Sembrado con Amor / Grown with Love

A Story of Regeneration: Moving towards regenerative agriculture on the southern pacific coast of Mexico

At Playa Viva, every aspect of our operation attempts to go beyond low-impact and actually make the place—the land and our community—better than it was. In other words, we practice regeneration.

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The farm.

Regeneration applies to everything that we do. What we do in food production is no different; we practice what’s called regenerative agriculture.

You might ask: what makes agriculture “regenerative”?

Regenerative agriculture is not just organic, and doesn’t just “do no harm”, but it actually improves the land. It represents a wide array of techniques that actively work to rebuild and regenerate soils, enhance biodiversity, increase resilience to climate change, and strengthen the health and vitality of farming and ranching communities.

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As the lead for Playa Viva’s social and environmental impact, I wanted to know… so are we actually doing that?

On an environmental level, I knew from working with our Farm Manager and Permaculture Specialist that the type of agriculture we are practicing is regenerative … but what about the social component? Are we raising awareness about sustainability? Are we changing perspectives? And if we’re raising awareness, is that awareness spreading to change agricultural practices in the region?

To begin to answer these questions, I decided to start by sitting down with the two people who grow our food: José Garza and Abel Vejar, both from the neighboring town of Rancho Nuevo. I wanted to know how they got into farming, how much they knew about organic farming and sustainable agriculture prior to joining the team, and how working for Playa Viva as a whole has (or hasn’t) impacted them.

But before I tell you what I discovered, I need to give a little context:

Today, most farmers in this region of Mexico hold a strong dependency on fertilizers and herbicides. During the mid-twentieth century, due to numerous policies and reforms, Mexico’s agrarian landscape was in a precarious state. Many rural areas of the state (as well as across the country) were suffering from poverty, land disputes, and hunger. In response to this, the Mexican government, in partnership with the United States, launched the Mexican Agricultural Program in 1943, which aimed to combat rural poverty through the use of modern agricultural technology and expansion. Through financial and technical support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the program created fertilizer subsidies, promoted the use of herbicides and pesticides, and distributed new hybrid varieties of maize and wheat, and trained farmers how to use them.

Coupled with a booming tourism industry, the coastline of Guerrero—once a verdant coastal forest replete with mangroves—was dramatically transformed through slash-and-burn agriculture into monoculture mango, tamarind, and coconut groves, and deforested for cattle ranching.

This created a significant decrease in biodiversity along with a reliance on fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides to grow food for short-term gain in disregard of long-term social and environmental impacts. These developments have had severe impacts not only on the environment but also on the local economy. Lack of crop rotation, unbalanced crop nutrition and intensive use of pesticides and herbicides have all led to soil degradation, declining yields, declining water quality, and have greatly altered the rural landscape.

The current situation is a major concern for local farmers and policy makers, who are looking for ways to improve standards of living while strengthening the natural resources that abound.

In response, Playa Viva, along with its partner business Gente Viva, is working to provide solutions through the promotion of regenerative agriculture. The mission of Gente Viva is to create a resilient food system that provides sustainable economic opportunities to farmers by connecting them with international, domestic and local distribution for their healthy, organic produce.

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So let’s begin… What did I learn from my conversations with our food production team?

Abel Vejar, 31, and José Garza (better known as “Güero”), 31, are both from the same neighboring town of Rancho Nuevo. (Actually, they’re cousins born on the same day, same year, one hour apart!) They each come from slightly different farming backgrounds: Abel hadn’t had much experience working on farms—only some experience with fruit trees—while Güero had worked the land nearly his whole life, but never farmed organically. I wanted to know more about these two: how they made their way to Playa Viva, how and why they became farmers, and what impact working in organic food production has had on their lives.

Q: When and how did you make the decision to be a farmer?

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Abel: Well, I first started working in construction here at Playa Viva. I worked for about three months and remember seeing the lettuce in the greenhouse—they really caught my eye … They’re what really caught my attention and the reason why I wanted to come here to work and learn. I really like the job as I’m learning so many things here, which is most important to me: learning. Also, in respect to the lettuce, I had never seen them before nor knew them until now. I had never grown them—other fruits, yeah, like mango, banana, coconuts, all those kinds of fruit that we have here. But I had never seen these lettuces and they stood out to me because they are really beautiful and really tasty. And yeah, I really like working in food production, because nature really calls me.

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Güero: I personally was very young when I started working the land. I was eleven years old when I started to work on my own in farming to grow corn seasonally. I was growing corn, pumpkin, cane, beans—the essentials. And from there I began to familiarize myself with the land—I was learning to harvest, learning to work with a machete, learning to plow. But yeah, I was little when I began to work the land—well, work it alone. I started working the land with my family when I was really little, maybe 7, 8 years old—the easier stuff—but I started doing farm work then. Here in Playa Viva, I started just a little while ago. About three years ago I started working here, first at the hotel as a chauffeur, then I worked in permaculture for about another six months, and then I started here in food production. I’ve been working in food production for about two seasons. It feels like I’m still just learning—lots of things that I still don’t know—but that I’m going to be learning a lot.

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Abel with his lettuce
Q: Have you always farmed organically? Did you know much about organic farming before working for Playa Viva?

Abel: No—the fruit trees I worked with, we worked with chemicals. Because to clean them, you needed liquids; to get the tree to produce fruit, you used chemicals; you also used liquids to fumigate the fruit to get rid of insects, so yeah I came in not knowing much [about organic farming]. It’s here where I’m learning a lot. Here everything that we work, everything that we bring [to the kitchen], everything is organic, all the plants that we grow are worked purely by hand and not with chemicals.

Güero: Before, we used to use chemicals all the time. We used pesticides for weeds—not the worst ones—but in any case we still used them. And here at Playa Viva, from the start I began going to courses and started learning things, primarily that they aren’t good for your health. But while you don’t see it, you don’t believe it. Then later on you start to see that yeah it’s good to eat food grown without chemicals … I actually didn’t know anything about organic agriculture [before working at Playa Viva]. In the past, when we planted tomatoes, we tried to put as little chemicals as possible, but we always used them, when there was a pest or anything. But organic-organic, I never farmed organically myself. Not until two seasons ago, so now about a full year working on my own. Before I was working with Sapo (former head of food production), so we spent a season together, planting, and that’s where I started learning and they started bringing me to courses. So yeah, I’ve learned a lot.

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Visit to the local organic basil farm for a workshop on making organic insecticides and fungicides 
Q: Has your perspective changed about organic food or sustainable agriculture after having worked for Playa Viva. If yes, how? If no, why not?

Abel: Yes, because after trying different types of fruits and lettuces, I think it’s healthier because now I can invite my family to try this type of organic food. Our food that we grow is healthier than what’s available where I live—because all of the fruit that we have in Rancho Nuevo, all of it is grown with chemicals. Similarly, things like tomato and chile are also grown with chemicals. I would like it if we were all farming organically, because like that, you would see less disease and illness. It’s cleaner eating. […] I’ve brought some lettuce home for my family to try, and this type of lettuce specifically [points to lechuga tropical next to him], and my wife particularly loved it. She said it was delicious. My family had never tried it before, but they all really liked it.

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Guero and one of his WWOOF volunteers

Güero: Yes, a lot. About food more than anything else. But yeah, if I myself grow something, it will be organic; for me, for us, because, well, it’s better … Like I told you before, I knew that it wasn’t good, but I didn’t know how bad [pesticides] were. I thought what they said about [pesticides] was just tontería [nonsense]. I didn’t understand really until I started going to courses … From that point on, I started talking with people who were already inside the organic movement and they helped me understand that what I was doing before wasn’t good. And now, my mind’s changed, now I think differently, and I think it’s good to change and to make others change as well, but it’s difficult. You can see here that [organic farming] is difficult, but you are eating something healthy, something clean, something that you know won’t harm you. But not there [in the town]; it’s different.

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Preparing the harvest for the weekly farmer’s market
Q: Are the people in your town interested in organic farming? Do you see more people shifting to or practicing more organic farming in the future?

Abel: Well, I say yes because for example in my town, a lot people are already starting to grow organic sesame. In Rancho Nuevo a lot of people grow sesame, almost the majority of people who live there do, but they grow it with chemicals. I think that now there are the opportunities to grow organically, and from there they have the means to produce organically (through Gente Viva’s program). And I think it’s good because it’s a support—teaching them how to grow organically—and that support can give us more work in the organic sector. So, I think some people are going to be growing organic sesame with Nick (Gente Viva), and they like that. It would be a good change.

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Guero selling his organic produce at the Eco Tianguis Sanka in Zihuatanejo

Güero: I think so, because in Rancho Nuevo there are already two or three people who are joining the organic farming group with Nick (Gente Viva) … The only problem here is that a lot of people don’t grow organically because they don’t have the means—in the sense that you have to invest a lot in this type of farming, more than anything the supplies, those are more expensive, and it’s more difficult. Now it is at least — later that could change, but that’ll take time … I think it’s going to happen little by little. Little by little you have to tell and teach people about it because if you don’t tell others what you see and know, no one is going to be encouraged to do so. They’ll say it’s cheaper to go to the market and buy what they’re going to eat rather than cultivating it themselves. But if you eat a tomato here, for example, you know that little tomato is clean, you know that there’s no chemicals. You can eat it right from the garden … there’s no chemicals or anything like that.

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The sprout house amongst the cacao
Q: Would you say that Playa Viva has been a transformational experience for you?

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Abel: Yes. It’s a change. It’s a change in my awareness, my knowledge, to know more about what I’m learning here in food production. And I’ll also say it’s a change to improve economically for my family, because where I live there’s no work. I mean, wherever really in the countryside, you suffer when you live in the country where there are no job opportunities, but here [at Playa Viva] there are.

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Güero: Yes … If I hadn’t been working for Playa Viva, I still wouldn’t know about organic farming … And for example, this opportunity I was given here in food production—I had never really worked in area where I was at the front of it, in charge. It’s a big responsibility but at the same time it’s an experience that you get accustomed to; you get used to carrying out your work that you yourself are responsible for. You’re responsible for carrying out everything and seeing it through … I really like experimenting with what I’m growing, that’s what I like the most. If it doesn’t work out one way, I’ll try another and see if it works out.

——

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After speaking with Güero and Abel it was clear to me that working here at Playa Viva has impacted them. For Güero’s case, you see the transformation of someone who has been farming his whole life with chemicals, who now would never use pesticides again and sees the importance of eating organically. For Abel, you see someone without any farming experience, who was so taken by the leafy greens in the greenhouse that he wanted to learn more; now after given the opportunity, he sees and understands why growing and eating organically is so important.

What’s exciting is that this is just the beginning of everything: a change, a shift, a step in the right direction. We’re just beginning to scratch the surface — both in our work with Gente Viva, food production at Playa Viva, as well as understanding what kind of impact this work is having and will have in the future.

I’m left feeling overly inspired. On at least one level, we’ve provided at least two people with a livelihood as organic farmers who now are aware of the harmful effects of pesticides and herbicides. They can feed their families with healthy, organic produce, and share what they learn here with their community.

Lastly, I was taken aback at how proud they are and that what they do is a labor of love.

“It’s all grown with love. This is what I believe: if you grow something with love, it’s going to give you better results. It serves a plant well; watering it, including talking with it. For example, whenever I’m watering this lettuce, I’m always caressing it, giving it a loving look. I talk with them, I even sing to them.” — Abel

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Guero, Abel, and their three volunteers Beth, Alice, and Christabel

 

 

La Tortuga Viva: Predator-Proofing 101

 

Turtle Sanctuary

With an average of 6 turtle nests ransacked by predators each night, the more that our volunteer team can reach and relocate to the safe, secure haven of  La Tortuga Viva Turtle Sanctuary, the better!

Yet our rivals – mainly coatis and tejones – are a cunning bunch, and as they refuse to rest on their laurels, nor can we.

So as they continue to adapt and find new, innovative ways to defy our sanctuary security measures,  so must we strive to stay one step ahead. (And if there’s anything we relish, it’s a challenge!)

Cue our January renovation project:  Predator-Proofing Round Two.

Our mission? To rethink our security strategy, helping us to remain in the winning corner for the 6th year running…

Step 1: Strengthening the Structure 

While our unique position – just a stone’s-throw away from the seashore – is one of our favourite features, Playa Viva’s picturesque setting still brings with it a couple of drawbacks. Case in point: weathering.

Although we carefully select the most durable local materials available when building our 100% natural structures – from our eco-casitas and yoga studio, to our plant nursery and turtle sanctuary – we’re also well aware, that soon enough, these will all require an upgrade.

Thankfully, many hands do indeed make light work, and so our team of volunteers – permaculture staff, locals and international workers – made replacing the 100+ wooden posts that lined the sanctuary perimeter, and provided sturdy support for the mesh roofing, look a lot easier than 5 days of solid work under the burning sun would suggest!

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Step 2: Climb-Prevention Canopies

Fearing that turtle egg predators weren’t far off mastering their mesh-climbing skills, and would soon be scaling our wired walls with spiderman-like ease, it was time to put our heads together. Head of permaculture, Sapo – known for his awe-inspiring problem-solving powers – came up with a solution in no time, a mosquito-mesh canopy, along with a comprehensive construction plan detailing how exactly the design would work.

(That’s one of the beauties of being part of a living, breathing, continually-evolving project such as Playa Viva; who needs a blueprint when you’ve got your killer instincts to rely on, and sufficient head-space to hear them!)

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Thus, the team set about cutting the mosquito mesh to size; threading pliable wire through the top and bottom (the top, to attach it to the wire mesh; the bottom, to hold the mesh between posts in place); fitting wooden supports to the perimeter posts; and finally, attaching the mesh to the wooden supports. So coati be warned – you may get up, but you certainly won’t get over!

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Step 3: Blocking the Diggers

Having dealt with the ‘up and over’ style of break-in, our final step was to thwart the attempts of those who may call our bluff, and choose the ‘down and under’ approach…

For this solution, mesh came up trumps again – as did Sapo – who decided that a deeply-embedded, double-mesh-whammy would create the ultimate predator barrier.

And so, trenches were dug, wire mesh walls were pulled down and repositioned, and an extra mosquito mesh was laid on the inside – all ensuring that no creature, however great or small can pass through the net…quite literally!

 

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La Tortuga Viva (The Living Turtle) Background: Situated at the southeast corner of Playa Viva, the sanctuary is run by an all-volunteer staff, comprised of members of the local community. These are fisherman and farmers who recognized the damage being done to the local turtle population and decided to make a difference.

To make a donation click here.
Read the 2012-13 Annual Report click here.

Home Made Soap at Playa Viva. Perfecting the Process.

ImageDuring a recent visit to Playa Viva,  we made our second batch of soap with Lorraine, currently on tour of duty as the Yoga/Massage/Host at Playa Viva.  She just sent us this note related to continuing with our soap making efforts.

“I was able to make soap on Sunday with Gabriel.  The minimum amount being 10 liters.  After re-reading the information sheet on bio-diesel it states that for every 1 liter of soap 50 milligrams are required of essential oils.  I experimented with one liter adding chocolate and peppermint.  The remainder I left un-scented. This being the 3rd batch ready for use 2/21/13.

What I did do was re-melt the remaining pieces left over after cutting the 2nd batch and scenting two samples and adding oatmeal to one. I left the rest un-scented which smells nice and not overly fragrant.  This will be ready for use 2/27/13.

ImageI cut round pieces and asked the housekeeping team to place them in the rooms instead of the regular soap. We now make a point to inform the guest about Playa Viva soap in the rooms. Since then we have had a total 4 sales at $5.00 for a three pack.  The guest love it!

The only thing I would make other than bar soap would be the liquid soap that is used for general cleaning because the glycerin would be good for all wooded surfaces.

My recommendation:  in order for your soap product to come out, once the proportions are established would be to:

  • pay Gabriel [who currently runs the bio-diesel production] to make it
  • let it set for 3 weeks, then have the housekeeping staff reheat it, (I taught them how to do this)
  • at this time you can add fragrance (which can be costly) let it set another 3 weeks before using.
  • This process allows the Sosa [lye] to evaporate leaving a nicer product.

Lorraine”

Birthday Without Presents? Yes, This Is a Happy Story…

Maya with her sister and a poster she made of the marine turtle rescue work by La Tortuga Viva

When Maya celebrated her birthday recently she did something very, very special. Rather than contribute to conspicuous consumption she made a sacrifice few kids would make. She forsook the treasure trove of toys in exchange for giving back to nature. Read the details in our interview with Maya below.

Playa Viva” How did you get the idea to raise money for the turtle sanctuary?”
Maya “Because I always got presents and I knew how long I played with them which was just one day, and I thought maybe I should do something else for this birthday. “

Playa Viva – “How did you pick La Tortuga Viva?”
Maya – “Because it is the only one I know of and I really like how it helps save the most endangered turtles.”

Playa Viva – “How did you raise the money?”
Maya – “I asked everybody that came to my party not to bring gifts and to instead donate that money they would have been spending on presents.”

Playa Viva – “Did you learn anything about turtles and how people rescue turtles?”
Maya – “Yes. I learned that turtles are very endangered because people eat them and take the eggs from their nests and eat them too.  That causes there to be fewer turtles in the world, and their population is going down.  To rescue them, they cut off the beaches from cars and people.  After they hatch, they help the baby turtles into the ocean so they can be free.”

Playa Viva – “Was it fun and what did you enjoy about doing a fundraiser for your party?”
Maya – “It was fun because I knew the turtles would be safe and I knew I was doing something good.”

Maya, we applaud you for your sacrifice and commitment to making a contribution to promoting biodiversity and improving the chances of survival for marine turtles.  The funds raised by Maya were used to purchase cyclone fencing to expand the turtle sanctuary in order to have room to protect more eggs and thus more turtles. Thank you Maya and to all who attended your party and gave generously.

A Simple Salt and Its Complex Journey to Your Plate

If you’ve visited Playa Viva, then you’ve had a chance to try Juluchuca’s local organic sea salt. A small bowl is on the table at every Playa Viva meal and salt crystals adorn the rims of many of the bar’s delicious drinks.

Using local salt means that the extra pinch you toss on the morning huevos rancheros didn’t travel hundreds (or thousands) of miles to land on your plate. But while this arrangement seems so much simpler, it’s still a pretty complex operation to get that salt from the ocean-side salt pools a few miles away to Playa Viva.

Low prices for bulk sea salt have put that complex system at risk. Farmers are switching to plastic-based, non-organic production methods that risk not only their cultural heritage, but also the local ecosystem. An article (in Spanish) in one of the Costa Grande’s local newspapers highlighted this challenge and the damage it could provoke in the salty lagoons near Juluchuca.

The answer is simple, right? – Stop producing sea salt using black plastic sheeting that contaminates the environment, and switch back to centuries-old methods that use sand and clay to form shallow pools to evaporate seawater.

But low-income producers have an equally simple response:  produce as much salt as cheaply as possible in order to earn enough pesos to feed their families.

In reality, neither response is sufficient. Using local salt doesn’t allow Playa Viva to opt out of a complex global food production system. Instead, it just brings the complexity closer to home and makes addressing the risks that much more pertinent.

A longer lasting solution is to work with the salt producers to adapt to the market dynamics they face. That’s why Playa Viva partnered with I-DEV—to help farmers profit from the benefits that organic, artisanally produced sea salt offers consumers. It’s a multi-year process, but we’ve already taken the first steps. During the next harvest season, which starts next February, a select group of salt farmers will rededicate themselves to the artisanal production methods their parents and grandparents used. This will mean more work and higher production costs, but also means they’ll be able to charge higher prices in the local and international markets.

Group members vote for their leaders with carefully placed hash marks.

The group has been meeting weekly for the past month, getting ready for a production season that is only a few months away. They recently elected three of their members to lead them through the next season as they buck a national trend in Mexico and say ‘No’ to plastic-based sea salt production. Members scratched three hash marks each on piece of paper taped to the wall to cast their votes. I was the outside election monitor (first time!), and I can say that we avoided any lengthy legal battles over the group’s leadership.

So what do hash marks on a crumpled paper in rural Mexico have to do with you? Whether you’re eating salt that’s been flown, trucked, and shipped around the world, or savoring that simplest spice from right down the beach, complexity is infused in the food you consume. These artisanal salt farmers are learning how global markets have influenced how they produce their salt, and are opting for a return to traditional methods of production instead.

Watch for kitchen and bath salt products from ‘Sal Mar Azteca’ next year. Or, if you can’t wait to get your hands on some you can order Playa Viva’s ‘Sal Viva,’ an artisanal sea salt produced right up the beach from the eco-resort.

Leatherback Baby Turtles Born at Playa Viva

Upon awaking this morning, all of us here at Playaviva had a pleasant surprise.  During the night, the eggs of the most endangered turtle in the world had hatched.

Laud (leatherback) or as the locals call them “garapacho” turtles are the most treasured in this area. They can grow to be two meters in length and weight up to 1200 pounds. They lay eggs only once every four years and do not start reproducing until they are at least 10 years of age. Which makes every egg very precious.  Their eggs are much larger then the more common varieties. All the baby turtles were healthy and strong as we released them to the sea.

Shortly after, while we were eating our breakfast the whales came to visit. Barley 15 meters off shore we witnessed a large mama and baby whale glide past the coastline directly in front of playa viva.

All in all, it was an amazing morning.

Oh What A Night, What A Special Night

Last night the moon was half-full in the night sky, obfuscating the stars and reflecting off the waves.  Playa Viva was full of guests, we had a great group come, organized by Suzanne Biegel, an early investor and supporter of Playa Viva. We stayed at the dinner and talked long after the meal was done as I answered the “usual questions”. How we came to Playa Viva?  Why we built the way we did? When do we release the turtles?

After most of the dinner crowd wandered off to their rooms, I ended up staying up till midnight talking to one of our guests, Lisa Renstrom, former Sierra Club President, about her work with ecoAmerica in creating real change around the environment. We talked until I was delirious and couldn’t form a coherent thought, but all the connections we had in common kept us up late into the night, until our conversation was punctuated by a small earthquake, maybe a 3.0 that lasted about 4-5 seconds.

Soon after I went up to the observatory and fell asleep, or so I thought, soon after I was awoken by a member of our security team. The turtle sanctuary volunteers had radioed in that they had come across a Leatherback turtle laying eggs about a half  a kilometer down the beach. Did I want to go?  Of course!  The night was chilly, I wrapped a towel around my shoulders and hopped on the ATV and headed out to experience something I’ve never had the chance to do in all the time I’ve been at Playa Viva – be next to a Leatherback.

The Leatherback Turtle is highly endangered. To give you an idea of how endangered, out of 200,000 turtles released on the beach here a few years back, less than 500 were Leatherback. That means less than a half of a percent of all turtles on these beaches are Leatherback.  A one in a million chance that on this night, the earth would shake and a Leatherback would emerge from the waters at the right time, in the right place…and there I was, next to this glorious creature as it was laying her eggs.Leatherback Turtle on Playa Viva beach

What an awesome responsibility we have to protect this species.  She was immense, probably over 500 pounds and close to 6 feet long from head to toe.  What amazed me was how smooth her shell was, as if the ocean had polished it, silky smooth, yet rock solid, like fine marble.  She also seemed so vulnerable.  Had the wrong group of human beings come across her, she would have been cut into meat and carried off to some underground market, slaughtered, her eggs purchased as precious aphrodisiacs.  Yet, there she was, in our charge, her eggs would be protected, her babies would be secure and released back to the wild, protected from predators – dogs, raccoons,  badgers, people – that also patrol this stretch of peach looking for turtle eggs.

The night was dark, the half-moon that had illuminated the sky hours ago was long gone. This grand turtle had entered under the cover of darkness to deposit her treasure.  As she finished laying her eggs, she covered her tracks, making several “false” nests to make it harder for predators to find her eggs.

I looked up into the heavens.  Millions of stars, the Milky Way’s cloudy trail clearly marked across the night sky.  What a night!

Help support the turtle sanctuary volunteers – click here to donate.