Because I don’t have enough to do (kidding!), I’ve started taking an online permaculture course taught by Geoff Lawton in Australia. It’s a 12-week course consisting of hundreds of videos and quite a bit of reference material, combined with a Facebook-like interface for discussion. The students are from all over the world, literally— Malta, Laos, Kenya, Australia, the US, Canada, Britain, and China, just to name a few. The comments and questions from these students (and their enthusiasm), combined with the answers from Geoff and his staff, add a tremendous amount of depth to the course. But, perhaps what has surprised me the most is how the combination of the two has been causing a constant streams of questions to coalesce in my brain. I had to get up at 2 a.m. this morning and jot some of them down, just to keep them from running through my head. Last night’s scribblings went something like this–
“Where exactly does soil fertility COME FROM? And why do we need swales, if your land is already reasonable not-arid (Vermont). OR, does water wash off fertility? And what would the mechanism for that be? And is fertility synonymous with carbon content, or a close equivalent? And if very small farms make the most food per unit of area, then they can only do this with inputs of compost or fertilizer of some sort, because the nutrients in the food are being removed from the system. Which takes me back to that first question, where does the fertility come from in a closed system? And why do some soil gurus swear by subsoil plowing, and others seems to hold that any introduction of oxygen into soils causes carbon to burn up?”
I’m sure I’ll be able to wrap my head around all of these, and their answers, as we all proceed. And, I’m sure these questions are only the tip of the iceberg; I might be in for a mentally-busy few months.
Now, to back up a bit, if you aren’t familiar with “permaculture”, I saw a good definition the other day in a news article, which described it as “…agricultural methods that maximize land production by emulating natural systems”. In short, growing a huge variety of mostly perennial plants in ways that enhance soil fertility, and managing water on a property in ways that keep that fertility from washing away. It is often described as a “food forest”, with many layers of plants, from tall trees right down to vines and shrubs and even mushrooms. Though, that being said, there isn’t really just one “permaculture”, because the basic systems can be adapted to tiny urban settings as well as huge rural ones, and in nearly all climates. In fact, permaculture seems to be as much about attitudes and ethics as it is about actual methods, as the actual methods can vary widely depending on where they are being applied. And, speaking of large areas, one of the reference links in the course was to this video about a restoration project on the Loess Plateau in China, in which 35,000 sq. kilometers were taken from near-desert conditions to almost completely vegetated. It is nearly unbelievable.
For my own property, I did make a list of goals, though some of them might end up being mutually exclusive. But as a starting point, I’d like to end up with conditions that increase soil fertility, increase biodiversity, provide wildlife habitat, produce food, have low maintenance requirements once established, provide forage for bees and other pollinators, and not cost too much. And, if possible, I’d like to rework the hydrology of the property in ways that would provide running water (it currently runs off in one fell swoop…).
As for the labor for some of this, my other crazy idea is to start a hippie commune. But, on a slightly more serious note, I have felt for a long time that one of our great hopes lies in permaculture (see my post, “An Important Piece of the Puzzle“). And, if the enthusiasm and optimism in this worldwide cadre of students is any indication, it is hope indeed.