Now its May in Southern Ontario, the geese are returning. And I’m back too. This time from Guatemala, or Guatemaya as it’s lovingly referred to.
For the past three months I’ve been spending my time in Guatemala’s southwestern highlands around Lake Atitlan. Surrounded by vibrant towns and crowned by two volcanoes, Lake Atitlan has been somewhat of an energetic centre for many locals and foreigners alike-they’ve all tuned into something special…
Shad Qudsi is one of those people. Native to the USA, Shad and his wife Colleen moved to the lake seven years ago and began Atitlan Organics, a permaculture farm that I ended up volunteering on for the better part of three months.
Now if you’re scratching your head wondering what is permaculture, in a nutshell- it’s an approach to gardening that aims to have the land function as a healthy, self-sustaining ecosystem.
That is pretty much what you’ll find when you get to Atitlan Organics, a healthy diverse ecosystem. Shad is a kind of permaculture wizard; he’s revitalized 2.2 acres of once rock-filled, hard to work-with land into a fertile food-forest that provides abundantly for the bodies and as I would discover the minds of those involved.
Now this wasn’t my first time on a farm but this was definitely my first time being sincerely inspired by one. Atitlan Organics flipped the script on me by explaining how my actions contributed to the flow of the ecosystem I was participating in. Amazing what a little information can do for cultivating a sense of purpose. And it wasn’t just me -I saw how this information would lighten the load and enrich the experience of newcomers to the farm time-and-time-again. I knew I wasn’t just hosing poop off of a wall, I was preventing disease and adding well-needed moisture to a robust composting-system happening under my feet.
Beyond understanding permaculture methodology, the farm was the site for a lot of personal growth and reflection. The farm became a kind of microcosm for the macro. I saw how as I gave my energy to the land; it was giving back to me in my physical and mental health as well as with my personal relationships. Over the months I formed special bonds with extremely talented local people, horticulturalists, holistic healers, backpackers, retirees, chefs- brilliant people in general, all visitors or employees of the farm who were taking time to cultivate their connection to the earth and the systems they were involved in.
A word on community involvement here: I’ve heard Shad say that his hope for the farm is to be in-service of the community and I seriously respect that. We all know that narrative, foreigners show up to developing countries, set up establishments that exclude the locals and end up gentrifying the entire area. I think Atitlan Organics is aware of that pattern and makes conscious efforts to integrate rather than segregate within the town. Now while that transition might happen little by little, efforts are being made. Shad employs primarily locals, providing them with dignified fairly paid work and has also hosted events such as a farm-fresh taco lunch for locals and a ‘plant-the-lake-day’ where locals and foreigners alike came together to plant water-purifying vegetation into Lake Atitlan.
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