A New Perspective

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.

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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.  

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Thousands of trees planted across ViVerde’s 15 acres by the property’s former owner create an abundant resource of living and dead wood. Here, employee Juan Sanchez bucks up a fallen tree to be carried out of the forest for use elsewhere.

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.

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Instructors Skip and Liz, and RM Core Member Nic explain vocabulary and concepts in the classroom.

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Skip demonstrates good chiseling technique on a post top tenon. Tenons fit into mortises and are secured with wooden pegs in timber frame joinery.

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Liz demonstrates good mortise drilling technique.

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Gerard hard at work on a post.

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One post can have many joints! How many can you count? This is in one of the many timber framed buildings at Rancho Mastatal.

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Shade cloth was key in making our work area bearable during the hot days in Costa Rica.

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Nic demonstrates impeccable skill in using a chainsaw to freehand mill a timber just a bit too wide.

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Raising day! All materials are ready to take to the building site.

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A cinder block foundation is ready to receive its frame.

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First wall up! Many hands make light work of raising the heavy tropical hardwood frames.

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Second wall up! Notice the temporary bracings used to keep the frames stable until assembly is complete.

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Gerard stands on questionable scaffolding to help place a beam.

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My post! I had a lot of elements to cut, and in the end everything fit together just right.

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Here I am with Nic and Ally’s new view of the beautiful Costa Rican mountains

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Finished! All of the pieces we cut were assembled and raised.

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.

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Gerard and Brett on the ferry to Costa Rica’s Nicoya peninsula.

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Brett’s birthday began with an early morning swim at a nearby waterfall outside Montezuma, CR.

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Birthday picnic in front of our hostel.

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Brett and our friend Sam overlook the land he has been charged with designing and landscaping within a permaculture framework.

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Many permaculture elements can be seen here. Young fruit trees are planted on contour to help slow soil erosion and collect water. Multiple varieties of the same species are planted closely together to see which ones fare the best. The fruit trees are surrounded by fast growing trees that provide shade and mulch, fix nitrogen from the air and put it into the soil, and produce an edible seed pod.

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We were all impressed with Sam’s water collection system, which can be expanded as needed. And his tank storage area doubles as a great lookout!

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We were blessed with a beautiful sunset as we left the Nicoya peninsula

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.

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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.

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An electrician in his element.

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Eric prepares power cable to enter underground conduit so trees will not down the lines.

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.

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Diane, potion maker extraordinaire, prepares the colorant for the separate batches.

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Gerard surveys our work before the final island is poured.

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Many hands were needed at every step of the way.

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Father and son have a moment together between batches.

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Smiling faces after a very long day.

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Nothing beats a post-work puppy pile.

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.

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Dugout canoes, or Dories, are the most efficient form of transportation for arriving at MMRF.

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One of the multiple student housing buildings at MMRF, complete with standalone solar system.

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.

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Chris gives a lesson on making biochar in the chicken yard.

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Fellow student Esrom teaches us how to patch graft cacao.

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My design group was charged with making a new teacher housing unit for future MMRF expansion.

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MMRF PDC class of 2017!

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.

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The kitchen is open for business!

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Gerard and Diane can’t contain their excitement at the completion of long-awaited counter tops.

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.

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Brett and I assemble plywood drawers for the kitchen cabinets.

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 —

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Coconut chocolate cake with tamarind filling, dulce de leche drizzle, and spicy sweet walnuts

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Carol Gelfer
    Mar 29, 2017 @ 10:45:13

    HI Mark- Thanks for the fantastic post. My daughter and I were at ViVerde in the VERY early stages sleeping in tents and exploring the gorgeous property with “unlimited potential”. Nicaragua will always have a very special place in our hearts and seeing Vi Verde develop is SO MUCH FUN. Thanks again for all the time and effort you put into that post!

    Reply

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