Binary stupidity and Permaculture
Why we should put Permaculture at the heart of social change
Rewilding and food production
I quote “Lincolnshire rewilding project promises to create jobs and restore biodiversity, but locals say it is taking food-growing land out of production”.
I wonder if I need to write anymore here or if everyone got it and like me cannot understand why this type of binary thinking continues. It’s ridiculous, damaging and undermines our capacity to find realistic solutions to the world’s problems.
Why do people persist in this type of black or white, one thing or another way of seeing the world? Mainly because we are taught it in schools, by parents, by foster carers, by the media and by politicians. And it is total bollocks, it is harming us and crippling our capacity for systemic thinking. If we want to do anything about climate change, poverty etc etc it will have to change.
One of the reasons I became a Permaculture designer was because Permaculture (PmC) is about systems and holistic approaches. I have been know to say that a PmC designer doesn’t plant trees, we plant systems. This often provokes some groans but is nonetheless, as far as I and the people I work with are concerned, more or less true.
I was tempted at this point to use the example of a tree to explore the many parametres that a PmC designer will take into account when he or she is working out where to plant it in a system. “Nah, leave it out” I said to myself or I’ll be typing all bloody day. Enough to say that there are a huge number of factors to take into consideration for example “how can this tree help insulate the house?” Oh yes indeed.
Back to the quote above, which frankly is really annoying me. In a world where we have been creating agro-forestry systems for millennia is it possible that people don’t understand that trees and agricultural production can go together? Have they never even seen and orchard being grazed by sheep or something like? Maybe not. We also have another example of uninformed people expressing opinions on something they don’t understand, have been misinformed about or are prejudiced about. Which is great for journalists who can continue to present everything as a binary war, in this case jobs and biodiversity V food production.
Come on, really? Do we have to continue like this?
So, partly to calm myself down let’s have a look at a PmC design approach and it’s inherent holistic/systemic nature.
Rewilding is a good idea, in the PmC world we have been doing it for over 40 years. But of course not just any old how. We need biodiversity, not because it’s fluffy and cuddly and lovely (it isn’t) but because species diversity helps us create resilient systems. We also have the “life ethic” in PmC which states that all forms of life have the right to exist. Why? Because our knowledge is always incomplete, the elimination of a species or reduction in the size of it’s population can have, and usually does have, unforeseen consequences. The ‘whoops’ principle. The recreation of wild areas is a part of what we do, but not just anyhow. Our approach is predominantly to designate areas and then leave them be. That said there are areas that we wish to rewild but are now so damaged that it will take centuries before they will rebuild themselves. One design I did involved the creation of a gabion permeable barrier to protect a future down-valley wild area from the enormous erosion that happened each winter. The wild runoff eroding the site was due to up-valley deforestation in areas beyond our control. The water was slowed by the gabions giving it more time to infiltrate and reducing, by a lot, the erosion. Grasses moved in and then bushes and then trees. Minimum of work for a maximum result.
The wild areas are often positioned in order to provide as many benefits as possible to the main site. A barrier between pesticide people and your project, a windbreak (which is where the house insulation can come in), whatever, they are designed to be part of a whole integrated system.
A lot of supposed projects involve planting back ‘native’ species. This can be good and they will, if left to themselves afterwards start to diversify and become more complex. A problem with this approach is the timescale factor. We are planting native species but which ones should we be planting? Things are changing and changing fast, a Permaculture expert with whom I have worked several times is a farmer from a farming family. His mission is to help farmers adapt to climate change and uses keyline/holistic landscape design and agro-forestry as his main approaches. His difficulty is working out which tree species to plant in a given area. We are looking at approaches that need years to develop and which will continue over decades or more. The question is which tree species to plant and this involves trying to work out what climate change is going to do to given area. The tree species heretofore adapted to the area may well not be the ones that can survive or thrive there in a few years time.
Natural systems are not static, they change, evolve, adapt.
Then, in PmC design, we have the semi-wild and semi-cultivated areas. Forage/fuel trees and bushes, wild harvest areas etc. In another area we may plant, for example, cultivated walnut trees which produce more branches at a lower height, or they are pruned this way, when compared to ‘normal’ walnut trees which can grow tall and straight and provide timber for future generations. These latter trees will be planted in the semi-wild area.
Then onto the main production areas, and I keep banging on about this …… We can have trees and vegetables/grains/tubers etc in the same area! It’s called agro-forestry! It is absolutely possible, and we know this because we have been doing it for years, to have trees in a vegetable garden or an agricultural field. My vegetable production areas are planted with fruit and nut trees. Why?
The trees provide semi-shade which means that my veg suffer less heat stress. Me too when I’m working in the garden! I’m busy in semi-shade, the neighbours are burning in the full sun and running around with watering cans.
The tree leaf-fall provides mulch
The trees encourage a mycelium network which helps all the plants
The trees are perches for birds which eat insects and leave their droppings which are an important source of fertility
The trees slow the wind and reduce damage
The trees provide fruit, nuts and wood
The trees are pruned which produces a mulch material. The tree roots go can go down to the bedrock and bring up micro-nutrients
Yes alright …. it looks pretty too!
So, I have a wild area, a semi wild area and a wooded food production area. The biodiversity has increased and so has the system’s complexity and resilience.
A few years ago a mate of mine planted and apple orchard, he asked me to drop by and have a look. Gazing at the field and the young trees I asked him what it was that he wanted to produce? “Apples of course” was his terse reply. I then asked him what, in terms of volume, was going to be the biggest production. After thinking a while he realised where I was going with the discussion and replied “grass”. So, together, we redesigned the system. We set up posts in between the apple trees and strung horizontal wires, we then planted grape vines along the rows of apple trees. At the base of each tree we created small circular mulched areas to plant different pumpkin varieties which use the trees as support, it’s fun to see orange pumpkins developing amongst the apples. Finally my friend got some movable electric netting to protect the trees and vines and started to run a few sheep who keep the grass down. He know has what I like to call a sophisticated system!
So, all said and done rewilding is a good idea but needs complex, holistic design. If we persist with binary simplistic approaches we are never going to get out of this mess. This is why I am, and have been for more than 30 years, a Permaculture designer. It is why I am still convinced that Permaculture design must be at the heart of the social, agricultural and economic changes we so desperately need.
Please don’t get me wrong. I’ve stayed on subject here, rewilding and food production, but Permaculture design isn’t limited to that. We work with whole systems…. architecture, energy production, micro-industrial systems, economic systems, water management systems, schooling, clothing, entertainment ….. basically everything you can think of!
Here in France we have been training Permaculture designers, a lot of them, one of our objectives is to get these people elected in their local areas and start bringing some sense to local area redevelopment. It’s early days but it is starting to work and more and more Permaculture designers are now members of their local authority. It’s looking good!
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