Dear followers of Elephants Anonymous,
My name is Mark Ogren and I have been staying with Gerard, Diane, and Brett at ViVerde since January 10th. Diane asked me to contribute to the blog, and as my time here is coming to a close I thought I would fill you all in on what we’ve been up to here these last few months. There is a lot to cover, so heat up some tea, fix yourself a sumptuous snack, find a comfortable seat, and enjoy the ride.
First off, Brett and I have known each other since our first week at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA. We were in a tight group of friends that took the time to visit each other’s families as close as Portland and as far away as Montana, and seven of us had the privilege of living together in a big house off campus for our last two years of school. Brett and I each took the time to travel far and wide after college, and when our paths crossed we inevitably ended up volunteering together on farms in the states. Independently, we both became fascinated by the opportunities Permaculture could provide in terms of healing damaged landscapes and offering an outlet for our interests and talents. As a follower of this blog myself, I was excited to hear about ViVerde’s ambitions as a permaculture education center, and knew that I wanted to come down as early as possible in its development so that I could see it in its first stages and participate in its evolution. I am a wildland firefighter with the US Forest Service in California during the summer months, and when I found out that Brett would be with her parents during the first part of 2017, I decided to dedicate part of my six-month off-season to seeing my friends in Nicaragua and helping them out in any way possible.
My first week on the farm was mostly getting acquainted with weekly routines and the status of the many projects happening all at once. Brett and I got some practice mapping with Gerard’s 20x20m grid of the property, and placing contour lines on the hillside below the main Centro (see above). Dulci the Rottweiler was heavy with puppies, grapefruits and limes were arriving in the kitchen regularly, and trees continued to lose their leaves as the dry season progressed. I quickly realized that this property has “nothing but potential!”, as we find ourselves saying regularly, and it has been wonderful brainstorming together all sorts of ideas from tree houses to water storage techniques to which plants to propagate next.
Just as I was getting settled into life in Granada, Gerard and I packed our bags and took a few different buses to get to Rancho Mastatal to spend ten days taking their Timber Framing course. The instructors, Skip and Liz, have been coming to Mastatal to teach for over 15 years, and their timber framing legacy is visible on many buildings across the ranch. Our goal for the course was to assemble the frame of a house for two Rancho Mastatal core team members, Nic and Ally.
With wood to spare and projects galore, there is no shortage of applications for timber framing at ViVerde in the future. Now equipped with a chainsaw mill, the sky is the limit for processing a variety of different tree species on site. Though there has not been enough time for Gerard and I to begin chiseling away at the structure for the composting toilet, I’m sure I will have a chance to test out these new skills when I return to Nicaragua in the not-too-distant future.
Once finished with our workshop, Gerard and I met up with Brett to spend a few days relaxing by the beach in Costa Rica’s beautiful Montezuma, visiting other permaculture projects, and celebrating Brett’s 27th birthday. Our main highlight was visiting the property where our friend Sam has designed and installed an impressive permaculture landscape system over a large area that was previously degraded cattle grazing land.
After visiting multiple permaculture properties in Costa Rica, Brett, Gerard, and I came back to ViVerde bursting with many ideas on how to improve on the measures already taken to store water, build soil, and encourage diversity. However we were quickly distracted by nine new puppies fresh from Mama Dulci! At first they looked and moved more like baby seals, slipping around on the tile floors of the Centro kitchen. It was only a matter of time however before they were up and walking, and they have now grown into miniature dogs – running, chewing, licking, barking, and cuddling. Most have been sold to good homes nearby, and a few still have yet to leave home (Contact Diane or Gerard if you are interested in a healthy Rottweiler puppy!). Here are some pics of our life with them the last few months.
My dad, Eric, came to visit us for two weeks. As a professional electrician, he was instrumental in installing lighting fixtures, outlets, and breaker boxes, both where power enters the property and before it splits off to the different buildings on the ViVerde campus.
Once the wiring projects were done in the kitchen, it was time to pour the concrete countertops. The process had been tested in the formation of two counters for the guest house sinks, and after planning out every step of our procedure, we moved quickly and finished pouring in one afternoon.
A few days after my dad left Nicaragua, I set out for southern Belize to take a Permaculture Design Course at Maya Mountain Research Farm. Christopher Nesbitt has been hosting PDCs for twelve years, and growing a food forest for over twenty five years on a riverside property in the heart of an ancient Mayan metropolis. When I was looking for classes to take during my stay in Central America, I jumped at the chance at visiting a well-established permaculture site. After a flight through El Salvador to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, a few bus rides to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, a water taxi ride to Punta Gorda, Belize, a taxi ride to San Pedro de Colombia, and a dugout canoe ride up the Colombia river, I arrived at the farm and achieved a new personal goal of setting foot in five countries within twelve hours.
A diverse array of student perspectives and a group of thoughtful instructors made for an enjoyable learning experience over the course of two weeks. There was a lot to absorb, as a PDC introduces a huge swath of different topics, each of which could be worthy of a life’s work worth of research and practice. I came away from the class with many new friends and even more ideas to bring to life at ViVerde. Among others, some ideas include increased biochar production, successional food forest implementation, and continuing to use holistic management to define short and long term goals and actions. I highly recommend anyone who is interested in tropical food forests and an off grid lifestyle to check in with Chris to hear his story, visit the farm, and take the course if you can.
As I type these very words, the final wax and polish is being applied to the counters, meaning they will be completely ready to use on a daily basis. The goal was to have mostly moved into the kitchen by last Saturday night, a date set six months ago for a dinner party with local expats. We succeeded in hosting a lovely evening, and the kitchen was full of people talking, eating, and getting to know one another – just what kitchens are for.
In addition to the counters, I have had the pleasure of assembling cabinet drawers, also of Gerard’s design. I’m sure by the time I come back the cabinets will be faced with beautiful hardwood, and the pantry will be stocked with spices, jams, and other farm products.
Finally, I also had the pleasure of spending my 27th birthday here on the farm. Highlights included a church service by the lake, red snapper for lunch, a tour of the Isletas at sunset, and chocolate cake with dulce de leche all made from scratch. It was on this day that Brett and I also decided to become a couple after being good friends since the first week of college almost nine years ago. We will be together for a few weeks traveling around California during April, after which she will return to New Zealand for an 8-month permaculture design apprenticeship, and I will spend another season with the Forest Service fighting wildfires in Northern California. We are excited to be back in Nicaragua sometime next year, and I can’t thank Gerard and Diane enough for their hospitality and ability to include me in all aspects of farm life at ViVerde.
Thank you all for being involved with this amazing project, stay tuned for more adventures!
— Mark Ogren —