There is a special place down in Portugal that has achieved the impossible. A place that is making miracles and creating water (And let's face it, we could do with a few miracles, right now). That place is called Tamera.
Last month, while on my four-wheeled odyssey of the Iberian Peninsula, I decided to pay Tamera a visit. As I drove the length of Portugal’s wave-thrashed coast, one thought appeared often. It winged its way along the sculpted rocks, skimmed the surf, and dove between the green rucks of the Atlantic. "What is life?"
The force of life is baffling. How it comes into being. How it moves. Why it bothers. For us on planet Earth, life is inextricably linked to water. Oh and didn’t I know it as I chugged southwards? How many times would I peer up at my caravan’s water tank gauge to see that accursed arrow in the red?
Pushing my van into 4th gear, I sped away from the sea and into the hills, to the region of Alentejo.
Tamera was founded over forty years ago by a group of like-minded folk who bought up a large plot of land in southern Portugal and founded a small society. It is a solar-powered, sustainable world based on peace and love, and a few other things generally deemed utopic. In fact Tamera’s byline is “Realistic Utopia.”
Now let’s be honest here, my dog has just died, I’m far from Mud Mountain, Turkey has become a dictatorship, the UK has just voted away my EU citizenship, and all over the Western world borders are slamming shut faster than a climate denier’s eyelids. The last thing I was feeling when I strolled into Tamera was optimism for world peace and love. My mission was to learn about water solutions. Having suffered for two years on Mud Mountain without water, I wanted to view first hand Tamera’s revolutionary water retention landscape.
But Tamera has another way of speaking to you. One I hadn’t heard for a few months now. One I was badly missing. And I was reminded, the water solution – beautiful as it is – isn’t the ultimate solution.
It was April, and as I wended my way through the rolling slopes of Alentejo, spring was everywhere. The hills were speckled with the white heads of rock roses, and I grinned at the telegraph poles. Each one was capped by a huge nest of twigs. They were fat straw hats in which a stork sat cosily, beak pointing outwards, waiting for her mate to bring her some food. Yet it was already a feisty 28 degrees, the sun coursing over the hills in hot golden rivers. I noticed many of the roadside springs were dry.
Desertification is encroaching upon Portugal. And just as in most places, this is caused by a consortium of inappropriate agricultural techniques, deforestation and modern water (mis)management systems. Unfortunately for us all, most mainstream water engineers are still stuck in the 17th century; the universe is a machine, only instead of God we now pull the levers. They approach our planet’s water as if it were a plumbing system laid on for our convenience. Massive dams are constructed squandering huge amounts of concrete and thus energy. Ecosystems are destroyed in the process. The water table enters a state of severe imbalance. Droughts worsen. In the face of these disasters, the current engineering ‘solution’ is to repeat this insanity on a bigger scale, because apparently humans are still club-wielding numbskulls, knuckles dragging in the now waterless dust, and bigger is always better, right?
And then there’s permaculture, which doesn’t see the planet as a machine, but as a dynamic ball of life...
Tamera is permaculture in action.
My van bumped along a dirt track. It twisted and turned spewing a haze of dust behind it. Suddenly I spotted it. Solar panels. A yurt or two. A strawbale structure. Two lakes. I had arrived.
I slowed down, wound down my window and gawped at the water retention lakes. Yet what was most striking them wasn’t the lakes themselves, but the myriad of life that surrounded them. Grass, flowers, trees, saplings, shrubs, vegetables. It was an oasis of green vitality in an arid scrubland.
How did they make the lakes?
The lakes were designed by the Austrian agricultural rebel, Sepp Holzer. On the lower part of the land, two lakes were excavated. They were not sealed by concrete or any other type of artificial membrane, but banked by clay to stop the excess water running away in the rainier season. It’s important that the pools are lake-sized not pond-sized or the water evaporates (which is exactly why my bash at one on Mud Mountain failed).
How do the lakes work?
Water retention lakes are only ever effective when part of a water retention landscape. What’s that? It’s a landscape with no rainwater run-off, when each drop of rain sinks into the land, is taken up by plant life or the earth itself. Previously the Earth was covered in dense vegetation which allowed a precious humus to form. It is the humus that sucks up the water like a sponge before allowing it to slowly seep back into the ground.
There are many aspects to a water retention landscape; terracing, lakes, holistic grazing management, swales and more. But it’s far beyond the scope of this post to explain each one. And seeing as the information is available online for free, and written by folk with far more experience than me, it would be a crass reinvention of the wheel. But for those wanting the details (or to argue the toss about why classic water management projects cause droughts), download Tamera’s detailed PDF.
For the living proof, you can view the before and after photos on the Tamera website. In ten years the space has been entirely transformed.
But hold on there! The water solution isn’t actually the solution.
Now I know people love to geek out on these types of solutions. But to obsess over the lakes and the swales, to focus only on the most obvious physical structures of Tamera’s landscape is to revert back to the dam-building engineer mentality. It’s missing the point. I'd go as far as to say, after my own experiences on Mud Mountain, without Tamera's founding principles, it wouldn't even work in the same way. Because, the Earth is not a machine, and it’s not something to be solved. It’s a responsive organism.
What are those principles?
When I sat at one of the water retention lakes’ banks, it hit me. I hugged my knees under a pine tree watching dragonfly wings shimmer, butterflies flitting overhead, birds slipping so close they almost touched me. And I wept. I was suddenly back on Mud Mountain, in a space of beauty and love. Because this is how it was on my land too. When humans love the earth they live upon, when they truly see each part of the ecosystem as equal and valuable, when they build a non-violent relationship with it, something magical occurs. It’s alchemy. And nature becomes something else. Wild animals scuttle about with a relaxed confidence that is palpable. Flowers bloom. Trees bear fruit. And the ground oozes healing. It is this type of environment that makes anything possible. Life burgeons from deserts. Balance is restored in a matter of years. Miracles occur.
Tamera’s water experts say they can create their scenario anywhere in the world. When you see Tamera, when you move away from a screen and live it, it’s obvious it can be done anywhere, though Tamerans would be the first to agree that the water retention lakes are the least of it.
Who knows what life really is. But one thing is for sure, it thrives not only on water, but on connections, relationships and love. Oh how obvious this is when you've lost something you love! Everything responds to care, respect and attention; be it human, animal or plant. When human love and the love of the planet join forces, Edens are created.
Spaces like Tamera show the structures of urbanity, with their conveniences and comforts for what they are: Barren, love-starved, polluted, ugly, noisy hell holes. After four months in what feels like exile from Mud Mountain, I simply cannot fathom how people stand it. It’s hideous. It’s banal. It’s soul-destroying. How could anyone live in that and not feel depressed? It’s a complete and utter excommunication.
As the birds of Tamera chirped in delicious excitement of yet another day alive, I remembered what I had to do. I remembered what the point was. Because I’d lost it there for a moment.
My space. The Earth. Eden. I must co-create it again. Because there's nothing else like it.
Atulya K Bingham
Author and Natural Builder.
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