Interview: Raquel Trejo of Margarite & Rosa
The trees are about to add a leaf’s thickness to the depth of the soil. This is the beautiful way in which Nature gets her muck. We are all the richer for their decay. It prepares the virgin mould for future cornfields and forests, on which the earth fattens. It keeps our homestead in good heart.
– Henry David Thoreau, ‘Autumnal Tints’ (1862)
“Decay is just an easy descriptive term that people use to avoid looking closer,” Raquel Trejo of Margarite & Rosa tells me in one of our emails that yo-yo back and forth between central Mexico and the mid north coast of Australia. “The way I see it, decay is a process of energy transfer where life forces are transformed and cosmic energies find their way in to enrich life. Decay is essential at our farm.” The farm is a fourteen-acre property near Scotts Head in New South Wales, but the oddball context for this conversation is that Raquel is a Mexican living in Australia and I’m an Australian living in Mexico. Obvious then that talk in our trans-Pacific letters turns to the subject of decay.
We talk about plenty of things as we both reach out towards home – farm-life, biodynamic agriculture, miniature belted Galloways, dahlias and naturally dyed linen overalls – but it seems to me that decay, or biological change, is an inescapable, vital and majestic part of each one of these topics. Perhaps there’s no better place to observe close up the perpetual cycles of growth and decay than on a farm.
We need microbes to breakdown the cow poo to make the compost that grows our crops, to dye our clothing and feed us and our animals,” says Raquel, with all the force and realism of a dyed-in-the-wool farmer, albeit one working in the tradition of Rudolf Steiner.
There’s a gypsy-streak to the way Raquel approaches the world and that part of her is in plain sight on the farm. Fields of native Mexican and North American wildflowers explode like a colour mirage amongst the grandfather eucalyptus and grass trees. There are cosmos, dahlias, zinnias, rudbeckias, marigolds and others from the Tagetes family, all farmed biodynamically alongside a giant kitchen garden full of Mexican staples and heirloom vegetables suited to the heavy, subtropical weather of the mid north.
Raquel and her partner Andrew Lucas moved to the farm eight years ago: “I found my way here from Mexico City, first via Sweden and then New Zealand where Andrew and I met,” Raquel says. “We came over to Australia for a 3 month working trip that quickly turned into 8 years and counting.” The rundown farmhouse they found on a hill, tucked amongst a forest of weeds and native wilderness and painted bright blue by a successive run of hippy tenants, had a lot to do with their decision to stay.
My husband, the perpetual optimist, had a tear in his eye envisioning the potential when we saw the place; I was crying too, seeing the hard work,” Raquel says.
Maybe it’s the scientist in Raquel that gives her some amount of realism. She studied agronomy in Mexico City, international environmental sciences in Sweden and translation studies in Auckland on the way to becoming a biodynamic farmer, wife, mother and maker of natural dyes from dahlias and a range of handmade kids’ clothes that would do equally well for adults. Andrew is by day a doctor, on the weekends a surfer and around that a full-time farmer’s husband, farmer’s apprentice and dad. Their two daughters, Rosa (five years) and Margarite (two and a half) are free spirits, whose names have become the unofficial title of the ranch. The two girls spend afternoons running around amidst hand-me-down macadamia and mango trees in an Australian oasis by a river near the coast. There’s a bunch of farm animals that round out their extended family: Roy, a 21 year-old ex-prize winning pony turned “Godfather figure”; Glenda, Karlee and Lucia, a trio of miniature belted Galloways also known as the Girls; and an endless opus of visiting kookaburras, monitor lizards and cockatoos.
Cycles like the seasons, and growth and decay, work closely together on the farm. The vivid flowers that crowd the fields and house at harvest time wilt and dry, and under Raquel’s guidance are transformed into natural dyes. “The flower garden is definitely our main project,” she says. “Our veggie garden is only for us, but the dyer’s garden is for my clothing project. I try to grow gorgeous flowers. I surround myself in their beauty.” Part of that beauty is their decay. When it’s time, the flower heads give over their deep, biological secrets in gentle shades of yellow, dusk pink, amber and fawn. “My dying process has been developed with a lot of research and trial and error,” explains Raquel, who has studied with India Flint and Aboubakar Fofana. “It’s one thing to make a pretty colour, but for my robust clothes it’s important that the colour persists. Normally I start by freezing or drying the flowers. Then I do a kind of a tisane, and from there I use solar heat, as we have plenty of sun. One way to look at it is a combination of cooking and hard work.
I try to cook up a story of our piece of land in coastal Australia. Rough, beautiful, and full of life.”
Full of life because of the careful, joyous way the Trejo-Lucas family treat it. They work half their land according to biodynamic principles, and leave the other half to its own devices. “Australian soils have suffered enough,” says Raquel. “We don’t want to do any more damage than already has been done. Biodynamic farming aims to regenerate the soil and fits beautifully with our life philosophies – with a touch of witchcraft.”
No one knows better how to harness decay for good than the founder of the biodynamic movement, Rudolf Steiner. His recipes call for organic cow mesentery packed with manure and dried dandelion heads, and stag horn bladders, all baked in the earth to produce “sweet smelling, almost edible magic potions” as Raquel describes them. These preparations and others have worked wonders on the farm, converting somewhat languid, organic garden beds into rich playgrounds where tomatillos, beets and eggplants, grow full, vital and slick.
“We’re constantly collecting material for new compost,” says Raquel. “Currently we’re making a liquid compost, with seaweed or comfrey. They are a lot of fun, you add water and plant material into a drum, a touch of Steiner magic, and let the contents rot and ferment. After a few months you get this super potent liqueur that is really good for the garden.” Soul food too for the rotation of green crops they plant in between flower crops to help maintain soil health. “We break new soil, and dream about what do we want to do in the farm,” Raquel tells me, simultaneously inspired by “real farmers”, the loudening voices of people working with natural dyes and by details she sees within the Australian landscape. “My day starts at 5am and ends at 12pm and usually revolves around children, the farm, flowers, cows, beaches and crotchet.” It’s a way of life that acknowledges our time, our moment and our place here, but also one that carefully understands our legacy, and our responsibility to others.
“When the leaves fall, the whole earth is a cemetery pleasant to walk in,” said Henry David Thoreau in one of his odes to simple living. It’s a thought that might have struck him as he sat on the porch of his cabin in the woods outside of Concord, Massachusetts – and it’s a reality that Raquel and her family live in the daily glow of, on their farm in the mid north coast.
When they resurrect wildflowers for their colours and resuscitate soils with pinches of the cosmos and compost, they’re simply integrating their needs with those of the land.
And when Raquel and I talk about decay, we are really talking about life – in all its shades.