Monday, August 25, 2014

Water Retention Landscapes -

  transforming the way we think about and manage our natural water resources


A one-day workshop with Bernd Mueller from Tamera, Portugal
at Samania Park, Kibbutz Harduf

"Water, energy and food are freely available for all humankind, when we no longer follow the laws of capital, but rather the logic of nature." 
Dieter Duhm, from the Tamera Manifesto for a New Generation on Planet Earth

On July 31th we had a short, but very intensive and transformative visit of Bernd Mueller, an international expert on the creation of water retention landscapes. Water retention landscapes are an effective tool of reversing the outcomes of desertification, which is an urgent issue of our time in many parts of the world.

Desertification as a result of water-mismanagement

Desertification is not a result of climate changes beyond human control, but in most cases the result of water mismanagement due to a lack of understanding of the nature of water and the healthy working of a "full" water cycle.

The full water cycle - sketch by Axel Ewald

The whole picture of "water as a living being" comprises a full water cycle, which includes the earth and its vegetative cover as a receptacle for the rainwater. A rich and variegated vegetation cover is the prerequisite for "attracting" rain and for the creation of a shaded, cool layer of humus which is able to absorb great amounts of water and store it like a sponge. Water slowly percolates into the deeper layers of the earth where it can "ripen" and absorb sufficient "information" (including minerals). Bern Mueller describes this as the "female" part of the water cycle. Water, which has thus matured over time in the womb of the earth, emerges as healthy, life-giving spring water (which has become a scarcity in our times).

rainwater run-off (source:
Ruthless deforestation has led to soil erosion in many parts of the world. Soil, which is not protected and shaded by trees, heats up and, as a consequence, can no longer absorb rain water. Instead of filtering into the soil, rain runs off as surface water, and with it washes away precious top-soil. Within a few years, this process leads to desertification, often also "natural" catastrophes like landslides and flooding. In most parts of the world we have come to a situation where a mere 20% of rainwater can be absorbed by the earth - which means that the remaining 80% are lost for any meaningful use!

The worldwide water crisis is not due to natural climate changes or a lack of precipitation, but it is based on our failure to properly manage this precious resource !

The water oasis of Tamera

In the course of the last 8 years Bernd Mueller has transformed the landscape surrounding the Tamera Community in Portugal from a desert-like state into a green Oasis. The climate of the Alentejo area of Portugal, where Tamera is situated, is comparable to that of Israel. Rainy winters (approx 600 mm rainfall per sq. m.) are followed by a short springs and long, hot and dry summers. Inspired by the work of Victor Schauberger, the Austrian philosopher, naturalist and researcher of water, and with the help of Sepp Holzer, an Austrian expert in permaculture, Bernd Mueller created a water retention landscape for Tamera, which is solely based on the optimal management of the annual rainfall. Within this period the Tamera Community has become entirely self-sufficient concerning its water needs.

Tamera before the water retention project - source:
the Tamera water landscape today - source:

Irrigation turned upside down

the "national water carrier" - source:

One of the most striking insights I arrived at as a result of the workshop with Bernd was a profound transformation of my concept of irrigation. In our region, and probably in many other regions of the world with similar climate conditions, irrigation has become an undertaking which is completely detached from the natural water cycle, and even counteracting this natural process. Water is extracted  from springs, lakes, groundwater reservoirs and other natural sources. In the case of Israel, huge amounts of water are pumped from the See of Galilee and directed to the rest of the
drip irrigation
country via straight concrete channels (as a result of this and similar actions from the Jordanian side, the Jordan river has been reduced to a mere trickle and the level of the Dead Sea is dropping by about 1 meter every year!). Further on water is forced into pipelines and eventually arrives through plastic irrigation pipes and a tiny hole to just the place where we want it to be - the crop we want to grow and nowhere else! We consider this being a very clever invention which helps us to save precious water. But in reality it is yet another brainchild of our materialistic thinking and our egoistic and exploitative attitude towards nature. We, in fact, steal water and isolate it from its natural context, force it to move in vessels the forms and materials of which are completely alien to its nature. Eventually we withhold it from the earth by only allowing it to feed the plants which we have chosen to grow. Instead of nurturing the earth we let it be washed out and impoverished by selective drip-irrigation.
sketch by Axel Ewald

Bernd Mueller put forward the concept of what can be called a "reversed" or "upside-down" irrigation. Water is not withheld but generously given to the earth to be absorbed by the soil, thus recharging the natural "sponge-reservoir" of the earth. As a result the water table will rise and trees, which work as natural "irrigation pumps" can draw water - and with it minerals and other good things - from the deeper layers of the earth. These substances are not "wasted" on the trees. Instead, the tree generously shares these substances, including water, with its surroundings, both in the upper soil levels and in the atmosphere. As a result, the earth as a whole becomes enriched by moisture and minerals, allowing a varied vegetation to develop which in turn shades and cools the earth and attracts further rainfall. In fact, only by using such "reversed" irrigation, the creation of new soil can be vouchsafed.

Down to basics - how to create a water retention landscape?

swale construction - sketch by Axel Ewald
The overriding objective of creating a water retention landscape is to design simple devices which help to hold back rainwater, slow down its movement and thus allow water to penetrate into the deeper layers of the soil. This can be achieved by digging channels ("swales") and using the dug-out soil to build dams ("berms") on the downhill side of the swale. These two features together prevent rainwater from running off and allow for a slow penetration of water into the soil.

water retention landscape with swale and berm - source:

Swale digging at Explore Prep School, East Oakland, US,
Swales are dug by following the contour of the landscape in order to prevent water flowing downhill. On a slope a succession of swales can be dug.

The soil downhill from the swale/berm element becomes moisturized from within and suitable for growing fruit trees, vegetables and other crops - without additional irrigation. An additional positive effect might become evident after a few years: further downhill the raised water table most likely will give rise to new freshwater springs, providing clean, cool water for plants, animals and man.

This technique is not entirely new. Ancient cultures like the Nabateans in the Negev desert used similar devices to grow crops in arid climates.

Reconstructed Nabatean orchard at Shivta Farm in the Negev with water retention terraces and water channels (source:
In this case stone terraces fulfill the task  of retaining rainwater

View of the Tamera landscape
showing the integration of terraces for water retention
Depending on the particular situation and topography, additional measures like creating larger basins for collecting rainwater can be taken(which means ending up with ponds or lakes - as has been done in Tamera). All these devices are constructed by using natural, locally available materials: earth, stones, plant cuttings etc. No artificial insulation materials are used. Water is always allowed to be in immediate contact and interchange with the earth.

An extended vision for Samania Park

Bern Mueller at Samania Park, Kibbutz Harduf, 31.7.2014

In his workshop at Samania Park (for details about Samania Park - click here) Bernd Mueller elaborated how the principles of a water retention landscape can be utilized at Samania Park. The aim would be to maximize the healing effect of our initial step of cleansing sewage water by ecological means. But instead of storing the purified water in a large, sterile lake, insulated from the soil by plastic liners and then pumping it through irrigation pipes and drip-outlets, he suggested creating a parallel water retention landscape, fed by the purified sewage water, combining a sequence of smaller ponds with swales and berms and careful planting of suitable trees. Such a landscape will complement the already existing sewage purification plant, create a  rich ground for research-work and serve as a showcase for good water-management.

For rounding off the subject, here is a short video about the Tamera water retention landscape:

Water is life. The Water Retention Landscape of Tamera.
Sepp Holzer and Bernd Müller
A film by Grace Media, 12 min.
Camera and editing: Ludwig Schramm
Script: Leila Dregger
Voice Over: Claire-Lilith Suscens, Douglas Baillie
Music: Rui Braga, Kevin McLeod
Photos: Tamera and Krameterhof archive, Ecomeda, Steve Lovegrove

For further information:

The Tamera Community's page on healing water:

A lecture by Bernd Mueller:

Report - Water Symposium at Tamera

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Construction of Grey Water Purification System

- project with students from the "Art, Sustainability, Society and Education" course at David Yellin College, Jerusalem,

April 2014 at "Gan HaBeit", Harduf

sketch of the wetland system
In the beginning of April I conducted a concentrated workshop at the "Gan HaBeit" organic vegetable garden of Kibbutz Harduf with a group of students I am teaching at David Yellin Teacher College in Jerusalem. The aim of the project was to construct an organic water purification system for treating grey water. The system consists of a settlement tank for separating solids, a pond with layers of basalt aggregates, wood chips and water plants and a collection tank for storing the purified water.

excavating for the pond and the tanks

preparing and leveling the excavated hole for the pond
The site was prepared by excavating for the pond and tanks. The excavated hole for the pond was then lined with geo-technical fabric and pond-liner. At the same time drainage pipes had to be laid for conducting the grey water to the site.

laying drainage pipes

The lined pond was then filled with layers of river boulders, basalt aggregate and wood chips. The grey water would filter through these layers from the bottom to the top.

filling the first layer of river boulders
filling a layer of wood chips
A large plastic container was installed for collecting the purified water after flowing off from the gravel pond.

installing the collection tank

Finally, the pond was planted with special water plants which provide a oxygenated environment around their root system for the bacteria which break down the organic matter in the grey water.

planting inside and outside the pond

the complete wetlands

The following video clip gives an impression of the collective effort in creating this project, which was completed within four days. During this time the students also did some landscape drawing under my guidance.

The "wetlands team" poses for a group photograph:

Mediterranean Water Garden

- Alonei Abba, Galilee, Israel

In continuation of my blog from September 2013 where I introduced this project of a private garden in Alonei Abba in the Galilee region of Israel - here are pictures of the completed garden. The project started a year ago with an overall plan of the layout.

Following the client's wish for a water feature I designed the garden around a water course which utilized the natural slope of the site. The design of the water course also includes two ponds and a wetland area which functions as a biological filter.

The garden design  includes a rich variety of Mediterranean vegetation, paved paths, local rock placements and a gravel garden. The design was skillfully implemented by Guy Spielman.

This video clip gives an overview of the various aspects of the garden:

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Encountering Colour

- a workshop at Oxford Brookes University introducing Goethe's Colour Theory 

On March 6th I gave a workshop on Goethe's Colour Theory (1) in the Department for Social Sculpture at Brookes University. The workshop proposed an experiential and synthetic approach to the world of colour phenomena as opposed to the analytic approach of Newtonian science.

Apart from providing hands-on experiences of how colour comes about in the meeting of light and darkness, the Goethe's Colour Theory served as an introduction to his scientific method. (2)

participants notes of the workshop

Goethe considered his treatise on colour, which was based on 20 years of painstaking research into each and every aspect of colour, including its effect on the human being, as his most important achievement - less because of its contents but rather because of the unique method of research.
Performing some of the key experiments we followed Goethe's explorations through the two first main compartments of his theory:

observing and drawing complementary colours

  • physiological colours (including coloured shadows)
  • physical colours (colours in the atmosphere, prismatic colours)

observing colours in the fishtank

We explored the complementary nature of additive and subtractive colour mixing:

subtractive colour mixing 
additive colour mixing

Eventually we had a taste of the "sensual-moral qualities of colours by walking around the campus with coloured foils in front of our eyes:

Here are some feedbacks from course-participants:

"Thanks for sharing your magic and helping us to see!!!"
 "...'Colours are the deeds & sufferings of light'- J.W Goethe.  Ascendant & encountered after a day with the fabulous Axel Ewald who hosted the Goethe: 'Encountering Colour' workshop today...much gratitude!"
Axel with participant Dianne Regisford


(1) Goethe, J.W.von (2000): Goethe's Theory of Colours. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: M.I.T. Press; reproduced from: (1840) London: John Murray
(2) for an introduction to Goethe's scientific method: Bortoft, H. (1996). The Wholeness of Nature.  Edinburgh: Floris Books

thanks to Helena Fox and Dianne Regisford for the photographs

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Space for Bees

-  Inauguration of the first Bio-Dynamic Beehive Project in Israel

On coming back to Israel after my stay in Oxford I made some surprising and heart-warming discoveries. Meeting the farmers who are running the 'Gan Habeit' organic vegetable garden, I learned about some developments which had occured in surprising parallel to the things I had met during my studies and which I was hoping to further in Israel:
  • the farmers more and more see their vegetable garden as a community enterprise and are very keen to cooperate on the development of artistic / environmental / social initiatives
  • the farmers teamed up with Yossi Aud who proposed to inaugurate the first Bio-Dynamic educational beehive project on the lands of 'Gan Habeit'. This is seen as a small first step towards dealing with the worldwide beehive crisis (1)
  • this beehive project is a joint project with the newly-founded Initiative for Social Three-folding in Israel (2)
I was thrilled to hear about these developments and offered my cooperation. After meeting with Yossi we agreed that I shall take responsibility for the artistic shaping of the landscape setting for beehive project and also make a contribution to the inauguration ceremony.

The Galilee landscape chosen as the setting for the Beehive project
In March 2014 a group of volunteers from the Harduf community prepared under my guidance prepared the site which was chosen as the germinal point for the beehive community. An existing heap of field stones was utilized to create a simple sculptural gesture as a focus point for the first group of beehives.

Soon after the first 8 beehives arrived and were placed around the sculpture. The project will eventually comprise up to 200 beehives, providing an economic basis for this three-folding project.

The first beehives in situ
the inauguration ceremony of the beehive project, photo by Nelly Gluzman

wiggle-dance of the worker bee
For the inauguration ceremony on March 1st I prepared a social sculpture practice which was based on the 'waggle-dance' of the bees. On coming back from a promising source of nectar in the environment a worker bee performs a kind of dance on the honeycombs, following a distinct choreography. The bee repeatedly follows a figure-of-eight pattern with a straight middle section during which she waggles her tail section. This central part conveys the direction of the food-source relative to the direction of the sun.

The occasion which was attended by some 80 people, including many families with small children, was opened by singing and some introductory words by Yossi, by beekeeper Hilmar Conman and Yuval Elad who represented the Social Threefolding Initiative. Then I introduced the Social Sculpture practice and its relationship to the bee community. Participants were asked to break up into small groups, look for a beautiful spot in the 'bees garden', closely observe the place and share impressions.  Each group then had perform three tasks:

  • to choose one sentence which summarizes the groups impression of the place and share it with the community
  • to bring back a small quantity of one representative natural material from the place and place this in one of the 'honeycombs' which another group had prepared next to the beehives
  • to perform a group 'waggle dance' informing the community of where the group's place is situated 
the 'honeycombs' are gradually getting filled
with special materials from the environment
photo: Nelly Gluzman

one group performs the 'waggle-dance'
This was followed by a communal meal and planting of fruit trees.

planting of fruit trees

The following video clip summarizes the event:

(1) For further information about the beehive crisis and how it is related to the prevailing scientific consciousness, see the excellent book:  Kornberger, H. (2012). Global Hive, Bee Crisis and Compassionate Ecology.  Hamilton Hill: Integral Arts Press. For more information about Bio-Dynamic beekeeping in Israel see Yossi Aud's facebook page 'BioBees'.

(2) The idea of Social Threefolding was introduced by Rudolf Steiner after the first world war. It promotes a separation of the three spheres of social life: the economic, social/legal and spiritual sphere. For more information: Steiner, Rudolf (1996) Threefold the Social Order, New Economy Publications / Rudolf Steiner Archive Series. For information about the Social Threefolding Initiative in Israel see the facebook group 'המשולש החברתי' (in Hebrew)