Why I Am at a Trappist Abbey

Many years a Santa Barbara resident, I am at a Trappist (Cistercian) Abbey on Guimaras Island now. Some people think that Trappist monks are retreating from reality, but what is the reality of modern life? Is it television with its sports, telenovelas, and celebrity programs or video games?

The monks here live in a reality of work, prayer and fellowship. They are self sustaining by their work as they have been for hundreds of years. They were the agronomists of a thousand years ago when, during those violent days, they preserved knowledge and expanded it in their monasteries.

My involvement with agriculture has been my chosen mission here. I am not a Catholic or a Christian, but a Universalist. God as I understand her is too good to take sides!

My experience after about 15 months in the Philippines has been more one of learning than teaching. I learned the method of integrating ducks into the life-cycle of a rice paddy from a book, The Power of Duck, by Takao Furuno. Practicing the method on the island of Mindoro, at the request of the Divine Word College of Calapan, was a learning experience. I made many mistakes and came away with an appreciation of the narrow use of integrated rice-duck – that it is useful only when a farmer family lives close to the rice paddy and pays close attention and affection to the ducks, and only when an inexpensive and plentiful supply of water is present.

After that assignment I went to the Sierra Madre of Rizal, on the large island of Luzon, to work for a foundation, entering the field of reforestation and food production. There I planted hedgerows of madre de cacao, following the contours of the steep hillsides to control erosion and impound rain water. The project was managed by a brother who was in a hurry and removed my hedgerows to plow and began spraying with Round Up. I learned there that natural methods and being in a hurry do not mix. I also learned that I could not tolerate the nightly drinking of the entire crew and needed a sober and healthy environment.

So I moved on by invitation to Palawan, where I helped a born-again Baptist group that did not drink or smoke. They had coastal forest granted by the DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) that they wanted to grow food on. The land was parceled out to poor families under a law administered jointly by DENR and DAR (Department of Agrarian Reform). The land had been cleared carelessly some years before but the stumps were sprouting denser than ever. On this second clearing, I urged a more careful and mindful thinning, using regenerative methods to select some trees and some suckers and cultivate wood for shade, lumber, and charcoal. Space was left between the selected trees for coconut planting and lemon grass. Stumps not selected were burned mindfully to convert them to nutrients. The mindful use of fire was one of the things I learned, against my prejudices.

In a few years, when the selected extant trees are harvested for poles, logs, lumber, and charcoal, then pineapples, papayas, and other trees will be planted there, including some native lumber trees that are endangered by illegal logging. Planting these lumber trees for future harvest and sale can reduce the demand that leads to the illegal logging of the forest preserves. Logs, lumber, and charcoal are also smuggled illegally out of the forest preserves, so our selective regeneration for logs and charcoal also prevent illegal logging. The narra trees we planted were purchased from an outlet of the native people that live in the forest, giving them an alternative to logging or making charcoal.

I think I have learned what “slash and burn” agriculture really involved for native people. Industrial concerns that burn rainforest have no relation to mindful slash and burn. Remember that the natives using it were nomads. They slash the foliage and use the poles and logs to build their villages. Foliage and small branches are saved for future burning of sprouting stumps. Insects and injury have made me tolerant of burning as a method: Insects will eat you and your crop without burning. I injured my back trying to dig up a tropical root system (instead of repeatedly burning it out).

Now I am traveling and compiling things for a collection of natural solutions in the tropics. That is why I am with the Trappists and I will soon continue south toward real retirement.


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