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Mae Taeng, Chiang Mai, TH
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Posted by Richard Perkins almost 8 years ago
Heading North the sun is keeping Humbug sweltering at night. We stopped in to see our friend and one of my original Permaculture teachers Mill Millichap up in the cool air heights of the Sierra de Gredos Mountains. Sitting at 1300m the days are as hot as below, but the nighttime temperature drops much lower, and at this altitude the snows carpet the mountaintops whilst the oranges are ripening below in winter.
Mill has lovingly converted a couple of ruined buildings into very comfortable dwellings and is planting polycultures of heirloom vegetables, perennials and fruit trees amongst the maturing chestnuts and cherries. Being the highest inhabited finca on the hillside the crystal clear waters here are safe to drink out of the river. This is perhaps the sweetest water we have ever drunk, and combined with the fact you cannot hear even the faintest sound of human activity, this really is a remarkable space. Marian is a guest here too currently, and is quickly opening up patches of brambles where the forest edge has encroached onto the finca to make way for new plantings.
We enjoy time to swim and bask like lizards in the sun, eating juicy cherries and enjoying Grace exploring the landscape with a natural curiosity that is blossoming in the places we are finding ourselves on this trip.
With a few days to spare and the summers heat arriving I helped out by installing a drip system throughout the terraces, supplying Spain’s best water directly where its needed under cool mulch around the bases of different vegetables, fruit canes, trees and comfrey beds. Personally, I’m really into drip as one very effective use of plastic humans have come up with! The traditional methods, (and the Spaniards were masterful in their engineering), involved channeling out water from water natural courses to supply every small finca with flood irrigation.
Walking around through the scrub and oak woodland up here you can make them out if you have a keen eye, some full of leaves and organic matter easily scooped out by hand, some buried in my wild boar digging and harder to see. The only issue with this method is the loss of control and subsoil when the heavy rains come. Up here in the mountain there is 1200mm of rain, and I find 2ft deposits of topsoil in the lower corners of stonewalls on partially abandoned properties. It’s a clear sign water has been allowed to follow the quickest path down, carrying valuable nutrient and soil with it. Contoured beds/ plantings and heavy mulches are the order of the day, and Mill is busy with a spirit level laying out new planting spaces with Michelle and Grace bringing manure as I lay drip pipe to irrigate it.
We calculate tank volumes and discharge times and have the whole finca largely running of 5 taps now so it can be left in the helping hands of visitors when Mill is away.
Mill is growing more than he needs here, and even getting some nice returns too. With so many chestnuts in the area we are surprised to hear he got 400 Euros for some sacks he took to the village last year. It turns out people value the older variety that is growing well on the finca here, smaller than commercial hybrids but much tastier! People come up here to take scions for grafting because they like them so much.
Mill’s approach is to invite in as much wildlife as possible and let nature establish the balance. Polycultures on various height levels reduce the need for even organic inputs. Its something we have witnessed at Mills old land in the Isle of Man, a reforested old pasture full of lizards and birds of prey. Here there are wildboar to contend with, and also owls, vultures, eagles and various songbirds that find the land safe and abundant. The place is certainly thriving in terms of insect life, we admire a spider that seems to mimic a raspberry bud catch a honeybee by the head. Mill disappears on a butterfly survey of the finca and surrounding land, this area is known as the butterfly capital of Europe and they are certainly out in plenty.
Its easy enough to get a sense of simple country life of the past here. I imagine the soils were less eroded and trees more varied (the oak that has regenerated since the fires 12 years ago is a suckering species which can remain alive underground and has now monopolized the slopes) Indeed walking up to an old roman bridge high above all current human activity we find an old threshing circle and more terraces, signs of staple food production near the summit at 1400m. Mill suggests the climates always been changing, and here’s some evidence of that. I consider the soil erosion and modern economic pressures on production, its an interesting puzzle. One thing is for sure, these abandoned farms can easily be recovered if water is brought under control, and life up here is fairly unique in todays modern Europe.
Its been a very refreshing stay up here in the cool air of the mountains. The pace of our journey has shifted lately and with it comes a deeper sense of each place and the people we find there. With Marians masterful piano playing serving as a backdrop to the starry skies we have interesting conversations about our work, the work we feel needs to be done and plans for the future. Mill is preparing to leave to teach in Greece, and we must move on to engagements in Italy in our journey back north. The van must be back in the UK by the end of this month and we have to get to Sweden to unleash a large group of skilled up and informed designers from another PDC. We leave with excitement for possibilities here, with a finca opposite the river from Mills for sale. You can read all about what has been going through our minds and how we are responding to change in a following blog post, but first we need to visit the Agrandas…
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