Thursday, October 21, 2010

Working together

Dear Friends and Family and other readers of this blog,
We recently had a rather marvellous day working on building a huge compost heap and preparing stuff to stimulate micro-organism growth in the soil.

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I discovered through last week's communal garden building for the Motueka Community Garden, and this week's Biodynamic Day at Atamai (more explanation
later) how much pleasure I can get out of a community working effort.
I have for decades enjoyed the pleasures of working with others towards important goals in peace, and latterly ecological issues. Sharing intellectual capacity, creative ideas, working hard together, sharing laughs has for a very long time been one of the good things in my life. But, amazingly, there's even more of a 'high' for me in joint physical work towards a shared goal. Two weeks ago it was the creation of a community garden for the township of Motueka, a large project that will require more work. I personally won't benefit from this, but people who want to grow things but have little or no land on which to do it will benefit. It was a great feeling to be on a wheelbarrow or wield a shovel alongside others, strangers getting to know each other while we worked alongside each other, and seeing the garden grow while we worked.

This last weekend, Atamai was the host for the regional biodynamic group. This group, followers of Rudolf Steiner's ideas about agriculture, meets once a month on someone's property to see what they're doing and work together according to biodynamic principles. I have an ambivalent intellectual relationship with these ideas, some of which seem quite mystical to me.
However, I'm challenged by data that suggest that biodynamic horticulture really is more productive, stores more carbon in the soil, and so on. And I'm entirely unambivalent about the people involved, who comprise many of my good friends. So the group, ranging between a dozen and 30 at various times of the day, consisted of about half Atamai people and half outsider biodynamicists who came to put in a day's work. Adrienne, a committed biodynamic gardener (and nurse) works most days at Atamai taking care of the orchards, and was the host for this day. (Her orchard work is sweat equity towards the acquisition of a lot at Atamai. She has done a lovely job on the orchards, which are looking beautiful.) Adrienne began working towards this day months ago. The cow manure, necessary for both compost building and biodynamic preparations (something like fertility stimulants) had to undergo special processes before it was ready for use. She had worked for months removing gorse from gullies in the orchards, and had made big cylindrical piles of rotting gorse for use on the compost pile. She had cut large bags of nettles grown (deliberately) on her own property. As she passed through Picton a month ago on her way back from a retreat for anthroposophical nurses (this is Steiner's philsophy on health), she had bought a load of seaweed, and it came in a large winebarrel.

The biodynamic way of making hot compost involves using hay or grass with the dew still on it. Adrienne started on the land by torchlight on Saturday morning, about 5.30am. When I got up at 6.30, I could hear her mowing over on the hillsides. The time for gathering for raking the grass was 7am. I got there at ten past, and there were already four people (outsiders) raking. We raked for a few hours and Adrienne, seemingly out of nowhere, began cooking buckwheat pancakes, which were eaten with damson jelly of her own making. I provided the tea in big thermoses. Coffee was made over a clever device in which a double metal cylinder holding water between its two walls is placed over a little fire. The inner cylinder acts as a chimney for the fire which draws well and heats the water. We sat around eating this feast for a while, then got back on the rakes, wheelbarrows, forks and shovels. By that time we were also forking gorse and shovelling manure in layers on to the compost pile. This pile began with a 9 1/2 x 3 metre base. There were a few layers of nettles, which to my astonishment, people handled with their bare hands, while I went to look for gloves. 'Doesn't it hurt?' I asked. 'Only a bit,'
was the answer. At various stages layers of seaweed (very smelly), ground dolomite, and rock dust were added. Every layer got a sprinkle with the hose. The manure, after its long treatment, wasn't at all smelly. Adrienne compared the process to baking a cake. After about 4 hours of work, the pile was two metres high. You couldn't see people working on the other side.

Adrienne climbed on top, used a crowbar to make eight deep holes through the layers, and dropped little clods of special biodynamic preparations down each hole.
Everyone cheered and rejoiced and then went home.

At 4pm people reconvened for the next phase, coming to a higher terrace on the orchard for the process of making and spreading biodynamic preparations. This was the more mystical side of biodynamics, but the quietly sceptical also joined in. You can see me stirring the mixture (first clockwise, making a vortex, then reversing) and Jack sprinkling the mixture on to the soil.

Finally we had a wonderful picnic on the still sunny terrace, with the many little kids rolling themselves down the grassy slopes and laughing.

This was the first large occasion of communal work at Atamai, although our tree planting last year involved 8-10 people at some stages. We plan in the future to build an implement shed, and a picnic shelter in this way. There are many other possible projects.

Warmest wishes,

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