A Slice Through Layers of Days

Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador

October’s gray, overcast skies in coastal Ecuador are generally constant and cover over even sunrise and set (caida del sol or “fall of the sun”). This makes for pleasantly cool weather despite melancholy moods. It has been called “the gringo month” even though tourists are mostly absent because of the resemblance to Seattle or London (and perhaps the tendency to stare ahead unsmilingly), but rain as in those other places is rare, light and usually at night. Sometimes in the morning there is verga, a term known to few but meteorologists meaning extremely light rain that barely if ever reaches the ground in quantities enough to make a wet slick.

It is perfect weather for sweaty machete-swinging work clearing terraces and paths to planting sites at this stage of revegetation work in the field. Foreman Jaimie Andrade, mentally bright and physically hardy volunteer Malcolm MacLean, and when he isn’t working elsewhere, Field Projects Manager Clay Plager-Unger have been pioneering a significantly gouged site on a hillside in notoriously eroded El Toro watershed. It will later receive hundreds of carefully chosen native plant saplings that presently overcrowd our greenhouse when real rain begins in December. Because this is city-controlled land, problems with owner cooperation and animal grazing in the future will hopefully be less than usual.

Ramon Cedeno, PDF’s resourceful Bioregional Education Manager who teaches after-school classes from a textbook he and Clay wrote titled “Bioregionalismo”, brought about a dozen of the present students (including previous graduates Raisa and Roberto who are now assistants) by the office to ask questions that had come up in classes. The sheer energy and sense of hopeful promise that these twelve to fourteen year-olds possess was explosive! They explored our whole place so energetically as to imperil bookshelves, furniture and seemingly even walls. Besides the normal restiveness at their ages they are volunteer students, after all, and it would be counter-thematic, even hypocritical, to try to march them into learning about wild Nature. Ramon patiently herded them into a circle around our normally more sedate (what wouldn’t be?) main table for introductions. I opened by praising them for taking the course and pointed out that they were getting a more holistic ecological perspective from it than classes for a similar age range than any I knew about in the US or elsewhere. Then came questions that were read or spontaneously spoken about a range of subjects that would do credit to a much more mature group.

“What is the biggest problem with human activities on the planet today?”

Maybe the boy who asked this one wanted to know a type of pollution or spectacular example of destruction. It was a few moments before I answered, thinking about them as relative newcomers to ecology who might be led down the negative trail that is associated with environmentalism’s reputation as The Big No, emphasizing what should be stopped rather than what should be taken on anew. “The biggest problem is how people are deprived from being in touch with Nature, how they are physically or more often mentally cut off from seeing themselves as belonging to Nature,” I answered. Ramon agreed when asked to confirm that urban people are often afraid when first exposed to wild places. Experiencing and identifying with Nature is our birthright. We inherit a legacy to be part of Nature and we can’t protect or restore natural features unless we know what they are.

“Why do you care and why should we learn abut Nature?”  

Back when their parents were the age the students are today, there were more trees and other natural aspects around Bahia. When their grandparents were that old there were actual forests and plentiful wildlife near the city. Those are gone now and if they ever come back it will be because the students begin restoring them. I said that this happened in my lifetime and I want to do something about it.

How old was I? How old was Planet Drum? Where did that name come from? Are there other groups like ours in other parts of the world or in Ecuador? Can we travel to them on exchanges?

Unexpectedly direct! And sometimes as difficult to answer honestly as unknotting snagged fishing line. People this age expect helpful and final answers. When the truth touched on our lack of funds for expanding to other places or sending them to experience more of this country’s outstanding natural attributes, it was poignant in the way that  parents feel telling children that they can’t afford needed things. Explaining why we don’t have more money for jobs to employ them when massive restoration and sustainability work is so obviously needed is also hard. Regardless of those lapses in getting positive replies, the students left with upbeat Ramon in the same near-jubilant mood as when they arrived. Clay assured me that the encounter was a full-scale success.

The convoluted epic story of getting access to Planet Drum’s land continues. The easiest route is a direct line from the highway where the property is under the control of someone who proved, after more than a year of start-stop negotiations, to be hopelessly uncooperative about building a road. Next we chose to explore a way in from the beach which, although dependent on tides for mobility and at least five times as long, is over land belonging to friends. Clay set out following a creek bed in a pickup truck with two local men who knew some of the way. He discovered features that illustrate the ups and downs that have marked our entire process. First, it became clear that any path other than the creek bed was impossible due to steepness of the terrain. This ruled out passage during the rainy season when the creek would have a depth up to the height of a vehicle and a force near that of a fire hose. Another connecting southerly road from the highway was eventually found but it is also very long and will become too steep to manage when the roads are wet.

Lying just outside our border on land belonging to a second owner, Clay found a functioning albarradoan ancient circular convex depression that fills with water seeping out of surrounding hills. It is a well with pure, fresh water in an area where this essential of life is normally too saline for humans to drink. He spoke to the owner several days later and he seems agreeable to permitting use of this source to provide water during our building stage at least.

Another revelation has been that the land we purchased, and seemed by hearsay to be effectively twice what is stated on the deed, is only the size it is supposed to be after all. However, a road into the valid piece of land that is second shortest of all routes explored so far and was thought to be too difficult to maintain was found to be improved to a state that is actually usable for the development stage now, and access to it was granted when the land was first purchased. Has this Byzantine puzzle finally been solved?

Here are some notes toward a plan for moving ahead to the next step in creating the Bioregional Sustainability Institute that Planet Drum intends for this land.


(Must be accompanied by a vision statement, business plan and budgets.)


      Spanish Language (beginning, intermediate, advanced (?))

      PDF’s ecological sustainability projects (revegetation, bioregional education, renewable energy, community development, etc.)

       Individual Student Projects (design & building, permaculture, renewable energy, water development, revegetation process, botanical and land use research)

Activities and Personnel

        Sustainability Curriculum Instructors
        Individual Projects Oversight Leaders                
        Spanish Language Instructors (for both beginning and intermediate)

Student Levels and Search

        Volunteers (work learning, receive room and board). Find through e-lists and bulletin boards, former vols, colleges and universities, specialty schools and groups.

         Students (individuals design one-year projects, participate in classes, oversee volunteers). Locate through pre-graduate and graduate schools in environmental sciences, architecture, forestry, engineering, international relations, education, and language – permaculture and organic gardening organizations – teachers’ organizations – renewable energy organizations.

       Recognition of Graduation
             Volunteers and Interns – Certificate of Participation
             One-year Students – Institutional Accreditation & 
                                        – Certificate of  Bioregional Sustainability Mastery

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