For years I've been balancing my fashion career as a knitwear designer with a love for nature and land stewardship. I've often found myself slipping away from fashion events for long weekends in upstate New York to farm, hike, and wildcraft local plants for fabric dying and medicine making. When transitioning my career from New York to Los Angeles I took a year’s hiatus to apprentice at Esalen Institute’s renowned farm and garden program in Big Sur, CA. Staying attuned to the natural environment is what keeps me ticking.
When my teacher and yoga master Mark Whitwell asked me to travel to Taveuni, Fiji to develop the garden in his burgeoning Heart of Yoga retreat center, I couldn't resist. Taveuni, known to Fijians as “The Garden Island,” produces 80 percent of Fiji's staple food root crop Taro—often prepared boiled to a soft starchy consistency—and mass quantities of Kava, an ancient plant brewed for sacramental use in sitting circles and fire walking ceremonies. It sends its consumers into numb contentment. I was wide-eyed at the prospect, in hopes of gleaning traditional farming and gardening practices in a land of renowned soil fertility and plant magic.
Flying over the series of 300 small islands on a 'puddle jumper' aircraft felt perilous as the captain relinquished controls to his co-pilot and read the local newspaper front page to back. Intact upon touchdown I headed straight to the agricultural store and gather supplies. The organized shop appeared sterile and rarely trafficked. I was surprised to find the seed shelves 70 percent empty with only a handful of vegetable varieties. These included exported seeds from China treated with chemical fertilizer. Venturing further into soil fertilizers I found a wall of toxic chemicals, including 245T, better known as Agent Orange. This wasn’t exactly the raw-materials paradise I was looking for, but after 30 years of Western farming practices they’d stripped the soil of nutrients.
In the days to come I delved into intensive agricultural exploration and information gathering, beginning with the locals. Visiting outdoor markets, I found little beyond the same sparse seed selection at the agriculture shop, save for some lush, local exotic fruits. When I asked these small gardeners about their techniques, they’d say humorously and tinged with sadness, "just stick it in the ground."
Over the last 30 years industrial farming practices have stripped and compromised the fertility of their infamous, nutrient-dense soil, partially through the overuse of Agent Orange and other pesticides employed to exterminate jungle-sized weeds. As farmers’ soil fertility declined, they have been known to slash and burn sections of forest to access more land. Fortunately, however, there's still a modest group of conscious individuals and small-scale gardeners who honor old world concepts of keeping their virgin or ‘sa solia na kalou’ (god-given) forests intact. Fueled by these people and the land’s deterioration I began crafting a framework for the retreat.
Taveuni’s rich history of growing, married with the economic necessity for community food producing creates daily dialogue about weather patterns, crop sharing, and planting cycles. Our local taxi driver Bola supplied me with four banana trees or ‘suckers’ and one lime tree instructing, “Only plant on high tide, that’s what the grandmothers say.”
With soil health and longevity at the forefront of local concern I spoke with Kini, the retreat manager, and her son Isaac about building a place to compost. We designed this area using wildcrafted ‘torch sticks’ as the bones of the bin, and used raffia—a plastic twine and great alternative to communities with limited resources—to secure the torch sticks together. We coppiced the torch stick with machetes and built the bin down wind from the house at water’s edge.
Crop variety can also help the soil nutrient balance and I wanted to find a diversity of leafy greens to extend the garden. Meeting a brazen expat named Mary, who pioneered a planned community in the mountains, was a jackpot. She instantly dug up native perennial oregano, a bramble of mint, wild dandelion, comfrey, and gotu kola for my garden. Carrying seed into Fiji is illegal and Western plants are hard to find, so she had brought many from neighboring island Naitauba, the home base for her spiritual teacher Adi Da Samraj.
With the garden budding, a late night Google search put me on the trail of Tei Tei Taveuni. Launching in 2012, TTT is a sustainable agriculture non-profit that assesses practicum versus island finite resource. Volunteer-driven, they educate farmers on viable solutions to preserve agricultural soil, clean water, and farmers’ economies. Their chairman, Ian Simpson, shared a simple bit of advice on best practices for our side of the island: “add lime and phosphorus—the whole island needs it.”
The third largest island in the constellation of 300, Taveuni is only a ten-hour flight plus a puddle jump from the west coast of the U.S. Fiji tempts the senses with the charm of Polynesian friendship, Jacques Cousteu’s favorite diving reefs, wild parrots sharing your shade in an ancient banyan tree, and papayas that hang from trees like breasts. Working with Fijians in cultivating one patch of land at a time with conscious techniques, while grounded in both ancient and cutting edge practices, can only build the healthy resiliency of human and humus. If you care to pay a conscious visit, it’s easy to do while you work in God given country.
Illustration by YesFantastic