Thursday, June 11, 2009

The fruit forest, Ayia Skepi: permaculture in Cyprus

Yesterday I interviewed Dr. Emily Markides, who teaches community development and sustainable living at the University of Maine. She has initiated a permaculture garden alongside a drug rehabilitation centre in a small, beautiful village half an hour's drive from Nicosia.

"A garden from dust, two years on"

DR EMILY Markides throws her arms wide and welcomes us with a grin, beads of perspiration dotting her face. We have just arrived at Markides’ ‘fruit forest’, a permaculture project garden near Filani, half an hour’s drive from central Nicosia.

It is a warm afternoon with the promise of more heat to come and Markides has been hard at work pulling weeds in preparation for the arrival of some special guests later that evening.

Ground-hugging shrubs, aromatic plants and new trees fill the garden, some already bearing mature, scented peaches, a fruit common in the area. Along a recently laid path, there are several deep ponds, home to a chorus of frogs hidden among the water lilies. Designed on land adjacent to Agia Skepi, a drug rehabilitation centre for young men, the garden crackles with life yet has an air of extraordinary peace. The special guest on his way is Father Athanassios, Bishop of Limassol, who initiated and sourced financing for the rehabilitation centre, a personal dream now realised and immediately visible from the garden.

In 2007, Markides, a Greek Cypriot lecturer on Building Sustainable Communities at the University of Maine and her colleagues, world-renowned permaculturists, Julia and Charles Yelton, began the four months of work - spread over two years - to establish the garden.

In her absence, the plants are maintained by “the boys”, as US-based Markides refers to the centre’s residents, who have an hour free per day to keep the garden watered. The process of seeing the plants bloom under their fingertips has been mutually beneficial.

“Gardening is therapy,” she insists. “They are beginning to really appreciate the garden. I don’t think it was the case at first - they were moaning. But now after coming out and seeing the results… the garden smiles back at them.”

The results are astounding. A ragged, wild piece of land has grown into a thing of aesthetic beauty and environmental practicality.

The underlying philosophy of the permaculture movement is to utilise nature’s own ecological strategies in agriculture and the design of human settlements. No artificial pesticides or fertilisers are used. Plants provide lines of defence against potential predators and cheap, accessible resources like seaweed, newspaper and straw help re-boot the soil for growth. In time, it becomes a polycultural site, where multiple crops grow together in a thoughtful, energy efficient way. Polyculture draws its design from nature’s own processes and indigenous knowledge of land use.

“Here in Cyprus we practise monoculture. We have fields full of olive trees, almond trees. We hardly ever have polyculture,” Markides says. “Yet nature teaches us that diversity provides strength to the soil. Monoculture is bad because if any virus hits the produce, you’re in trouble. This method enriches the soil and teaches us to abide by nature’s ways.”

With the island in the grip of a water shortage, I query the garden’s water supply. Markides explains the boys treat their ‘grey’ water (domestic wastewater) and use this for the garden. “The water that would have been wasted otherwise is now put to good use.”

This is Markides’ second visit in two years and the garden has come a long way. “What we didn’t expect was to find worms this year, the soil is rich and ready. We’ve begun taking it to the next level.”

Aside from building ecologically sound agricultural systems, perhaps the most exciting thing permaculture offers is the rich social relationships that interweave these projects, such as the friendships, teamwork and sense of community that comes from the time and energy spent developing such sites. This is where Markides’ enthusiasm profoundly takes off. She has a vision for Famagusta, her childhood home, based on rehabilitating the city as an ‘ecopolis’, “a model ecopeace city that fulfills the needs of the two ethnic communities … with a special focus on the conservation and preservation of the natural environment for the sake of present and future generations”.

Her wish is to revitalise the city through embodying the values she holds dear, the same values that brought Agia Skepi’s garden to fruition.

Markides is returning to the States this month to teach, yet feels she is leaving her heart here.

“Sometimes I get overwhelmed because I can’t live in both worlds - here it’s all-emotional, it’s all heart, opening the heart to the world - that’s what Cyprus does to me. America is the intellect. I have to balance both”.

Her biggest anxiety remains “what happens after we leave?” The garden needs volunteers. So far, people have shown their generosity by donating plants, materials and resources. Now the garden simply needs, well, weed pullers. Makides’ boys simply do not have the time to care fully for the garden.

The concept of permaculture meant nothing in Cyprus two years ago. However, as Markides found out, “You find one person who shows great interest, a doctor… and then he brings other people, buys land and wants to create a permaculture site up in the mountains”. News travels fast on a small island.

It is early evening and the hard afternoon sun has slipped from the garden. Only now can you fully appreciate the silvery-red tones of the sage leaves, see the water lilies turn lemon-gold under the sun’s last rays. The Bishop and other friends and supporters of Agia Skepi have arrived. Together they delight in the garden. Markides bids her goodbyes and enthusiastically returns to her great love: enlightening and educating people on the joys and benefits of how permaculture addresses the relationship between people and the land.

1 comment:

  1. I just read that Dr. Markides is doing a presentation at NY's St. Vladimir's Seminary Orthodox Education Day Oct 3. Who would have thought 10 yrs ago (when I was entering seminary) that the school would embrace and promote permaculture,a s Dr. Markides teaches it. It signals a conceptual leap toward the fulfillment of the holism implicit in Orthodoxy. There is hope for the world where there are stewards of God's creation, healing the land which has suffered violence (human conflict and exploitation of resources). Peace will break out from gardens like hers.