I sat awkwardly awaiting Frank's arrival in his home, sweaty beyond measure, blowing down the collar of my shirt when nobody was looking. I apparently had not learned my lesson about biking uphill through the dust in the intense Alentejo heat. I wasn't welcomed all that warmly, and for good reason: folks around these parts have become jaded toward people with cameras who take what they need for a story that they can manipulate however they see fit and generally don't do anything to help out an initiative.
"I'm a bit allergic to journalists," Frank told me, first thing. "You know I'm a journalist myself."
"I'm not a journalist," I assured him.
"You say you're making a documentary, it sure sounds like you're a journalist to me."
"Well, I'm not a journalist."
He looked at me sideways, peeling off a shirt that he had just stained taking in a big box of tomatoes. "Let's take a walk." He said that I had about 15 minutes to sell him on my project. "I'll interrupt you sometimes, and sometimes you can interrupt me."
THE GARDEN - Part 5 - FRANKLY SPEAKING
This eco-initiative is called Vale Bacias, founded by Frank Kraakman and two women who shared a common vision - Ute Strunk Twelkemeier and Claudia Gasser-Voser. Their goal is to create a symbiotic space of healing and learning - working with other initiatives in the area, healing the land, healing youth with troubled history (particularly young ladies), and together learning to be more whole and joyful.
Why does the land need healing? This plot had been abandoned 40 years ago. Portugal (Alentejo in particular) has suffered severe deforestation through its history, the worst of which was spurred by Portugal's application to join the EU. The EU required proof of economic stability, so Portugal increased its GDP the fastest way it knew how - cut down thriving ecosystems to make way for monocultures of cash crops. And it worked! Except that now Alentejo is a monocultural desert and the least populated region in all of the EU. (Damn. Maybe it'll work better with corn in the U.S.*)
So, permaculture holds an important key for the future of Alentejo, and perhaps the world. "Nature takes 150 years to create a full Forest," Frank explained. "With the intervention of human beings who know what they are doing, in 25 years you have a healthy forest." Vale Bacias works with another initiative, Eco Interventions, who are taking this mission very seriously. "I find it thrilling!" Frank gets this look in his eye when he talks about it. "It means I can see it. I'm only 51, you know. I will see it."
Partnering with other initiatives like Eco Interventions, many communities are participating in a movement called "I-FreeLand" - that is, buying up as much land as possible for sustainable ecological cultivation so that the mistakes of the past can never be repeated. Vale Bacias was acquired by a Swiss non-profit called Pinú'u-Foundation "One Last Time Forever," and provides Frank's group with the land. That means that the land will never be re-sold to the government or corporations for private trading or profit-oriented agriculture. The land will be free forever.
"That, for me, is a very important detail for happiness - happy nature means I am also happy." Frank and I had been walking around Vale Bacias for more than our allotted 15 minutes. "So," he said with a shrug and a sparkle in his eye, "that was part one. Now let's jump in the car and I'll get a shirt to be a bit more decent, thank you very much."
Frank had come from Holland years ago and lived at Tamera before breaking off to co-found Cento E Oito, another initiative that I was to visit next, with Ute. They moved out and founded Vale Bacias recently to realign their goals with a more specific vision, including naturous retreats for those who need it most. Their real focus is on building a Youth Camp, particularly for young girls who have had difficulties in their lives ("family issues, drug problems, you name it") to come and nurture themselves, to heal and be whole. "Some of my colleagues are professional youth care counsellors. We think that working with youth with 'big city problems' can go very well with building up a project like this. Because it is the same for them as for us - it is useful to work with your hands and get your head a bit empty to fill up your heart."
We were driving up the hill to see where the youth camp would be. "I've spent some time unhappy and unsatisfied in this world. My time to bring joy and happiness is now." A giddiness inflated his syllables as he spoke, as though he might burst into laughter. "I can do it for another 20 or 30 years and then this life is over. So, I will do that. As much as I can." I hadn't seen Frank beaming that way all day.
"Nature already is healing itself. I'm convinced that human beings can also heal themselves, and part of it is to dare to live close - to dare to show what's going on inside of here," he smacked his chest. We stood looking at the foundation of what was to be the youth house. Behind us, a dried up old lake that Frank was determined to fill to the brim by nurturing the land properly.
"We can live in it with 12 or 14 people. So part of it will be the young girls who need support in their lives because they faced too much bullshit, and part of it will be us. And together we will jump in the lake in the morning, plant trees, learn how to play the piano, laugh together or cry together. Whatever." He paused to look out over the land, squinting from the sun in his eyes - the brush, the eucalyptus, the parched earth, the foundation for the youth house - countless hours of work to be done. And he gave a nod.
Frank's next project is organizing a workshop in life-enjoyment for those who are having trouble breaking the habitual thought that life is bland. In his words, "how to enjoy life to the max." He's working with a friend of his from the Netherlands who is a professional clown. "So, I'm interested in this joy part. What brings happiness to us? What brings fun to us?"
He isn't sure exactly what this project will look like when it's complete, but he's determined to make it a reality. He has some ideas of what he can do at Vale Bacias. So, it sounds like My Key To Happy has a good excuse to visit again in the future. Till' next time, Frank.
For more info:
*The Danger of Monocultures
"I find it thrilling! It means I will see it."
The eco-constructed house where we first met and later parted ways.
The land as it heals
Another day at the office for Jim Jarrah from Eco-Interventions, who talks about the joy he finds devoting himself to the healing of the land.
Jim takes me through the forest of trees that Eco-Interventions are planting, careful about the needs of the land and each type of tree.