Work days in the Wilderness

In early February this year we invited friends over on 2 consecutive weekends to help out with our ‘woodland management’ work. This meant taking out some of the trees that have grown up naturally on the land – in the part beneath the ‘cultivated zone’ that produces our food.

It came as a shock to me, as we were preparing for this undertaking, to realise that we three human denizens of this place hold such very different perspectives on what I call ‘the wilderness’.

In permaculture, it is considered core practice to leave a part of the land wild: “The principle of zoning in permaculture is that whatever is in most need of human attention should be placed closest to the centre of human activity. The furthest zone is ‘zone 5’. It is the wilderness… i.e. the place where the needs of wild plants and animals take top priority. Yields of produce for human use are only taken when to do so benefits the wild species, as when a flower meadow is mown for hay. Every permaculture design, however small, should have a zone 5.” (taken from Permaculture UK’s knowledge base). Over the years, ‘zone 5’ at Dorpsstraat 136 has become a gorgeous profusion of over-the-head greenery, wild flowers and trees – primarily birch, but now other species are starting to come in. It is also the burial place of my cat Ninja, who’s benign shade now presides over the grove in the centre, stalking ethereal moles and mice. In the summer it is a sun-dappled, fragrant, rustling, buzzing, chirping paradise of cool presence, where the Earth Power is thick enough to cut with a knife. At least, that’s how it seems to me.

 

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Last month I learned that Ria’s concern lay more with our capacity, or lack of it, to handle trees that are really too tall and too thick for our women’s hands and strength to manage. It sobers me to think that all that life and those years of growth will keep our stove fueled for about 7 days in a cold spell! And to Chrisje, the wilderness seemed more like a mess that we haven’t gotten around to taming yet, and the trees block the view of the valley (especially in the summer!) Learning these differences of perspective was physically and emotionally painful for me, and that got me to thinking about what it is, specifically, that I am so attached to in our pocket wilderness.

It is the part of the land I am always drawn to. When Ria is in among the vegetable beds or in the greenhouse, when Chrisje is mowing the grass, you can find me either out on the boundaries or in among the wilderness, cutting the long grass, and following the instructions I clearly receive – along with permission from the ‘place’ – to groom the beauty, removing brambles here, pulling nettles there, picking up dead branches over there. And mostly, just sitting, feeling the life of nature coursing through all my channels and bringing me joy and nourishment. Being quiet and still and communing with Wren, Birch and Wild Cherry. This is where I come to weep for the beauty of the Earth and spill out my love when it gets too much to contain. This is also where I do much of my Soul’s Work – the work that cannot be articulated – that isn’t related to the human domain. I recognise that both my ‘sisters’ are deeply nourished by and commune with this land in their unique ways, just as I do in mine. I also recognise that I am the guardian of this small plot of ‘what wanted to happen’, that part of the land that we have not in some way shaped or designed. I also acknowledge that that has been changing in recent years, as I have been invited in to tend and tidy, clear and groom. There are even some man-made statues now gracing Ninja’s grove…

On previous occasions when we have taken out trees, I have not experienced the inner conflict that arose in me this time. When I agonise about the death of these loved beings, I am given images of cutting toenails, which I interpret as reassurance that things are more interconnected and less straightforward than they seem. I don’t know what has changed in me – I guess I am at a different phase in my relationship with all of life, with coming to terms with impending ‘environmental catastrophe’ and awakening to the many ways in which I am complicit in our life-denying civilisation. In a conversation with Ria about all this, she asked me why I viewed these trees on this land as different from other trees that feed our efficient, hi-tech wood-burning stove. All I can say, upon reflection, is that I would rather not have to endure the cognitive dissonance that this will provoke in me every time I see our stove!! Ria also asked me what difference there is between cutting a tree or harvesting a vegetable? The only answer I have is one of scale, which I acknowledge is no answer at all! She told me that for her, it is much worse that I buy vegetables (organic, but we still don’t know in which conditions they were grown…) and then sometimes don’t get round to eating them before they rot. That really is dying for nothing. I haven’t yet told her that I apologise to those veggies as I lay them ceremonially on the compost heap and bless their future back in the soil… But her point is well taken. Will I ever get to the bottom of my own infinite subtle hypocrisies? I was so grateful for this conversation, and I hope they will continue regularly from now on. They help me – I hope all of us – think more deeply and slowly adapt to lighter ways of living.

At the time, though, my decision to go with the proposal to take out those trees came from a concern for the harmony of our human relationships – in other words for my own well being as a human among humans, rather than as a member of the ‘hoop of life’. Despite the soothing voices of the trees, I still feel a residue of conflict within me around this – and I guess I carry that on behalf of more than just myself, as more than ‘just’ the planet’s precious trees are destroyed by humanity for humanity’s reasons.

 

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Our work days went well – the first day, Fernando came and helped, the second day Momodou, Eike, George and Stella showed up. We are so grateful for their presence! Everything got done in friendship and ease. In between cutting branches and carting brushwood to the boundary fence, I ran around ahead of the chainsaw, touching in with my condemned friends, to let them know what was about to happen (in a bit of a panic, to tell the truth!) My human friends were indulgent and understanding. I had some moments of trauma when I tuned into one of the felled birches and felt its shock. I had to sit and process the intensity through my body for about 15 minutes, until it subsided.

When I tune into nature, I receive information, communication. Sitting astride the downed trunk, drenching my father’s big white handkerchiefs with my generic grief, I learned that trees are not like humans: cut off a human’s head and the sentience of the whole ceases. (There’s still a whole lot of life that continues inside a human body after death, but that’s another story.) Cut down a tree, and it gradually stops growing. Whatever life force is in the roots flows out into the  underground community of the woodland. Whatever sentience is in the tree – and there is plenty, believe me! – continues in the logs, in the twigs, in the leaves, as they compost down into the soil, nestle into the body of the brush wall, dry in the log pile, and finally find their way into the fire, where that sentience transmutes into the flames and whisks away up through the chimney and into the night sky. To me, that sentience feels just like love. It is unconditionally warm, forgiving, mild and wise.

This profoundly unscientific understanding has helped me sense more deeply into the nature of the living systems that support and surround us, that we normally consider (if at all) as so much ‘environment’. Most of the folks that I know don’t tend to switch on their relational sensory systems for what lives outside of the human sphere. One of the strongest impressions remaining with me like a haunting since the second work day is the picture of our friends striding around, efficiently and joyously “getting it done”, oblivious to the possibility of treading on sacred ground, terminating the lives of living beings. I am in no way reproaching them for this. There was nothing in our invitation to them that would bring this dimension to their awareness. I sit with my own failure to frame our enterprise in any way. We just all went to it, without any of the hosting practices that normally hold our work together and give it significance and meaning beyond the banal humdrum of the everyday.

The rawness of my heart as I write this tells me that next time it will be different. I can hope that I will approach our next work day, whenever it transpires and whatever it involves, with more consciousness, and absolutely trust that our friends will know how to hear and honour that request and invitation to tread with care and intention on this Earth. The more I learn from this small piece of wilderness, the more my being expands and comes alive with the scintillating life, love and wisdom that surrounds us. If I am lonely for company, all I have to do is visit the woodpile. When I do, though, I have to be sure to take my handkerchief!

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Friends work days – 26 January and 3 February 2019

Saturday 26 January and Sunday 3 February:
Friends’ work days at Dorpsstraat 136 in Ransberg

Winter woodland showing piled logs and brush.
Stewarding the wilderness…

It’s been quite a few years since our last work day – we always have a lot of fun and now it’s time for another one!

This is the right time of year for taking out some trees and processing some brush wood. We would love some help to do that. You are out in nature and doing some good work in good company!

We’ll start at 10 am and be finished by 16.00. You can expect to be FED and WATERED (well, tea-and-coffeed and possibly even caked!)

Wear sturdy footwear, bring warm clothes and good gloves. If you have any pruning shears, loppers or pruning saws, these could also be helpful.

Please let us know if you plan to join us, so we can cater!

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Writing retreat

July 1 to 7 2018 – For a while now, it has felt as if our place and our micro-community have been ready to invite more guests in to enjoy the peace and beauty of this land. The garden is burgeoning with multihued (predominantly green) goodness, the trees are groaning with ripening fruit and our faces are stained with berry juice. There has been no rain for weeks, the skies have been blue all day with ecstatic displays of colour around sunset, serenaded by orchestral swellings of birdsong – punctuated by the tones of the wind chime as it is stirred by a cooling breeze. All this is leaving us in a state of aesthetic arrest, with minds without words, peaceful hearts and nourished souls.

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Ecstatic displays of colour

Into this paradise, Nadine and Anna have joined us for a week-long writing retreat. Nadine is sleeping in her tent down at the bottom of the land, and Anna is ensconced in her old bed in the front room, which has now been done up to offer guest accommodation. A few days in, we can see a pattern to our days together – predictably structured by mealtimes! After breakfast, those of us participating in the writing retreat circle up for our morning check in under the wild cherry tree by the pond. How are we doing? What intention do we hold for our writing? What do we need from each other in support of that? We scatter to the four directions and do our own thing until lunch time, when we come together around a table laden with deliciousness lovingly provided by Chrisje. Afternoons are for writing – or for napping! – with a sweet treat at four (the famous Flemish ‘vieuruurtje’), culminating in a light, early dinner with good conversation, followed by a gentle slide down into contemplation of the sunset and sleep.

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It is fascinating to see that what might appear to be a single pass-time (writing) has manifested in such different ways in each participant in this retreat. Creative expression in the context of the ‘transformative writing’ of fan fiction (Anna); calls for tender, portfolio pieces and blog posts (Nadine); editing book chapters, journaling and blogging (Helen); shaping articles and blog posts (Ria); global communication (arranging logistics and travel arrangements) and avoiding writing altogether (Steve). Each according to our needs and predilections.

One evening we had an after-dinner online conversation with veteran writing practitioner Christina Baldwin near Seattle (in her morning). Rather than talk about what we were writing, we touched into many different aspects of the why’s and how’s of the art. We covered quite a vast territory: from the notion of leaving traces (on paper) for the future, to how to dance with writer’s block, to journaling as a daily practice, to the power of storytelling. Above all, it was sweet to reconnect with a distant friend for a meaningful conversation.

Retreat as pop-up community

One thing has become abundantly clear from this experience: the preciousness of having time and space, in simplicity, in nature, to align ourselves in the practices of community. Being together, sharing certain activities – checking in in circle in the morning, preparing and sharing meals (here in the Dorpsstraat we have the added bonus of Chrisje’s generous offering of her culinary gifts to the community), collective inquiry into whatever is the calling question for our retreat – with ample room for individual autonomy in between.

This beloved place has again shown its delight to be hosting people into the community of all beings – so much life is present here, comfortably alongside the human. All those who come here are nourished, humbled, awed and bathed in the beauty and abundance of well-stewarded nature. Perhaps this practice of pop-up community will be a more regular feature of our life here on the land, as our Home Place grows into its next level.

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Open Garden Days – June 2 & 3 2018

This year’s look

It’s that time of year again! You are welcome to come and visit us between 13.00 and 18.00 on Saturday 2 and Sunday 4 June. Ours is one of the 250 gardens participating in this years outreach organised by VELT, the Flemish eco-gardening association.

We have flowers, vegetables, herbs, fruit bushes and trees, a pond, chickens (well, one chicken), some discretely integrated landscape art, plenty of wilderness and even a trampoline for those who want to kick their shoes off and blow off some steam – followed by refreshments and pleasant conversation if you want to hang around.

The address is: Dorpsstraat 136, 3470 Ransberg (Kortenaken)

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In the sign of the Neighbour

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Uncovering the tank requires spadework… Luckily, Ria knows where to dig!

I don’t do ‘new year’s resolutions’. But in 2018 I will be writing regularly here, where for the last few years my energy and attention have simply been elsewhere. Not that I haven’t been present and engaged on the land and in the house – I just haven’t been writing about it for the rest of the world.

For a personal update – on 1 January 2018 I became a(n albeit prematurely) retired person! This month sees me relinquishing my final home in Brussels (I’ve lived in 7 different ‘communes’ in my 30 years there) and moving lock, stock and barrel to Ransberg… shedding many locks, stocks and barrels on the way, to a variety of appreciative new homes.

What has stood out for me in recent months of life at 136 Dorpsstraat has been a more intense and intentional relationship with our ‘neighbours’. I don’t mean just the folks literally next door, but people that we have encountered over our years here who share the same kinds of concerns about finding alternative ways of living that consume fewer resources, shorten the production chains and stay as close to ‘nature’ as possible, all the while regenerating a sense of community. We have discovered that there is much to learn from and with each other and much enjoyment to be had in just hanging out together in companionable creative activity. I’m sure I’ll be sharing more stories about these good people and their passions as the year progresses.

The story that is living inside me for this post, though, relates directly to one of the core intentional practice patterns of The New Life:

“Offer what you can and ask for what you need.”

I think it goes without saying that it is easier to practice generosity than facilitate that practice for others… by asking for help! In this instance, the Kosmic Agent that invited us into practice was a block in the drainage pipes leading away from the septic tank that normally protects us from any direct relationship with our grey water and the goodness that flushes down our one ‘conventional’ toilet. This new situation brought it back up into our kitchen sink, followed, a few hours later by an almighty, gurgling burp and, much more alarming, a fragrant pool spreading out from under the fridge – suggesting a leak in a pipe under the stairs that we cannot get at without demolishing part of our living room. Oops…

We were quite a few days without showers or baths while scratching our heads over how to get to the bottom of the problem. Perhaps the septic tank was full and needed emptying? Did that. Phew! Now we can wash ourselves again… But no. Repetition of same unsavoury and worrying symptoms.

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Head-scratching with Guy

The usual reflex (at least in ‘civilised’ society) is to call the plumber. But when you’re out in the country and not attached to the main sewage system, this can add up to major expense. As it happens, all our current pocket money and piggy banks are being channelled into the renovation of the two front rooms (in preparation to receive my stuff from Brussels), so that was a solution to avoid. However, while calling the plumber is a nice, clean, transactional interaction, where money changes hands and there is no further obligation, asking for help freely given implies an ongoing relationship of reciprocity and mutual obligation that society at large seems to have lost the capacity to sustain.

We are lucky, therefore, to have a delightful ‘go-to’ man for these technical problems, in the person of Guy who lives down the road at the house with the Oxfam banner fluttering outside the door and all the chickens in the yard (that you see only when invited inside). And Guy, when applied to, has one of those black snakes that you can feed into dark pipes and, if propelled by pressurised water, will eat its way through blockages (provided they aren’t brick walls…). The source of pressurised water, though, was not forthcoming. We didn’t have an attachment to connect the snake to the hosepipe. And the tap feeding the hosepipe isn’t what you’d call pressurised. So another step was needed.

Since Ria was busy papering the walls in the front room and doing her quarterly taxes, Chrisje was unwell and out of energy and Steve (my beloved, nomad-on-a-visit partner) doesn’t speak the language, it was up to me to overcome my trepidation, arm myself with my ignorance and Guy’s snake, and go ring at the bell of the neighbour on the other side – Geert – whom observation over the years has revealed to have every imaginable piece of kit a householder and smallholder might require – to ask if he might have such a water-compressor gadget… which, indeed, he did. Along with a snake designed to fit it!

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Steve being a true-blood hero

Intra-species communication among humans being what it is (a very hit-and-miss affair), I had to go back round there three times before we managed to get the contraption working. Yesterday, finally, Steve put in the wet, muddy work to bore through the blockage and restore the flow. Ria and Chris celebrated by leaping into the bath tub later that evening (well, we had to test the system, yes?!) and lo, when the plug was pulled, a lovely glugluglu ensued, with NO reflux and NO burp.

All that remains to do is return all the loaned equipment, with thanks and some appropriate home-made token of appreciation (a pot of raspberry jam comes to mind), and an expression of desire to remain in neighbourly relationship on a more regular basis.

It feels good to share this story – as the first of many, now that I have the spaciousness and the calling to revive this humble blog, which is so dear to my heart.

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Open Garden Days – 3 & 4 June 2017

Ransberg garden

Last summer’s glory

You are welcome to come and visit us between 13.00 and 18.00 on Saturday 3 and Sunday 4 June.

We have flowers, vegetables, herbs, fruit bushes and trees, a pond, chickens, some wilderness and even a trampoline for those who want to kick their shoes off and blow off some steam.

The address is: Dorpsstraat 136, 3470 Ransberg (Kortenaken)

Ransberg jug

Mmmmm

 

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The Forge @ Ransberg – Part 4: The Second Workshop

On the afternoon of Friday 19 June we welcomed Pierre and Leslie, Joost, Melinda and Christina. Anna, Chrisje, Michaela and her daughter Gabriele and myself joined in the making. Heather and Chrisje both stepped in to support me in the kitchen.

The weather was cooler, there were moments of rain. Everyone found shelter and the show went on.

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Saturday was marked by two momentous occurrences. The first was a visit from Ton Akkermans, who had taught Gabriella, Quentin and Heather the bowl-making craft, together with his partner Carolina. It felt like such an honour to have the whole lineage of this sacred work present at this special time in this potent place. In the evening we held a solstice celebration, with a sound weaving by Heather, Gabriella and Quentin, followed by supper and a fire circle. In addition to our workshop community, we welcomed Christina’s partner David, our neighbour Claude and Matthieu with his son Nicolas. The workshop closed on Sunday with another crop of beautiful instruments, duly initiated and set to travel off to different corners of Europe.

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The experience of the Forge@Ransberg has worked in subtle ways on this place and our shared story. It is my hope that Chrisje and I can build up some facilities here to continue the bowl-making work independently, with support from Ton, Gabriella, Heather and Quentin. The workshops are certainly something to repeat.

View all the photos I took of the Forge @ Ransberg

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