Making Molehills out of Waste

I recently had a lot of time to meditate on the classic idiomatic phrase, “to make a mountain out of a molehill”, as I spent an afternoon raking molehills flat in a Romanian apple orchard. The work is important because if these molehills, mounds of soil brought up to the surface by moles digging underground tunnels, are left by themselves, within a few years the ground becomes uneven. Bumpy land makes the hay harvest with the scythe difficult and dangerous.

So, in the spring, here Iulia, my host, and I are, roaming around her apple orchard with rakes, flattening each molehill as we find them. And while, indeed, the molehills are not mountains, moles are certainly industrious creatures.

“My God, is there any soil even left underground?” Iulia sighs. After hour two of molehill-flattening, I agree with her. The moles have built an underground system more thorough and widespread than any metro I’ve ever seen.

But, Iulia doesn’t seem to mind too much. This orchard is home to her, and it is home to the moles too.

Old shoes used as planters for succulents- Iulia reuses everything in her orchard.

Since Iulia moved with her family to rural Transylvania two years ago, she has been even more industrious than the moles. Iulia bought an apple orchard that had been abandoned for decades. While the trees are well-established and productive, the land has taken a lot of work to be reclaimed for agriculture. Wild plants from the forest encroach on the borders of the orchard, and the apple trees have more sprouting branches than they know what to do with.

Iulia is dedicated, however, and her land shows her efforts for the past few years. Iulia practices permaculture, the newest agricultural buzzword, in this orchard. Every farmer has their own definition and beliefs about permaculture, but (at this writer’s risk of a thousand ideological challenges) the basic premise revolves around considering a farm as an ecosystem, rather than a factory. There is an emphasis on biodiversity and organic methods, and materials are continuously re-purposed and re-used.

Iulia’s farm is in rural Transylvania, a quiet and calm region. There are cars, electricity, and many other trappings of city life. But many villagers also still use horse and carriage to transport manure, hand-draw their water from the local wells, and collect chicken eggs daily from their flocks. People here are living “close to the land”. After decades in big cities, Iulia has slipped back into village life, but with a new focus: permaculture.


A view of part of Iulia’s vegetable garden, facing the orchard. She builds her vegetable beds using a process similar to hugelkultur, where underneath the bed, there are layers of organic materials. Wood, compost, sand, and other organic materials are layered to decompose slowly under the top layer of soil. Over time, the soil in the beds should improve even more as these organic materials decompose. On the left-hand side is a solar-heated shower- simply add water to the black box, add a curtain around the outside (unless you’re adventurous), and wait for the water to heat up in the sun for your outdoor shower!

The other volunteer, an American named Emily, and I spend one sleety day sewing down feathers into a blanket. I had never realized how warm real down feathers are!

One especially cold day, instead of working outside, Emily, another volunteer, and I help with a household project, sewing down feathers into an old, mass-manufactured blanket from Ikea. Iulia found old pillows and blankets in the house when she moved in, and they contained real, hand-collected and cleaned chicken and goose feathers in them. The amount of time that goes into collecting feathers like this, only from the soft bellies of chickens or young chicks, is incomprehensible, but they are worth their weight in gold.

Emily and I cut open the blanket, stuff it with feathers, and then carefully sew it back up. A cheap blanket from Ikea, previously filled with synthetic stuffing, suddenly became a warm, soft, comforting down quilt.

This is why I like Iulia’s outlook: nothing is wasted. Old ceramic shingles become stones for a path. Fallen logs are cut to border garden beds, sand from deepening the well is reused in creating fertile soil. She transforms things.

Iulia (right) and her friend Anna (center) spend one rainy afternoon teaching me how to make soap. They make all of their own soap and cosmetic products, using organic oils, fragrances, and sodium bicarbonate (chemical version of lye). The soap is still in liquid form at this point; I am mixing it in the bowl.

Today, we are manufacturing some things that are difficult to transform. In many rural communities, from Senegal to Romania, the disposal of plastics has become an enormous issue. In Iulia’s village, this rural community that could compost all of its trash for centuries is now faced with a reality that this new trash will not decompose in a few years. Trash disposal systems or the concept of littering have not yet become common, and plastics have begun to pile up in forests and along roadways. How do these communities adapt to these changes?

Plastics present a large challenge, but other materials are possible to quite easily reuse- water, organic materials, things we clear from our land, biological waste, and food waste. Many of the materials that we seek to dispose of are instead capable of being usefully transformed. However, in American cities, we often see these materials as waste, just like plastics. Food waste is thrown away; grass clippings are shipped away in paper landscaping bags.

Iulia sees waste as an opportunity for reuse. Iulia’s house is not on any water system; drinking water is drawn from a spring well by hand, and water for washing is rainwater collected off of the roof. While I am staying with the family, they put the final touches on the outdoor compost toilet. The house is heated from two efficient wood stoves, using wood collected from the orchard. The family grows most of the fruit and vegetables that they eat, and the meat and cheese comes from trading with their neighbors. There is very little waste coming out of this household, and it is because Iulia chooses to reuse materials.

This re-conception of waste is the foundation of permaculture, of seeing the ecosystem. When we see our farms or kitchens as factories, and we ship away our waste, we forget that we have a responsibility for what we create. Permaculture is growing in the world because it imitates the systems that have worked for lifetimes. Living ecosystems do not ship away waste; materials are instead continuously transformed. And when we imitate nature- as Iulia does on her farm, as my friends do in Wisconsin, as Pom and U do in Thailand- we are transforming.

Panoramic view from Iulia’s home, in the late evening. She has the best view in the village.


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