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Robinson Crusoe Grows Duckweed

March 3, 2012

It took four hours by open boat from Georgetown and then a kidney-bursting ride in the back of a pickup along dirt trails to reach the jungle clearing.

Angus Savoy stood waiting for us, happy to shake our hands. His English was clear and precise. He was a retired Guyanan high school teacher. His wife had died two years earlier, leaving him with two daughters and a huge DIY homestead jungle project a good sixty miles by boat from the nearest hardware store.  My fellow consultants helpfully pointed out several times that Angus could probably use a new wife.

Oblivious to the matchmaking, Angus said, “I want to show you my duckweed beds,”  We followed him down to the edge of an estuary where great birds flew across the marsh grasses. A towering, rough-hewn house on stilts rose out of nowhere in the gathering twilight. I saw rows of neatly built rabbit hutches, chicken coops, colorful gardens here and there, and a half-finished wooden boat up on blocks, its ribs gaunt in the shadows of the trees. What was left of an old motorcycle leaned against a makeshift workbench littered with old  motors, nuts and bolts and miscellaneous “gotta saves” that only mechanical minds appreciate. I noted a home-made solar collector on his roof and a bio-methane digester in a trench not far from his animal stations. Actually, he WAS my kind of guy.

“This has been a great success for me,” Angus pointed proudly at fenced-in rectangular pond. On the surface of the pond was a healthy crop of duckweed. “I had to fence it off because the animals were eating it too fast. I feed duckweed to my Red Nile tilapia, the chickens, the rabbits, and if I have any left over, the pigs get it. I really need more ponds as I think even my cows could eat it. Do you know if they can?” I heard a clanking of cow bells just then and saw a small herd of cattle ambling home on a grassy path next to the marshes edge.

We could only answer, “Try it and see.” The discussion deepened to the digestive capabilities of ruminants. It was now totally dark and mosquitos from the marsh had discovered us in droves. We heard a pickup honking in the distance and began walking back up the incline in the darkness to catch our ride. Angus peppered us with last-minute questions on fish feed ratios, biomethane generation, and duckweed. We said our good-byes with a trace of regret. I gave him a roll of ducktape as a gift. He turned it over and over in his hands and then lit up into a huge smile when he realized what it was capable of. He shook our hands all over again. We left him standing there under banana trees, waving good-bye.

Angus Savoy had created a thriving jungle paradise of animals, plants, and a comfortable home for his daughters. I think of him as a modern-day Robinson Crusoe and send good wishes to him in his little paradise. May he inspire others in his community as much as he has me in creating a  near-zero energy home and sustainable gardening with duckweed.

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