La Ilera

I am writing this report about the hours I spent in La Ilera, just about thirty. I arrived by car in a spring afternoon to what, at that time, only looked like an open field with a fence in the middle and some planted sticks.

I learned very early on that the sticks were actually trees that M. was planting as a beginning of her forest garden project design, which was completely strange and new to me even though I had already heard something about permaculture.

When I arrived, #48 was planting trees and #49 was gathering stones from the field next to M.’s. They interrupted their activity just long enough to say hello and, introductions made, I joined the task, which consisted of the following: first we dug to make a hole in the ground, putting the extracted materials in two heaps, one with soil and the other with stones. Then we planted the small tree in the hole, putting in the soil previously extracted. On top of the soil, which was at a lower level because of the volume the stones were previously occupying, we put soaked cardboard, and then the stones on top of them. There were many stones but not enough of them to cover the turned soil and the cardboards on top.

That was why we had to top up the supply of stones from the piece of land next to M.’s. She explained to me that these stones were originally from the patch to where we were carrying them. Her grandfather had removed them and taken them here, so now we were only recovering them.

So while one person was planting trees, another one would carry water, and another one would cut and soak old cardboard boxes. We got the water from the stream that gives its name to the whole area. Apparently in the ancient language “ilera” means something like river bank, or river stream. The river flows about ten or twenty metres below a small bridge without a rail. We would kneel on the bridge and throw a bucket fastened to a rope to the stream. Providence, or a huge and inexplicable luck, avoided several times the loss of the bucket to the stream, which is at its fastest in that stretch due to the slope.

All these tasks became monotonous after a while so we took various turns. Before dusk we had a meal in the camping tent M. has installed next to her land and then we went back to the house, which is on the outskirts of the village, next to the path that leads to the lands.

The next day dawned in clouds and rain so we spent breakfast discussing how to accommodate what needed to be done to the circumstances. Since rain tends to soften the soil, we decided to spend the first part of the day transplanting bushes from an open field full of them that had never been dug. We uprooted about five bushes, and then planted them on M.’s land, following the same mulching methodology of the previous day, on a straight line, five metres apart from each other, and about two metres away from the separation line with the next piece of land.

When you transplant trees and bushes, M. explained, it is important that the roots are not exposed to the air. Which was difficult to achieve on that day when the wind wouldn’t stop turning the piece of plastic we used to cover the roots.

When we finished planting the bushes we went to the camping tent to have some food and tea. For that we crossed the whole piece of land where we had been planting trees the previous day. Some of them were flowering already, although I only realised this when M. tenderly pointed at the sprouts. She could recognise all of them and she knew how much each of them had grown.

Some trees had signs that they had been bitten. “They have been attacked”, said M. “They have been visited”, answered #49. M. agreed. Since permaculture is based in cooperation with and not fight against nature, the word “visit” reflects a lot better the interaction between deers and the new life that is developing in M.’s patch.

In any case, M. explained that the circular fence she has installed is there in order to stop deers and wild boars eating part of the trees to such an extent that they can no longer survive. I told her about what I had seen done in another project about wild boars: urinate around the land to “protect”. Apparently, that way, the wild boars know that they are in the territory of another “animal”. But this does not work if the land patch is in the middle of a route they need to eat or drink. And that seems to be the case of M.’s patch.

M. and #49 went shopping for materials for the project while #48 and I stayed in the house cooking a good dinner in the wood stove. Despite receiving specific instructions to the effect, at one given moment of course we filled the kitchen with smoke. We opened the kitchen window and we closed all the doors in the house. M. and #49 would have never learned about the smoke if we had not forgotten to open the door to the internal staircase again.

I left the next morning, having had very eye-opening conversations, and having learned and thought enough to reach the conclusion that for a project like this to be sustainable, you need various important things:

– a community of people to support you and/or to feel the project as theirs
– access to water
– reliable and sustainable transport for big and heavy loads
– fuel and other sources of energy, like solar

I think a lot about how to replace the vehicles that use oil and the gas we use for heating. M. explained one of the possible techniques to specifically produce wood out of trees. You cut wood alongside the trunk, at its base. It has been done traditionally at least in Castilla and La Rioja, Spain.

When it comes to transport, in an urban environment we are getting used to the bicycle, and for not too big loads, we manage with bike trailers. For the sort of loads we have been managing here, I can’t think of a better solution than animal traction. And horse manure is of the best kind as compost material as it is as fuel, once treated.