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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Phosphorescent Maggot Crap, Meditation, and Permaculture- what more could a girl want?

Wow! Hi! My poor neglected blog readers! It has been quite a while since my last blog post, and much has happened since then. Apologies for the long gap, everything has just too busy and engaging to sit down and blog about it often. I'm currently residing in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. It's a lovely city- vibrant yet small, with cafes on most corners and the ocean lapping at it's feet. City planners in 1840 had the foresight to set aside a "town belt" of undeveloped land around Wellington to stop urban sprawl and drive city property values up, and to make the city a healthier place to live. This ring of woods around the city is lovely- full of walking and mountain biking tracks and beautiful vistas of the city and the ocean- you can see both the harbor and the Cook Strait, which divides the North Island from the yet unknown to me South. This feels like a good place to get started on the 'working' part of my 'working holiday' visa, so Kaitlyn and I are planning on becoming Wellingtonians for the next few months and making some cash for our South Island adventures in the summer. 
A view of Wellington from Mt Victoria, part of the green belt
The last few months have been full of exciting adventures and new experiences, so I'll highlight a couple of the best. We've been WWOOFing- Willing Workers on Organic Farms- at Awhi (pronounced Awfi) Farm, an education-based permaculture laboratory of a place since July, and there I felt like a sponge soaking up new knowledge and experience of permaculture and living in community. At the end of August Kaitlyn and I drove up the coast to a 10 day silent meditation retreat. On the way there we made a pit stop to go black water rafting in glow worm caves! Wicked, eh? Then back down to Awhi Farm to pick up our mates (friends) from the farm and we all missioned down to Welly for a fun-filled weekend. 

Posing in our inner tubes at the entrance of the Waitomo Cave

On the way to the 10 day silent Vipassana meditation retreat Kaitlyn and I decide to cut loose a little by going black water rafting- essentially floating in inner tubes down a river in a pitch black cave. It is incredible! On the roof of the cavern are glow worms looking like a million stars twinkling down over the river. Glow worms aren't worms at all, though. They're maggots. And the glowing part is actually their phosphorescent shit! Gross! Glow worms sounds better when you're marketing to tourists though, so Waitomo Glow Worm Caves they are. We suit up in wetsuits and waterproof spelunker's helmets and follow the tracks of our fearless guide, B, through a native bush forest. We come to a gap in the ground and descend into the damp darkness slowly, shapes of rocks slowing looming out of the obscurity as our eyes adjust. B stops at the edge of the underground river and points out a long shadow moving slowly through a shallow pool of water towards us. A friendly eel, it's eyes milky white, touches it's nose to B's rubber boot and retreats back to it's hidey hole. It this is meant to convince me of the harmlessness of the eels lurking in the black river it's not working. I see a habituated creature, and wonder about it's unhabituated wild cousins waiting downstream. Nevertheless I take the plunge into the unknown. The first obstacle we encounter will be familiar to anyone who's been on a walk through pretty much any commercialized cave system, albeit on a different orientation than any I've encountered. It's more often than not called the 'fat man's squeeze' and it consists of contorting your body to some degree to fit through a narrow rock wall channel. This time though, the walls of the squeeze are above and below me, and the bottom barrier is of a watery nature. I stretch my body into a plank on top of my inner tube to try and get a couple of inches of clearance between my face and the low ceiling, but my toes still scrape against the hard surface as I bob along, carried by the current through the squeeze. On the other side I let out a whoosh of breath I don't realize I'd been holding. 
The moniker 'black water rafting' seems a little misleading to me- we aren't running rapids here, we're floating on a lazy river. But one branch joins another and the river is swelling to something more formidable than the initial stream. As we float over a particularly deep section B tells me that this hole is home to a 9 foot long eel. I quietly try to lift my whole body out of the water (unsuccessfully) and feel a lot of gratitude for every inch of my skin being covered by neoprene and plastic, creating a barrier between my toes and a hungry monster eel looking for a snack. A dull roar becomes louder as we approach a waterfall and stand up on the river bank, edging our way to the drop. I go first, leaping out backwards off the small fall and splash landing in my tube, chilly water finding an entrance to my wetsuit through the neck and stealing my breath, making me feel alive. I grab a climbing rope bolted to the cave wall and watch as the other 6 floaters make the leap and catch them with the rope as they float by. It's obvious B has a plan as we continue down the next stretch of river, and we pass the message back through the chain of us- "Sshhhh! I hear a walking tour up ahead- let's give them a fright!" We turn off our head lamps and splash quietly along. The tour group on the walkway above us don't see us- they're too focussed on the rock formations lit up by lights. They don't hear or see us until we're right under them. B counts off to 3 on her fingers and we make a hellacious racket that echoes and multiplies off the walls. They are frightened, that's for sure! Cave creatures coming out of the darkness with a roar! Then they start snapping pictures of us and I really feel like a cave creature! 

We have a laugh and B tells us to stop at the river's edge just past the walkway. We clamber out of the river onto the slippery rocks as she tells us that we're ahead of schedule and she wants to share something special with us as we are all having a blast. This is not part of the tour, and she says not to mention it to anyone back at the rafting company, but there is something just around the corner that is out of the ordinary. We stash the tubes and climb up to the metal walkway above us and start running down the path, getting surprised and confused looks from the walking tourists as 7 neoprene-clad and hardhat wearing drenched cave rats rush past them and towards a dark cavern. It's silent and dark as we catch our breaths and B goes over to the electricity box and flips a switch. It's silent and stunning as my breath catches in my throat. This cavern is awesome in the true sense of the word- creating an experience of awe. Glistening cream coloured stalactites, thin as a straw, stretch from the ceiling to nearly touch their reflections in an absolutely still pond below. There is a delicacy that makes me want to not make a noise, to not even breathe. The presence of this fragile beauty is unfathomable, growing a centimeter in a hundred years and enduring thousands upon thousands of earthquakes by the nature of existing within the Earth's crust. The experience is too much for my thinking mind to hold- it's transcendent. 
We return to the river in an altered state and float on, the glow maggots luminous above and a soft quietness holding us gently. Ahead a dim light grows as we near our reentrance into the upper world. In the light we are treated to hot, good water pressure showers (something I've gained a great appreciation for, with living out of our campervan for the last few months) and hot soup. I thank B for the experience she has shared with us while knowing that no words can really touch the essence of my gratitude, and we journey on to the next adventure- 10 days of silent meditation.

10 days of silence, of not making contact intentionally with another human- even eye contact. 10 days of going within and working to understand the nature and habits of my mind, uncovering the layers covering the true essence. It was not fun, I will say that much. It was serious work that required persistence, diligence, and befriending or becoming equanimous to the suffering that we all experience. I won't say anything else about it, except to recommend it to everyone who is interested in developing as a human being, and to say that I'm happy I sat through those 10 days. Here is a sketch I made the day we left the Vipassana retreat.

I said that Awhi Farm is a permaculture laboratory of sorts, but what is permaculture, anyway? Good question. I'm still chewing on that one, and I minored in permaculture in university! Etymology of permaculture- 'permanent' or 'perennial' and 'agriculture' or 'culture-' a term coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s. It's about looking at how we can move away from the  environmentally degrading food systems where most commercially produced food comes from and move towards a more sustainable way of feeding ourselves. Currently most food from the grocery store is produced using the mono cropping method of farming- lots of longs rows of one crop that are replanted year after year. This method of food production requires a lot of resources, and eventually degrades the very earth it grows on. In nature, there is never just one species of plant growing- plants naturally grow in communities of many species that are mutually supportive. We use the principles of permaculture to observe how nature creates resilient plant communities and attempt to mimic these systems in our own gardens. Creating 'perennial' gardens is part of this. That is, gardens that continue on year after year with plants that live for many years or re-seed themselves. Perennial gardens can also include annual vegetables- we don't want to miss out on annual plants like tomatoes or cucumbers!- But also contain plants that carry on for many growing seasons. 
Permaculture is hard to define because it's not just one thing, one definition. Perennial gardens can be part of a permaculture system, but not necessarily. I see permaculture as more of a lens of looking at the world rather than one fixed thing. It's about observing how nature grows systems that are regenerating and increasing in complexity as time goes on and trying to find ways to use the inherent fecundity of nature to our advantage as we walk on this earth. The lens and ethos of permaculture can be applied to anything- from urban planning to surviving and thriving while off the grid in the woods. 
Permaculture is about observing the systems that we are part of and finding small ways to alter the systems so that they are more balanced, healthy, and productive. Permaculture is caring for the Earth, caring for people, and sharing the surpluses that systems create. You can find more about permaculture at the Permaculture Institute's website
Awhi Farm is a self-proclaimed laboratory for permaculture projects, so it was interesting to see their interpretation of permaculture in action. The projects at Awhi include a dome shaped building made out of earth (clay, pumice, and lime), planting and weeding gardens, caring for animals, food forests, a greenhouse, compost-heated showers, and generally working as a community. There was a lot to learn and observe there, but I won't talk (type?) your ear (eyes?) off with more yammering. If you made it this far, good job! Thank you for reading, and I will make an effort to post more often now that I'm settled in Wellington with a solid internet connection and some free time. Please post comments or questions if you feel so inclined, I'm curious if anyone reads this! 
Cheers, and until next time,

Wandering Jamie xx

Kaitlyn working in a permaculture 'food forest'

resident chook at Awhi

Sina, Kaitlyn, and Dan working on the earth dome 

Awhi farm 'wolfpack' out on a hike

Fur seals near Wellington

1 comment:

  1. Hey Jamie, I read this :) I put it on my RSS reader when we met at Kevin's surprise birthday party way back in February. I still want to visit NZ and definitely enjoy your updates and seeing it through your eyes.