Notes from the Retreat, December 2016

Cold Fronts and Birds

Cold fronts come sweeping down from the USA at this time of the year, bringing cooler spells in the 80s (30 Deg. C) and sometimes a welcome shower or two. The sunny days provide abundant solar energy to keep the pump drawing water from our well to irrigate the gardens and crops. It’s a good time for bird watchers as the leaves on the trees thin out during the dry season and many of our colourful bird-friends are easily visible and many queue up in pecking order for a dip in the bird bath in the OM garden just below the high veranda.

The orioles are very territorial and seem to spend most of their days attacking their reflection in any shiny surface. When they started to peck through the fly screen on the French door to the bedroom, we mounted two mirrors, one on each side of a veranda post. These days it is not uncommon to see the large orioles attacking themselves in the mirror on one side of the post while their smaller cousins hurl themselves furiously at the one on the other side.

— H.A.E.

Notes from the Retreat, November 2016

Story 1 — Paradise Lost

Once upon a time people lived in a beautiful garden called Paradise. In those days everything they did was in harmony with nature and no one had to work. Nature was bountiful, producing enough fruits, nuts and vegetables for everyone, and all the people had an equal share.

For a long time everything went well. Everyone was happy. Then, one day, one of the men in Paradise was waylaid in the garden by the Devil.

“Man,” the Devil said. “I have been watching you day after day and I can see you are losing out. Some of the people in Paradise are getting more than you.”

“Oh! Is that so?” the man exclaimed. “I never suspected it. Everyone in Paradise seems so honest.”

“Ah!” breathed the Devil. “You shouldn’t be so trusting. Even now people are dividing up the fruits of the trees without leaving you as much as they are taking for themselves.”

“What can I do about it?” the man asked miserably. “Already I feel a little unhappy with my lot.”

The Devil pretended to think for a minute. “I will tell you what I will do for you,” he declared with an air of great generosity. “If you will give me that tiny thing within you called the soul, I will see to it that from this time onwards you get the best of everything: the best fruits, the most nuts and the juiciest vegetables. What’s more you will be able to take the most beautiful woman in the garden for your wife and I promise that your children will be stronger, healthier and more gifted than anyone else’s. In a few years you will be the most honoured and respected person in the whole of Paradise. Surely it is worth giving up that little thing called the soul to become the happiest man in the whole wide world?”

The man was much impressed by the Devil’s promises and readily agreed to the deal. But, unknown him, the Devil had secretly made the same deal with every single person in Paradise. When the Devil left the garden he had all their souls tucked into the pocket of his tunic.

From that moment onwards peace in Paradise lay in tatters. Everyone began to compete madly with everyone else for the biggest and the best of everything. When they were better off than all the others, they were happy –just as the Devil had promised. But it turned out he had forgotten to tell them that, when they got less than anyone else, they would be utterly, utterly miserable.

For many years the people continued to live in the garden but it was Paradise no longer. No matter how much they competed and struggled against one another, they could not regain the permanent happiness they had experienced in the years before the Devil had appeared. Life had become an endless series of ups and downs and all the people admitted they now felt strangely empty somewhere deep inside them. At last they decided to leave Paradise to look for the lost feeling of permanent happiness elsewhere.

— Source: “Dancing with Foxes,” by Henry Elwell.

Notes from the Retreat, September 2016

Local Folklore 1

A mysterious plant grows in the Belizean bush. Its bright red spongy centre immediately catches the eye as it is unlike anything else growing here. Naturally the local people have a story about it.

A beautiful woman is said to emerge from the exotic red centre and entice unwary men into thick bush.

Legend has it that the men are either found dead or wandering aimlessly around out of their minds.

— H.A.E.

Notes from the Retreat, August 2016

The Innocents

This is a folk story from Greece which has a moral fitting the ethos at the Retreat.

A bishop was told about three reclusive monks living on a deserted island within his dioceses. He had never heard of them before and was curious to find out what they were doing.

Arriving one day by boat he was horrified to find them living in a simple wooden hut and had not built any special house of worship. Furthermore they did not know any of the church’s theology. They did not seem to understand the words heresy, sin and perdition. He spent three days trying to teach them the simplest prayer he knew but they seemed to have great difficulty remembering the words. So he gave up in disgust and sailed away on a calm evening on the third day.

He was looking back at the island wondering what he should do with the three monks when he was astonished to see a large bright light skimming over the waves towards him. The light stopped suddenly very close to the side of the boat and within it he saw the three monks.

“Father,” they cried. “We have already forgotten your prayer. Please repeat it again.”

The astounded bishop shook his head.

“My sons,” he said. “Carry on as you were before. I see you are doing very well without it.”

“Know ye not that ye are the temple of God,
and the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?”
(I. Cor. 3:16).

There is a certain amount of magic in believing.
Some people say,
“I will only believe it when I see it.”
But true faith is believing what you cannot see.
That is the true test of faith.
(Saying of K.B.N, 6th January)

— H.A.E.

Notes from the Retreat, July 2016

Clever Animals

There are many instances that show birds and animals have innate intelligence.

The thrush breaks open snail shells by hitting them against hard objects and sea birds do the same by dropping crustaceans from a height on to rocks below. As a boy roving the hills of Wales I once saw a raven lift a very small rabbit about 30ft into the air before dropping it, presumably to kill it. But the rabbit survived and took refuge in a nearby hedgerow.

In Zimbabwe we had a dog that let us know it wanted to come into the house by knocking on the front door. It would pick up a stone from the garden in its mouth and repeatedly throw it at the door with a flick of its head until it was let inside.

But this breeding season at the Retreat in Belize we saw something entirely new.

We had been feeding a pair of melodious blackbird with dry cat pellets. The pellets are small enough for the adult birds to swallow whole and they love them. They arrive on our veranda railing outside the front door three times a day calling loudly for their meals: at dawn, mid-day and late afternoon. Usually they pick up a dry cat pellet and turn it around a few times in their beaks before swallowing them.

Their nest is in a large tree opposite the house and when their chicks hatched their routine changed. They would pick up a dry pellet as usual but then immediately walk along the veranda decking to the dog’s water dish, hop on to the rim, and dip the pellet into the water to soften it. We surmised that the chicks cannot swallow the dry pellets. Clever birds! We are hoping the young will visit us when they can fly.

— H.A.E.

Notes from the Retreat, June 2016

Living out of harmony with Nature

It is odd that we depend entirely on Nature to feed us and yet our farming and gardening systems mostly disregard nature or deliberately attempt to obliterate her. Consequently they are destructive of the environment, non-sustainable, and hazardous to human health and welfare. Don’t be lulled into thinking that modern farming methods have been developed to feed you. That is a secondary consideration. Making money is the primary objective. And the morality behind it is the same as it has been for generations: live now, pay later: let future generations deal with the inevitable unpleasant consequences. Money has no morality and neither do those who worship it.

Have you ever looked, really looked, at a pristine natural forest? There is precious little of it around these days but sight of such a wonder of nature leaves one awestruck. Study the amount of biomass nature produces without effort, enough to feed and provide shelter and habitat for an untold variety of living creatures. At the same time it can absorb so much rain that flooding and muddy torrents are out of the question. Compare the forest to any farmer’s field in your area — chalk and cheese as they say.

Living in harmony with Nature.

Look at the forest again. What are its secrets? How does it so effortlessly feed and provide shelter for so much life?

The first thing one notices is that everything is supporting everything else. That is harmony. Nothing stands alone.

The second thing is its diversity. Within the plant kingdom alone one can number thousands of trees, shrubs, and small plants coexisting in perfect accord. There are no monocultures in nature.

Neither does nature plough the soil, bury its fertility or leave the soil surface bare. Its roots and microbes condition the soil; its fertility in the form of dead leaves lies as a mulch on the surface, and any bare soil is rapidly covered by new growth.

Mankind has developed ways of destroying the environment and harming himself in the process. But it is certainly not beyond our capacity to mimic nature and develop ways of producing food that benefit both ourselves and nature while also providing healthy living environments.

— H.A.E.

Notes from the Retreat, May 2016

Gardening without poisons

The biggest pests.

At the risk of offending you I have to say that the two biggest pests in your garden are YOU and that tin of insecticide sitting on the shelf in your garden shed. Together you are destroying the environment and your own health, not to mention contributing to the declining health of the population at large. Why poison yourself when there is absolutely no need to do so?

Where pests come from.

In nature there is no such thing as a pest. All insects are part of the garden ecology. Each has its useful function and is dependent on everything else in the soil, air and the plant. Bugs eat bugs! In a healthy garden all insects are kept in check by other insects, birds, small animals and microorganisms.

Insects become pests when the natural balance between insects and their predators is disturbed. This balance is what a discerning gardener is responsible for maintaining and is destroyed as soon as he/she ignores the lessons nature is constantly trying to teach us and compulsively reaches for that tin of insecticide sitting in the garden shed.

Garden pests as teachers.

As soon as a certain insect is sprayed with chemicals it opens the way for insects of another type or viruses or bacterial infections to then increase and attack other species of plant in the garden. Insecticides also provide the sprayed insects with the opportunity to build up a resistance to the chemical being applied. It’s a no-win situation in the long run.

One of the main functions of insects is to recycle those plants breaking the rules of the ecosystem that should prevail in your garden. If you are trying to grow plants that are unsuited to the climate and to the soil texture, moisture and nutrient availability, then insects, bacteria, and viruses will move in to do their job of recycling the unsuitable plant material into soil organic matter for better-suited plants to enjoy.

Another opportunity for insects and diseases to expand occurs when gardeners grow too many of the same plant at the same time. Providing an abundance of food for one insect and too little for its predators is a sure recipe for trouble. Mimic Nature. Go for variety.

Within every cupful of the soil are billions of microbes whose job is to keep the soil healthy and turn organic matter into soil nutrients.

They are the unpaid and unacknowledged workers in agriculture. Herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and soluble fertilizers destroy them on mass so that you have to spend more and more money on maintaining an imbalance that should not be there in the first place.

If the numbers of certain insects in your garden are flourishing to pest levels then nature is telling you that you are doing something wrong. Wake up! Look for the reason and correct it.

— H.A.E.

Notes from the Retreat, April 2016

Growing corn in a bird sanctuary

Some call it corn. Others call it maize. Whatever you chose to call it, the birds love it.

Maize cum corn is the staple food of large sections of the world’s population but as the food resources available to birds declines through destruction of their habitats by man, they cannot be blamed for satisfying their needs by feeding off the crops we have put in the place of the original flora, fauna and insect life that once fed them.

In ancient times farmers grew crops for household use and sold or exchanged any surplus with other householders. In those days people understood the value of birdlife in controlling insects and plant diseases and in uplifting the inner spirit with their beauty and songs. So valued was birdlife that people willingly shared their harvest with their feathered friends and helpers.

At the Retreat in Belize we grow only a little corn for green mealies: the cobs are harvested when still green and the seeds full and soft. If our timing is right we can get a fair share of the harvest. But the cobs we need to get seed for planting the following crop of maize have to be left out on the stalk until the seed is dry and we have to take extra measures to protect them.

Welcome to the sock method. After the cobs have formed and been pollinated by the flower heads we slip socks made of mosquito gauze/screen over the cobs we want to preserve for seed. The socks allow enough air to get through to the cobs to dry them and prevent cob rot but the birds are put off by the covering.

In this way the birds get a share and we get what we want. We feel that is a fair trade.

— H.A.E.

Notes from the Retreat, February/March 2016

Outwitting the Chachalaca

In my first year here at the Retreat a large ground-feeding bird played havoc with most of the crops I was trying to grow. They came every dawn and dusk in a large flock to eat the leaves off the sweet potatoes, the corn off the cob and to pluck the flowers off the beans, melons and almost every kind of plant before the fruit could grow.

The local name for this bird is Hock-en-call because it makes a sound like vendors in the market place shouting out their wares, a harsh sound which the birds use to warn competitors that this is their patch.

In that first year I tried all the tricks I knew to keep them away: scarecrows, string lines, silver ribbons and tin lids swinging in the wind but they laughed at them all. Being committed to conserving nature, the more drastic options were not on the table.

I studied them for a while wondering what I could do next and noticed that they did not fly directly into their chosen feeding areas but landed outside and walked in. So I purchased a roll of 5ft high chicken wire and painstakingly cut it in half to make it stretch further — my cash was limited.

The resultant 2ft 6ins high fence did the trick. Many evenings I enjoyed the sight of them walking up to the fence and turning away in frustration.

The resident flock emigrated to more available pastures and all was quiet for a while. Then a young enterprising male arrived with two wives in tow. This new group followed the same pattern of landing outside the feeding area, walking up to the fence, and then turning away. Many times in the following weeks I saw the young male strutting up the fence line trying to find a way under or through the wire to no avail. I began to relax.

Then one day I saw it fly directly into the area while its wives remained outside. Then in another couple of days the wives began to copy their leader and they began to fly in too. It was clear to me that when the leader bred from his two wives he would quickly teach his offspring to do the same. I was in danger of losing the battle.

Now comes my confession.

A local man advised me to get a pellet gun and, if I did not want to kill the leader of the flock (which I didn’t) and just scare it away, I should shoot at its body as it had exceptionally tough feathers that could resist even shot gun lead.

Well I did just that and killed the bird stone dead. Now there are no bird invasions but there is this little bit of guilt lurking around inside my brain casing.

— H.A.E.

Photo above licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic

Notes from the Retreat, January 2016

Off the Grid

Living without mains electricity, water and sewage has its rewards and challenges. Be warned! It is not for the faint hearted. Most of us are used to the simple life of switching on a light, turning on a tap, or pulling a lever to flush the toilet. But can you imagine what it is like to be the power station, the water company and the sewage works all in one, albeit on a household scale?

Take our water supply for instance. We depend entirely on the rain for our domestic water which is collected from the zinc sheeting on the house roof, stored in large stainless steel tanks (1500 gals each) and pumped up to tanks in the attic area by a small pump needing electricity. The overflow from the tanks is collected in a third 160 gal plastic tank and pumped onto the first floor veranda to gravity-feed irrigation water into the garden below. That means yet another small pump needing electricity and pumps and pipelines need constant maintenance.

In the seasonally dry tropics water conservation is a top priority. The average water use in the suburbs of the USA is about 100 gals per person per day. In Britain it is about 60 gals. We use at most 15 gals each which includes everything.

Here are some tips on how to conserve water:

  1. Use the same water as many times as possible. For instance washing up water can irrigate pot plants.
  2. Shower as an alternative to bathing as it uses a fraction of the resource, much less even than bathing with a partner.
  3. Don’t leave taps running for longer than necessary to do the job.
  4. Fix leaks and dripping taps immediately.
  5. Cover swimming pools to reduce evaporation.
  6. Water gardens in the evening rather than in the morning or during the day.
  7. Give the garden a good dose of water every few days instead of small more frequent daily amounts.
  8. Mulch garden beds thickly with plant residue to reduce loss of soil moisture.
  9. Be constantly on guard to ensure that unavoidable overflow from storage tanks is not wasted: direct to water-loving plants or ornamental ponds.
  10. Keep collection gutters on the house free of dead leaves, moss and bird’s nests.

In Belize frogs are a major problem around water storage facilities. The openings of all pipes and tanks have to be covered with fine mesh to keep the water supplies clean and the nights free of their booming chorus which is even louder when reverberating within drain pipes. Soon after we installed the rainwater guttering on the house along with their corresponding 4 inch rainwater pipes leading to the tanks, we flushed out 15 frogs from one pipe and ten from the other. Our nights were more peaceful thereafter.

If you want to know more or learn and experience life off the Grid come and visit us. We have a nice guest room for two.

— H.A.E.

See the previous Notes (from 2015)

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