27 Sep 2009, 7:08pm
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notes from my permaculture course, part 2

more questions from toby:

why are we here (in class) / what are we hoping to solve?
why are so many permaculturists into wicca/paganism/earth-centered spirituality? (hah!)

to answer these questions–a powerpoint presentation, titled “how permaculture can save the planet–but not civilization.”

first off–what is “sustainability”? the UN defines “sustainable development” (an oxymoron?) as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” but what are “needs”? this definition lets us get away with whatever we want (”need”). “need” and “sustainability” become words that can be used in whatever way we want.

then, this idea that i remember from the vbc:
degenerative <------- sustainable -------> regenerative.

“sustainable” is not really all that great a thing to be. for example: “how’s your marriage these days?” “oh, it’s sustainable.” uhh…

sustainable over what timeframe?
LIFE has been around for 3.8 billion years.
how long has HUMANITY been around for?
we’ve been using tools for roughly 2 million years.
fire for at least half a million years.
been doing things that make us human for let’s say a million years, give or take… music, crafts, art, shelter, food gathering and production, raising children, etc.

then toby held onto the end of a ball of yarn and passed it through the classroom. unwound, it was 100 feet long. one foot represented 10,000 years of human history. the last foot or so was a different color than the rest of it, representing AGRICULTURE. the last tiny little bit at the end of that foot represented the industrial age. all the rest of the yarn was humanity before agriculture. the point was that we have human genetics and culture that date way, way further back than agriculture.

the five different types of human culture (according to anthropologists, or something):
1) foraging / hunter-gatherers
2) horticultural (tending plants, but not really domesticating them)
3) agricultural (clearing, planting, domesticating; controlling the food environment in a defined space with intense work)
4) pastoral (domesticated animals)
5) industrial

agriculture is civilization as we know it. agriculture is required to have what we call civilization–population density, etc.

the fertile crescent really was fertile once upon a time. it’s the piece of land on which agriculture has been practiced the longest… and it became impossible to practice agriculture there 3000 years ago. agriculture trashed the land after a few thousand years.

greece used to be lush and green, and now it’s full of eroded hillsides and such. agriculture was practicable for a few centuries there.

and land in the midwest usa lasted only a few decades, as agriculture was industrialized, before the dust bowl. and then fossil fuels saved us–we learned how to turn oil into food.

river valleys with yearly flooding seem to be able to sustain agriculture for 1000s of years–everywhere else, it is unsustainable.

toby dared us to name one ecosystem that is better off for having had civilization come into it. of course no one could.

so is “sustainable agriculture” an oxymoron?

farming inexorably increases population:
more food produces more people,
more people need more food!

farming inexorably consumes ecosystems:
it requires:
–crop land,
–land for animals (pasture, growing fodder, etc),
–fertilizer (mulch collected from forests, etc),
–mines, fuel, timber, etc,
–and land for farm workers and their needs.

basically, agriculture is a way of turning ecosystems into people. land no longer serves its ecosystem function, and feedback from a degraded system is too slow–it might take centuries for the land to be totally depleted, so we don’t realize quickly enough that we’re biting ourselves in the ass this way, because in the meantime what we’re doing is feeding us.

agricultural people are not healthy:
–they actually have a shorter lifespan compared to foragers–there is apparently archeological evidence of this from the dickson mounds in illinois–foragers and agriculturalists from the same time period.
–they have more degenerative diseases such as arthritis and other bone/joint problems.
–they have more epidemics–chicken pox, smallpox, swine flu… all from domesticated animals!
–they have regular famine! (or did, before we learned to turn oil into food.) foragers can almost always find food. in animal populations, most population drops are from dramatic reductions in birth rates, not from die-offs. when food supply is low, animals (and non-agricultural humans) just stop breeding. so no one goes hungry.
–they have smaller stature.

agricultural people have less leisure and freedom:
–foragers need approx. 3 hours to gather a week’s food. then they hang out! farmers need 2-3 days of work per week just to produce their food; then, they need a couple more days to pay their rent. (toby mentioned that this particular point is fairly controversial and not everyone agrees with this conclusion.)
–farming societies have less cultural diversity–there is pretty much only one industrial culture: ours.
–agriculture is portable (not dependent on a specific bioregional landbase), leading to conquest, i.e. war on a much bigger scale than it would otherwise be practiced.
–agriculture’s surplus requires a hierarchy to police it. foragers, meanwhile, tend to have pretty flat hierarchies–everyone has access to the leader, who rules through charisma and leadership ability rather than through might.

if your culture requires a legal system to protect the rights of its members–that is weird and means something is broken!

agriculture takes more than it gives / offers a negative return on energy. the point of diminishing returns seems to come when you bring animals into agriculture. it’s a ponzi scheme! you need to grow more to feed the animals, which means more animals to plow the fields…

a brief history of agricultural expansion:
–600 b.c.: persia runs out of soil and colonizes greece.
–greece colonizes italy and a bunch of other places.
–rome’s soil is already exhausted by the time romans come to power, so they colonize north africa etc.
–europe colonizes everywhere (which, incidentally, made the renaissance possible–alright, they got a development loan from their colonies–when’re they gonna start paying back!?)
–manifest destiny in the usa–americans migrate to undepleted soil.
–now, most of the veggies grown in the usa come from some of the last soil we got our hands on, in northern california. (veggies require healthier soil than wheat and other stuff.)

the Green Revolution: how to make food from oil.
in which scientists learned to select for crops that responded to enormous amounts of fertilizer (which is made from oil). this massively increased wheat yields in developing countries. two graphs from this time period–one of wheat yields, one of worldwide oil production: both go up with roughly the same slope. a graph of population would look similar.

and now… the soil looks like the surface of the moon. totally depleted and salinated. really no way to clean it up short of using lots of fresh water to flush out all the salt–and we don’t have that much fresh water.

the green revolution was sold as a solution to the world food crisis, but it was really subsidized food production. and when the subsidies dried up, these third world countries were just left with crappy soil and more mouths to feed.

so we come to…
the end of the oil age / peak oil.

we’ve been moving on an upward slope (oil, population, etc) for a long time. but soon, we’re gonna see the slope start to fall and things are gonna change.

where do we go from here?
some possibilities–

(image from energybulletin.net)

toby reminds us again that population decreases usually happen through attrition, not deaths. europe’s birth rate is in decline–currently approx. 1.2 children per woman. if the whole world’s population had that birth rate, the earth’s population could be down to 4 billion in 50 years, 2 billion in 80 years.

currently 7 billion–the UN believes it will peak at 9 billion. current estimates of the world’s post-peak-oil carrying capacity range from half a billion to 2 billion people.

chemical farming is already almost too expensive to do because of the rising price of oil.

1 tbsp oil = the same calories as one person working for eight hours.

as far as doom and gloom goes, we haven’t even gotten into pesticides, global warming, etc.

we’ve been through something like this before. in the bronze age, we had “peak wood”! (making bronze takes a lot of wood fuel–4 or 5 big trees to make a kg of bronze!)

so, are we doomed?
permaculture to the rescue!

permaculture = rebirthing a horticultural society.
horticulture–from hortus: plant. agriculture–from ager: field.
–a garden, not a farm
–the hoe, not the plow
–small scale, mixed crops
–encourages succession
–ecosystem function is retained
–less hierarchy
–and horticultural societies tend to imagine earth spirits (we are one among many creatures) vs. sky gods (we are “chosen,” special, of all the creatures on earth–i.e. the earth is here for us to exploit)
(voilà the reason, says toby, that so many of his students are pagans etc. they “get” the one-among-many thing already. this is a sort of amusing but also potentially alienating point to make in class, though. another student raised her hand and asked, “well, is there a place for us monotheistic sky god worshippers in permaculture?” for me, it’s a chicken or egg thing, trying to trace my evolving spirituality vs my interest in this sort of thing.)

“culture” does not require agriculture. foragers have “the original affluent society”–all the land and resources you want/need! foragers and horticulturists have art, music, crafts, ritual, etc. and a shorter work day! more time for culture!

what does post-industrial horticulture look like? how do we create a permaculture society?
–”bend the grid” (ex: city repair intersections) (how many times have i linked to city repair from this blog? i love them.)
–recreate human settlements in natural patterns (vs grids)
–models already exist: the Amazon Rainforest is an ancient food forest!! plus, tropical agroforestry, temperate food forests, savannas

historical horticultural societies include the hopewell culture (pennsylvania area), which lasted for 4000 years; the northwest coast peoples; ancient oaxaca, the owens valley paiute; and more… lots of evidence that horticulture is not a brief transition period before agriculture, like anthropologists used to think–in fact, horticulturists exposed to agriculture sometimes chose not to become agriculturists, because they saw what they would lose.

but we don’t want to go “back” to horticulture. we want to create the next thing–having learned lessons from everything that’s come before. i.e., permaculture!

sustainable technology–this transition doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing a lot of stuff. we can have technology and abundance and “stuff” if we get better at recycling the rare earth materials that go into that tech. (we have to get better at it ’cause right now it’s a huge pollutant, too!)

then we discussed (in small groups) toby’s list of permaculture design principles. i found a few different versions of these with a quick google search, so they are hardly set in stone. toby’s list is conveniently reproduced here on his website. guess what #1 is. observe!

in our discussions, we noticed that it was hard to talk about one of the principles without taking about several of them. redundancy in the design–another principle!

that was day 1. whew.

to be continued, and then continued again, and then reevaluated, and then reevaluated again.

26 Sep 2009, 11:56pm

notes from my permaculture course, part 1

(i am taking a permaculture design course that meets one weekend a month; it started last weekend.)

toby started class by talking about the “learning pyramid,” which looks like this:

so i am typing up these notes and thoughts in order to sorta teach them, and also ’cause i am really excited about these ideas, and also ’cause my handwritten notes tend to be sorta messy and command-f doesn’t work in my notebook. here we go.

permaculture = ancient ideas reassembled

brief history: australian bill mollison was doing field ecology in tazmania and thought to himself, “what would it take for human ecosystems to have the productivity/lushness/resilience of this ecosystem?”

(if you leave a forest for two months, it looks the same when you go back.
if you leave your garden for two months… disaster!)

sun + rain nourish a forest, sun + rain destroy houses and bare ground. these energies need to power themselves into an ecosystem. they can be destructive or productive forces. permaculture is an attempt to mimic natural systems to make the default condition abundance instead of poverty, emptiness, erosion, discord.

was “permanent agriculture” — now “permanent culture” — gotta change all of it for any of it to be sustainable. what nature teaches us works not only in gardens but in energy, businesses, schools, etc.

everyone is a “designer” when they make small + large choices. you can apply permaculture design principles in all of this designing, on a large scale and on a small scale.

the starting point is always OBSERVATION (the magic word!)
observation of nature, of indigenous people, etc.

a couple decades ago, the whole earth review published a list of questions so readers could test how well they knew their environment. questions like:
–trace the water you drink from precipitation to tap.
–how many days until the moon is full?
–what’s the primary soil type in your area?
–how many inches of rain fell last year?
–what were the primary subsistence techniques of the culture that was here before europeans?
–name five edible native plants.
–where does your garbage go?
–name five resident birds.
–name five migratory birds.
–what primary geologic events of processes formed the landscape?
–point north.
and so forth. the folks in the class did a very impressive job answering many of these questions!

apparently lots of people wrote into the magazine complaining that the questions were really hard for urbanites to answer, so they published an urban edition:
–what mafia clan is responsible for your garbage pickup?
–what is the hardest part of your city to reach by public transit, and how many times must you transfer to get there?
–what special interest groups influence local politicians?
–what time do your neighbors go to bed?
–point to the nearest espresso machine.

i really liked this second list and the way it validated the urban environment as an environment worthy of observing and understanding. just a reminder that, oh, this stuff (permaculture, observation, etc) isn’t just for back-to-the-landers or whatever.

then we were asked: “what is permaculture?” some answers:

–putting things together that benefit each other
–an intuitive and logical response to the world
–a framework for designing systems with minimal input requirements
–an up-and-coming language for sustainability movements
–(a way of) facilitating systems of interrelationships guided by natural processes and natural systems
–a way to design human systems by mimicking natural systems
–permanent culture: a closed system rather than (one based on) things consumed and then discarded
–a system design methodology that takes into account the whole life cycle of its elements
–fostering abundance
–a way of living that nurtures and provides for all life on earth
–”a system that flows, grows, and learned how to know as it goes”
–(an attempt to) describe underlying natural systems to allow humans to live consciously within them
–not manipulating and controlling, but instead moving within + participating in the flow…

“permaculture is about everything” says toby, so we’re not gonna be masters on any particular aspect of design. we are learning the design methodology and principles. so that every project/decision is not solved/answered by a cookie cutter solution (like, “oh it’s a permaculture garden so it’s gotta have keyhole beds”).

next, we were asked, “what do we need to have/be doing/be changing in order to have a sustainable society?” LOTS of answers to this one. here are some:
–protecting and building topsoil
–fewer people
–learning to work together
–bringing food production back into the city
–decentralized infrastructure
–understanding the relationship between surplus and waste
–telling more + better stories (this makes me think of joseph campbell and go “hmmm…”)
–increasing wilderness
–actually living in community
–ore people skills
–reaching out to people who wouldn’t normally be attracted to the aesthetics of the community (this one got a lot of assenting nods and noises and “mmm”)
–educating children to share these values and connect to nature
–fostering community involvement, including children, people with children, the elderly, etc
–less flakiness
–appreciating connectivity between the self + the planet — interconnection
–do something about decision-making and the political and legal systems
–making sustainable technologies available to the masses (rather than limited to people with money/resources)
–making info available to the masses!
–educating ourselves/learning to differentiate between true sustainability and marketing
–respecting boundaries
–entertaining the thought that not everyone wants to be exactly like you
–practicing non-judgment of self and others
–avoiding the paralysis of analysis
–stopping to contemplate
–selling the concept that sustainability = major quality of life improvement (rather than sacrifice)
–being conscious of referring to sustainability as a “movement,” ’cause not everyone wants to join a movement
–accepting limitations (from the margins of my notes: limits are what create patterns and the beauty in the pattern–accepting and embracing these adds to beauty and makes design easier!) (much more on patterns later)
–more celebrations

toby said that the first time he asked a class to make a list like this, he expected to get a list of technical solutions (i.e., renewable energy etc). but instead, this is a list of ethical considerations.

the ancient greeks allowed for 3 pursuits in life:
pursuit of the beautiful,
pursuit of the true, and
pursuit of the good.

the pursuit of the beautiful is ART.
the pursuit of the true is SCIENCE.
the pursuit of the good is the piece that has been missing from our culture, lately, perhaps. this is PERMACULTURE. permaculture approaches design with an ethical grounding.

the 3 ethics of permaculture:
1) care for the earth
2) care for people
3) share the surplus
(these are generally presented as a venn diagram, with permaculture being their intersection in the middle. the idea is that they reinforce each other. caring for the earth means more abundance for the people. creative people + happy earth = surplus. reinvest that surplus in the system that created it to feed the earth + the people…)

permaculture means moving from a model of scarcity (of resources, etc) to a model of abundance. it’s a “design approach for decision-making to arrive at sustainable solutions.” if x y z (greywater systems, food forestry, whatever) is a tool for sustainability, then permaculture is the toolbox to help you figure out what to use when. again–no cookie cutter solutions–not all techniques will work for all projects.

also, permaculture is not just about growing food and you don’t have to grow food to be a permaculturist–you just have to solve your food needs in an ethical, sustainable way (as sustainable as it gets in this culture). after all, not everyone wants to be a farmer–which means they can give farmers their livelihood! self-sufficiency is not what it’s all about–we are interdependent.

here is another model for understanding permaculture:

(image found through google image search)

this is the “permaculture flower.” the labels on the petals are not set in stone–the examples toby gave are things like “food,” “shelter,” “water,” “health,” “energy,” “livelihood,” “waste,” etc–an inventory of needs. the spiral outward is suggesting that you can solve these needs in small-scale immediate ways and in bigger ways… i.e. for me… my family… my community… the world (or something like that).

another student pointed out that some First Peoples have, instead of a hierarchy of needs, a circle of needs. none is more important than the other. if you have no community, why eat?

we have to let go of the idea of the solution–you can’t stop with the solution. it’s dynamic, in flux and in transition. we have to be humble enough to adapt and find new solutions. constant evaluation (and observation!).

to be continued!

24 Sep 2009, 7:12am
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two poems

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

–mary oliver


from Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer

Don’t worry and fret about your crops. After you have done all you can for them, let them stand in the weather on their own.

If the crop of any one year was all, a man would have to cut his throat every time it hailed.

But the real products of any year’s work are the farmer’s mind and the cropland itself.

If he raises a good crop at the cost of belittling himself and diminishing the ground, he has gained nothing. He will have to begin over again the next spring, worse off than before.

Let him receive the season’s increment into his mind. Let him work it into the soil.

The finest growth that farmland can produce is a careful farmer.

Make the human race a better head. Make the world a better piece of ground.

–wendell berry


(also, check out landon’s posts about urban agriculture in korea, here and here. so cool.)

22 Sep 2009, 6:37pm
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(some water spilled on the corner of my notebook, as you can see. makes these a little more like buddhist sand mandalas after all. anicca… remember?)

a bigger one i started a few weeks ago:

one of the opera kids i’m hanging out with, 9 yrs old, has drawn a few mandalas of her own during rehearsal downtime! wish i had pictures; they are really lovely.

other mandalas from the past few days–

mandala gardens made of keyhole beds arranged in a circle, mentioned briefly in my permaculture course this weekend. something like this (image from here):

and e. pluribus unum, by chris jordan, composed of the names of grassroots social and environmental justice organizations around the world. the complete work is almost five stories high:

found via mediacology, a blog i just found recently and am really digging. also from mediacology, here’s people unknowingly making art together: thru-you.

i’m really tired; this feels like (is!) the first quiet moment i’ve had to myself in days, between my permaculture course starting this past weekend, the opera* opening in a few days, and my day job. i want to write a lot more about the permaculture course, and i will. but not tonight. this is what i ate for dinner tonight:

baby greens from my garden! plus three crunchy ripe red miniature bell peppers.


*lorrie moore says of opera, in her new novel a gate at the stairs, which i spent several days luxuriating in a few weeks ago: “the difference between opera and life, i’d noticed, was that in life one person played all the parts.” ahhh…

7 Sep 2009, 9:48pm
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the world is possibility

ooohhh. i had the whole day off today. tomorrow i have work, and then work again. i have a gig at the opera this month, as the child wrangler for la bohème. yes, that is actually what they call me. when i meet the kids’ parents they say, “are you the wrangler?” i think technically i am the “child coordinator.” basically my role is to worry about the kids (sixteen of ‘em) in the children’s chorus so no one else has to. yesterday they weren’t needed in the staging studio for a chunk of rehearsal, so we all hung out in the next room drawing with my markers (the ones i carry around in my bag with my mandala sketchbook) on whatever scraps of paper i could rustle up. it was fun. also, rehearsal for this show is amazing to watch. i have never (from this perspective) seen so many people on a stage at once. plus, the singing!

i got called up for the job. someone i worked with in the spring has worked at the opera in the past, and when they were looking for someone, she gave them my name. it seemed like a bad idea to say no to it. at cornerstone, people asked me whether i would do theatre work when i got home. “probably if something falls into my lap, i’ll take it, but i’m not gonna seek anything out,” i said. and, well. i guess i put something in motion, and it’s rolling rolling rolling…

last night a. and i watched ram dass: fierce grace, about (obviously) ram dass and his life and journey, and i was left with a nice peaceful sense that seemed easier to articulate last night than it does now… that life is what it needs to be. and que sera sera, et cetera et cetera.

wanted to write about what’s been in my life recently: the opera; dozens of fresh tomatoes from my mom’s garden; two pumpkins and a squash still sitting on my kitchen table waiting to be made into soup (or something); making dinner with my parents and my cousin sam

(who has moved to portland… “everyone and their mother is moving to portland!” i keep saying. which is only sort of true–my mother moved here almost a year ago, hah!–but it does feel like a dozen returning boomerangs, the way people come in and out of my life… is my hand in the air to catch them?? is this a useful analogy??)

; the tba festival and modern dance and beautiful bodies and long conversations about the accessibility and meaning of art with a., my artist partner; a barbecue with my friends at oz, where i lived for a summer once upon a time (4 years ago); strawberries and nutella wrapped in a waffle, from a food cart near mississippi that our neighbor took us to; rage and anger at the umpteenth asshole to yell at me on my bike; recurring pain in my left collarbone and right knee, the sites of my injuries over a year ago… still a lot of healing to do. ram dass says: “healing is not after all the same as curing. healing does not mean going back to the way things were before, but rather allowing what is now to move us closer to god.” i am not the same as i was. my relationship with a. is not the same as it was before we were hit (separately, four weeks apart) by cars. so be it.

i started to write an entry about the assholes a few days ago. a laundry list, a tantrum, an argument against a kyriarchical culture that allows men in noisy wasteful smog-spewing steel cage-weapons to humiliate women and separate themselves from the othered earth, or something like that. at the end of my draft, i wrote:

sitting in my parents’ living room with my mom and my cousin sam, eating blueberries from the bushes outside the front door. we’re talking about how good berries are here in oregon: blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, marionberries… and i say “well, the best strawberries i ever had were at the farmer’s market in eureka. oh my gosh, they were so good. and the farmer had just picked them the night before, i think he said, the moon was bright enough…”

and my mom says, “doesn’t that kind of make up for the assholes who yell at you on your bike?”

“you mean farmers who pick strawberries by moonlight?”


and you know what? it doesn’t. it can’t. but it does sort of make me feel a little more optimistic about things. the assholes aren’t humanity.

this also helps (thanks matt)–