Category Archives: Community

Welcoming natives and critters into our garden

This is the sixth article in an ongoing series that I’ve written in our town’s alternative paper, the Madison County Crier. The series is intended to be an introduction to permaculture, often illustrated by examples taken from our homestead. When possible I’ve also made it a point to link in to the potential for a permacultural approach to town and community life as well as the prospects for easing our town’s transition into this new future we have before us.

In my last article I discussed the benefits of using natural forest ecosystems as models for no-till, sheet mulched gardens. This time around I’d like to extend on the idea of learning from nature to help us understand the beneficial roles of native plants and critters in our garden. The critters I’m most interested in seeing in my garden are small and usually very colorful. Birds, lizards, frogs, spiders, and insects are a part of almost any ecosystem in the Midwest and they are welcome in my permaculture garden anytime.

My guess is that some of you might be shaking your heads at the thought of inviting insects into your garden. Today’s gardeners and farmers have been taught that insects are an enemy of any effort to grow food crops and a huge industry has made a great profit from that way of thinking. Over the years corporations such as Monsanto have been very happy to sell gardeners a stew of chemical insecticides intended to eliminate any kind of insect life in the garden or around the home.

Permaculture approaches gardening very differently. In fact, from the perspective of permaculture the annual vegetable garden is just one part of a much larger integrated site design which also preserves and recovers natural biodiversity. In such an ecological landscape annual food crops such as tomatoes, squash, and corn are likely to be interplanted with native perennial wildflowers such as Purple Coneflower, Butterfly Milkweed, Bee Balm, Yarrow, Goldenrod, and Spiderwort. By creating a design using native perennials we ensure a steady supply of food for beneficial insects which perform many duties in the ecosystem including the fullest possible pollination of our crops. Yet another function of many of these native plants is as medicine for us. Purple Coneflower is perhaps one of the better known medicinals, its leaves and roots can be harvested for tea and tinctures for stimulating the immune system.

It is true that insects harmful to our crops do show up but in a well developed, healthy ecosystem the treatment for those insects is, of course, other insects. While ladybugs are perhaps the most well known predator of insects such as aphids there are a great many more beneficial predators that are likely to call our gardens and food forests home. Parasitic insects such as flies and small wasps such as braconids lay their eggs inside of other insects which are then eaten by the hatching larvae. As adults these insects consume pollen and nectar.

Yet another member of our community are spiders which act as a valuable control of the insect population and, as it happens, prefer the dark moist environment of a mulched garden. Round out this eco-community with lizards, frogs and toads which will do their part as well. These critters will also benefit from a thickly mulched garden as well as small piles of rocks placed around the garden. Even better, build a small garden pond in or near the garden which will not only provide habitat for the reptiles and amphibians but will provide a space to grow more food crops for you. An example is Broad-leaved Arrowhead, Saggittaria latifolia which provides us with edible tubers which
can be eaten like potatoes and which have a few medicinal uses. Lizard’s Tail is another easy to grow pond plant which has several medicinal uses.

Our feathered friends, wild and domestic, are another part of the surrounding ecosystem as well as our permaculture design. Many of the native perennials which are beneficial to pollinating insects are also suppliers of seed to a fantastic variety of wild birds. In the summer and fall leave your dead coneflowers standing where they are and watch birds such as the American Gold Finch feast on the seed. Not only do the birds benefit from the nutrition but they’ll help spread the seeds around and you’ll start to notice new plants popping up without any help from you.

Chickens and guineas are fantastic consumers of ticks and insects, turning that source of protein into protein for us: eggs. Use a chicken tractor to move them around different areas and they will till the ground with their constant scratching and leave behind manure which increases the fertility of our garden.

Because permaculture designers take a broader view of the “garden” as just one part in a larger system, the variety of multiple yields is much greater. Once a permaculture system is established it should produce more energy than it consumes which is largely the result of taking an approach that recognizes the possible connections between organisms in our system and which seeks to maximize their output to our benefit.

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Not an orchard, a food forest!

This is the seventh article in an ongoing series that I’ve written in our town’s alternative paper, the Madison County Crier. The series is intended to be an introduction to permaculture, often illustrated by examples taken from our homestead. When possible I’ve also made it a point to link in to the potential for a permacultural approach to town and community life as well as the prospects for easing our town’s transition into this new future we have before us.

In my previous articles I’ve touched on the idea of learning from natural forest ecosystems to aid us in our gardening. I’ve discussed no-till sheet mulching which emulates the thick layer of decaying materials found on the forest floor as well as the benefits of using native plants to foster a healthy population of pollinating insects and other critters. I’ve also discussed the idea of creating guilds of trees and plants which work well together. I’d like to build on these previous articles to discuss the importance of including fruit trees, fruit bushes, and vines as well as perennial vegetables in the design of a food producing system that goes beyond the standard fruit tree orchard.

Before I really delve into the article let me ask a question that’s been nagging at me for quite awhile: why do we not have fruit trees and fruit bushes planted in every yard and park in America? For a very small investment of time and money fruiting trees and bushes will produce a fantastic amount of fresh, tasty and healthy food for many years. I suppose you could say that money really does grow on trees. Now, let’s get to it.

A food forest is not an orchard. The standard fruit orchard is often planted in neat rows of trees of the same species surrounded by a tidy lawn of grass. There are several problems with this scenario. First, fruit trees do better when they do not have to compete with grass lawns. Such lawns do nothing to support the pollination of the fruit trees nor are they much use to other beneficial insects which can help control the populations of insect pests. Even more, the lawn is a waste of growing area which could be producing even more food for us. The orchard is really a model for large scale agriculture which provides easy access for quick maintenance and harvest of one primary crop.

The food forest is a completely different model with a different goal: a healthy forest-modeled ecosystem with a diverse yield. While food forests can be quite large, anyone with at least a small yard can easily create a highly productive food forest that will yield not just fruit but also herbs and salad greens for medicine and food. The food forest starts with one or two fruit or nut trees. If limited space is an issue these can be semi-dwarf or dwarf trees. The area surrounding these trees should be heavily sheet mulched from the start. As you add to your “forest” you can easily poke through the mulch with a spade or shovel.

Imagine the structure of a natural forest. Large canopy trees are surrounded by a lower layer of smaller trees which are in turn surrounded by a layer of lower shrubs which are surrounded by a layer of plants which are often surrounded by ground covers. Interspersed in these layers are vines which often grow up the largest of the trees in search of sunlight. In our food forest we will create these layers and by doing so more efficiently use the vertical space around our fruit trees. We can surround our full size fruit trees with semi-dwarf or dwarf trees and around these we can plant a fantastic variety of berries: currants, gooseberries, blueberries, juneberries, and black elderberries are a few to choose from. The next layer would be comprised of perennial herbs, vegetables, flowers as well as self-seeding annuals: comfrey, fava beans, borage, loveage, good king henry, chives, dill and cilantro. This layer provides us with food and medicine as well as insect habitat which will increase pollination and control of insect pests. The next layer would be the lowest growing plants such as strawberries, nasturtiums, lingonberries, and thyme. The vine layer might include hardy kiwis, grapes, clematis, wisteria, cucumbers, peas and beans.

In designing such a food forest we want to think about the best use of vertical space as well as light and the evolution of our system through time. In the early years of our food forest our fruit trees and bushes are smaller and offer little shade. During this time we can take advantage of the sunlight by planting a variety of large leaf annuals such as squashes which will not only offer us a high yield of vegetables but also provide ground cover. At the end of the growing season the plants can be chopped and dropped for an excellent fall mulch. Four or five years into the system and we’ll begin to see far less sunlight as the system matures and any sun loving annuals will have to be planted along the southern edges.

Of particular note when planning a food forest (or any garden really) is a very special plant: comfrey (which probably deserves an entire article do discuss the many benefits). Easy to grow from seed, after it is established for a couple of years this fast growing perennial will develop a fantastic root system which draws up minerals and nutrients from deep in the soil and accumulates them in its thick, fleshy leaves. Three to four times in a growing season you can chop it down to the ground and use all of those leaves as mulch around your fruit trees. In four to six days they will turn into a goopy brown sludge that delivers all those minerals and nutrients to the top levels of the soil providing a great benefit to your trees, bushes and other plants. You can also dump the comfrey leaves into buckets of water at let them stew for a couple of weeks into a tea which can be strained into a sprayer and used as a foliar spray which can be directly applied to any plants in your garden for a quick boost. The high protein leaves can also be fed in small amounts to chickens though there is some debate about feeding them large amounts over long periods of time as it may be toxic to the liver.

Other considerations in choosing our trees, shrubs and plants might be soil conditions and use of plants which might be invasive. If soil is poor a bit more time might be required as a succession of species can be planted that will help improve the soil for the fruit trees. In addition to comfrey, nitrogen fixing plants such as alfalfa, clover, peas, blue false indigo or shrubs such as siberian pea shrub and autumn olive or tree legumes such as black locust will all improve the soil. When choosing soil improvement species special care should be taken with non-native species which may be invasive such as autumn olive which can quickly get out of control and spread to other properties. Our permaculture homestead has well established and large population of autumn olives and they do produce an abundance of very tasty berries but I will be gradually cutting them back as the majority of them are replaced with less aggressive fruit bushes. Other strategies for soil improvement include heavy mulching and rainwater harvesting with swales.

In the early years of a food forest a bit of care is required, mostly pruning and mulching but this work is made easier by planting mulch materials nearby for quick chop and drop. Once established a food forest is, for the most part, self maintaining thanks to the increasing shade and leaf litter of the trees and bushes that contribute to the mulch layer. All that is required is a bit of pruning, harvesting and cut back of plants of established plants. If left alone the system might become crowded but will still continue to produce an amazing amount of food with absolutely no energy or time input from us.

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Rooted in a place

Several weeks ago I finally made the short journey down to see Roger’s place. I’d met Roger this past fall through Ruth Ann and the Cowboy Coffee. It’s funny actually, the first or second time I’d gone into the coffee shop Roger was at the far end with Ruth and Juli and they were dancing and goofing off and it was at that moment that I knew that the coffee shop was going to be my favorite reason to drive into town.

Since then I’ve had some great conversations with Roger and he occasionally mentioned his farm south of town in the foothills of the Ozarks. It was obvious the very first time he told me some of the story of his family and this farm that this was a connection to the land far deeper than the norm. Of course, really, that’s not saying much is it? We live in a time when the norm seems to be constant migration with little to no connection to the land. Family farms and land based living has declined steadily for many decades. The norm today is the suburban subdivision or a place in the city. There are rarely any kind of long term connections formed to these places as they are simply meant for relatively short term occupancy by any one family, often 15 years or less.

Roger and his family have woven a different kind of story which is based on an intimacy with a landscape that is hard to really understand. His family first began living there in the mid 1800s and have been there ever since. Roger grew up there and continues to live in a house he built in the 1980s. The house he grew up in, built around the turn of the last century, is a stone’s throw away and is his son’s home today.

On the day of our trip my time was a bit limited so I got the “short” tour. I think we were there for maybe 1.5 hours and having seen what I saw in that time I know that it was the short tour. One could easily spend a day there. Or a lifetime. This is no ordinary place. As we walked and drove around Roger narrated with fantastic detail the various stories of the generations of his family.

The farm is deep down in a valley and feels protected, cradled by the hills. It stays cooler down here. The soil is pretty rocky too though there are quite a few areas which have been cultivated over the years.

We started with the beautiful white two story turn of the century home that he grew up in and then slowly moved further into the landscape and as we went the stories he told went further back in time. There are three springs on the property which, over the years, served as the family’s primary water source. In fact, the proximity to the springs was a primary reason for the location of the homestead. At one of these I bent down and for the first time in my life cupped my hands to drink the sweet water from a cold, natural spring. It flowed from under a tree into the rocky creek gravel. Fantastic.

From there we worked our way down the creek to the original family house which had been cut into three sections and moved from the original location further back which we also saw towards the end of our tour. This was an old, old house. Roger’s grandfather’s bedroom was left as it was when he died many years ago and given the state of the house and lack of windows seemed surprisingly intact. Roger told me of another spring that had been directed to the house using a pipe and showed me the buried tub that had been used to keep fish after they had been caught and before being eaten. In the cold flowing creek just outside the house a very nice bit of water cress was growing and I enjoyed several bites. I’m going to have to see if I can get some of that growing here because it was very tasty!!

Something else that Roger was sure to point out were the trees. So many wonderful trees were growing here! There was a nice mix of very old and young trees as well and the diversity of species was really fantastic. I’d imagine that it would be very interesting to explore the evolution of the land here in much greater detail. Roger knows trees and he knows the trees growing on the farm with great intimacy. In fact, he seems to know every inch of the land which brings me to the heart of this post. While I was in awe of the beauty of this landscape I think it was Roger’s connection to it that really struck me.

To spend an entire lifetime in one place seems very rare these days. That it is such a beautiful place and one that has served as a home for so many generations of a family only deepens an already profound relationship. I cannot really fathom such intimacy with the land. Those of you that know me or that read this blog you know my current adventure trying to co-create this permaculture homestead. I’ve barely been here a year and I already feel more at home. This is a place I spent many of my childhood summers and so there is that connection too. But my childhood memories and my knowledge of my ancestors includes several states and cities and many different yards and homes. There is no long term base for our family.

From the old family house we passed the remains of an old wagon worked our way down and through various pastures and to the creek where there were many beautiful pawpaws growing. Roger relayed the story of the all-day trip to pick-up the wagon from Farmington which, like another story about his grandfather walking to Mine La Motte (20+ miles each way), really gives perspective to life without the combustion engine. It also serves as a reminder of what the automobile has done to change our relationship to the natural world around us. You don’t see many details, smell any honeysuckle, or hear the song of birds when you travel in an air conditioned bubble at 60 mph.

The creek served as a place to swim, play and get cleaned up and I can’t imagine a better place to spend an afternoon. As we crossed the creek on foot to see the steep hillside opposite of the field I was again reminded of the amazing diversity of species in the area. I think if I were to spend much more time there I would begin getting a sense of the patterns and history of the plants and trees but in such a short time it was too much to take in. On the far side of the field away from the creek was a pine covered hill and small pond, an ideal area for blueberries I’d imagine. It was around this time that we circled back and my tour ended.

I look forward to another trip down there when I have more time to take in the details without feeling so overwhelmed. As I come to the end of this post I can’t help but feel that I’m missing something. I think when you’ve had a glimpse of something like this, something special with a history you also leave with questions. History is a story and an old homestead such as this feels like a window or, more accurately, a door that can be stepped through. Having Roger there to tell the history no doubt deepens the appreciation and understanding even as the stories evoke a sense of the unknown. In a strange way it is also a very direct connection to the ongoing flow of history. Roger is a part of it. We all are.

“Time is an enormous, long river and I am standing in it just as you are standing in it. My elders were the tributaries and everything they thought and every struggle they went through and everything they gave their lives to, every song they created and every poem they laid down flows down to me and if I take the time to ask, and if I take the time to see, take the time to reach out I can build that bridge between my world and theirs, I can reach down into that river and take out what I need to get through this world.”
–Utah Phillips from the song Bridges

Communities and Guilds

This is the fourth article in an ongoing series that I’ve written in our town’s alternative paper, the Madison County Crier. The series is intended to be an introduction to permaculture, often illustrated by examples taken from our homestead. When possible I’ve also made it a point to link in to the potential for a permacultural approach to town and community life as well as the prospects for easing our town’s transition into this new future we have before us.

In my last article I discussed the importance of connections between the structures,organisms, and landscape in a design that captures energy flow such as rainwater formore efficient use. I also applied that kind of observation and design principle to ourtown to show that energy and resources which are currently thrown away or not capturedat all can be used to our immediate benefit.

This time around I thought we might explore another aspect of this thinking with adiscussion of building guilds on our site and community in our town. We’ll start with theidea of a guild. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary one definition of guildis “an association of people for mutual aid or the pursuit of a common goal” which appliesvery well if you think of our town or most towns. In the context of a permaculture site aguild is an assembly of plants which are, in a variety of ways, mutually beneficial. In sucha guild we might combine medicinal and cooking herbs, pollinator attracting flowers, a foodcrop, and soil building plants. Such a guild will not only be beneficial to the plants but also toour needs for food and medicine. Let’s have a look at an example which I’m using at my ownsite.

Unlike many gardens which are rows upon rows of annual vegetables and occasionallyplanted with a border of flowers, my site is modeled after the surrounding natural ecosystem. Ihave fruit trees planted in guild arrangements which include annual food crops layered into thesun facing sides of each group. Each guild is centered on a fruit tree such as apple, plum, peach,pear, or paw paw. Around the trees from the trunk to several feet out, are a mix of nasturtiums,chives, garlic chives, fava beans, bee balm, yarrow, and comfrey.

Just outside this ring which is formed by the drip line of the branches are a mix of gooseberries,red currant, and black currant fruit bushes. The south facing side is planted with sundemanding annuals such as squash. This guild requires little to no watering thanks to the thicklayer of cardboard and straw mulch.

In these fruit tree centered guilds plants, arranged to take best advantage of vertical spaceunder the trees perform a variety of functions and maximize the collection of sunlight. Theyattract a diversity of pollinating insects including predatory wasps that will aid in the controlof insects that can damage our plants. The fava beans will add nitrogen to the soil and thecomfrey provides fantastic, nutrient rich leaves that can be used as mulch material at thebase of the fruit trees or anywhere in the garden. Each circular guild connects to the next and,taken all together, form a larger “food forest.”

Villages, towns, and cities might also be viewed as a series of connecting and overlappingcommunities. As with our permaculture site, beneficial relationships between people ina town are the foundation of those communities. Just as any ecosystem’s health is based uponits diversity, our community’s health and stability are increased by the variety of personalities,characteristics, and skills our people. We all have something to offer which makes the wholework better and a part of the process of living in a community is developing connections andrelationships so that our offering fits in.

But something seems to have gone wrong in recent years and the health of our communitiesand the relationships that bind them together seems to be rapidly failing. After World War IIAmerica engaged in a steady and very rapid build out of suburbia, a living arrangement not basedon community relationships and local economics. In many towns and cities the familiar relationshipsof the local gave way to anonymous shopping experiences in sprawling malls and hugebig-box stores. As real community faded away the “Friends” on television were pushed into ourliving rooms to fill the void.

I’d like to propose that an important part of the solution to our many social and economic problems isthat we get back to the basics of family and community relationships. By becoming more aware of theserelationships and potential relationships we can nurture and expand them so that they are more usefulto us as individuals as well as the over-all community. Like the bees in my food forest, the people ofour town wake up everyday and get to the business of living. We have a variety of social and economicinstitutions and networks that we use to organize the work that we do, ranging from family to schools to small businesses to local and regional government. Building and maintaining a healthy community, like a garden, takes a great commitment and willingness to share our time and energy.

It is not an understatement to suggest that it is in the context of community that we can live our livesto their fullest potential. It is in our community that we might become better people by learning andteaching one another. Our relationships help define who we are and who we might become. The beautyof community is that, at its best, it is a place in which we co-create one another. It’s not difficult to come to the conclusion that it is the quality of our community and the relationships we have within it that largely determine the quality of life we will live.

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Connecting and Cooperating

This is the third article in an ongoing series that I’ve written in our town’s alternative paper, the Madison County Crier. The series is intended to be an introduction to permaculture, often illustrated by examples taken from our homestead. When possible I’ve also made it a point to link in to the potential for a permacultural approach to town and community life as well as the prospects for easing our town’s transition into this new future we have before us.

In my last article I discussed how permaculture systems are designed to be self-contained ecosystems that use a variety of organisms such as bees and chickens that add value and produce to our gardens. I also related this making our town more self-reliant and efficient by producing more goods with local resources and consuming them here as well. This time around I’d like to talk a bit about the importance of connections and cooperation between the structures of our system as well as the organisms within it make life easier as they increase production. This not only applies to our permaculture gardens but also to our town.

A key principle in creating a permaculture system is the complete capture of all energy that flows through a system. Every single day energy and resources such as sunlight, wind, and moitture animate the earth around us and much of it is used in the natural processes going on around our garden. But a great deal of it is never used at all. Rainwater is a fantastic example of a resource that is often wasted and can even become a problem. Everyone is familiar with the erosion that can lead to gullies and flooding around homes and roads after heavy rains but the problem is not the water. Rather, it is how we have altered the landscape with buildings, pavement, and hardened soil surfaces that lack natural organic matter.

Why not use this rain to our advantage thus turning it into a valuable resource rather than a force that causes property damage that requires money and energy to repair. One of the easiest projects is the collection and storage of rooftop water into rain barrels, cisterns and slow draining garden ponds or swales. In a week- end and for less than $200 a series of 5-10 55 gallon rain barrels can be easily plumbed together with pvc pipe and elevated on a stand to allow for a gravity feed of water to a hose for watering a garden.

Other structures beside the home can also be used to collect rainwater. The design of our combined greenhouse/chicken coop results in several rain barrels that will collect drinking water for the chickens. Even better, rain barrels, placed along the back, interior side of the greenhouse and painted black collect and hold heat in the early spring and late fall to keep the greenhouse warmer. Once the sun goes down the hot water will slowly release heat and keep the plants and chickens warmer late into the night. So not only can we collect and hold water for later productive use, we can collect and store energy from the sun that would have otherwise left our system. We spend less time keeping our chickens sup- plied with fresh water and in the winter we have more produce to eat. Over the course of a single summer such a system will result in several thousands of gallons of water being diverted to constructive use.

We can use these same principles in town to organize projects that will save us energy, time, and money in a similar way. From the perspective of permaculture there is no such thing as waste, there are only resources that we fail to properly utilize. The key is to observe energy and resource flow to identify what is not being used or not being used efficiently. The next step is to connect those resources in such a way that they are efficiently used on site or in the com- munity.

As an example, think about the trash gener- ated by businesses which then have to pay to haul it away to a dump or recycling center. Any retail business that has goods shipped in for sale likely has lots of cardboard some of which my get recy- cled, some of it thrown away. Why not divert that cardboard to anyone in town that has a vegetable garden? It makes a fantastic mulch when covered with leaves, grass clippings or straw thus saving garden- ers time and water as heavily mulched gardens need practically no weeding and much less watering even as they increase the fertility of the soil.

Another such project might be a composting co-op to take advantage of res- taurant food wastes which could be collected and composted for a community garden or for use by gardeners in their home gardens. Most restaurants have coffee grounds, egg shells, and a variety of vegetable wastes that could be col- lected fairly easily. A rotating stock of plastic buckets, a small bit of land, some hand tools, and a few volunteers or one part time employee would be the main ingredients for such a project.

Our town, like many towns, is full of resources and energy not being used. The above are just two examples that were easy to think of, both of them fairly easy to implement given a bit of communication and cooperation. In fact, it is communication and cooperation which are the key components of any project or larger plan to help make our community function more efficiently for the better- ment of us all.

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Return to the Local

This is the second article in an ongoing series that I’ve written in our town’s alternative paper, the Madison County Crier. The series is intended to be an introduction to permaculture, often illustrated by examples taken from our homestead. When possible I’ve also made it a point to link in to the potential for a permacultural approach to town and community life as well as the prospects for easing our town’s transition into this new future we have before us.

In a recent article I defined permaculture as permanent agriculture or permanent culture which puts forth a system of designing food producing ecosystems which produce more food but require less energy. Permaculturalsystems, as sustainable systems, are designed to be largely self-contained in that once set up they do not require inputs of energy from outside systems. These concepts of self-reliance or self-contained sustainability are also aspects of our town and the surrounding region.

Let me offer two examples: honey and eggs. On our permaculture homestead we’ll be setting up bee hives as well as a chicken coop. Not only will we benefit from the main products of honey and eggs but we will also see many other benefits from this more complete ecosystem. For example, our bees will increase the pollination of our fruit trees and garden plants resulting in more produce and we’ll have beeswax for making candles. The chickens will increase the productivity of our garden and orchard with their manure as well as their control of insects that might otherwise eat our produce.

We’ll likely have more eggs and honey than we can eat which means we’ll be able to share or sell to family, friends, and neighbors. They benefit from fresher food produced with no chemicals and harvested ripe with no need for preservatives. We all benefit in that local energy and resources are being used for production and consumption within our community. This is opposite of the oil-based global economy which places no importance on keeping production and consumption local. When we go to Wal-Mart or other big box stores for our food not only are we are sending our money out of our community, we are allowing ourselves to become dependent on others for our most basic survival needs.

With every day we increasingly see the dangers of this system. Produce which is harvested before it is fully ripe so that it can be shipped across country before it rots is not as tasty or healthful as produce which is harvested at full ripeness and eaten two hours later. Even worse, food produced by large scale industrial agribusiness is tainted with a variety of chemical pesticides, fertilizers, insecticides, waxes and recently, sometimes bacterial contaminates such as salmonella.

The problem is not just our food production. We hear about banks and businesses which are too large to fail and yet they are failing, bringing the entire global economy into a depression. Such a system is not sustainable and the more energy and money we spend trying to prop it up, the less energy and money we will have to develop our local alternatives which we control directly. It is a problem perpetuated not only by government bailouts but by us as well. We failed to maintain our ability to take care of ourselves and one another in our communities. In the last century we chose a way of life that emphasized good deals on gizmos and hyper consumption which was based on cheaper production in China and elsewhere which meant jobs lost in the U.S. Even worse, this entire global economy is based on cheap fossil fuels, primarily coal and oil. We have likely reached a peak in production of oil and are now realizing that never-ending economic growth is impossible. The ponzi schemes of Wall Street created the illusion of growing wealth throughout the past 20 years but we know now that it was an illusion and it is now collapsing before our eyes.

While we may not have any control of the global economic system we can work to build our local economy which we can control. Everyone reading these words can grow some of their own food. In the summertime we can buy local food at the farmers markets which we can eat fresh and preserve for winter meals. Every single tomato grown and consumed locally adds value to the health and vitality of our community. Taking greater control of our lives and building a more secure, sustainable future starts with me and with you.

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Permaculture and Community

This is the first in an ongoing series of articles that I’ve written in our town’s alternative paper, the Madison County Crier. The series is intended to be an introduction to permaculture, often illustrated by examples taken from our homestead. When possible I’ve also made it a point to link in to the potential for a permacultural approach to town and community life as well as the prospects for easing our town’s transition into this new future we have before us.

In May 2008 I made a decision to take hold of a long held dream and grow it into reality: a permaculture homestead. Now, I suspect that many folk have not heard the term permaculture so I plan to get to that in just a bit. First, let me say that I spent most of my childhood summers visiting my grandparents who lived on a bit of land with a small lake just a few miles north of town. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that some of the best childhood memories are those days of fishing with dad or grandpa. Little did I know that catching and cleaning fish for food would one day be more than just a fun weekend treat, but a part of a deliberate effort to “live off the land.”

After graduating high school I went off to college and then moved to Memphis, Tennessee. In those years I was rarely able to visit my grandparents and the lake except the odd summer weekend and holidays. The memories of my adventures in the woods and around the lake remained and the fondness I’d developed for the natural world during those early years had greatly affected my outlook on life. In my years in Memphis I was an avid gardener of organic vegetables and native wildflowers. I helped create a housing cooperative where residents not only grew some of their food but also taught workshops to neighbors who were interested in gardening. We installed wood burning stoves and systems to collect rain water and gray water for use in the garden. We reached into our community and helped to set up a food co-op, bicycle co-op, and media co-op.

After 12 years I left Memphis because I wanted to reconnect with my family and, as it turns out, the landscape of my childhood. It is now official that the U.S. has been in a recession for the past year but most folks don’t need an official declaration to know that times are getting very difficult. We’re even beginning to hear predictions of another great depression. It is times such as these that living in community is most important. I’ve long felt that community life is the foundation of democracy and liberty. It is in community relationships that we act as citizens to govern ourselves and aid one another.

This brings me back to permaculture. Permaculture, a phrase created by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, means permanent agriculture or permanent culture. It is a system of designing and maintaining food producing ecosystems which are stable and resilient. What makes permaculture different from common small scale gardening is the careful arrangement of diverse groupings of plants using no till methods and heavy mulching so that energy input is greatly reduced even as productivity is increased. More than that, permaculture is not just about food. People also need shelter and energy so permaculture design considers these needs as well. Energy flows such as sunlight and rainwater are harvested by the buildings and the landscape. The efficiency of permaculture designs makes life easier even as it saves us money and reduces our negative impact on the environment.

On our permaculture homestead we are using methods that are sustainable and which produce a surplus beyond our needs so that we can help feed others in the community. Anyone, in town or in country, can use the same principles and techniques of permaculture design to become more self-reliant and, by doing so, increase the food security of our region. Whatever our future may bring, growing some of our own food can only be a good thing.

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Getting through this

I thought I’d direct folks to this fantastic post at The Automatic Earth regarding the costs of homes in relation to personal income and the role of banks in removing wealth from our communities. Some interesting points there about the end of a functioning capitalist system as well as a sensible, community-based approach to dealing with foreclosures. The only thing I’ll add is that we have been far too focused on wishful thinking in this country and that has to end. The longer we try to hold back reality, the more energy we spend trying to go around this mess rather than through it, the more intense and longer lasting it will be.

Why is 3 times income a reasonable price for a home? Shouldn’t the prices perhaps be
exclusively set by the cost of building a home? If 3 times income were
“normal”, consider that prices have become easily 3 times the cost of building
the home. So most homes cost 1 time annual income to build. And that’s just
the start. A mortgage of the elevated value will cost 3-4 times its notional value
to be paid off in full. Thus instead of living in a home paid off at 1 time annual
income, buyers will need 10-12 times annual income to own a home free and
clear. All this is money that disappears from communities, and into the vaults of
big faceless banks. It’s little wonder that communities and individuals have an
ever harder time establishing a decent level of services and decent living
standards, health care, education, water treatment etc.

Why do we accept so easily that speculation is a good thing when it comes to
our basic needs? It will come back to haunt us in a very aggressive way. Now
that the speculators, banks and developers can no longer rely on housing for
their gambling incomes, they will turn to other basic necessities, none of which
are shielded from the so-called free market. Thus, as incomes drop and
deflation expands its rule over the earth, prices for food, water and energy will
be set by “free” markets.

If we would stop handing money to the banks, which are insolvent anyway,
take the troubled mortgages they hold or have sold to Fannie and Freddie, who
would also receive not one additional penny, and give them to the communities,
who can negotiate with the occupants about a reasonable rent that would allow
them to remain on the premises (perhaps the Obama 31%-38% of income?!),
providing the communities with income, we do away with the need for all these
bail-outs. In one fell swoop.

A situation such as the one I’m painting here will eventually and inevitably
come to fruition. But our political and societal structures will not let it, not
voluntarily. And that will unnecessarily raise the suffering to levels we do not
even dare to fear. Free market capitalism is dead, and I don’t say that because
I have communist sympathies. I just look around me and see that no society
can exist that allows too many of its citizens to fall into utter misery. What
killed our capitalist system is the inclusion of basic human needs in an economic
system based on speculative games. If you set up an economy that propagates
gambling with basic human necessities, you will of necessity end up gambling
away the lives of the people who depend for their survival on those necessities.
Our societies have played these games beyond our borders, in Africa and Asia,
for hundreds of years. And now, because the system dies of it cannot grow, it’s
our turn.

I cannot resist to also share this excellent quote about Obama’s $275 billion plans to halt foreclosures, also from a recent post at The Automatic Earth :

The fact of the matter, of course, is that the $275 billion will not, and are not
meant to, benefit the homeowners. They are provided for the benefit of the
lenders, the banks. They are meant to guarantee an ongoing flow of funds
towards the vaults replete with toxic debts based on the very homes the
government now showers with cash. They are meant to artificially continue to
prop up US real estate values, which, if they were allowed to simply follow the
course of the markets, would bankrupt not only the owners, for which
Washington cares preciously little, but also the banks, for which Washington will
bend over backwards any time of day. The main problem is that it’s way too
late. The banks will drown, and everybody knows it. So the only real purpose
served by these measures is to transfer ever more of the public’s funds to the
banking sector. It’ll go on until the nation itself is completely broke and broken.

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Good old days…

My good buddy Brandon recently sent me an mp3 of his work in progress audio documentary of Free Radio Memphis. Loved listening to it and thoroughly enjoyed the rush of memories. That was a fun time…. well, the getting arrested was not so fun but everything that came before that. Take the wayback machine to the website of the Constructive Interference Collective.

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