Sunday, November 15, 2009

The permaculture puzzle

So I totally miscalculated the distance between Bellingham and Anacortes and missed the noon ferry to Orcas Island on Friday. All was not lost, however, as Ollie and I caught the 3:30 boat and made our way to the Bullock Permaculture Homestead in time for dinner (and a much-needed hot shower). I had heard good things about the folks and their educational focus at Bullock's and was hoping to gain a better understanding of what permaculture is and how it fits into the larger picture of sustainable food. I'd heard the term "permaculture" a few times by now, but was still hazy on what it actually meant.

After breakfast, I spent Saturday morning with a group harvesting medlars. You're probably wondering what the heck a medlar is. I didn't know myself until we got out to the orchard and started gathering windfalls (fruit knocked down by the wind) of these rose family relatives. The rock hard, alien looking fruits soften into something like a paste over the course of a few weeks after harvesting, I was told, and are excellent in preserves. The trees, I believe this particular variety was of English origin, grow amazingly well amid Orcas Island's mediterranean-like climate and are prolific producers of tasty edibles. Why, then, have I -- self-proclaimed lover of all fruits from around the world and a former graduate student of English Literature, which surely must have some mention of the cultivar -- never heard of a medlar? It is one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of varieties of fruit and nut trees that have been uncultivated by the modern food production system and have thus fallen off the food radar. These are the sorts of plants that the Bullock family is seeking to explore for their potential to round out a thriving ecosystem, where humans live in harmony with the land and the land, in turn, provides a year-round cornucopia of edibles. The loss of connection between people and the plants that feed us is part of what permaculture seeks to remedy.

I had no expectation that I would be able to tease out a one-sentence working definition of the term during the brief period I spent working with the Bullocks and interns at the homestead. Heck, I hardly had hopes that I could wrap my head around the general concept enough to attempt a blog post on the topic. But I asked. "Permaculture is something that takes many years to really understand," Doug proposed (in a very kung fu master kind of way). I asked Yuriko what it meant as we separated and potted strawberry runners. I asked Lily as she made bread and Emmett as he showed me around the nursery and the far fields....

Before coming here, my vague understanding was that permaculture was a way of farming that was meant to establish food growth cycles that would require progressively less human effort. I was not altogether off the mark, but the ideas involved go far beyond low maintenance food production. From what I can piece together now, it seems that permaculture is more a way of thinking than a set of specific agricultural techniques. It is a lens through which we can view our relationship to the environment and set things up in a way that is mutually beneficial and requires the least amount of energy. (Not just fossil fuel energy but human energy as well, which is something oft neglected by overworked organic farmers.) Like most worthwhile pursuits, it takes careful observation and thoughtfulness: an awareness of how various elements of the particular ecosystem work; understanding what each part contributes and what it needs to flourish; knowing which areas get more light or less water. People play an integral part, not as reckless consumers nor rabid preservationists but rather as stewards coaxing an increasingly healthy balance throughout the system, all the while sustaining ourselves.

The philosophy seems to invite people to conceptually divide up whatever space they are managing and take into consideration which things need more attention, placing these where they will be most accessible, relegating the less "needy" things to further removed areas. (What a metaphor for life, no?) On a farm, herbs might be easily accessible from the kitchen door, the orchard farther afield, the low-maintenance potato patch further still, the berry bushes that ripen during summer months planted along the path to the swimming hole where people can enjoy a handful of raspberries on the way or pick a few pocketfuls of blueberries for a pie on the walk back. In an apartment building, it may mean finding herbs that do well in planters that get only indirect light or starting a windowsill or balcony garden with plants appropriate for the particular climate zone. More than anything, permaculture encourages a return to common sense (which, sadly, so many of us seem to have lost -- me included, I realized, when someone had to show me how to use flint to start a fire) and utilizing the resources we have at our disposal.

The core of permaculture seems to entail being mindful of the different factors affecting your surroundings and understanding how you can nurture the best each piece of the puzzle has to offer (not necessarily in terms of amount but rather quality, though there is something to be said for quantity). It is something you can do in rural Iowa, on an island in the South Pacific, in a New York apartment, and that's part of what makes it so cool.

So there you have it: permaculture demystified. After two full days of working and questioning and observing and pondering, I wonder: Doug, how'd I do?

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ibti - I think you did a great job of explaining permaculture. I understand more about it now than when we met those many months ago in Newburyport. I've learned both by talking to people who are permaculturists as well as reading. I particularly like "Gaia's Garden".


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