Connecting to the Land through Pioneer Plants

Ellie O'Grady
Friday, 19th January 2018

Cycling from Lisbon to Seville visiting flagship ecological projects was an inspiration for Ellie O’Grady. Along the way her encounter with the Rock Rose, a pioneer plant of a delicate nature, invited closer inspection of both the surrounding ecosystem and the landscape within.

This is Rock Rose (Cistus ladanifer). This sticky-sapped shrub looks like unobtrusive rocky scrub spattered across the Portuguese landscape, until you come across a bush in full bloom.

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Sensuous, sprawling white blossoms splashed amongst the large waxy leaves, petals splayed open to reveal markings of yellow and black, it invites the eye to come closer and explore. Along with the nobbled groves of cork trees, the sight of these white flowers becomes synonymous with the Portuguese countryside as we pedal along, trying to put over 500 km between us and Lisbon in six days.

We arrive at Vale Bacias, an eco project in rural Portugal, sweaty, tired, and more than ready for a dip in the lake. We have taken on the challenge of cycling through the Portuguese and Spanish landscapes from Lisbon to Seville, visiting eco projects and alternative communities. This invitation has attracted a bold patchwork of seriously interesting people and throughout the week we have been bonding, high on adrenaline, camaraderie, and awe at our own muscles.

As we tumble into the camp, helmets, gloves and padded shorts strewn about like bunting, our jovial host Frank welcomes us with hugs and a sharp wit. We are here to learn what we can of how these amazing communities live sustainably and lovingly, and to be open to absorbing elements into our own realities.

Many of us are at turning points in our lives, looking for ‘something else’, or simply tired of a sense of living at surface level. Dutch born Frank leads us through verdant forestland and swathes upon swathes of rock rose. He is explaining a contradiction within this little flower. We learn that much of Portuguese rural land has become arid, almost desert-like scrub, even though the natural level of yearly rainfall shouldn’t allow this. The primary reason seems to be an agricultural one: monoculture crop farming and the destruction of varied plant-life. Frank points to the tip of a nearby hill. It looks like it has a funky haircut, because the left side is positively sprouting with greenery and an obvious variety of flora, whilst the other side shows a sparse selection of trees, with dusty dry ground visible even from a distance.

The left side, he explains, is part of his project and has been tended by the forest intervention scheme, which aims to follow permaculture principles of allowing and helping land to return to flourishing forest-scapes. We learn that Rock Rose is a ‘pioneer plant’, which means that it is the first stage in a landscape’s natural regeneration process to return to lush forest land, usually a plant that will fix nitrogen into the soil and infuse dry sandy soil with the necessary minerals for the next stage of forest growth, which happens in ‘succession’. A wonderful natural process that shows the resilience and deep knowledge of ecosystems. However, this bush also has flammable seeds that aid the spread of forest fires if untended and can be allowed to dominate — a serious worry for such a dry environment. But the custom of zealously chopping down all of theses bushes has denied the landscape a vital part of its self-regeneration, leading to more dry and barren soil, leading to more arid conditions conducive to fire, leading to more destruction of these plants out of pre-emptive fear. Frank explains how, with care and a trustful element of accepting the risk, he is managing to recreate the flourishing landscapes once seen many years before.

Now, the thing about cycling a long way is that the intense physical effort cracks through one’s status quo and shakes up a vulnerability that can leave one feel exposed, especially when being thrust into a group of strangers, and grappling with the questions of ‘who am I and how do I want to live?’. On a ‘journey into alternative ways of living’ there is no room for ego. You become a sweaty, vibrant vessel for your subconscious as it rises up to challenge you on all sorts of levels.

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©Sam Roberts

So I don’t know if it was this emotional openness or if someone just put something in my porridge that morning, but I felt deeply touched by this resilient shrub. The image of having to sit with a certain fear whilst allowing something to grow that will eventually lead to a healthy whole struck a chord and framed my experience of the entire week’s adventure. Whilst visiting each eco project and alternative community, the white blossoms were never far from mind, like a fragrant little reference point.

Which brings us to Tamera. A well-established community in Portugal established in 1995 (although the research and ideas behind it date back to the 70s), it is aimed at creating a ‘self sufficient, sustainable and duplicable communitarian model for nonviolent cooperation’. With the idea of becoming a ‘healing biotope’ or greenhouse for incubating peace in new ways of living with nature, animals and humans, Tamera quickly realised that for any community project to be successful, it is necessary to heal the war of jealousy and power between the genders.

Regardless of the ultimate aim of the project, sex, love and their surrounding emotions will become the focus of any conglomerate of humans until this rift is healed; Tamera advocates free sexuality, amongst many other tools. The first thing I see on arriving at Tamera is a stunning tiger lily plant, technicolor in its vibrancy, florid and erotic as well as delicately swaying in the balmy breeze. It is SEXY. There are vivid rose blossoms orgasmically splayed open with heady scent, the pebbles on the ground are smooth and hot to the touch, and the lake is sparkling in the sun, warm and inviting. I am struck by the realisation that life energy flows through everything, and wonder how I could have ever looked at a tiger lily before without acknowledging its extreme sensuality. In this environment, it becomes easy to feel love as an all encompassing flow that weaves in and out of people and relationships, and not just as an exclusive bond between two people.

Over the next 24 hours, we see firsthand some of Tamera’s incredible permaculture work, such as facilitating the creation of a huge two hectare natural lake that collects rainwater and flourishes all year round. Considering the dry clime and unforgiving soil, this is impressive. During our question and answer session with two residents, we broach the subject of their beliefs on love and relationships. They are gracious and considered in their answers, and give us a lot to think about.

A metaphor that sticks with me is of love as water. A primary aim of a harmonious relationship with nature is pure water; it must be flowing and clean. They compare love with water, and their work on relationships as the task of keeping love flowing and pure rather than close and stagnant. There is such a dynamic element to the visit because we have created our own traveling community over the week, with its own needs and subtleties, so there is support when contemplating these big, sometimes uncomfortable, themes. Over a camping box of wine, we mull over this picture of love and nature, as presented by Tamera. Jealousy, love, partnership, monogamy: these are issues that can be scary to confront - funnily enough, love is close to everyone’s heart (sorry). It’s one thing to research theories online and quite another to pedal yourself across Portugal with your own quadriceps and immerse yourself in a complete shift in thinking. It involves that element of the unknown, that side portion of fear, that feeling of long-held beliefs being shaken. It also demands you to examine your own steadfastness in your own integrity and boundaries; what will you allow in? What do you take and what do you leave of another’s point of view? It feels overwhelming at times, but the group supports each other with a touching open heartedness, a willingness to sit with this discomfort and with a listening ear and open mind.

Frank springs to mind, with his loving care towards the unruly rock rose, knowing he is opening up to risk and unknown territory, but equally trusting in the ultimate regeneration of something more profound in its wholeness.

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©Sam Roberts

It has opened my eyes to a sense of letting go and trusting. To unpinch the strings of life held tightly to my chest and allow the kite to soar in a fluid state of being that is curious and playful. And the amazing thing about being on a bike for all this is that these realisations seem to just happen somewhere in-between the sweat and the carb loading, the ‘we climbed that hill!’, high fives and the endorphin highs. It’s not an intellectual exercise, but an image or feeling that presents itself in a suddenly known way; a bright orange petal, the welcome hug of a stranger, the feisty, beautiful white bloom of a Rock Rose.

Ellie O’Grady is a singer and actor living in south London. She has been on three Brake the Cycle tours to date.

Brake the Cycle have been organising Europe wide transformational cycling adventures since 2011. Ride through epic landscapes whilst staying at the world's most inspiring eco villages. With trips for all levels, find out more and see your world differently at www.brakethecycle.xyz  

Useful links

Brake the cycle: Bilbao to Barcelona

How connecting with nature can make you better at permaculture

How permaculture reconnects us with nature

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