We arrived in Plovdiv’s Yug Bus Station feeling grateful for having escaped the intensity of Istanbul and the foot-swelling all-night bus journey.
Bulgaria – our seventh country in as many months!
As we sat in the bus station chewing greasy breakfast pastry we speculated about the many permutations of fried bread we’ve eaten during our 7 months on the road, and wondered what was ahead in the way of fat and flour.
Thankfully, in Bulgaria, there’s no reason to live off grease, cheese and coffee. Gripped by a late-season glut of tomatoes, capsicums, eggplants, grapes, peaches, plums, apples and pears, Bulgaria’s towns and villages were awash with colourful market stalls. To impoverished tastebuds acclimatised to the bland horrors of English supermarket food there was no doubt that this was some of the best food we’d ever eaten. Who knew tomatoes could be this good?
In a region of central Bulgaria known variously as the Valley of the Thracian Kings and the Valley of Roses we were delighted to find that not one household had neglected to fill their backyard with a variety of fruit trees and heirloom vegetables. Walking the streets of Kran was a moveable feast, hands darting between railings and over fences to snatch mouthfuls of red currants, black grapes and marble-sized cherry plums.
“Incredible edible” exclaimed Richie, marvelling at the absence of ‘ornamentals’. Not a single municipal council-planted acer, plane tree or horse chestnut was in sight. Instead, sour cherries, walnuts, plums and sweet chestnuts lined the village streets, flaunting their exceptional ornamental value while at the same time, dropping fruits and nuts into the palms of passersby. Not wanting to be outdone, even the pavements yielded a crop; enough fat succulent purslane to furnish many a late-summer salad.
Knowing how fond we are of gardens Dimo, our couch surf host, took us to see Paul of the Balkan Ecology Project. It was a pleasing shock to hear the London accent amid the horse-drawn carts and sunflower fields of Shipka… he was “a good ol’ boy” (the ultimate cockney praise), and invited us to explore his small but abundant garden – living proof of the beauty and diversity of permaculture principles in action. “Eat whatever you can find,” said Paul.. As if we needed any encouragement!
In a space no bigger than a typical Brisbane backyard, Paul and his family had managed to squeeze: 2 ponds, no less than 15 varieties of tree crops including cornelian cherries, quinces and nectarines, an assortment of soft fruit bushes, including gooseberries and thornless loganberries, a compost heap, chicken tractor, cob shed, rabbit hutch, a family of ducks (paddling on the larger of the two ponds), a herb spiral, veg patch, grape arbor, wood pile and hammock!
As we hung about in the yard discussing the rate of seed germination for various ‘plants for a future’ Paul revealed that when he first moved from England 5 years ago he’d committed the ultimate folly of planting a lawn instead of a garden. There’s no doubt which he prefers now – and which, incidentally, takes less time, water and fossil fuel to maintain.
Between visits to Thracian hill tombs, lakes, creeks and gardens Dimo, Richie and I loafed about the worm farm, mulching paulownia (a fast growing timber crop), shovelling cow manure, and sifting mature worm castings into bags for sale. The central premise of Dimo’s enterprise, WasteNoMo was pretty clear: turn waste materials into valuable garden products.
The results of his experiments with paulownia provided compelling evidence that worm castings shit all over chemical fertilisers in regard to promoting growth, resilience and resistance to disease in plants. During their first month of growth, tomato seedlings planted in a potting mix constituted of roughly 20% worm castings had about 4 inches of growth over their chemically fertilised brethren and were also less likely to suffer from insect attacks and other set-backs.
Despite being heartened by the growing potential embodied in the worm castings it was confronting to see how many fragments of plastic, rubber, metal and glass had found their way into the soil arriving at WasteNoMo in the hay and manure Dimo collected from farmers’ fields. Successive stages of turning and sifting revealed a miscellany of everyday items: fragments of plastic, tin cans, synthetic fibres, nylon yarn, batteries… it’s amazing what’s passed off as soil these days!
A part of the work we did for Dimo involved removing foreign objects from the soil and ‘locking them up’ in disused tractor and car tires that will eventually form a sound barrier along the northern edge of Dimo’s property. Initially, this method struck me as a backward way of dealing with the problem, but on second thought, it is no worse (perhaps even a great deal better) than bagging the stuff up and transporting it to landfill where it will re-enter the soil and water systems as smaller and more insidious particles.
The pervasiveness of rubbish in our soil, seas and fresh water courses is a reality that has been brought home to me time and again during our journey. In the remotest communities in some of the most inaccessible parts of countries rubbish persists along the side of roads and is tossed into rivers and lakes where it accumulates, stagnates and breaks down into finer and finer particles. WasteNoMo brought home the central dilemma of waste ‘disposal’, which is, how to ‘dispose’ of toxic, synthetic substances in a world that is natural and organic? What place is there on our earth for substances that do not break down in nature, or which cannot be recycled – cradle to cradle?
On our last night in Kran I left off work at the worm farm wondering if the worm ever really forgives the plough? With Dimo in step we wandered out through the village, past a dam, to a Thracian hill tomb surrounded by a massive cherry plantation that used to be aerially sprayed with pesticides, but which is now ‘organic’ due to the rising cost of fuel.
The hill tombs of the ancient Thracian civilisation who inhabited the valley over two thousand years ago still crest the fields, like giant turtle-backs rising up from a sea of grain, round and symmetrical. Inside the mounds archaeologists have been busy excavating and cataloguing a number of human remains, which have long since mingled with the earth, and a handful of relics in bronze and gold: statuary, masks, crowns, gold ornaments, and pottery.
It would be nice if all our civilisation left behind was treasure.