Daily Diaries of a Natural Building & Permaculture Design Course at Rak Tamachat, Thailand
Arrival Day!We arrived at the farm at around 6 pm, our taxi pulling up the long tree-lined driveway to the farm just as the rest of the students were starting their meander to the local village. Deep in the heart of rural Thailand, the village consists of a small school, a village shop, a few Thai houses, cows, pigs and chickens. The locals know that a new course is starting when a new wave of farang (foreigners) arrive in the village. We checked into our small basic wooden bungalow overlooking the pond and joined the group for an evening stroll. Starting a new course, there is always anticipation in the air about who we will meet, what the group dynamic will be and whether or not we will get on. The group hail from all over the globe; Spain, New Zealand, Germany, Holland, Australia, UK, Canada and the US. Having various discussions during the first evening, it’s already clear that there are few dreams brewing here in student’s heads. Two backpackers recently returned from the Philippines where they have just leased a patch of land to build a café, and eventually a hostel and permaculture garden. One girl from Germany is running offline retreats and wants to incorporate permaculture into her offerings. Many more people comment briefly about their plans to buy land, build their own houses, or start a business one day. I’m sure we’ll find out more about these plans as we get to know each other better. One thing is sure, it’s great to be amongst inspiring people with ideas. It encourages creativity in oneself. It seemed like we were all in the right place.
Day 1: Jumping into Natural Building!Today we wasted no time getting stuck into our Natural Building Course, which would make up the first five days of the total course. We started the day with breakfast at 7 am and class started at 8 am, and by ‘class’, I mean real hands-on (or rather feet-on) manual labour! We shovelled sand, clay and rice husks into a pit and then jumped right into the muddy mixture, stomping the mixture around with our feet. It felt so good to dive right in and get dirty, you felt like a child again being allowed to play in a big muddy puddle! However, the day had a serious goal. The aim was to learn how to make adobe bricks. Adobe, meaning ‘mudbrick’ in Spanish is one of the earliest building materials in the world and is particularly useful and durable in dry climates. Once the mixture in the mud pit felt smooth between our toes, we let it sit for a while for a much-needed coffee break. After about half an hour, we shovelled it into a wheelbarrow and then patted it into moulds to make the bricks, which would take about a week to dry. After lunch, we used bricks that had been made by the previous group to build a wall. It was so satisfying piling the bricks up and pasting in the mud mortar to stick the bricks together – it had been a very productive day! The team were getting to know each other and working well together and we were learning useful, practical knowledge already.
Day 2: What is Superadobe?Today we learnt how to make superadobe. Superadobe is made from the same mixture as adobe (clay, sand and water) but is reinforced with 10% cement to make it really strong. Beau, head hippie at the farm, showed us how it was possible to make walls, huts and entire houses using this very durable building material. The way it works is that you shovel the mixture into rice bags and the filled bags become your wall. Piled one on top of the next bag, you can create tall structures this way and the thickness of the wall retains heat meaning that you save money in heating your home, known as ‘thermal mass’. I was really starting to feel, for the first time in my life, that it was possible to build my own home! We grow up thinking that so many of the essential tasks in life can only be completed by an ‘expert’. If we have a legal problem, we get the lawyers in. If we need a house building, we get the architects and builders in. However, Asia has taught me so many times, in various different areas, that it is possible to do things yourself. It’s a very empowering feeling knowing that you can achieve great tasks independently, without having to pay ‘experts’ vast amounts of money to do it for you. That day we added another layer of superadobe to the walls of a building that will no doubt be completed by another group many years and many courses down the line. We also started to build a more modest flower bed using the same superadobe sacks that we would be able to finish the following day. Superadobe takes only four hours to dry, especially in the heat of Thailand, and so it would be a very satisfying project to witness from start to finish! That evening, there was a bonfire in the garden with beers, good chats and even some fire dancing from one of the long-term Rak Tamachat residents!
Day 3: Bricking itAfter a good nights’ sleep (it’s amazing how well you sleep after some manual labour in the fields!), we started the day working on our flower bed. We learnt how to mix ‘stucco’ or cement plaster which would cover the walls of our basic structure. We first covered the superadobe bags with netting to help the stucco to stick better and then began to slap on the cement. It was great fun and a few of us got quite creative making patterns in the cement of suns, trees, hearts and fish! That afternoon, we put on our serious builder’s pants and learnt how to make bricks. The bricks that we would make are called ‘compressed earth bricks’ and were designed by a natural building community in India called Auroville. The idea behind the concept is that anyone anywhere can get their hands on the designs of the equipment that manufactures the bricks. Simple hand-operated metal contraptions create bricks at a low cost and with little pollution that can be used in villages all over the world.
Day 4: Laying FoundationsToday we touched on pillars and foundations, the most important elements in stabilising any structure that you build. We poured cement into a mould to make a pillar in the morning, creating a long line of workers to pass the bucket of cement from one person to the next. Many hands make light work! In the afternoon, we made a mould out of wooden beams and poured cement onto the floor to make the bottom of what would, one day, become a natural swimming pool. That evening the people who were only doing the Natural Building Course received their certificates as they would be leaving tomorrow. To celebrate, there was wood-fired pizza on the menu, complete with homemade cheese and a variety of toppings. Each person got to make their own perfect pizza and cook it in the clay wood-fired oven! It was a sociable evening and I wandered to bed having had rather a lot of beer!
Day 5: Field Trip!Today was ‘field trip day’, a well deserved Sunday off after the end of the Natural Building Course and before the start of the Permaculture Design Course. While the rest of the team set off for their adventure for the day, Dave and I started a little too late with hangovers from the night before and so we decided to stick around the farm and check out the local area. The landscape here, on the edge of Isaan, Thailand’s least visited province, is unassumingly beautiful. Flat bright green and rust-coloured fields where tapioca and corn grow in cycles seem to go on forever against a cobalt blue sky. Small farms are dotted here and there and the further we walk away from the farm, locals seem more and more surprised to see us as they pass by on their motorbikes, wondering what the hell we are doing so far off the tourist trail. They offer us endless lifts and seem even more confused when we tell them that we’re actually out here in the sun walking for the sheer pleasure of it. (Crazy farang!) We walked to the local village and found one of the two local restaurants open. We ordered kow pad (fried rice) for lunch, much to the amusement of the local villagers, and especially the school children. In the meantime, the group visited a waterfall, a temple, a local market, and even Big C Supermarket!
Day 6: A Short History of PermacultureToday was the official start of our 72-hour Permaculture Design Course, which would be the only day that would be spent entirely in the classroom. The lectures would be taught by Tim and Beau, whose approach to permaculture is very practical. Unlike the preconceptions that many people have about permaculture, from our experience it is certainly not full of hemp-wearing hippie types, rather engineers, practical gardeners and people with science backgrounds. In the morning we learnt about the history of permaculture and some of the main proponents. We learnt about Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, two Australians, a teacher and his student, who were the founding fathers of the movement. We learnt about the three ethics of permaculture: earth care, fair share and people care. Bill wrote several books, including Permaculture One, Permaculture Two and the legendary Permaculture Designer’s Manual (or the Permaculturalists’ Bible), which is what we would be following during the course. We also looked at some of Bill’s inspirations for permaculture, for example, the charismatic Masanobu Fukuoka, who wrote a book called The One Straw Revolution. Fukuoka was an advocate of ‘seed balls’ – an ancient ‘no tillage’ technique of planting where he encased a variety of seeds in clay balls and threw them by hand across a field. When it rained next, the seeds would melt into the earth and nature would decide which tree it wanted to grow. It seemed that permaculture was all about arranging nature in such a way that it would do the hard work for you. Instead of fighting pests, weeds or other problems in your garden, you should find out how they work and use that to your advantage. As Bill said, “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour.” By the end of tomorrow, Tim asked us to come up with an idea for a project that we would present at the end of the week. He wanted us to think about a specific ‘goal’ that related to an actual piece of land we had in mind, or an imaginary piece of land for those of us who were still nomadic.
Day 7: From Biochar to Compost to Homemade Soap!Today was a jam-packed day of learning! In the morning, we learnt how to make biochar (a substance that I hadn’t even heard of before today), a home-made charcoal that is rich in carbon and used as a soil enhancer. Easy to make out of agricultural waste and highly fertile, biochar is a big hit in sustainable farming and is even being investigated as a combatant to climate change as it sequesters carbon from the atmosphere back into the soil. We also learnt how to make charcoal, which can, of course, be used for cooking, and also used in the soil as an amendment. After a coffee break, we then looked at how to make compost, following the tried and tested ‘Berkeley method’ which gives you rich compost in just 18 days! We formed different layers like a lasagne of brown and green and beige matter – tree cuttings, manure, and straw and added water. In the afternoon, back in the classroom, we shared our goals with each other. Some wanted to be able to produce 50% of their own food within 1 year, some wanted to become fully self-sustainable within five years. It was difficult to know where to set the bar – we had so much yet to learn. That afternoon, we also looked at how to evaluate land, in terms of what is the most difficult element to change, following Yeoman’s Scale of Permanence. Despite what I had thought beforehand, the soil quality is actually the easiest thing to change, while climate is the most difficult. In the evening, Lin showed us how to make mulberry tea, by picking, chopping and roasting the tea leaves. She also taught us how to make liquid soap from glycerine, salt and natural scents from the fruits and plants in the garden. We made tamarind, butterfly pea flower and kaffir lime soap – heavenly Thai scents! I really enjoyed this and saw how easy it is to make your own natural shampoo and shower gel – it even washes clothes and dishes too!
Day 8: Designer SoilThe next morning, we learnt how to create what Beau calls ‘designer soil’. You never really think about it, but it makes total sense that if you care about getting the most nutrients out of your food, you must first look at the nutrients that are in your soil. As Beau said “If it isn’t in your soil. It isn’t in your food.” First of all, Beau showed us his ‘worm farm’ where thousands of his ’employees’ (slimy ones) are working efficiently for him every day (without pay!) to create a compost that is very high in nutrients. Beau explained that permaculture is all about giving the creatures, be it chickens, worms or bacteria, the right environment to thrive so that they will do the job that they love to do best, and it benefits you. That morning, we also learnt how to make liquid fertiliser naturally. Soil needs NPK – Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium in order to be healthy and it is possible to naturally make a fertiliser that can be sprayed onto plants as ‘plant food’ to help them grow. Throughout the course, Beau always reminded us of the actual financial cost of the products he was creating for free here on the farm. Rather than be adverse to making money, which many hippies are, Beau encouraged us to assess the value of our time and efforts in financial terms. If you could make a liquid fertiliser that is the same as you could buy in the shop for $80 USD, then you are not only saving yourself money but potentially creating a yield that you could sell.
Day 9: Bananas, Pineapples and TofuToday, we moved away from fertiliser and worms and got involved with the actual plants! We learnt how to propagate several tropical plant species – banana trees, birds of paradise and a royal palm. We also learnt how to plant pineapples by removing the stalk and placing the roots in the soil. Each pineapple plant takes two years to produce fruit! Activites such as this really makes you appreciate your food and the time it takes to reach your bowl! That evening, Lin taught us how to make tofu from soybean milk. It was quite a lengthy process but produced some tofu in the end that was much tastier than you could buy in the shop. That night, we didn’t sleep great as the three dogs at the farm decided to follow us back to our wooden bungalow and sleep on our balcony all night. They were scratching and moving around and howling and did not make great roommates, to say the least! A word of warning to any future permaculture students – place a chair in front of the steps up to your bungalow at night to prevent the dogs, as charming as they are, affecting your beauty sleep!
Day 10: Plant PropagationToday was a fascinating day! One of those days where you are amazed by something new that you learn… The concept that was so new to me was called ‘grafting’ and is a method of propagating plants. I didn’t know that it was possible to graft together multiple trees from the same family. For example, you can create a tree that grows lemons, limes and oranges on different branches! (Apparently, there’s an artist that propagated 42 flowers on one tree!) The way that we did it was literally cutting the tree in a certain place and then fastening it together with cellophane. It seems to be something that a child would experiment with, as opposed to an actual tried and tested horticultural method, but hey, it works! We also looked at another method of propagation known as ‘air layering’ – this is a way to create new trees from already existing healthy trees. You take a small plastic bag filled with crushed up coconut core and water and place it on the branch of a tree that has been cut. The idea is that, after a month, roots will grow into the bag at which point you can cut the branch off and take the new ‘mini tree’ to your nursery to grow into a big tree. Finally, we looked at another method or propagation, known as ‘budding’, where you literally just slice the bud off a branch and stick it onto another tree where you want it to grow! I couldn’t believe the amazing power of nature to adapt to whichever way you directed it. Later that morning, Lin gave us a tour around the garden teaching us about the various plants that are used in Thai cooking, as well as herbs that are used for medicinal purposes in Thailand. It was fascinating to learn about these famous Thai roots and vegetables, from galangal to Thai basil, that are so common in the Thai dishes we love. Lin also taught us about seed saving and showed us her ‘seed saving room’. In the afternoon, back in the classroom, we learnt about food forests and companion planting. We learnt how different species of plants, when planted in close proximation, actually help each other to grow, whether one deters pests from the other, or one gives off certain nutrients into the soil that the other needs. It’s really all just about learning what nature likes and using it to your advantage!
Day 11: Effective (but very smelly) Micro-OrganismsIn the morning we learnt how to make EMs (effective microorganisms), which are living bacteria that enrich your soil with nutrients. The whole day was a very smelly affair as we mixed eggs with yeast and food waste with molasses to create red and green algae. Although not so great for the human nose, the plants can’t get enough of it! In the afternoon, we separated off to work on our ‘Master Plans’ which we had been discussing now in each of the lectures with Tim. Dave and I chose to work on a piece of land that we found not so far from Barcelona, which is the city where we met. It was exciting to think that maybe one day we could design a piece of land in terms of permaculture, be it our own land or someone else’s. The course was teaching us step by step how to do that: how to observe, what to look for in the land, how to fix the soil, how to capture water, what to plant and where and how to build your house in a way as to conserve energy. As backpackers, even though the idea of owning land is far away, we felt inspired to have the knowledge to put to use when we need it.
Day 12: Swales and ClimatesWe had a later start today as we were given more time in the morning to work on our Master Plans. Class started at 10 am, rather than the usual 8 am and we had a lesson from Beau on how to measure the land on contour for the purpose of digging a swale. (A swale is a ditch in the earth that directs water on your land to the right places and keeps it on your land for as long as possible!) In the afternoon in the classroom, we learnt about different climates and the benefits and challenges of each one: from tropical, to sub-tropical, and temperate to arid. Although you may think that a tropical climate is the most productive, it’s actually the temperate climate which has the highest yield. Most of the rest of the day we spent working on our master plans, although we did get chance to go for our daily walk around the area with the farm dogs in tow, always a lovely time of the day! If I didn’t find it so cliché, I’d be forced to call this the ‘Real Thailand’.
Day 13: Thinking Differently.Most of our penultimate day was spent working on our Master Plans again, however, we took some time out for Tim to explain to us about ‘aquaponics’. In the afternoon, Beau gave an inspiring speech about community and our mission (should we choose to accept it) now that we were educated in the methods of permaculture. He encouraged us to think about how everything we do in our lives can affect change and that we have a duty to share our knowledge with others and make the world a better place. In a rather dramatic gesture, we held up our hands and promised to take our knowledge and put it to good use. A few of the more emotional students held back a tear (okay, maybe only me) as we thought about the possible consequences of our future with permaculture. That evening, Lin taught us how to make our own cheese that we would have on the pizzas tomorrow night! I really enjoyed these informal kitchen sessions, as Lin shared her hand-me-down Thai knowledge with us.
Day 14: Did We Pass?Today we had to present our ‘Master Plan’ to the rest of the group! It was a really inspiring day as we saw how much effort had gone into each presentation. One student was going to help his friends to develop a yoga and permaculture place in Ecuador, one girl was going to make a home in Chile for migratory birds, one guy was going to turn a remote hillside cottage in France into a terraced permaculture heaven, another couple were regenerating a piece of damaged agricultural land in Colombia. We learnt about different climates and landscapes across Asia, Latin America and Europe and saw some really impressive ideas from people on how they were going to apply permaculture back in their home countries. And us? We chose to create a Mediterranean paradise complete with a natural swimming pool, lemon and olive trees! Will it happen one day? Who knows, but it was fun to dream… In the evening, we each received our certificates and it was time for wood-fired pizza again! It was a night of great chats, relief at us all having passed the course and excitement about the future!
Feel Empowered!A permaculture course is not, as you may think, learning about how plants grow and how much to water them etc. (although that is involved). It is much more intense and revolutionary than that. The entire course gears you up to think differently about the way you look at the world; from the career that you choose to the relationships you make and the way that you spend your money. Permaculture is about empowerment. It’s about taking back control from the governments and the corporations that have robbed it from us, and who have led us to believe that we need anything more than healthy food, shelter and good friends around us, in order to be happy… In the interests of one of the main three ethics of permaculture: fair share, you can download our presentation here. It goes without saying that this is just a diary of the highlights of the course and that much, much more was covered during the 14 days.
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Written by Nikki Scott. Header photo by Moritz Weber.[molongui_author_box]
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