Update on the Jordan Valley Permaculture Project (aka ‘Greening the Desert, the Sequel’): “Leave All Expectations Behind”

I felt fully prepared leaving for Jordan three weeks ago. Equipped with a 55ltr backpack laden with books, a compost thermometer, a dumpy level as hand luggage and a few well chosen words of advice from former patrons of the land: "Leave all expectations behind". In fact, as i remember correctly, it was to "flush them down the toilet". Within hours of my arrival it became rapidly apparent that would become the most useful thing I was to bring with me, or rather didn’t bring, as the case may be.

Collecting rocks for spillways

Setting out the swales

Now, before I continue here, I must very clearly add that this is a rather favourable time of year to ‘rock up’ to the Dead Sea Valley with an intent to cause permie havoc on the Greening the Desert, ‘The Earthwork Strikes Back’ project site. I do feel rather let off the hook from what some of the other contributing volunteer pioneer species have had to endure here over the years in terms of lack of infrastructure, brutal summer heat and a reduced water supply — even to the measly quota we receive at the moment (sometimes only 2-3hrs of mains supply a week which is barely enough to fill the two relatively small plastic roof tanks and a small concrete irrigation tank).

As I pop another project-grown sweet cherry tomato in my mouth, I say thanks to all those that have come before me to put in a seemingly enormous effort to get the farm to the place this tender understory specie has the fortune to become acquainted and to call home for the next several weeks. There are three huge swales running east to west, dividing up the property; a shade structure nursery, annual food production, a very sophisticated shower and compost toilet building (what, no watering can suspended from a tree and a hole in the ground?), a grandiose education facility, a plethora of edible tree crops, and, well, it wouldn’t be a desert permaculture landscape without them, countless thorn laden desert legumes providing plentiful mulch, nitrogen fixation and wind protection for the dry degraded soils, multiple punctured wheelbarrow tyres and some well received dappled shade for the annual veggies and myself during the late afternoon sun.

With the once in a lifetime world class PDC line up only 7 months away, things are really powering up for what is to be an incredible IPC in September. After the conference and convergence are over, attendees will have opportunity to visit this site in the post-IPC tours. Hamsa, Anselm and Dan (Members of Entity Green, Jordan’s only waste recycling company) arranged a monster work party this weekend of thirty people to come down to the farm from Amman to assist and learn new skills with the natural building elements of the rather dominating yet impressive structure that greets you as you arrive at the farm.

The west wall (straw bale and earth plaster) is almost completed and the south wall raising is set to be underway any day. Then there is the matter of making a few thousand earth bricks (with machine, not by hand — phew), for the north and east walls. We then look forward to the arrival of Sasha Rabin (Vertical Clay) from the United States in a few weeks, bringing her ten years of natural building experience to the dusty Dead Sea desert to co-teach a comprehensive building course with Hamsa himself, where participants (both overseas and local) will get hands-on experience of multiple aspects of natural building — from passive solar design, creating and laying earth bricks, straw bale construction, cob, earthern plasters, and I am sure it wont stop there.

Now, adjacent to the towering education facility is a small, cosy, concrete bomb shelter (as I endearingly like to call it) that has just been completed — which means i get to sleep in relative luxury. Well, me, a family of mice, 387 flies (that I discovered double as a free, biological air conditioning source if you get them to fly low and fast enough above your head) and several howling stray mutts just outside the gate. It has really begun to feel like home and it’s nice to have the company in the evenings after a dawn to dusk day of digging swales and connecting up compost toilet overflows (fortunately before they have been ‘employed’ I hasten to add). My Arabic is dreadful at best and seems to somehow get worse as the days go by, but myself and several generations of the Abu Judah family (army) of volunteers all manage brilliantly together. I fear I have been rather duly named ‘Abdullah’, after the King. I can only assume it is because I have been somehow thrust in charge of orders and have yet to do any washing up after any of the many daily feasts we have here. I tried today to offer but I was just handed another glass of teeth aching sweet tea and told to sit down and relax. I wonder if I will get a goat milk bath, Dead Sea salt scrub and grapes hand fed to me tomorrow? I keep reassuring myself with the distant echoes of Bill’s early comments that permaculture, was, essentially, easy and abundant, right? “Danger of Falling Food” and all that. I just had no idea it would come so soon into my apprenticeship.

When we find any spare time in between meals and tea breaks, the landscape team here are getting stuck into some rather exciting earthworks, following on from some unannounced heavy rains last week which ripped through the site. We have been installing multiple terraced infiltration basins along the boundary line to slow the flow of the flash run off from the road just outside the property. The basins then feed into three new hand-dug swales further down the watershed to spread and sink the precious resource throughout as much of the site as possible. Once the framework is completed in a few days we then get the rather satisfying opportunity to increase the vegetation and plant a host of new trees (edible/legume mix) throughout the middle and upper areas knowing they have the full support of the new passive earthwork irrigation system.


New swales (passive irrigation and soil erosion control)

From there we have a reed bed grey water overflow system to complete, the creation of a new contoured annual food production area next to the classroom and a compost facility to get heating up which will entail an extremely exciting adventure of hitting the local streets and gleaning as much goat, sheep and camel dung as we can lay our hands on! So much doing, feel free to come by and join the party if you are in the area. Just make sure you come with an empty stomach, a full tank of enthusiasm and your ‘pattern eye’ in focus. The rest I suggest, is probably best flushed down the toilet before you arrive….

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