26 Jan 2010, 9:12pm
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permaculture notes: food forests, cities

same disclaimer applies–
these are pretty much straight from my notes, with no further research done (and i am interested in researching some of these things further, eventually). any inaccuracies are probably my fault, and i’m not too concerned about them right now. probably don’t quote me (or any of the people i’m quoting) on this stuff, though, without doing your own research!

WEEKEND #4: food forests and cities (december) (guest teachers: leonard barrett and michael cook of city repair)

“the only tool not in the permaculturist’s toolkit is the cookie cutter.”

two approaches to mimicking natural systems:
structure permaculture: mimicking the structures of nature (so it looks like nature)
function permaculture: mimicking the functions of nature (attempting to create working ecosystems)

in creating carefully-designed polycultures and food forests (and doing some crazy stuff with water distribution), we are ostensibly mimicking nature but are really creating pretty unnatural environments. as our understanding has grown, we’ve gotten more skilled at understanding the principles that underly the structures we are imitating, so we can apply those principles more broadly.

we also discussed the natural/unnatural distinction and whether it’s really very useful, a là 1491 (a great book i read a couple months ago by charles c. mann). which is the natural landscape when human fire suppression has allowed fir forests to replace oak savannahs that were the result of human fire setting? and humans only started setting fires to maintain prairie 4000 years ago when the climate in those areas shifted from one favoring prairie to one favoring forests…

this is also part of the native vs. non-native debates that happen in permaculture/sustainable gardening circles. according to a book called bringing nature home by doug tallamy, native vegetation supports more biomass of insects and birds than exotic vegetation does. it takes more than a couple centuries for plants to indigenate themselves. toby’s proposed solution is to design a native backbone surrounded and supported by plants we are familiar with and already know how to use (i.e., proven exotics).

a note on invasive plants: intact ecosystems are hard to invade because they’re closed loops with no spare resources for an invader to take advantage of. pollution and disturbance create untapped resources. so we want to protect and create functioning ecosystems.

most of us feel that cities just sort of evolve up around us or “just happen.” most of us also think of cities as ecologically damaging or not evolving along ecological lines. but leonard urges us in fact to think of them as biological and ecological, and to consider their evolution thusly.

in a small town of 647 people, there are 208,981 possible relationships between people. in portland, there are 1.24×10^11 possible relationships! cities increase the edges between people and create huge opportunities for information exchange.

two-thirds of the world’s population lives in the “third world,” and cities there are very different than how we think of them here. they are incredibly dense, and because of pollution there’s no blue sky except when the winds roll in. by the middle of this century, more than half of the world’s population will live in cities like this (if trends continue).

for most of the world’s history, 99% of people lived in rural areas. as of 2008, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas! the slope on that graph went waaaaay up around 1950. today, 83% of americans live in settlements of over 50,000 people.

it’s impossible to tell how increasing resource consumption will affect urbanization and development trends, but right now it’s looking like rural areas will continue to depopulate as people move to town for better jobs and so on. we in first world cities have a tendency to be nostalgic about going “back to the land,” but leonard quotes bill mollison–”keep out of the bush; it’s already in good order”–and suggests that everyone living in cities would give a lot of the earth a chance to revert to unmanaged ecosystems and rebuild the lungs of the planet.

this caused some interesting discussion! said one of my classmates: but the city is a hungry maw that eats its surroundings!

to which leonard replied: lots of ecologically damaging things happen because of subsistence farming. poor farmers get pushed to the most marginal and ecologically-sensitive land and use techniques like slash-and-burn.

another classmate said: but some indigenous people are maintaining ecosystems. and leonard said: but historically, those people probably moved around every few hundred or few thousand years to let land regenerate. now, we have way too big of a footprint (as a species) to do that. he acknowledged that there are a lot of issues at play, but basically said:

we humans need to minimize the footprint of our actions, especially the most ecologically-damaging ones… so it behooves us to allow as much of the earth as possible to revert to being what it will be. and, since there’s already a huge urbanization trend in the world, let’s think about how we can leverage that to improve global ecological health! a saying from finance: “the trend is your friend.”

that trend:

every 12 days, the amount of new developing urban area in the world is equal to a city the size of the chicago metro area: 6 million people!

why are people moving? because we as a species haven’t been attending well to people care and redistribution of the surplus (two of the three permaculture ethics), i.e. they’re looking for jobs. cities are nutrient sinks (ex: the 3000-mile salad); how can we redistribute the surplus back to rural areas? leonard suggests that people are also moving for the magic and excitement of living in cities, which offer community and the opportunity to be a part of something complex and larger than life–even if it’s a slum, and a lot of it it.

mumbai is half slum but makes up one-sixth of india’s entire GDP! one-sixth of the world lives in slums, and they are economically vibrant.

all of this is a both/and discussion, not an either/or–nothing is all bad or all good. so let’s utilize the trend and find the good in these things.

the city in an ecological context:

keep or create wilderness corridors in cities… to increase edge between cities and rural environments/wilderness.

when we don’t bring ecosystem services into the city (vegetation and tree canopy), we get the urban heat island effect and other consequences.

historically, city locations were determined by the places watersheds came together, or by the presence of other important resources (water, arable land). fossil fuels changed this and made oddities like las vegas possible–cities with no relative location to the things that support them.

leonard proposes applying permaculture and transition principles on a block scale. get out of the limiting lot-by-lot scale and collaborate with your neighbors! tear out fences and make use of microclimates. it’s a way to walk our talk w/r/t community-building and community resiliency.

other local/urban ideas:

* yardsharing: you want a garden but don’t have land, they have the land but don’t have the time… etc. check out hyperlocavore. this could even be an entrepreneurial venture–somebody in portland has actually run a csa by gardening in various yards all over portland!

* neighborhood seed swaps: develop and nurture seeds that are adapted not just to the pnw climate but to the climate between stark and burnside, or on the alameda ridge, and so on. a way to walk our talk w/r/t genetic diversity and food security.

* tool libraries! (there are currently tool libraries in town in NE–started by the ainsworth street collective–and maybe another place or two, actually!) what other resources can we share in common?

* block-scale rainwater harvesting–leonard suggests that the currently-underutilized space underneath city streets would be a great place for cisterns! (you know, until we can tear up the streets altogether and farm ‘em…)

* rooftop gardens

* so in parts of portland (my old neighborhood of woodstock for example) there are lots of unpaved streets labeled “roadway not improved.” some of them barely qualify as streets. apparently–though i can find no google confirmation of this–there is an organization or movement in pdx that’s trying to get some of these streets taken off the list of “streets to eventually be paved when we maybe have the money someday” and turned into public parks or gardens instead! the potholed gravely streets were one of my favorite things about living in woodstock and i love the idea of them becoming parks, but as one of my classmates pointed out, there are people in many of those neighborhoods who are angry that they haven’t been paved yet–accessibility issues etc and people worried that their neighborhoods are being marginalized. so, of course, it’s complicated.

* front yard food gardening–take a visible underutilized space and utilize it! it’ll encourage others to maybe do the same and create a positive feedback loop.

* container gardening

* mobile raised bed: leonard showed us a photo of a little veggie bed on a wagon that the owner/gardener locked to a post in a sunny spot across her street every day. he suggests that the next step would be to built a bicycle trailer raised bed and bring hands-on organic gardening workshops to events, etc!

* gardening in parking strips. if you’re worried about pollutants, trees and woody shrubs are probably okay. or, if less than 1000 cars (according to bill mollison) or 2500 cars (according to the city of portland) drive by every day, your food is probably okay anyway.

* go around and label food plants (like fruit trees or wild edibles) in the public right-of-way with signs: “this is food! here’s how to harvest it!” etc.

* small-scale aquaculture: “barrelponics”

* shade walkways with grape arbors (or kiwi, or pollinator-attracting blossoms, or…)

guilds: a mutually-beneficial grouping–of plants, of people, etc.

when designing plant guilds, we can do it (just some possibilities that toby talked about): by structure, by function, by analogy, or by evolutionary relationship.

the oldest guild:
the “three sisters”: corn, beans and squash! the beans grow up the corn and fix nitrogen, the corn secretes a sugar that beans like, and the squash spreads over the soil and creates a “living mulch” that discourages weeds. they create an “overyielding polyculture,” meaning that the total nutrient production of a field planted with the guild is higher than that of a field planted with any of the three plants in a monoculture–20-30% higher in fact!

designing guilds by structure:
choosing plants that fit together physically. stacking in space. put plants together sort of like a jigsaw puzzle to make the best use of available space.
this is more about avoiding negative interactions (one plant crowding out another, etc) than it is about creating beneficial interactions.

designing guilds by function:
for example, if you’re designing a guild around an apple tree, you might look for plants that suppress grass growth, attract insects, accumulate nutrients, act as a barrier against foraging wildlife, etc. these elements support the central element.

designing guilds by analogy:
mimicking native plant communities–maybe they work well together or maybe they just happen to all like the same conditions, but it’s worth a shot! you can replace one or more of the plants with a similar domesticated variety and see how it goes.

designing guild by evolutionary relationship:
or as toby said, “guilds for botany nerds,” or “kinship gardens.” this is from alan kapuler of peace seeds. the idea is to plant based on evolutionary distance, basically to see how putting evolutionarily-related plants next to each other changes our perspective on them–i.e., if we crossed perennial kale with cauliflower, could we maybe get perennial cauliflower? something like that, anyway.

one more kind of guild–the “crapshoot guild”–see what likes to grow together by seeing what comes up from last year’s scattered seeds!

i’ve sort of been wanting to take an aikido class lately, so i was particularly amused/intrigued by its use as an analogy for permaculture: use existing trends/forces to do good/do what you want to do! we want to create systems that can take whatever force they’re being exposed to and USE it as a resource!

the “climax forest,” when all trees are mature and there’s little undergrowth, is a myth. in reality, patches occur, dead trees fall and let light in so the understory grows, etc. mature forests are patchy and diverse and complex!

old-field succession–the steps by which forest (or food forest!) moves into empty land:
1. gap/clearing/bare soil
2. old-field perennial and annual vegetables
3. “old-field mosaic”
4. shrubland
5. woodland garden
6. mature forest or forest garden
and then fire or disease cleared out a patch and the cycle starts over… it’s not a linear process with a fixed “climax”/end! any large forest will have patches of all of these stages.

i think the idea is that we can guide our food forests through these stages to maturity as well, while taking advantage of the productivity of every stage along the way.

BIOMASS is really important for soil creation, nutrients, etc. clearcutting removes the biomass that is needed to support further growth. annual agriculture is basically clearcutting–all the biomass/productivity is removed/harvested. which means there’s less productivity the next year!

so the idea behind food forests/forest gardens is that we create an ecosystem from which we take only 10-20% of the total productivity/biomass every year, so the ecosystem can continue–in fact, we become a part of the ecosystem.

when we talk about elements in a plant guild or in a permaculture design having FUNCTIONS, we are really talking about CONNECTIONS–i.e., a nitrogen-fixing plant connects nitrogen and soil. there used to be a tendency in permaculture design to make dogmatic statements like “each element in a design must have five functions,” but really, when you put pieces out there and let them connect, cool things happen. it doesn’t take too many connections between elements before ecosystems emerge! so when people say each element should have five functions–whatEVER–you really only need ~2 connections from each element before everything coalesces into a system.

michael cook of city repair believes that our over-consumption of resources has its origins in the grid system that pervades both our physical environment (streets/houses/etc) and our mental environment (media and advertising that encourages us to equate consumption and interaction). because we have no gathering places and are not connected to each other, we NEED more as individuals and try to fill that need with junk and over-consumption. 90% of what we produce is destined to go straight to the landfill–packaging, etc. grids are great for long-distance transportation and navigation, sure, but you miss all the life between points a and b. more efficient does not mean more fulfilling.

so, city repair isn’t so much trying to fix all of that. they’re just trying to build community. (the disease causing all of these symptoms is a lack of community.) how to build community? by celebrating, having fun, feeling good!

city repair builds “catalysts for community.” intersection paintings, in addition to calming traffic and providing neighborhood focal points and all of that, also become reasons for community members to come together every year (to repaint). traditions rise out of that and real community happens… coming at it from a different direction than “intentional community” created by people with common values who decide to try to live together in community.

intersection repairs are ENCHANTING–michael says, enchantment is present in our media but often missing from our lives. enchantment is what makes it okay to go slowly through life rather than rushing efficiently from place to place.

encouraging people to invest themselves in where they live. and so on. we also got to see lots of slides of city repair projects. i owe a lot to city repair–four or five years ago i was walking through sellwood and stumbled onto share-it square, looked it up, found city repair and thought what they did was SO COOL. last year i went to some of the village building convergence, and the rest is history. city repair got my hands in the dirt, exposed me to permaculture, set me on my way. okay, a. and his mom did some of the work, too. i am so lucky!

16 Jan 2010, 8:50pm

permaculture notes: water, trees, soil

i am very very far behind on my initial plan to type up all my permaculture notes. so i’m revising my plan and just typing up some of the particularly interesting or important bits. these are pretty much straight from my notes, with no further research done (and i am interested in researching some of these things further, eventually). any inaccuracies are probably my fault, and i’m not too concerned about them right now. probably don’t quote me (or any of the people i’m quoting) on this stuff, though, without doing your own research!

anyway, here’s weekends 2 & 3 of the course i’m taking. today was day 1 of weekend 5!

WEEKEND #2: water and trees (october) (guest teacher: tom ward)

zones are an important concept in permaculture design. they’re used to help guide placement of design elements and as a way of conceptualizing space. from a handout toby gave us: “Consider the house (or other focal point such as a village center) to be Zone 0. The area closest to the house is Zone 1, and outside of this lies Zones 2 through 5. The more times you need to visit an element, or the more it needs to be visited, the closer to Zone 0 it should go.” of course, the way these zones are defined varies a lot depending on what kind of design you’re doing. in a big farm-type setting, zone 5 is often reserved for wilderness habitat and is unmanaged. in an urban lot, zone 5 might be the blackberry patch in the corner of your yard, or the neighbor’s backyard or, i dunno, a state park, depending on how you’re thinking about it. toby reminds us to think in three dimensions, i.e. the roof of your house might be in your zone 3. there’s no hard and fast rules because what will go in each zone depends on you or the person you’re designing for and their particular needs and desires.

bart anderson (of energybulletin.net) came up with this idea for urban transportation zones:
1. where you can walk to
2. where you can bike to
3. where you can ride public transit to
4. where you can drive to
5. where you can fly to

or you can consider zones when thinking about your social networks:
1. spouse and (immediate?) family
2. best friends (and extended family?)
3. colleagues and wider circle of friends
…and so on.

sectors are another major design tool. toby defines them as “forces, energies, and influences that come from outside the site.” the obvious ones are things like sun, wind, precipitation, wildlife, etc. but they also include things like municipal codes and laws, noise, neighbors, and stuff like that. toby shared a couple great examples, both from l.a. ecovillage:

1. the billboard sector–a huge billboard cast a shadow over their growing space, which made their tomatoes unhappy. so they moved them to the front yard along the sidewalk, without considering:

2. the schoolkid sector–the ecovillage was near a school, and kids walking past would pick the tomatoes as soon as they were even vaguely red and ripe, leaving none for the residents! they eventually solved this problem by planting heirloom varieties that don’t turn red when they ripen so the kids didn’t know to pick them.

when talking to clients and considering design elements, remember to start with needs and yields (i.e. what problems do you need to solve and what products do you want to have?) instead of with specific elements. instead of “do you want a composting toilet?” go with “are you interested in processing human waste on-site?” or something like that. you might get a different answer.

also consider that the product of a system is the system itself. what we’re harvesting are the byproducts. the product of a tree is (probably) not the tree; it’s shade, fruit, leaves for mulch and compost, etc.

in my master gardener class this has come up as well: don’t feed the plants, feed the soil! and the soil will feed the plants. your veggies are byproducts of healthy soil.

by harvesting byproducts of the system, you avoid depleting the system. sustainability!

tom ward–what a guy!

he asked us to figure out which of ours eyes is dominant and told us about cross-dominance–some people are right-handed but left-eyed, or vice versa. i am right-handed and right-eyed, as are most people. schoolteachers (and others) tend to automatically talk to your right eye, so if you’re using your left eye, they think you’re not paying attention. according to tom, most people in prison are cross-dominant. he went on a great rant about the educational system, saying that “the human mind is evolving under stress” and that many so-called learning disabilities are about 3d visualization, i.e. kids with these “problems” are “multi-dimensional kids” and we’re squashing them and shutting them down with our inflexible educational system. factually true or not, that feels right to me (as a kid who learned to read late due to an undiagnosed eye problem) and i can dig it.

anyway, tom encouraged us to explore “multidimensional thinking.” then he presented a 3d model of the ways he planned to teach us and answer our questions. he called it the “answer game;” everything he told us would fall somewhere in this model–

on one axis, the source of his answer: invented (made it up), guess (educated), experience (reporting results corroborated by others), research (read it in a book), or gossip (heard it somewhere).

on the second axis, a continuum between true and false.

on the third axis, a continuum between resonant and dissonant (to us as audience/students).

he also applied zones to his answers. a zone 1 answer would be a “recipe” presented with lots of care and detail. a zone 4 answer would be more diffuse, sort of a “scattering of seeds” of possible answers or solutions.

he also reminded us that there are no final answers and that all that planning is is a scenario exercise. we can’t be attached to “getting somewhere” or we might be going in the wrong direction. “everything to do, nothing to get done.” we’ll get somewhere ’cause we’ll be dragged there by events. in the meantime, we have to stay in the process. for all we know, everything we’re doing in permaculture could be a huge mistake. in china, for 7000 years, humanure was deposited directly on fields. now there’s too many nitrates in the soil, but for 7000 years it seemed totally sustainable. who knows? we just have to keep trying things that feel right, and not doing things that we know are stupid.

biomagnification: songbirds eat bugs that eat leaves, and so forth. so what happens to the smallest happens also to the biggest. tom’s example: there was a rainstorm on the west coast following the explosion at chernobyl. there was no measurable radiation or anything in the rain, but there was a 100% failure of the second nesting of songbirds on the west coast that year.

tom also talked about sympathetic magic–imitation in order to encourage. we all did a rain dance in which we pretended to be rain. this in the midst of a discussion about how we need regular floods to recharge deep water tables. water sinks into the ground much deeper in flood plains than in riverbeds, where it’s sort of sealed in by clay and gravel. when there’s no floods, the water never gets below the topsoil before being used or evaporating. so plants grow, but the water table is being slowly depleted. snow melt helps, but of course snow pack is disappearing because of climate change…

tom is big on rain. he says that sometimes plumbed city water will fail to initiate germination in seeds (because of who-knows-what in pipes and such?) and then it’ll rain and voilà. and also that if l.a. was equipped with proper roofwater catchment systems and cisterns, they’d have no water problems at all.

anyway my point was sympathetic magic: from my notes:
“art as sympathetic magic! setting up a pattern than self-propogates ’cause everyone’s dreaming it…”
been thinking about that ever since. i wanna be that kind of artist. oh gosh, other things to write about: talking with taiga about ethical community based theatre vs. catharsis…

greywater systems and personal responsibility:

the simplest greywater system is a dishpan or basin. put it in your sink and wash and rinse your dishes into it, then go pour it on your garden. this requires: labor, motivation, biodegradable soap, a basin, and careful food preparation/consumption so that as few nutrients as possible end up in the water. as tom points out, we should be licking our plates! you get good, immediate feedback as to what your greywater is doing to your garden/the environment.

we produce greywater for our convenience, so we can have clean dishes and so on. greywater systems (with pipes and wetlands etc) are fancy things we install in order to avoid personal responsibility while being as green as possible. i.e., if our wastewater is being treated and all of that, it doesn’t matter that we’re producing it in the first place, right? really, step #1 in designing a greywater system should be: produce less greywater.

also, the truth (but don’t tell the lawmakers) is that all greywater is blackwater. handwashing puts fecal coliform bacteria into the water. with this knowledge, shouldn’t you hesitate to dump this greywater on or near food plants? tom says that fecal coliform bacteria is present in soil everywhere already, along with bubonic plague. it’s not a soil problem, it’s a health problem–a “lack of vigor in the human animal.” and overuse of things like antibiotics, which have made us more vulnerable to all kinds of things that once weren’t a problem, like wild (untreated) water. but, yeah, keep in mind the health of your friends and family, and their abilities to resist disease, when you’re designing a system–and design for blackwater, ’cause that’s almost certainly what you’ve got.

mostly, remember that there is no “away.” even when you send your wastewater off-site, it always ends up somewhere and affects things.

some stats about water:

if all the water on the earth was 1 gallon, usable fresh water near the surface would be 1 teaspoon.

97% of earth’s water is salty; 3% is fresh. of that 3%, ~75% is locked up in ice, ~12% is more than 1200 feet below ground, ~12% is less than 1200 feet below ground (we can get at some of it, but if it’s more than 500 feet down it’s pretty impractical), 0.35% is in lakes and rivers, 0.03% is in the atmosphere, and 0.06% is in soils.

agriculture uses 85% of the water we consume. the rest is split between industry and residential use.

the yearly flow of freshwater on the planet is 9000 cubic km; we divert 5000 cubic km of it.

it takes 1500 lbs of water to grow a pound of wheat and 15000 to grow a pound of rice!

the hydrologic/water cycle as we learned it in school goes roughly like this: water evaporates from bodies of water and forms clouds, which rain on the land. the water ends up back in the bodies of water, and so forth. what this is missing is biological storage of water and water processing by plants–i.e. evapotranspiration. the further inland you go, the more of the water there has been processed by plants. 100 miles inland, 50% of the rain is from forests and vegetation. when you cut down a forest, rainfall downwind decreases significantly.

trees are awesome! amazing tree fact #1: redwood trees are really tall! they pump water 600 feet into the air! that is incredible! i am enjoying rereading these notes (which are from back in october) ’cause of what i have learned since about botany (from my master gardener class and from reading i’ve done). from my master gardener notes:

how does water get to the top of a tree?
as soon as the plant germinates, there’s a continuous stream of water going up the plant. water molecules pull other water molecules up with them… which is the only way this could be possible! something like that, anyway.

not to mention the miracle of photosynthesis and all of that. wood is xylem is a polymer of sugar is pure sunshine…

from later in my permaculture notes–the 3 ways trees pump water:
1. transpiration: evaporation from leaves creates a vaccuum which pulls more water up.
2. barometric pressure: the tubes in tree trunks are long, interconnected, overlapping vessels so small that surface tension/capillary action actually wicks water out of the roots. (i think this is what my m.g. notes are talking about.)
3. osmosis. my notes are pretty confused about this one. something about tree blood and differential membranes?

amazing tree fact #2: 95% of a tree’s roots are within 6-9 inches of the surface. one exception: nut trees, which put down big taproots. according to tom, walnut trees have a 60 foot tap root before you even see them above ground! this seems questionable to me (there would have to be a lot of energy stored in the seed for that much root growth before the tree started photosynthesizing), so maybe this is more on the “invented” end of that axis of tom’s answer game, but i suppose it can still resonate!

tom also told us that when he was in forestry school, he and his classmates carefully excavated a root on an 8-inch-thick (5-6 years old) maple tree and found it to be about a half mile long!

i went to a halloween party shortly after class that weekend and got a little tipsy and was telling someone about how some trees may have roots that are “like a MILE LONG!” and some horticulturalist who happened to be there (what are the chances?) told me i was full of shit and made me feel very embarrassed, even after i corrected my recollection to a half mile. i tried to do some research on it afterwards but didn’t really find anything conclusive. general wisdom (or something) says that trees’ roots go to the dripline, but i’ve heard plenty of times since then (in my master gardener class for example) that they go further than that. well, regardless, that half-mile root thing definitely resonated.

trees communicate with each other. tom’s example: when a tree is attacked by gypsy moths, it releases an anxiety pheromone that causes trees downwind to become more bitter-tasting to the caterpillars!

i am also reading a book right now, the lost language of plants by stephen harrod buhner, that has an entire chapter full of examples of amazing plant communication and adaptation. this excerpt from the book is not so much about inter-plant communication but is pretty amazing nonetheless:

“In Central America and Africa certain species of Acacia, a large shrub or small tree, is covered with thorns, some of which are hollow and house ants. Much like coevolutionary bacteria, Pseudomyrmex ants recognize new shrubs as coevolutionary partners and colonize them. The trees produce special nectar along the stems for the ants to eat. Like the compounds released from plant roots, this nectar contains a rich mix of fats (lipids), proteins, sugars, and other compounds necessary for the ant to remain healthy. The ants remove vegetation from around the base of the plant, remove leaves of other plants that shade the tree, kill any vines that try to grow up the tree, and attack any herbivore that tries to eat the plant.

“South American leafcutter ants collect plants, chop them up, and feed them to a fungus that they grow for their food. When forming new colonies the ants transfer starters to the new colony–somewhat like a sourdough starter handed down for generations. The fungus the ants grow can sometimes become infected by an Escovopsis microfungus. This fungus is kept in check by a Streptomyces bacteria that is symbiotic with the ants and grows on their bodies. The Streptomyces also produces growth compounds that significantly increase the biomass of the fungus; the ants apply the substances made by the bacteria to the fungal colony to maintain its health. Ants have been living in close mutualistic relationships with acacia, their fungus gardens, and their symbiotic bacteria for at least 50 million years.”

social forestry:

we need to come into social relationships with our forests… create a cultural relationship to the trees to reinforce their practical uses in our lives, and recognize them as related to us and worthy of love and protection.

plastic has distanced us from our forests. we could (and should) eliminate all plastic–it could be substituted for in everything we make out of it by wood, stone, fibers, clay, glass and metal. of course, because we’re in an economic downturn, existing industries and jobs are untouchable, and there’s no room for discussion of the problems of plastic production.

also, wood takes care and feeding, as do items made of wood (compared to plastic)–another personal responsibility thing (plastic is a way of avoiding it).

when you buy trees, always buy them from a nursery that’s north of where you live. trees raised south of you will be too advanced for the season when you plant them. trees from the north will be suppressed, which is better for planting.

nectar flow:

we need to have something in bloom all the time to keep pollinators around. we should start charting everywhere and all the time what pollinators are where and what’s blooming. climate change will change this, though, so we need to do it all and overdo it, take risks. “plant everything and let the goddess sort it out.” we can kill plants if it doesn’t work out. yes, we can kill plants.


coppicing: google it, ’cause it’s pretty cool! basically, you can cut a tree down to a stump in early winter after all the leaves have fallen, and it will heal itself over the winter and sprout in the spring. if you thin out the sprouts, they will grow 20 feet in a year! and you can harvest them. long, flexible wood. willow works best, but almost anything except conifers works.

in our pnw forests, douglas fir is not actually old growth–it’s second growth. the old growth trees we want to restore like to grow under the shade of the doug firs, which act as “nurse trees.” they can be taken out when the old growth trees get big.

tom’s guidelines for sustainable forestry:
* reduce the fire hazard by taking out the understory regularly
* keep trees’ nutrition on-site: leave the leaves, bark, needles, etc, and take only the wood
* use small, portable mills on-site

urban forestry!:

urban “forests” are incredibly diverse because people bring/plant their favorite trees in order to feel at home. that means there’s an incredible opportunity to take cuttings and grafts, collect seeds, choose and try varieties, etc. but unmanaged fruit trees are messy. tom suggests that every neighborhood support an urban forester who is knowledgeable about and maintains the neighborhood trees, as well as collecting and distributing the yield and cooperating with utility crews (who are often unkind to trees in an effort to keep power lines clear).

he also suggests block “cohousing associations” in which neighbors tear down the fences between their houses and make use of the increased space for farming.

since the most probable permaculture is urban permaculture (huge urbanization trend in the world), we should learn how to do it well. make a conceptual shift from living in a city to living in a forest. oh, i remember from the portland plan meetings, some amazing percentage of portland is under tree canopy…

anyway, tom thinks that such a shift would be accompanied by a shift from an individualistic ethic to a cooperative, culturally-vibrant “palette of color and activity.” and in an ideal world, we remove the streets (currently underutilized space) to reveal the soil underneath… sounds good to me!

WEEKEND #3: soil (november) (guest teacher: jude hobbs)

what is soil?
the edge between the atmosphere and the rocks of the planet.
the edge between the living and the dead.

soil is also the base of the pyramid of life. humans on top (well, we’re just another mammal), them mammals, birds, insects, plants, then SOIL LIFE! and organic matter.

the flow of nutrients in the soil is more important than how many nutrients there are, and you need life to make the nutrients flow. if you have less soil life, you have less of everything (available to your plants), regardless of what you’ve amended your soil with.

there are more animals below the soil level than there are above the soil. an acre of good soil can support a cow and a calf, or approximately 1500 lbs of animal. below the surface of that soil there are 5000 lbs of animals!

the SOIL FOOD WEB–the “microherds” under the soil. tending your soil is raising a different kind of livestock.

so, again: feed the soil to feed the plants!

fun fact! aphids are born pregnant! (they are viviparous.)

invasives/exotics have a hard time invading intact ecosystems; they need disturbance/pollution to create a new resource (a yield not needed by something else) so they can get a foothold.


darwin wrote a book about ‘em! after he wrote about evolution.

worms turn over (the equivalent of?) the entire top 3-4 inches of the planet every 3-4 years.

vermicomposting is super cool and i’m trying to figure out how i could fit a womrm bin in our kitchen.


a single teaspoon or gram of good garden soil can contain billions of individual bacteria and 5000 different species!

they can change 20-25% of their dna per day! which is how they develop antibiotic resistance so quickly.

nitrogen-fixing bacteria (rhizobia) take nitrogen from the atmosphere and make it into a form useful to plants. specifically, they take N2 and O2 and make it into NO3–nitrate. nitrogen-fixing plants (legumes) are actually plants in a symbiotic relationship with rhizobia . the bacteria form colonies on the roots and feed nitrates to the plant. in return, they get sugar!

if you pull out the roots of a nitrogen-fixing plant, you pull out most of the nitrates, too. to get the most nitrogen in your soil, you want to let the roots die where they are so the nitrates will be released into the soil. similarly, if you let the plant flower and go to seed, all the nitrogen will be in the seed. however, roots are constantly growing and dying even while a plant is alive.


fungi can break down really complex stuff! oyster mushrooms can even break down petroleum! fungi are the “super alchemists of the soil,” breaking down everything that nothing else can.

mushrooms are the fruiting body of fungi. the main body is the mycelium, underneath the soil (or the wood or whatever the mushrooms are growing on). not all fungi make mushrooms.

the largest organism on the planet is a mushroom! it’s a 2500 acre fungus in eastern oregon. (there’s also a 1500 acre one in idaho.) it sort of looks like it’s killing everything there, but in fact it’s part of the life cycle of the forest. after a long time (500-1000 years), most of the minerals in a forest’s soil have been extracted, and trees can no longer get nutrients, so the forest weakens and the fungus moves in. it “infects” everything and everything drops and the nutrients return to the soil so the cycle can begin again.

mycelium expands radially. the “action” is on the edge where the fungus is getting new nutrients, so mushrooms sprout up in a circle–hence, fairy rings!

mycorrhizae are super cool. they’re fungi that hang out with plant roots sort of like rhizobia. they grow super fast and are excellent at transporting nutrients. plants can only use nutrients that are right up against their roots, so without mycorrhizae, if they need something they don’t have, they’re out of luck even if it’s really close by. mycorrhizae feed plants nutrients and water, and mycelia can be miles and miles long in a small area, making lots of surface area to be in contact with nutrients. so a plant that has a good relationship with mycorrhizae is super healthy and drought-resistant. awesome.

it’s that white stringy stuff you see when you pull up roots. scientists only recently figured out that it’s really important.

why chemical fertilization works well initially and then stops working:

humus (super-decomposed organic matter) is really good at holding nutrients. it’s studded with O- ions that bond with plant nutrients, which are generally positively-charged. this keeps nutrients from washing away in the water. when plants need a nutrient, they secrete a mild acid that’s just enough to break the bonds between the humus and the nutrients. when they’ve gotten what they need, they stop secreting it so the rest of the nutrients remain.

when you add water-soluble nutrients to the soil, 50-90% of them are just washed into the water table, where they contaminate wells with nitrates and nitrites. no good.

when you add potassium to soil, the nutrients attached to the humus are replaced with K+ ions. so the plants gets lots of K+ as well as all the trace minerals that were popped off and replaced. that’s great for the plants… until next season, when you’ll need to get fertilizer that has all those elements, too.

maintain a good balance of carbon and nitrogen in your compost/fertilizer–approximately 12:1. when in doubt, just add carbon (i.e. organic matter)! if it stinks, add carbon!

rudolf steiner said, “the health of a nation is reflected in the health of its soil.”

guerilla composting:

carry kitchen scraps in a yogurt container and go for a walk with a trowel. bury the scraps with a few seeds wherever there’s space!

do it! experiment with what works for you. toby says that the best learning he’s done was in trying to fix major problems and mistakes he made. avoid the paralysis that comes from looking for perfection–”the paralysis of analysis.”

when working with clients (or contemplating your own garden!), you have to read between the lines and figure out not what they say they want but what they really want… and what they will take care of.

edible landscaping:

if farmland is becoming houses, let’s at least teach the people in the houses to grow food on what used to be farmland… if that’s the best we can do, so be it.

there were a record number of food plants sold this past year!

“eat the view.”

6 Nov 2009, 3:23pm
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interactive strategies

i typed this up for my permaculture design group* ’cause we’re going to use consensus decision-making. it’s a handout (plus some notes) from the directing class at the cornerstone institute this summer that i thought would be useful and interesting to consider. it applies pretty widely i think, to all kinds of interpersonal and group interactions, so i thought i’d share it here.

*to earn our design certificates we are required to do a group project, usually a site design, over the course of the course. it may or may not be implemented–the design is the point, not the implementation–but we are designing for a real site, with a real client and all of that. my group is doing a design for kailash ecovillage.

summary of interactive strategies

collaboration (consensus):
equal emphasis is placed on the task or goals and the relationship between members of a conflict situation–the two sets of task goals are not seen as mutually exclusive–in fact, the approach taken is that the only acceptable problem solution is one that completely accomplishes both sets of goals because the relationship is important to both parties–a problem-solving orientation is used to confront differences.

appropriate uses:
–to gain commitment from others
–to learn more about others’ point of view
–to obtain input into best solution
–when neither set of goals can be compromised
–to work through bad feelings which have been interfering in a relationship
–in conception stages, when nothing is set
–when there is passion on both sides
–as a problem-solving technique
–when different elements are being integrated

again, equal emphasis is placed on the task or goals and the relationships of the members of a conflict situation–now, however, rather than both sets of goals being completely achieved, each party will win and little and lose a little.

appropriate uses:
–to gain commitment from others
–to achieve temporary settlements to complex issues
–to achieve quick solutions under time pressure
–when resources are limited
–when damage/wounding has been done

greater emphasis is placed on the relationship than the task goals–the accommodation style involves giving in and submitting oneself to the goals of another in order to protect the relationship at the cost of personal objectives.

appropriate uses:
–when the issue is much more important to the other person than yourself
–to build up credits for later issues which are important to you
–when you realize you’re wrong, to allow a better position to be heard
–to show that you’re reasonable
–when continued competition would damage your cause when you’re losing
–when preserving harmony is equally important
–to develop team members by allowing them to experiment and learn from mistakes
–when you want to empower people and invite ownership of the process/project/product

greater emphasis is placed on the task or goal than relationships–winning at all costs becomes the most important consideration.

appropriate uses:
–when quick decisive action is vital (such as emergencies)
–on important issues where unpopular courses of action are needed
–on issues vital to company welfare when you know you’re right
–when you’re working with people who need leadership
–when personal safety is a concern
–when important values are at stake
–when you’re relied upon for vision

emphasis is placed neither on the task nor the relationship–using this style, one gives up both in return for non-involvement.

appropriate uses:
–when the issue is trivial or when other issues are more pressing
–to let people cool down, to regain perspective and composure
–when there is absolutely no chance of satisfying your concerns and the potential damage of confronting a conflict outweighs the benefits of its resolution
–when safety and emotional well-being are a concern
–when compromise doesn’t work


speaking of cornerstone–the other day i found, in the back of my planner, a folded-up sheet of paper–from a class in which we wrote words of wisdom, things we live by, etc, anonymously on a piece of paper, folded it up, tossed it into a pile in the center of the room, and picked up a different one–with the following words (along with some others) written on it:

“we lose things, and then we choose things. the choice may have been mistaken; the choosing was not.”

11 Oct 2009, 3:52pm

more permaculture notes

weeks later, here’re my notes from day two.

we started with a “best of yesterday” review, where we popcorned words and phrases from the day before that we remembered. i wrote down some of them, each of which could probably be a post in and of itself:
edges – sky gods & earth spirits – a million years – transition – cross-pollination – connection – mollison’s book as scripture (toby had told us that he sometimes picked up bill mollison’s permaculture design manual and, as if it were the bible, opened it to a random page and read a bit to ponder…) – horticulture – succession – regeneration – surplus – “doomstead” (hah!) – creative descent – “bend the grid” – “permavangelism” (haha!) – “permacult” – feedback loop – ethics – fractals – abundance

we started class by continuing and finishing our discussion of the permaculture principles.

we discussed a phrase from #7 (”use small scale, intensive systems”): “grow by chunking”–repeat successes, don’t bite off more than you can chew. you can create “nuclei” in your design which will eventually expand to join other nuclei in creating a whole, or spread from one beginning point. we also briefly discussed “embedded energy,” which is the amount of energy involved in creating and delivering any technology that might be used in your design, etc.

principle #6: make the least change for the greatest effort–has to do with knowing the system. what its vulnerabilities are, the species involved, etc. obviously related to observation (#1)–don’t introduce something that will cause more problems, don’t act too early or too late, don’t intervene when it’s not required, etc. also related to #5 (each function is supported by multiple elements)–most problems have lots of solutions. some examples: graft apple branches onto a mature crabapple tree, so as to get apples a lot faster than if you’d planted a new apple tree; let your plants get eaten long enough that beneficial species will show up to eat the eaters!

the principles are a nested set.

principle #13: the biggest limit to abundance is creativity–mollison’s original was, “there is no theoretical limit to a system.” you’ll almost always run up against the limits of your imagination before you run up against the physical limitations of a system. we tend to take something from a source, use it, and then it’s sunk/done/”away.” nature, on the other hand, puts the products of various sources through a whole bunch of transitions–it’s used for x, the waste product is y which is used for z, which fertilizes n, etc. often there is no “sink” at the end of this process–evaporation or decomposition or something else turns it back into a source. so, how many of these transitions can you put into a system?

then, toby gave another presentation, titled “patterning: natural form as a designer’s manual.” it was awesome, and went roughly as follows.
(pictures found with google image search; click them for links to their sources.)

we humans are hardwired to recognize patterns, especially face patterns. we impose patterns even when they are not necessarily there. patterns scale smoothly–images of drops of milk in glycerin looks a lot like images of huge stellar objects many light years away. there are non-spatial patterns in behavior, ritual, and time.

nature uses patterns to solve design problems. for example, the interior of a vulture’s wing bone–i wish i could find a picture online, but you’ll just have to trust me that it looks pretty much exactly like this:

we use this pattern (trusses) often when we need to make something light and strong!

nature uses patterns, rather than more material, when it needs to add strength–material is expensive!

another example:


so, here are some different kinds of patterns…

all forces pushing outwards are matched by forces pushing inwards. for any given volume, a sphere has the least possible surface area, and therefore requires the least material. when people tried to use this pattern in the real world (for liquid storage tanks, etc), however, they found that gravity means this shape requires lots of bracing (extra material). in nature, spheres (for example, water droplets on a surface) sort of flatten. the resulting shape is a great design that’s often used for liquid storage tanks. you have to design for the REAL, rather than for the IDEAL.

in a beehive, as little wax as possible is used to create separate chambers. the result is that packed would-be spheres become hexagons–with 120-degree angles between sides.

these 120-degree angles also tend to show up when things dry out and stress:

and in columnar basalt (geology rocks! also, clicking on this photo is worth it. there are some more hexagons in this link, too):

and in soap bubbles:

and tortoise shells.

we use this pattern in design of things like fishing nets and networks.

minimal surfaces:

surface is expensive–nature will minimize it. another example: wire shapes dipped in bubble soap–see this instructable. (i keep meaning to mention how awesome instructables.com is! you should check it out.)

diatom patterns–ok, so diatoms are tiny unicellular phytoplankton. if i’ve got this right, there are tiny holes in them, very even and regular. they create these holes by blowing out a layer of bubbles and spitting out silica around the bubbles. the bubbles are popped, et voilà. human designers have used a similar process to build things like semiconductors. the alternative: precise laser drills are expensive, and the material that’s drilled away is wasted.

(before we get off the topic of diatoms, check out what i found when i googled “diatom patterns”–this guy makes patterns on microscope slides, including MANDALAS out of diatoms. click here and especially here. do it!)

frei otto, architect, used soap bubbles to figure out how to make roofs with the least possible surface area:

also used for yurts, tarps, etc.

working with EDGE:

edges are often where habitat is–the edge of the forest, the edge of the water, etc. so, for example, maximizing the edge of a pond is a good idea. for the same area, a many-lobed shape has more surface area than a square has more surface area than a circle.

also in garden design–planting in rows means as much area is path as is planted. planting in raised beds means more of it can be planted because it being raised means it’s easier to reach and there doesn’t have to be as much path. planting in keyhole beds is even better–because you can reach in so many directions from the same path, planting area is maximized. a couple weeks ago i shared a picture of a mandala garden, made of keyhole beds arranged in a circle.

more keyholes: office cubicles, u-shaped kitchens (everything within easy reach), subdivision cul-de-sacs (so everyone’s neighbors are as far away as possible), those crazy developments sticking out from dubai that maximize waterfront property.

offer increased edge (and, often, turbulence) for transfer across surfaces.

for an example of turbulence: coral is filter-feeding… it needs lots of current to drift across it with bits of food. its mound shape makes current spiral around it, then its lobes cause more turbulence and all of the coral gets to feed (rather than one bit of it getting all the food because the current hits it first).

lobes are also found in our intestines and lungs and in microfilter systems. and all that stuff above about edges and keyholes applies.

for collection and distribution.

tree branches collect sunlight, make sap/sugar, distribute it back to the branches. river deltas collect and distribute sediments. lungs, veins and arteries collect and distribute oxygen.

there are several drainage patterns that occur in nature: dendritic, rectangular, parallel, trellised, and deranged (no single process)–all with different geological causes (i sorta want to take a geology class!).

in a tree leaf, the path (vein) that brings nourishment to the rest of the plant is a part of the leaf that is not gathering sunlight/growing food, i.e., needs to be adequate but can’t be too much. so let’s mimic it in the garden! so we have enough path to gather enough food!

explosions are a subgroup of branching–for when energy use is not a concern, just want to distribute as much as possible as quickly as possible–distributing seeds, for example.

examples of branching: dichotomous keys, rotaries, subdivisions/suburbs (excellent for collecting and distributing cars…).

repetition of a simple pattern at smaller and smaller or larger and larger scales. occurs in nature–for example, the way a tree grows.

it’s a way of using the same instruction (genetic or whatever) over and over again to create something much more complex than the original instruction. toby’s example was a village in cameroon–the village is horseshoe-shaped. within that village, several house compounds are horseshoe-shaped. within those compounds, the houses themselves are horseshoe-shaped.

are patterns of growth and flow, from quarks to galaxies!

a common pattern in nature: the double spiral–with spirals in both directions (clockwise and counter-clockwise). for example: pineapples, sunflowers, pinecones. often, as in pinecones, there are eight clockwise spirals and 13 counter-clockwise spirals. 8:13 is a common ratio.

plants often grow their leaves in a spiral pattern for optimum light. 2 twists for every 3 leaves, or 3 twists for every 5, or 5 for 8…

this is the FIBONACCI SEQUENCE! (1,1,2,3,5,8,13, and so forth)
1/1 = 1
1/2 = .5
2/3 = .667
3/5 = .625
etc, approaching .618034… i.e. THE GOLDEN MEAN.

you all know this, the golden rectangle and all that, but just in case, this is it:

it’s been used in architecture and aesthetics and such since the greeks (maybe). even fits the proportions of the human body (or maybe that’s one place we’re imposing pattern where pattern isn’t. it’s still pretty cool).

the spiral is a logarithmic spiral–like a nautilus shell.

the classic permaculture garden example is the herb spiral–a spiral in a mound (so a helix/corkscrew) creates microclimates–a hot south-facing slope, a cool north-facing slope, etc. so you can give each plant an appropriate spot.

spirals form in fluids and flowing things: eddies! form leeward of objects. this scales: you can see it in the ocean, on the lee side of islands, and in stellar objects. von karman vortex streets:

vortexes–spirals stretched into three dimensions–pax scientific uses vortexes to create incredibly efficient pumps and propellers.

patterns of CONTROL: THE GRID–
as opposed to natural human settlements, which do not look like a grid. toby had photos of indigenous villages and stuff, with lots of curves and clusters, but just take a look at the oldest parts of the big european cities:

(this is barcelona. it’s easy to tell what part is oldest–what grew naturally vs what was planned when it became clear that the city would be much bigger.)

toby says: the patterns that you choose will allow certain things to happen and not allow other things to happen. in natural settlements, intersections and places where paths converge become natural gathering places.

the evolution of the grid:
the first places that the grid as used were military camps–a grid makes it easier to give directions to barracks, etc.
grids also make it easy to divide land up and make it a commodity–real estate.
america’s manifest destiny: jefferson’s land ordinance in 1785 that divided the entire continent into a grid.

circles are egalitarian–it’s hard to tell who’s in charge when everyone’s sitting in a circle. rectangles enforce power structures (for example, in a church, the parishioners can all see the priest, who is in front and elevated, and the priest can see them, but they can’t see each other). the grid enforces power structures.

the first thing a colonizing force does is impose a grid. this eliminates gathering places–plus, a sentry on a corner can see all the way down several roads. and sentries can see each other and communicate easily.

that was the end of the presentation. next (after talking a little about the design projects we’ll be working on throughout the course), we began discussing permaculture’s design methods. number 1 is (drumroll please) observation. the others are as follows: mimicking nature; options and decisions; data overlay; flow diagrams; traditional/indigenous cultures (i.e. what have people been doing on this land and how has it worked out?); random assembly; analysis of elements; zone and sector analysis.

as an example of “options and decisions,” toby asked us–
what can you do with kitchen scraps? we came up with a big list of possibilities: compost, give ‘em to chickens (and/or dogs, pigs, etc), give ‘em to worms, bury them, send them “away”/to a landfill, put them in the garbage disposal, use them to grow flies (hah), use them as mushroom feed stock, make vinegar, make alcohol, make dyes, make soup stock, make paper, sort the seeds out and use them to grow more food, root them.

so, sort through these options and use them in a certain order to get the most use and return out of what a moment ago was a waste product! see also the discussion at the beginning of this post about principle #13 (permaculture is itself a redundant system, hah.)

as an example of “analysis of elements,” which involves “listing and connecting the needs and yields of the design components,” we talked about chickens. some needs: food, shelter, protection from predators, to scratch, other chickens, shade, a place to roost, heat and cool, etc. some yields: eggs, fertilizer, pest control, entertainment, meat, feathers, noise, etc. a good designer will find other things within the system that will yield these needs or need these yields, and so forth. unmet needs in a system = work for someone (going out to get chicken feed or whatever). it’s better if needs can be met naturally by your design (chickens eat humans’ food scraps).

we also did some “random assembly,” by writing random design elements on notecards, and prepositional phrases on other notecards. we put them together randomly in small groups and practiced figuring out a way to make sense of what we ended up with (grape vines next to toolshed, raised bed above orchard, whatever). it’s a brainstorming method and a way of stepping out of thought patterns and such.

then we all taped chose one of our design element notecards and wrote some needs and yields of that element on the card. we taped our cards to our shirts, got up, and tried to arrange ourselves in groups such that we were all getting our needs met and our yields were being used. fun and silly. and that was that. until next weekend!

(for all my notes from my permaculture course, click here.)

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!