Lesley Martin is 76 years old and is still teaching and practising permaculture. Her father was in the RAF, so she moved around a lot as a child, finding it difficult to describe where she comes from: “I was born in Wales, but my attachment to Wales is slight. I studied Architecture at university, but I really wanted to be a farmer…”
After four years, she realised she absolutely did not want to be an architect and quit. This greatly upset her father, yet, some years later, he gave her the money to set up her own farm in Cornwall. Lesley’s seven children grew up there and all left home, bar one. In 1998, she moved from England to Portugal and settled in Monchique.
We’ve had five forest fires in Monchique since 1991 – in 2003, 2004, 2016 and 2018. The forest we had in the nineties is now gone and has become a forest of monocultures, with abandoned areas. What kind of forest would you suggest replanting for Monchique?
We should foster cork oak forests and grub out all the eucalyptus…
… take the roots out?
That’s quite a challenge. I recently saw a big eucalyptus patch on the other side of Monchique that the owners were transforming. I presume they decided it was past its sell-by date, and got quite excited because I thought they were going to plant something else. So, if there’s a will and a big machine, there’s a way to get the eucalyptus out. It’s really about political will, I think, on that kind of scale.
A mixed forest means… what kind of trees?
The kind of things that grow naturally here without an awful lot of water. We could grow olives; we could grow the Quercus ilex – the azinheira – or the cork oak. There are lots of shrubs that are useful for wildlife, for holding soils…
The medronheiro, yes. There’s also Vibernum tinus, and the carob trees that are very well suited to this climate.
You are a permaculture teacher?
Yes, I discovered permaculture just before I left the UK, when I had my shoulder injury and couldn’t work. Someone said, ‘you should take a permaculture course!’ I eventually found a course I could do for free and the people running it said, ‘we’re short of teachers’. I said, ‘no, not me’, but they were desperate and persuaded me to start working with them. There was a great demand in the UK at that time. We’re talking about ‘95, ‘96, I think. Bill Mollison, who founded the movement, had visited England in ‘91 and taught the couple who taught me permaculture. I was one removed from the originator…
Basically, I did all the fetching and carrying, and they encouraged me to teach the occasional session, giving me feedback about how they thought it had gone and what I could have done differently. I did this for about three years and I also took a certificate in teaching for adults.
I gave some courses here in Monchique… The first one was all foreigners, but the second one had two Portuguese students. and then suddenly most of the students were Portuguese and I was being invited to go all over the country. One year, I taught eleven courses more or less back-to-back. It calmed down a bit after that, but I’m still teaching two or three courses a year.
Now we’re in 2022. And you’re in Vale da Lama responsible for the nursery and…
… a small forest garden. We created a dryland forest garden after the recent three years of dry winters and seeing what happened to our original forest garden. A lot of trees were exotics that needed a fair amount of water. Now we can’t give them the water and they’re looking rather sad, and we’ve realised we also need to think about providing for a very dry future. It was experimental, but basically I chose trees that are reputed to be drought resistant…
I’ve got a list somewhere: cork oak, casuarina, umbrella pine…
So, your whole life is dedicated to Nature…?
Yes, more or less. I wanted to farm because my parents were always moving around as my father was in the Forces. I often used to get farmed out to an aunt who worked on a farm. So, from the age of about eight, I was running around with cows, driving tractors, feeding chickens and milking, and it was really what I wanted to do. It was just that my father decided I was too intelligent to be a farmer. He didn’t say that to the farmer, of course…
But now, at the age of 76, when you look back on your long life, what value does Nature have for you?
God, that’s difficult. It’s something that runs very deep. I think it’s the only thing actually. I don’t have a specific religion, I’m not agnostic, I’m not an atheist, I just tend to believe in the spirit of this planet, and I guess that’s my religion if you like. I’m trying to honour that in the best way possible. It’s not easy, we live in such a complicated era where it’s very difficult to be totally true to your feeling for the natural processes, but… that’s an awful question to ask me [laughs]. It’s a good one as well! It’s just that I’ve always wanted to grow things. There’s a memory I have, a very dim memory, of being about eight and living in a city in the north of Yorkshire, and there was a little old man who lived down the road. He had a garden, and a greenhouse, and I was always fascinated watching him work in his greenhouse. And eventually he invited me in and showed me how to grow peas and lupins and beans, and I thought it was a miracle. I think that’s perhaps where it really started. Until then, I was probably going to be an air hostess if I thought of anything at all. And it just grabbed me, watching something grow from a tiny seed. And it still grabs me. I started planting casuarina seed; it’s absolutely minute…
… and I watch it grow, and I think, how did this become so gigantic? What power, what amazing spirit has produced this miracle? Yes, it’s about the power of the soils and the plants, and the sun actually. It’s really a big part of what it’s all about…
Let’s not forget, trees have no legs or feet. They can’t just walk away from England to Portugal, to find maybe a better place to live. Trees spend their whole life in the same place. So, wherever they are planted, they need to make a life for themselves…
That’s the trouble with the current drive to catch carbon by planting trees: most of the trees that get planted are a monoculture, designed to produce money. In the long term, I really think we have to move away from our capitalist growth economy because it isn’t working at all.
So, for what reason would you plant a tree?
Because it’s a glorious living being!
Do we need it?
We need it!
We need the oxygen. And the tree needs the carbon?
Without green matter, we wouldn’t exist. This connection between the sun, the plants and the soil is so critical to life on this planet, and most people are totally unaware of this. Nearly everything on this planet is driven by the sun, through the green plants, and their association with the soil bacteria. They’re the boss, not us. We think we’re the boss, but without their interaction we wouldn’t exist.
Photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is an amazing process; almost all life processes are driven by photosynthesis, directly or indirectly. One or two are not, but it’s absolutely vital that we have green matter on this planet to harness the energy of the sun. We can put up as many photovoltaic panels as we like, but we’ll never be as efficient as a tree or a cabbage plant in turning the sun’s energy into something concrete.
And we need water…
And water… Without water nothing works, nothing grows. Water is the lifeblood of the planet really, circulating, feeding. We don’t understand water and we tend to assume that it’s renewable. We see it go up in terms of evaporation, or we may not see it, but we’re aware when water evaporates. We see it come down as rain, and we assume that because the amount of water on this planet is constant, there’s not really a problem. The problem lies under the soil, in the aquifers. Because some of those aquifers are very deep fossil water that were laid down millions of years ago, while the upper layers which we’re currently extracting water from probably took about 300 years to fill in the beginning. Unless we’re constantly recharging water at the same rate as we’re extracting it, then the levels of these aquifers will go down.
We see this at the moment, with this huge drought. There isn’t enough water in the dams, it’s not raining enough…
We tend to think of rivers and dams as the result of rainwater. They’re not really, they’re the result of groundwater laid down long ago, which is the main source for most rivers and dams. It comes out as a spring, the river feeds the dam, and then the dam feeds our irrigation systems, but it’s not renewable in our lifetimes. If we extract all that useful water from the aquifers, then we’ll have to wait hundreds of years before we have a similar situation of abundance again.
What would you suggest is the best way to survive in droughts?
Go back to the land and live a simple life.
So, move out of towns and go back to the land?
Actually, there are some very interesting things we can do in towns as well.
Yes, but we still need to be aware that it’s not a renewable resource, and that we must use and reuse it in the most effective way we can. And the really important thing is to reforest all the catchment areas because the trees help draw down the water through their roots into the aquifers. They’re also taking the water from the aquifers and evaporating it into the sky to produce rain.
But how would you describe the root system of our forests? Would you say it’s taking only water, or would you say it’s managing water reserves, like a sponge?
It’s managing water. The root system takes water, but it also produces a very elaborate system around the base of the tree that holds and absorbs water back into the aquifers, through the organic matter, through the life in the soils, providing channels for water to infiltrate. When we have treeless slopes, there’s nothing there to hold the water and encourage it to sink into the landscape.
So, surviving for us on this planet would mean planting trees? Regreening the world?
Not necessarily. There are areas that are natural prairies. Grasses have quite an important role to play. There are areas where it’s too dry for trees, but certain prairie-type grasses will grow. People say, ‘plant trees, plant trees!’, but actually it would be ineffective if you planted them in certain areas on the planet unless they were irrigated. It’s about choosing the right species for the right situation and the right soil type.
What would you suggest to future generations for surviving on this planet where we’re now afraid there isn’t enough water for 10 billion people?
It depends how they use it, doesn’t it? This is part of the big idea of permaculture itself. One of the big drains on our hydrological cycle is annual cropping. In certain areas of the planet, annual cropping is probably fine, because there’s a regular cycle of rain. In the north of Europe, for example; in the past certainly…
But here in Portugal, in the south of Europe?
Here in the south, we should learn to exist by using a lot of perennials, trees that last more than one year, and slowly move away from annual cropping. This doesn’t mean you can’t have annual crops, but let’s rethink the fields of sunflowers, soya beans and grains. Wheat, rice, maize, all take huge amounts of water in our current monocultural agricultural system. That’s not to say you can’t have rice, or you can’t have maize, but we need to think small.
What does a Forest Garden mean to you?
A forest garden is a perennial system. It’s meant for domestic use, based on the idea that we observe natural ecosystems and then try and reproduce what they’re doing for Nature – using certain species that produce abundance for us. We might be looking for a bit of timber, or fruit, nuts, herbs, fibres, whatever we feel we need. We can create a perennial system to provide it, and it doesn’t have to be very big. We’re growing on different levels, so we’re making the most efficient use of space, which is what a natural woodland does. It’ll have six, seven, eight different layers, from ground cover all the way up to the canopy trees. And things climbing up through the trees as well. So, you’re really maximising the use of space. In permaculture, we call it ‘stacking’ – stacking produce, stacking functions, by using the model of a natural ecosystem, a natural woodland.
And where do we take the water from? We need water for permaculture as well.
Yes, we do. Trees actually encourage rainfall. They seed the clouds. With fewer trees, you have less rainfall; with more trees, you’ll get more rain. In a more natural system, they’d actually provide their own water. We’ve moved far away from that now…
… there’s a whole host of incredible trees that could be feeding us, clothing us, even making paper for us!
Mulberry trees, yes, one of the traditional trees here in the Algarve…
And they’re very drought resistant.
They often change their leaves two or three times a year. But how do you bring the idea of ‘The Tree’ to human beings, making them interested and curious about it, seeing the tree as a companion, a friend…
And a life support! I think public opinion is now more supportive of planting more trees, moving away from annual cropping, looking at ideas about regenerating our soils and our forests – the whole rewilding movement. When I first started organic growing, everyone thought I was crazy. I was one of the first Soil Association symbol holders. We were a small group and felt completely outnumbered. Now it’s big business. My children say, ‘Mum, you were ahead of your time!’
So, preserving Nature can become big business as well?
Probably, but that’s also the problem. There’s a great danger of greenwashing. Bill Mollison copyrighted the term permaculture: he didn’t want anyone to apply it to washing powder, saying this is ‘eco’, this is ‘sustainable’. Our terms and labels are frequently misappropriated. But people are beginning to see behind this. It’s not just the guys in Pakistan who are struggling against the drought-flood regime: it’s now happening in northern Europe and maybe that will open their eyes.
So, can I ask you the question again, what value does Nature have for us?
It’s our life-support system. We’re part of Nature. We think we’re separate, but we’re just an infinitesimal part of the whole ecosystem of this planet. It’s a whole, everything is interconnected, and everything has the right to exist. But that’s as far as it goes. We’re not special.