My Month at Mango Tree, Part 1: The Place, The Work

coverEvery once in a while the stars and visa regulations come into alignment and I get the chance to park myself for a nice solid chunk of time at the farm or eco-project of my choosing.  It last happened in Chiang Mai, when I got to spend a month at Panya Project picking avocadoes and passion fruits, building a giant composting toilet complex, and watching this one guy (who shall remain nameless) practice headbutting with his pet goat.  That was back in summer ’13, and it hasn’t happened again since.  I did work out a ten-day stay with my friend Kate at Sustainable Cambodia and a weeklong visit to my buddy’s top-secret monastery somewhere in Thailand, but other than that 2014 was mostly about riding and the joys of comradery.  Laos with a posse of four, Vietnam with a posse of three which later ballooned to seven, Myanmar with a posse of six, and northeast India with Chris the ever-steadfast  Shaky.  We explored a lot of wonderful and remote places together, but short visas, decrepit and unfinished roads, and lots and lots of mountains kept us from stopping in any one place for too long; the only volunteering we were able to work in was all-too brief stay at the incredible Jhamtse Ghatsal children’s community perched on the border of India and Bhutan.

Everything worked out just right in Nepal, though.  A three month tourist visa on arrival with easy extensions in Kathmandu; less than 1000km of ground to cover to get just about wherever you want; roads down south so flat that finishing 100km by lunchtime wasn’t even an achievement; and a gorgeous 6-week gap in my schedule right between when Steve wanted to bikepack the Annapurna circuit and Chris wanted to trek to Everest Base Camp.  Even better, there was a place I had in mind, a place where one of my Panya connections had been not too long before to help jumpstart with a Permaculture Design Course. I didn’t make it in time to attend, but I’m not too bothered about certifications at this point.  I’m just happy to have visited, to have met some awesome people, to helped out and to have picked up a trick or two.  Here we go….

 

 

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On what used to be one of many unremarkable rice paddies overlooking the Marsyangdi river, Devendra (he’s the one holding baby Aria) and Sonia (second from the right, ready to steal my tire) have started building something new.  What it is, and what it will become…well, that’s still up in the air.  There’s space for gardening, farming, and planting trees; there’s calm and quiet enough for meditation retreats; there are adventure opportunities in every river, canyon, and waterfall; there are trails into the mountains not yet on the radar of most trekkers; conservation areas waiting to be declared, abandoned farmhouses ready to be reclaimed, repaired, rebuilt.   The potential seems unlimited…it’s a truism, but the place will become whatever the owners, staff, guests, and volunteers make it.  For me, it was a little slice of heaven, a home base I kept coming back to while I did my usual roaming around Nepal and a home when I planted myself for a month to lend a hand where I could and learn where I couldn’t.  I’ll cover all the wonderful memories, friends, and meals in the next post – it’s gonna be a schmaltzy one! – but in this one I’ll limit myself to some of the basic details – the where and the what, if you will.

 

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My first view of the Nepalese Himalayas on the road from Dumre to Besisahar.  Now it’s a 37km stretch of decent tarmac, but a few decades ago it was  narrow, unpaved, and navigable only by foot and hoof; indeed, it was part of the classic 250km or so Annapurna trek, which went from Pokhara to Besisahar to Manang, up and over the 5400m Thorong La Pass, down to Muktinath, then to Jomsom, and back down to Pokhara.  Now everything except Manang to Muktinath – some 15km of trail which only takes 3 days of hiking if you’re acclimatized to the altitude – is doable by vehicle.  The road has brought many benefits and much convenience into the lives of the villagers, allowing them easy access to markets for buying and selling their produce, bringing in concrete and other materials for more durable housing, making trips to Kathmandu much less arduous, and so forth, but in the areas most heavily frequented by tourists it has also resulted in a serious, if expected, epidemic of commercialization and a watering down of the local culture.

 

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Mango Tree itself sits in Chitti district a few blissful kilometers away from the hubbub of Besisahar, the official trailhead for the Annapurna Trek.  Push north into the mountains and you’ll find old Tibetan monasteries, fields of buckwheat, herds of yaks, hotels with solar-powered hot showers, convenience stores stocked with peanut butter and North Face gear, and bakeries selling apple crumble, apple pie, cinnamon buns, chocolate crossaints, and so much more.  (Yes, they’re delicious.)  Villagers in Chitti have smart phones and radios, concrete walls and tin roofs for their homes, and compressed natural gas cook with, but they make a living pretty much just like their ancestors did: on the land.  They spend most of their working time tending to the fields with sickle in hand or herding goats and buffalos.  They churn their own buttermilk.  They compost cow poo and return it to the land.  They get rowdy in the evenings with the help of drums, horns, and local moonshine.

 

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Higher up in the Himalayas, villagers grow cold-resistant varieties of buckwheat and millet, but Mango Tree sits at a paltry (by local standards) 650m above sea level, meaning it’s in prime rice territory.  I first arrived in early October when the fields were bright green, the rice stalks shooting upwards by the day.  By the time I left at the end of November, the rice had yellowed, bowed, and been cut by.

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Despite the presence of roads, villagers still do the whole rice harvest without the help of tractors, combines, or any other sort of machinery.  The rice is cut by hand scythe and the porous ground beneath sealed and smoothed with a layer of cow dung.  The stalks of rice are laid out around a central pole to which a buffalo is tied .  They then drive the buffalo around in circles, each of its heavy steps separating grain from stalk.  Whatever comes off is gathered into piles, while the leftovers are sifted by hand and wind.  The stalks are carried off and used to feed livestock and the rice is divvied up into 50kg sacks, loaded onto someone’s poor forehead, and brought home to store or process.

 

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While the adults are hard at work – though they are enjoying themselves too, chatting, singing, laughing, and joking all throughout their labor – children run rampant.  They dive into piles of rice, scale the stalk bales, make a mess of everything, and get yelled at and chased off under threat of a whippin’.  That part was clear despite the language barrier.

 

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They’re particularly fond of strange looking foreigners with fat cameras.

 

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Kishan, though in his early 20s, is still a kid at heart.

 

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As is Devendra, mid 30s, father of one!

 

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From green to gone – what a difference a month (and a harvest) makes.

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So, that’s what’s going on in the MT Environs.  Friendly locals and millennia-old agricultural techniques.

 

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The Marsyangdi river, held still by the recently opened hydroelectric plant.

 

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My home for the next couple of weeks.  Though, actually, I packed up and moved into one of Dev’s tents after I noticed the kitty getting a little too playful with mine.

 

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I generally  feel close to nature when cycling.  No metal frames or glass panels separate me from the places I’m riding through.  The air, the mists, the scents and sounds, all touch me directly, all day long, everywhere I go.  These are the joys of movement.  But there are also joys that belong to stillness.  That of seeing the same flowers every day, of being familiar enough with them to notice that those planted out in the open bloom early and bright, while those planted in the shade of buildings bloom later, dimmer.  The sense of rootedness that comes when you’ve spent enough days somewhere to notice which peak the sun now sets behind, so that you can tell whether the days are getting shorter or longer by referring not to your watch (not that I own one of those), but to the landscape.   The sense of stewardship that grows slowly, along with baby chicks, bulging papayas, emerging seedlings and saplings.  Aria’s growing strength, greater balance, new words.  And all the changes at Mango Tree itself – new garden beds, new buildings going up, new plans coming to fruition.  It was truly wonderful to be a part of it for a month.

 

First Week’s Project: Raised Bed Keyhole Garden

A bit of a pain to build, but if done well it saves lots of time and energy.  Since it’s three feet up in the air, you don’t need to stoop over so much to plant or harvest your veggies.  Since it’s got a solid rock wall around it, nearby grasses and weeds have trouble creeping in.  Since it’s got a composting chamber in the middle, you don’t have to bother tilling or fertilizing the soil.  In theory.  I had never built one of these before, but I do know how to read books and watch youtube videos, so here we go…

 

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Measure everything out, pick a spot close to the kitchen for maximum convenience.

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Lay cardboard down on the ground to smother grass and prevent weeds.

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Set the inner and outer perimeters, build the compost cage.

 

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Lug stones from across the way (they had already been trucked in from the riverbed) and stack them up as high as you dare.

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Take trips into the jungle to gather nitrogen and carbon in the forms of green and brown matter.  Alternate layers until the bed is mostly full.  With the help of bugs and bacteria, these will eventually decompose into soil.

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Buy a few hundred kg of composted buffalo dung from a neighbor, mix it with some compost and dirt, and spread it a few inches thick on top to form your new topsoil.

 

 

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The “Keyhole” indentation here makes it easy to dump kitchen scraps (i.e. future nutrients) and water into the center of the garden, and also makes it easier to reach the very inside.

 

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Plant whatever you’d like.  We went with a variety of basic staples like garlic, cabbage, coriander, mustard greens, and tomatoes – pretty much all the same stuff that was in the nursery, plated here for comparison’s sake.  Be sure to add a layer of leaf mulch to keep moisture in (in the beginning water seeps out pretty easily since that materials haven’t yet broken down into proper soil yet) and a roof to keep young plants from scorching in the November sun.  That’s right, the Himalayas are there in the background but lowland Nepal still has a semi-tropical climate.

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A bit less than 100 hours of somewhat slack man labor (one week, about four hours each morning, three dudes, boss elsewhere…) you’re ready to kick back and watch stuff grow!

Results: Garlic and greens, not needing deep root structures, grew like crazy; later, inspired by gardens we saw on a village walk, Kishan was even able to plant mustard greens into the cracks of the wall, further expanding the bed’s productive space.  Tomatoes and eggplants transferred from the greenhouse didn’t do so well, probably because the season was wrong (it was warm, but the shortening days brought the plants to flower) and because the layers of browns and greens were too loose for roots to take hold in, and not yet decomposed enough to serve as serious plant food.

 

Second Project: Slow Compost Donut

Quick composting involves gathering greens and browns, piling them up, and speeding up decomposition by visiting the pile every few days and laboriously turning it over with a pitchfork.  The resulting nutritious mix can then be mixed into new gardens or spread as a supplement onto old ones.  It’s a standard technique, and a useful one, but it requires frequent human attention and a bit of backbreaking labor.  Swiss volunteer Adrian, majoring in Organic Farming (with a minor in dumpster diving) at some sort of Engineering institute in Zurich, had come to Mango Tree for a winter internship and showed us a variation.

 

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First, build a simple cage out of a few pieces of lumber to make sure there’s always an empty column in the center.  Then lay down a layer of branches.  All these holes and gaps are necessary to ensure air circulation, which will promote the decomposition of later elements.  Because you never move or turn the pile (that’s why it’s a slow-compost donut), the nooks and crannies also become habitats for bugs, birds, reptiles, and other critters, and the more of this biodiversity you have the fewer pest problems you’ll face.

 

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Then, introduce carbon and nitrogen – the two necessary elements for plant growth – in the form of…yup, browns and greens.  Downed litter from the forest floor, fresh banana leaves and garden clippings, old corn stalks, a bit of buffalo dung or humanure or oven ash if you’ve got it.  As time passes, everything will break down into soil.  During the first year, you can’t do much with the pile, though you should keep adding to it as it shrinks and compacts.  In the second year, you can plant garlic, potatoes, or other shallow-rooted plants.  By the end of the second year, it should have fully decomposed and you can do whatever you’d like – plant stuff directly on it, flatten it into a bed and plant, or carry the soil off to wherever it’s needed.

 

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Swiss Efficienty Pro-Tip: When it rains, the water’s going to carry away some part of the goodness from all those decomposing plant parts.  Why not capture it by placing a few gardens downsteam?

 

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Third: Greenhouse and Nursery

With plenty of villagers doing agriculture all around, most of Mango Tree’s efforts in the first few years went into landscaping and getting the kitchen building, lounge room, and host and guest quarters all set up.  Now that the basic infrastructure is finished (for the moment), attention can be turned to plant propagation, seed-saving, and other beautiful things.

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Here’s the greenhouse, stocked with local favorites like mustard greens, tomatoes and eggplants, coriander.  The back corner is reserved for heirloom and organic seeds brought in by volunteers from other projects.

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Cucumbers, beans, peas, and other trellis-style plants “know” which way to send their tentacles!  They don’t just send their tendrils out every which way; rather, they use disturbances in light and wind patterns to make calculations about the location of something vertical they might be able to climb up.  My lord.

 

 

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Adrians’s mini-greenhouse nursery

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To be transplanted when the time is right…

Fourth Project: Fruit Trees!

Annual veggies are all well and good – see My Month at Mango Tree, Part 2: Friends, Fun, Food, coming up in a week or so – but they require lots of care.  Seeding, sprouting, digging, planting, mulching, clipping…year after year.  They’re a little like the quick compost pile.  Fruit trees, on the other hand, are a bit more like the slow compost donut.  They take a little more effort in the beginning and take longer to pay off, but once they’re established they don’t require much attention.  Farmers who prefer time in a hammock with a good book to time under the hot sun with a spade would do well to plant as many trees (or perennial shrubs) as possible.

 

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What’s that Sprite bottle doing there, you ask?  It’s part of the method that Sadhana Forest – never far from my thoughts, and daily growing closer to me myself – uses for their reforestation work.

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The “Wick Irrigation System.”  Drill a hole into the bottom of an old PET bottle, run a tube through it, run a twisted cotton wick through the tube, and you’ve got it.

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Water left in the bottle will flow out slowly (at a rate determined by how much the cap is left open) through the wick and directly to the roots of the plants.  Now no water is lost to evaporation, no water is fed to surface weeds, no water runs off, and no human effort is wasted.  Even better, a 2L bottle with the cap just cracked open delivers something like 50mL of water to the tree each day, which is all a baby tree needs.  At that rate, the bottle doesn’t need to be filled more than once every couple of weeks, freeing farmers and volunteers up to…go plant more trees!

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In addition to watering the plants, the system can also be used to deliver medicinal or nutritional blends.  This is Adrian’s putrid stinging nettle brew.

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We planted the trees by first executing a “double dig” – digging down into the ground below where the tree would later be planted, softening the soil and mixing in a bit of compost to attract beneficial bugs and bacteria.  After refilling the double dig, we stuck the tree, and bottle into this makeshift tin tube and poured in more compost and topsoil, forming a core layer of good stuff.  We then surrounded the core with normal topsoil, pulled out the tin tube, compacted the soil around the tree, and filled the bottle with brew.  Now, in the case of avocadoes, all we’ve got to do is keep our fingers crossed for five years and see what happens.

See Sadhana Forest founder Aviram Rozin’s presentation on the wick irrigation system and more about Sadhana here.

 

Alright, well…that’s the serious stuff.  If you care to know why that took us a full month, check back for the fun and food post!

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2 Responses to My Month at Mango Tree, Part 1: The Place, The Work

  1. jeevan lohani says:

    This place is wonderful,lots of wonder n treak 2 barapokhari is awesome….glad that I’ve been there

  2. Pingback: My Month at Mango Tree, Part 2: The Food, the Friends, the Fun | Three Rule Ride