Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Going 'Bos': A Reforestation Retreat near Rheenendal

This article seeks to introduce you to Chris Auret, a 29-year-old artist and maker currently staying near Rheenendal, Western Cape.

In August 2016, Chris, while in the process of looking for 'ways to be a better human being' and ways to move out of the city into a more rural area, discovered a plot of land that was for sale and decided to 'put the ball in the universe's court'. By September, he teamed up with his close friend, Cassandra Hellberg to start a crowdfunding campaign, 1000 Prints No Footprints. It ended up being successful in raising just over R1 million (US $72,750) in order to buy the 11-hectare plot of land just northwest of Knysna in the Western Cape, near to the town of Rheenendal. In Chris's words - "everything happened rather quickly" - as the land was funded by November 21st! He says, "Normally with crowdfunding campaigns you need a plan... we just launched the video and planned from that point onwards!"

Chris's rented tiny house, neighbouring the newly bought land
Chris paints a mural for the Sedgefield Mosaic Market

Chris's involvement as an artist was critical to the success of the campaign. In the way the campaign was set up, art prints were used as rewards for donations to the campaign. Chris's own personal artworks, including photographs, explore nature, our place within it as human beings, and his frustrations and observations of the wrongs and rights that we as humans act out in city environments and outside of the city. Within this work lies Chris's reasons for a 'leap into the forest', or a transition into rural living.

The campaign was successful, and raised more money than was expected!

People could also contribute to the campaign by sending in artwork to a gallery that Chris was using at the time of the campaign. In this way, the gallery became a metaphor for the land itself. They hosted yoga, group meditations, environmental talks and documentary screenings, short film nights, live music and poetry.

During the actual crowdfunding campaign, Chris did something quite unique - he took a vow of silence and lived in the gallery window for ten days!

In his words, the idea was to focus peoples' energy by not speaking. As a result, he observed a difference in the way people interacted with the art in the gallery.

Since people were unable to ask him questions, it resulted in the people engaging more closely with the art in the gallery.

People then used body language more to communicate, which allowed him to see into peoples' eyes, feel their hearts and be a 'mirror' for them.

During one of his days of silence, he also meditated for nine hours, which resulted in some interesting expressions from people as they walked past, taking pictures. He recorded the experience with a Go-Pro camera, while deep in meditation and oblivious to what was going on outside.

Along with the public donations that helped to fund the purchase of the land, Chris and Cassandra have two other major investors on their team: Mark D and Chris F. Between the four of them, and any other investors that seek to join, they will be the stewards of the land. Chris explained that he would certainly welcome more investment, especially to fund infrastructure that will help develop an off-grid forest paradise. Among possible infrastructure plans are camping areas, a wood workshop, compost toilets and communal food-making space.

The extent of the 11-hectare plot

While Chris and Cassandra lay out the reasons for the campaign in their inspirational video very well indeed, I shall summarise the intentions of the campaign and land purchase as I understand them below:

Reforestation: This would involve the removal and productive use of invasive species presently on the land (wattle, blue gum and pine) and the reintroduction and conservation of indigenous species (such as yellowwood, stinkwood and wild fig - you can find a more complete list of indigenous afro-temperate tree species here). The Knysna area is especially famous for its Big Tree, an 880+-year-old yellowwood which is over 36 metres tall!

Invasive, yet useful
Productive Use of Invasive Species: Productive uses include ecological building techniques, including use of recycled materials, passive solar design, mulching, composting, and the construction of compost-toilets, furniture and beehives. As most of these uses require wood processing, construction of a wood workshop is a recommended early step.

In August of last year, Chris attended a wood-building course in Wilderness, South Africa, facilitated by Roy Trembath. This gave Chris experience in building with blue gum. He relates that he enjoys cutting, measuring and sawing, and that building with blue gum is relatively simple because you can build out of logs instead of having to cut the wood into planks. He also wants to find new uses for wattle (which is usually not considered strong enough to build a house out of, but can be used in secondary furnishings).

To build a Creative Retreat: While modern city life can sometimes be the catalyst for creativity and generativity, it can also happen that the pace and noise of the city can be overwhelming and a distraction from our creativity. Chris seeks to provide artists, painters, musicians, writers and others with a quieter, more distraction-free, yet ultimately fun space to bring their works into manifestation. Indeed, as Chris says, "Everyone is an artist - we've all just suppressed our creativity".

Chris relates his experience as an artist 

Chris first became an artist about five years ago. He relates how he soon discovered that artists have to draw from their own personal experience and actually share that experience with others - the better they can experience what that artist did, the better job the artist has done.

Today, Chris's approach to art is that, unless he is doing something for the good of the Earth and the people - in his words, unless he 'feels good as a human being, living a life he is proud of', eating healthily and freely giving of himself - he will not feel inspired to make art. Without this spirit of giving, he revealingly says that painting "[can be] quite a selfish, self-indulgent job".

This is something I can certainly echo - I know I feel most creatively inspired when I am generous with my time and money, and when I give love and care to others.

With the land as a retreat, Chris sees opportunities to read and write more, to draw more influences of surreal and dreamlike states into his art, and to share the space with others. He sees the built retreat as something to form part of the 'communal space' of the land rather than a private studio.

For those who come to the space, it can be used as a place to host informational workshops or for a band to play together. If artists volunteer from 9am to 1pm in the physical work required to set up the land, it may well result in them feeling energised and refreshed and ready to be creative! The inherent energy found in artisinal, hand-crafted design will add to the flow of the space.

With 'creative brains' coming into the space, the permacultural design and manifestation of the land will emerge from a multitude of perspectives. Chris sees his role as something of a 'lighthouse keeper', stewarding the land and connecting people who may have something to contribute. Overall, he wishes to experiment, 'colour outside of the lines', and simplify processes, with his understanding that "creativity is simplification". Chris says he wishes to 'embody the simple life we could all benefit from', cautioning us that there is always a price to be paid for luxury, such as in the number and embodied energy of materials used, or also in approaching the limit of the number of structures legally allowed to be built on land.

For Chris and his friends, this year (2017) is mostly going to be about assessing and surveying the land in order to understand it as a whole, and then planning and designing appropriately. Water collection, forestry and wood work are early priorities on the dream list, with a view to stay 'off the grid' wherever possible.

A magnificent vision for the land, created by Cassandra, along with Chris and schoolchildren from Imizamo Yethu

My own interest in Chris's land venture is my work towards establishing an eco-village in the Western Cape of South Africa. In my work as a web designer, project manager and secretary for the Eco-Village Collective, our group has often discussed crowdfunding as a potential option. However, I often thought that people would be reluctant to donate money into a project for 'someone else's land'. Chris showed me that I was totally wrong, and I was thrilled to be proven wrong so decisively. No more shall I underestimate the generosity of strangers towards supporting a beneficial cause!

There are many links between a creative art and reforestation retreat and a permacultural eco-village farm, and I look forward to collaborating with Chris and his team, as we have many wonderful ideas to share. I loved meeting Chris, Mark, Chris F and Alexandra and had a fantastic working holiday with them. After the passage of a few months, I look greatly forward to a return visit! Chris generously provided me with a half-hour long interview, which I am planning to make into a documentary - watch this space!

Finally, if  you have any ideas that you feel inspired to share with Chris, or if you have any connections with forestry people, borehole engineers, or municipal (Knysna) government links, e-mail him at chrisauret@live.com, or, even better, set up a visit with him!

Thursday, 2 March 2017

My Trip to the Garden Route - February 2017

In February 2017, I decided to take a drive, from where I usually live, Cape Town, to the Rheenendal  area (Knysna Forest) in order to follow up on a crowdfunding-assisted piece of land that I had encountered online.

A firebreak bordering the land Chris Auret and his friends Cassandra, Mark and Chris bought the title to

I left for my trip on Monday 20th February and returned home on Saturday 25th February.

The first four nights, I stayed in a pretty part of the forest, a meditation/yoga retreat. We went down to play in the river one afternoon.

Homtini River, Rheenendal

The retreat borders the 11-hectare piece of land the Chris Auret and three of his friends: Cassandra, Mark and Chris F have invested in with the help of crowdfuning. The land has successfully been transferred to them, and now Chris A and his friends are planning next steps with the land.

I am currently in the process of planning an article and making a film about my experiences meeting Chris A, Mark and Chris F, which are planned to be published soon.

The last night of the trip, I stayed in accommodation in Sedgefield and went to the beach. Later, I met up with Chris again, who was painting the mural for the Sedgefield Mosaic Market:

After going to the market on the Saturday morning, I headed off home again to Cape Town.

Falafel, lemon and lime juice, pineapple juice, ice coffee, boerenkaas, camembert, strawberry jam and chilli mustard

Now that I am in Cape Town again, I have the space to produce exciting content, such as my review of  five selected environmental change organisations in Cape Town, and the up and coming articles and videos about the journey of finding land in South Africa. Watch this space!

Five Environmental Organisations Making a Difference in Cape Town

While there are many things presently wrong with our world and some people making decisions that endanger our collective welfare, there are also plenty of positive, forward-thinking and regenerative enterprises at work in the world.

There are plenty of articles and thoughtpieces that discuss mostly what is wrong with the world and problems, and, while those are needed, I personally prefer my blog to be a home for solutions, showcasing engaging, optimistic people.

The groups that I have profiled below represent, to me, the optimism, creative thinking and bravery required to improve the world around us. If you live in Cape Town or know someone who does, someone who is interested in collaborating with a diverse group of people, someone who is ready to participate in fulfilling and productive activities, this article might be of benefit. Here, I introduce five different organisations that I feel are making a difference in Cape Town, summarise what each group is up to and provide contact details.

It is my hope that a pattern should emerge, a pattern in which the efforts of those working for positive change become more visible, and that it should become easier for us in Cape Town to network, by meeting people involved in these organisatons and, where possible, supporting their work. In this way, we will strengthen in the network the attractor patterns of optimism, creativity and energy flow.

As such, I've profiled these five organisations to provide an overview of some of the people I've met in the last four years on my journey of integral transformation.

1) Tyisa Nabanye

Tyisa Nabanye is located at the old military base (Erf 81) on Signal Hill, between Tamboerskloof and Bo-Kaap.

Andre in the garden - by Dimitri Selibas (2014)
In 1994, Andre Laubscher started a foster farm at the abandoned military base, looking after vulnerable children from the street and integrating them into farm life, providing them the ability to play with animals.

Later, organic gardeners joined their occupation, and with consulting, designed a garden in the space.

Since then, they also started and host a market every Sunday to sell their surplus and provide other organic farmers in Cape Town a place to sell their goods.

For a more complete history on Erf 81 watch A Farm in the Rainbow, a short and moving documentary about the farm.

A small group of occupants and gardeners ended up forming the NPO Tyisa Nabanye, in August 2013. It is a collaboration between food security activists, neighbours and people living on the site. Their mission involves exploring the possibilities of growing food in an urban environment. In isiXhosa, 'Tyisa Nabanye' means 'feed the others'.

The garden and the community hall
Garden Party, May 2015

Members frequently host and give workshops and events encompassing their goals of food security and employment creation.

In the attendance of one such workshop in July 2015, I presented a talk on Ecovillage Development in the Western Cape in collaboration with Tyisa Nabanye, Western Cape Ecovillage Collective, Sacred Earth Association, and SEED.

They have an organic garden that is capable of feeding up to six families and producing a sellable surplus!

Tyisa Nabanye's community garden in 2014

If you want to find out more this interesting community, be sure to meet Mzu, Chuma, Unathi and Lumko on a Sunday at their farmers' market! The market is usually held from 10am - 1pm.

They are in the process of redeveloping their volunteer programme, and I shall update this space when they are ready to restart their programme.

Here is a link to their Facebook page.
Here is a link to an article about them: 'The Guerilla Gardeners' by Dimitri Selibas. (August 2014).

2) SOUL Trust

S.O.U.L Trust is an acronym for Sharing Our Ubuntu Legacy, which is a Public Benefit Organisation founded in August 2012 and registered in 2013.

The focus of the organisation is in transforming the way South Africans donate and receive. After initially performing charity work in Langa, Philippi East and Westlake, they were inspired to change a mindset, in which people receiving donations and assistance do not feel like they are begging for help, but that they are uplifting themselves.

In my own words, this involves the shift of one's mindset from thinking "I am being granted help out of mercy" into "I am uplifting myself while being supported".

Methodology used thus far has been the establishment of an Exchange system. From their Facebook page, founder Tracy writes:

We envisioned a space where impoverished yet active community members were able to shop for items they needed. We also understood that outsiders can’t change a community; a community can only truly change when its own members actively worked together to change it. So we developed a system where community members were connected with grass roots projects, where they could volunteer or learn or both. For their participation they would earn credits which could then be redeemed for resources.

In this way, people who are economically disadvantaged by having less access to the formal economic system of Rands can receive community credits for participating in learning/volunteer events that are aimed at benefiting a community.

This means that even from poverty-threatened communities, individuals can make a difference. In September 2016, Cynthia and Roland from Jabulani Day Care Centre in Westlake helped organise a donation from Ferndale Nursery in Constantia! This donation was supported by SOUL.

The children of Jabulani Daycare Centre
Community members help clean up

New plants on a pavement in Westlake, Cape Town

Beneficiaries who wish to apply to support community programmes can apply to SOUL either by giving sponsored time to a project, or by paying a monthly donation to SOUL's community projects that will support the Exchange program, and events such as the tree planting (as above) and community recycling initiatives.

SOUL is currently in the process of updating their web site. In the mean time, you can contact Tracy at tracy.stallard@sharingourubuntulegacy.com.

3) Shift

Shift is a Social Organisation aiming to co-create a peaceful, united and sustainable Earth in collaboration with people. Their mission is to inspire and create change through self-empowerment, social development and eco-sustainability.

In October 2014, they started hosting the popular Full Moon Meditation events at Camps Bay Beach, which are now attended by up to 1,500 people!

Camps Bay Beach, Cape Town

The meditation events are held with the objective of sharing the practice of mindfulness meditation with people in Cape Town. Meditation events typically include yoga practice, qi gong, large group guided meditation, silent meditation, hooping and fire breathing.  I recommend watching a video of the Meditation event, because it's free to attend and usually happens on the weekends, so it can include people who work full time. Camps Bay Beach is on a MyCiti bus route from Cape Town.

Meditation practices of yoga, qi gong and group guided meditations help us become more in tune with our bodies and also our Earth.

In a heightened state of awareness we become more sensitive and aware of where there is stress and pain and how it can be healed, in ourselves, in others and in our environment.

Silent meditation while the sun slowly sets can be a time for us to reflect on the Earth's movement around the Sun, which involves becoming aware of the cycles of Nature and reminding us to work with Nature and be in its flow.

Shift facilitates yoga, qi gong and hooping classes at their studio, located at Soul Studio in Salt River, Cape Town, and has also done outreach programmes teaching yoga in townships at under-resourced schools.

Shift has also helped start up the company GezaKapa, which is a community-driven recycling collection service, waste processor and compost manufacturer. At present, you can drop off your waste with Joseph at the Gardens Bowling Club on Upper Orange St, Monday-Friday at 7am-4pm or Saturdays 7am-1pm.

GezaKapa recycling centre in Cape Town

If you would like to know more about possibilities for recycling in Cape Town, see this article by Cape Town Magazine.

See Shift's web site and their Facebook site.

4) The Philippi Horticultural Association

The Philippi Horticultural Association helps the community protect the Philippi Horticultural Area, a 3,000 hectare Agriculturally-zoned area of land from the incursion of  would-be urban developers and sand miners, in order to safeguard Cape Town's food security, water security and soil security. They are working to declare the P.H.A a national asset - the country's first protected agricultural area.

At present, the Philippi Area produces 200,000 tons of vegetables per year, and is on top of an aquifer with an area of 630 km2. It is hard to overstate the importance of an area that:

-can produce 50-80% of Cape Town's food
-can produce up to 30% of Cape Town's water use needs, while Cape Town presently suffers a drought
-is a vulnerable wetland ecosystem with high biodiversity
-employs many disadvantaged South Africans
-is home to over 200,000 people.

For these reasons, I consider it essential that no one should be allowed to get away with any behaviour that may threaten the health of this already vulnerable ecosystem.

Recently, development companies have attempted to rezone areas of Philippi, Cape Town without an Environmental Impact Assessment, something that is typically not allowed in South Africa. Officially, it has already been recommended twice to maintain and preserve the horticulural land, but the City has thus far been determined to proceed in satisfying the wishes of would-be developers. When members of the civic association have attempted to contact the Mayoral committee, they have been ignored. 'Public participation' processes have already excluded the public.

PHA protest (16 Feburary 2017)

The public were not impressed about being ignored.

It seems that the peaceful protests are startting to make headway. The PHA has recently won a victory, in which Heritage Western Cape has dismissed an appeal to rezone 96 hectares out of the total 3,000 ha of the PHA.

The campaign is headed by Nazeer Sonday, and supported by agronomist Brian Joffin. You can view their Facebook page here.

They have a volunteer gardening programme on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I previously shared my experience volunteering here.

Vegkop Farm in Philippi, where volunteers are invited to help out

Contact the Philippi Horticultural Association at phaletters@gmail.com

5) Guerilla House

Guerilla House is a learning platform for the experimentation and pursuit of regenerative technologies and regenerative worldviews. 

Guerilla House provides an impromptu and organic training space where people can learn practical urban permaculture skills, deepen interconnection, and actively engage in regeneration as a collective.

Soil mixing: Grow Your Own Food

They currently offer weekly workshops on topics, including:

-introduction to urban permaculture and food growing,
-soil fertility,
-plant propagation and starting a backyard nursery,
-grey water systems and water harvesting,
-biodegradable detergents, soap making, biochar, herbalism
-low tech mushroom cultivation

Build a Geodesic Dome
Sheet mulching: Grow Your Own Food

They also offer a design and consulting service for those wanting to bring permaculture into their lives. You can join their mailing list to be notified of upcoming workshops (which usually take place on  weekends, so even if you work full time you may still have a chance to attend.)

They have a volunteer programme every Tuesday and Thursday from 9:30am - 12:30pm. To volunteer, or to contact them, message them at info@guerillahouse.org.

Something I feel that makes Guerilla House special is how Imraan and Josh include all participants in a collaborative network. They emphasise that permaculture skills can be found in each of us, and that all we need to do to bring it out is facilitate and hold a creative space. Imraan and Josh's enthusiasm and wisdom transcend generations, and their workshops have appealed to people of all ages and from different backgrounds.

You can view their Facebook page here.

* * *

It is my hope that through providing this overview, that it will be easier to network and connect the dots of positive progress in the environment in Cape Town.

There are many more organisations - off the top of my head, SEED, Greenpop and Abalimi Bezekhaya come to mind. There are just as certainly so many more organisations that I've never heard of, where people are doing brilliant environmental work. We as people are not going to let the problems in our society go unanswered!

It is important that we work together, just as it is important that we view these apparently separate organisations as part of a greater mission and objective, which is to help us become more conscious as a species about both the mistaken danger we can inflict on the environment, but more importantly, how we can regenerate and improve the lives of others by growing food, educating others, buying locally, recycling, protecting important ecosystemic resources and showing one another love and care.