A Way Through the Woods: The Heart of Permaculture Retreat


Timothy Wigley, Nov 2019, Dharmagiri Sacred Mountain Retreat.

The natural setting of the retreat centre really enhanced the process we were sharing, that is, making a deep and loving connection with Nature and from that place of connection, reflecting on both the causes of climate chaos and how we can adapt to these changes. 

Mvuleni, the sacred mountain, was a very powerful presence for us all. I could sense why we call it a sacred mountain. Arne Naess, the Norwegian Deep Green philosopher, says we need to start “thinking like a mountain” and in this context that seemed to flow naturally. I felt especially aware of just how much that mountain has seen. ….the sandstone forming at the bottom of an ancient sea, the thrust into the sky by the upwelling lava forming these mountains, this Drakensberg, makes Mvuleni an ancient place. 

Going up a mountain is recognised in many spiritual traditions as a way of clarifying vision, and on the day Menzi led our group up the Mvuleni slope, I had a deep experience of this. We were walking the mountain, silently, each of us opening to Nature and listening for a „message‟ that we could bring back to the humans in the Council of All Beings to be held later that day. Some of us sat on a ledge overlooking a strip of indigenous forest where Menzi said the baboons have their cave. Looking around I saw that this vibrant strip of forest is the only area on the mountain that still has live soil. On the way up the mountain we had walked over grassland that has been severely degraded. There are patches of bare soil between the grass clumps and I noticed small areas of hard, impermeable algae and lichens growing over this soil.

The presence of these impervious algae over soil indicates that conditions have degraded and now reversing to an almost pre-biological era. These algae grow on rock, and hundreds of millions of years ago, even before plant life covered the mountain slopes, this algae was an early pioneer, extracting minerals from the rock thereby paving the way for a succession of organisms that would eventually create soil and result in a diverse cover of plants that would further build soil and support every increasing diversity of life. To find these impervious algae trying to cover the soil indicates a “desperate” situation. 

Sitting on the mountain side looking down into this small piece of vibrant forest left in the ravine below and reflecting, I was able to see and read the landscape around me through the eyes of the baboons living here now… 

We find it ironic that when you humans look up at this mountain from your habitation down in the valley below, you see a beautiful mountain, you see this healthy bit of forest and you look at the green grass and you mistakenly think it is beautiful, healthy grasslands covering the mountain slopes. 

And as we look down from this mountain we see is desolation. We see huge tracts of bare ground where the life of the soil has been utterly destroyed. We see rows of strange trees growing on soil which has been divested of life. 

Even the patches of green we see from here, could, if you didn’t know better, look beautiful. Well, we have learnt from bitter experience, they may look green but we know that these patches are a very poor sham of true grassland. The soils under these patches, like the bare fields, are utterly dead. Under that strange grass, nothing lives. When we have had to dig into this grass, because we’ve lost our own grassland up the mountain here, we do not find any earthworms, grubs, scorpions… nothing. 

The dung of the strange beasts that feed on this pretence of grass contains no beetles and no insects. At its best, it will contain fly maggots. Sometimes in desperation we have eaten some of these maggots but they are bitter and distasteful. The only creature that seems to enjoy these fly maggots is the “bird of death”, known to humans as the Sacred Ibis. 

So here lays the irony of which we speak; when humans look out on our area of habitation they see beauty and life, but when we look at their area of habitation we see death and desolation. However, the humans seem to live on while we are dying, dying because we are forced to forage in this valley of desolation. Humans revile us and regard us as thieves when we seek food in their valley. We wish we could tell them how little we enjoy coming into it. We do so because the grasslands up here are also dead or dying, having none of the abundance of life that once sustained us so well.

In those times, when you turned over a stone, you were sure to find a tasty morsel beneath it; maybe a scorpion or a fat grub. Now you can turn over fifty stones and be lucky if you find anything at all. Forced to forage in the human landscape below, we know we face death; either a quick death from his gun or a slow one from the poisons on his food we are forced to eat. My name is Baboon and I have spoken” 

What Baboon had to say about the food being toxic was painfully brought home to me when Merril (who has been farming in the area for thirty years) described how the baboons come down to eat the maize seed soon after the farmers have planted. Before planting the farmers spray a pre-emergence herbicide over the soil. The seed they then sow into this is coated with insecticide. After the seed is planted the unaware and desperately hungry baboons go down the row digging up the poisonous seeds and eating them. 

Having seen the situation through baboon’s eyes, I could not miss seeing that what the baboons are experiencing now is a mirror the horror the San People experienced with the invasion of European Settler farmers into their area (early 1800s). They brought with them modern agriculture: their cattle and the plough, to be followed by a barrage of poisons: insect repellents and toxic fertiliser, and latterly genetically modified crops. 

The realisation of this mirrored experience was reinforced when Anne told me about Geshe Lobsang Dhondup, the Tibetan monk who, while staying in Thanissara and Kittisaro’s house at Dharmagiri, encountered “ghosts”. He said he had encountered a “small brown man who had been hanged near there” and a “small brown woman who had to watch her two children die”. 

The San, like present day fauna, had to watch as the grasslands, which had sustained them for thousands of years as hunter gatherers, was annihilated. First, they would have seen the incredibly vast herds of grazing animals destroyed; without herd impact grassland rapidly deteriorates. As if this deterioration was not enough, they would have had to witness large swathes of grassland being turned over with steel ploughs, thereby exposing the soil to the hot African sun. With their food source wiped out, they, like the other life on the mountains today, were forced to forage on the new farmlands. For the San this was a dangerous thing to do. Hundreds of San where shot and some hanged as “thieves”. Some San were also hanged for daring to challenge the new settlers. Mothers could easily have had to watch young children dying of starvation as they hid in the caves up in the mountains, unable to forage and hunt as they had been doing for thousands of years. 

What I find very beautiful now is the way Menzi, sounding the mealtime gong, walks up onto the next flat terrace to invite these hungry ghosts to join us for a meal. This must surely give them a sense of once again belonging, of being honoured and respected – something so violently taken away from them when they were living there. 

I also like Menzi’s desire to make a spiritual connection with the baboons; maybe planting food they would naturally eat, nearer to them so they would not need to forage near the houses. This could be a beginning, although the real beginning must be restoration of the mountain grassland. A few indigenous fruit trees as part of the forest restoration would be fine and be a healthy and natural supplement to the baboon‟s diet, but the primary food source for baboons has always been what they can forage in the grasslands. At present this primary food source is virtually nonexistent. 

Musing over all this I was struck how well placed Dharmagiri Retreat Centre is to bring some light into human consciousness of how the climate chaos which is threatening all life on this planet is the result of unconscious behaviour on the part of humans. This is particularly true of the way we practice agriculture. As the wild fauna and the San themselves can bear witness to, it has utterly disrupted the earth‟s regenerative capacity. The amount of carbon that has left our soil over the last 50 years and is now in the atmosphere, far exceeds the carbon from burning fossil fuels. 

IMAGINE……imagine what Dharmagiri would feel like with rich grasslands once again covering the slopes of Mvuleni. Imagine the indigenous forest following the water course down the mountain….imagine baboons being allowed to once again live in harmony with their environment. Imagine humans living in harmony with their environment? (Okay that one is hard to imagine). 

When I first started thinking about this I imagined a small herd of Nguni cattle (using cows to imitate nature, replacing the large antelope herds with local cattle) being used to graze in a holistic way, to regenerate the grassland there….but it would really need to be a bigger area so one would also need to involve the neighbours. 

Anyway, these are my thoughts on how Dharmagiri could be made into an even more powerful and more beautiful place than it already is. Re-establishing the grassland here would contribute to what Joanna Macy has called “The Great Turning”. 

This is something we all, rather urgently, need to be bringing about before it is too late. 

With metta, Tim


A Journey from Lesotho to Tim & Annie’s Permaculture Retreat at Dharmagiri

By Thato Moeketse

I found out about the retreat through social media. Facebook and Instagram to be exact. It had been a wish of mine for sometime to find ways to reconnect with nature and this retreat seemed and strongly felt like that. As I had wished, my hope was restored as I had for years after childhood, taken a step back from plants and the love for vegetation since growing up in a family that forced them on me.

The retreat offered me real confidence and courage to reconnect. I felt the gap between me and nature close in the most beautiful of ways and have since been making changes in my life that make me happier. I am really passionate about making an impact in the environmental crisis and this retreat opened my eyes to lots. I have learned so much more than I could have from any medium because most things were done practically and the fact that it was a small intimate group, helped because everyone got a chance to participate in every way possible. Everything was done in a warm, clear and fun way and that was very welcoming.

I admire the integrity and wisdom of the speakers, Tim and Annie. It is a gift. They offered everything so beautifully and respectfully, on a daily basis. They practice what they preach and it is evident. They are both very incredibly gifted listeners and very humble. 

Being able to go into the forest and learning about the soil and all other many many things in there was healing. It has changed how I view forests now, as more than just a bunch of trees but a place of living things that deserves respect and appreciation. 

The grasslands also (even though I was uncomfortable the whole time with snakes and other creatures) were a bittersweet experience because learning about how rich and beautiful they used to be as compared to how they are now, was a wake up call. It also felt good to have my feet in the river while meditating. 

We got a chance to create, as a group, a spiral herb garden and plant trees. Felt like such milestones 😊. I would love to go back someday to check on those. 

Dharmagiri is indeed a place of healing. I am thankful and grateful for the opportunity to have gone. It will stay with me forever. The space, the people, the environment, the peace, joy and love… The food… Everything is just beautiful and humbling. All works together in perfect harmony and divine timing.

I have also learned the value of silence, timing, calmness, discipline and accountability. This I saw through meditation, food and even making peace with seeing snakes and slowly facing my fears. The Sacred mountain has so much power. It played an important role in me connecting with myself and other parts of me being God and others.

I received an incredible level of guidance and support from everyone there in different and yet special ways to achieve this. I loved waking up to the view of that mountain in the morning and listening to melody and even silence in the night and beauty at daytime from the Mountain. It is a pity fear wouldn’t let me go up this time around but someday I will. 

I also learned there are so many ways to meditate and the walking meditation was one of my personal favourites. I also enjoyed my duty of cleaning the shrine and organising the library. I learned a lot. All of these became special and beneficial to me personally. I am profoundly grateful for the time my friend and I and others got to spend there. We all connected in ways deeper than I would have thought possible. It really made a difference in who I am in relation to nature and many other things. I am much more secure in myself and the difference I want to make in taking care of the earth that has faithfully been taking care of us. I credit the work of everyone involved in making this a reality. Tim and Annie, the staff and the founders of that beautiful place. 

Thato in the middle, with orange dress.

I am forever thankful. For every contributing made for us to get there and during our time there and back and after. May the spirit of generosity and compassion live on. Love and light. 
Kind regards, Thato M. 

Thank you Thato, for both you and Fifi making the big journey. We look forward to you coming back!

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