Journeys Without a Map

Projects and Expeditions… Any Which Way

Posts from the ‘Fertile Roots Foundation’ category

Okay, for the third time I’ve been criticized for my ‘environmentally toxic’ choice of vehicle. “How can you call yourself a ‘permaculturalist’ and justify driving a vehicle that wouldn’t be allowed into London because of its high emissions?” The first antagonist asked, waving his hand dismissively at my latest vehicle, a 1982 Bavarian fire engine.

That’s the gist of all three accusations: that I should be driving the latest and cleanest. Before buying this monster I had already given the subject some thought, of course.  For a start, it’s a thirsty beast – 18mpg or 15L/100km – and I’m not the wealthiest.  Plus, the engine is a 1960s design, so it does indeed cough out quite a bit more particulate matter and CO2 than most things around these days.  But the fact is, I didn’t buy it for its efficiency.  I bought it because (1) it could have been tailor-made for my family’s needs, (2) it was ridiculously cheap, (3) it’s old so I can fix it myself, and (4) it’s ferkin’ cool. It ticked four out of five boxes. But none of that really answered the accusation.

Our 1982 Mercedes 608 fire engine approaching The Serai for the first time.

“Erm….,” I stammered, caught off guard, “It’s a working truck and I’m only going to do 10,000km a year in it. Anyway, it’s a recycling effort.”

I didn’t lose the argument but nor was I very convincing.  So later I did some research into car and truck emissions, fuel consumption and the crux of the matter: embodied energy.

Embodied energy isn’t very often considered these days. It should be. Everything that we buy, from carrots to cars has, in its production, burned fossil fuels and caused a CO2 emission. That’s embodied energy. The car that first accuser had turned up in was a new Landrover Discovery. My discovery about his Discovery was that approximately 30 tonnes of CO2 had been emitted in its manufacture. Then, comparing his vehicle and mine, taking into account the extra grams of CO2 per km that my fire engine emits, I found that I could drive to Capetown and back six times before I’m even in the same ballpark. In other words, if I cover my usual 10,000kms a year it will take 12 years before my fire engine has even started to catch up with the shiny new Disco.

But, in fact, I never will never come close to matching his motoring emissions. As my truck just keeps on going while he replaces his car every 3-4 years because the ashtray is full or whatever, he will continue to fall so, so far behind me in Eco-credibility that I would have to slash and burn a chunk of the Amazon and there plant soy beans for him to have any hope at all of catching up. And none of this even takes into account his embodied energy emissions before now.  I’ve never bought a new car in my life.

There, take that!  Anyone else want to ‘dis’ my ride?

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There’s no real need for me to put a barrel vault roof over our main reception room.  It’s in the original plan however and I think it’ll add WOW factor to the finished building.  It’s also fun to have a go at building a vault, so why not?


I wouldn’t be allowed to do this in Europe.  Some beige little man in a beige suit from a local authority would come and tell me it didn’t conform to some farcical regulations invented merely to give beige men positions of authority.  Yes, yes, yes, and to save lives as well, I suppose.  Whatever the case, I would need to employ a structural engineer to tell me how to conform to these regulations, he would tell me my walls shouldn’t be made of rocks and mud and suddenly the cost of it all would become untenable.  Here, in fact, if a little beige man turned up with the same deal his interference would have far more justification; Agadir was completely leveled by an earthquake in the 1960s and it’s only 200kms to the south.  I should take that seriously, but beige men can’t get their low-slung cars to within 3kms of this place so I choose take my chances instead. These two little steel bars should do the trick!


There’s another reason I wouldn’t be able to do this in Europe.  My fisherman neighbour, Hafed, patiently handing me bricks as I mess it up again and again, or mixing up more lime for me to waste, would be on the same rate per hour in Europe as I pay him here for a day.  It’s outrageous really, the daily wage here, and we pay 20% more than anyone else I know of for the same work!  He even enjoys it; it’s good money and from the rooftop he can see what all his friends are up to.  I pay the same to his younger brother, Abdullah, who has shown some flair for this kind of caper and has built two domes on his own.  He’s learnt skills that are surprisingly rare here and frequently I catch him admiring his own work with unrestrained delight.  In Europe I’d probably have a sullen youth perpetually reaching for his iPhone and at the end of each week a third of the total cost of this roof would go into his pocket for having done little but irritate me.

So, I get to play around a little here and it started way back when I asked a friend to design this building.  I don’t remember stipulating vaults, domes, towers, spiral staircases, cloisters and a stage but that’s what she came back with.  Perhaps I did.

Screen shot 2014-06-06 at 19.19.09

I fell in love with her design immediately and we have stuck fairly closely to it even though the job earmarked to pay for it all disappeared shortly afterwards, to be replaced only by a hand to mouth existence of seasonal frolics.  A few changes have been made along the way, the most dramatic of which followed our discovery that the design didn’t actually fit within the perimeters of the land.  No doubt this was my oversight, not the architect’s. In haste, for the stone masons were about to arrive, we lopped a metre off every side of every room.   And thank God we did.  It’s big enough as it is and from some viewpoints looks so vast against the surrounding farmhouses that I shudder with embarrassment and hurry home, hoping not to have to talk to anyone with it rearing up monstrously behind me like Disneyland.

The other major change has been in the time I envisaged for it’s completion…enough said on that.


It’s never been easy to think of it merely as a house; we don’t need a house as big as this. It’s always been an Eco-lodge, a ‘centre’, for art, drama, permaculture, music; creativity in all its guises.  I’m looking forward to building the stage for them all.  With no beige men in sight it will be spectacular and won’t cost me so much I have to charge future visitors a fortune.  The intention is to have interesting, colourful people staying here, not just wealthy.  Interesting and wealthy will be ideal, obviously.  And that’s another reason to build a such a vault. Nobody is going to even imagine that I was fool enough to build this thing myself.  They’ll say “Wow!”, obediently, and then ponder the cost of such a marvel, imagining a figure so reassuringly great that they’ll feel sufficiently privileged to stay here, despite the frogs’ spawn in the ‘swimming pool’.



Since getting to Azrou Issa in early November everything has hinged around catching rain. At that time it hadn’t rained for 7 months and we thought it must do so soon. The race was on to turn an enormous hole in front of the house, from which came the earth that was used as mortar for the S2230003walls, into a cistern for rainwater falling on the roof. It’s a job I’ve put off for three years, mainly because I wasn’t sure how to make it strong enough to resist tree roots without spending a fortune on it. I still wasn’t 100% certain how to go about it in November but after six drought years in the last eight our well, once nourished by a healthy trickle, is now on a drip and we are squarely in the same boat as our neighbours, as bound to the life-giving rains, or lack of them, as they are. We needed a big cistern and needed it desperately: ‘that bloody hole’ was suddenly at the top of the agenda.

We’d never seen this place looking so barren as late in the year as November, let alone December and now January. Usually there’s been enough of a watering by now for dormant weeds to haveIMG_5548 long since germinated and for there to be a carpet, albeit a threadbare one, of tiny, orchid-like wildflowers. Not so this year; not a single weed or wildflower to be seen anywhere, only a vista of dust before that of crashing surf. It’s strange to think there’s nothing but water for 2,000 miles, in one direction at least. Every day a neighbour is at the door, asking if there’s any rain on the way and I scan the internet forecasts to relay a gloomy negative.

My God, they are stoical here. But then they suppose they’re not going to die of thirst or starvation. Even when their cisterns are empty there is a communal well 2kms away that seems to be reliable. They take the donkeys down there, laden with jerrycans. So it’s not that bad. But although you may be able to water yourself and your animals from a well 2kms away you cannot water your fields with it. They ought now to be counting down the weeks to the first harvest but instead they’ve only just started ploughing.

Our well is more of a water mine than a standard well (main picture): 200ft (60m) deep with a lateral tunnel Mining2 010at 150ft (45m) that snakes off into a layer of wet clay.  The water seeps out of the clay walls, runs along the tunnel floor and into the vertical shaft. It took three years to dig with a hammer and chisel, which makes it all the more painful that it has run dry. But on the other hand I am thankful that it has. My neighbours have not and will not ever see us splashing water extravagantly about our garden, but if our permaculture experiments produce growth they cannot now even suspect us of watering at night. And the more difficult it gets for us all here the stronger becomes the case for them all taking a little leap of faith and trying something new across their own land.

I don’t know what we’ll use the well for now.  A potholing adventure for guests perhaps? A cure for claustrophobia?  When you stand at the very bottom and look up, there is just a pinprick of light.  Ayelen loves it down there.

S2570007Finishing the cistern, we lowered in a boom box and made a rain dance with some strange looking friends. And do you know what? The very next day it rained, 3″ (7.5cms), just as the forecast said it would! Now, a week later everything still looks barren, until you look down at the ground around your feet. And there they are, poking their little heads up through the terrible earth, all those tiny little seedlings reaching hungrily for light and life.

Just three months now until the next drought. There’s no time to waste; every man, woman, child, animal and plant living here knows this.  It’s time for Ayelen and I to plant trees, lots of trees, quick growing desert trees with tap roots that will find their own water, leguminous trees that will inject nitrogen into our soil and provide support to other plants.  In three years I don’t want to be able to see the ocean.  I want a forest.  We’ll start to cut them back after that and put in their place the species we want to end up with, the ones that’ll give us food, fodder, mulch and firewood.

Our neighbour, Si Mohamed, when he was helping me make our cistern strong enough to keep the roots of all these trees out, fell silent when I explained my forest plan.

“All your trees will come and drink at my cistern now.” He said, despondently.