When the Reality Sets In and Permaculture Isn’t Paradise

When I left Belize a month ago, the beginning of a garden that I (my wife and a few others) made was looking promising: Melons, pumpkins, and various types of beans were popping up everywhere, and we were nursing some tomatoes, basil, garlic, and papaya along. Malabar spinach was struggling along the fence lines, and potatoes and ginger had just been planted. Bananas, plantains, chaya, vanilla, moringa, and mulberry were all showing promise. Not only that, but we’d found a property we were working to buy for our own. It was as if the moons of some Mayan god had aligned just so for a good harvest to come.

On our way back to Belize (after spending the holidays with family in the States), we stopped for a week in Guatemala to visit some old friends and projects we’d worked on. By and large, despite not getting much attention, the gardens were thriving. Most seedlings, as well as quite a few weeds, had sprung up into successful plants, and the major design aspects we’d come up with were working as planned. A little pruning, a little weeding, and the gardens would be tip-top. Despite a really whacky wet and dry season this year, the projects had withstood most obstacles and had come out on the other end looking like something.

When I made it back to Belize this week, the garden was not the same, or worse still, it was much the same. In our absence, an agouti had managed to circumvent the fence and feed voraciously on the beans and pumpkins (the bulk of our first planting), leaving most beds with little more than sprouts poking up. The ginger, some of which I did discover today, was hidden amongst a bunch of weeds so that it appeared nothing cultivated remained. Despite having put a little stake barrier around them, the plantains had been thrashed by turkeys (I think). Other plants — sweet potatoes, potatoes, etc. — were smothered by good intentioned but careless mulching. The seedlings in the greenhouse had been abused by a rampaging guinea foul. The grand majority of the moringa and mulberry cuttings weren’t showing any progress.


When Reality Sets In

For the first time in some time, I’d taken a real gut shot in the garden, and I found myself gasping and grasping for positives. The compost bin, though it smelled, was still standing. The trees we’d trimmed were filling out just beautifully, the mulberry baring a good load of fruit. The Malabar spinach had survived the agouti and was promising good things to come. Some stuff had survived, though I’m not sure that the agouti was one of them. But, to put it bluntly, a wave of depression/panic struck me.

We’d come back to buy property here, this, the place were the techniques we’d been flaunting around Central and South America had faltered at the jaws of one little jungle rodent. Do you know how many agoutis are in Belize! I have actually had one run right between my legs while on a hike. Not to mention there are peccaries, exotic birds, free-wheeling domestic birds, gibnuts (larger versions of agoutis), and all manner of other herbivorous hoodlums just waiting to find a raised garden bed to tromp around in. The abundant wildlife was half the reason we were so excited about living here. Were we out of our minds?

Doubt, something that rarely stops me, overtook me something horrible. Not only had the garden failed, but after a month with family (a mother, who tends to all my whims with adoration and encouragement, and my father, who had shown some genuine, go-get-his-notebook interest), I’d returned to Belize feeling like some sort of adventure pioneer with all I needed to carve out an amazing place in the world in my hefty backpack. Then, there was the reality of what had not even begun…

Permaculture Is Not Paradise

We are back in a cabin with only a single solar light, where all clothes smell of mildew within a week (They’d smelled so snuggly from my mama’s dryer, an appliance we vow never to have) and our kitchen consists of a two burner stove hooked to a propane tank on the patio. Kevin, the generous owner of the farm, has upgraded our quarters to having its own outdoor kitchen (with a fridge) on the patio, something that promises to be a big step up, but I’ve just come from electric coffee makers, endless free-for-me beer, and spotless environs. In three weeks, I’d appreciated all those things in a way I’d never before. Have I really chosen the right route?

What’s more is that these digs, the cabin and patio kitchen and failing garden, are not even ours. We’re volunteering here until the purchase of our land hopefully goes through. Then, we move to a place lacking even this infrastructure, the solar panels kept in line by a guy who knows how to deal with solar panels, the rustic bar/restaurant to stroll over to when looking for a not-free but well-priced and very cold beer. We aren’t going to have a fridge for a long time, if ever. We’ll be starting gardens from scratch (again!) without the luxury of a bundle of established resources, or a truck for that matter.

Permaculture_not Paradise

We’re trying to buy a piece of land, a jaw-dropping piece of land that is three times the size of what we’d been looking for, with a year-round water source from a cascading creek, and very nicely contoured surface area. There’s old-growth forest surrounding a few acres of brush and young pioneer trees so that we can preserve nature (and our privacy) and still have plenty of space to cultivate. There is road access and a bus route coming by. And, there is even the prospect of getting semi-functional internet, as opposed to the malfunctioning remote satellite connection that Kevin is stuck with.

But, what started to weigh heavily, as heavy as the backpacks full of supplies we’d just lugged across two states and three countries, was that all these things—wonderful as they are—do not equate to paradise.

The Reality of Our Brand of Permaculture

Emma and I are, by many accounts, extremists. We have a product boycott list long enough to make Santa blush, really to such an extent that we more or less only buy everything besides food secondhand (and recently both gave up underwear when we couldn’t afford the available fair-trade, organic options). We make our own personal care products because, unwilling to support companies that test on animals or use harmful chemicals, it’s the only thing that makes fiscal or practical sense. We are strict vegans (A lifestyle choice that leaves many permaculturalists scratching their heads as to how we’ll make systems function. Incidentally, for those in a similar situation, check out Graham Burnett’s The Vegan Book of Permaculture.) In other words, we don’t make things any easier on ourselves.

When it comes to permaculture, once again these sorts of extremes arise. We don’t want to hook up to the grid, even though it’s available (even if we are planning to use alternative energy eventually). We don’t want the water company—that’s why we wouldn’t buy something without year-round water—or our own personal car or a home constructed from virgin wood, concrete, or metal. We don’t want to clear-cut valuable forests, not even to use those big trees to build a house, and we don’t want to rely on the petroleum industry for our well-being. Simply put, we are not buying just a swath of paradise but rather a multi-faceted set of challenges to overcome, challenges we haven’t had as volunteers, where we live within the constructs provided—a well-built cabin with a propane-powered kitchen and a diesel generator when necessary.

But, as my blood pressure decreased over the next twenty-four hours, and the mental anguish gave way to again hopefully puttering around in the garden, I also realized that this life, with all its challenges, is what drives us, what puts a sense of pointed purpose and practical purity into our hearts. Permaculture is not always easy. Sometimes, (other) farmers eat the agouti, sometimes the agouti eats a crop of pumpkins. But, we observe, we adjust, and we persevere. In the end, our lives—those of all driven permaculturalists—are richer for it, and at their best, they are the sort of lives that inspire others, both by the choices we make and by the paradises we eventually create. Is there really any better way to live?

So, I can’t wait to show my mom and dad, and Emma’s mother and father, all the friends and family that have showed us such support, what we are capable of down here in Belize. Even so, that next visit to Mama’s place in States…well, it might be a little sooner than the four years it took between trips last time. Everyone likes step out of their comfort zone every now and again, right?

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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