permaculture ramblings

When I was introduced to permaculture,  it was like meeting a soul mate.

Permaculture- After years of foraging and dabbling in primitive living skills, I tangled with finding their relevance. These things filled me up, but could I call them viable lifeways, at least in this stage of history? I sensed there must be some way for human beings to provide for ourselves on earth without destroying it. Could we rethink civilization and come closer to harmonizing with ecosystems? I sensed there could be common ground between the light footprint of foraging and the heavier hand of cultivation. Permaculture filled that hungry gap. I wrote the following a couple years ago in a forum among scientists about whether permaculture was pseudoscience and ecologically unsound. I agree with some of what the critics were saying, that permaculture  has resisted institutional organization and so has been vulnerable to dilution and reinterpretation. Some crowds have merged it with earth spirituality and away from science as it’s normally understood, for example. But the permaculture concept has so much integrity that I couldn’t help coming to it’s defense. I realized that I spilled my heart out about something this dear to me, but effectively wrote it on the back wall of a cave in terms of whether anyone would ever read it. So here it is, at least on the back wall of my own cave:

permaculture in south carolinaAfter reading through the astute criticisms above, I wander into my urban garden. Pulling some precocious elderberry aside, I walk down a disappearing path, startling butterflies on sweet goldenrod (for tea), releasing aromas from basil, mints and other herbs as I brush by, causing a huge spider to retreat to the edge of its masterpiece strung in a patch of perennial arugula and volunteer lamb’s quarters. Passion fruits from a vine that decided to scale our plum tree bob on my head as I tread past seminole pumpkins with improbably cable-thick stalks, sprawling among sugar cane, chinquapin, apple, loquat, fig, mulberry, satsuma. Pecans hover above and behind these. Amid carpets of sweet potato, field peas, and sprawling squash pierced by asparagus, our outdoor dining room/cylindrical trellis is swallowed by louffah, kiwi, and perennial lablab and lima beans. Ducks and chickens forage freely for bugs and worms in the layers of leaves and woodchips rotting below. A raptor appears overhead and the birds vanish for safety among edible canna, bush cherries, and blackberries. Dusk brings choruses of amphibians who hide in edible taro and cucumbers at our small pond’s edge. I pick a cluster of grapes off the side of my house and in amazement think, “Science or pseudoscience, this is working!” I didn’t describe this to flatter myself as a gardener. I’ve only been doing this for 8 years and make tons of mistakes. Much of it developed beyond my design or management. “If you build it they will come.” Perennials, native and exotic, and annuals mostly reseeding themselves now have found almost an equilibrium as a recombinant localized ecosystem. Associated creatures find their niches as mobile members of the community. Is it low maintenance? Yes, compared to annually turning over the soil then irrigating and fertilizing to replace nutrients and water-storing soil structure you’ve caused to erode. There’s some weeding, like slashing down locust saplings who are preparing the land for its destiny as an eastern deciduous forest. A little watering from the rain tank, some fruit moths on the peaches to contend with. Is it “highly productive?” Depends on what you’re trying to produce.I don’t have crates of identical tomatoes to sell at market, though I have lots of this and that to trade with neighbors. We can’t

kkkremotely produce all our food from our tenth acre, but often much of the food on our plates came from just outside the door. It’s very productive in terms of biomass. “Productive” American subsidized mega farms of corn lose 3-5 bushels of topsoil for every bushel of corn produced. Tree-based perennial systems store energy as wood, plant stalks, and layers of leaves that become humus. This hosts billions of decomposers, charges springs with stored rainfall, and kickstarts foodwebs. If, like Wendell Berry, we “call that profit”, permaculture’s potential for this kind of profitability and productivity may be trumped only by wild nature. Is it financially profitable? No, it’s money-saving, and that’s the point for many of us. In our society freedom is only possible for those with enough money to do whatever they want and for those who need little money. Everyone else is more or less in a snare. In my factory worker days I would have called it a noose. Our economic system runs on perceived scarcity and competition. Permaculture explores what happens if we embrace abundance and cooperation instead. I’m working to need less money all the time. It’s allowed me to be present for my kids’ childhoods. Permaculture often attracts people with little horticultural know-how but who get it about the ripples created by taking more responsibility for the streams of food, energy and waste a household consumes and produces. Localized resilience, communities of many households growing food, catching rainwater, generating electricity, biking to work, etc, begins to transform global dynamics. All wars at their core are resource wars. They defend elite investments and protect access to raw materials so that goods can be sold cheaply to helpless consumers. Our economic system mandates that people be severed from the means of providing entirely for themselves, and world history abounds with examples. Permaculture is a revolution that starts in your backyard but has global dimensions of social and environmental justice. It doesn’t have all the answers, and yes, it needs rigorous scientific scrutiny. Welcome scientists! We need your help in the most important work of the 21st century- redesigning human existence on Earth so that there will be a future worth living in. 40 million acres of America are growing lawns no one can eat. We’ve got a lot of work to do- join us!

-Matt

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