All photos by author.

“The family farm is an American invention,” Pablo Ruiz tells me over a glass of mint-lime water on the covered porch of Tierra del Sol’s adobe kitchen.

“Here in Mexico you have campesinos who come out to work in their fields during the day, but live in the village. They can’t understand why anyone would want to live in the field.”

His friends in the city don’t understand either: Why would anyone give up access to cinema, theater, restaurants, coffee shops, and WiFi in order to live in the middle of acres of cornfields?

Pablo Ruiz & an intern

Tierra del Sol, a two and a half hectare permaculture project in rural Oaxaca, was born of Pablo’s desire for “un cambio de vida”—a change of life—after growing up in Mexico City, studying aviation, and always finding something lacking. He found it—but it hasn’t been easy.

His nearest neighbors still, after ten years, see him as an outsider, and probably always will. When he first arrived, with all his good intentions, with, as he tells me, “un beginner’s mind,” he saw that traditional irrigation practices in the surrounding area—pumping from a well into open ditches—were losing huge amounts of water to seepage and evaporation.

“The well was going to dry up if things continued that way,” he told me, “but there was so much opposition to changing the system.” Eventually, with help of a government agency, an automated, water-saving system was installed. “Don’t ask how,” Pablo says, “but we did it.” The well still has water, but Pablo is still a long way from gaining the trust of his neighbors.

“They see this as their land,” he tells me, and without missing a beat adds, “and it is. I have the piece of paper that allows me to live here and do what I want with the land, but I won’t be here forever. At the end of the day, the land belongs to the pueblo.”

Still, the loneliness.

He counts on the fingers of one hand his close friends here in the pueblo, and doesn’t even make it to the thumb before he runs out of names. “It’s forced me to contact my personal convictions,” he says, “because I’ve had to be sure why I’m doing this. If I weren’t sure, it would be impossible to go on. There’s so little support.”

And the opposite of loneliness: Pablo and his wife, Adrianna, are Tierra del Sol’s only full-time employees and only permanent residents. They’re together virtually 24 hours a day. “It’s not a very modern arrangement,” he tells me. “Or maybe it’s post-modern.” He laughs. “It’s great, and hard. We were used to having our own little worlds of work and then being together at home.” Here, the distinction between work and home is necessarily a fuzzy one.

The land has provided challenges, too. In fact, Pablo says, lots of their original plans for cultivation have had to be tossed out because of the climate, the soil conditions—“You have to think about what you can do on this site, not what you want to do.” They’ve scaled back their production of organic lettuce in the past year, and are planning on cultivating low-maintenance, drought-tolerant lavender instead.

Tierra del Sol

Since growing veggies for market hasn’t turned out to be feasible, they’re also kicking off an eco-bed-and-breakfast service, TierraLuna this year. He doesn’t say so, but I sense that Pablo is a bit disappointed that they’ve had to resort to the tourist industry to keep afloat—but certainly, I think, these gorgeous ecological buildings that look like such natural parts of the landscape should be slept in and enjoyed.

This year, too, is the inaugural year of Tierra del Sol’s education program. A group of second graders from the local school will be visiting every week, learning how to grow vegetables, recycle, collect rainwater, respect animals, and more. Pablo’s hope is that they will carry what they learn back to their school and their homes—that the seeds of future recycling programs and class gardens are being planted as we speak.

In permaculture, some part of the site is always left alone for Nature—“the great teacher”—to do with what She will. A reminder of our limitations. The surprises in store for anyone who thinks he’s going to decide what the land can or should or will do. Who thinks he can shape or heal the land, when it’s the land that will shape, heal, challenge, teach, and strengthen him.

Community Connection:

Want to try your own hand at farming? Take a look at all the WWOOFing options on our Volunteering Abroad Focus Page.