Sunday, August 28, 2016

Millet and Traditional Cooking Workshop at Native Place with the ' Cooking Pilgrim'

She is  passionate about cooking traditional dishes and using fresh organic produce and this sentiment led Latha Sagi to become the  Cooking Pilgrim, wandering about the country visiting organic farms where she can harvest fresh local seasonal produce  and turn them into into balanced nutritious tasty dishes. She shares her knowledge and her passion with generosity and her ability  to feed and to serve led to her being fondly called 'Latha Devi'.

Monday morning 4 excited women arrived at Native Place for a 3 day cookout only to find that the kitchen had been cleared out.  It was a classic Oops moment but after an initial shock we settled down and began to see the plus points of cooking on hte tandoor terrace ( temporarily set up as kitchen) the place was a mess but the big bonus was it was like cooking in the outdoors,  we had lots of space and great views of the garden. We even had some cheeky bulbuls come by to share a few crumbs.

3 days of  popping grains other than corn ( that was a whole bunch of fun) experimenting with various grains and oilseeds and pulses , making dosas , idlis, khichdi, payasams ladoos,  a variety of chutneys,  cool refreshing  and warm beverages. We made use of  many ingredients from the garden including flowers, , local grains and oilseed – so much to learn so much to taste – it was a sensory feast..

Our 3 day cooking bonanza did not stay just that – we found time to explore the garden, walk in the rain, visit Palikade, admire wild flowers and wade in the monsoon  streams.  An idyllic time it was.
Thank you Sneha for organising it all, thank you Latha Sagi for your generosity and warmth , thank you Tejal for your unflagging  exuberance and thanks Anushree for finally coming by 
Was a great weekend girls, lets do it again soon

To see more pictures check check the Native Place Facebook Album

Astrid Rao

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Mahua Yatra comes to Native Place

A while ago i was talking to my friend Samiksha Agarwal who lives in the buffer zone of the Kanha National Park and she mentioned to me that she had a visitor over who was on a trip around the country visiting places where mahua grew, interacting with the local people sharing recipes on cooking mahua flowers and fruit in an attempt to revive the wild food foraging habits that are fast dwindling.

I was instantly intrigued -  Mahua is one of my favourite trees and although i was aware that alcohol was distilled from the flower  and until not long ago the villagers collected the seeds and expressed oil to use for cooking purposes,   I was not aware of it being used as food in our area.

A series of coincidences led to Aparna visiting us and putting Native Place and Kamshet on the Mahua Yatra Map  - but that’s a long story.

What I’d like to share with you here is that  we discovered that in one village in our area the tradition of  storing the fruit and eating it as a vegetable still persisted albeit by a few.

We had a wonderful two days of sharing recipes – Aparna introduced us to the art of cooking with Mahua and guided by Pasaba we showed her a few wild edible traditions in our area.

A wonderful time it was! The beginning of new food traditions,  a celebration of the forests and the abundance of nature.

The Mahua Yatra travels through 10 states  interacting  with farmers and tribal communities to learn and share and celebrate Mahua (Madhuca longifolia),the tree of life.

For more info on the Mahua tree click here 
For more pictures check out this the Native Place facebook album

Astrid Rao

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Palikade Permaculture Project – Water Harvesting & Soil Conservation (WH & SC)

 The Native Place guesthouse and garden is a labor of love that we have tended to since early 2000.  Today the garden comprises a delightfully diverse group of flora and fauna. a paradise for tree lovers and birders and everyone who loves  nature and gardening. It is exactly what we had envisioned it to be and more but being just an acre and a half in area we soon ran out of place to accommodate the plant palette (our wish list of trees).  Palikade, (an 18-acre plot of land in Thoran Village) that we acquired for this express purpose, is where we intend to manifest this dream. The vision is to develop Palikade as a self-sustaining farm & tropical food forest aimed at facilitating harmony amongst all stakeholders in the habitat (the birds, insects, microorganisms and other animals as well as us humans).

We were aware that it was very important to work on Water Harvesting & Soil Conservation (WH & SC) structures as a priority before planting trees on a large scale. These are also called ‘landforms’.  The land at ‘Palikade’ comprises two fairly flat areas of land divided by a huge gully running in between. The slopes and high rainfall combination in this region meant that significant soil and water was running off the land every monsoon. Also, rain is the only source of water on this land, so, the sooner we undertook the work on landforms, the lesser would be the loss of precious soil and greater the gains of water retention.

The Permaculture Design Course (PDC) that we attended in March 2016 gave us significant confidence with respect to the understanding of WH & SC. We undertook practical work at the PDC, designing and creating WH & SC structures like contour trenches, percolation tank, gully plugs and brushwood. Our two gardeners at Native Place, Anil & Eknath, attended two days of Water Harvesting sessions at the PDC and  thankfully they too learnt the basics and were able to support us in this effort.

Our journey of implementation started with inviting Narsanna to Palikade when he gave us some crucial inputs regarding WH & SC work. Thereafter, we invited Osman Baig, a watershed expert who we met during the PDC, to guide us with the location for different WH & SC structures. Osmanji, came in April for two days and helped us mark the area for a percolation tank, a pond, trenches & bunds and some gully plugs. We asked him plenty of questions so that we understood the logic of all his inputs.

Thereafter, we got down to detailed marking of all the structures on the land. We then did rough measurements around the entire land & drew out the plan and designs on paper. This helped us get greater clarity of the overall picture. The next step was actually making these structures with the help of a JCB and manual labor.

We also figured the details from local sources that annual rainfall in this area was about 2,500mm, number of rainy days was 82 and the highest rainfall in 24 hours was 176 mm. This helped us decide factors like the depth of the trenches to be dug and the distance at which contour trenches needed to be dug.

Some details about the structures are provided along with the individual pictures in this album. Need to specially mention here about the Percolation tank (PT) and pond. Part of this property (about 1 acre) is on the other side of a road, towards the South. It has high slope. At the bottom of this sub-plot, there is the possibility of accumulating water from a catchment of about 7 hectares. Hence a PT was created right there. The water that is likely to accumulate there is being routed to another pond on the farm, through a pipe running across & under the road. 

On his subsequent visit, Osmanji also identified the scope to route more water to the pond by creating a rainwater diversion trench. He also suggested developing a micro-pond in the Western side of the plot – this area was quite rocky and was sloping towards a small gully, which further met the main gully.

By end of May, we had completed all the landforms work. The structures we created have the capacity of holding about 34 lac liters of water at one time.

Capacity - Volume
About 1,200 running metres of deep trenches and bunds
1200 m3
12 lac litres
Percolation tank
350 m3
  3.5 lac litres
1700 m3
17 lac litres
Micro pond
100 m3
  1 lac litres
Staggered trench
14 m3
14,000 litres
Capacity / Volume(approx.)
33.64 lac litres

Simultaneously, in April & May, we were working on designing the plantation on these WH & SC structures, collecting seeds directly from trees & from friends & networks, growing saplings in our own nursery at the Native Place guesthouse & also scouting nurseries for plants that we were not growing ourselves. By second week of June, we were all equipped to start planting - the story of which you may have read in our previous post regarding the plantation J

This has been the first phase of WH & SC and plantation. We intend to take this forward step by step and attempt more intricate permaculture applications. The aim is to conserve & impound rainwater, raise aquifer levels, enhance soil health, create micro climates and an abundant habitat!

We’ve never felt we had completed anything very significant until now. But the amount of inquiries we received from our farmer friends for a detailed account of the work pushed us to do this write up. Feeling humbled & grateful.

In Solidarity,

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Palikade Permaculture Project – Phase 1 plantation

In March 2016, we (Astrid Rao and Sneha Shetty) attended a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) organised by Academy for Earth Sustainability and conducted by Narsanna Koppula , where we were introduced to the intricacies of water harvesting and soil conservation (WH & SC) among many other themes of permaculture.

In WH & SC, we learnt about “vegetative consolidation” of water harvesting structures i.e. consciously designed multi-level planting of trees, shrubs and ground cover on the water harvesting structures. The purpose is to strengthen the structures, increase biomass, enhance soil health, create micro-climates and many others. The loose soil of the newly created bunds also provide a good base for new saplings to grow in.

At our 18-acre farm in Kamshet, which we call ‘Palikade’, we decided to start with designing the land forms for WH & SC. We have only the rains as a source of water here, so we decided to grow indigenous/ native, hardy, rain fed trees as well as quick growing leguminous shrubs that would fix nitrogen into the soil, provide us loads of biomass and create microclimate. We started growing saplings of the latter in our nursery in April. Then we made a plant palette of what would grow well in our area, choosing species that would serve many functions. It would be a tropical food forest that would provide for food, clothing, shelter and other needs of not just the human residents but all the stake holders including the birds, insects and micro organisms (in Narsanna’s words). This was a great opportunity to grow native trees that have been on my wish list for years (yes, i am a serious tree lover).

We began the water harvesting structures in April - boundary trenches, contour trenches, a couple of ponds and a percolation tank at the highest point in the property with the hope that they will hold the water and let it percolate into the subsoil, thereby using the soil itself to hold water. We also intend to grow a mix of cereals, millets, pulses, oilseeds and green manure on the land meant for growing annual crops & orchards in future. This is to regenerate the soil (‘make the entire land a compost pit’ – Narsanna’s words). In the coming months, we will continue to plant a live fence on the boundary, comprising of various plants serving multiple functions.
Permaculture has the answers people – and Narsanna Koppula (founder of Aranya Agricultural Alternatives, Hyderabad) is a leading light of our times.

In the last one week, we have planted more than 2200 saplings and cuttings (of about 90 species), sowed hundreds of seeds and will continue to populate the bunds with ground cover (grasses, climbers and shrubs) of various types that will all do their bit to contribute to the fertility of soil and up our sustainability quotient.

Wishing you a very Happy Van Mahotsav – we at Native Place and Nirvana Adventures are happy to contribute to the mammoth task that the Maharashtra govt has undertaken to plant 2 crore trees by the 1st of July 2016. We are grateful that we could source about 1,000 plants from Government nurseries (Forest Dept- Shirota, Social Forestry - Pune & PWD- Pune) at very affordable rates. Thanks a ton, guys!

Peace Bliss & Happy Landings
Astrid Rao & Sneha Shetty
From Native Place and team & Nirvana Adventures  , Kamshet , India
Plantation Photo Album:

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Cormorants Galore!

Last week at Native Place i happened to go up to the terrace after breakfast and was rewarded by the sighting of a huge flock of cormorants hunting for fish. A whole swarm of them were encircling an area presumably there were lots of fish there. From the distance they made a magnificent sight – the surface of the water was disturbed with their flapping wings as they swirled around creating a huge circular cauldron, diving in, running on water and flapping about. A few straggler egrets added to the drama creating a black and white canvas against the blue waters.  

I checked out this new phenomenon that seemed to be unfolding right in front of us for the next few days just to be sure and yes – it was happening every day. Wow!!!  Such a wondrous sight!

For the first time one can see what seems to be the entire colony fishing together and it makes quite an impact on the senses.

Cormorants have been a common sight by the lake shore at Native Place. Through the year one could spot the odd group in the mornings by the lake shore, diving for fish and perching on tree tops and bushes by the shores wings spread out to dry in the sun.  During summer evenings one had these exhilarating sightings where one looked up by chance to suddenly spot wave upon wave of V shaped flocks akin to migrating geese as they flew back to their roosting spots for the night (or so i believed)
In the recent years an entire colony has  taken to roost in a grove of acacia trees on a narrow spit of land that juts out into the lake  just a few years ago becoming our neighbors. J

Since then we have had the pleasure of watching them at sunset time as they circle around the area and then head for a tree. Lots of squawking and shoving goes on at sunset until they go quiet for the night.

It’s lovely to have a pristine water body before you and spot lake shore birds but to see an entire colony intently at work circling low over the lake is surely special!

The pictures above simply don't convey the largeness of the phenomenon - you have to see it to feel it ! Come connect with nature at Native Place.

More about Cormorants: - Cormorants are large black, fish eating birds with a long,  hook tipped bill.They  are daytime feeders that hunt alone or in flocks.  Cormorants feed by diving and swimming underwater. They can dive to depths of 5 to 60 feet below the surface and stay under water up to 70 seconds. They eat mostly fish and sometimes small invertebrates. Cormorants use their webbed feet to propel them underwater. Cormorants run along the surface of the water to gain enough speed for flight.  Watching these diving birds by the lakeside is a wonderful way to spend time.

Connections: - Recently i came across an interesting piece of info relating the presence of cormorants to tarpon fishing -
When you eat like a cormorant — which is a lot — you poop like a cormorant — which, again, is a lot. This potent concoction falls from the cormorant's precarious perch, entering the food chain only a few feet below. Bacteria then grow in this enriched, (let's call it fertilized) water. Soon the plankton count their lucky stars while feeding on this heaven-sent bounty. Small invertebrates and protozoa’s gorge on the plankton, and on and on it goes up the line. Shrimp, crabs and sardines bless father cormorant before gorging on the millions of minute krill or the collected organic detritus they leave behind.

At the top of this food chain are the tarpon. They come for the bounty the cormorant droppings provide and, with the tarpon, come the anglers. It is simple math: more cormorants mean more food for the tarpon's prey. More guano creates more food and more food means more tarpon.  
Perhaps we shouldn't be so judgmental about cormorants and their greedy eating and pooping habits. Perhaps we should be glad these ancient avians do their digesting where they do. Perhaps we should be glad they haven't better mastered the air. Perhaps we should be pleased they only use flight to get to the fishing grounds and then trundle home again, straight for the mangroves.
Some guides in Mexico say that they kill cormorants because they eat baby tarpon. Gentlemen … haven't you learned by now that it is best not to mess with Mother Nature? Let her be. She has things pretty well worked out, and her devices usually work to the benefit of the angler. Mess with her, and you just may be killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Although in this case it may not be a goose, but a cormorant, and it may not be an egg, but a pile of … OK, OK.  You get the picture. So let's all bless the cormorants.
 Astrid Rao 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Announcing the arrival of the Malabar whistling Thrush in the Native Place Garden

Folks – they have arrived!  We spotted a pair last week scouting around the Nirvana Cottage Wing for a nesting space. Heard the predawn song a few days ago a sweet whistling and had an easy spotting soon after. Watched the pair happily at work – seems like they too are happy to be back (they have been nesting here for a few years now) We will now have the pleasure of watching them as they select a nesting spot and build their nest, bring new chicks into he world and then work hard together to feed the young chicks who have voracious appetites.
Ah – so looking forward to this ! J
Also known as the ‘Whistling Schoolboy’ for the whistling calls that they make at dawn  - a slow soft mellifluous call with a sense of aimlessness about it.  Sounds like a carefree schoolboy whistling to himself as he strolls along.
The species is said to be resident in the Western Ghats although it visits the Native Place Garden to breed and raise its young.  I have read that they can be spotted near rocky streams and in riverine habitats either in the shady undergrowth or in a really difficult to spot location and are usually most active at early dawn or dusk making them difficult to photograph

This large thrush appears blackish with shiny patches of blue on the forehead and shoulders. It is omnivorous, eating a wide range of insects. crabs, frogs, earthworms and berries.

Which Kadamba Tree ?

Kadamb (Anthocephalus Cadamba/कदंब) or The Common Bur Flower is a large, handsome, umbrella shaped tree with branches arranged in whorls around the central trunk. It is evergreen, fast growing and has a graceful appearance.  It produces unique globular shaped flowers coloured a striking yellow to orange.  
 In India the tree is mainly associated with Lord Krishna and stories about him and his gopis prancing about in the forests of Brindavan among the Kadamba groves abound.  This tree is also closely associated with the Mother Goddess (often referred as Kadambavana vasini) "She Who Resides in the Forest of Kadamba Trees."

We have a lovely specimen of this legendary tree in the Native Place Garden that we planted about 7 or 8 years ago having been intrigued by the lore of its beauty as well as its mythological and ecological associations.  You can enjoy its beauty and shade throughout the year but in the month of May the tree offers a special sensory experience when it flowers in profusion, showing off its quaint yet beautiful flowers that attract a host of bees and exude a heady perfume. And as the flowers drop one finds the curious golden globes scattered all around the tree waiting to dry off and release thousands of little seeds.

We have built a low wall all around our Kadamba tree. A silent invitation to you to come sit under this tree and enjoy the ambience it conjures.

The Kadamba Anthocephalus Cadamba  is often mixed up with the Kaim – Mitragaayne parviflora  a tree that is dominant in the forests of Brindavan. Both spcies produce globular blossoms but the Kaim’s flowers are not as striking  to look at. They also differ greatly in canopy and leaf shape. Where the Kadamba has a straight bole and branches arranged in upward reaching whorls the Kaim has a fairly meandering trunk.

i came across the Kaim in the “Trees of Delhi” by Pradeep Kishen. Pradeep  sheds light on this confusion/ puzzle on page 149 –  where he informs us that the REAL Krishna Kadamb  of Brindavan is Neelamarcia  cadamba ‘Kaim’ not Anthocephalus Cadamba ‘Kadamba’  which  is unique to moist  forests in the NE of  India and would not survive unaided in the hot dry  Brindavan area.  Kaim on the other hand is not only native to the remnant Brindavan forests but is their dominant tree. But in the Brindavan region the Kaim is called kadamb  J  no wonder the confusion !

Oh well !!! Our Kadamba may not bring to mind the visual of Krishna playing his flute any more but it remains the tree closely associated with the Mother Goddess  - Kadambavana vasini "She Who Resides in the grove of Kadamba Trees."
The tree is said to be vanishing from Indian forests and needs to be planted and celebrated once more for it its beauty, functionality and usefulness.
Some Uses
This beautiful tree is also known for its medicinal virtues. The tree has astringent & antipyretic properties. It is believed to have cure for ulcers, digestive ailments, diarrhoea, expectorant, fever, vomiting etc.

A yellow dye is obtained from the root bark. Kadamb flowers are an important raw material in the production of attar, Indian perfume with Sandalwood (Santalum Album). The tree is grown along avenues, roadsides and villages for shade. The fresh leaves are sometimes used as plates.

In Permaculture
The Kadamba is suitable for reforestation programs. It sheds large amounts of leaf and non-leaf litter which on decomposition improves  the  physical and chemical properties of soil.

Cultural aspects
It is common belief among the natives of many villages in the state Chhattisgarh that plantation of Kadamb tree near to lakes and ponds, brings happiness and prosperity in their life.