Sunday, September 09, 2007

Permaculture and life-changing epiphanies

I've just started myself on a self-directed course of study into sustainable agriculture. My interests in the subject go all the way back to the beginnings of college, where I participated in the (somewhat chaotically managed) Earlham Farm Program and lived on the associated 'Ag' Hall for a few semesters. During my senior year some friends and I formed a student-run seminar called (something like) 'Topics in Sustainable Agriculture' where we looked at the field from a number of different angles. Some of the things we encountered during this really exploded in my consciousness, particularly the astounding book by Wendell Berry The Unsettling of America.

Over the years, this topic always remained an interest for me, but as is my wont, I drifted into and through many other interests over the years. Over the last few years, however, it has come back to the forefront of my mind, spurred on by my always growing interest in cooking and good foods and various ever-present environmental concerns on the national and world stages, from global warming, 'peak oil' and agri-business consolidation to more prosaic things like soil erosion, pollution and loss of urban and rural biological diversity.

I feel like a few insights and encounters over the last couple years have combined with some lengthy, and not always pleasant, soul-searching to produce a very recent epiphany of sorts. This is that I can't really think of any other field, or subject, that has the potential to combine so many interests and concerns of mine into one field of study or effort. Especially for someone so scattered and easily bored as I am.

One of the deepest revelations came from an article on a bio-dynamic vineyard in France that I read in the New York Times a while ago. I remember being particularly struck where one of the winemakers contrasted their approach with more common forms of contemporary agriculture, even other 'organic' approaches, by revealing that (I'm paraphrasing here) 'if you have a problem with an insect infestation, instead of purchasing insect predators such as lady beetles to take care of it, create an environment where the beetles want to be there in the first place'.

This idea connects deeply with the basic principles of Permaculture and Ecological Design, which I've been reading about lately. I've seen many different definitions of permaculture, but if I was to do a concise summary of its philosophy and intent, I would say the following: Permaculture is the practical application of ecological knowledge to the creation of healthy, sustainable habitats and cultures.

When this crystallized in my head, it really lit a spark in the once-a-scientist-always-a-scientist part of me, that I've often missed over the years. But also the creative side of me. I'm not ready yet (and may never be ready) to say that I'm going to up and become a farmer, but I can't think of a more creatively and intellectually challenging project than to take a piece of land, of this earth, and try to study it and figure out what you can do with it, how you can make it a place that sustains you and others with its bounty while remaining a healthy part of the greater ecosystem, flush with natural diversity and wildlife, a place connected, a place for people yet tied to the greater wilds.

Some revelations come from more modest, unexpected sources. I recently read a book for middle-grade readers by Kate Thompson called The New Policeman which was a very enjoyable book, a quick read, that depicted an Irish family of musicians and cheesmakers (as well as a few gods, demons and fairies). There were a couple of scenes, throwaways really, where the mother would be discussing the upcoming ceili dance that they would be soon holding in their barn while packaging up a round of fresh cheeses made on their land. As I'm a musician myself (and currently somewhat infatuated with Irish fiddle music), these scenes really clicked with me. That somewhat utopian, romantic, yet reachable idea of integrating your life on many levels.

I feel like I'm beginning to drift off topic, maybe. The book I'm studying right now was originally recommended to me by my sister Franny. It's called Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-scale Permaculture. I haven't finished it yet, and maybe I'll write a more formal review of the book for this blog soon, but right now I'll just have to briefly recommend it whole-heartedly for anybody interested in these issues I've been discussing or even just anybody who likes to garden. I think the book is worth it just for its chapter on soil, really. Not textbook level, certainly, just one of the most lucid, concise explanations of what soil really is, how soil develops, different properties of soil, and of course how to develop good soil in your own yards and gardens. But the book has much more, and over and over eloquently and accurately bridges the gap between the study of natural ecosystems and how they apply to healthy gardens and landscapes. Certain things are stressed repeatedly, important principles of permaculture (and healthy ecosystems in general) such as encouraging over-all diversity, mixed-species cultures, complementary plantings, using micro-climates, using plants with multiple functions and uses, attracting wildlife (including rich populations of insects), healthy soil, using perennials when possible...

The picture I posted is an illustration from this book, looking at the layout of a small 1/4 acre homestead designed from an approach using ecological design and permaculture.

The next book I plan to study is another book from Chelsea Green Publishers entitled American Farmstead Cheese.

I really like cheese.

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