In Sun, Sand and Silence: The Sertão

by kangcuzzi

“Unless people become natural people, there can be neither natural farming nor natural food. In one of the huts on the mountain I left the words, “Right Food, Right Action, Right Awareness” inscribed on a pinewood plaque above the fireplace. The three cannot be separated from one another. If one is missing, none can be realized. If one is realized, all are realized.” — from Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution

I’ve been a little quiet these days, both online and in person. The only traces of regular activity can be found in my journal, which has been fattening with words, flower petals and cacti skeleton amongst a motley mix of other things.

A lot of it is because I’m absolutely spent. Physically, it’s been tough: for the past few weeks, we’ve been alternating between opposing climates and altitudes with hardly a break in between. After leaving Palmeiras, we first went to the hilly town of Rio de Contas, where we rode trucks into mountaintop communities and climbed the second highest peak in the Northeast; then, we went to the dry, sandy region of the sertão, where we worked on permaculture-related activities; and now, we’ve settled into — and we’re just about to leave — the balmy, beachside town of Praia do Forte, quite close (yet so far!) to our dear home Salvador. The constant shifts have left me feeling a little under the weather, and so a lot of my mind-space has been consumed by thoughts of how to stay sane and healthy.

But mentally, it’s also been tough — in both good ways and bad. As someone whose primary mode of self-recharge is rich and productive solitude, I find it difficult at times to constantly have to be in sync with a group. Not being able to control simple variables, like personal spaces and routines, has also been tough, and so has the burgeoning homesickness for both the homestay experience and the family that waits back home.

Yet it’s also been rewarding. With long journeys come long moments, and it is in the generosity of these instances that important reflections are made. For me, the most self-enriching of these times were discovered in the sertão, where the isolation and quietude of the days made way for some re-considerations on how I want to live my life.

So with that, I thought it’d be worthwhile to share some of these thoughts in this space. (My fattening journal thanks me for this act of mercy.)

***

In the sertão we stayed at a permaculture site called Marizá Epicentro, which is around an hour’s drive away from the main city of Tucano. Marsha Hanzi, the creator of the bio-dynamic* site, essentially turned a patch of sand into a verdant agro-forest littered with desert plants, edible plants (like beans and pumpkin) and the wayward flower.

It is quiet in Marizá. Internet was limited to a single PC in a small room, lest the network interfere with cosmic energies that pass through the earth. The only noise you hear in the mornings is the animals waking up. People ride around on horses, and the paths between neighbouring farms are just stretches upon stretches of sand.

In the sun, sand and the silence of all things city and human, I thought. During mealtimes, I thought about what I’d read in the Epicentro library, and talked to Marsha and others on matters such as spirituality. On the final day, I cracked open a khaki-colored copy of Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution, a permaculture classic I first encountered when I worked on a farm last summer. When I came across the quote that opens this post, I realized it offers great structure to what I was thinking at that time:

Right food 

Over the course of six days, I skimmed my way through three books all related to healing through nutrition. The first was on natural diet changes for self-care and healing illness, the second was on ‘blood-type diets’, and the last was on fruit therapy (a kind of therapy in which the nutrients in fruits are used to heal). Some of the content was what mainstream society would deem pseudo-scientific, and after some online research I don’t entirely disagree; certain statements, like the claim that certain fruits contain protein levels similar to animal sources, just don’t match up with the nutritional facts. Yet the main message I gathered from all three books, however intuitive, was greatly motivational: that food plays an important role in the workings of our bodies, and that fuelling ourselves with wholesome, nutrient-dense foods (and getting exercise, of course) is the best preventative medicine around.

What with my being a health nut, being in the sertão was an excellent experience. Everything we ate was sourced locally, was processed minimally (if at all), and was absolutely delicious. I woke up in the mornings feeling strong and well, and the problems I had with fatigue previously in the year diminished greatly over the week — which only motivated me more to eat cleaner. The day before we arrived in the sertão, we’d gone on a near twenty-four hour journey in which the only foods we ate were road snacks (crackers, chocolate, greasy buns at bus stations, etc) and upon my arrival I felt sick. My gut wasn’t happy, my skin broke out in a rash, and I didn’t feel too fresh. Four days later, however, I felt a new vigour I was eager to maintain throughout the rest of my time in Brazil — which is why, when we got to Praia do Forte, I cooked most of my own meals and essentially ate enough micronutrients to last me a lifetime.

Something else I thought about was the consumption of meat. Beyond the suggestion that people with blood type O (like my meat-free self) eat a primarily animal protein-based diet (which again I found a little dubious, but still have to research into), Marsha’s belief on the importance of eating animals was interesting. The sertão is a land of animals, she claimed. Farming in the region wouldn’t work without the presence of livestock that offer rich manure and regular cropping. In the bio-dynamic spirit, which is all about equilibrium of natural and human elements, Marsha believes it is beneficial to eat animals in the sertão (with these animals having been raised ethically). Since I’m mainly opposed to the industrial cruelty towards animals and not the concept of eating meat, I found this to be a fair point. For a while, I even considered going back to meat. Yet in the end I decided I probably wouldn’t, in the city (i.e. my home) at least, as the process becomes a lot more opaque and it becomes harder to find ethically-sourced animal products. If I were to live for an extended period of time in a place like the sertão, however, maybe things would be different.

Right action 

Of course, all this conceptual thinking does no good unless brought into action, which is why this next step is great. Besides, with my return home less than two weeks away, it’s a good time to think about how my life back in Asia will change dependent on my experiences here in Brazil.

On our final day in the sertão, we watched the documentary No Impact Man. As its name suggests, it follows a man and his family who decide to go ‘no impact’ for a year — meaning no electricity, all locally sourced foods, no waste, etc. What the family does is extreme, but it proves that living a low carbon-footprint life is a) not that difficult and b) actually quite rewarding.

Needless to say, I was inspired. I was also inspired by the sheer amount of natural products I encountered during my stay in the sertão, and how they matched up to — or even exceeded — their conventional, chemical-laden counterparts. For instance: when I had a bad rash the first day, I calmed it down with fresh aloe vera and a paste made out of some kind of plant. I washed my hair with a natural shampoo that, despite its very watery consistency, allowed me to go several days without my hair smelling and with it generally looking fine.

I’m wary of setting too many high-handed goals for myself, because realistically I probably wouldn’t achieve them all. But what I have been considering is pretty simple, and I’m excited about it: when I return home, I’m planning on cooking more for myself using locally produced and seasonal ingredients (which means less, if any, imported fruits and foods all year round); learning how to make my own cosmetics (like deodorant and soap); stop all plastic bag usage once and for all; consider biking; get most of my clothes second-hand / reduce consumption to begin with.

Right awareness

This is where the spiritual side of things come in. After various conversations on zodiacs, reincarnation and alternative healing practices like Reiki and Ayurveda, I’ve begun thinking more about spirituality than I have before.

Previously, I used to equate spirituality with religion, which I’ve realized wasn’t fair at all — I now believe that spirituality is simply the practice of humility and deep understanding of oneself. One needs to be humble to seek within themselves spaces for growth, which is what leads us to seek out things or concepts that are greater than us. It is in this spirit that humanity becomes more open-minded and willing to learn from itself, and spirituality often provides the vehicle for learning.

Some people are quick to dismiss ‘alternative’ therapies for their pseudo-scientific spiritual aspects. But many ‘new age’ practices are developed in such a way that highlights the importance of self-awareness / self-care, and I think being aware of the self is an admirable task.

At the moment, I’m still unsure as to where I stand on the spirituality spectrum. I wouldn’t call myself a spiritual person (at the moment, at least), but it’s something I’m willing to look into. In some way, I think it might complement the previous two elements in Fukuoka’s three-piece mantra, and I’ll continue to ponder it until I figure it out.

***

Many thoughts, and such a hectic time. In less than two weeks, I’ll be back home… and we’ll see where things go from there.

*Bio-dynamic agriculture is an alternative form of agriculture in which elements such as soil fertility, animal raising and plant growth are all interwoven ecologically and spiritually. It is similar to organic farming in many ways but introduces the aspect of ‘energies’ that interfere with the earth, like energy from the moon cycle, astronomy, etc. 

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