Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Permaculture - Working Within the Web of Nature

‘The Web of Life’ is a common metaphor used to describe the workings of the natural world, where every player or part, and their actions are interconnected and directly effect the entire web. So, we can think about a spider’s web and how every movement – a breeze or the spider’s dance – affects every part of the web and the web as a whole.

This consideration puts us in our place as but one of a multitude of elements within the whole living system of Nature, not the sovereign creators of the system. In the words of Chief Seattle,

“Man did not weave the web of life.   He is merely a strand in it.   Whatever he does to the web he does to himself.”

Permaculture’s focus is to remind us humans of our place within the whole and proposes we begin mimicking Nature by observing Her seamless and simple, yet elegant, examples.

What is Permaculture?
The word permaculture is said to be a morpheme of permanent agriculture or permanent culture. From my Permaculture training at Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC) comes this definition: “Permaculture is a whole design science that is reflective of natural patterns and promotes mutually beneficial relationships. Rooted in ethics, the concepts and themes in Permaculture help us rediscover how to be a positive contribution to the Earth, ourselves and humanity.” Penny Livingston-Stark of the Regenerative Design Institute in Bolinas, concisely defines it as “…a design science based in the observation of Nature.”

How did I come to Permaculture?
In the dead of winter, on a snowy weekend in February 2008, I had a Permaculture peak experience, long before I knew what Permaculture was. I was reading an article by Harvey Ussery in Mother Earth News: Plant an Edible Forest Garden, August/September 2007 issue. In this article Harvey never uttered the term Permaculture, but amongst other topics, he talked about a technique for converting a lawn or overgrown area into an arable garden plot. A “killing mulch” (sheet mulch in permaculture lingo) uses cardboard with layered mulch, leaves, compost and/or manure over it to a depth of at least six inches. This technique does away with back breaking digging while keeping the soil community intact. As the layers compost, usually over a winter, rain and air continue to reach the soil, weeds are mitigated and the soil improved. When spring comes crops can be planted right through the sheet mulch. This discussion of a “killing mulch” elicited a profound “aha moment” for me.

My husband, and I, with our dog Cleo, live on a 1.5 acre piece of land that used to be part of, and is surrounded by, a 25-acre parcel of land. At the turn of the 20th century this land became the home of the Dunsmuir Hospital, run for Southern Pacific Railroad by Dr. Cornish. The land was terraced, rock walls and stairways built, wagon roads cut into the hillside, and a lumber mill and cow barn constructed on the hill above where the hospital would be. The hospital grew all the food for patients and staff on the land, including honey, milk, eggs and meat. Timber from the property was milled and used to construct the hospital and outbuildings. The hospital was torn down in 1954, leaving only the living quarters of Dr. Cornish and his family.

In 1963, in a very unconventional move, Dr. Cornish swapped his Dunsmuir home for Bob and Ginny Von Hein’s Redwood City suburban home. Bob and Ginny moved to the Dunsmuir land in 1963 with their two youngest daughters and began to sculpt a lifestyle similar to that of Scott and Helen Nearing, authors of The Good Life, (published in the 50’s); they grew most of their own food and made do with what was already on the land – an 80-tree apple orchard consisting of 28 different varieties, along with chestnuts, figs, persimmons, plums and prunes, cherries and grapes. The land is on a west-southwest facing hillside with an approximate 6% slope, a year-round spring, 3000-gallon holding tank and piping that delivers, to this day, irrigation water to the lower five acres where most of the veggies have been grown over the years.

When Michael and I bought our place, Bob and Ginny were in their late 70’s and beginning to fall behind in upkeep of the land. A large terraced field, on their property, just adjacent to our house, beckoned me from day one. It had been overgrown with wild sweet peas, blackberries and grasses for decades, but all I could see through dreamy eyes was the possibility of a burgeoning veggie farm. After getting Bob’s permission to use the land, I spent the next several years trying to think of a way to convert the field into arable cropland without breaking my back. When I read about the “killing mulch” the solution was presented like a gift from on High. It wasn’t until I shared this with my friend Beki Filipello, better versed in Permaculture, that the panorama opened before me. Beki and I went to Permaculture camp at Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC) later that year to get our Permaculture Design Certificates, a life altering experience for me!
Why Permaculture?
For me the systemic problems of persistent pollution (air, water and soil), climate change, insupportable infrastructure (political and economic), the failure of agribusiness in particular and the corporate world in general, along with our eroding culture were weighty and overwhelming. At OAEC I encountered folks who were not only aware of and talking about these issues, but also working for real change. They had built an intentional community centered around living sustainably on the land and they were involved in changing policy at the state and national levels on such issues as GMO’s (genetically modified organisms), water conservation, democracy, etc. WOW! Permaculture is one voice amongst a growing multitude of voices making up what is fast becoming an ever-expanding groundswell of changing consciousness. This movement is organic in its very essence, springing from a growing desire to act on the longings of our hearts to find balance, harmony and wholeness. It’s been called ‘an ethical design system for ecological living; a global grass-roots movement to build a sustainable world culture; an ecological science: the study of Nature and natural systems; a lifestyle integrating ecologically sustainable qualities into our lives and communities; and a solution-oriented environmental movement.’

The three main ethics of Permaculture (PC) are Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. I would add to these, respecting the intrinsic value of all living Beings.

Care of the Earth and care of humans are pretty clear. Fair Share speaks to returning or giving away surplus energy: food, fuel, fiber, fodder, fellowship, information and fun. Within these ethics, some of the specific aims of Permaculture practitioner’s are to reforest the earth, conserve fresh water/ restore groundwater, reclaim soil, grow food where the people are, create regenerative culture: healing, justice and education for self-reliance and create long-term sustainability.

From the perspective of a small market farmer, I feel Permaculture’s aim is to give the designer tools for orchestrating all the parts (elements) of the land into a mutually supportive, energy efficient, resource regenerative, and labor saving symphony in which, over time, “the designer [can] become(s) the recliner” more of the time. This principle, “the designer becomes the recliner”, is one coined by my teacher, Brock Dolman. This is the essence of what PC offered that was so appealing to me; I just didn’t believe it all had to be such hard work.

Where Do We Start?
This brings us to a discussion of the strands of the web or, in Permaculture jargon, the elements (players and parts) within the web, and the interrelated and mutually supportive functions (actions) of these elements.

There are some 26 PC principles that have been put forward by a multitude of PC pundits. Being a gardener and farmer I resonate with a few core principles finding many of the others redundant or too cerebral. The principles that resonate with me are the ones that speak to the [orchestration of the parts into a mutually supportive, energy-efficient, resource-regenerative and labor saving symphony]: Observation and Mimicking of Natural Patterns; Using Onsite Resources; The Thoughtful, Economic and Conservative Use of Energy; Every Element Supports Many Functions/Every Function is Supported by Many Elements; Start Small; Celebrate and Encourage Diversity; Local Focus; and Relinquishing Power.

First and foremost is the principle of OBSERVATION. By using all of our senses, feelings and intuition we open ourselves to what is in front of us, ordering the process of choosing a site for our homestead or farm and then learning to work with what is at hand. In PC the focus is: protracted and thoughtful observation (PATO) rather than protracted and thoughtless labor.

When Michael, my husband, and I first looked at the land we now call home, I was using this principle without even knowing it. I could hear water as we walked up the drive and on asking where the water came from, first learned of the spring, storage tank and gravity-feed irrigation. I noticed the land was sloped and faced west-southwest, a wonderful solar aspect for growing. I saw stone walls delineating terraces; stairways linking areas and felt this land had been thoughtfully developed for easy access to all the elements of a farm. I noticed there was a wonderful view of the town and Castle Crags. I saw animal trails and heard birdsong. There were many fruit trees and old ornamental specimen trees and shrubs. Being a gardener and looking with growing in mind, I intuited the soil was prime and had been cared for but the spring water was the dealmaker– a priceless resource in my mind; I was sold.

Using Onsite Resources is a principle that follows observation quite naturally. In our case onsite resources would include the spring, storage tank, plumbed water lines, rock terraces, stairways, trees, etc. We found there were other onsite resources like old pipes, fence wire, tree stakes and other items that might be called garbage but have come in handy for building trellises, fences and vineyards. They have saved us money while adding nothing to the landfill. Biological resources should be considered here as well. It’s important to preserve biological intelligence, for example, Integrated Pest Management (IPM); by encouraging wildlife, bees, birds, worms, bacteria ducks, chickens, pigs, cows, spiders, frogs …we support a system that allows each component to do what it does naturally, aiding in the fertility and maintenance of plants and soil while decreasing the human and technological workload. The final onsite resource was Bob and Ginny. Old timers with lots of experience are an invaluable resource.

Energy Recycling, One Calorie In/One Calorie Out and the Law of Return are three rather redundant principles that speak to the same ethic; the thoughtful use of energy in all its forms. For example: biomass: leaves, grass clippings, prunings, weeds and animal waste, are returned to the system – recycled. Conversely, exporting these items – taking them to the dump – we are essentially mining the soil of nutrients over time. Along these same lines, by providing for adequate biomass in our garden plans we will eventually do away with the need to import nutrients: mulch, manure and other fertilizers.

In the discussion of elements and their functions, many of the principles overlap. They talk about ordering the placement and relationships of elements and functions in such a way as to conserve energy and resources. One very simple example of this is zoning or the placement of elements according to frequency of use, for example: the herb garden (zone 1) can be placed closer to the house (zone 0) for easy access while cooking; the apple orchard (zone 4 or 5) can be placed farther away as it needs input and attention less frequently.

One of my favorite principles is “Every Element Supports Many Functions.” I inadvertently experienced this principle in action this spring. In February I planted eight pounds of field peas in one of my sheet mulched beds as a green manure. I wanted to introduce more nitrogen into this bed to mitigate an excess of carbon (woodchips) I inoculated the seed to encourage the formation of nitrogen nodules on the pea roots (legumes are nitrogen fixing, converting atmospheric nitrogen into a soil nutrient). As the peas came up I suddenly realized they could serve a secondary function by providing a marketable crop of pea shoots. As the vines came into flower and peas began to form a tertiary function came to mind, when I found the peas to be sweet and delicious. I now have two quarts of shelled peas in the freezer, as well as having sold several pounds of peas. I will have a few pounds of dry peas to put away for soups this winter. The fifth function will be the provision of seed for another crop next year and the final function will be biomass for composting. The initial green manure function will continue as nitrogen is released from the root nodules into the soil after the vines are cut. I didn’t plan this “stacking of functions,” (another principle) but by staying open to observing what was going on around me, was enlightened by the natural process.

Another wonderful example of the stacking of functions comes in the consideration of a pond as an element. The pond provides cooling, in the summer as well as reflected light and some frost protection in the winter. It supports ducks, fish and aquatic plants, thus creating a richer habitat. It also catches rainwater, which can be used for irrigation, fire control, household water and recreation. The clay dug from the pond can be used for building cob structures such as buildings, walls, benches, ovens; it can be used in wattle and daub construction (another building technique) and plaster finishes. So, perhaps you’re beginning to see that designing for mutually beneficial relationships leads to “cooperative symbiosis,” with Nature as the ultimate mentor.
The remaining principles of Diversity, Local Focus and Start Small speak to the natural transition from the unsustainable centralized model of the present system to the Village model. Even though the mainstream culture seems to dictate homogenous yet competitive ‘first-world’ style, folks who are well versed in the workings of natural systems know that diversity of beings and their expressions is necessary for a healthy living system. Monocultures, as we’ve seen in agribusiness, require massive imports of chemical fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides to arrive at a harvestable crop, which then has to be transported over large distances thus requiring more petrochemical input as well as its fallout. Small, diverse and organic fields become self-sustaining over time. It seems the more diverse a garden is with plants, bugs, birds, reptiles, microorganisms, fungi, etc.; the fewer imbalances: infertility, disease and infestations. The current centralized mess we Americans find ourselves in is, in my opinion, necessarily leading us toward downsizing on many levels. Over time I think we will find that small, localized producers of goods and providers of services, including governments and economies, can demonstrate they are more effective and less costly to the communities they serve and by starting small, mistakes can remain instructive rather than catastrophic.

I believe we are well on our way to this new paradigm; the chaotic unraveling of the status quo is a sure sign of change a coming! As I posited earlier, our collective longing from deep within, is in line with and, I feel, sourced by the very Web of Life; the intelligent field in which we live and have our being and out of which all life expresses! Relinquishing Power is a crucial component for change. Again, we are only strands in The Web.

The changes that seem to be here and growing stronger every day feel like a wave we’re all riding. Some of us are fighting against the tide, but many of us are ready for the sublime tumult of this amazing transition. We can return to The Garden of Earthly Delights, where every household, business and civic leader is motivated by their hearts desire and geared toward what their part will be in the community symphony: farmer, seamstress, carpenter, leader, teacher, artist, caregiver, cook, butcher, baker or candlestick maker. The “Web” can become the bejeweled Net of Indra where every part glistens and is reflected in the shine of its neighbor.

Resources: Gaia’s Garden, Toby Hemenway; Youtube, search “Permaculture” or click on:

Wendy Crist is a Permaculture Designer, gardener of 40 years and in her second year developing a market garden and learning center in Dunsmuir. Contact her at

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