A Series on Food and Culture Set in Spain
I visited the Permaculture Center three times the month it shut down. Every other Wednesday, I rode my bike down the dirt path going south out of town, bracing myself against the winter winds, until I arrived at the university that stands like a castle in the green hills where the city meets the countryside. A rectangular building pierced by a looming clocktower, the Universidad Laboral is a giant Parthenonesque complex that was built in the early years of the Franco regime to house and educate the children of coal miners killed in the rapidly expanding Asturian industry.
During its early days as a school for orphans, the nuns who ran the school kept gardens that helped supply its cafeteria. Soon after its construction, plans for the school expanded to include a full secondary school and a professional training program for young adults, where at one point it could have housed up to 3,000 students. However, the building, which at 270,000 square meters is still the largest in Spain, became difficult to maintain, especially in the years after the Franco’s dictatorship had ended. In 1996, the last of the nuns moved from Gijón to nearby Villaviciosa. The building and its gardens lay all but abandoned until, in 2007, the Laboral opened its doors again as a cultural center, now home to a radio station and art school. Still, much of the building and grounds remained in disuse.
Enter Rafa Echeverz, a light technician for the theater at the Laboral. After moving from Madrid to Asturias with his wife in search of a slower life, they became interested in sustainable agriculture, self-educating by watching Youtube videos and voraciously reading books and blogs on the topic.
“Living in the city, I started to worry about my two sons,” Rafa said. “It’s obvious we are living in a precarious climate. If food were to run out tomorrow, what would we eat? How long could we last with what’s in our pantry?”
Rafa oscillates effortlessly between the apocalyptic and archival as he shows me around the project when I first arrive. “Several years ago, there was an agreement to turn these dorms into a hotel,” he explains, pointing at six stories of windows with the stickers still on them. “Contractors drove trucks and heavy equipment in and out of this place for months; it was their only road.” He kicks at the dirt which, under its thin layer of grass, does indeed look like crushed gravel. “This is highly disturbed soil. It’s not good for anything.”
But, in what has become the repeating history of the Laboral, the developer ran out of money and the project was abandoned. At the time, Rafa, still working in the theater, and his wife Lucia Rios, had been hosting weekend horticulture workshops for kids in the courtyards of the school. They decided to approach the manager of the grounds to ask for a more permanent location with better sunlight. In turn, he offered them 6,000 square meters on this corner of the property, still piled with construction debris.
Rafa and other volunteers cleared the area. They founded the Permaculture Association for the Promotion of Agroecology and Sustainability (APASOS by its Spanish acronym). They wrote designs for the project according to the principals of permaculture. They bought soil, “but not much,” he qualifies. And then they started to plant.
Rafa leads me through the heart of the project, an “edible forest” where adolescent fruit trees are carefully surrounded by corresponding fruiting shrubs, nitrogen fixers, ground covers, and pollinators. Everything is selected for symbiosis: an apple tree comprises the tallest canopy; underneath a mugwort, tansy, and rue, such that each strata receives adequate sunlight and nutrition. In an edible forest, there is no weeding, no rows, and almost no intervention. As the plants grow and drop their leaves, the organic matter decomposes. Beneath that, the plant roots, fungi, and insects work together to ultimately generate a layer of healthy soil. Nearby, two big plastic barrels hold cow manure collected from a friend’s pasture, mixed with sawdust and yeast, slowly brewing a natural fertilizer that enriches the newly developed topsoil with healthy microbes.
The project was intended to be a demonstration for both the university and the community at large, proving that with minimal inputs, a highly disturbed landscape can be restored to equilibrium and even productivity by recreating natural ecosystems– the theory that forms the basis of the permaculture movement. Rafa bends down to pick up a handful of soil from the base of a small tree and hands it to me. It’s dark, soft, and crumbly. And it’s homegrown.
In addition to the edible forest, the permaculture space has a section of raised garden beds, two rainwater catchments and pollinator hydration stations, and a geodesic dome for workshops, lunches, and ducking out of the ever-present Asturian rain. Yet perhaps one of the most compelling parts of the projects has to do with the plumero, a weed growing among the junk they inherited with the land. Native to South America, the plumero was first introduced to Spain as a hardy, grow-anywhere ornamental, but soon caught the notice of the Spanish government, which began planting it along roadsides and in medians–in highly disturbed soil not dissimilar to the land that surrounds the Laboral. The plumero, a three-foot-high grass that can produce up to a million seeds at once, began to colonize the north of Spain, quickly becoming an “environmental plague,” spreading uncontrollably and choking out native plants.
Rafa points out a plumero down by the road, and then at a dried disc of grass near the tool shed off to the side of the edible forest. In the interest of trying to prevent the spread of the plumero to other parts of the project, the group decided to cut the grass and cover it with cardboard, preventing regrowth. Once the plumero died, they dug a hole in the middle of shorn plant and dropped in a seed. Soon, a walnut tree was taking up the nutrients the grass had left behind, allowing its roots to colonize the decomposing organic matter, turning the invasive plant into its own sort of host. Thus, the plumero, uniquely adapted to growing in disturbed soil, became an intermediary for the native walnut, turning road-side dirt into something a little more welcoming.
Thinking about the invasive grasses that coat my stretch of Arizona, I’m amazed at such an unconventional fix. Could the dead invasive grass become a producer of soil on a large scale? Rafa shrugs. “It’s not any more labor- or cost-intensive than any other reforestation project. And Spaniards need jobs. We put the information out there. Now we’ll just see if anyone will use it.”
Despite my excitement, it’s hard to escape the sense of resignation that hangs over the project. Permaculture, by its very name, embraces the idea that our agricultural practices can be regenerative in a way that is fundamentally and indefinitely self-sustaining. You return the land to its natural order, and it resumes the cycles it developed for millennia, without you. You consume the byproducts, and not the sum total, of its biological outputs. Year after year, the cycling of nutrients and water and organic matter keep going, increasingly resilient and moving closer and closer to a perfect balance. It’s a shame, then, to see the project be shut down after only three years.
I ask Rafa what happens next, now that the funding for the project has been discontinued. He points to a construction site next to the university parking lot. It’s the first time I’ve noticed the bulldozers circling not a hundred yards from where we stand. “See that? It’s the first phase of the university’s latest project. They’ve told me all this will be a soccer field.”
T he most prominent discussions about climate change center around, of course, perilously increasing greenhouse gas emissions and subsequent warming of the planet. In the past few years, environmental conversations have expanded to include ocean acidification and pollution, with reusable cups and plastic straw bans gaining mainstream popularity. Currently, the headlines scream catastrophic flooding brought on by increasingly intense storms, including a devastating record rainfall in northern Spain just last month. Yet only farmers seem to talk about soil degradation, despite the fact that the loss of arable land has contributed to the downfall of countless societies, from the Romans to the Rapa Nui.
Today, over a third of the earth’s arable soil has been disastrously degraded, and some estimates claim we only have about 60 years of farming left if we continue with current methods of cultivation. Despite all of the chemical and mechanical advances of the 20th century, crop yields have stagnated or begun to decline while human populations continue to grow. In the coming century, adaptation to climate change will depend just as much on on the basic act of restoring our planet’s topsoil as it will on the more glamorous technological advances like renewable energy and carbon capture.
That’s why projects like this one seem so supremely important. A group of people wanted to see what it took to grow soil. “And we proved that it’s possible,” Rafa said.
Over the next few weeks, volunteers will come to dig up the plants that can be saved. One woman, who has her own land, is taking the trees, and there’s a spark of hope among the group for her project. It might be that her finca becomes the next meeting place for this group of permaculturists. Rafa himself is currently searching for land, although the Spanish government’s restrictions on livestock and growing produce make finding a suitable plot near the city almost impossible unless he registers as a farmer and pays business taxes.
On my last visit to the permaculture center, I help Rafa pack blueberry bushes into buckets and he asks me which plants I think are worth saving. Later, we roll out row cover by the road and begin stacking materials the construction project will haul away as trash. It’s a shame, I say, that you can’t take the soil with you. “We were always growing on someone else’s land,” Rafa said. “This project always had an end. We learned a lot. Our hope is that it becomes a seed for other projects.” Looking at the rows of buckets and plants yet to fill them, I have no doubt that it will.
All photos courtesy of APASOS.