Permaculture musings

January 17, 2023

True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.
— Martin Luther King Jr<

Yesterday we remembered Martin Luther King Jr. His birthday is actually the 15th, but in recent times our culture has decided to stick holidays to the closest Monday so that there is always an actual holiday from work. Not that many people don’t work on weekends in these times, but the government does not… and it’s their holiday.

I work for a college that does not honor this day with time off work or classes. I am not happy about that… I am also in a bookstore that does not have a special display of books that remind the younger generations why we need to celebrate King and all he stands for. I am not happy about that either…

So here is a very good reminder.

The major purpose of all teachers of humankind was the understanding of the rational and irrational roots of our nature.
— paraphrasing Tolstoy from the Calendar of Wisdom for 16 January

We should be ready to change our views at any time, and slough off prejudices, and live with an open and receptive mind. A sailor who sets the same sails all the time, without making changes when the wind changes, will never reach his harbor.
— Henry George (again from Tolstoy’s Calendar for 16 January)

Colonial Gardens

It is a measure of just how pervasively colonialism has stamped us all that I’ve begun to feel uncomfortable calling myself a permaculturist. I have been doing research on turning my jungle into a food forest. This is basically a permaculture project, so many of the authors I’ve been reading are followers of Bill Mollison and his design ideas. I have read much of Mollison’s writing, and I find that it is generally helpful in plotting a path out of many of our messes. However…

First of all, I am not as interested in the design as in the application. Garden planning seems to me to be a oxymoron, especially coming from the creature that has the least input into actually making the garden work. Moreover, I find that much planning makes almost a fetish of the drawing and layout of a potential garden when that is the least important process. In permaculture classes, the first thing you are taught is to plot out the design. But this tends to be highly counterproductive in real-world settings. A garden is a living thing. It grows. It changes. It does not hew to the whims of a designer; it molds itself to the needs of place and all the organisms in that place. Most importantly, for all those who have not yet begun to garden, emphasizing the design as an obligatory preface to the garden tends to be a deterrent to ever picking up a trowel.

One problem is that many people who want to make a garden have little time, even fewer resources, and quite often no facility with technical drawing. It may be nice to spend winter evenings imagining the garden, but who actually has the free time to sit down and draw it out, never mind plotting the whole business to scale on a large bit of poster board? How many people feel truly comfortable with scaled mapping? How many have the tools to make a scaled map? Or, again, the time? If the map is going to be a useful visual aid, it probably needs to be quite large so that you can at least read the labels. Where does one keep this map when one lives in a small house such as the favored permaculture “tiny house”? How do you refer to it ten years down the road when you actually start to see perennial harvests? And how relevant is it going to be after even just a few seasons of all the false starts and mistakes that inevitably arise in a garden? Or how about all the new ideas and living beings you will inevitably encounter after you start gardening — well after you make the map?

But the bigger issue with stressing the primacy of the design stage is that it forces the whole garden process to follow the design — and to feel like a failure when that doesn’t work. And it will not work for most gardens. There is that complication with a garden being a living entity that changes itself in time, without respect for your whims, however completely and complexly mapped. But there is also the implication that you must build the garden from the infrastructure up, which begins with intense and usually extensive construction and often involves quite a lot of up-front expense, to say nothing of time, skills and hard labor. Many permaculture design books say — often explicitly so — that you don’t get to do anything so soft and fluffy as plant or tend to anything until the landscape has been forcibly molded to fit the design. Apart from this being the exact opposite of growing a garden — to the point that the first stages are often to eradicate existing living things — this serves to inhibit anyone who does not have access to earth-moving equipment and a very hefty initial budget from ever starting a permaculture garden.

In other words, design is the gate-keeper, excluding all those who do not have that level of privilege. And those who do not have privilege are both historically the best at growing things and tend to have the greatest need of what a garden can provide for a human. Design is appropriation of the garden process from those who want to help grow living beings to those who want to control inert things.

Sounds a bit like colonialism, no?

Now take into account what is going into those designs.

Mollison was from the northwest of Tasmania. His design system purports to be adaptable to many climates, but as with many “one solutions” this is not really true. His primary concerns — water scarcity and saline soils — are far from universal, though everybody needs to be aware of these issues, especially as we head deeper into climate chaos. But the processes and toolkits he and his followers have developed are often not even possible in, say, forested ecosystems. There is also little accommodation for winter in permaculture circles. The basic idea itself — that you can feed yourself from perennial plants with little need for annual tillage — assumes far less seasonality than we see here in Vermont, for example. In a cold climate, you need nutritious foods that store well for months after harvest, and the fruits of perennial plants are not ideal in that regard. This is the origin of gardening, you know. Gardening is a system that provides food for humans when there is no food for humans growing out there in the bush. Except if you want to eat ruminants and rabbits, I suppose…

This is all probably excusable. Bill very likely didn’t mean for his ideas on swales and arbors to be applied to Vermont. Or maybe anywhere but the desert. I don’t know. I do know that his followers are sort of forcing permaculture wholesale, by the book, onto places where it will never work — and, to my mind, causing no little harm in the process.

One book I was reading recently began with dozens of pages of the author’s very cerebral “design process”. It detailed all the uses that were to be made of the food forest to be manufactured and then described steps to make what was a boggy landscape into a woodland with stone-tiled glades that would serve as event spaces. I’m not going to judge that one… you do you… but to spend money and diesel fuel on paving a bog… for?… However, one of the first actual things done after the design was to cut down ash and elm trees. And that I will judge. This is the blindness of colonizers. Why would anyone cut down an elm in the aftermath of Dutch elm disease? If there is one left in your world, cherish it. It may be the last one you ever see. Same goes for ash. And while the cutting of trees described in this book took place before the ash borer apocalypse really got underway, the book was written recently. It is unlikely the author is still unaware of the travesty in cutting down an ash tree. More to the point, no ethical forester or gardener should advocate killing a healthy tree — a living being that is far older and far more essential to its place than any human — just to make room for human designs.

Then the book got into the plant list, which is the heart of any garden plan, and this is where things got really squirrelly. Again, Mollison was working primarily in arid conditions. The plants that he relied upon do very well in prairies and deserts. And they do well in these conditions because they are fiercely adaptable. They are generalists. They will grow well anywhere. And if they find themselves in places that are more amenable to plant life, they will spread, colonizing vast spaces and knocking aside all the plants that have more specific, place-based needs. They are invasive.

This book’s plant list was sort of a who’s who of invasive species. I was surprised that loosestrife and kudzu weren’t included. Ground ivy was…

Now, I’m not convinced that invasive species are a concern. Inasmuch as humans are invasive and have moved our favorite things around with us for millennia, I think that ship has sailed. As the saying goes, “it is what it is”. But that doesn’t mean that you have blanket permission to cause more problems. If there is already Japanese knotweed (and there probably is), then deal with it. Gently. If there is not, then don’t bloody plant that monster where it will run over any and all native species, taking up water and nutrients and blocking access to sunlight for all things that are less aggressive.

Then there is the darling of the permaculture crowd — and I confess to being one of the ninnies who has planted it — the Jerusalem artichoke. Contrary to its name, it is neither from the eastern Mediterranean nor any relation to artichokes. It doesn’t even look like a thistle. The portion of the plant that humans eat is not the flower bud, but the tuber. It is one of many perennial sunflowers native to the Americas, most of which can be found growing on marginal dry-land, usually near some seasonal source of water. This should be a clue that you do not want to plant this thing where water is not seasonal, but abundant year-round. But, yeah, ninny me was taken in by the prospect of a big lovely plant that attracted butterflies and bees and produced a potato-like tuber year after year with no input from me — other than to try to contain the thing. Which… is a full time project in a smallish garden in New England. (Don’t even get me started on how “potato-like” the actual food stuff is…)

This reliance on a standard list of plants that some distant expert has curated is perhaps the very essence of colonialism. And I think Bill would be appalled. Though I don’t know. I have heard one of his more ardent followers claim that ecologists are themselves trapped in the colonizer mind-set. This person alleged that those who talk of invasive species are actually just making a fetish of the life-forms that existed in a given location when white people first encountered that place. I am not convinced that plants and animals are quite as competitive as many ecologists seem to think, but I’m also not going to go so far as to say that there are no invasive species. (There are humans, for example…)

Invasives are living beings that have been moved to places (by humans, almost exclusively) distant from any natural checks on their growth, within a time frame that does not allow local species to adapt to this new presence. Biological balance will eventually be achieved, but not before the newcomer causes quite a lot of harm just in doing what it does naturally — that is, growing as much as it can. And a standard list of plants is first of all, going to be composed of many generalists, those aggressive plants that can grow well everywhere, and secondly, are generally not local or localized in any way. Most of the plants in the book I’ve been describing are not even Mollison’s desert species, those that at least have problems with root rot in wetter climes. No, this book was recommending the very Eurasian pests that ecologists spend years trying to pull out of wetlands and forests where they are killing the natives indiscriminately and feeding nobody but themselves. (Sounds rather like a colonizer, no?)

Anyway, I am becoming disillusioned… maybe this standardized (colonizer) approach to gardening is partly an artifact of book publishing — an industry that has to be generalized in order to sell to the widest audience. But I can’t help but hear echoes of the stories of local Natives who have been displaced and disrupted by the incoming hordes when I read these permaculture texts. And I wonder why nobody in this group stops to question things like trebizond dates or locust trees or buckthorn. (I mean, the names should be warning enough, no?) In fact, I’ve even seen permie cheerleaders for Japanese knotweed, when a drive down any road in New England patently reveals that this plant has utterly escaped our stewardship and is running amok over anything it encounters. (I do agree that the bees love it… though, more so the non-native honeybees than the local pollinators.)

I believe firmly in reducing our impact; and in general, growing perennial foods has far less of an impact on a place than annual tillage. The reduction of soil loss alone makes permaculture a worthy goal. But replacing the locals is not reducing impact, and I’m not at all convinced that a new ecosystem will develop from the imports. Not in human timescales anyway, much less in the lives of most local plants and animals. How does a butterfly that finds its food by looking for a particular color and form adapt to a landscape of new forms and many colors it can’t even perceive? Most butterflies don’t see cool tones like blue and green, the typical color of many flowers in the large mint family that includes most of our herbs… More importantly, soil organisms are adapted to local biochemical assemblages and do not spontaneously appear when we plant new organisms in the dirt. This is why we have to “inoculate” beans and peas. All that nitrogen-fixing power is useless if the microbes that actually do the fixing are not present.

So don’t go by the book. Go by the garden. Learn what is there and how it fits into its community. Then fit yourself into that community. It may be that you have to carve out a small portion that provides more for your needs than others. When you do that, make it as localized as you can. Grow foods that have been grown in your neighborhood for hundreds if not thousands of years. If there is something that you absolutely must have that does not fit in your ecological niche (hello chiles…), then grow a little of it in as controlled a location as possible — which, by the by, is another reason traditional gardens are the way they are. Raised beds in a delineated space that is kept somewhat isolated are wonderful tools for keeping potentially vigorous annuals — that is, most of our food plants — contained. Do not plant from a list that is globally standardized. Plant locals, as many special snowflake plants as your garden can accommodate. Or just learn to meet your needs from the local snowflakes that already grow in your garden.

The thing about that is humans have lived all over this planet for a very long time and have modified nearly every part of it to meet human needs. No matter what your local snowflakes are, you can be sure that many of them were planted and favored by humans in some distant past. Nearly everything that grows “wild” is not, in fact, wild in the sense that it grows totally independent of cooperation with others, including humans. Most plants want to meet the needs of other species. That’s what nearly everything in a plant aside from the chloroplasts is designed to do.

So wherever you are, there are plants that will nourish you. It’s great to make a food forest. But you don’t need to plant — or eat — Jerusalem artichoke… that is, unless you are, in fact, from the American Prairie… Which is sort of not a food forest… Instead, go look at an actual forest in your region and learn to eat from that.

And above all do not cut down an elm tree to make room for your patio…

© Elizabeth Anker 2023


Teaser photo credit: Jerusalem Artichoke Flowers, Claude Monet, 1880, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. By Claude Monet – National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., online collection, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50327211

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.

Tags: building resilient food systems, colonialism, gardening, permaculture