I must find a man who still loves the soil
Walk by his side unseen, pour in his mind
What I loved when I lived until he builds
Sows, reaps, and covers these hill pastures here
With sheep and cattle, mows the meadowland
Grafts the old orchard again, makes it bear again
Knowing that we are lost if the land does not yield.
-Jeanne Robert Foster
Yesterday, as part of a national effort by the Occupy movement to occupy our food system, a group of farmers and urban gardeners gathered in various locations throughout Traverse City to discuss the future of food and the growing need for public garden spaces.
Some of the ideas that came out of the meeting included:
- Mapping individual neighborhoods
- Identifying leadership within those communities
- Surveying communities about their needs/wants for a community garden space
- Locating private and public lands available to urban farmers
- Forming an urban farming curriculum
Ideas and volunteers are welcome. Please share here or contact Little Artshram and the Urban Farm Collective.
The above quote by playwright Robertson Davies, is one example of good observation. As a student of, and in teaching permaculture, I’ve discovered the flaw of memory. During workshops, after students have been asked to draw a map of their property, including their dwelling, any outbuildings, existing pathways, large trees or shrubs, location of the well, septic, etc., inevitably, no matter how certain they are of the accuracy of the depiction, something gets left out. Often those things left out are the most obvious – the mind skips it entirely.
Does this mean we are forgetful creatures? Or does it show how quickly we make determinations about any one thing. For instance, if we know the garage is next to the house, or the shed is at the corner of the property, is it possible our brain just takes note and skips to the next less obvious aspect for the sake of the rendering? So often students would say, “I can’t believe I left that out – it’s so obvious.”
In learning to observe, we must be conscious of our brain’s brilliant ability to sort and make determinations. If observing a forest “infested” with tent caterpillars, it is natural we will fall upon that concept of infestation and quickly determine the cankerworms have to go, but in doing so, completely ignore what we might have observed happening in the lower stories of the canopy. In other words, when observing, do not judge, simply take note. In this example, we do not observe an infestation; we might observe instead:
- tent caterpillars in the upper canopy
- sunlight streaming through canopy
- green herbaceous layer forming below
Freeing yourself from quick dissemination, allows you the freedom to truly observe the full breadth of what is transpiring in any one place. And in learning to do so, allows you the freedom to create outside the proverbial box.
Observation also takes time. You can observe one thing at any snippet in time and make sweeping assumptions about it, but observation is a process, not a snapshot. We must observe something or a place over time to see what outside influences act upon it. This adds depth to our observation and allows us to later make determinations that are quite useful.
For example, in front of our house, there are two very sick trees and one that is thriving. Two of the trees were planted by a person who wanted a decorative planting in front of the house, but the third was likely planted in animal droppings. The front of our house is quite shaded, so I found it peculiar that the tree, a mulberry would do so well. In time, I began to notice that there was an narrow window during the day in which morning light spilled out between houses and fell directly on the ground where the mulberry now grew. The culmination of this and the afternoon sun it receives allows it do fair well in an otherwise less than ideal location.
This example is a kind of reverse engineering of observation, but illustrates how useful the element of time can be in observing. This is the first, and arguably one of the most important, steps in designing your forest garden. This week, we’ll be examining the first principle of permaculture, the process of observation.
The twelve basic principles of permaculture listed below represent 12 models of thought, each overlapping slightly with another. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be examining each, discussing and considering how we might apply these principles to our garden spaces:
1) Observe and Interact
2) Catch and Store Energy
3) Obtain a Yield
4) Apply Self-regulation and Accept Feedback
5) Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
6) Produce No Waste
7) Design from Patterns to Details
8) Integrate Rather than Segretate
9) Use Small and Slow Solutions
10) Use and Value Diversity
11) Use Edges and Value the Marginal
12) Creatively Use and Respond to Change
The principles listed above follow David Holmgren’s 12 principles.
The establishment of Healing Tree in 2007 resulted from the necessity to share permaculture with anyone interested in learning. Following a year battling an ag-related cancer, I wanted to show the world a better practice, a “do no harm” approach to farming that benefited, rather than destroyed native ecosystems. Naturally, I found myself at odds with, and at times feeling resentful of, conventional methods that included the use of biocides. When I talked with people about the use of these chemicals, they responded, “The farmers have to make a living.”
All I wanted, was to live.
And yet, I knew these farmers weren’t the enemy. They were friends; people I had known all my life. We shared a similar passion in life, similar paths. It was, after-all, the clean lines of orchard that surrounded our little house where I grew up, that attracted me to farming in the first place. So, how could I make an impact with farmers without putting them at odds with my objective?
These farmers, whether spraying aphids or killing fungus, still had an enormous amount of wisdom to impart. I recognized at once it would be foolish of me to ignore the wisdom, for those parts of our practices that differed. Instead of attacking conventional farmers, I began asking them for advice on those aspects of orcharding that we could both apply. I asked them for two reasons. 1) I honestly had a whole heck of a lot to learn (still do!) and 2) it opened up the potential for an exchange of ideas that was natural, not coerced.
So began a new leg of my journey, in coming to forgive the conventional approach to growing, for the kindness and wisdom shared. It allowed me to move forward and though the changes are still small, growers are more and more looking to non-chemical approaches to healing their trees and amending their soil.
The greatest reward for me came on the day a good friend and fellow conventional orchardist wrapped his arm around me and called me a farmer. A friend captured the moment in a photograph I will always treasure. That moment wasn’t so much about me becoming a farmer, but on how that definition has grown inclusive of the practices of permaculture. And how it is possible to put differences aside for the common good.
Our politicians could learn a few things from us farmers.
A study was conducted to see how ecologists might limit nutrient loss following clear-cutting in rain-forests. In the study, an area was sectioned off and in one area, natural succession was allowed, in another section, scientists mimicked natural succession using plants not native to the immediate area, but matched the number of vines, trees, shrubs; in a third section a monoculture was planted, and in the last, nothing was allowed to grow (this was the control section).
The result, according to the text (pgs 143-144), showed “it is possible to achieve natural ecosystem function, in this case the fertility-maintaining characteristics of successional vegetation, by imitating the structure of that ecosystem with a mix of similar species. Thus, agroecosystems that incorporate such features of natural re-growth as extensive fine-root systems and perennial above-ground structure will reduce nutrient losses by storing large quantities of nutrients in biomass, by augmenting soil organic matter, and by protecting the soil from erosion.
Successful agroforestry systems in the tropics that involve mixed plantings of tree crops with herbaceous crop understories (for example, maize or cowpea) represent a more static, or less cyclical, equilibrium agriculture. Examples of this type of system are coffee and cacao plantations where shade trees are planted along with the crops. The leguminous trees are crucial to nutrient balances within the plantations. They can reduce nutrient leaching, fix nitrogen, and extract nutrients from deep soil.”
An example in Michigan agriculture: Plant mulberry trees, a nitrogen-fixing structure that help balance existing monocultures like cherry trees.