Back in 2018, after having lived all over the world, German and French couple Mareile and Matthieu Paley decided to move to Portugal to raise their two sons.

Mareile is the founder of a pilates business called Life in Movement and with the dream of building CALM, a pilates wellness retreat in the peaceful Portuguese countryside, they bought a piece of land in the Arrábida Natural Park, near Palmela (a village in the district of Setúbal).

Her husband Matthieu is a photographer but living on this land he has become very interested in land management and syntropic agroforestry. This, from what I understand, is a way of growing all kinds of different plants and trees together so that they help each other out - learning from and mimicking nature.

They partnered with a couple called Izabella and Mathias from a nature regeneration project called Regen Waves who have been using their land to grow a medicinal food forest.

Disaster struck

On July 13th, 2022, a fire swept through this natural park burning over 400 hectares of beautiful forest.

Matthieu said you never expect it to happen to you and told me, when I spoke to them on a Zoom call, how he watched in horror as the fire just kept getting closer and closer and how he was powerless to stop it. Even the heroic firemen, with their planes and helicopters, couldn't save them and most of their land was burned.

A disaster. But Mareile and Matthieu have decided to look at it positively and notice that a few miracles happened, as well.

The main one being, of course, that no humans or animals were hurt. Pamir, their cat, and all eight of their chickens escaped unscathed. And, they are incredibly grateful that their wooden home survived, as well.

Their outdoor kitchen, furniture and tool sheds weren’t so lucky though. And looking out over their burnt land, it was slightly more difficult to find the ‘silver lining’.

They did, however - find a green one!

In a sea of black, a strip of green land was still standing proud. A large portion of their well cared for and well watered food forest had survived the fire.

Taking this as a testament to the power of the agroforestry techniques that they have been working so hard to implement over the last few years, this surviving green patch has given them hope for the future.

Learning from experience

Matthieu told me how they are planning to ‘plant back better’ - and smarter. He wants to find more ways to abide by one of the famous dictums in syntropic agroforestry which is to: “store your water in the land”.

One important way of achieving this is to carve what's known as ‘swales’ in the hillsides to stop the rainfall rushing away and give the water time to sink into the ground.

Another problem Matthieu wants to tackle is what the Portuguese call ‘cana’ (Arundo donax L). This plant is very similar to bamboo and, although it comes in handy for all kinds of things on the land - they had too much of it.

He told me that once these thickets caught fire they would become towering infernos and help spread the flames even further.

Matthieu says he doesn’t know if it will work (as he freely admits that he’s still learning) but he has a plan to try and replace the cana with more fire resistant trees and plants.

He doesn’t want to rip up all the roots or to use chemicals. He’s determined to find a more natural way of solving the problem. Cana, he explained, likes to live near water - but not in it. The roots reach down to the stream but they like sunlight to grow.

The plan, therefore, is to plant lots of water-loving trees such as willow, ash, poplar and elderberry along the side of the stream that will hopefully block the roots path and create shade making it an increasingly unfavourable place for the cana to grow.

Nature never gives up

After the fire, the couple set up a Gofund me page and have been deeply moved and grateful for all the donations they’ve received to help them and their neighbours replace what has been lost and to get them back on their feet again.

Izabella and Mathias and all the hardworking volunteers at Regen Waves are already seeing huge progress replacing what was lost in their food forest garden.

When I spoke to Mareile and Matthieu, they had gone to France to visit their family and come to terms with what had happened. But they told me how before they left, they saw a burned apple tree that, also confused by what had happened to it, was flowering.

They took this as a sign that nature will regrow and that with a little time water and love - life will bloom once again.

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