When Agriculture Stops Working: Ten Recommendations for Growing Food in the Anthropocene

March 13, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

This is the concluding part of a 2 Part essay. Read Part 1 here.

VI. Ten Recommendations for Growing Food in the Anthropocene

Now, despite my best efforts to look into the crystal ball here, I fully expect there will be a lot about the future of human food acquisition that will surprise me…and perhaps even in a good way!  But in light of all the known troubles bearing down on us, I think it’s just plain suicidal to muddle on as-per-usual and hope it’ll all be OK.    

…So we need to act.  …Now.  And I think there’s an awful lot we can do now – that we must do now – to give ourselves and the planet the best shot of coming out of this in one piece.  And I think that most of these things (aside from hastening the collapse of the industrial earth-destroying machine), involve the manner in which we get our food.    

And please don’t wait around for BigAg Inc. (and its subsidiary, the US government) to start doing anything useful.  Because they won’t.  They have very clearly cast their policy vote for the mass murder-suicide of the industrial model of agruculture.  It’s up to us – you and me.  We need to do this ourselves. 

…So towards the goal of fashioning a livable future in which we can enjoy both bodily and spiritual sustenance, here are my humble recommendations:    

1. Plant perennials!

Perennials have several key advantages over annuals in our climate-challenged, soil-depleted, fossil-fuel-deprived, socially-upheaved future.  Perennials have more robust structural integrity, improved soil-holding/building ability, superior nutrient and water gathering efficiency, decreased annual labor input requirements, more efficient gathering of sunlight, longer annual period of active photosynthesis, and less reliance on precise rainfall and temperature patterns. 

Image RemovedIt’s hard to say exactly what’s coming, but it’s not gonna be pretty — and I’m putting my money on perennials.   

And there is a large selection of perennial food-producing perennials to choose from in just about any region of the US.  In central NJ, I’ve planted a large-and-growing selection of (1) nuts (Chinese chestnut, hybrid hazelnut, black walnut, pecan, heartnut, butternut, Carpathian walnut, shagbark hickory), (2) fruits (pear, apple, peach, pie cherry, persimmon, plum, blueberry, pawpaw, fig, elderberry, raspberry, blackberry, gooseberry, kiwi, grape), (3) perennial vegetables (asparagus, sunchoke, rhubarb, scorzonera, Chinese yam, skirret, nettle, horseradish), and (4) grasses (sheep & cows) 

My first plantings are a good 13 years old at this point and I’m starting to have a feel for what works and what doesn’t in my soils and the current climate.  I don’t coddle them because I won’t be able to coddle them in the future.  I want to see what species/varieties can produce with minimal inputs in ‘tough times.’  For example I don’t spray, I add only compost amendments, and I do only minimal maintenance to ensure survival (plastic vole collars at base, deer-browse protection tubes when young).  I’ve found sweet cherries don’t work for me.  Non-hybrid plums don’t look good (although the jury’s still out on the hybrid plums).  Figs die back most winters (…so far).  But everything else looks good – and some of it looks great.  …Again, my money’s on the perennials.

But you need to plant them now – this Spring.  And next Spring.  …And every Spring after that until you can no longer lift a spade.  We’ve got an awful lot of roots to put down.    

And for those who poo-poo perennials because they don’t feel the yields can match annuals, I suggest they try a few years of growing annuals in the manner we will be growing them shortly – only manure fertilizers, no sprays, no tractors for annual soil preparation or cultivating, open pollinated seeds, minimal watering.  …Because, as they say, you gotta compare apples to apples.  …And so how do the yields look now?  Not quite as much, huh?  Especially with all that wacky weather.  Hmmm… 

And as Mark Shepard discusses in his unbelievably-excellent new book, Restoration Agriculture (2013), both the nutrient profiles and yields of perennials show that perennials can provide both the calories and nutrition we currently get from annuals. 

…And it’s not like we have a choice anyway.  As the kids say, annuals are so…so Holocene.           

2. Plant a polyculture of perennials!

The weather in any given growing season can be perfect for one plant species and a disaster for another.  So to hedge our bets against increasingly wacky weather – as well as the increasingly-severe pest outbreaks, economic convulsions, and social upheavals that we can expect – we need to plant a rich selection of perennial food crops on our farms and homesteads.

But more than just planting a diversity of perennials, we’ll need to plant them together, in a ‘polyculture.’  Why?  Several reasons: (1) First, a polyculture decreases the severity of pest outbreaks due to lower density of each plant species and richer ecosystem to foster predators to those pests. (2) Secondly, it increases nutrient and water uptake efficiency since different plant species utilize a different suite of nutrients and occupy different regions of the soil profile. (3) And thirdly, it provides a richer, more complexly-structured ecosystem to nurture all the unappreciated heroes of our world – the fungi, the soil organisms, the insects, the birds, the amphibians and reptiles, the mammals. 

Image RemovedAs a general rule, mimic the structure of a diverse natural ecosystem with your food crops and all the former ecosystem functions of the forest return.  Like magic.  And, exactly opposite to the industrial orthodoxy, we don’t thrive unless everything else thrives.  So we need to quit trying to exterminate everything else and create conditions where they and we thrive.  Period.  Everything else is a recipe for suicide.

And I should note here that these benefits of perennial polyculture won’t just be ‘nice things to have’ in the very challenging years ahead, they will be damn near essential.  To put it bluntly, we’ll have a hell of a time growing anything unless our future food systems are structured around the resilient framework of fully-functioning ecosystems.  It’s literally the only shot we have.    

OK, so perennial polyculture is essential.  But what will such a modern agricultural heresy look like?  Well, just pick up a copy of Mark Shepard’s Restoration Ecology and look at all the pretty pictures!  Shepard has created a working 100+ acre farm in Wisconsin based on a polyculture of perennial crops, combined with a slew of cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys – all set in the middle of a sea of soon-to-be-defunct corn-&-bean industrial monocultures on surrounding farms.    

One of the versions of perennial polyculture Shepard describes features one row of hybrid chestnuts with a shade-tolerant gooseberry understory, and then a neighboring row of apple trees with a hybrid hazelnut and raspberry understory.  This double row pattern then repeats.  Oh yea… grape vines are trellised on each tree.  And oh yea… cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys are grazed in a controlled manner on the grasses, herbs, and clovers between the rows.  This configuration (one of countless possibilities) not only gives a bountiful yield of carbohydrates, oils, proteins, and nutrients, but it does so in a way that can persist (climate-destabilization-willing) essentially forever.  It builds soil, not wastes it.  It fosters a diversity and abundance of ecosystem-sustaining life, not destroys it.  It provides bodily and spiritual fulfillment to farmers, not degradation.  It is the healing of the world, not its destruction.    

Of course, such a perennial polyculture agriculture goes by another name as well: permaculture.  Shepard is a trained permaculture designer (see Mollison, 1988) and devoted follower of the permaculture ethics and principles (see Holmgren, 2002), which are demonstrated on many other enlightened farms as well.  See, for example, these two videos: https://www.resilience.org/resource-detail/1470432-7-food-forests-in-7-minutes and https://www.resilience.org/resource-detail/1527704-kramerterhof-a-tour-of-sepp-holzer-s.    

3. Breed your own perennial varieties!

OK, let’s say you have a fantastic permaculture farm set up — the diversity is humming, the land is healing, the plants are producing, you’re spreading the word and teaching others how to do it…and then disaster after disaster hits.  Wacky weather on top of wacky weather.  A blight sweeps through your peach trees, killing them all.  Several species of nuts wilt and die mid-season from…well, who knows?!  …Now what?

A key feature of perennial polyculture is the creation of a self-sustaining, food-producing ecosystem that works for your soils and your climate.  …But what if the climate changes?  Well, we better have not only a wide diversity of perennial crops species (in case some blink out), but a good bit of genetic diversity within each species.  With this genetic diversity, some extreme shift in the local climate or pest/disease outbreak is unlikely to kill all of any one crop – giving you an opportunity to expand with the genetics of the varieties that made it through.

And to get this genetic diversity we’re all going to need to become seat-of-the-pants, Johnny-Appleseed-type breeders and start planting a lot of seedling fruits and nuts – in addition to the standard grafted varieties that produce well under current conditions.

Image RemovedI currently have between two and a dozen grafted varieties of each of my fruit/nut species.  And as I said previously, most of them are starting to produce on the spectrum between good and great.  But I don’t think my current genetic diversity is resilient enough to handle what’s coming.  So I’m going to be planting a lot of seedling fruit and nuts this Spring from seed I saved from last fall and seed that I’ve purchased.  And I’ll plant more the following year, and more the…etc.

I’ve already started this strategy with Chinese chestnut, of which I have hundreds of seedling trees — hundreds of different genetic talents — in various stages of growth.  I’m about to become a latter-day Danny Appleseed by doing the same thing with apples, pears, peaches, persimmon, pie cherries, and more this Spring.  I even sent away to the NY State Agricultural Experiment Station (Geneva, NY) for a bunch of apple seeds from their Kazakhstan wild apple orchard (Malus sieversii — See Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire, as well as http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/breaking-ground-the-call-of-the-wild-apple/.)  I realize that a lot of these seedling trees won’t be too useful from the start.  …But they very well may become useful as the climate changes and things get weird.  Hey, it’s not that hard to do, and it just might be the difference between apples or no apples a few decades from now.        

So exactly how do we become plant breeders?  Do we need to shuffle back to the universities and get masters degrees in botany and genetics?  Umm…No.  As Mark Shepard passionately advises in Restoration Agriculture

“Plant way too many food-producing trees and shrubs in the early years.  …Continue to remove the ones that are susceptible to diseases and that are attacked by pests and continue to plant new seedlings and varieties year after year after year.  Let the dynamics of population ecology kick in and let pest and disease populations stabilize.  A deeply diverse system will provide habitat for predatory insects, birds, reptiles and amphibians.  If a plant wants to die, let it!  We’re not interested in the ones that get diseases.  We are not interested in the ones that are unproductive.  We are not interested in the ones that require tons of specialty fertilizers manufactured in gleaming factories thousands of miles away.  We’re interested in the ones that live.  …We want the ones that are pest- and disease-resistant and need very little care.  If a plant wants to live and thrive and reproduce, we will harvest its seeds, its fruit, its leaves or other edible, medicinal or otherwise marketable products.  This is the essence of the permaculture principle of working with nature instead of fighting against it.  Figure out what is working effortlessly well in perennial polyculture systems and run with it.” (Restoration Agriculture, p. 249)

That excellent advice and some dirt under your fingernails (i.e. practice and experience) are all you need to become a plant breeder.  So let’s do it.

I would just add that we might not want to be too picky about selecting for great production from these new perennial varieties.  There’s just so much trouble coming down the pike and some of the lesser-producing varieties might be the only ones to make it through.  …And I’d also add that due to the velocity of the changes we’ll be facing, this breeding will necessarily be an ongoing process, done year after year after year – like evolution on steroids, so to speak.  …Which we’ll certainly need to match a climate on steroids.

4. Include animals!

One of the first things you learn in ecology is that plants capture energy from the sun, and that only about 10% of that energy is available to the herbivores (say, cows & sheep).  But also only about 10% of the energy embodied in the herbivores is available to those who eat them (say, humans).  So it follows that by eating animals who eat plants (and getting just 1% of the initial sunlight energy), we’re wasting an awful lot of energy/resources that would otherwise be available for humans and other species if just ate the plants directly.  So, the thinking goes, to conserve ever-scarcer resources and leave room for other species, we should just eat plants.

But in light of approaching climate/collapse troubles, I think there are two main arguments for keeping (and eating) animals.  One of the arguments is that it just doesn’t seem possible to grow plants in a low-input, sustainable manner without animals.  There’s just something about animal manure that facilitates nutrient cycling.  Nature farms with animal manure, and, so it seems, should we.  Time after time you hear farmers say this: “Well, I don’t use animals on my farm – except for manure that I get from a nearby cow/horse/sheep/goat/pig/chicken/turkey farm.”  And if it’s not manure from one of those species, its human manure.  Witness pre-industrial Japan and China described in F.H. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries.    

The other argument is that farm animals, especially the ones who eat food wastes and grasses that we can’t, can not only fit snugly into our little perennial polyculture ecosystems, but also represent a hedge against disaster.  Because what do you do with your prize chestnut trees if fighting breaks out locally and you’re forced to relocate for a few months or years?  You leave them and their life-sustaining nutrition behind.  But what do you do with your sheep?  You bring them…and eat them.  And what do you do if your perennial polyculture suffers from the disaster of disasters — a near complete crop failure?  Well, you eat your animals and you forage for wild foods.  (More on honing our foraging skills coming up!)    

Image RemovedSo basically, (1) we need animal manure to grow our perennial polycultures, and (2) animals, when managed with ecological sensitivity, can be a security blanket against famine under certain disastrous situations.  We certainly need to start putting our human manure back on the land (See Jenkins’ The Humanure Handbook), but I think that, for resilience sake, we also need to incorporate animals into our perennial polyculture farms. 

I currently graze sheep in my young food-forest-to-be, but there many more-developed examples of ecologically-sound animal husbandry out there.  One is (surprise!) at Mark Shepard’s Wisconsin farm.  In Restoration Agriculture, he describes using pigs to clean up both the early fruit drop and the damaged fruit in the fields at harvest time.  He just lets the pigs out in the food forests/savannahs at appropriate times and they do the rest – which has the added benefit of breaking many of the pest cycles that bother the fruit trees.  He also uses cows to mow the grass between the woody-crop rows, dropping piles of soil-enriching manure as they go.  And here’s an excellent video from Sepp Holzer’s farm in Switzerland showing a similarly mutualistic relationship of cows and food trees: https://www.resilience.org/resource-detail/1527704-kramerterhof-a-tour-of-sepp-holzer-s.

5. Manage the rain water!

The climate disruption I fear the most is the armada of crippling droughts that are on the way as summer temperatures rise and high pressure systems get ‘stuck’ over us for months at a time with the ever-more-sluggish jet stream.  (See my essay, https://www.resilience.org/stories/2012-12-10/extirpation-nation-how-much-of-the-us-will-be-habitable-in-50-years and the references therein.)  And to compound this, the rain that we do get is expected to come in ever-more-intense bursts, most of which will merely sheet right off the land and into the streams and rivers.

So what’s required of us agriculturally is this: to keep as much of this precious rainwater on our farms as possible.  Planting multi-storied, perennial polyculture ecosystems will certainly help, as the increased soil organic matter and rain-drop-slowing leaf structures will allow more rain to sink into the soil.  But we’ll also need to employ other clever strategies to get the water into the soil and to spread it out around the farm.  Mark Shepard (in Restoration Agriculture) gives an enthusiastic plug to P.A. Yoemans’ ideas from Water for Every Farm: namely, (1) using ‘collector swales’ to direct runoff water to numerous ‘pocket ponds’ around the farm, and (2) using mini-berms and ‘spreader swales’ to redirect water from higher-elevation valleys to lower-elevation ridges.

Image RemovedShepard swears by these hydrology practices, and says they not only keep water on the farm, but serve to build soil as well.  There is some soil movement and tractor work required (subsoiler or ‘keyline plow’, and earth-mover for pond construction), but the benefits may indeed be worth it while we still have access to fossil fuels.  In absence of tractors, we’ll need a lot of able-bodied people with shovels to do the same work.  …But hey, what else are we gonna do when there’s no more TV and computers – stare at the wall?  …No, we’ll throw a ‘pocket pond’ party!

A substantial side-benefit to keeping a lot more water on the farms is some relief from the devastating floods that are already increasing and likely to skyrocket with increased climate destabilization.  In addition, we’ll have tons of food-producing ponds, a lot more sustained flow in streams and rivers, and a plethora of springs popping up in places only our great, great, great grandparent’s generation knew about.  …Sounds like a good deal.

6. Process, preserve, add value, & store on-site!

In addition to the epic challenges of just growing our food within an evil-funhouse climate and collapsing civilization, we’re going to need to drastically change the way we handle this food on our farms.  Namely, we’ll need to become skilled at processing, preserving, adding value, and storing multi-year quantities of this food on our increasingly-stressed and buffeted farms and homesteads.

The great majority of food produced by today’s industrial farms leaves the fields directly in fossil-fuel powered 18-wheelers, headed many miles away to fossil-fueled processing plants, and is then distributed by more fossil-fueled trucks to fossil-fueled box stores and supermarkets, to eventually be consumed in fossil-fueled homes or feed lots.  …This is an arrangement that obviously has no future. 

Absent of fossil fuel and its dependent infrastructures, we’ll need to transform a majority of the food we grow into more stable forms right here on our farms and homesteads.  This will not be too challenging for a number of perennial polyculture nut crops (chestnuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, etc.) which store well with minimal processing, but a lot of our other crops will require more effort.  Our farms will thus need to be skilled at drying, fermenting, smoking, canning, salting, root-cellaring and any other preservation strategies we can dream up.  (See Katz and Bubel references above, among many others.)

Image RemovedThere is, of course, a tremendous up-side to all this: turning our ecologically-rich farms into bustling compounds populated by variously-skilled artisans, all adding value and shelf-life to a wide diversity of nutritious foods.  Contrast that with today’s ‘farms’, populated sparsely by lonely humans roving immense, ecologically-devastated, bare-dirt landscapes in hulking metallic shells, transforming fossil fuels and soil into a handful of nutrient-deprived industrial-food raw materials.  (Gaia shudders)

And don’t forget that all this wonderful processing and preserving will be occurring within the context of a destabilizing climate and collapsing civilization.  With the resulting food insecurity, we’ll need to discipline ourselves into storing at least several year’s worth of our community’s food at any given time.  Maintaining this discipline will obviously be challenging while our communities are buffeted left and right, up and down — but I suspect that if we don’t take this storage imperative seriously, we simply won’t be communities very long.  …Just sayin’.  Moving forward, we need to keep reminding ourselves that these will not be ‘normal’ times.

7. Don’t forget annuals!  

Given all the heartbreaking, 10,000-year ravages of annuals-based agriculture, it’s tempting to try to sweep these annual crops into the erosion gullies of history as fast as possible.  And maybe we should.  …But maybe we can’t.  Because now and then I get this gnawing fear in my gut that all my perennial plantings may be for naught. 

For one thing, I fear that these vicious droughts just over the climate-destabilization horizon may come too often and too severe to support trees.  Biomes historically wracked by periodic crippling droughts (and the associated fires) are typically largely treeless – the grassy steppes, prairies, and tree-sparse savannahs where the large migratory ruminants roam.  I fear this may be one of the futures for my central-NJ community and many other places around the US.  (See the projected drought maps in https://www.resilience.org/stories/2012-12-10/extirpation-nation-how-much-of-the-us-will-be-habitable-in-50-years.)

If such a dire scenario comes to pass, we may need to hedge our bets as much as possible with a wide diversity of annual crops.  Obviously no food crops will thrive in such a difficult and changeable climate, but some of the hardier or quick-growing annuals may at least give us something.  Because, of course, that’s what annuals are adapted to – areas of disturbance where the plants get just a quick shot at glory.  And perhaps these little windows of ‘glory’ may help some of us sneak through the coming bottlenecks.  …So that’s why I suppose I’m not giving up my little 30+-species annual veggie/grain garden until they pry it from my hot, desiccated fingers.  (See http://www.misty-acres-farm.com/)Image Removed

A second possibly-crucial attribute of annuals is their ability to travel with us if we get uprooted by the coming climate/collapse/nuclear craziness – much like our potentially-mobile farm animals.  A pocketful of seeds on a long hard refugee’s journey may just be the difference between life and death in a new, potentially-habitable land.  Which, of course, suggests we keep a robust supply of annual seeds (along with and even more robust supply of perennial ones!) in an accessible place.  Just in case.

Of course, part of me cringes shamefully for my advocacy of even small-scale annuals, in light of the devastation annual agriculture has wreaked on this planet.  …But if it’s a choice between my family’s life and a future generations’ environmental depredations, I suppose I’ll choose as humans have always chosen: I’ll try to keep us alive.  …You can take the caveman out of the cave, but you can’t…  Sigh.

In any case, check out the books by Carol Deppe and Janisse Ray in the references.  …But remember, we really should be concentrating most of our efforts on ways to get perennials into a nature-mimicking, resilient polyculture.  So (ominous voice)…be forewarned.  Annuals are quite seductive, as 500 generations of your ecosystem-destroying ancestors can attest.

8. Become a wild-plant gatherer!

As Samuel Thayer writes in his wonderful book, The Forager’s Harvest, “Foraging is the oldest occupation of humankind.  For most of our history we knew no other way of living.  We are built, both mentally and physically, to be hunters and gatherers.  Somewhere inside of us we are all foragers, no matter how much we have lost touch with that aspect of our nature.”

…Can’t argue with that.  You also can’t argue with his next statement, which is this: “Today, if cut off from purchased supplies, most of us would starve in the midst of plenty.”  Which brings us back to my main theme here: that if agriculture may well abandon us in the coming decades, we should probably hedge our bets and consider some other ways to feed ourselves – at least as much as that’ll be possible.

And thus recovering the lost arts of foraging/gathering wild plants becomes one of our current tasks at hand.  This is, of course, a scary proposition for most Americans, weaned on plastic-wrapped food-type-substances and little acquainted not only with edible wild plants, but with any plants.  Most of my high-school ‘AP Chemistry’ students (super-bright, 17 & 18 year-old suburbanites — biological adults!) cannot even identify the most common local trees and birds, much less the scoffed-at ‘weeds’ – most of which, ironically, are perfectly edible and may very well be needed to keep their children alive.

Image RemovedSo how do we go about re-learning the ways of our hunter-gatherer ancestors?  Well, I suggest first some basic ecological and botanical knowledge.  In days gone by, this was obtained through osmosis by lives immersed in nature from birth.  In this disconnected era where children have been increasingly raised within electromagnetic prisons, such knowledge will need to come from books or mentors.  So find one…or two…or twenty.  Soon.  Good mentors are better and faster than good books – but books are available 24/7.  Use both.

Secondly, we need to get out in the yards, fields, woods, and ‘waste areas’ that surround our everyday lives and start looking at what’s there – preferably accompanied by someone who already knows, and maybe a few good books (ex: Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, The Sibley’s Guide to Trees, Weeds of the Northeast, etc.)

Thirdly, (and only after thoroughly mastering the first two!) we need to start identifying and experimenting with the edible, nutritious plants that surround us.  This can, of course, be dangerous if done incautiously – for example, there’s a huge stand of poison hemlock (sometimes confused for the edible wild carrot) lining the stream out behind my high-school.  Be careful.  Get some good, knowledgeable mentors.  And get some good books – I very highly recommend Samuel Thayer’s wild edibles books (see references).  Euell Gibbon’s books from the 1960’s are good as well.  (Thayer warns that apparently many wild-edibles books are written by wild-food ‘semi-posers’ at the behest of market-savvy publishers.  He suggests we avoid those.)

Gathering the plants we’ll need for post-industrial medicines will also be a valuable skill – one which also requires reams of largely forgotten ecological knowledge.  Again, find some mentors.  Find some good books. 

9. Become a tracker/hunter!

I think it’s safe to say that most Americans at this point are utterly dumbstruck once they step off the sidewalk onto anything other than a lawn, a street, or a store.  Plop the majority of Americans into the middle of even a modestly-sized woodlot and I think you’d get a range of emotions from utter boredom to sheer terror.  This is, of course, a rather odd situation for a species completely at home in such an environment only very recently.

…And it’s also, of course, a rather deadly situation moving forward.  Because, deciphering the biophysical tea leaves here, it’s becoming more and more likely that we’ll need to both read and interact with our fellow critters if we want to eat in the challenging times to come.  And since most Americans — even an awful lot of the remaining industrial ‘hunters’/target-shooters — don’t know all that much about tracking and hunting, it means we’ll need to learn.

Image RemovedNow, I certainly wouldn’t call myself a skilled tracker or hunter, but I was deeply affected by the tracking and bird-language books of Tom Brown, Jon Young, and Paul Rezendes.  Since reading them, I’ve tried to think and act ‘like a scout’ as much as possible, wherever I am – slowing down, paying attention, listening, looking, being conscious of how I am being perceived by the surrounding organisms, trying to interpret their messages.  This practice, of course, is diametrically opposed to the industrial directive of staying snugly inside your own mind (or more preferably, the mind of your chosen electronic device) and barreling hurriedly through a sea of inanimate objects to your next appointment.  As such, it takes some practice – a lot of practice if you’ve been industrially indoctrinated since birth.

So we need to practice.  I recommend the tracking books above.  And also track down (ha ha) the authors’ thousands of former students scattered across the US for mentors in your area.  There are other resources for low-tech hunting and trapping strategies, as well as methods to process and preserve game.  I’m even less skilled at those than tracking itself, so you’re on your own there.  But nonetheless, these are skill we’ll need.  …So let’s learn them.

10. Start now!

I’m under no delusions that we’re going to make it out of this unholy hole (ha ha) we’ve dug ourselves into.  So much depends on whether industrial civilization has the good manners to collapse soon and rapidly – thus sparing us the killing blow of unendurable climate destabilization.  …But since it’s shown nothing but really bad manners so far, I’m not holding my breath.

But what I am doing is the only thing I can do: start making preparations that make sense, on the off chance that we get lucky.  These preparations (all the recommendations I’ve described above) are likely much easier started now than when the economic wheels really come off — which may be (hopefully, for the climate’s sake and our children’s sake) any day now. 

Image RemovedSo I’m doing what I can, while I can.  And when circumstances change, I’ll keep doing what I can, while I can.  And then at some point I’ll die, and maybe the world will be a better place for my efforts – a happier, more diverse, greener, funnier, prettier, kinder, more song-filled place.  …That’s what I’m hoping for.  That’s what I’m working for. 

…Well, that was a long essay.  But it’s warming up here, and I think it’s time for me to go plant some trees. 

So take care. 

And good luck. 

No guarantees, but all we can do is our best.

So let’s do it.       

VII. Three Lists: What Has Been Lost, What Has Been Given, and What Has Been Saved

“Once I spoke the language of the flowers… / How did it go? / How did it go?” – Shel Silverstein


There is a list.

A dreadful list.

A list that will break your damn heart in half if you have the courage to look at it.

A list that will sap your strength.

It is a list so numbingly large

That nobody knows more than a tiny fraction of it.

A list that just keeps on growing.

Faster and faster and faster and faster.

So fast that nobody could ever keep up.

— It is a list of things that have been lost.

Of things that have been broken, burnt, wasted, ruined, disappeared.

Of things abused, eroded, corrupted, forgotten, sacrificed, discarded.

Of things disfigured, suffocated, poisoned, fucked up, shattered, and killed.

Things lost,

Lost by a culture that would not acknowledge limits,

That would not acknowledge debts, dependencies, or connections.

A thankless culture.

A culture that arrogantly and violently refused to see, hear, feel, touch, or taste

The world that gave birth to it just yesterday.

— It is a list that will sap your strength.

— It is a list that will break your damn heart.


But there is also a second list.

A breathtakingly beautiful list.

A list that will heal your heart if you have the sense to look at it.

It is a list that has been getting smaller, smaller, smaller every year.

But a list still so gloriously large

That nobody knows more than a tiny fraction of it.

— It is a list of things that have been given.

Of things that grow, run, swim, eat, blow, wiggle, rustle, clack, flow, slide, and laugh.

Of things that fly, cuddle, fight, howl, slither, hunt, hide, drift, ooze, sleep, and love.

Of things that are strong, deep, soft, tiny, smooth, hot, playful, slow, and hungry.

Of things that are green, brown, blue, thorny, large, dry, cold, fragile, wet, and fast.

Things given,

Given now to us, free

By a world that only asks us to see, hear, feel, touch, and taste them.

By a world that only asks us to take membership among that list.

A world that gave birth to us all, before time began.

— It is a list that will heal your heart.


And there is a third list.

A much smaller list,

But a list that will give you strength if you have the wisdom

To look for it, to find it, to learn it, to live it.

It is a list dangerously small

Because so much has been forgotten.

And because nobody anymore knows more than a tiny fraction of it.

And it is a list that is still shrinking.

Faster and faster and faster.

Until it is almost gone.

But it is not gone.

— It is a list of things that have been saved.

Of things that have been mended, nurtured, passed down, remembered

Of things taken care of, tended, loved, watched over

Of ways of talking, ways of knowing, ways of seeing, ways of feeling, and ways of loving

Of customs, rituals, practices, seeds, breeds, tools, skills, and prayers.

Things saved.

It is a list that teaches us how to belong to this world.

A list that teaches us how to live in this world without destroying it.

A list that teaches us how to live with each other without destroying ourselves.

Passed down from cultures that celebrated limits, that worshipped them.

Thankful cultures.

Cultures that awoke each morning to see, hear, feel, touch, or taste

The world that gave birth to them.

A world that is now slipping away from us.

A world that will slip away from us if we don’t hold onto it

With all the strength we can summon

In our hearts, in our minds, and in our bodies.

It is a list that will give you this strength.


So in this time of catastrophe,

Perhaps we should turn to these lists.

And teach our children from them.

So that we may live.



Here are some key resources to both back up the stuff I’m going to talk about and help people move ahead with the good work we need to do.  

A. Climate

B. Collapse

C. Agriculture

  • Mark Shepard:  Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers (2013)  …VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
  • Dave Jacke & Eric Toensmeier: Edible Forest Gardens (2005)
  • Bill Mollison: Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual (1988)
  • David Holmgren: Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability (2002)
  • Permaculture videos: https://www.resilience.org/resource-detail/1470432-7-food-forests-in-7-minutes and https://www.resilience.org/resource-detail/1527704-kramerterhof-a-tour-of-sepp-holzer-s
  • Eric Toensmeier: Perennial Vegetables (2007)
  • Joseph Jenkins:  The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure (2005)
  • P.A. Yeomans:  Water For Every Farm: Yeoman’s Keyline Plan (2008)
  • Janisse Ray:  The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food (2012)
  • Carol Deppe:  The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times (2010)
  • Sandor Katz: The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World (2012)
  • Mike & Nancy Bubel:  Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables (1991)

D. Hunting and Gathering

  • Samuel Thayer:  Natures Garden: A guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Wild Plants (2010); The Forager’s Harvest: A guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Wild Plants (2006)
  • Richo Cech:  Making Plant Medicine (2000)
  • Jon Young:  Animal Tracking Basics (2007); What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World (2012)
  • Paul Rezendes: Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign (1999)
  • Tom Brown: Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Wilderness Survival (1987); Grandfather: A Native American’s Lifelong Search for Truth and Harmony with Nature (2001)

Dan Allen

I'm a high school chemistry teacher in NJ. I'm also a concerned father, organic farmer, and community garden organizer. You can find my previous stories on resilience.org here.

Tags: collapse, Food, permaculture