Breathing Life Into the Mountainside – An Invitation to the Garden of Eden

“If you are interested in forest gardening, permaculture and organic food production, you may want to come and see the finca near Estacion Gaucín that we have been working on for 19 years”, Stefan Lipka humbly suggests in a text message that we received a couple of weeks ago. We were, of course, greatly intrigued by this proposition, which proved to be no less than an invitation to the Garden of Eden. We do apologise for the cliché, but there simply isn’t any other way to put it.

Before making the move to Gaucín, Polish-English Stefan Lipka and Indian-Syrian Talib Syed were both in the London wholesale industry, specialising in organic food produce. When asked what prompted the radical shift from their working lives in urban England to rural Spain, Talib simply looks out over their lush, hilly land and opens up his hands, indicating its exuberant beauty.

View over the forest garden at Finca Shantivanam.

During a tour of the estate, we soon learn that there is – as one can imagine – hard work behind its green, oxygen saturated abundance. Stefan and Talib have spent almost two decades turning the wild mountainside into a forest garden, salvaging the land from a devastating fire roaring the countryside just before they purchased it. “It was a miracle the house didn’t burn down completely.”, Stefan remarks. “We lost 99 percent of our trees. Only the black stems remained and the ground was covered in white ashes.”

In the aftermath of the fire in 2002, a few trees grew back. Others were replanted by Stefan and Talib – for example, 23 varieties of palm tree, in which they have a special interest. In addition to these, they grow apples, pears, oranges, lemons, bananas, peaches, avocados, chestnuts, mangos, walnuts, macadamia nuts, pecan nuts, almonds, mulberries, tamarind, a variety of guava fruit, cherries, figs, passion fruit, kiwi and pomegranates. As if this weren’t more than enough for Finca Shantivanam to inspire the paradise-simile, it also hosts a great number of vegetables and medicinal herbs. Talib is especially fond of the young moringa tree, with its many nutritional qualities.

Talib Syed by his young Moringa tree, still in a pot.

Finca Shantivanam is located in Europe’s fifth largest forest. On the estate, there is an ancient, sacred spring, where both Romans and Moors, who once inhabited the area, used to toss coins for good luck. With the help of a metal detector, some coins were located close to the spring. Also reminiscent of bygone cultures are aqueducts and mines along the hillside.

The pool in Finca Shantivanam, filled with crystal clear water from the ancient spring on the estate.

“I have wanted an easier life many times”, says Talib, when asked about any downsides to life in rural Spain. “It really takes at least four people just to tend to the garden. Some nights, I feel so tired. Work can be both back-  and heart breaking. But we can’t leave. The clean air, the spring water and all that we have created makes it worth it, by far.”

The far from easy, but greatly rewarding, life of Stefan and Talib consists mainly of maintaining and developing their garden via permaculture, which, in short, means that trees, plants and crops are planted so as to create virtuous circles – each of them providing shade, shelter and support for another, in a carefully designed system that makes artificial fertilizers and the like unnecessary. Many of the plants reseed themselves – for example the wild asparagus – and the ground is prepared by a technique called mulching, which means covering it with organic material in order to prevent water from evaporating too quickly, as well as minimizing weed.

One of many examples of permaculture – a passion fruit climbing a pomegranate. The pomegranate only produces low quality fruit, but it works as decoy, making the birds go for the pomegranates instead of the passion fruit. In addition, the tree provides the passion fruit with shade and support.

“We do want to become totally self-sufficient, but it may not be realistic. We used to raise chickens, but gave up when they had all been killed by wild animals three times. Living out here is very different from village life”, Stefan and Talib conclude. They now go grocery shopping once a year, stocking up on lentils, rice and the like.

Needless to say, we were both deeply impressed, and greatly inspired, by the courage, passion and hard work of Stefan and Talib. Part of the inspiration has to do with the fact that permaculture bears a striking resemblance to the minimalist way of life that we pursue. Creating virtuous circles while gardening is much the same as creating the positive loops discussed in this post. Other themes that we’ll surely get back to in our minimalist explorations and future blog posts, are the possibilities of forging one’s own path, the balance between hard work and satisfaction, the stoicism and patience required when living at nature’s whim, and last but not least, the idea of going to the grocery store only a few times a year.

Ps. Would you like to volunteer at Finca Shantivanam? Eventually, there will be a separate house available for guests and volunteers, but for now, you can bring your tent.  Send us a message and we’ll put you in contact with Stefan and Talib.

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