The glowing rays of the dawn steal through the window. Between our beds, a roommate is quietly doing her yoga, saluting the rising of the sun. I lie there for a minute, before tugging myself out of bed and turning to gaze out the window myself, and say good morning to the light.
The house, usually still at this hour, buzzes with silent activity. Jon and Fran are making their breakfasts early in order to use Alfonso’s pick up – the lovely landowner, and our neighbour – to collect a pile of manure. For today is a special day: today we are making compost!
However, as the rest of us more slowly make our breakfasts, Jon returns ashen-faced.
“The pickup, it’s vanished!”
This is the last straw, but somehow nobody is surprised. Every day at the camp brings a fresh difficulty, an unexpected spanner in the works that spins our best-laid plans off the road. The pickup, usually sitting in the barn, isn’t there, nor by any of the houses. Alfonso has no idea where it is, neither do our neighbours in the student house, and neither do Alfonso’s guests. It’s a total mystery.
Normally we have our own 4×4 to lug heavy materials around the dirt tracks, but our battered and rattling vehicle – loved and despised in equal measure – has been in the garage for over a week. And normally the pickup isn’t leaking engine coolant, and we can borrow it whenever necessary. Today was going to be a last resort, but quite inexplicably it has vanished into thin air! As each day passed, we began to run out of tasks we could still do without the car for acquiring or moving our materials. Yet for the compost, we can’t wait. This compost is a quick, hot-cooking, 18-day pile, and if we can’t start it now, we won’t have compost tea in time to be able to feed our cover crops.
The beautiful beast herself, going in for fuel and a clean.
“So what do we do?” Someone asks.
We talk it over. There’s a little bit of stress, but calmness and excitement too floating around the room.
“Okay, we have –kilos of manure to collect from 5km west at the pig farm. I’ll go there, and wheelbarrow it back. Whoever is up for it, come with me.”
“You can’t possibly do that, it’s too far to push a wheelbarrow!”
“Well, we have to!”
“What about the brown matter?”
“We have most of it. The rest can be gathered from under the poplar trees near the site for the compost pile.”
“And the green matter?”
We all pull faces of concern and concentration. Green matter – the holy grail of restoration the desert. We can’t make a compost to feed our land without plentiful green matter, but the land doesn’t have plentiful green matter until it’s been well fed! It’s one of the most frustrating catch 22’s of this ambitious project.
“There’s some growing in the ruins?” Someone suggests positively.
“Yes, but not nearly enough.”
“Could we drive in Jake’s van somewhere, and find some?”
We all think, but there’s nowhere along any of the local roads we know that has enough.
“We’ll have to get the rocket from those almond fields.”
We think it over, and all agree it’s the only possible source. Down the dirt track from the farm to camp, nearly at the camp, there’s a vast almond plantation. 4.5km away by bike or foot, because a van certainly can’t make it down that track whilst there’s still vast muddy puddles lurking, remnants of the spring rains.
“I’ll take a ton bag and a wheelbarrow,” Jake suggests.
“Don’t be ridiculous, you can’t possible push that!” I laugh.
“Don’t worry. I’ll do it the Nepali way,” he responds, with a twinkle in his eye.
Before I can discover what this means, the conversation moves on.
“I’ll go on a bike, and strap some bags to the panier rack,” I contribute.
Two of our volunteers are cycling to camp too, to fit the corrugated roof plates onto our outdoor kitchen. We tried to do it the day before, but were thwarted in seconds by the screws being far too short. Luckily, someone was at the shop. I take a look out the window.
“Strap yourself on, Stach, it’s pretty windy, we don’t want you breaking your neck!”
He nods seriously.
The stress in the room is gone now we have a plan. The plan feels almost unachievable, but not quite. The thing about this compost is that it needs the green matter as fresh as possible, and needs the pile constructing in one singular day, as the process starts immediately, and shouldn’t be messed about once it begins. The idea that we can have it all done by the end of the day is daring, but the faintly ridiculous plan has somehow put the wings on our shoes and laughs on our faces. The challenge excites us, and we’re ready to rise to it.
Everyone disperses to their tasks, and I take a bike with a box fitted onto the back, that can balance a large sack. The gearing marks are totally rubbed off, but I soon figure out how the rickety thing works, and set off down the dusty track.
As soon as I crest the hill at the back of the farm the North wind slaps me in the face, and I battle into the biting air. So much for the glorious-looking spring day that it appeared to be out of the window! It’s been months since I rode a bike, and the uphill cycle into the wind has me wheezing. Head down, I notice tens and tens of round black beetles crossing the road, or burying their heads into it. What on earth are they doing? I’ve never seen so many on the track before.
Up, down, skirting the puddles, sometimes been almost blown off sideways, I reach the almond plantation. It’s a vast field, where a geometric grid of stick-like young almond trees in plastic jackets spreads uniformly over the valley like a war graveyard. In lines between each tree, where the plough can’t reach them, grow voluminous bunches of wild rocket. It’s the only juicy abundance of green leaf for miles around, and we have to catch it quick in case the farmer chooses to plough between the trees in the other direction. I suppose we are, in the elegant English term for the activity, ‘scrumping’.
The almond plantation, just before the first shoots of green appeared between the trees.
I see Jake in the distance dragging his ton-bag along the rows, hood up against the cold. I wonder again how on earth he’s going to get it back, before heading off myself with a more reasonably sized bag and a pen knife.
The cold air and hot sun is invigorating, and the distant mountains ring us protectively, still spattered with white snow against the blue sky. I am absorbed into the task, the steady rhythm of ‘hold, cut, place in bag, move, hold, cut, place in bag, move…’
The fleshy rocket leaves are emerald green, shot through with purple and pink from the cold weather. The white and black many-petalled flowers shiver and dance in the wind. It is a plant I love, and I regret killing it. Once in a while I find a glowing red jewel hiding on a leaf – a ladybird! These plants, with their ecosystem of aphids and ladybirds, I leave well alone.
The sack is filled, and I lug it back to the bike and strap it on. It’s heavy, but not unmanageable. I begin to cycle back, the extra weight actually helping in the strong wind. But the steep hill…. I push it up, wheezing and gasping, before collapsing at the top. A few deep breaths, and the wide, desolate view of the hilly valleys stretching out before me nourishes me in seconds. I know that it’s ‘all downhill from there’.
Back at the farm, things are a hive of activity. I half-expected to find people looking a little concerned, perhaps not having enough green matter, but everyone is busily making the wire mesh to contain the compost, fitting mountains of green matter into barrels to be strimmed into pieces, and generally talking and laughing in high spirits. It seems we can do it after all.
The two who went to fit the roof, return. It had been, inevitably, far too windy, but they add two more bags of green matter to the pile and we’re feeling good. I head off on my bike, the thought in my mind to ‘rescue’ Jake by taking some of his collected matter off his hands.
However I barely leave the farm before I find him, strolling along quite comfortably in bare feet down the stony track, pushing a half-filled ton bag on a wheelbarrow with a smile on his face. He’d already come 3km in a faster time than I thought humanly possible. So this is what they call the Nepali way!
Spurred on by his feat, I return to the almond plantation to fetch another bag. As I cycle, I reflect on the strength of our group. Only the night before, we’d had a tearful meeting about the desperately low funds in our account, and how to work around it. We came up with our contingency plans, but still felt the weight of trying to build up a camp for lots more people by summer was a huge weight on our shoulders, quite besides the worry that without new money coming in, there would only be a certain amount we could do. Just like trying to build this crazy compost pile with resources from all over the place with no transport, we had a tall mountain to climb. Yet just like today, we seemed to take every buck and gallop from this project, and even if we bowed under the pressure for a moment, we got up stronger each time, and as keen as ever to make the dream a reality. Projects of social and environmental change swim against the current, and it’s never easy. But if you want to change the tides, you can’t let them push you over. We’re all having to learn how to swim.