the farm number 14: “A cottage with a leaky roof is still a cottage”, is not about making do with what we have. It’s about celebrating what we have. It’s about really enjoying what we have and releasing ourselves from the poisoned policeman of our sub-conscious fears of inadequacy. Law of the farm number 14 is about the present. It’s about the great joy I can experience today with what the things I already have and with the people who are in my life.
Tao of the farm – Principle number 15:
“If you want to eat lamb you must be prepared to see blood.”
December last year was the first time that I have slaughtered a goat. I have killed chickens and fish. I have even shot antelope from the comfortable distance of a rifle’s range, but to get up close and personal with a warm-blooded, living breathing mammal is a whole different thing. I don’t enjoy killing. I am sure there are very few mentally balanced people that do. I have however come to see that I am an omnivore, and that my family before me for hundreds of thousands of years (probably longer) have eaten meat as part of their varied diet. Every time I look at my dogs, they are to me a living, breathing reminder of how their species and mine have walked a long way together and have formed each other and shaped what we have become. Someone told me once that humans domesticated dogs 20000 years ago, while we were all hunter gatherers. (even before we invented agriculture). After the dog, we apparently took another 10 000 years before we thought of domesticating the next animal: the cow. The point being, that despite recent popular tendencies toward vegetarianism, eating meat and dealing with the animals that provide it, has been part of our ancestor’s routine for a very long time. It is within this perspective, that I came to say to myself, if I am going to eat meat; I must have the courage to kill. It is always easy to avoid doing the killing myself. The supermarket, the restaurant and the fast-food outlet, make it easy. Together they conspire to make eating meat a light thing.
But the story of how I came to slaughter this goat requires a little explaining. As you know Litha, at the age of 18, decided to follow in the tradition of his mother’s ancestors and to become circumcised in the 1000 year old Xhosa tradition. The tradition, I am sure has evolved and grown over the years, but in its current form in our region, it involves a 3 week retreat, which begins on the day of the circumcision. I was pleased that Litha’s retreat was on our farm, where he lived in the Ibhoma, that you, his cousins and uncles put together for him the week before. The location was secret and not visible from any road, house or public thoroughfare. In that time in the bush Litha had no clothing (he had to make do with a rough woollen blanket); he had no electricity, running water, TV, cell phone or contact with the outside world. A great privilege in fact and the kind of retreat I would encourage every young man to go through.
In the Xhosa tradition, male circumcision is a rite of passage. You go into the bush a “boy” and you come out a “man”. The boy literally leaves his childhood behind, with all his boyhood possessions burnt in the bush on the day that he leaves. The new man leaves the bush stony faced, not permitted to look back at his boyhood in flames behind him. Of course on the day that Litha returned home, there was a massive feast called an Umgidi. There was a lot of meat (and booze) at this celebration, but none of it involved me having to draw blood myself. We had professional butchers deal with all of that.
The goat, that is the subject of this story met his end two weeks before the great homecoming as part of a small celebration in the bush called Omojiso, or literally “roasting of meat”. This function signifies a milestone in the stay in the bush where the Umncibi (traditional surgeon) is happy enough with the healing process to permit the boy to come off the very strictly limited diet of the first week after the procedure. Kind of like “nil per mouth” the hospitals enforce with certain critical cases in their care.
Going into this complex and meandering process, I had made a very conscious decision. I am not a Xhosa man I do not pretend to be a Xhosa man. I quite respectfully have no interest in becoming a Xhosa man. I am interested though, in doing what I need to do to facilitate my two sons’ becoming Xhosa men, if that is their choice. So it transpired that I found myself in the curious situation in the bush, at Pebblespring Farm, officiating over a Xhosa function called Omojiso.
Tradition requires that a goat be slaughtered to mark this occasion. While I could very easily have passed the task of killing the animal onto anyone of the junior Xhosa men assembled there on that day. I opted rather to show my full participation in Litha’s chosen path by taking the animal’s life myself. We had bought the goat two days before from a farmer about an hour’s drive from us. It was a beautiful young brown male goat. I chose the goat myself out of the herd that was corralled for the purpose of being chosen by people like me, for events like the one we required a goat for. I had no hesitation in pointing out this young brown male when the farmer asked me to choose. We secured the goat by its horns at the end of a long rope in the middle of a bush pasture and there the goat spent its last days and hours peacefully foraging, sleeping and generally dong what goats do. In the morning of the Omojiso, the speeches and introductions went quite quickly and soon came the time I had been anxiously dreading. The goat was held down by two other men, I drew then knife I had sharpened carefully the night before. I cut first through the windpipe with the sound of the air escaping surprised me, then further into the neck striking the arteries releasing the blood to flow. There was still life in the body, as an older man showed me to cut deep in between the neck vertebrae severing the spinal cord till the body lay limp losing the last of its blood. I felt relieved that it was over. I felt the heaviness of taking this life. I felt good that I had able to play my role as a father and physically and demonstrably support my son in a path that he had chosen to walk.
The goat was cooked there and then in pots that had been placed on the fire for this purpose. Litha was able to eat the meat he had been looking forward to after a week of bland dry rations. The two weeks after the Omojiso went quickly. Litha healed well and return triumphant two weeks later to jubilant groups of friends and family. Litha I am sure learned many lessons in the bush, but I too came away a wiser man. I learned about the heaviness that comes with supporting my children and those I love in pursuits that cause me to fear for their safety. I learned that my son is a surprisingly strong a resilient man. I learned what it means to kill a goat.
I know it is an obvious fact and that everybody knows that to eat meat, an animal must die. But sometime you need to wield the knife yourself and feel the warm blood on your skin for it to sink in. What other blood do we have on our hands? What is the price that must be paid to run electricity through all of our homes, heating our bathwater and lighting up out plasma screens? At what price to the carbon levels in the atmosphere? At what price to we commute to work every day, causing oilfields to be drilled or deserts to be fracked and wars do be waged? At what price do we employ domestic workers at near slave wages? What of their children, what of their families, their hopes and their dreams? The bread that you eat from barren wheat field of toxic monocultures that spread over the horizon on every direction in the Western Cape and Freestate; where before active soils, and communities of plans and animals supported stable ecosystems that remained in balance for thousands of years? There is a lot of blood out there and there are very few of us that have hands that are not stained by it.
So I encourage you, wherever you can, whenever you can, to get as close to the brutal truth of your lifestyle as you can. Do this as a test to see if it is not too heavy for you to carry. Because no matter how you try, no matter how modern urban living tries to shield you, you cannot escape the Law of the Farm number 15: “ If you want to eat lamb, you must be prepared to see blood”.
Tao of the Farm – Principle number 16:
”When it’s hot, work in the shade”
I did not get as much work done over the weekend as I would have liked. I did make good progress with a small henhouse that has become an urgent need. The chickens are now roaming free in the paddock near the cottage. They are behaving very well and have not been eaten yet. Perhaps they are trying to reassure me that they don’t need to be locked up at all. My intention though is just to make sure they are locked up at night, primarily to protect them from predators and secondarily to make it possible for me to find the eggs that would otherwise be laid all over the show. But just watching these beautiful chickens roaming around through the grass and shrub over the weekend had convinced me that that is how they should be allowed to go about their lives.
I enjoy the physical task of putting together a chicken coop from scrap wood, or clearing the forest with the chainsaw or building fences or clearing the dam of reeds. Solitary work for me is very satisfying. It’s a kind of meditation. I allow myself to be completely in the present moment. Yes, I have a plan of what I would like to do, but I allow most of my mind to focus only on what I am doing right now, and then the very next step. In this way my work sometimes becomes “meandering. As the next step may be to cut a board, I would power up the generator, only to find that I need to fill up with fuel. I would fill up with fuel only to find that the extension lead that I need to run from the generator to the cross cut saw is hopelessly tangled and I would spend time untangling it. I would cut the board then realise then match it to another, realising that in fact the structure will need to be a bit narrower than I thought; to match an ideal board that I have that would work well as a hen house floor. And so on. I let each step guide me to the next and I make peace with each step and am fully involved and present to each step.
I was able to do most of the cutting work indoors, bet the assembly work had to be done outside or I would not be able to get the structure outside once it was fully built. It was damn hot on Saturday and I could feel the sun beating down on me. When I felt the heat was too much, I would step inside, sweep up the saw dust. Or make some tea. Or repack the tool box. This is the way I prefer to work. Not as a slave who is driven to work at a task regardless of where our energy is. I have come to see work as being something I must have “energy” for. I am sure that “energy” is not the right word. It’s more like I must “feel” the task, I must have an appetite for it I must “desire” the task. If I can work when I am in this task, I find that I am super creative; I am energetic and can keep going for very long periods of time. Perhaps this is why I prefer solitary work? Often the people I would be working with would drain my energy somehow. Especially if have employed cheap casual labour. Often, I would find that the fact that they are in my space, make me not want to work myself. Its illogical, it’s irrational I know, but I am just telling you how it is with me.
So, when it is hot, I work in the shade. Or I work wherever I feel that the “energy” is where I have an appetite to work, where I have desire. Sometimes when it is hot I will find a task in the shade that I have desire for. Sometimes I don’t find energy for anything and all I want to do it sip my tea and stroll through Facebook. I have stopped whipping myself for that. Sometimes the only thing I feel like doing is having a short nap under the oak tree. I have come to trust that my desire for the tasks that need doing will return.
The problem is that the modern urban world that we have built does not very much like law of the farm number 16. In fact, the modern urban world says. “when it is hot, just keep on slogging because if you don’t we are gonna fire your ass” the modern urban world causes you and I to believe that physical and mental work is meant to be un pleasant and it is just something that we have to endure in order to by the privilege of having somewhere dry and warm to sleep at night and to send our children to school. The modern urban world tell us to distrust any “feeling” and “energy” any desire or appetite that you may have to slow down with the task you are busy with or any inclination you may have to rather do some other task for an hour or two. The modern urban world tells us that you and I are not best placed to decide how to spend our time, our energy and our lives. These decisions are best left to people who give us “jobs”. In fact we begin to believe ourselves that we cannot be trusted with our own energy, because when our jobs give us “leave” or a weekend off, all we do is crash on the couch and play Xbox. The truth is that these jobs have exhausted us physically and mentally to such an extent that we probably need some time to recover, given time, we would get off the couch, begin to feel our own energy, beginning to trust our own desire. But in most cases, just as this sense begins to return, we are summoned back to the office, for another week, another 11 months of being told what to do with every waking hour.
No, I say this is not the way. This way of living is contradiction of a fundamental law of how things are. This modern urban way of life is a direct contravention of law of the farm number 16 “When it is hot work in the shade” But no, don’t go off and resign your job today. Small steps first. Begin today, right now to “feel” what it is that you want to do with the next hour of your life. You may be so tired that all you want to do is sleep. Even if you can’t take a nap, the very step of being conscious of what you want to do with your time is a step in the right direction. Take 10 minutes quite time every morning your tea break. Switch off your office mind of deadlines, payments and reviews. Become silent in your mind. Don’t think. Just feel what you are feeling. At first name the emotions that you are feeling. Don’t judge them, just name them, acknowledge them, and preferably write down the name of what you are feeling. Then as a second step, feel what it is that you need to be doing with your time, where your energy is. Preferably write it down. It may take a long time before you are able to act on these desires, but that time will come.
Tao of the farm – Principle number 17:
“Don’t sell the farm to buy a tractor”
One of my favourite “tools” on the farm is our little 160cc Suzuki quad bike. My friend Eldred had it lying around in his garage and gave it to us as a gift when we first bought the farm. What I like about it is that it’s small and light, but powerful enough to take a load of fence poles or drag a log out of the dam. Having a big fancy John Deer tractor would be great, but very expensive, so right now we make do with what we have. The heavier puling tasks the quad bike can’t handle, I use my 4X4 for. The big digging and pushing tasks I hire in a TLB at R300.00 per hour. No, it’s not ideal, but I am working within the realistic limitations of what we have and how best we should invest what we have. And what’s more, the quad bike is agile, it has a tight turning circle, it can manoeuvre through narrow paths in the forest. Places where a tractor just could not get right now. The quad bike is also light on the ground, it will not easily compact the soil or sink into muddy patches. Oh yes, and of course, it doubles as a toy. I feel quite comfortable to let even smallish children take turns up and down the driveway on the quad bike. I would not be able to let them do this with a tractor.
My policy favouring a quad bike (for now) over a tractor I suppose comes out of a long tradition where my grandfathers’ grandfather would have had to make such conscious choices all the time. My grandfather’s grandfather would have lived on a farm; he would have known that if he invested too heavily in extravagances, he would struggle to feed his family. If that meant walking to town because he could not yet quite afford a horse cart, then I guess that is what he would have done. If that meant housing is family in a one roomed cottage, that is what he would have had to do. That’s just the way things were, and actually that’s still the way things are.
Our modern urban lives have helped to blur the lines between what is possible and what is impossible. Banks and other credit giving business have created the illusion that we can have anything we want right now. All we have to do is sell our future lives to them. All we have to do is to agree to labour for them. So we buy the horse cart, or the three roomed cottage or the tractor, but we sell the very thing we were trying to attain by entering into the bargain. Let me be clear. In some way or other, we are always trying to be free. When we buy something or build something it is in order that we may be free. Free from discomfort, free from toil and struggle, free from inconvenience. We are always trying to buy our freedom. The banks and credit giving institutions know this, but also know that we have become conditioned to selling our very freedom, our future time and energy for the privilege of having right now what we actually can’t afford to have right now.
The debt trap has become so common and so widespread that it has become generally accepted that this is the route any young person should follow when leaving home and embarking on their journey to independence. Young people who do not go into debt to buy cars, clothing and big screen televisions risk becoming social outcasts. There are the brave ones that do resit the trend, but these are a very small, very courageous minority of thought leaders.
I must be careful to clarify that I am not speaking out against debt as a concept; I am speaking here about moving toward some acceptance that debt is a very powerful and at the same time a very dangerous tool. Clever people have learned how use debt to invest well and build empires that serve them and their families for generations. But debt is dangerous. Like dynamite. Not something to hand out an street corners to children, but something to entrust to experienced miners who after years of training, know how to apply its force surgically and precisely to extract the ore from the rock. Right now, we are suffering a pandemic of indebted, young and old, running around dazed through the city streets with sticks of dynamite blowing off hands and limbs.
I am not saying that buying a tractor is a bad idea; I am not saying that debt is a bad idea; I am saying that we must be become skilled before making decisions so that we are not tricked into selling the farm to buy the tractor.
Tao of the farm – Principle number 18:
‘There rooster will crow, the hen will make a nest’
The rooster is not competing with the hen when it crows. The hen is not competing with the rooster when it makes a nest, lay eggs and rears chicks. For the rooster to think it is better that the hen or the hen to think is better that the rooster is just a waste of thinking. I spend time watching chickens. I admit it. I get pleasure out of observing how they forage, how they chase the grasshoppers and scratch of bugs in the pasture. I see how they run for cover when a shadow passes overhead. I see how cocky the roosters are. I see how submissive the hens are. It is incredible to see a broody hen in absolute and resolute determination. It will not move from those eggs. She has the absolute strength of character to do what it takes. When the chicks are born, she will care for them to the point where she will attack a dog ten times her size or a human 20 times her size in order to protect her offspring. The rooster leads the hens. It will find food for them, call he will call them. Step back and allow them to eat the prized caterpillar he has found or the little snake that he has killed. The rooster will warn the hens of danger, sometime false alarms, sometimes real threats. He will make the rooster noises that mean “run for cover” and he will follow the hens in under the awning or the shade of a tree. The rooster is full of colour, bright dazzling feathers, a long sweeping tail and a mane of sorts around his neck. He has a red crown on his head that is his comb, and extravagant jowls that hang down like a beard. A rooster has two things on its find all the time: Fighting and fornicating. Even when it wakes up at three in the morning crowing at the top of its voice, it is thinking of fighting, or at very least trying to warn other roosters in the vicinity that he will fight them if they come any closer. Roosters are different to hens. They have a different energy. Rosters are almost the opposite of hens. They are poles apart. We find the similar polarity with bulls and cows. Dogs and bitches. Boars and sows. And you know what; our species is not magically excempt from the law. We too are divided into man and woman. Men have strong natural tendencies toward certain behaviours and women have strong natural tendencies toward certain behaviours. But, why am I taking time to point out such an obvious fact? Why am I taking time to dwell on something we all know? I suppose because the modern urban life that we have all grown up in has begun to send us mixed messages that have confused some of us. Our system has, since the sixties, at least begun to hint that men and woman are the same actually, and it’s just that they have become conditioned differently. The feminist movement all over the world is an essential mobilisation against oppression of people using a gender based philosophy. In the same way there has been an essential mobilisation against race and class based oppression. So it is very unpopular, even now, to begin to suggest that man are different to woman. That they are not equal in every way. Because people generating arguments of inequality are very often trying to justify acts of oppression against the female part of the population.
What I am advocating is different to this, and quite apart from the discussion of how to confront the oppression. What I am advocating in my own life, is an awareness of my own gender. My aim every day is to be conscious of my thoughts, habits and behaviours. Not necessarily to change them or feel guilt for them, but rather just to observe them, as a spectator almost, as a loving interested party. My attempt is not to measure my male thoughts and energy against some standard of correctness, but rather to try to feel that male energy more deeply. Every one of us, has inside us, some male energy and some female energy. After all, half of our genes come from a man and half come from a woman. Of course, each of us, man or woman, is free to explore more of our male energy or more of our female energy. For me though, in my life, it makes sense for me to feel my “maleness”, to laugh at it when it comes up with silly suggestions, but to play along with it where is seems reasonable or fun. There is nothing in this approach that leads me to think that I am in competition with the women around me. There is nothing in this approach that causes me to believe that I am superior in any way to the women around me. There is nothing in this approach that causes me to want to go out and be oppressive to the women around me or to any other members of my species.
But I have seen in my own life, as I am sure that it is true in the lives of so many others, that I have caused myself pain and distress, when I have come to see my male energy as un-progressive and backward or felt guilty perhaps of the kinds of “boorish” ideas my boy brain may come up with. This censoring of self has lead, in my mind, to an exercise of will over passion, becoming polite, politically correct and sanitised in order to live up to a standard of “civilisedness”. This attempt to be polite and correct has in the past made me weak, it has made me ill; it has made me to withdraw and become depressed. I will have it no more in my life. The rooster does not feel guilt for his rooster thoughts and I would guess that the hens around him are more fully hens because of this mind-set that acknowledges Tao of the Farm – Principle number 18: “Roosters will crow and hens will make nests”
Tao of the Farm – Principle number 19
“The Corona Virus will come and turn everything on its head.”
13 April 2020
If there is one thing of which we can be certain, then it is that there is great uncertainty ahead. As I write this we are in lockdown. We have been required to “stay at home” since the 26th of March. I have left the house only twice in the last 18 days. When I have left, I have kept the outing short. I wear my trusted “buff” as a facemask and spray sanitiser on my hands when I enter and when I leave a shop.
A lot has happened at Pebblespring farm since the previous chapter. I came to live full time in “Kok’s Cottage” in April 2017. My marriage of 23 years came to an end with a very messy divorce that dragged out for over two years. My daughter Mandisa came to stay with me at the farm, two weeks on and two weeks off. I am in a new relationship with the beautiful, profound and perplexing Poppina. Together we have, under very difficult circumstances, made Pebblespring Farm a home. We have been joined by two lovely Great Danes: Tank and Nakia and two (mostly irritating) cats: Hamilton and Eliza. (Yes, they were both named by Mandisa, a musicals nut!)
But today, as I write this, we are not at Pebblespring Farm. We are living through the lockdown at my office premises in the leafy suburb of Walmer. I am very fortunate to have a little flatlet on the site that has actually proved to be very comfortable. My thinking is that by making this rushed move, I am most likely to keep my office going through the lockdown. Being an Architect (as opposed perhaps to a waiter or a pilot) is useful I suppose in this time, because I can continue to prepare designs and documentation without having to come into physical contact with anyone. There are only seven of us in our team, so it really is a very small operation and a lot easier to keep going than the massive architectural offices in Cape Town and Johannesburg with maybe 200 or 300 employees or those of US, UK, China and Japan that employ thousands. By being here at the office, I can much more comfortably hold on to the reins at what has become “mission control”. Each of our team members is linked to the office server via VPN and each one, except of course Tafadzwa the general assistant, has moved their workstations with them to what has now become their home offices. I am very happy to say that the last 18 days have been a great success. The output in terms of quantity and quality has been good. We meet every morning at 9am with Zoom and review our progress and plan the work ahead. During the day we share our progress on the office Whatsapp group that we set up some time ago. I would perhaps post a diagram of what I have been designing on the drawing board, my colleague Chris or Siya may post for my comment of for Graham’s comment the latest version of a drawing that has been prepared on Revit (the very powerful design software we use). In this way we continue – “business as usual” I suppose. Except of course it is not business as usual. I have been in business for my own account now for 25 years. What I have seen in this time is that when there is trouble in the economy the first thing to be put on hold is any future construction project developers may have had in mind. A construction project can almost always be delayed so that they can “wait and see”. We can always live a little longer on the same old house. We can always wait a little longer before we build the next hotel in our group We can always squeeze in a little tighter into the existing office space until the crisis passes. So, right now, I am facing a great uncertainty. While I am reasonably certain that I will not die from the Corona virus, I do not have any certainty at all that my business and my means of supporting my loved ones will still be here in a year’s time.
That’s really what I want speak about today. I want to speak about uncertainty and how it is that we can come to make peace with it or even embrace it. I find it difficult because as I write these words, I am still trying to figure out for myself my own way forward. What I do know is that there is only one way to begin to make friends with uncertainty and that is to accept that it exists. Perhaps like the great Buddha tried to teach us: that it can only hurt us if we do not accept it. It seems to me though that in this time, what government and leaders are trying their best to do is to give certainty to the people. To give a guess as to when the “curve” will “peak”. People everywhere want the certainty to know if they will be getting their salaries or if they will be able to return to work or when they will be able to buy booze and cigarettes again. The horrible truth is that no-one can be certain of any of these things. What we are reasonably certain of is that about 115000 people have died of this disease so far. What we are told is that 25 of these are South African deaths. What we can be even more certain of is that we are in lockdown and will be until the end of April and that alone will devastate the economy in ways, in all likelihood, not seen in my lifetime.
Perhaps though what this crisis has brought more clearly into focus than ever before is that the certainty we thought we had was an illusion all along. There has never been certainty. There have only been those that have tried to calm the herd creating for them the illusion that there was certainty. It is very sad, but unfortunately true, that of all the people that I have ever me in my life, I am able to categorize either has having a “herd mentality” or a “herder mentality”. Others, like Fredrick Nietzsche have been perhaps only slightly more blunt when saying we either have the minds of “masters” or of “slaves”. I would guess, like everything else, the truth, as inconvenient as is, is probably a little more nuanced. In the same way maybe that each of us at times display more of our feminine spiritual energy and other times more of our masculine spiritual energy, we lean in some days toward “slave thinking” and in other days toward “master thinking”. Now though, is the time for us to discipline our minds and to discipline our thinking to the thinking of the “master”. To train ourselves to think noble thoughts. The noble soul does not seek certainty because it knows that certainty is an illusion. It knows that just because events have been seemingly predictable looking back, that does not in anyway help to predict the future. No, the noble soul knows that it must embrace the uncertainty, not only today in this crisis, but at all times. It must accept that we are present in a living universe and must be ready to make changes in its life in order to respond to this reality.
I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know when I will come again to live at Pebblespring Farm. I don’t know if I will come to build my dream house with a deck that looks over the spring. I don’t know if I will come to graze my heard of Nguni Cattle through a beautiful pasture and shaded food forest. I don’t know if I will be able to make the decisions in this time that will see Pebblespring Farm grow in biodiversity and being passed down through the generations of caring and deep-thinking custodians that will follow behind me. I don’t know, because I am not certain. But because of the noble soul inside that is battling and fighting off the slave-minded demons, I will learn to embrace this uncertainty and with practice and discipline come to love it. Yes, to love my fate including all that is uncertain about it.
These are not all the chapters of this book. There are many other chapters, and many other laws that you will be able to observe in the world around you. Your world is not the same as mine or the same as anybody else’s, but know that it is for you to observe, to take note and to draw your own conclusions from the patterns you see playing out around you. I can assure you that without any doubt, the patterns will emerge if and when you commit yourself to observing looking, listening and feeling. Be conscious of what you see, be conscious of what you hear and be conscious of what you feel. Don’t be fast to react. Pause before you speak. Take time to acknowledge and name what you are feeling. Then, and only then will you be able to complete the writing of the remaining chapters of this book.
I look forward to reading them.