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Food's critical path: review of "A Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country" by Peter Bane


" Peter Bane’s big idea here is not entirely original — Toby Hemenway, David Holmgren, and even the UN Rappoteur on Human Rights have written about it — but it is timely and Bane describes it with greater depth and practical guidance. The big idea is that creation of 21st century garden farms at all scales and in all locations — horticulture not agriculture — provides a serious, necessary challenge to 20th century factory farms."

A Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country
by Peter Bane
New Society Publishers, 2012

When NASA was getting ready to put men on the moon, they developed a complicated mission plan, at the core of which was a critical path. These were the steps that had to be accomplished in order for the mission to succeed. They were non-negotiable.

Ever since the Manhattan Project in 1940-1943, critical paths have been used in engineering, and are now common in software development, skyscraper construction, aerospace and other large projects. When Apollo 13 found itself hurtling through space on the way to far side of the moon with a huge oxygen leak, a critical path was assembled that returned all souls safely back to Earth.

In his Permaculture Handbook, Peter Bane has mapped the critical path to a safe landing for civilization in the 21st century. That path runs through the back yards of suburbia and across the rooftops and balconies of urban apartment houses. As he precisely puts it:

“There can be little doubt that paving over much of the nation’s best agricultural land and cutting old growth forests to frame shoddily-built McMansions was a tragedy of epic proportions, but the question is not whom to hang but what can be done with it now?

His prescription is garden farming, a step at a time, gradually expanding to tree crops and animal husbandry at the margins of cities and within cities themselves.

Peter Bane’s own accomplishments best fit his description of organic gardening: “as an heroic and undersung achievement in the face of overwhelming institutional neglect, cultural dissipation, economic monopolies and dire ecological challenges from … society.” He has labored long to produce a cohesive understanding of permaculture, at times being treated with less respect than he deserved. This book is his sweet revenge.

For decades he has been reading manuscripts submitted to the Activist, accepting some with edits, rejecting many, and sending more back for do-over. He has been the Activist’s principal book reviewer, and in that position has probably read far more new titles than he got around to writing reviews of. This effort, year in, year out, gave him a breadth and depth of knowledge that confers authority. To be as cynical and pithy as Bane can occasionally be, you have to really know your subject. Without laying an extended logical foundation in the fashion of a John Michael Greer or Jeremy Rifkin, he can shock you, but you absolutely believe him.

As a writer using his best gifts to bedazzle, Bane is not one to be speed-read. Rather you savor the page, paragraph and line, putting the book down to exhale after reading one of his exceptional flourishes.

Here is Bane on suburban-angst:

During the 1950s this patchwork of farm fields, forest remnants and village-scale neighborhoods, peopled by the children and grandchildren of factory workers, immigrants, ex-farmers and other groups newly enriched by the war economy, became the dream landscape of the boomer generation, the largest in North American history. Small herds of children roamed this bucolic terrain, secure in the privilege their parents extracted as world conquerors until, of course, the next development took down a totemic patch of woods or replaced a mysterious meadow with a cul-de-sac of new houses. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that, as it reached adulthood, this age cohort sought meaning in nature amidst a world seemingly mad with the designs of human dominance, corporate conformity and mutually assured destruction from nuclear weapons.

As suburbs grew to become the dominant habitat, not just in the United States but in Latin America, Europe and Asia, the agrarian life receded farther and farther from view, leaving children to wonder where the food they see in stores comes from. For USAnians, the usual answer these days is China, same place their plastic, electric, planned-obsolescent stuff comes from. Amazingly, the same answer can now be provided to Mexican children, who used to eat corn and rice grown in Mexico. “Your country,” la abuela might say, “even exported to other countries,” like that one directly north.

Bane’s central point is that we can go back, but probably not to the status quo ante. The future of agriculture is small-holder horticulture, not export agribusiness. But, here, let him say it:

In a clumsy, expensive and still incomplete way, we have marked out a pattern for a democratic yeomanry. Many potential garden farms are located on some very fine former farmland: northern New Jersey, northern Illinois, the south end of San Francisco Bay and the Lake Ontario lowlands. And even where the soil was not originally well developed, the land is usually flat to rolling. These territories have been supplied with extensive road and water networks, and both labor and a rich array of resources, biological and industrial, lies all around. The largish houses, especially those built after 1980, may be poorly configured at present, but they could accommodate the extended families and larger households that will be needed to grow food and manage land with lower energy resources and technologies.

That passage also reveals one flaw in the book that may pass unnoticed in North America but will glare when it traverses either ocean. The Handbook is a 450-page encyclopedia that provides everything a starting practitioner, or an experienced activist, might want to improve their use of permaculture, but despite occasional stray references to other parts of the world, the book is decidedly North American. Perhaps, since the Permaculture Designers Manual leans more to the tropics, the Handbook is best seen as the later half of a two-volume set. Together they book-end a 30-year span, with the Manual extending decades back to unfold Mollison’s foundational research and the Handbook extending decades forward to tap Bane’s exceptional perspicacity.

Permaculture books, and there seem to be a flurry lately, seem to fall into a few distinct categories. There are those that are a data dump of teacher notes, and A Permaculture Handbook suffers from this. It would be hundreds of pages slimmer without that, but it might not be a handbook.

Then there are those that take off in a particular narrow direction, like Bioshelter Market Garden: A Permaculture Farm by Darrell Frey (New Society Publishers 2011); People & Permaculture Caring & Designing For Ourselves, Each Other & The Planet by Looby MacNamara (Permanent Publications 2012), or The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups by Starhawk (New Society Publishers 2011). A Permaculture Handbook fits into this category too, with its special focus on developing a pattern of permanence for urban and suburban properties.

A third category contains those books that make a new statement that is foundational. These special books address a problem that has not been well addressed in the past. They pose a solution that will likely be pivotal in the future; one that many of us will build upon. Peter Bane’s big idea here is not entirely original — Toby Hemenway, David Holmgren, and even the UN Rappoteur on Human Rights have written about it — but it is timely and Bane describes it with greater depth and practical guidance. The big idea is that creation of 21st century garden farms at all scales and in all locations — horticulture not agriculture — provides a serious, necessary challenge to 20th century factory farms and our widely accepted myths of how best to feed, shelter and clothe 8 to 10 billion people confronting emergy yield ratio decline and catastrophic climate change.

To Bane, if “the unhealthy industrial food system, which includes bought-and-sold politicians who dish out massive subsidies for a handful of commodity crops, giant mechanized farms and feedlots (complete with antibiotic-doped animals and antibiotic-resistant microbes), rail lines, barges, trucks and a few hundred airplanes, factories that butcher, extract, distill, emulsify, blend and preserve thousands of products from a tiny handful of basic crops, a vast amount of packaging and refrigeration and advertising agencies” is the solution, than what is the problem that it solves? Certainly not providing improved health, food security and longevity to the world population.

Bane’s Chapter 6, which could rightfully be a book of its own, lays out Bane’s vision of the alternative solution — garden farming. This is the author’s fusion of all those decades spent pouring over manuscripts, books and publications in the field. It is clear Bane has had the kind of “Ah Hah!” moment that Wallace had when he realized he’d unlocked the puzzle Darwin had foundered on, that extinctions were the key to evolution. While more modestly framed, Bane’s revelation is equally world changing.

Adopting the language of Christopher Alexander and his Berkeley team, Bane lays out 68 patterns in 38 pages. These are the DNA of sustainable re-development of the built environment and they bolster all three legs of the sustainability stool — ecological, social and economic. Here, for instance, is the harmony-auguring element of “Communal Bathing” (pattern 68):

The sauna room, like the back-deck hot tub, is very often detached from the house and invites bathers to be reborn into the open air. For a household that works together, communal bathing affirms that relaxation and renewal are not solely a private affair, and that the cycle of group life can regularly return to its root. Care for the body makes the boundary around Family Table (17) appropriately porous.

Place the communal bath in a well-protected location toward the private end of the household gradient. Combine its heat functions with food drying, a Greenhouse (38) or a utility space such as a Workshop (23). Let it be out-of-doors, directly opening to the outside of a building and near a pond for dipping if possible (33—Ponds and dams). Provide a roofed area for clothing to hang and benches for changing. Surround the bath with clean decking or pavement that can be swept and is free of hazards to the feet. Design the stove or water heater to run on wood fuel, so that this most primal of survival functions can be met from raw elements of the world at hand.

Equally delicious are Bane’s forays into his personal experiences as a lone hill-country farmer, then ecovillage pioneer and (currently) suburban remodeler. Here he talks about eating with the seasons:

If you have a poultry flock you may already know that egg laying surges in spring. What might have been three or four eggs a day out of a dozen birds in the winter becomes 6, 8, 10 and 12 by late March. Suddenly, omelets are on the menu: asparagus and morels, spinach/cilantro or kale and shiitakes. Scallions are abundant in spring and grace every dish. Each day’s salad is a little different with lettuce, endive, beet greens, mizuna, arugula and early radishes mixing it up. Cut the bitterness with sweet berry jam and rich oils in the dressing. Later in the season, lambs quarters with their brilliant magenta tops enliven the bowl, and along the way redbud flowers, violets and pansies adorn the greens.

The crops of spring are meant to awaken us from the lethargy and depression of winter. They don’t fully relieve hunger, but begin to replace minerals lost during the months of eating stored food and battling cold. Bitter greens are tonic: the endives and first dandelions bring a powerful infusion of mineral nutrients to clean the blood and stimulate the liver. As dairy animals get onto green pasture, their milk fattens up and gains large amounts of Vitamin A, and this, plus the extra eggs from hens, make up some of the caloric deficit from cold spring days and extra work. Steam a pot of buckwheat and open a jar of applesauce to bulk up the menu.

Soon enough, the heat of May (or June if you are farther north) brings fruit and then new potatoes, peas and more carbohydrates, which need the extra light and heat to ripen sugar and starch. There may be some early beets, but the main excitement comes from the burgeoning berry crop. I love the seemingly endless fruits of this season but care less for the steamy days that sometimes accompany them, so I get up early and spend an hour picking while morning shadows still stretch over the bushes.

In North America, more people are now choosing to start farming than at any time since World War II. It is difficult to imagine any of these new farms being without this book. It is a handbook for every season, and for every resource a farm can produce. It contains tips I have never seen anywhere else, reams of them, and they are collected and cataloged here in a way no piles of back issues of Permaculture Activist, Mother Earth News or Back Home would.

A man named Max posted to Club Orlov (Dmitry Orlov’s humorous blog) recently that he had purchased 160 acres in Southeast Kansas and tried to become a modern farmer. Southeast Kansas in the early 21st century is not like the Kansas described in S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon — a near desert suitable only for buffalo and rugged Comanche horsemen — but stripped of modern HVAC systems it can yet turn cruel and deadly when the dirt blows in August and the blizzards in February.

“You realize after a while it is mostly hard, dirty, repetitive and boring,” Max relates, “ Mud, blood, shit, sweat, discomfort, disappointment, death.… To peer into the future and see nothing beyond an endless re-run of this hard living is enough to put fear and dread in most hearts. I find it increasingly difficult to believe that dispossessed cubicle dwellers will be able to adapt physically or mentally.”

Enter the hype about permaculture, wherein “the designer becomes the recliner,” “observation not perspiration,” “aikido not karate.” Has anyone actually succeeded with this?

Peter Bane is an archetypical egghead, a computer nerd, not someone you could imagine out in the mud and blood of the pig wallow behind the barn in Kansas. Given a working farm, he outfitted it with rainwater harvest systems, intensively mulched gardens and handmade building retrofits, but then settled back into reading and editing — the life of the mind — where he was much more at home.

Then, joining with friends to purchase a large tract of land and found the Earthaven ecovillage in North Carolina, the same pattern re-asserted itself. His intrinsic nature overwhelmed any idealistic intentions to spend his days milking cows and chopping firewood (although he did). If you were to assemble all the book reviews and research pieces he wrote during that 20-year period, it could easily fill a large number of books. So how can someone like that rescue collapseniks from hard, dirty, repetitive and boring farming?

Answer: with elegance and grace. This is the real science of permaculture, warts and all, and the real discoveries that have flowed from a life of small experiments and probing observation. Bane intersperses stories and studies: of Jerome Osentowski, growing hothouse salad greens at 7200 feet in Colorado; of Bob and Betty Gregson, CSA pioneers who made a comfortable living on less than an acre of vegetable and egg production; of Radical Roots Farm in Virginia, a 5-acre family homestead that is walking the narrow line between market gardening and investing in ecosystems; and of Gene Logsdon, whose small-scale rotational grazing farm in Ohio gave him the leisure time to write 23 books of non-fiction and 4 novels.

Bane’s best advice is to never to think you can go it alone.

Through the exchange of labor that it will elicit, garden farming offers the promise of helping to heal our broken communities, even as it helps us to cope with the predicament of an energy-constrained future. Contrary to conventional economic thinking and many modern attitudes, people as workers and people as eaters are not the problem. They’re part of the solution. Creating a new way of life, or resurrecting the best parts of an older culture and offering to share that treasure with others — your family, your neighbors, young people in your community — could just be the adventure you’ve been looking for. If you set out on that yellow brick road though, be sure to pick up some allies along the way — you’ll need them, and they’ll need you.

And pick up a copy of the Permaculture Handbook, too. You’ll need it, and find yourself going back to it, again and again. Like the Apollo mission, Bane has jury-rigged our carbon dioxide removal system by re-tasking other components — small scale horticulture, aquatic plants and foraged trash, for instance — to buy us breathing room. This is a must read. I am buying copies as presents for my children and grandchildren.

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A shorter version of this review of Peter Bane’s A Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country appears in the current issue of The Permaculture Activist, now on newsstands.

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