Saturday, March 26, 2011

4th Century Baptismal rite - healing powers of Salt, religious mystery

The other weekend I attended a baptism, which was quite a trip down memory lane. Centuries of ancestral memory, in fact, as it included a 4th Century rite.

Before they let the New Baby into the church, they had to, um, exorcise her.

So this freshly-made bundle of milky-sweet gorgeousness was rid of the devil. After that were a series of other curious acts. The priest wets his finger with his saliva, places it in her ear, and in her mouth. He then places some salt in her mouth, after performing a special rite over the salt - that gets an excorsim too.

Now as my Catholic brother pointed out, this was probably the medieval attempt at inoculation, as the priest would have been the healthiest person in the village. A little bit of pro-biotic help probably went a long way back in those plague-ridden days.

And as for the salt, I'm not sure. It might have been for oral re-hydration. It could have had a sanitizing function, as salt tends to kill life-unfriendly bacteria, sparing life-friendly bacteria. Maybe its value is simply providing an essential mineral. Salt it was worth more than gold only a few centuries ago - our bodies can function without gold, but not without salt, which could have made life tough for landbound people.

Here is the Salt excorsim:
O salt, creature of God, I exorcise you by the living got, the god who brought you into being to safeguard the human race, and commanded you to be consecrated by His servants for the benefit of those who are coming into the faith, so that by the power of the Holy trinity you might become a health-giving sacrament to put the enemy to flight. Therefore we bid the, O Lord, to sanctify this salt which thou hast created and to bless it with thy blessing, so that it may become a perfect medicine for all who receive it and may remain always in every fiber of their being.

Another curious thing, the Holy Water font. People dip in and bless themselves with this water on entering and exiting the church.  Is this a way to share the common cold, or to strengthen the immune system of all the people in the village?
For it to be so lasting a tradition, there must have been some strong reason behind it.

Now free of the devil, and ready to do great things in this world. 


Now that I'm in Sydney,  hanging out with my brother who mysteriously turned out to be a practicing Catholic, I've been enjoying, from a safe distance, the many rites that have been passed down.

Rites at the wedding of my brother,  St Marys Cathedral Sydney
Ive also been re-reading Bill Mollision's Permaculture Designer's Manual, which colors my days and perception of things.

Bill is known for his fondness for the aboriginal culture. People who have been given this culture can see and know things that the rest of us are oblivious to.
Bill talks with respect about their 'Songline' traditions,  about how they go around 'polishing up their country'  singing songs over the landscape to keep the rivers flowing, the grass growing.

He talks about there is rich, life-giving knowledge coded into tribal art and patterns.
A sacred aboriginal song can also work as a very old GPS system. Its like this: when you've walked to the end of those monotonous verses over a stretch of desert, you should then battle with some anthills as you sing the ant song verses. This will be followed by dramatically plunging and rising verses, that show you should now turn and enter those rocky outcrops, if you want to get to where the song is leading.....

When we loose or discard these aids to understanding, these gifts from our ancestors, life gets even more perplexting, and the lost just get more lost.

John weds Laura, December 2010. Photo by Tien
Those Catholics do strange things. 
Some of what they do seem generated 'tribally', by people in their villages, for their survival and flourishing. Other things they sing, say and do have the fingerprints of the "Princes of the Church' all over them, words to get control of the life-energy of others.  

Its all very delicate. But I'm so glad my brother and his mates are keeping these rites alive. 
One day they might come in handy.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Kitchen floor Tango with peaceful brooms

A Cute Girl just sold me a fluffy new pet.
Its a natural bristle broom, and its going to transform things around here.

Aussies don't like cleaning floors. Its our western heritage. Historically, we just fill the house with straw left over from threshing, all held in by the threshold, and let whatever makes its way down there just skurry around for a while.

Ive been thinking about it, and think the reason Aussies are timid of cleaning their floors every day are these:

1. Vaccum cleaners fight you. They are hard to pick up, squeal like heavy piglets, and get your adrenaline up. 

2.  Brooms are too narrow. People buy the cheapest. Soon only small cheap brooms are made, and brooming the floor becomes emptying the ocean with an eyedropper, an insult to your creative powers.

So, either way you loose, the floor wins.

I'm staying with dear ones in Annandale for a few days - the Balmain house is glorious, but sometimes a bit lonely.
Soon the broom delivery man will drop off our retro, extra-wide broom. 
It will have us all doing broom meditations. Broom Tango even. 

As the sun sets on our day, we will wind ourselves down with a sweeping rhythm, be able to have a foretaste of our far-future grandma days, and settle down for a snug sleep.

Rachel and her brooms, Orange Grove Market
If you want a nice broom too, visit Rachel at the Inner Sydney Markets - Orange Grove, Frenches Forest, or EQ. 0420 275 066

Friday, March 18, 2011

Cecilia's 13 steps to creating beauty in the Permaculture Garden

Introduction and article concept – Erin Marteal
Words, pictures and illustrations- Cecilia Macaulay

Intro: After encountering numerous objections to permaculture in the public garden sector based on a perceived fault in aesthetics, I’ve become keenly interested in the relationship between permaculture and beauty. (See background article, Permaculture is many things; Is beauty one of them?) I recently interviewed Cecilia Macaulay, artist and permaculturalist, and asked her for tips on how to go about designing for beauty in the permaculture garden. Though aiming for 10, she easily came to 13, and I have no doubt she will some day write a book on the subject. We hope these ideas spark conversation and inspire aesthetic explorations in permaculture gardens everywhere. — Erin Marteal

I want permaculture to spread to the mainstream; enriching other lives like it does mine. If you design beauty into your gardens, people can’t resist, and want one too. Beauty is a source of renewable energy, as valid as wind or solar; it gives people energy to act. It’s easy to get helpers for gardens that are on their way to being beautiful. It takes effort and investment in the beginning though.

The analogy is, if you want birds in the garden, you need to get rid of the cat, and similarly, if you want allies for your garden, you may have to give up some old habits. The exciting thing is, beauty isn’t a cosmetic you slather on top of a permaculture garden. Permaculture attitudes and principles are beauty-creation principles. Stare deeply into any striking beauty, and you’ll find something that brings life and liveliness into being.

Beautiful Permaculture in 13 Steps:

1. Make use of very old memories

The children of the Jiyugakuen school, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright,
grow and cook their own organic lunches, then spend playtime in the trees.

What humans find deeply beautiful are those things which have helped us to survive through history, like the smell of a campfire, which echo’s as the smell of warmth, safety and friends. When we’re under the dappled light of trees we feel a quiet peace and security, which is no surprise since that’s where our furry ancestors made their homes.

Dappled shade under a grape vine canopy
invites human repose

Replicate these lively forest elements when you make gardens for people, and watch what happens. When an outdoor table is on an exposed, windy patio, people don’t use it. We are drawn to covered and protected areas. We tend to be attracted to those elements that helped our ancestors survive.

2. Create ‘Families’

Creating stable, exciting families is what I want to do when composing a garden. When choosing containers for balcony gardens, I stick to similar materials, colors or shapes, so that the plants have a visually stable and cohesive ‘ground’ from which to fruit, flower and do their thing. The growing plants are what we want to give our attention to, the pots just need to be capable, supportive and silent.

The thing about families is they don’t accept just anyone who wanders into their kitchen. Members have a history and a future together, they understand and look after each other. They make up for each other’s weaknesses, and together, they have a chance at a stable future, at surviving. Let every member of your garden feel they are wanted and needed. Don’t accept spiky or looming things that will wonder what they are doing there. In a human family, each person has their unique contribution: one tells the jokes, another is boss of getting the DVD player to work. Each have their niche, yet they are all related. That’s the key – not so similar it’s repetitive, not so distant they all feel alone, but getting the connection lively, just right.
Raspberries in hessian-wrapped recycling crate, with pink-painted
irrigation pipes from rainwater-pond, with Bougainvillea

Sticking to a common heritage is one way to make a garden look good. Imagine an edible South American garden, with its exotic blooms, drooping with avocados and tomatillos. It can transport you to another world. It’s not just co-incidence that plants that look good together and taste good together also take care of each other in the garden. My Lebanese dinner of tabouli and Baba Ganoush used parsley and eggplant. Without the parsley in the garden, there wouldn’t have been any eggplant, as its pollen-rich flowers attracted a fearsome praying mantis, who then patrolled the eggplant-eating caterpillars.

Caterpillar-munching praying mantis

While common heritage has its benefits, a well-chosen mixed marriage can be even more productive. Having tropical Bougainvillea clambering over balcony railings can create dappled shade for the delicate English garden it shelters, while its thorns guard against marauding possums. The hot pink flowers and the deep pink raspberries made beautiful music together.

Gothic garden starring black plastic pots

In my garden, I avoided using black plastic pots because they didn’t suit my theme. Actually, I thought they were ugly. But in permaculture, as in nature, nothing is inherently right or wrong. It’s just something of potential value in the wrong place. So to extend my prissy boundaries, I gave myself the challenge of creating a Gothic Balcony Garden, making the black plastic pots into the stars of the show. They did great. They held black kale, black edible pansies, blackberries, eggplants, and lots of spooky mauve – lilly pilly, rosemary flowers.

You could even make a white polystyrene box garden that is beautiful. It would take a lot of ingenuity, but it’s not impossible. But if an object is not contributing, not wanted and needed and part of the family, it will be unhappy and so will your garden.

3. Give yourself permission to pass it along

Give yourself permission to pass on or recycle things you don’t love and that don’t fit your garden’s composition. Our brains often say “I have no choice; I have to accept whatever I have been given.” But we are designers, not victims. We don’t have to listen to the little voice that makes us surrender to living with clutter.

Throwing things away is difficult for almost everyone, and the reason for that is hard-wired — an excess of stuff hasn’t killed many of us, but until only one or two generations ago, lack was our constant threat. If you want to make a beautiful garden, subtracting unwanted things is cheaper and more effective, but a lot more difficult than just tossing pretty new things into an existing mess.

It’s usually the soft-hearted people, the people who can see redeeming points in any broken-down contraption, that find themselves mired in garden clutter. Here is a sentence I find powerful: "Just because it’s there doesn’t mean I have to use it". And the blessing is, once I get strong about refusing things in my physical surroundings I’m more able to do it in my mind and spirit. Just because an emotion is there doesn’t mean I have to act on it. Just because I feel angry doesn’t mean I have to express it. That really changes my life and changes my world. If you can do it in your balcony garden you can do it in your life.

When you leave things you don’t like in your garden, you get numb to them, which is convenient. The cost is, you get numb to beauty as well. To keep your vision crisp and appreciative, don’t force it to tolerate mangy stuff. Be brave, make the decision, and throw it away. The pain of this waste is therapeutic. It will stop you from buying and accepting things you don’t love for the rest of your days. It’s a big milestone in your life.

4. Respect the nature of each thing

Stepping stones make a walking trail through the rhubarb,
asparagus and salad violas.

Short squat plants look good in short squat pots. Tall plants need tall pots. When things are happy and fulfilling their nature, they look good. If you want to make a path with square tiles, you put them in a straight line, or stagger them, or line them up in an angular basket weave, but don’t force them into curves. If you put them off their horizon, they get dizzy, and no-one is happy.

Lots of little discoveries can be made in Michele Margolis nature Strip, Sydney.
Rough rocks meander, while straight boards give a structured background.
The pink flower was picked up from the road on her way home, to be
cherished a few minutes before coming to its final resting place here.

Likewise, lining up odd-shaped rocks like a string of pearls looks awkward. Rocks want to be wild, they want to lay about with big rocks and little rocks, on different levels, as they do in the mountain, in nature. So just as you don’t force your tomboy daughter to do ballet, or your graceful son to play rugby, you listen to what materials want to be, and let them do a good job of being themselves.

5. Love each plant

My heritage striped mauve eggplant
It’s easy to love a garden if, individually, you love each plant. Fill your garden with plants that have a story. Get cuttings from friends, gifts to mark special events. Get plants that re-create a favorite holiday, or even self-portrait plants, and order rare breeds from the internet. Save the seeds and improve them. Unlike commonplace supermarket plant, plants with stories attract your affection and attention. You won’t let them die without a fight; they are irreplaceable.

6. Balance the elements

Mariko my housemate enjoys the summer courtyard’s napping spot

Having a balance of the five elements makes humans feel at ease. Some wood, some fire, some water, air and void. Fire might be present through lighting a Mexican chiminea (portable earthen fireplace) in winter, or citronella candle in summer. Water might be a goldfish and reed pond in a big bright bucket, or even just a large bowl with a bamboo dipper. It doesn’t need to be elaborate, so long as it’s in use and freshly appreciated each day.

Nameplate and entrance, Morimoto family’s
Permaculture Guest House, Gifu Japan.
Following gravity, dark goes down, light goes
up. verticals and Horizontals relate to each
other respectfully. A balance of elements are
present – metal, wood, water, earth and air.
Everything is weathered and humble, the
Japanese aesthetic known as wabi-sabi
(literally, rusted and lonely)
Humans don’t like to be confronted by a wall of timber, they like to see airy space between each piece of wood. Look at spacing in a forest and copy that in your garden. Use a hedge rather than a paling fence, or cover it with a forest of raspberries.

When you use a balance of the proportions found in nature, you feel balanced just by viewing, as the Japanese know. But it’s older than that. “Here is my waterhole, my cozy cave, my hunting and gathering grounds, my clan. Everything I need is here, and I will be safe.”

7. Be resourceful

Technoratty – creating a solar powered electric vehicle from repurposed scraps

We can be tempted into thinking that if we don’t earn much money, we can’t have what we want and we can’t bring our beautiful plans into reality. If you have less money, and you are a value-creating permaculturist, you will have more time, more community, more skills. We can often trade something we have for something we need. If you haven’t got a real-world community, quick, go and get one. Talk to the neighbors, become a WWOOF host, create an Epicurean-style study group in your garden. Hold grafting days, seed saving swaps.

Installing a collection of fashionable plants risks creating a soulless display. But a garden pieced together, coaxed into existence through the riches of human connection looks unique in all the world. Most of my gardens were created with the help of brave, life-loving WWOOF travellers who came to stay with me. The garden would hold memories of our time cooking and partying together, getting fond of and grateful for each other.

8. Create space for human connection

Kohei (13) helping Cecilia create an edible
courtyard garden atAsaba Art Square, Yokohama

Something that connects people will feel beautiful, such as a little space to sit and be together. If we don’t connect we won’t survive. Conversations you have in useful gardens while shelling peas have a very different quality to conversations had in yet another restaurant or café.

9. Foster beauty of spirit

In response to the suicide of a child she knew, Mrs Asaba created a
neighbourhood art school for children. 40 years later, Asaba Art Square
is a small universe of permaculture generativity

Undesirables will pop up in your garden – a dead rat, an infestation on your plant. That’s when you say, “I’m brave, strong, creative, and I’ve got Google.” There’s nothing bad about ugliness, but if it stops you from doing your job of caring for people, earth and sharing surplus, well, that’s a waste. You can’t always have physical beauty. But beauty of spirit is available anytime, anywhere. For me, when I see people bravely doing as they decide, not as their emotions dictate, I feel I’m in the presence of beauty, and it always awes me.

10. Allow for mystery and surprise

Compost heated showers, one
of the pleasures of APC 10, the
Australian Permaculture
Convergence in Cairns 2010.
Beautiful gardens do the unexpected. You can do your bit as a designer to elicit curiosity, then discovery, by creating wending pathways, hills with stepping stones to clamber and harvest from, little doorways into other worlds in your garden. Nature will do the rest of the choreography. She will send you garden pests, just to tease you. Then she will send in new insects to clean them up, and you will be grateful. And sometimes nature will send you lavish gifts – an operatic songbird, a frilly butterfly, a waft of fragrance, and, despite whatever was happening up until that moment, you will say “I’ve changed my mind – being alive is wonderful.”

11. White is difficult

Gardens look best when they are nature-colored, and here in Australia, nature doesn’t provide big swathes of white. This dazzling color is best when it’s renewable, as thats the only way to keep it fresh and bridal: a white flower, a white, freshly licked cat, or a gum tree displaying luscious snowy limbs under rough bark. Man-made white is another story. Whether it’s a white fence or a bench, rain-streaked, discarded bride will curse you every time you pass.

Humans are phototrophic and our eyes will zoom straight to white, so unless your compositional skills are excellent, it will unbalance your garden.

Go to an art gallery to see how painters manage this color and you might do something extraordinary.

The goldfish was conspicuous, therefore uneasy in the white-bottomed dish.
The Mongolian horse hair mulch looked amazing for a while, discolored,
and went to the compost

A carefully tended white garden could be breathtaking though – white eggplants, fragrant jasmine, Mongolian horse-hair mulch for the potted plants, and lots of silver foliage. A Marilyn Monroe garden. But don’t forget, she got her hair bleached every Saturday for decades, not cheap and easy.

12. Overcome imaginary limitations

Borrow your neighbor’s garden. Just go and capture it. Care for it, get intimate with it, share the harvest. She probably won’t even charge you rent. We are so funny. We feel we aren’t allowed to love things we don’t legally own. Being a renter also doesn’t count as a reason to avoid living in beauty. The plants you put in will be your friends, and will enchant your memories of those one-and-only years of your life. Rental gardens are a canvas to practice on, a university course to learn from. They go in your folio as a permaculture designer, and other garden-making opportunities will then open up for you.

If you (and your WWOOFers) do an impeccable job on one section of the garden, it might give your landlord the confidence to fund the rest of the project. But he won’t invest in your garden if you don’t.

Don’t worry about leaving it behind – we end up leaving everything behind in this life, and it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have had that garden at all. When you must leave, there is also the option of bringing your tried-and-tested potted trees with you, or giving your pet plants to someone you love. Gifts given when it’s not even birthday or Christmas have a special glow. The crisis of having to move an ecosystem can bring people together.

13. Beauty needs love

Bette Davis said, “A woman is beautiful when she is loved.” When a garden is regularly tended and gazed at, passers-by feel it — they know they are in the presence of something valuable. Because it’s an ecosystem garden, there will be things not found in regular gardens: flowers gone to seed hosting useful insects, maybe useful weeds amongst pretty flowers, hollow logs, layers of life and life renewing. Amongst all this may be other signs of activity – skillfully made rain ponds, a convivial breakfast table, sculptures purchased from people you’ve met. This will communicate as engaging liveliness, something rare, and in turn, lovable.

A loved garden does take time, but time with this garden
is your favorite hour of the day

But if the weeds and dead flowers are accompanied by forgotten fruit on the ground, a fence half-repaired with blue string, lolly wrappers caught in prickly weeds, everyone can see ‘procrastination’ and ‘lack of love’ written up in neon lights. Cheap, stuttering neon lights. While regular gardens take a lot of fertilizers, zone one urban permaculture gardens take a lot of gazing. Gazing so we know what’s ready to harvest, what bugs are eating what pests, and what needs our help. And it’s a pleasure, because this garden is our darling garden, and when you have a darling, you want to have your hands on this darling all the time, you want to marvel at the new beauties that each day brings. Imagine choosing a low-maintenance spouse, one you just walk by each day, then throw water on once a week.

To make this happen, put a table and chair there, and just start spending time. Breakfast time, or after-work Happy Hour time. Get a rhythm going, because the power of rhythm will carry you and your garden along.

Once love starts, it snowballs, and your garden will elicit more and more, polishing your character, and making you strong, smart and beautiful. So many things I didn’t know about myself were revealed to me though my guru, my garden.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Yeilding, not resisting - Japanese aikido for surviving earthquake disasters

Of all the news and disaster images, this is the one that touched me most deeply.
Massive steel buildings, swaying like meadow grass, like water weed, gliding on their foundations.

Without a seconds pondering, I immediately send up a prayer of love for the heroes who kept the people of my beloved city safe.
Their glasses are thick, their hair is thin, and they have been trudging home at 11pm for decades so they could see what we are now seeing on you-tube, this graceful swaying.

Thank-you to the engineers of Tokyo.

I like to think of them shyly watching this video with their wives and children, people they may not have had a real conversation with in years. I like to think that despite a lack of social skills, these hardworking men are feeling like Ben Hur this week, and know that they are legends.

Visitors all day, Harborside Sydney dreaming

Though I'm new to this city and don't have a home of my own, I'm still getting visitors.

During breakfast on the patio,  this hulking pile of steel roared its fog-horn morning call, gliding past with its 3-boat entourage.

The cactus has this flower ready to unfurl, the suspense is building.

Minkie comes for breakfast

I heard a rustle in the kitchen.  Minkie from down the road had slipped through the bars of the locked front door.
I could serve her breakfast! One of my claims to fame is my ability to feed surprise guests.
How many people have a tin of luxury cat food waiting for such situations?
I'm still learning though - I will serve it on a proper saucer next time.

The garden rewards my morning watering routine with astonishing blooms and foliage

 From the neighboring ferry, the dusk-lit city shimmers elegantly.
There are Friends in there, human ones, waiting to be made.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Sydney Harbor Gardens - Pink and Green in East Balmain

I've come to a lovely interlude of my Year of Living Homelessly - house-sitting at a jungle-like home on Sydney Harbor, until mid-September.

I don't know how Helen managed to find me. Visually, we have identical taste in plants - I restrict myself to a garden of these three contrasts: 
  • Pink on Green 
  • Light green on dark green on light green
  • Fluffy or heart shaped or dangling and lavish or massive - a party of distinctive foliage
Do this, and it will come out beautiful (To Cecilia and Helen, anyway)

Recycled tin can garden. Illustration by Cecilia

As the earth-garden areas are all in shade, Helen's edibles are in sunny pots, watching the harbor - guava, strawberry. 

I could make her hibiscus into tea, dig up her bamboo shoots and ginger roots for stir fry, and infuse the cream for my crepes with her lavender.
But maybe I won't. 

I think Red Shiso, that wonderful drinkable Japanese herb, would be a perfect friend for her existing plants. Maybe next summer.

Its true that I like diversity and change. Most mornings, a different Ten Story high 'residence' appears at my balcony.  But I never get a chance to make friends, that's the downside.

Upstairs I have a choice of five balcony garden seating areas from which to have my breakfast. 
There are another five courtyard gardens to choose from, less open and sparkly, so I prefer these. Add to the list two interior gardens, and a large pot plant population. 

Friends everywhere!

Although Helen doesn't specialize in Organic or in Edibles, if cities and citizen suddenly needed to feed themselves,  she could have a successful garden going in a year or two.  She could manage a whole neighborhood to succeed, I suspect.

Its just a tiny step from turning an able gardener into a Sustainable food gardener. 
But turning your average sustainability enthusiast into a successful food gardener takes years and years. 
It did in my case.
Bit by bit my garden and its casualties got me to face up to the realities: That a healthy garden springs from healthy soil, and a healthy character (or the love of gardening elicits health in our characters)

My balcony garden taught me these things:

  • Pretending there isn't a problem won't fix things, 
  • Procrastinate, and there isn't a tomorrow (for the poor plants)
  • Take shortcuts, and your destination disappears.  
Just being in a clear house like Helen's, where each draw is filled with everything you need, and nothing you don't, is keeping my mind decluttered, ready for good permie action. 

Please send me blessings for a productive, happy spell here in East Balmain. And introduce me to your Sydney friends, so I don't get too lonely, here with all these plants.