Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Land Matters

I have managed to survive the cold weather we have been having here in the UK. It’s been tough but also enjoyable. The coldest it got was -12ÂșC. I will post updates on my experiences during the cold spell in a few weeks. For now here is how I spent the first two weeks of 2012.

Landmatters is a co-operative (group of individuals) which owns and manages a 42 acre holding in South Hams, Devon. Using permaculture design systems, they are managing the land for the benefit of bio-diversity and wildlife whilst providing for many of their own needs for community, food, water, energy, shelter, creativity, transport and waste management. They are also developing land based livelihoods, reducing their ecological footprint and acting as an educational resource for the wider community. I first visited Landmatters in November 2010 which doing my Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course. I immediately fell in love with the site and shortly afterwards the people that lived there. I promised that I would return for a visit. 
The train ride from Weymouth was a beautiful one along the south coast of the British Isles. It was a bright sunny day and we left Weymouth quite early and were fortunate to see a display of immense beauty as the Sun's rays bounced off the oceans and illuminated the red and grey cliffs for Devon. We arrived in Totness just before midday and as we walked around the narrow high street, which was only just wide enough to accommodate a large car, the clouds quickly covered the Sun and light rain began to fall. We took shelter, trying to keep our backpacks dry, until it had eased up then went shopping. Almost every other shop in Totness was a health food shop and the ones in between were charity shop. What an amazing place, the energy of the town was one of acceptance and genuineness. After gathering up supplies we started heading out of town and towards Allaliegh. We managed to hitch a lift just outside of town all the way to the gates of Landmatters, which was lucky because the walk from the main road would not have been a pleasant one while carrying heavy backpacks. The large wooden gate and the unpaved pot hole ridden track up to the top of the site brought back fun memories of the PDC course. As we approached the communal bender at the top of the highest field on the site my heart melted, I felt a great weight lifting off my shoulders, it could have just been the removing of the backpack, but it was a great sense of relief to be out of the big city and being able to take in deep deep breathes without immediately wanting to get it all out again.
Week 1.
We were greeted by Andy, one of the people living on the site who is responsible for the management of the woodland bit of the site. He informed us that it was Beanies' birthday and that they were all planning to have a communal dinner to celebrate the occasion. 'What a perfect time to arrive' I thought to myself. 
We went off, pitched the tent and stored all our kits in the cow shed (converted for storage) and headed back to the communal. This time most of the community members were there all to celebrate Beanies' third birthday. The gathering was great. There was loads of food and a very special pancake layer-cake which was very yummy. The next few days we didn't do much as everyone was still in the hibernation phase, so Sophie and I simple enjoyed the site and caught up with the folks on what's been happening during the last year. The third day at Landmatters I was becoming increasingly restless and decided to wake up early and walk to Totness. The town is only about 6 miles from the Landmatters site and the walk should have taken me no more that 2 hours. I set off and took a wrong turn and added another 4 miles to the journey. It was the most exhausting walk I have ever done. I didn't eat breakfast and forgot to refill my water bottle for the return trip and as I walked back to Landmatters with two bags of groceries hanging over a stick across my shoulders I began to struggle. The rain fell consistently during the entire walk and it was cold and the wind blew the sharp drops of rain into my eyes making it increasingly difficult to see the road ahead. I managed to find a shortcut through a large field planted up with radishes. I walked through mud, long wet grass and along high hedges running parallel to the busy narrow country roads. When I finally got to the gates of Landmatters I was suffering form dehydration. I began to walk up the steep flooded track to the top of the site and as I slowly made my way up the track, in desperation, I began sucking the drops of water hanging from the stems and leaves of the trees on the side of the track. I reached the communal, where Sophie, Sharon and Maren were preparing for communal dinner, dropped my shopping and collapsed on the large wooden bench in the centre of the room. I was exhausted and dying of thirst but every sip of water I took I felt the urge to throw up. So I dragged my way to the tent and completely switched off. Sophie shortly followed and with a concerning voice said, "Are you OK?"
"Not really," I replied, "I just need to sleep for a bit." 
I woke up an hour later and feeling a lot better I headed over to the communal for a lovely communal dinner. Later that night I had a nice bucket shower and a lovely well earned good night sleep. 
The first week I spent at Landmatters the weather was really appalling. We had a New Year party at Maren and Brainys' and we all have a very relaxing day on New Year day. Sophie and I went for a walk in the woods along the green lane which runs partly parallel to an ancient wall, covered in intertwined tree roots and multi coloured moss, along a small stream. It was raining but the beauty of the site made it tolerable. On the 2nd of January I was showed how to make cob for the first time ever by Rooh Star, an amazing person who also lives at Landmatters and has been attempting to build one of the most interesting houses I have ever seen. The house is a large round house made from massive oak posts from the woodlands of Landmatters which supports a reciprocating root system, which is the oddest roofing design technique I have ever seen where the beams all support themselves without the aid of fixings. On the outside there is a large green roof where kale and other vegetables grow along side grasses, wild flowers and other weeds. Making cob was great, from picking out the larger stones from the 15-20% clay subsoil, to dancing on it to get a consistence of a baby seal. Working the cob involves a lot of hip action which to onlooker, I imagine would look pretty hilarious. That night while I was in the communal reading up on forest gardening Sophie came running in, "Randy I need your help, the tent got blow across the field." I ran to the camping field only to find my tent lying on its’ side and soaking wet. We re-posited and properly secured the tent, wiped down the inside and took the sleeping bags to the communal and hung them over the wood burner to dry out. Once dry we went back to the tent and settled in to sleep. The winds gusted at 65mph that night and it felt as though the tent was about to lift off the field. The fences were rattling, and the corrugated sheets of the cow shed roof sounded as they were about to come loose. The wind caused the outer shell of the tent to touch the not waterproof inner layer which caused water to come pouring into the sleeping area. Sophie decided that she had had enough and went to sleep in the communal. I decided to stick it out and spent the night in the tent. It was a scary experience but at the same time exciting.
The next morning I woke up to find that a huge ash tree at the top of the site had blown down. This made me realise how lucky I had been. The tent was pitched near a large hedge to help provide shelter from the stronger winds and if one of those trees were to fall over during the middle of the night and fall on the tent that might be the end of me. Luckily no one was hurt and nothing was damaged. The biggest news of the day however was that Hannan and Andy's baby daughter was delivered during that windy night.
The morning was sunny and calm so we managed to get a fair bit of gardening done before lunch. After lunch the rain and wind started up again. During dinner we all got the first chance to see the newest member of the Landmatters community. We decided to join Sophie and spent the night in a yurt which was attached to the back of the communal bender. That was my first experience of sleeping in a yurt; it was damp, cold and felt very congested the strong wind gave the impression that the top half of the structure was about to take off over the moors.
The next day I helped to cover the compost toilet steps with chicken wire. This was to make it safe to walk on when wet, as they can get quite slippery (another lesson learnt). The majority of that afternoon was spent hanging out with Sophie. She was leaving later that evening. We took the bus into Totness sat around a beautiful rockery garden for a bit. We said our goodbyes then I was on the bus once again heading back to the Landmatters site. I played with the idea of sleeping in the communal that night but it was dry and still and as a result I had the best night sleep I have had since I arrived.
Week 2.
The days became drier and calmer. I ordered a new tent online and was now waiting for its’ arrival. The high winds over the pass few days had cause a bit of damage in the site. One large ash tree, which was at least 100 years old, was blown down and though it meant that there would be a lot more fire wood available in the coming seasons, it still felt like a lost. The winds also damaged one of the wind turbines on the site and we had to dismount it from the top of the 18ft pole which held it high above the surrounding obstacles allowing it to catch the most of the winds. We built a scaffold tower, secured it to the pole which was buried into the ground and held in place by four metal cables anchored into the ground and attached to tensioners. Carl then climbed up and undid the generator. We then found out that we had to dig up the entire pole to be able to get the generator off completely. Felling the pole was not an easy job as it was heavy and situated in a very awkward location. Two days it took us to get the scaffold tower erected, the generator dethatched, and the pole down. The first day we started work on the wind turbine I met a 6ft peanut. He was a cool fellow who was, surely, at some point in his life a punk (spiky hair, piercings, etc). He now makes jewellery. The technique he uses is to mix different metals together. This gives his products a very unique form with two, three and sometimes four different colours layers on one another. The day after I met Peanut I hitched into town and did a bit of shopping. It was Carls’ birthday celebration that night and there was a theme dinner. Indian curry was the theme and I had decided to make an aubergine curry with a little Caribbean swing on it. My dish went down well and the night was one of love and appreciation. After the celebrations I watched a bit of a film called Four Lions with Peanut and Andy. A very funny and thought provoking British film.
I was woken up the next morning by bird song and a lump moving around under the floor of the tent. I wasn’t sure what it was and to this day I haven’t been able to work out what it was. It could have been a rat, a mouse, a mole, a snake, I would never know but this lump emerged again and again over the next three days. As I unzipped and the tent and stepped out onto the field a carpet of birds lift off all at once and sent a mild breeze rushing towards me. It then accrued to me; the tent had become part of the landscape and the creatures inhabiting the land had learnt that it wasn’t a treat and just went on with their daily lives. I made my way over to the communal had tea and went off to do some gardening. The gardens at Landmatters are raised beds with off cuts of milled trees for boarders and the all are mulched (covered) with either grass clippings of straw. I had the privilege of working with Nesster 8, and Sylvin 10, who also live on the site. We spent all day building raised bed from scratch and were very pleased with the end result. It was full moon that night. There was no cloud and the sky was absolutely littered with stars. There was no need for head torches that night as the moon light was like a large florescent beacon which illuminated everything within its’ gaze. It was cold outside but I couldn’t resist being under such a magical sky.
Monday morning there’s a check-in. This is were every member of the community come together and say how they are doing and voice their opinions and concerns. It is also the time when the tasks for the week are set. One of the tasks was to address the leaks in the communal bender and the yurt. Some of the canvas which made up the roof of the bender had become rotten and had to be replaced. I fetched a ladder from the huge barn, leaned it up against the structures, climbed up and began to peel back the layers of canvas. As we pulled back the layers of canvas swarms of angry wasps came charging out, clearly disorientated from their long winter sleep, they simply fluttered around for a short while before forcing their way further up under the canvas. Moving the second layer of canvas and a bit further up the structure a small lump of fur came tumbling down. “Shit! Is that iced a mouse?” I shouted. On closer inspection we noticed that it was a very small bat. We had disturbed its’ hibernation. Apparently it was fully grown but no more than 3 inches long. As the day progressed I left the canvasing of the yurt and bender to the more experienced individuals. Sharon, another Landmatters community member, had been working on her Permaculture Design diploma. We both sat down along the massive wooden table in the communal and she was kind enough to talk me through her design process. That night I heard a few bats roosting in the trees just above my tent, there sonar ticks unmistakable. I had a nice lie in the next morning. When I finally managed to pull myself out of my snug-pack (sleeping bag) I decided to do a bit of laundry, as the weather had been fine. While doing the laundry a missive rainbow arched over the entire north east portion of the sky. The sight almost brought a tear to my eyes. Later we were all coming up with ideas of sorting out the rat problem in the communal bender. I got absolutely scratched up while collecting gorse which is an extremely thorny plant which help stop rats freely wondering through your home. On Wednesday 11th there was a council meeting on the site and I used the opportunity to do a little exploring in Totness. This little town has so much more to offer. I got myself lost wondering around the back roads of the small town and found some amazing sceneries. On my return I had a chat with Lee who is building a home out of an old 20ft wooden cider barrel. I would love to see that some day. Rooh showed me how to erect a cod-wood wall and I absolutely loved it. All that’s needed is a few logs, some clayey soil, a bit of water, a little straw and your hands. The only tool we used was a small stick about 8 inches long and 1 inch thick. Which these minimal resources she proceeded to teach me how you could build the most beautiful and functional house. The afternoon was spent weeding salad beds with Josh, an ex-Landmatters resident and another Landmatters resident Charlotte, who I am convinced was a spectacular woodland fairy in a previous life. Josh runs a salad business and there was a lot to learn from him about growing salads. In Friday the 13th was the first day of winter, in my opinion. There was a hard frost which had settled on the ground the night before and this caused a crunch sound when stepped on by either humans or the heard of sheep that congregated outside my tent at ungodly hours of the morning to feast of the lust grasses that filled the fields of Landmatters. Lee showed me some techniques for stone sculpting and I did a bit more of cod-wood wall building that afternoon, I think I’ve got it down to a fine art now. Lee offered to take me for a ride to see some the sights of south Devon. We visited Slapton beach, which was a lovely stretch of beach on one side a nature reserve on the other. It was a great spectacle driving down the narrow strip of road with the pebble sand beach on the left and the large fresh water pools and mashes on the right. The next place we visited absolutely took my breath away. No combination of words would do justice to the beauty and splendour of Blackpool Sands (in the winter months). The beach is small, about 200 meters long, and enclosed on both ends by spectacular cliffs which gently slope right down into the warm-green coloured sea. The cliffs were covered in living vegetation despite the cold harsh winds which are constantly forced upon them off the shimmering waters of the south English coast. The sand was teaming with colours, (there were blacks, pinks, greens, reds, yellows, purples and browns) and of varying grades. Blackpool Sands reminded me of a beach from my childhood and, if only for that reasoning, it will always have a special place in my heart. On Saturday we had a visit form 10 volunteers from Plymouth University and I was asked to lead one of the activities. I was honoured. I grabbed a few of the young academics and had a lovely session building a raised bed and then later on we got a bed weeded and transplanted some raspberry plants. I managed to pass on some of my gardening knowledge and the case against bad farming practices. There was a large mix of subject the students were studying, logistics, geography business studies and environmental science were a few. I would like to think that I was able to pass on some useful and meaningful information to these very keen individuals. Once the volunteers left I am Josh had a nice wind down chat and later Ambooka and her son Slyvin mom, was good company that night by the roaring fire in the communal.
Sunday was my last day at the Landmatters site. I woke up early did a fair bit of packing up. I decided to send my new tent back to London and tough it out with my old one. I did a fair bit of cod-wood wall building, made a big pot of jollof rice and finish packing up. That night I slept in one of the benders on site. It was an amazing structure. Being inside gave the illusion of being in a small forest. I lit the wood burner had a hot bucket shower and cozied up close to the fire. It was a night a luxury and it was not very nice to be perfectly honest. I think I had gotten use to the simplicity of sleeping in an unheated tent.