Finally. The open door. The one that never shows what is on the other side. Smoke or mist or darkness. Shortly after 1 January 2019 my entire focus will go to the design and nursery practice, a risk that is exciting and anxious…a strange balance. The sense of freedom that comes and goes is also a sense of the unknown. A blank canvas, paint box closed. This site will become a place for in-depth postings; the Facebook page will become brief notes, notices, special offers and photos. With this move I will have time to spend with former and new clients, students, research and design, and my own restoration. For now, hibernation, reading, planning and resting up for the new challenge…soon, very, very soon. Standby for irreverence, chautauquas, strange integrations and observations. Buckle your seatbelt (All About Eve, and the Garden of Eden revisited.)
In 1987 I had a major life-changing event which moved me away from a twelve year career in law enforcement and into emergency and disaster management. After writing several major plans, I was approached by the local district coordinator for the USDA, NRCS to coordinate a 36-agency program to restore two major anadromous fisheries watersheds on the Northern California Coast. Five years later I was hired to include a third watershed damaged by leakage from a Browning-Ferris Industries landfill near Half Moon Bay California. So began my immersion in natural resource management. I found stream restoration was amazingly clear to me, and I worked with hydrologists to design repairs, riparian habitat restorations, fisheries habitat installation, bank stabilization, restoration and conservation of agricultural and forest-product lands. That work was the most rewarding, satisfying time of my life.
After a few moves I found myself in Casper Wyoming in 2000, and although this is in no way a place in which I ever expected to be living, the property I have here would be far out of reach financially in many places I would prefer to live. By the time I found myself alone with a cabin and a livestock loafing shed and 18 acres of abused, over-worked ground I had also lost most of my sense of self. I was exhausted from a period of challenges, and my confidence in what I knew had vanished.
I began slowly to make improvements on the property – within budget and under my own labor. I started the nursery in small ways in 2003, began selling plants in 2005, continued with small improvements, and then was blessed with a cost-share situation from which I was able to have an underground irrigation delivery system installed. Up to that point I had used ditches and dams to move my irrigation water from a quarter mile away to the fields on the property. I think it is important to add that I was always employed full time – first as district manager for the domestic water system, then as business manager for the Federal irrigation district, and in the last seven years as a clerk at the local municipal court. Salaries and wages in Wyoming are a small portion of what those types of positions would pay in higher-cost-of-living states. I have always lived on a budget and that ability served me extremely well during these years since.
I do not even remember the first time I saw or heard the word permaculture but I found Rosemary Morrow’s manual in a local bookstore. So much of what she wrote was exactly what I had been doing. She gave me a language to describe things I had been doing by instinct – the old instinct that had created nurseries for rainbow trout to become silver salmon to return and rest in the gravels under the redwoods. And I do not remember the first time, after all the Internet searches and books and videos, that I realized that the nursery and large installations I had developed on my property were what I wanted to do as a livelihood. I do remember finding out that I could still draw plans, structure projects, develop materials lists and budgets, when I completed the Oregon State University Permaculture course work online.
And, I do remember the exact moment that I was writing one of the Reflective assignments for the Cornell Course when reality shifted, and I realized that I already knew all of the basics. They were inside me, inside my experience, and outside in the nursery, and the pasture, and the gardens and the hedges and windbreaks I had installed. When I described this moment to a good friend, her only comment was “I told you this was your Gift.” She is a devout, born-again Christian (I, a life-long Buddhist), and when she used the word “Gift” I knew exactly what she meant. What I love about her use and understanding of that word is that it is a divine gift, something that an individual cannot avoid or deny, and which is not only something that lifts others up, but which also can be a burden for the holder. Never enough, never doing quite enough.
I remember realizing in an exchange with Steve Gabriel that he felt that weight as well. That the weight of doing what we do, living as a natural element in the environment, can be so frustrating sometimes. So much we want to achieve. The point being: I found my footing again and a language with which to share the vision.
The second most amazing thing that has happened as a result of this pursuit of an intentional life was my moment of enlightenment about design. I had no problem planning an installation or project. I saw beauty and function in the things I was doing. But it was the Pattern Language topic that shoved me outside my oh-so-practical paradigm. My irritation with the article we were asked to read drove me to a deeper research into the father of Pattern Language. In fact he had been interviewed for an article in a Buddhist journal to which I subscribe (and which published my first attempt at non-fiction some 16 years ago). And off I went. I spent hours on tangents, following names and history of design, and ended up back in my childhood. Many, many weekends, when I was a child, my family would drive to the Napa Wine Country, north of San Francisco. There on the east side of the freeway, just north of the city of Marin, was the Marin County building. My mother would roll her window down, insisting that my father slow down so we could see the building designed by “Frank Lloyd Wright”. She was fascinated. And I realized that she referred to her childhood home as a “Craftsman”. As a child I could identify the “Craftsman” style. Somehow she had developed an interest in architecture, and somehow, through all the “brown” in which she tried to bury me, the “green” was there as well. Here in my design tangent I came back to Taliesin, Falling Waters, Prairie and organic design. I watched hours of architectural design talks on the TED site. I called up scanned images of hand drawn plans by Wright, Giorgini, Fujimori, Church, and Gaudi, and so many others. In the photos of the Warka Water towers it completely came together. I had found the soul of design, and these great, great people had given me permission to believe in the divine approaches to practicality. Two of my favorites: Falling Waters by Wright and the Seed Cathedral by Heatherwick. And this quest came about because the article by Salingaros was so nominal, so arithmetic, so frustrating.
Permaculture provides a language with which we can describe for others a way to apply information, to create well-being, resilience, growth. It can be as simple as a list of best management practices, of techniques. And unlike the “hard” sciences, the goal of seeking balance in this life is held up before us by the institutions that embody and profess permaculture: Care for the Earth; Care for People; Fair Share. The constant debate about permaculture lacking “proof” is a distraction. The key parts, on the most basic levels ARE “hard” science: soil science, meteorology, physics, organic chemistry, biology, botany. But the proofs of hard science are completely useless unless they can be applied, unless they are proven in the very air we breathe and water we drink. Permaculture is the applied science. It is a practice, a methodology, a dynamic, learning community. It is motivated, as any practice is, by ideals, by justice, by a search for a sense of peace wherever we can find it. Let those who find worth in the dialectic continue to argue, while the rest of us learn from their debate. But only after contemplation with a critical mind, with our bruised, cracked hands deep in the soil, or covered with calf slime, or carefully cleaning mushrooms, or quietly watching the steam rise from mugs of hot, herb tea. Only after dreaming and designing clean water and sanitation systems for Nepalese villages, or donating fresh food to elementary school children in Detroit, or quietly creating a web of barter and trade to rival any monetary economy.
So, tomorrow after I return home from my “grown up responsible” job for the City of Casper I hope to have the energy to get outside and set some fence posts, which will lead to fencing out the five Black Angus and one Scottish Highlander, so that the new pasture grass can grow up, so that I can spray some exotic invasive nasty knapweed, and next year have hay to sell and trade. And I will sleep very soundly from good, hard physical labor. Real sleep: one of the simplest benefits of this life. My most sincere thanks to the Cornell staff, and Steve Gabriel, and my classmates, and to you for offering me this opportunity. Three hundred new plants coming the end of May; lots of work to do.
Language has always been my favorite past time. I have been a writer from the moment I could hold a crayon. Conversely, mathematics destroyed me through most of my education…until graduate statistical analysis. I still remember being terrified by the thought that I had to get a passing grade in statistics. But more clearly I remember the moment the switch between my right and left brain was properly placed. Statistics IS language. I completed qualitative analysis and four statistics courses with A grades.
So it is with heavy heart that I have to turn the pattern language sacred cow into creamed chipped beef. I do not remember the last time I read anything so pretentious. Architecture has always struggled with the mixture of engineering and art, most often referred to as “design”. Is it applied science? If so, then give us practical methods of successful application. If it is art, then lift us up (Personally, I’m a FL Wright fan). I think there is a useful tool here but it was covered in Piled higher and Deeper, steaming LANGUAGE.
I do not have a Master’s Degree. I left the Master’s program in Interdisciplinary Social Sciences when I was offered two contracts to coordinate multi-million dollar programs to restore coastal fisheries in Northern California. To quote my thesis advisor “Why are you wasting time and money on a degree that you think you need to do the job you are now doing?” So, without the degree, here is what I know: Quote from Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander: “Vast parking lots wreck the land for people.”
Reality: Vast parking lots irritate people by forcing them to park far from their destination and create an environment in which people forget where they parked their vehicle. Well, that is what people wandering around the Walmart parking lot will tell you. Well, they tell me that even though I never ask. But what might outweigh these irritations (walking is necessary for human life – circulation of blood and lymph, and all that rot – and personally, I bent the antenna on the roof of my truck so that I could see it across the largest parking lots; no architect necessary)?
Another pattern language phrase outweighs the sloth: Safe Travel. Mr. Niko Salingaros, in his article (The Structure of Pattern Language, June 2005) reiterating Mr. Alexander’s book (Pattern Language, 1977), suggests that parking lots should be designed for five to seven cars, surrounded by gardens, trees and hedges. And here is what I know: Parking lots so designed: will create an environment where safe backing of vehicles will be impacted by lack of visibility, increasing negative emotions and insurance premiums; owners of large vehicles will avoid shopping there and they are usually people with money; will cause a marked increase in auto tampering and burglary; and the sheltered rows will increase the probability of strong-arm robberies. Oh how I would love the small shops of locally-owned businesses, with close parking and friendly alert shop owners! Yes, I have some serious reservations about Walmart’s impact on the planet, economy and human health (let’s not even go into the role of China.) But when I walk out to my vehicle at 9pm I know that: there will be lights; there will be lots of human beings around; there are cameras watching me get to my truck; and an employee to take the cart back for me.
But the truth is that government regulation and taxation are horribly unsupportive of small business. There is a pattern for you: On scale, if the Federal government creates tax and regulatory challenges to small business, and local governments create zoning, construction and marketing challenges, the businesses that will have the financial wherewithal to setup and maintain a successful operation will be those that can afford to comply with all the challenges. Ouch. Pattern language: Environment in Which to Make a Living.
I am much more interested in the webs that evolve to overcome challenges to the survival of each element, structure and system on all scales in several categories – government, business, my nursery, each type of plant in the nursery, the combination of plants in the nursery into hedges, and the elements that feed these: money, water, suppliers, supplies, and oh yes those poor people wandering around the Walmart parking lot who last year came over to my trailer and asked if the beautiful plants in it were for sale…opening the opportunity for language opening the door for new experiences opening the certainty that I will carry the plants while helping them look for their car. Pattern Language: Success.
A culture of personality, permaculture Fathers and their “North of the 38th Parallel” off-spring (again I have to say no Earth Mothers here) have found notoriety through online videos, bits and pieces of beautiful, lush and verdant landscape. One Father that has intrigued me for some time is Geoff Lawton. His most well-known project is the Jordan Valley Project covered in several videos entitled “Greening the Desert.” I think this project is a great example of how social science and community organizing must be part of this work…well, at least if you want to share the wealth.
Shortly after my first viewing of “Greening the Desert” One, Two and the updates, I began to wonder what had happened that the site had not continued to be treated under the permaculture practices and why the funding had been discontinued. Why had new funding sources not been developed?
The issue of funding and what may have happened to the original source for the first Jordan Valley site is touched on when the narrator of the video states that a second site is being considered which will be obtained with funds directly from the Permaculture Research Institute – the organization closely associated with Geoff Lawton. There were references to having control over the funding so that an outside funding source would not be able to discontinue funding or control how a site is developed.
The majority of articles and videos about the Jordan Valley project present it as a huge success, if not inspirational. According to these sources all of the practices implemented worked, even if for a limited time. Success seemed to be measured by the growth of the plants, by the presence of moisture. By carefully worded subtitles on the screen it was implied that the human community had abandoned the project site. We see bare cropping areas, a facility that had been built as a training facility, and goats wandering freely, allowed to browse wherever, when ever. An article entitled “Permaculture Greens the Jordanian Desert, But Why Are People Wary?” by Sami Grover, dated October 14, 2010 states:
“While the drip irrigation systems demonstrated in the video are impressive, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the project is reliant on volunteer labor from abroad—while the volunteers describe how the local population has a hard time understanding the idea of saving and using rain water. It’s yet another reminder that outsiders can only do so much when it comes to ‘development’ work—ultimately we have to find solutions that communities will adopt and run with themselves.”
“The second rule: Never go outside the experience of your people.” This quote is from Saul Alinsky, one of the greatest community organizers of the 20th century. Along with horticulture and soil science, anyone hoping to share the concepts of permaculture in an effort to improve the quality of life on this planet NEEDS to read Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. Where ever you see the word “enemy” in that text insert the words “fear/ignorance”.
If, for whatever reason, we believe that it is our mission to “help” those who we perceive to be leading impoverished lives, we had better first find out how those communities see themselves. We may believe that our methods and behaviors will bring what we have defined as a ‘better quality of life’. It is only self-serving and narcissistic to assume that we know best. If we have tools to offer we let others know of them and watch vigilantly for a door to open. Even then, we must enter with humility and with many questions and an open mind so that we provide only that which is asked and in such a way as to support the values of the community asking. Authority is never in the outsider. The safety offered by authority is the only way that a community will take the risk to try something outside of their experience even if that thing may provide them with some relief.
From the minimal research I have done for this review I believe that Mr. Lawton will only find his form of “success” by being more in control of his project site and by inviting “the choir” to come to the site to do all of the ground work. As a last note, there was one website which was extremely caustic in its reports of Lawton’s lack of “people skills” and his disrespectful treatment of “students” who paid high fees to “learn” at his facility. In every report there is a thread of truth and a great deal of the author’s perception and interpretation. If only a thread is true, it was a sad and damaging report. Another Internet site offered an email from Scott Pittman, Director, Permaculture Institute, dated December 24 2010 which not only questioned Lawton’s motives and ethics, but grieved the loss of Bill Mollison as an active member of the international movement. Apparently his skill at pedagogy and his work with people was a substantially positive influence in the movement.
It is a sad commentary on the permaculture movement that the most well known “teachers” do no advise their “students” to always think critically, testing ideas and applications as the Buddha advised his followers:
“When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.” – The Kalama Sutra
Researching the final assignment for the online course and finally had to make this observation: The permaculture community has no guts. Talk about how important failure is to development, but never risk their own personal failure by critically reviewing the work of the pantheon of mythical heros. Talk about how the science of botany, horticulture, agriculture, flow dynamics, geology, economics, organic chemistry is so important to the methods, but so far very little if any real science happening… you know, hypothesis, null hypothesis, research design, statistical treatment, replication, predictability, failure, redesign, etc.
It is my observation that the leading Fathers of Permaculture are not interested in this activity. It is easier to plant and then make pretty videos of the best results. Not having seen all of the permaculture videos, I am hopeful that someone has done the “Do Not Try This At Home” video of failures. In this design work – as in science – failures are essential to progress.
Permaculture is a practice, like medicine and the law. The foundation of permaculture should be recognized as physical and ethical laws. A practice is dynamic, and feels safe changing and growing and failing and recovering because it is based on those laws: that consistent, moisture is necessary; that specific levels of sunlight for specific plants is necessary; that certain livestock managed in certain ways will predictably increase the productivity of the land; that providing a useful demonstration which fits the value system of a community is more important than who is providing that demonstration.
The mythical heros (again, I’m not seeing a heroine among the vanguard in Valhalla) are a distraction.
This course and the reflective element and the belief in that reflective element by the facilitator has brought me to a new level of commitment and understanding of my role. For me it is not just about growing my own food (I do that now); not about improving my property; it is not just about making an income; it is not about saving the earth because I alone cannot do that. But I believe deeply in the fundamentals of this practice and I believe that individuals can experience a certain kind of freedom by adopting these ways, a feeling of self-determination, and some small relief from a feeling of helplessness. I also believe in critical mass: the smallest amount of material necessary to maintain a chain reaction…
“So what?” Travis snorted quietly. “Well, what about the foxes that’ll need those mice to survive? For want of ten mice, a fox dies. For want of ten foxes a lion starves. For want of a lion, all manner of insects, vultures, infinite billions of life forms are thrown into chaos and destruction. Eventually it all boils down to this: fifty-nine million years later, a caveman, one of a dozen on the entire world, goes hunting wild boar or saber-toothed tiger for food. But you, friend, have stepped on all the tigers in that region. By stepping on one single mouse. So the caveman starves. And the caveman, please note, is not just any expendable man, no! He is an entire future nation. From his loins would have sprung ten sons. From their loins one hundred sons, and thus onward to a civilization. Destroy this one man, and you destroy a race, a people, an entire history of life. It is comparable to slaying some of Adam’s grandchildren. The stomp of your foot, on one mouse, could start an earthquake, the effects of which could shake our earth and destinies down through Time, to their very foundations. With the death of that one caveman, a billion others yet unborn are throttled in the womb. Perhaps Rome never rises on its seven hills. Perhaps Europe is forever a dark forest, and only Asia waxes healthy and teeming. Step on a mouse and you crush the Pyramids. Step on a mouse and you leave your print, like a Grand Canyon, across Eternity. Queen Elizabeth might never be born, Washington might not cross the Delaware, there might never be a United States at all. So be careful. Stay on the Path. Never step off!” – The Sound of Thunder, Ray Bradbury,1952
Gawd bless Ray Bradbury and Edward Lorenz. By bringing the concept of the “butterfly effect” into popular culture by way of science fiction, movies and tee shirt décor at the very least the world has been exposed to it. And this is the beginning of the evolution of thought for people (I always hesitate to use “human beings” because I have a sense of that creature as a more highly evolved creature than “person” in general; think “mensch”). It is clear that the most difficult part of global warming is getting people to accept that they are not separate from their environment. That is such a huge evolutionary step. As long as we do not accept our place in and impact on the total environment, we do not have to feel guilt, regret, shame, responsible. We do not have to adjust or change and experience discomfort – the difference between climbing into our big pickup truck and climbing into public transit. For one thing the smell usually wakes you up quicker than that cup of non-fair trade coffee. If we valued public transit more the conveyances would be so much more inviting. But then I live out in the country and drink Yuban coffee. Go figure. It’s all about balance.
No one has to change so drastically that it unbalances their existence. Evolution can occur by small adjustments or by ‘shock and awe’. Set your own pace and ‘shock and awe’ will be less shocking and awesome. But I do think that change should always feel just a little uncomfortable, like peeking around a dark corner.
But let me balance this: Gawd bless some scientists too. When reading the recently-released IPCC 5th Assessment I found very clear attention paid to the tenuousness of statistics. Really good scientists (and yes, that is my judgment call; remember I’m a Thomas Kuhn disciple) always, always, always quote their source, which can only be a replicated, peer-reviewed treatment, and they always, always, always comment on the reliability of their numbers. I was HORRIBLE in math classes up and until statistics in which for some very interesting reasons I attained straight A grades.
Cast away government regulation; it swings with politics. Litigation has made some huge inroads with industries cleaning up their own act. If that kind of financial fear is the only leverage on the biggest polluters then so be it. Keep that tool sharp.
Working with individuals, giving them the tools and opportunity to experience a healthier way of doing things is the key. And then the 100th Monkey phenomenon will doubtless occur. When a shared knowledge hits critical mass in a population, suddenly and without much warning, the entire population emulates the behavior. (The Hundredth Monkey, Ken Keyes Jr; 1952 on the Japanese island of Koshima with Macaca fuscata).
As individuals we make choices which will impact the world and return to us in a manner that depends greatly on our intent (initial conditions). As permaculture disciples we appropriately share the information until the neighborhood , the community, the city, each reach critical mass of knowledge. Revolution is a glorious thing…especially when it is sneaky.
The End. Namaste
There is an air about good soil. It smells rich, dark, alive. It is the source of “earthy”. It unfolds in your hands, revealing broken stems, shattered, dark leaf parts, wriggling earthworms. It is moist and warm and completely uncommon in this place where I live. Here, in the Big High and Dry that kind of soil comes in plastic bags…unless we create it ourselves in piles of green and brown compost. Placing a seed in this soil will bring about growth; placing the seed in the native soils reduces the probability of germination. Then, there is the seed itself and the level of potential it carries, and the condition of the shell and the life within. These are the initial conditions for gardens.
I have a terrible struggle with careful, organized approaches to creating a garden and the wild-looking result I love. I do not want to introduce harmful elements and yet I do not want to be fearful and precise. As humans we have an overwhelming need to organize the world around us. We plant in rows. But what plant releases its seeds in rows? We prune for clean lines and to remove the browned, frost-bitten tips, and then we put those clippings in bags and send them to the landfill. What forest works to remove the dead and dying to a foreign place? It seems that everything we traditionally do in the garden is contrary to what nature is.
Soil and seed are the initial conditions for the garden. Edward Lorenz used the phrase “the butterfly effect”. Although the original comment was regarding the wing movements of a seagull, Lorenz found the “butterfly” metaphor much more attractive. A seagull leaves a much more complex image. The point was that the movement of the wings of a butterfly impacts the atmosphere and therefore impacts winds and hurricanes and fluid movements in the fabric of our air. By entering the number .506 into a formula to forecast weather instead of entering the full .506127Lorenz found that the forecast completely changed. He saw this as a reflection of the theory of a very sensitive dependency on initial conditions.
One theory of landscape manipulation offers that any action should be taken as small, slow solutions entirely based on the belief that initial conditions have long term impacts well beyond our ability to predict. And with this in mind, prepare your soil, carefully select your seed, start with a few plantings and when it flourishes, I cannot help but see that we must cast the next planting to the wind, letting the seeds find their own initial conditions to bring it back to the wild.