Two summers ago, on the map maker’s spec of a Caribbean island called Cuba, I dreamt of bicycles, turkeys, death by mangoes and murals (and not necessarily in that order) – amongst other magical symbols and sensations.
I close my eyes and move through memory…
…coasting backwards…pedaling my bicycle along the skinny Sancti Spiritus highway… past trotting horse-carts filled with sugarcane and swaying palms…past signs and structures with painted images of Fidel & Co. and fists pumping in the air…the obese heat radiating off the black asphalt and baking my perspiring skin…
…moving…moving towards a particular plot of peri-urban land, shaded by a diversity of trees…whose branches were pregnant with over thirty kinds of fruits, different in size, colour, smell, taste, touch…a place where medicinal plants grew in a secret tangle…chickens and turkeys bobbed, picked, made guttural clucks and scattered without design…and a group of neighbors were sure to be found lounging together under a tree…chatting lazily, bickering in rapid-fire Spanish, and popping an abundance of mamoncitos into their mouths – ah! Sweetness on the tongue.
Every time I travel back (metaphysically or physically) to Mi Huerto (‘My Garden’) it’s something like awakening to realize I’ve been written into the pages of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, feeling a magical realism resonating all over my body. The Eden-like profusion of plants, trees, animals and resources is a refuge from the hot highway and concrete city. One can’t help but wonder who is the mastermind behind this kind of green alchemy? A man with feathered wings? An ancient magician?
Two summers ago, I relished in rising early to ride my bicycle to and from the transcendent gates of Mi Huerto – studying ‘La Permacultura Cubana’ through an internship with The Urban Farmer and Fundación Antonio Nuñez Jimenez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre (FANJNH), Foundation for Nature and Man.
Mi Huerto became a laboratory for learning about permaculture, sustainable agriculture, site-design and transformation, community development, art and expression, and a new (old) food growing culture. Let me now recollect, and resurrect more magic from days spent at Mi Huerto…
Mi Huerto’s Alchemist: Cyclist turned Farmer & Healer
Meet the Alchemist behind Mi Huerto. Edinson. Whom I affectionately called abuelo (grandfather) because of his warm, easy ways of making one feel at home – and his evident desire to share the story of transforming his land from a graveyard of motor-vehicle scraps and waste to a flourishing food forest.
He planted his first tree on Mi Huerto in the 1960s. Edinson has an old black and white photograph of himself, standing alongside his wife, Loida, to remember those first days. In the beginning, Edinson didn’t consider himself a campesino(farmer). Instead of planting, his passion was in pedaling – he was a Cyclist.
Edinson taught Physical Education to high school students living in the city of Sancti Spiritus, the geographical heart of Cuba. It was the perfect place for Cyclist, living at the centre of an island road-map with adventure beckoning in all directions: lush forests of Pinar del Rio to the West, white sand beaches of Trinidad to the South, a set of scattered islands to the North, and the Afro-Cuban mystique of Santiago de Cuba to the East. Edinson explored nearly all of Cuba on bicycle, and I’m sure he would’ve also crossed oceans had he discovered the magic to move on water.
Over the years, Edinson gradually planted more and more fruit trees – including avocado, mango, guava, tamarind, pear, plantain and banana, papaya, star-fruit and noni.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 (Cuba’s primary trading partner), life became hard for many families. Food shelves went empty. The average Cuban adult lost about thirty pounds. But Edinson and Loida weren’t as badly off as their neighbours. They had many fruit trees, and they kept a few chickens and goats, so eggs and milk were available on a weekly basis. Edinson began sharing and exchanging goods with his neighbours – eggs for cooking oil, fruits for staple foods, and so on. He and Loida had plenty of space on the two-hectare site to start growing their own vegetables. So out of economic crisis and necessity, another campesino was born.
Additional to food scarcity, local pharmacies also ran dry of medicines. As a result, Edinson began experimenting with growing and preparing medicinal plants to treat common conditions, including diarrhea, nausea, colds, and migraines. Suddenly – Mi Huerto also began attracting neighbours who knew that Edinson could help to prepare leaves and herbs into teas and salves to cure and care for their wounds and sicknesses.
Edinson is an example of a Cuban Cyclist turned Farmer turned Healer. And today – he’s also a Teacher. When I met him in May 2011, he had recently completed his Permaculture Design Certificate with FANJNH, and was aspiring to enrich Mi Huerto into a deeply integrated permaculture site, where neighbourhood children, other Cuban farmers interested in permaculture, and people from around the world could converge to share experiences and learn from one another.
I don’t hang onto so many fears in life. Passion, impulse and curiosity have flung me across continents – into many different situations. In fact, sometimes I don’t feel fear until after the fact, during reflection. That said, I also have a child’s imagination (wild – sometimes bordering a world painted by Marquez) and do keep a few irrational fears tucked inside my pockets.
One of those irrational fears I experienced whilst at Mi Huerto – holding the guataca (hand-hoe) and standing beneath a mango tree.
First I should explain: through my internship, I was one of twelve brilliant, sassy Canadian women (passionate about agriculture) working with Edinson and Loida to ‘connect the dots’ of their already vibrant permaculture system at Mi Huerto. We developed a design on paper to integrate raised vegetable and herb beds (in the forms of bicycle-inspired mandala and a waving Cuban flag), to use local waste resources, to increase the biodiversity on-site, and overall, to make the site more accessible for community learning. And then came implementation. Hence, the hand-hoe.
Working beneath Edinson’s mango tree, the one he planted nearly thirty years prior, I wrenched my head back and gawked at the monstrous size of mangoes drooping from the tree, looming overhead…looming over my head. In my sweaty, exhausted state, I actually contemplated my own death in Cuba. Death by falling mangoes.
Edinson’s mangoes were the most massive mangoes I’ve ever laid eyes on. They were bowling balls. Weighing as much as the human head. And to make my tragic outcome of death by mangoes even more comical, these mangoes were called Mango de la Paz (Peace Mangoes), named after the Cuban agriculturalist who crossed varieties to produce these tangerine-colored, sweetly fleshed fruits. If heaven had a flavor, it would be Edinson’s mangoes.
In the end, fatality-free after seven weeks working under that mango tree, I decided that Edinson’s Peace Mangoes held potential as being both deadly and divine.
Cubans love expressing affection through language. The formula is simple. Tag an –ito or –ita onto the end of a word and you’ve made it ‘little / cute / sweet.’ Even the term gordo (fat) can be made endearing using this rule: gordito or little Fatty. So in Cuba, I wasn’t known as Trina. They called meTrinita.
And they named me after a turkey. A baby turkey, that is. This all happened on my second visit to Mi Huerto when I returned last year as the Canadian Intern Coordinator. Edinson surprised a group of us with the adorable golden fluff-ball that was only a few days old. He thought it appropriate that thepavocito (little turkey) be nicknamed after me, and though I laughed, I didn’t protest. After all, I have a lot of respect for turkeys. Especially turkeys, along with their feathered and furred friends, that help to enrich permaculture and sustainable agriculture systems.
To me, there’s little dilemma when it comes to enjoying free-range, organically and ethically raised livestock…for dinner. I don’t want to really delve into the specifics (I think Michael Pollan can do that in his book, (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) but what I can say and know to be true is that turkeys and other birds and animals play an important role in being able to grow food without using chemicals.
At Mi Huerto, for example, Edinson raised turkeys, chickens and goats. Turkeys roamed under the fruit trees, pecking at decaying fruit, scratching for worms and insects (particularly harmful ones like slugs), and in turn, tilled the soil and, of course, deposited nutrients back into the soil from their droppings. So being named after such a useful bird in the permaculture ecosystem was received with the same love in which it was given.
Unfortunately, Trinita the Turkey didn’t survive beyond a week due to sudden flash flood rains that struck Mi Huerto in late May – but due to the diversity in fruits, vegetables, medicinal plants and other livestock, Edinson’s system remained, albeit damaged, resilient and strong. (RIP Trinita.)
For a country that has taught me so much, one of the ideas I was glad to share, in return, was the technology of community mural painting.
I first discovered the power of the paintbrush in Esteli, Nicaragua, where I spent a year living and volunteering for an NGO called FUNARTE. Here, I met inspiring children and youth muralists who had been trained to transform blank spaces into expressive, dynamic scenes depicting (without words) images of peace, human rights, access to education, healthcare, youth action and so forth. After 25 years of teaching children about their power to paint, express and participate, FUNARTE has inspired over 150 murals in their small city. Today, I’ve never been able to look at a blank, white wall the same way again, not without imagining the artistic and educational possibilities.
I was hungry to integrate mural painting into Mi Huerto – to help Edinson build his site into an educational space that inspired creativity amongst students and visitors. As fate would have it – only two weeks into my internship in Cuba, I magically crossed paths with two young Cuban muralists: Alián and Arian. They had never heard of permaculture before, but only weeks later we were combining art and agriculture onto one wall at Mi Huerto…involving a team of Cuban and Canadian farmers turned artists.
For me, the best part about painting the mural at Mi Huerto was attracting the keen participation of the neighborhood kids. They arrived every afternoon, after school, to help bring the mural to life. It was another way of bringing them closer to the rich learning potential at Mi Huerto.
I truly believe that painting a mural changes your relationship with community spaces. And the same goes for transforming a plot of land into a permaculture site. My experiences working with Edinson, Loida, my Canadian counter-parts, the passionate muralistas, and of course, the neighborhood kids, connected me to Mi Huerto, and permaculture in practice, in a deep and lasting ways.
Now – let me allow the walls to speak for themselves…
“I Dreamed of Cuba” is a series of blog-posts focusing on my personal encounters working in Cuba from 2011-2012 through a unique partnership with The Urban Farmer, and a number of Cuban organizations, including Fundación Antonio Nuñez Jimenez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre (FANJNH). The goal of this series is share stories about the inspiring small farmers and Cuban policies that are promoting a more food secure society, and additionally – to teach about Cuban technologies of growing food more sustainably. My hope is that some of these ideas can be adapted and “transplanted” into your own gardens…wherever you are in the world!