Learning to understand a food forest

1 Jul

The outdoor realm of the world has always held more fascination for me than that of the built environment, mostly, I think, because of the variety of smells. At home, those smells were pine needles and green peas, strawberries and mulch. In Ecuador, where I’m completing a two-month tropical food production internship on a biosphere reserve, the smells are vastly different but still provide fascination for me; the smells of maracullá and papaya, donkeys and thatched roofs mingle with motor oil and moist air for an intoxicating mixture of jungle community. When I first arrived in the 350-person community of Camarones four weeks ago, I made the three-kilometer trek up to the Jama-Coaque Biosphere Reserve. I unpacked in the bamboo tree house and became acquainted with the moist evergreen forest surrounding me. I looked out on the tree-covered mountains and immediately took stock of what was lacking from my normal view—power lines, roofs, and road cuts, to name a few. What was present was thereby made more special—I saw powerful hummingbirds hovering over passion flowers, countless bizarre insects, as well as a mish-mash of fruit trees and shrubs that would soon become my fascination. About an acre of the Jama-Coaque Reserve is a permaculture food forest, and this site is where I’m spending most of my time.

I’m learning more and more that a permaculture system looks akin to a half-forgotten forest. And even more, I’m learning this laissez-faire appearance is intentional—strived for even. This is hard for me to comprehend; I come from a suburban New England town where lawns were the norm and any stray dandelion was blasphemous and immediately attacked with any number of chemicals, from RAID to Windex. In school, I was praised for having all my papers in numerical order and at home I was rewarded for keeping the table clean. These subtle influences made me want to control everything in my reach. This tendency mostly manifests itself in a clean room, doing most of the driving on road trips, and taking on the mother role in many friend groups.

This controlling trait of mine has also applied to most of the gardening I’ve done in my life. Gardening brings me joy and peace because I have a hand in producing the food that I consume. Neat rows, not a single maple seedling in sight, and beautifully trellised tomatoes are my favorite TV shows and I could watch them for hours. Of course, there have been mishaps, including a slapdash pea trellis, and a bunch of tomatoes whose growth was stunted when I mistook their terminal buds for suckers (suckers are sometimes removed from tomatoes so that energy is sent to a few tomatoes to make them bigger—in this case, the tomato plants had to send lots of energy into a sucker stem to create a new terminal bud).

Nothing compares, though, to the chaos and beauty of permaculture. To my control-focused brain, a permaculture system is difficult to comprehend, but I’m coming to understand the purpose. Along with the general food production my internship entails, I will also be getting a Permaculture Design Certification. This certification will verify that I am capable of designing a system that might look like an overgrown forest but that is so productive the fruits of my labor will literally be falling on my head (this is not an exaggeration—I’ve had maracullá, or passion fruit, fall off its vine into my lap while reading in a hammock).

The food production side of the reserve is still young, but some of my favorite permaculture techniques that the reserve employs include a water filtration system that uses beneficial bacteria that inhabit sand and eat harmful microorganisms, making the river water potable; planting ginger rhizomes to outcompete weeds; and utilizing the cleansing properties of banana and yucca plants to filter our grey water. I am also learning the concepts of design, which really just define common sense principles of using a problem to create a solution, among other things. The crux of permaculture is to design sustainable human settlements, something we all need to put all of our time and energy into.

Life on the reserve is similar to a permaculture system—while most of our food still does not come from the backyard, bananas, oranges, limes, passion fruit, yucca, oreganon, spicy ají peppers and a spinach-like green called verdulaga come in from the food forest and supplement our diet. Our days are relaxed and full of learning. The day starts at eight, maybe clearing the understory with machetes or harvesting oranges and cacao in the forest, followed by an extended lunch, and then permaculture class. The day ends at four and a good two or three hours of my afternoon are consumed by reading (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert are my latest obsessions). Since there is no electricity, dinners are shared by candlelight and then after a game of cards it’s to bed at 8:30.

One of the things I’ll miss the most when I return to the States is having an infinite supply of fresh local bananas at my doorstep. The coast of Ecuador is prime banana country—“banana heaven” is what my intern coordinator called it—and each week it’s someone’s chore to harvest a whole stalk. Bananas are actually overgrown herbaceous plants, not trees, and their vascular system is amazing. To harvest the fruit, one must cut down the plant, which then exudes copious amounts of sap. Each xylem tube of the plant is visible to the naked eye, making the cut stump look something like a beehive, but with rectangular holes instead of hexagonal. A banana stalk contains anywhere between 25-35 bananas and terminates in a long stem holding its purple flower bud. Since all bananas that are cultivated today are clones, bananas do not reproduce sexually, so this flower never gets to complete its natural cycle. Bananas produce pups at their base, which grow into subsequent plants in about nine month. I pretty much swore off of bananas a while ago for the well-known politico-social reasons, but while in Ecuador I’m planning to consume as many as my body can stand and appreciate this bizarre fruit’s sweetness while I can.

The most recent adventure in tropical food production surrounded a pile of light-brown fermented seedpods. These seeds had been harvested from age-old trees and their orange outer-pods sat fermenting in a bag for about three days and then spent the past two weeks drying in the sun. Yesterday, we toasted them over a low flame and then cracked open the casings to reveal a midnight black oval with a delicious fragrance. Once ground, this end result was turned into xocolatl—“bitter liquid” in the Aztec language Nahuatl. In other words, hot chocolate. From the tree to the cup, chocolate takes on many forms, and in the process I experienced we didn’t even make a classic chocolate bar. Yet I have to say my favorite part of this whole cacao process was not sipping of the panela-sweetened drink but sucking on the freshly harvested outer pods, which are coated with a sweet and slightly tangy goo that is absolute heaven. My fellow food production interns and I sat for about an hour shelling the pods and intermittently sticking one into our mouths to enjoy that sweet flavor. Cacao is actually native to Ecuador, yet most modern cacao does not come from here. However, the majority of the highest quality cacao is grown in coastal Ecuador, right near the reserve. So while I’m eating locally now, I will sadly never be able to taste the fine flavor of Ecuadorian cacao in a Hershey’s bar…but who needs those anyway? I’ll have my chaotic, fruit-falling permaculture garden design to keep me happy when I return.

P.S. I apologize for the lack of pictures—we operate with limited technology up here! If you’d like some photos of this project, visit the reserve’s website at http://www.tmalliance.org, their facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.780585085294384.1073741834.154975601188672&type=1 or check out my fellow intern’s blog at http://sarahkbarney.wordpress.com/.

-Julia Graham, ’16

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