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forest garden

image from the book Creating a Forest Garden by Martin Crawford

I was recently invited to an Open Space event hosted by the Bowen (Island) Agricultural Alliance (BAA!) and facilitated by my friend Chris Corrigan. It was a small group — about two dozen — but most of the people there were farmers. With my Transition-based knowledge of permaculture and food security, it was a humbling and eye-opening experience. This is what I learned:

  1. The Possibility of Local Food Security: I’ve been told that, since we live on a volcanic island, the soils here are pretty poor, except in the valleys, which are, paradoxically, mostly shady because of the shadow of our three dominant mountains (and hence get little sun). I’d also heard numbers thrown around (most recently 15-20%) about the amount of our daily caloric input that we could maximally get from growing our own foods, and how much land (numbers varying from 1 acre — 4000 m2 — per 2.5 person household to 1 hectare — 10000 m2 — per person) is needed to meet 100% of caloric needs sustainably. Bowen has about 5 million m2 of potentially arable area (about 10% of our total land area), so by that measure we would be able to feed between 500 and 3000 people (current population: 3800) self-sufficiently, even if we could in fact grow what we need all year round. No wonder, then, that First Nations peoples who lived in the area for millennia had no permanent settlement on Bowen — the island was a fishing and hunting ground only.

    What the local farmers told me, however, is that some Bowen Islanders are already living more-or-less entirely on what they grow and raise themselves (they do buy things from off-island, but that’s a matter of variety and taste preference rather than necessity). They also told me that with appropriate rotation and interplanting, it’s possible to fully feed 200 people with a single acre of well-nourished land. By that measure Bowen’s 1250 acres of potentially arable land could theoretically feed up to 1/4 million people! While that’s probably an ideal exaggeration, they persuaded me that Bowen’s 3800 people, and perhaps several times more, could comfortably grow and raise everything we need to provide a nutritious and comfortable diet year-round — even off-grid without artificial fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and other technologies. That includes organic meats from humanely-raised, grass-fed cows, sheep, and goats, as well as llamas, chickens and ducks (for the non-vegans, of course). It also includes an amazing variety of herbs and other nutrients.

  2. But We’d Have to Farm and Eat Very Differently: There is of course a “but” to the above statement, and it is this: Sustainable food security would and will require us to grow and raise different foods than what we do now, and to eat different foods and prepare them differently from what we do now. We’d have to forego the exotic favourites, the out-of-season produce, and the packaged and processed foods that now dominate our diets, and get used to shifting our diets with the seasons and learning to like (and prepare in more varied ways) foods that grow here naturally (you, know “Give me spots on apples, but leave me the birds and the bees, please”). For a bread-loving vegan like me, that would be a challenge (though, I was told, a local vegan diet would be possible).

    We’ll have to re-master the art of preserving (canning, cold cellars etc.) as well.This also doesn’t mean everyone grows everything they need on their own acreage. To get requisite variety in our diets, we’ll have to network with other growers, form producer/worker/customer co-ops, focus on growing a few things well and abundantly, and trade with others in a 100km radius (or whatever energy collapse defines as a reasonable trading area) from where we live.

    The key, I was told, was a lesson learned during the Great Depression: Today our food choices are driven by our wants, not our (bodies’ real) needs, and to make this transition, we’ll all have to become more aware of the latter, and change that behaviour. We will only do that, on any scale, when we have no other choice. But it’s never too early to start thinking, planning, and shifting.I’ve pledged to learn about exactly what can be grown locally, in each season, here, and to start shifting my diet towards such foods, and away from foods that, once the Western US drought becomes permanent and California can’t even meet its own food needs, we will have to do without.

  3. There Are Two Competing Models of Permaculture: As an idealist, I love reading about “edible food forests” and places where, with a few decades of careful intervention and “aided succession”, a forest garden now provides locals with everything they need to eat with no further intervention (no fertilizers, pesticides, watering or even weeding) — even in areas that are now deserts. But, I was told, such places require a huge investment in time, energy, and patience, without being prematurely harvested, and even then can, depending on location, only support a relatively small number of people without becoming depleted.

    The more practical model of permaculture will require more, not less, work than current gardening, and just as much skill and knowledge. But it will allow a larger number of people to be supported per acre, and will allow its tenders to be better able to adapt what’s grown in each area to a rapidly-changing climate. And, eventually, it can be fully sustainable without the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Sounds like a lot of work. But I appreciate some people love doing this, so I will have to make sure that I have locally useful (non-permaculture) skills and knowledge I can trade for the fruits of (mostly) their labour.

  4. The Importance of Demonstration: Show, don’t tell. That’s been good teaching, persuading and learning advice for everything I’ve studied, and it’s especially true for food security. A local family that lives in a food- and energy-self-sufficient way, comfortably (if not by any means effortlessly), is more useful to shift people’s thinking about what is needed and what is possible, than a thousand books on permaculture and a thousand exhortations on the need for transition. We need to find the local models and reward them for opening their homes and farms for others to visit. They, not the politicians or lawyers or consultants, are tomorrow’s leaders.
  5. From Water Scarcity to Water Storage: Bowen Island is temperate rainforest. We get a lot of rain and have a lot of groundwater. But the groundwater can only go so far, and the summers here are dry, with high forest fire dangers. The problem is we take our water for granted, while letting most of it run down our lovely mountains into the sea. Nothing, not even solar power, could be more beneficial to local self-sufficiency and resilience than to have every Bowen home capturing and storing rainwater. Ask the Australians — they know.
  6. The Role of Community Gardens: Most Western communities, like ours, are obsessed with private property and ownership and suffer from the Tragedy of the Commons. Yet we’ve shown, with many of our local resources (like our library) and co-ops (like our Gallery) that vibrant, visible, community-owned resources in which people take pride, can not only provide goods and services much more effectively than for-profit enterprises, they can provide the essential meeting-places at which real community-building takes place. We need model community gardens, visible to everyone in the community (in our case, down by the ferry terminal), where people can go to see what’s possible, to learn, and to co-create community in our collective interest. Even though some people think gardens are ugly. That may mean we have to volunteer to do more than our share for a while, and to clean up the well-meaning but negligent messes of some community members until we reach a critical mass of collaboration so the garden looks well-kept and productive (if not beautiful). Until people point it out with pride to our visitors and say: “Look, we did that!”
  7. Start With the Women and Children: The kinds of changes that are needed to transition us to food security, I was told, can probably only happen if we start by enabling the women in the community (who generally are more grounded, more practical, and more knowledgeable and appreciative of working in the soil) to show the way. And by encouraging young people (our local school has a community garden, run by the students, who even offer seeds at our annual seed-swap) to show us they care, and they’re up for it.
  8. Spreading the Knowledge: A lot of people, I was told, even lifelong Bowen Islanders, are simply not aware of the local food choices available right here. We (Bowen in Transition) are working on a Green Guide that will not only list sustainable goods and services, but also contain forums and libraries of knowledge on sustainable living where people can learn about food security and how to address it locally, practically, and even joyfully. At least one local restaurant offers “evening tables” regularly — buffets featuring all-local foods and information on them. Our local newspaper is considering running a regular column on sustainable living. And local permaculture experts and ecologists are offering courses, walks and tours where we can learn about local geology, flora and fauna, edible mushrooms, and wildcrafting.
  9. Trees as Renewable Resources: “Did you know”, I was told, “that at the turn of the 20th century, as a result of massive logging for fuel, timber, paper and fuel, Bowen Island was almost treeless?” I was speechless. Although I know there are only a handful of true “old growth” trees on the island, I live beside a large area of Crown forest that looks as wild as anything I’ve ever seen. This is because, I learned, these “second growth” areas were “next up” to be logged when a collapsing economy and the replacement of wood by oil as the essential energy resource of North America spared them.

    This area of seeming wilderness is all the result of just over a century’s respite from the axes and saws that denuded my lovely island. The lesson? “Don’t fret about the need to cut some trees for food security and wind energy projects. They’ll grow back just fine.”

    I guess. Learning of how the oceans and streams teemed with an abundance of fish in the eons before human settlement, and noticing how few birds I see in the lush forests beside my house that I now see with different eyes, I wonder about what we’ve lost, and its cost. But this was a day for learning, for setting aside my ideals and dreams of a world long before or long after our species’ dreadful reign, a world without the terrible knowledge of humans, and thinking about what is possible now. I thank Bowen’s farmers and permaculturalists, people (mostly women now) who know what they’re talking about when it comes to food security, for setting me straight.

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