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Take Hold of Your Health

Radiant Life empowers readers to become the best source on their own health and wellness, making well-rounded decisions about diet, exercise, and lifestyle.

Beauty That Uplifts

Radiant Life uplifts readers by offering insight into the spirit and meaning of masterworks. What is the purpose of an artist in society and why has art been so important since antiquity? Most importantly, what role does art play in our lives today?
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Elevate Your Home

Radiant Life brings readers inspiration as well as tips for you to create a space of beauty in your home and garden.
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FOCUS

Take Hold of Your Health

Beauty That Uplifts

Elevate Your Home

Radiant Life empowers readers to become the best source on their own health and wellness, making well-rounded decisions about diet, exercise, and lifestyle.
Radiant Life uplifts readers by offering insight into the spirit and meaning of masterworks. What is the purpose of an artist in society and why has art been so important since antiquity? Most importantly, what role does art play in our lives today?
Radiant Life brings readers inspiration as well as tips for you to create a space of beauty in your home and garden.
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Beauty Uplifts
Elevate your home

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A Kitchen Container Garden Can Get Your Family to Eat More Vegetables

A Kitchen Container Garden Can Get Your Family to Eat More Vegetables

Written by Shawna Coronado

Want your children to eat their vegetables? Without a doubt, the best way to get a child to eat a vegetable is to have them grow it. That one-on-one experience is inspiring to see as a child learns about beauty, food, and patience when learning how to grow for themselves.

Having a small kitchen or potager garden—even a garden planted in small containers—can stimulate more vegetable eating. Definitively, a kitchen or potager garden is where fruits, herbs, and vegetables are grown for use in cooking and eating. Growing your own vegetables integrates exercise, fresh air, sunshine, therapeutic scents, and direct contact with soil.

Although you might find a traditional potager in the ground, it’s absolutely possible to grow a kitchen garden by utilizing elevated beds, living walls, and container pots.

Kitchen Garden Tips
  • Grow It Organically: It’s assumed that all the foods used in your kitchen garden will be consumed by your family, so growing organically is absolutely critical to reducing chemical exposure.
  • Sunshine Levels: Potager gardens perform best when receiving full sun, or six to eight hours of sun per day. However, it’s possible to grow vegetables in shade (see breakout box).
  • The Soil Secret: Vegetables and herbs need to be rotated seasonally and the soil needs to be replenished by adding plenty of compost and new material annually.
  • Holding Moisture: Mulch your gardens to prevent weeds and hold in moisture.
  • Watering Is Important: Vegetables, fruits, and herbs need more water. For low maintenance watering, install a drip system in the garden.
  • Keeping It Neat: Succession planting helps you harvest more food. If a plant has stopped producing or has been harvested, try planting a new row of seeds or add a new plant in order to stretch out seasonal food production.
Growing in Shade or Part Shade

Most herbs and vegetables prefer full sun. However, many gardeners, especially those who live in urban centers, feel thwarted in creating a kitchen garden because of lower light conditions. While it can be more of a challenge to grow in the shade, it is quite possible.

If you can grow a few plants in shadier circumstances, it means you can grow in areas that typically aren’t used for gardening such as balconies, along fence lines, close to shady or covered patios or walkways, and between tall buildings.

A great way to grow in less space is to create a living wall, which is easy to create simply by using window boxes mounted to a wall. Both living walls and container gardens tuck into small spaces—even shady spaces—quite nicely.

Produce such as leafy greens sometimes remain smaller when grown in heavy shade, so planting more closely together with expectations of smaller plants means you can still grow just as much of a potager crop while working to harvest younger produce.

Additionally, the rule to remember when planting in shade is “No Sun = No Fruits and No Roots.” In other words, plants such as potatoes, which are roots, and tomatoes, which are fruits, produce abundantly in full sun but are less likely to produce an abundant harvest in heavier shade. A convenient list of shade-tolerant herbs and vegetables that can grow well in a potager garden can be found below.

No matter where you garden—in the ground, elevated beds, living walls, container gardens, or raised beds—growing as much nutrient-rich food as you possibly can with your family is advantageous. Have your family pitch in to assemble the gardens. From adding soil to planting seeds or plants, their involvement in the process of planting and growing will keep them engaged.

That specific engagement will encourage them to want to try the produce after harvest. If a toddler or a teenager tries a food and likes it, they are likely to try it again and again.

Another aspect to the family planting and growing a kitchen garden together is that, hopefully, there will be an overabundance of food. While the food can be frozen or canned, a more positive step for a small child to see is food donation, so take your child along to your local food pantry. Involving your family in the growing-to-eating-to-giving process makes a kitchen garden so much more than just a garden—it’s a learning experience that will last a lifetime.

Shade-Tolerant Herbs and Vegetables

Growing vegetables and herbs on a part-shade balcony, patio, or traditional in-ground kitchen garden is possible. Part shade is defined as approximately two to four hours of sun per day. Leafy herbs and vegetables perform better in shady conditions, while fruiting and rooting plants don’t do as well.

Here is a partial list of shade-tolerant plants, to give you and your family more gardening options: arugula, basil, beans, beet greens, bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, celery, collards, cauliflower, Chinese cabbage, corn mâche, endive, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuces, leafy herbs, Malabar spinach, mizuna, rhubarb, mustard greens, Swiss chard, peas, scallions, spinach, tatsoi, and turnip greens.

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Landscapes of the Sublime

Landscapes of the Sublime

Written by Jeff Perkin

Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher. —William Wordsworth

In times when “progress” charts a potentially perilous course for humanity, it’s the role of art to remind us of our connection to life, both inside and outside ourselves. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as the industrial revolution transformed the human experience in the Western world, artists had serious concerns about its impact on both nature and the human soul. When governments and industries lead humanity forward unconsciously, it’s the individual’s thoughts and connection to the divine that act as a light in the darkness.

The scientific rationalism and reductionism of the “Enlightenment” period persuaded a large chunk of humanity that the profound mystery of life could eventually be categorized, explained, mechanized, and reduced in service of man. The pride of man’s intellect, invention, and progress promised dominion over nature and prosperity for all. Artists, writers, and philosophers of the Romantic period were greatly at odds with this way of thinking. For Romanticists, the natural world was a source of sublimely transcendental beauty and meaning. Its mystery and miraculous complexity were perennial contemplative food for the soul. Their works sought to illustrate this belief and restore man’s connection to the divine, inside and out.

Divine Relationship With Nature

Artists of the Romantic period in Europe were witnessing a disturbing transformation firsthand. As urban centers grew, severe economic impacts, due to the paradigm shift in production, displaced farmers who could no longer afford the way of life they had always known. Artists such as John Constable, the wealthy son of a rural landowner, painted scenes from agrarian life in an attempt to elevate it in the hearts and minds of people who were seeing it become more endangered. To Constable, “painting is but another word for feeling,” and he clearly shared the Romanticist’s feeling that people needed to be reminded of their intrinsic connection to nature.

Paintings like “The Haywain” were a celebration of pastoral life. Figures were not the central focus of his landscapes, but rather part of a larger synergistic whole. People are portrayed as beings interacting within the larger being of the landscape. Great distances and impressive clouds feature prominently as though to invoke a sense of this larger being as the figures go about their work. Light filters from the sky through the leaves and across the surface of the water. Life is imbued throughout Romantic paintings without need for a definitive figurative focus. It was the unity of man with nature that artists like Constable aimed to religiously depict. In their pantheistic view, when nature was abandoned or trampled, the human spirit would also be in turmoil.

In Germany, Caspar David Friedrich painted scenes with similar Romantic reformational themes. Among the first northern European transcendental landscape artists, Friedrich passionately stated, “The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but what he sees within him.” This spiritual and philosophical imperative was indicative of the Romantic commitment to achieving individual states of consciousness that revealed the divine presence in nature. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote at the time that “deep thinking is attainable only by a man of deep feeling, and all truth is a species of revelation.”

Friedrich’s most renowned work, “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” from 1818, invites viewers on a quest for revelation through solitary union with nature. The anonymous central figure has his back turned, allowing the viewer to engage him as an archetypal explorer looking out into a mountainous landscape enshrouded in clouds. This solitary figure stands perched above the clouds, looking as though he were ready to step into a higher dimension of existence—to disappear into eternity and union with God. Friedrich’s painting strives to fulfill the Transcendentalist words of author Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote,

“Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God."

Romanticism Spreads Westward

America held the promise of a new world full of undisturbed natural beauty and a vast potential for expansion. Proponents of Manifest Destiny held that it was God-given destiny that the new inhabitants of America’s east coast spread westward. A group of Romanticist painters on the east coast, known as the Hudson River School, questioned the morality of America’s direction while also striving to depict the holiness they perceived in America’s breathtaking landscapes.

Thomas Cole, regarded as the leader of the Hudson School, emigrated with his family to the United States in 1818. Known best for his allegorical landscapes in both series “The Course of Empire” and “The Voyage of Life,” Cole painted natural scenes deeply imbued with philosophical and spiritual meaning. One of his most famous landscapes is known as “The Oxbow,” and depicts a popular view from Mount Holyoke in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1836.

In his “Essay on American Scenery,” Cole stated, “The imagination can scarcely conceive Arcadian vales more lovely or more peaceful than the valley of the Connecticut—its villages are rural places where trees overspread every dwelling, and the fields upon its margin have the richest verdure.” This sentiment is captured on the right side of his split composition “The Oxbow.” On the left, a dark storm with lightning enshrouds a wild area of untamed beauty. It seems to be a divine warning that humanity dare not take more than what it needs from the natural world. A small self-portrait of the painter can be found somewhat hidden on the mountain, looking back at the viewer ambivalently as if to pose the question, “Can humanity limit its destructive tendencies?”

Cole further expresses his respect for undisturbed nature by saying, “There are those who regret that with the improvements of cultivation, the sublimity of the wilderness should pass away: for those scenes of solitude from which the hand of nature has never been lifted, affect the mind with a more deep-toned emotion than aught which the hand of man has touched. Amid them the consequent associations of God the creator—they are his undefiled works, and the mind is cast into the contemplation of eternal things.”

According to Associationist doctrine at the time, God was present in the landscape, and this presence could be experienced in America particularly because it was “untamed.” This belief elevated the landscape to a divine being in the minds of the Romanticists, and they endeavored to paint it as such. Nature to them was sublime, which philosopher Edmund Burke defined as “awe mixed with terror.” Foreboding weather and dramatic chiaroscuro enhanced this sense of awe and terror in paintings of Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt. The force of nature commands the respect and humility of humanity while simultaneously providing us abundant sustenance and astonishing beauty. It’s difficult to look at paintings like these and not see the hand of the divine.

Portraying the profound beauty of lands west of the Rocky Mountains, Albert Bierstadt gave Americans increased impetus to travel westward. The sublime, almost otherworldly scenes he painted are works that capture the transcendental magnificence of the natural wonders from which he gained inspiration. One can only imagine the revelry these images would have inspired in people who had never seen such sights. In our modern times, where every computer comes with Yosemite desktop background options, it’s hard to imagine the overwhelming feeling paintings like “Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains” would impress on viewers. For those that experienced the divine through nature, it must have been akin to religious worship.

Like temples of worship, these natural wonders were to be revered and not tarnished. Westward expansion enabled artists to see such sights while also making them apprehensive about humanity’s growing impact on the untamed world. The railway system of trains that spread across America’s landscape was called “a winged horse or fiery dragon” by the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau. The train tore through landscapes in a powerful, loud, and efficient new way. The reality of the conquest of Native Americans must not have sat well in the conscience of many Americans, including Bierstadt, who respectfully painted them at peace amidst the landscape in several of his great works. Nevertheless, “progress” plowed forward, and those captains of industry leading the charge were ironically also the most eager and able to purchase Bierstadt’s paintings.

Protecting Parts of Paradise

Works and words from Romanticist and Transcendentalist artists and writers must have provided some of the momentum toward the beginning of the national park system in the United States. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw an ever-increasing need and desire to preserve America’s natural wonders. In 1832, artist George Catlin wrote that these areas needed to be preserved “by some great protecting policy of government … in a magnificent park, a nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of nature’s beauty!” It was the fruition of this idea that created protected places where millions of people continue to pilgrimage every year as though to commune with the divine in nature.

Frederic Edwin Church ventured abroad in search of the sublime with voyages that took him to the tropics, South America, Mexico, Europe, the Middle East, Newfoundland, and other places. He brought back wild scenes that were enhanced in sublimity by his Transcendentalist imagination. “Rainy Season in the Tropics” is a masterful tribute to the creative beauty of nature heightened for dramatic effect. A double rainbow and a dreamlike, light-filled landscape give the viewer the sense of a land of Edenic beauty.

Church was also highly regarded for American scenes such as “A Country Home,” depicting an area on the edge of the Hudson River. In true Romantic form, small figures are painted as details in a grand, harmonious environment. Small children are seen fishing with their mother waiting on shore for them to come to dinner, and a colorful sunset embraces everything approvingly in its warm glow. Cows graze in open grass, and the natural world is enhanced and largely undisturbed by the presence of the people therein.

Transcendentalists felt humans were at their best in a state of self-reliance and freedom. They believed that society corrupts individuals and removes them from a natural way of life; an ongoing source of contemplation and struggle. Perhaps for this reason, these paintings continue to call out to the human spirit in a time when a significant number of people are exiting large cities in search of a more agrarian lifestyle.

“Society has parted man from man, neglectful of the universal heart.” —William Wordsworth

Romantic and Transcendentalist paintings hold a timeless significance for humanity. They remind us that the human experience is so much more than staring at screens. For them, a larger being not only created the world, but is the source of life within it. As humanity enters a “fourth industrial revolution,” an “internet of things” composed of radiation-based technologies further threatens the natural world; birds, bees, trees, humans, and all. It would serve us well to consider the cumulative impacts of our actions, and our addictions, on the world and on ourselves, both seen and unseen. A more beautiful world awaits our humbled participation.

Jeff Perkin is a graphic artist and an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach available at WholySelf.com

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Farmhouse Charm

Farmhouse Charm

Written by Beth Hendricks

Miles away from the ordinary, yet mere minutes from the glitz and glam Ibiza has become world-famous for, is a quaint hotel in a picturesque valley. Nestled amid sumptuous orchards and olive trees, Cas Gasi is a 19th-century Spanish country house that was transformed from private residence to luxury hotel more than two decades ago.

Its whitewashed exterior is surrounded by lush vegetation, while the interior is resplendent in warm hues, handpainted tilework, and Moroccan-inspired textiles. Known for its privacy as well as its proximity to the sparkling nightlife, Cas Gasi is a favorite of loyal visitors who return to the carefully curated 12-room property time and again.

“The original farmhouse is from 1880, and it belonged to the family whose name it still has, the Gasi family,” according to Cas Gasi Founder and Director Margaret von Korff. The main house contained five rooms, while adjoining structures included animal pens and spaces to store tools, carts, and carriages.

According to Balearic law, the eldest son of the Gasi family would become the primary recipient of the family’s inheritance, including the farmhouse. He eventually sold the property to a person from Mallorca, who later also wished to sell it—looking for someone who would not simply buy the home, but fall in love with it.

When von Korff and her husband, Luis Trigueros, entered the house for the first time, it was “love at first sight,” von Korff said. “Was it luck, or was it fate?” she thought. They bought the property, a traditional “finca”—literally meaning estate, a piece of land in the Spanish countryside, usually with a farmhouse or cottage—in 1989.

Von Korff described the house as being in relatively good condition at the time. Thick whitewashed stone walls protected it from both harsh hot and cold temperatures. Sabina beams held the flat roof, designed to collect rainwater and move it to a cistern. Small windows let in natural light. Yet the roof required restoration, and humidity presented a problem. Neither of its new owners, with two small children in tow, envisioned the home would become the Mediterranean getaway it is today; they initially thought of it only as a private home.

“To build anew is more difficult than to restore,” von Korff said. “The traditional elements and proportions were fundamental to keep the soul of the house. [It was a] partial restoration, lovingly guided … on a day-by-day basis, with the architect integrating their ideas and points of view.”

No effort was too great and no detail was too small, said von Korff, adding that the team wished to stick to the sober character of Spanish farmhouses and avoid fancy elements. Damaged beams were exchanged, yet the originals remained as “an important aesthetic element,” she said. The floors were renewed with handmade terracotta tiles and enhanced with floor heating beneath.

Orange groves and almond, fig, locust, and olive trees that were part of the original 9-acre farmland remained—the latter producing organic cold-pressed olive oil for the hotel’s restaurant. The couple also wanted to retain the existing harmony between the property and surrounding countryside, so they added rose orchards, vegetable plots, farm animals, and later, two swimming pools.

As the idea to build a hotel centered on agro-tourism was born, the goal became to share the beauty of Cas Gasi with travelers from around the world, yet maintain its authenticity, purposeful furnishings, and sustainability. Animal pens were converted into exquisite guest rooms. Gardens, a spa and yoga deck, and a restaurant were added in stages.

“It is easy to buy new; it is a statement to wear old,” said von Korff, who herself is well-traveled and has a keen eye for detail. “[I am a] strong supporter of everything which has stood the test of time, since it makes it more valuable. It has something to tell.”

To that end, von Korff filled the hotel with antiques from her family home, sourced by her parents from different European countries.

Eclectic pieces of furniture include those handcrafted by local artisans, and others collected via a sophisticated shopping scene among Ibiza’s auction houses and antiques shops. Personal touches are apparent throughout the hotel’s dozen rooms, including a thoughtfully stocked library, a kitchen that draws from the property’s vegetable gardens, and luxuries beyond the first glance, including feather pillows and luxurious linens.

Situated on a sunny hillside, von Korff said she wanted Cas Gasi to represent the idea of “farmers becoming hosts to visitors,” despite the shift toward bespoke accommodations that promise the perfect Mediterranean escape.

“We are ambassadors to the island’s culture and bounty,” she said.

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Finding Peace and Prosperity With Permaculture

Finding Peace and Prosperity With Permaculture

Learn the basics of this harmonious form of agriculture and start growing your own food forest
Written by Keli Westgate

Within the first few weeks of taking in a permaculture course or lecture, something powerful can happen. I saw it in the eyes of other participants having the same revelations as me. A sense of despair and helplessness about the state of the world started to melt away as our proverbial tool belts began to fill.

“Permies” as they are affectionately called, are bootstrapper-types who focus on positive solutions to the world’s biggest problems. It turns out that the answers can be much simpler than we may have thought.

Permaculture started as an agricultural design philosophy based on mimicking nature. It was originally a portmanteau of “permanent” and “agriculture,” but has grown over the years to encompass broader meanings and applications, and is now thought of as a form of permanent culture.

Food forests, clean energy, rainwater harvesting, and living a simpler life may not sound like the revolution you imagined, but changing how we interact with land, other creatures, and each other can transform how we spend our precious moments on this incredible planet.

Even if you don’t have a large piece of land, you can start small in your own backyard or deck by planting edible and perennial plants to give you a taste of homegrown, organic food. Even one plant in one pot is a meaningful start.

If you do, you might start to see the world as full of potential. By installing an edible landscape that continues to produce more food each year—thereby reducing food costs and trips to the grocery store—you become part of a desperately needed transformation.

So, what can you do at your home?

The answer is far longer than the space of one article will allow for, but this will get you growing in the right direction.

Learn Your Space

Permaculture starts with observing and interacting with your own outdoor space. Your goal is to align with nature, and to do that, you must first observe it. How and where does the sun move at different times of the year? Where are your hot spots and cool corners? Where does water from melting snow or rain tend to collect? What is already growing? Can you identify the plants, insects, and other creatures that share your space?

This is a good time to start with basic plant identification to ensure you aren’t pulling up valuable edibles. Take some pictures so you can look back on how far you’ve grown. When I started my garden, the ecosystem consisted of cigarette butts, dog waste, and ants. Now I am gratified by how far my small yard has come.

Start With the Soil

If your soil isn’t fertile, have some delivered from a local landscape center or add compost to give it nutrients and water-holding capacity. Everything begins with your soil—and sun.

But how will you know what “good” soil even looks like?

Dig into your ground and take a look. Is it dark and full of tiny insects and fungi? That’s a good sign. If it seems like sand or silt with little else, you’ll want to create an environment for beneficial microbes and tiny worms called nematodes. You can do that by adding organic matter such as compost, worm castings, and mulch.

Grow Some Dirt

If you don’t have a compost system, now is the time to start one. Regardless of your living situation, there is a composter that will work for you. If you live in an apartment, you can start a small vermicompost that uses tiny worms to accelerate the process. Although you can only compost one to two liters of food scraps per week, it will light a spark when you see these tiny wiggly helpers turn your waste into a valuable soil amendment. If you have a larger garden, there are many options, from a tumbler that's off the ground for tidiness to a three-bin system for high volume.

Enrich Your Ecosystem

Select a few of your favorite edible perennials. These plants come back every year. To live in harmony with your ecosystem means it’s important to know what already grows there. Edible perennials and plants that are indigenous to the area are ideal.

There's so much to learn from nature, so accept early on that you won’t ever know everything and that’s OK. Also accept that you'll make mistakes. Just come from a place of honoring the land and caring for the living beings you share it with, and you'll surely be on the right track.

Start by planting higher-maintenance plants in the areas closest to where you often walk and work your way outwards to low-maintenance plants such as garlic.

Plant more than you think you’ll need and share the extras with neighbors and friends.

Plan for the Seasons Ahead

Want to extend your growing season? Get a small greenhouse for those cooler, darker days in the spring and fall. Put it in a place where it'll get plenty of sunlight during early spring, when the sun hugs closer to the horizon in northern climates. Be careful, though, as even unheated greenhouses can get extremely hot. Keep a close eye and make sure it has airflow.

A greenhouse can give you a feeling of having more control over your situation, which is also good for calming stress.

Seek to ‘Stack Functions’

In permaculture, we talk about “stacking functions," which means we try to work as little as possible and ensure our systems do more than one thing. This is how nature works and it's what makes permaculture so enriching.

To do this, consider the cycles of your ecosystem. Are you planting trees in an area where the falling leaves will provide easy mulch for the next year, or do you have to rake them up and move them elsewhere? Permaculture aims to minimize inputs—including labor—and generate useful outputs that feed the system. Maybe you'll want to select a coppice tree that keeps growing so you can cut it back and use the wood for compost.

You can also plant assorted flowers that'll bloom throughout the season. This means you'll have an abundance of pollinators and birds; endless entertainment; flowers to give to friends; and food, such as edible nasturtiums. Flowers also attract people and can spur interactions with neighbors, which creates opportunities to build community connections.

Engage in Outdoor Activity and Resiliency

People want and need to be outdoors more. And our outdoors can better support the people in our community. In my hometown, some friends and I have used permaculture principles to plant edible food forests on small plots of city property. These public gardens require minimal upkeep and offer residents a place to get free fresh produce.

We all have this inspiring opportunity to make our own hometowns into something better, more thoughtful, and more resilient. It’s been more clear than ever that a change is needed.

So if your gut is telling you to grow food, trust it. Those are your survival instincts. The crazy thing is, you may also actually enjoy the simpler life.

Keli Westgate is a permaculture designer and owner of Oasis Gardens Consulting. She loves to help people learn to grow organic, local, seasonal foods that will help insulate them and their families in rapidly changing times. You can find her at keliwestgate.com.
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Modern Nomads: Finding Ancient Mobility in a Global World

Modern Nomads: Finding Ancient Mobility in a Global World

Written by Tim Johnson

It’s a moment of uncertainty. As I hold the bowl just below my chin, the fragrant, clear liquid is close enough to sniff. It smells earthy, like an animal. My friendly host stares at me, intently, a little confused, all of us frozen by my indecision—to drink, or not?

“Just half, this time,” my guide, Ankhmaa Baatartsogt, whispers into my ear. This will be the final chaser, after an afternoon of strange, fermented drinks. Having powered through one bowl of this “vodka,” my Mongolian host waits for me to down my seconds.

I’m in the South Gobi Desert, visiting with nomads. Mongolia is a country where people are still tied closely to the land, where some one-quarter of their population of three million continue to follow their sheep and goats across seemingly endless horizons. With no fences for hundreds of miles, they’re always making their way to greener pastures.

Nomadic Cultures

The persistence of nomadic cultures in a modern world has long fascinated me, as I’ve traveled the globe.

In Sweden’s far north, I dogsledded across the snowy landscape with the Sami, near the world-famous Icehotel. Learning how the eight seasons of these northern indigenous people remain defined by the grazing, breeding, and calving patterns of their reindeer, I jumped at the opportunity to hand-feed some of the herd.

In the rugged deserts of Jordan’s Dana Biosphere Reserve, I took tea and made bread over the fire with a family of Bedouins, whose people have long roamed across the Middle East. My host explained that, in a place where survival can depend on the kindness of your neighbors, hospitality is baked into their culture, with visitors able to stay for days without any question from their host.

But the best examples are perhaps here in Mongolia. On my first visit to the country, more than a decade ago, I chugged through on the southern arm of the Trans-Siberian Railway, spending time in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Home to about half the country’s population, at that moment, it was a city bursting at the seams, with glassy, half-finished office towers mixing uneasily with austere and shambling Soviet apartment blocks.

Seeking an education for their kids, and modern employment, many families were in the process of moving off the land, bringing their portable, circular dwellings with them, forming a rambling neighborhood called the “ger district.” Lines of these white tents (which in other places, are often called “yurts”) spread across hillsides, stretching for miles. Coal smoke rose up from the stoves set up inside for cooking and warmth, and by evening, a heavy canopy of smoke hung low in the sky.

Mongolia

Now, years later, here in the Gobi, I have a chance to get a tiny glimpse of the way these nomads have lived life for centuries. After flying down from the capital to a small landing strip, my guide Baatartsogt and I hop into a Land Rover. We roll into a world with no roads, racing across open plains while emitting a long rooster tail of dust behind us. I’ll spend the next three nights at the legendary Three Camel Lodge, where the rooms replicate gers. But here, the tents are kitted out with cushy, comfortable beds, and big bathrooms. Plus, there’s a spa on site.

First, we search for dinosaurs, at the Flaming Cliffs, about 12 miles east of the lodge. Here, in the 1920s, archaeologists found a valley literally covered in bones. The richest-ever discovery at the time, it included the world’s very first dinosaur egg fossils. With rumors that odd prehistoric pieces will still pop up from the blazing sands, we search intently, to no avail, settling to watch a big orange sunset, with a glass of red wine in hand.

On our day trips, I’ve spotted white gers all around. On our drive back to the lodge, I ask Baatartsogt whether it might be possible to have a look inside, and pay a visit? She nods, promising to make a few inquiries. The next day, we’re welcomed into a series of homes.

Some of the basics of the Mongolian nomadic lifestyle, including a clan structure, were set as far back as the 3rd Century, BC. Tribes were formed from clans, with the strongest unit providing the tribe name, but weaker clans allowed to retain their own leaders and livestock. For thousands of years, these nomads roamed a vast territory, following their sheep and goats, which provided all the essentials for their families. Wool for clothing and mats and blankets, milk to drink and make cheese. Plus, skins for the walls and roof of the tents, and steaming bowls of mutton for nourishment in a harsh, often inhospitable climate. Dried dung was (and is, still) even used as fuel for fires.

Camels and horses provided transportation, with mares milked more than half a dozen times a day, their milk fermented to create airag, an alcoholic drink still popular today. Hemmed in by mountains to the west, wetlands to the north and desert to the south, these natural features also provided Mongolians with formidable natural barriers against potentially hostile neighbors.

Ghengis Khan, National Hero

Ghengis Khan remains the national hero. Born into a nomadic family in the 12th century, his success in laying the foundation to the largest contiguous empire in the history of the world lay in his ability to unite these tribes. Khan’s portly statue occupies a prominent place in front of the parliament in Ulaanbaatar, and another one, astride a horse, 13 stories high, sits just outside of town. His image adorns the state currency.

But those statues are a long way from where I stand today, although Khan might recognize the scene before me, all these centuries later. The space inside the ger isn’t subdivided, and everything surrounds a stove in the center of the large, round room. Beds line the walls, and the few pieces of wooden furniture are painted in bright, intricate patterns.

When the host couple offers us a drink, Baatartsogt is unfazed. Though she's a modern young woman who lives in the capital and wears western clothes, like many urban-dwelling Mongolians, she’s not so far removed from the land. “I’m an airag girl,” she tells me, and indeed she seems to enjoy her bowl of fermented milk. I’m a little less certain, but Baatartsogt whispers in my ear that our host will be greatly offended if I refuse it. “Three sips,” she tells me, sotto voce. It’s not so bad, milky and slightly sour. Proceeding to our next stop, we exit the Land Rover and pass a big herd of camels, entering a ger similar to the last.

Here, the welcome drink is made from camel’s milk, and it’s rather thicker and less pleasant than the straight-up airag. It’s followed up by the “vodka,” clear, with tiny bits in it. “This time, you must drink the whole thing,” the always-helpful Baatartsogt tells me, breaking the bad news with a smirk. And so, down it goes. I power through the whole allotment in a few hearty gulps, relieved that I’ve finished until I see our smiling host refilling the bowl.

“She’s misunderstood,” my guide tells me. “She thinks you loved it. That you want more.”

In the end, I drink just half. Taking my bowl, we sit on a mat, Baatartsogt translating. We chat for hours, me learning about the hard, beautiful, simple life of following the rains, and raising both a family and livestock, in this Land of the Blue Sky. No, I’m not cut out for it. But returning to the lodge, I’m just a tiny bit tempted to make my nightcap a glass of airag.

Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling, in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.
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