A Rufus fantail pip-pip-pips in the garden. I watch it skitter along the central rib of a palm frond, which in an act of biomimicry, is also fantail shaped. The bird doesn’t stay long in one place. It swoops between frond and treetrunk, pausing to unfurl its flashy tail, dancing from side to side. The bird is as fleet of foot as it is of wing. Two bounces and he’s off, taking his provocative self-advertisement elsewhere.
I’ve seen the Lewin’s honeyeater already this morning. I assume it’s the same bird I saw yesterday but it might not be. There are loads of them about. The Lewin’s has a liking, I’ve noticed, for the creamy two-inch trumpet-shaped flowers hanging in clusters from the drooping green stems of the male papaya tree. The birds have a knack for reaching their beaks right up inside the flowers, probing for nectar. The plundered flowers fall to the ground where they lie concentrated in piles beneath the Lewin’s favourite perches. The pattern they make on the soil a reflection of the Lewin’s desire.
I watch out the window of my studio as another creamy trumpet flower floats to the ground. The soil it lands upon is dark, rich and wet. It’s not like Richie and I to leave soil exposed: big permaculture no-no! But it’s something we’re trialling. What we’re doing is waiting for the rows of miniature broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, kailarn and kale that we sewed directly late last month to get a wriggle on: once their heads are a few inches above the soil we’ll lay on thick mulch, tucking them in to enjoy a slow season of growth and productivity. We’d never try it in summer. Too hot.
Looking again at the soil I imagine it smells sweetly of hummus, microbes and mycelium.
Like Richie and the papaya tree, the soil isn’t native to this place. It’s a ring-in. It landed here on the end of mine and Richie’s spades, gathered in wheelbarrows from the mountain of shit towering in the back of the ute: rotted cow manure from a dairy ten clicks down the road. Good Obi Obi cow shit. Continue reading
“The river is everywhere.”
– Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
In Laos rivers are everywhere. They run like long legs down the length of the country, carrying life on their broad backs, travelling swiftly in places, and in others, slow. Life on the banks of the Nam Ou in Northern Laos is fluid and slow, vigorous and languid in turn, changing with the seasons. For children there’s ample time to play and for adults, time enough to discuss the minor calibrations of the day, which is configured around the rituals of washing and harvesting. For the water buffalo, there’s no work but swatting flies.
The appeal of river life draws travellers in large numbers to tiny Nong Khiaw and Mong Ngoi Neu, villages 100km upstream from the northern capital, Luang Prabang. In January and February, when the Nam Ou is at its lowest, tourist numbers peak, and when the waters swell in June, the number of tourists ebb. This is the time the river renews itself, absorbing into its stream the reams of water that uncoil from the mountainside, gathering like snakes among river rocks, fingering into the cliffs, boring caves deep enough to accommodate whole villages. The shores, where corn and beans grow during dry season, are inundated, and when the waters recedes, a shimmering shelf of silt is revealed, ready to coax the sap to rise in another season of crops.
Life in the more remote villages of the Nam Ou has changed very little in the last century: boys are eligible to marry only after they have mastered the art of building, and the boat builder is one of the most important citizens in the village. As soon as boys are tall enough to hold their fathers’ fishing nets clear of the sand, they learn to cast, and even the smallest child, male or female, knows how to hold his or her head above water while diving with hands outstretched to grab thick tufts of vivid green river weed that their mothers transform into crisp savoury sun-dried snacks, encrusted with tamarind juice, sesame seeds, and slices of tomato and garlic.
kae paen, river weed
The farmhouse, Momavlis Mitsa
Saturday morning in Argokhi. There is work to be done: water butts to fill; pigs to feed; floors to sweep; tea to brew – but there’s no hurry. I sit on the steps cracking hazelnuts, listening to the sounds passing up and down the lane on the opposite side of the above-head-high metal fence. I hear ducks squawking, the lazy turning of cartwheels, neighbours fussing, the crank of the timber grape press, and the occasional sound of apples falling from the tree. It’s mid-autumn. Every warm day between now and Christmas is worth its weight in gold.
Working on Momavlis Mitsa (Future Earth) farm in Argokhi has ameliorated the discomfort of waiting for visas in Tbilisi. Instead of sitting like ghosts in some disembodying hostel, milking the wifi and kicking stones down Marjainishvili on the way to the Metro, we’re working outdoors, using our lungs and hands to lift things, fix things, bake things, grow things.
Creating new raised beds
Richie and Sam adding rotted compost to the soil
In the garden we’re asked to do things we’d never do at home, in our own garden: pull weeds, hoe earth, turn soil, plant monocultures and raise new beds without mulching them. I bite my lip as Inken, the 18-year-old longterm German volunteer, instructs me on how to break the ‘crust’ that has formed on the surface of the soil due to successive phases of watering and sunshine. We work the hoe forward while simultaneously walking backwards down the aisles. I wonder if I’m disturbing the roots of the small plants, and why there are no bugs or worms in the soil.
“Do the words ‘ella sphinx-a-tinkath-yassu’ mean anything to you?,” I ask Terry, my new Greek friend, over dinner on the waterfront in Koroni. I’m embarrassed by the words I’m saying, which sound like nonsense to my ears, something about a sphinx and tinkerbell.
“Yes,” he answers immediately, surprising me. “It means…” he pauses, trying to think of the correct words in English, “Come, make your heart tight.”
“Tight? Are you sure?”, I ask, needing clarification. He looks out to sea, and rephrases:
“More like strong. Come, make your heart strong,” he says, clenching his fist emphatically. His action makes me feel more confident that what he is saying is closer to a true translation of my Yiayia’s words.
One week after the Greek lesson in Koroni, I’m still thinking about the words of my Yiayia. ‘Ella sphinx-a-tinkath-yassu’. Richie and I are hanging over the rails of a Blue Star Ferry. It’s the 24th hour of our voyage from Piraeus, and the tiny island of Castellorizo is coming into view.
The island has its back to us, a collar of rocky mountains turned up against the heat and glare of the afternoon sun. A deep scar runs across its shoulders, a road purpose-built for army vehicles. The boat is enormous, and Castellorizo, less than 12 square kilometres, is tiny! We wonder how the captain is going to bring the ship into port.