Pioneering ecological living in Lithuania

It is exciting to witness the brink of new projects. Sitting on bare pieces of land dreaming about all the possibilities there are and drawing the outlines of future houses between the weeds. To imagine the beauty of a future ecovillage filled with flowers, permaculture gardens and self-sufficient houses with smiling people walking through them is thrilling. On my way to Estonia I got to visit two ecological projects in Lithuania, doing exactly that. I visited my friend Rygaudas who I met at the ecovillage conference last year and he showed me around his plots of land on which he has lots of plans for pioneering ecological living in Lithuania. It was inspiring to witness the potential and opportunities he sees in pieces of abandoned and forgotten land. His eco-activities already attracted a neighbour who is now working hard on starting his forest garden, living completely off-grid. Together we talked about their dreams for the future. The ecological movement might be small still in Lithuania, Rygaudas and his neighbour Marius see many possibilities for the cheap and abandoned agricultural lands spread throughout their country. They also see the necessity for this type of projects, as the general industry in Lithuania is very polluting and natural forest areas are rapidly declining. In this blog I describe their first steps in pioneering ecological projects in Lithuania.

Turning a swamp into an off-grid, permaculture home
Last year at the ecovillage conference in Estonia, Rygaudas was inviting everyone to visit his piece of swamp land were he had started building a little cabin. Turns out, he has much more to show me than just this one plot of land. Rygaudas has several pieces of land in the beautiful countryside of Lithuania, within half an hour driving distance of the capital Vilnius. The piece of land Rygaudas invited me to is a beautiful plot of around 2.5 ha with a slight slope and a swamp in the middle. It is surrounded by different types of forest, agricultural land and an old castle-hill with beautiful trees growing on it. During Sovjet times, all of this land was ploughed and used for agriculture. Quite some agricultural land all over Lithuania was left unattended when they became independent and nature has taken back over there. This plot is mostly covered with grass, but also has some wild fruit trees.

A piece of swamp land might sounds negative, actually it is a highly valuable part of the rich ecosystem on his land: the watery grass land attracts many wild animals and birds as well as beautiful trees and flowers. During my stay on the land I spotted the beaver house, a wild fox, many deer, storks, frogs and butterflies.

Rygaudas’ original plan was to build a simple off-grid summer cabin to sell as a summerhouse to people living in the capital. However, sitting on his newly constructed porch overlooking his land one evening he realised he did not want to sell his plot at all, but rather move in here himself permanently. During my stay he was therefor transforming the cabin into a more permanent place to live year-round. He is installing a woodstove and had a well dug for drinkingwater. We created ditches to lead this drinking water to the cabin and to let the grey water from his shower flow out of his house into a natural water filter which he still has to make. Rather than a water toilet, Rygaudas changed his mind last-minute and decided to install a compost toilet. He now needs to make a new opening at the back of the cabin to be able to empty the compost.

Building his first house was a learning opportunity more than anything else. Rygaudas explains to me that if he would build again, he would plan ahead much further and also orient his house more to the sun. Now he is thinking of opening the south wall of his cabin to create an attached greenhouse for growing vegetables. To the south of the cabin Rygaudas also modestly started some permaculture vegetable beds. He is experimenting with what grows there, which practices work and which do not. He also is trying to come up with simple solutions to harvest the rainwater and lead it to these gardens using gravity.

Spending some nights in the cabin I felt the appeal of deciding to live here off-grid. The beautiful quiet, natural surroundings and starry skies are priceless. As are the simpleness and slow pace of the day.

Envisioning earthships, an apple orchard and asparagus
Right in the centre of a small town close-by, Rygaudas has plans for another piece of land. This piece of land has quite a steep slope towards the south and there are big apple trees growing which his grandfather planted. He recently planted new fruit trees and dreams of having an orchard there. Fruit trees are a big passion of his. Seated in the sunshine on the slope of this plot he tells me of his dreams for building the first earthships of Lithuania here, surrounded by a permaculture garden and the ecological orchard. We wander about the plot looking for the best spots where the earthships could be. Anything is still possible! Rygaudas plans to keep the land accessible for the public, as a park through which tourists and locals can wander and relax while at the same time learning about simple permaculture practices and ecological gardening. He dreams of renting out the earthship to tourists to allow them to experience ecological living, or to use it as a workshop centre for ecological gardening. He is also already experimenting with some rare crops which he can sell here, like asparagus. This year is the first year he is growing asparagus and he has planted them in several different spots to see which conditions work best. He is interested to discover more special crops which he can grow on the plot and sell as ecological, local products.

An old manor and former youth institution across the street is being transformed into a luxurious spa and hotel. Rygaudas is excited that it will attract more tourist to this area, which he can then welcome in his future permaculture garden and earthship project to inspire them with ecological practices.
On yet another plot of land Rygaudas dreams to host workshops on permaculture gardening, food forests and other topics related to ecological living. This plot lies on the top of a hill overlooking the beautiful surrounding countryside on one side, and bordered by a rare untouched piece of forest with beautiful old trees and signs of wild boar roaming around on the other side.

Starting a permaculture food forest
The neighbour Marius just recently moved in to his two hectare piece of land where he envisions his own off-grid, permaculture food forest. During my visit, he is in the midst of finishing a rocket stove heater in his small greenhouse. Having a rocket stove in the greenhouse will allow him to start sprouting plants early in the season and it will give him also a warm place to be during the cold winters (it can be easily up to minus 30 degrees here!). He also had a drinking water well dug recently and is creating a ten metre long handpump himself to get the water up without electricity and without having to pull it up bucket by bucket as he is doing currently. He plans to start a food forest here since most of his property is already covered by a pioneering forest from being abandoned agriculture land for over 20 years. There are a lot of wild strawberries growing here. In his first year, he plans to start growing some simple crops and is, like Rygaudas, mostly trying out what works well where and getting familiar with the natural ecosystem on his land and how to collaborate with it. During my stay in late april, the only edible thing we could get from the land were some wild carrots and nettles.

The rocket stove Marius is currently building inside his small greenhouse. The walls of the greenhouse can easily be slided upwards to ventilate with warm weather

Cooking on a small fire, swimming in the river as a shower and sleeping in a small tent during frosty nights does not diminish Marius’ enthusiasm for this project one bit. He is dreaming of the permaculture food forest that he will have established here in several years and that will feed him easily, while enhancing the local ecosystems. He loves the possibility of just being surrounded with nature, working the land and learning new things. Preferring a simple, off-grid life in harmony with nature over a chaotic and isolating city-life.

The well and greenhouse, the first big projects in his journey of creating a permaculture food forest on his plot of abandoned agriculture land.

A future ecovillage?
Marius and Rygaudas cooperate a lot, help each other out with bigger tasks, borrow each others tools and share meals. They hope to attract more young people to the area who start their own ecological projets. Perhaps one day that will slowly turn into some sort of ecovillage! I got very inspired by their visions and the potential they see. When baking some potatoes over a fire with the three of us one evening, we laughed a lot and talked about all the possibilities there are for restoring the beautiful nature of Lithuania and going back to ecological lives with more and more youths deciding to choose this path. A lot of imagination is all it takes to go out and see the potential that awaits for every small piece of abandoned land to be turned into a utopia of ecological living.

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