What is Permaculture?

Larry Korn, a permaculture teacher and advocator of natural farming the Fukuoka way, told a story about a radio interview with another permaculture activist.  The first question put to him was:

 “What is permaculture?”

Giving a succinct definition that would inspire anyone to engage with permaculture seems elusive.  Permaculture practitioners demonstrate what it is by doing.  And this inspires others to follow.  Quite simply, because it works, even in the Sahel and even in the salty soil of Jordan.

“A design methodology”

This was the answer given in the radio interview, and although correct, isn’t very enlightening.  I realised when I reviewed my section on permaculture principles, that I’ve also manage to make it seem very complicated.

This is my favourite definition, although I’m unsure where it came from:

“A revolution disguised as gardening”

Permaculture addresses many of our major global issues – feeding a population that is out of control, the infertility of our soils, clean water shortages to harsh drought, peak oil, climate change, the destruction of ecosystems, lack of biodiversity and social inequality – in a very practical way, through small and larger scale edible gardens.

“‘Permaculture is a revolution disguised as gardening.’

It is a system that takes a practical and ethical, rather than political, approach to solving global problems. It entails designing your home, the way you live, your environment and community to be not only sustainable, but also rehabilitative and regenerative.  It’s just like gardening, except it is achieved by following 3 nurturing principles, and roughly 12 practical design principles.  The three nurturing principles are to care for the earth, for people and to fairly share any surplus produced (including with animals).  The design principles are based on models provided by nature.”

(Safar Fiertze)

How did I do?

 Want to learn more about the 12 design principles?  Click Here

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The Zen of Scything

I’ve never watched Poldark, I’m not sure that I ever will.  But one single episode of the series very quickly became the subject of local gossip.  Rather than give a wordy explanation, I’ll give you a glimpse of what all the fuss was about:

The scene also caused controversy.  The first was due to the sexism of treating man as object by those swooning over Aidan Turner’s toplessness.  But you’ve got to admit that he does sport a very fine set of pecs and abs.

Ehem… moving on.

There was another reason.  I heard it first on the windy hillside of a Slaithwaite permaculture farm.  Why is that when the BBC create an episode that would go viral, Aidan Turner wasn’t taught how to scythe properly?  So, I had to look for myself.  Abs and pecs aside, all sexiness goes when you see his sweaty, puffing, hacking action.  I was, like others who’ve discovered the zen of scything, very disappointed.

The Zen of Scything

Scything is like t’ai chi both in its action and in its efficient use of energy.  You cut the meadow, you don’t hack at it.  In so doing, you don’t break a sweat.  Imagine yourself standing, relaxed with your feet about shoulder width apart.  Your arms and hands are held out in front of you and there just happens to be the two handles of a scythe placed in them.  The heel of the scythe blade rests on the ground, you don’t even have to lift it.  You gently grip the handles, then turn your body, keeping your arms in the same position all the time.  The only thing that moves is your hips.  The action creates an arc around you of cut grass/weeds/anything unlucky enough to have got in your way.  You take a step forward and repeat, an inch of grass at a time.  After a while, you get into a rhythm, there’s a satisfying swoosh of the blade through the grass and you can start daydreaming or listening to the buzz of insects and the song of birds around you – moving meditation.

It’s spiritual:

“You may well refuse to lend your scythe, even to your best friend.

“But, more than that, if you are gripped, you will enter into a relationship between you, your tool, your colleagues and your land, which will unveil new depths season after season. There is a magic in mowing which, puts the rhythm of the body and the dynamics of a community in touch with the breathing of the earth.”

The Austrian scythe guide by the Scytheshop.uk

I can’t say I’m good at it, but I’m getting better, and while I’m not quite at this level of oneness, I can see why some mowers could be that obsessive.  It’s a form of labour I didn’t expect to enjoy, and although I’d love to be as lean as Mr Turner, I can take pride in knowing that I don’t scythe as clumsily.

5 FACTS ABOUT SCYTHING

One:  650 Kcal an hour

For the fitness minded, scything strengthens core muscles and one estimate is that it uses up 650 calories an hour.  Its health benefits have been likened to yoga, pilates and t’ai chi.  I may have made it sound easy, but you don’t realise you’re working so hard until you’ve stopped and then wonder why you feel so tired and HUNGRY!

Two: Scything Championships

People get together and mow a patch of field with their scythes with the aim of doing it faster and to a better quality than their competition.  Currently, Simon Damant and Andi Ricard are the male and female scything champions in the UK.

Three: Scything Teams

The mowing of a field used to done by teams.  There has been some revival in this.  The team would move forwards in a line and be accompanied by rakers who would turn and remove the harvest as the mowers cut.  Some teams would be nomadic, taking work where they could during the harvesting season.

Four:  Austrian Scythes

Several different types of scythe have been used over the centuries, but now the most popular is the Austrian scythe which is lighter than other alternatives.  It is the Austrian scythe that I have used.  Perhaps Aidan’s was heavy.

Five:  Peening

When mowing, the scythe needs sharpening with a whetstone every 20 minutes or so.   However, from time to time the blade will need peening.  This is an art-form in itself.  It entails the use of a hammer and anvil.   Peening redistributes the metal very slightly, a bit like a very hard modelling clay being hammered carefully into shape.

And Verd wants a machete…. pfft…

Not one for the Permaculture Plot

My daughter and I used to have a favourite walk.  It took us from our home, high on a hill into the more sheltered climes of an old woodland on either side of a small river.  In the summer we’d collect the bilberries lining the path, and in autumn, the blackberries.  If we were lucky, we might spot an edible mushroom, always vigilant for the apricot aroma of a chanterelle, a heavenly favourite.

The path forced a river crossing.  Great in summer, you’d just paddle across, but in the winter you had to be more adventurous.  We used to crawl over a mossy tree trunk.  Once, we tried to do it like homo sapiens, on two feet, but that really wasn’t the best of ideas.

The walk passes in front of a 17th century inn, which in winter would have an open fire greeting you as you enter – best kind of a welcome when you’re cold and wet.  The chefs at the inn take pride in their menus and a good lunch would always lift our spirits, and the staff would politely ignore our muddied and bedraggled state.  I think they are used to hikers and Yorkshire stone flagged floors have survived many a year of muddied boots.

We’ve both moved on, and its been a while since I walked that path.  Yesterday, I had the splendid idea that myself and Verd would have a grand day out if we retrace the route with cameras and with foraging intent.

a grand day out
“A Grand Day Out” – Image by Chris Devers

It would mean taking the path in the opposite direction to that which I was used to, but I didn’t think it’d be a problem, the route is straightforward and my memory isn’t that bad – is it?

So after consulting siri for potential weather surprises, we set out armed with little more than cameras and our boots.  I even forgot to bring a vessel to store the wealth of our foraging expedition.  Not that it mattered too much, it was too late for bilberries and too early for blackberries.  Nettle seeds, we ate on route, having become accustomed to the inevitable stings.  I’m confident they’re a preventative cure for future joint problems.

I have the strangest of notions, sometimes.

It’s peculiar how things look so different when you view them in reverse, particularly  muddy paths.  Even the initial starting point (a choice of three paths) was unrecognisable.  Although it appeared to be the most logical, I chose the wrong one.

We puffed and panted up a long climb, making a resolution to step up the fitness programme.  We paused to observe a pair of large birds of prey and debated over identification.  Their gradual flight away from us made it difficult.  My educated guess was a buzzard, but didn’t feel as confident as I usually do in recognising one.  However, once home, a reasonably clear picture help with the identification process.

Buzzard-for-Web
Common Buzzard, sighted in West Yorkshire (note to self – macro lens not the best for bird shots!)

Once out of camera sight we moved on, and it became increasingly obvious we weren’t walking through a pretty woodland valley like we should be.

The path was well-signposted as the Calderdale way, but I’m sure that’s hundreds of miles long.  Not the walk we were equipped for.

The-Calderdale-Way-for-web
Calderdale Way Marker

“I should have brought the map,” I vaguely mutter, hoping it was more to myself, but the comment didn’t go unnoticed.  I found myself at the top of a hill, looking down at a pair of arms waving crazily at the bottom.  Arm waving is surprisingly easy to understand.  I’m a good interpreter:

“I’m not going up there unless you can tell me we’re going the right way!”

I was suitably reassuring in the expert arm wave back, I managed to get consternation calmly taking photos again.  The fact the path was going right when we needed to go left was omitted from my confident reassurance.

Meanwhile, we paused to take pictures of a variety of insects delving into the himalayan balsam vaults of pollen and nectar and discussed how edible the plants might actually be.

Insect-Pollinating-Himalayan-Balsam-for-web

Thankfully, the right turning path turned into a sharp bend and I was now more confident our steps were taking us in the right direction.  We bumped into a friendly local inhabitant of the human kind, who gave us easy to follow directions.  We soon arrived at our starting point, where we discovered the answer to whether himalayan balsam is edible or not:

Roe-Deer-Devouring-Himalayan-Balsam-for-web
Roe Deer Feast – Himalayan Balsam

Himalayan Balsam

A deer’s digestive system is different of course to our own, but I thought it was worth investigating the edibility, nutritional or medicinal value of himalayan balsam.  I’ve found little scientific evidence for the last of these two, but there is some general advice about the edibility of the plant that seems to be standard.  Flowers, stems, leaves, seeds and seed pods are all edible.  However, regular eating of the plant raw, particularly leaves and stems could be toxic due to the presence of calcium oxalate.  It is destroyed in cooking , even if only a quick blanching.

Forage with Caution

The plant itself doesn’t sting or have any prickly parts, but stinging insects love to burrow inside the flower and are easily missed.

Bee-Pollination-of-Himalyan-Balsam-for-web

Uses

Himalayan balsam tea drink looks inviting, and can be sipped using a stem ‘straw’.  The stems are hollow, therefore making a valuable ecological substitute for plastic varieties.

Flowers are a good garnish for salads, and if your nasturtiums suffered from black aphids like mine did this year, these are a pretty replacement.  They can be similarly used to garnish ice-cubes.

The seeds are said to have a nutty flavour, so can be substituted in recipes where hazelnuts might be used, and they also contain an edible oil.  Eatweeds suggests an interesting curry recipe using the seeds, which has been a traditional use for the plant.  I do, however, recommend the cheat being one of the Aagrah pastes rather than pataks!  They are highly authentic and are made with very simple ingredients, no additives. Other than that, I recommend a sauté of a teaspoon each of turmeric, cumin, fennel, chilli powder and fenugreek in lots of onions and garlic with two finely chopped finger chillies in LOTS of oil as a reasonably decent base for a medium curry!

A plant for the permaculture plot?

NO!!!

Particularly if your plot is damp and wet.  Himalayan balsam plants can each produce 800 seeds within highly sensitive seed pods.  Touch the pods and they will catapult the seeds as far as 7 meters away.  Next year you will have 800 plants all with a further 800 seeds awaiting expulsion.  It is a highly invasive plant.  So while the English countryside is profuse with a late summer plant, it’s best foraged rather than encouraged!

In fact, foraging like the roe deer could help keep it from drowning out the native weeds, just mind you don’t set off too many seedpods when you do!

Deer-Feast-for-web

I did read an interesting perspective on the UK desire to try and stem the spread of the plant.  Like many others concerned about the preservation of native plants, I saw it as a menace.  However, it only appears late summer and into autumn, then it completely dies back.  It could be an important food source in the future and it is a great attraction for pollinators, all in need of help.  During the walk, I noticed that our typical moorland plants continued to thrive, appearing unperturbed by the immigrant.  If deer have a liking for it, then its spread could be curbed by natural processes and wouldn’t need any human intervention.

Cider in a 17th Century Inn

It was an observe and learn walk rather than a productive foraging expedition, but I’m always happy if I capture one photo I’m proud of:

six-legs-for-web

I was awakened from my thoughts about the hike when the favourite 17th century inn stood imposingly before us.  We packed away cameras and selected a dry barrel cider.   A rare choice for me, it was a perfect way to end the walk and I savoured every drop of its fermented apple taste.

I had discovered where two out of the three initial paths led to, and learned that the third is the one we really should have taken.  I didn’t share this knowledge with Verd.  I’m not sure he would have been so impressed.

Maybe next time, but with a map!

Observe and Learn – from a song thrush

I observed a good reason for never using snail and slug pellets.

For those following the blog, you’ll be familiar with my winter observance of non-interference in the garden.  The patio outside the living room window is now an natural habitat for many visiting birds, a squirrel and a nosey fox which paid a brief visit a couple of early mornings ago.

Yesterday, I planted out the first of my heirloom seedlings within the midst of this increasingly biodiverse ecosystem.  I wondered if they’d survive the slugs and snails.  The mulch around them is quite rough and ready, so perhaps.

The snails seem to be moving in as expected, but so did a thrush.  She watched me as I watched her picking off the choicest specimens and undeterred by my presence, she proceeded to hammer their shells against stone flags.   Once freed, the meat inside was quickly gobbled and the thrush keenly looked around for more.

Song-Thrush-for-web

Now, perhaps you’re concerned about the trauma that the snail is going through, but compare it to how snails (and slugs) actually die if they ingest a pellet.

There are two active ingredients used in pellets, one makes the snail swell and the other induces the overproduction of mucous.    This means the pest will die of dehydration.  Additionally, these chemicals are also toxic to mammals, such as your pet (although most brands have a repellant to deter accidental pet death).  However, if not ingested, they will leach into the soil and into water run off.  Even for higher order animals like us humans, a range of problems from skin irritation to liver damage is a possibility.

But the more likely and probable scenario is that if the thrush that visited today, picking off this new diet of snails, had chosen a slug pellet ingesting individual, it might now be feeling very poorly.

I’m only a winter into exploring permaculture principles more actively and with so little effort, I’m completely sold on its value.  If I manage to get some food out of this year too, I’ll be more than convinced that mutual harmonious cohabitation is possible.

P.S.

The day after writing this post, two thrushes are actively collecting nesting material and seem to be setting up base close enough to observe their comings and goings from our living room window.  Another lazy witch success!

The moral of today’s lesson: “Don’t do a do unless you know the undo.” (Irél)

“Don’t do a do until you know the undo.”

I will, at some point in the future, share how Irél, archmage of the Caemantarii, came to share this particular lesson with her eager young students of sorcery.  Irél is an eccentric character I created some years back, and I’m hoping to revive her again as part of the perhaps novel-to-be ‘Asura the Adamant (The First)’.  However, my purpose today is to consider a more serious situation – the “undo” to a do we didn’t know how to undo when we were doing it.

Sound complicated?  Hopefully not.  I’m going to share the stories of three people who have acted alone (or at least with a supportive partner), made a difference and have inspired not only their own communities but are also globally influential.

Flower-on-Tree-Trunk-for-web
Doing the do

The ‘do’ in this case is desertification.  The process of desertification is attributable to the removal of vegetation from the land.  Unprotected, exposed and bare soil loses its organic structure, is unable to retain water, dries, and then is washed away in heavy rains, or blown away with the wind.  This leaves infertile land that bakes, becomes hardpan and desertified.

In my short article “In Search of a Lost World”, I promised a set of three articles promoting effective solutions.  I’m going to begin with the third of those promises and share three, very different regenerative methods for reversing the desertification process.  Whilst each method is facilitated through community cooperation, each has been created by the work of a single individual who has dedicated their life to this cause.  I am sharing these stories as I hope that they inspire the belief that one person, you, can indeed make a difference.

“The Man Who Stopped the Desert”

The Sahel region of Africa is a biogeographically distinct region situated between the Sahara and the Sudanian Savannah.  Desertification in the region has led to the fragmentation of small communities dependent on arable land. The inability to sustain a living has led to migration to urban centres for work.  One small farmer, who observed this process, rued the demise of local communities and became the ‘madman’ of the village when he set about making a change.   His name is Yacouba Sawadogo.  His story is featured in a documentary directed by Mark Dodd entitled “The Man Who Stopped the Desert”.

Yacouba, of Burkina Faso, battled for more than 20 years against opposition to a simple farming method he introduced into his local community.  It is called ‘Zai’ and loosely interpreted, it means ‘pit’ or hole.  Yacouba began the process of food forestry, one hole at a time, literally.

Knowing the Undo: The Zai Method

On a flat area of hard pan, a small pit is hacked into the ground, using an implement like a pick axe.  The hole is approximately one foot (30 cm) in diameter and slightly less than a foot deep (20 cm).  Recruiting local help is useful, as a row of these zai needs to be carved into this difficult ground.  This process is repeated until many rows of zai cover the land entirely.  The method is facilitated by working along any existing contours in the land and is undertaken in the dry season.

You may have read my earlier work, where I’ve preached the dangers of digging.  But this area of the Sahel was barren, there was no carbon in this land to release to the earth, no organic matter to be scorched by the sun or soil to destroy.

The pits are filled with organic matter, not easy in a land with so little.  Yakouba uses sheep and cow dung, ashes from the cooking pits and any vegetation, like leaves that he can gather.  He then places small rocks between the pits in readiness for the little rain that falls each year.  The aim of the rocks is to slow water run off.  On such hard, impacted land, it will flow quickly away from the area.  The purpose of the method is to capture and store it.   Before the rains come, seed is sown into the pits and crops are grown.

Yakouba followed an instinct he had about the importance of trees.  Trees are planted as well as crops, leading to reforestation of the area.  In spite of many obstacles, he is now an avid teacher of his method, providing other communities with the skills to avoid the famine and poverty that had tormented the region for so long.

Millions of dollars are spent on research by the west on reversing deforestation and even with advanced technologies have met with less success. The beauty of Yakouba’s approach is its simplicity.

Mark Dodds eloquently summarises this quality:

Here is how to make your own zai pits.

  1. Start the process in spring, or the dry season if you live in the Sahel. Find an area of flat barren land. You will need hard packed earth with low rainfall, between 400mm and 800mm per year. You will also need a large team of helpers.
  2. Working in rows, hack pits into the ground with a shovel-axe, about 30cm wide and 20cm deep.
  3. Step forwards over your pits and continue this process until the area is completely covered with pits.
  4. Fill the pit with compost. This can be made from rotted cow/sheep dung, leaves, and ashes from wood-fuelled stoves.
  5. In each pit put a few seeds of millet or sorghum.
  6. If you happen to have a termite mound nearby you are in luck. These guys will help break down your soil and encourage rain infiltration
  7. Spread the word! Invite friends and family to see what you have done.

(1080 Films,  accessed 02-05-2015)

However, he didn’t mention that you might need a thick skin to cope with being called crazy and the resistance which was as extreme as a burning of your crops!

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The Man Who Once Killed Elephants

Based in Zimbabwe, Allan Savory’s story is truly a case of ‘doing a do’ before knowing the ‘undo’ to extreme cost and devastation.  However, with all good stories, it does have a happy ending.  Allan finally found the undo to the do he did.

As with Yakouba Sawadogo, Allan is perhaps the best to tell his own story.  This I am able to share, as he created a moving TED talk about the mistakes he made as a result of initial research into desertification and how he came to find a solution he now shares and avidly demonstrates.

Knowing the Undo: Natural Grazing

In earlier articles, I have stated how I’ve come to believe that the permaculture principle of ‘observe and learn’ is the most important.  Nature is a wonderful teacher, and a lesson, fortunately Allan Savory was not too late in discovering.

The Man Who Greened the Desert

Taking on a 10 acre area of land in Wadi Rum, Jordan, Geoff Lawton, permaculturalist, not only attempted to use his approach to land regeneration in a hostile environment, but this patch of desert also suffered from salination.  Theoretically, nothing should grow here.  It is now an oasis which could be extended, using nature’s principles of succession.  I have often shared this 13 minute video of Geoff Lawton’s work with my 17-18 year old politics students when I introduce them to the concept of deep ecologism.  It is one of the few ‘stories’ I share that has a very deep emotional impact on them.  Several have been close to tears.

I never fail to be inspired by Geoff Lawton’s success; the open warmth of his personality, and the vibrance and energy with which he shares his knowledge make him very accessible.  I previously wrote about my thoughts on the importance of stories for sustaining a permanent culture and felt gratified by Geoff’s similar views on their value.  Through sharing the stories of these inspiring individuals, I hope to contribute to the permaculture we’ve been inspired to develop.

Although I’ve shared the video in ‘My Quiet Revolution’, I do think it worth bringing to the fore again.  You will notice that the technique he uses is not unlike the zai method, although mechanisation is used to a quicker end.  He also met various obstacles which he overcame despite the deflated feelings he experienced.  An additional link is given below as it may help you to find other highlights of Geoff Lawton’s work.

Geoff Lawton’s Website

© Safar Fiertze (2015)

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This post is a response to Day 13 of the Writing 101 Blogging University challenge:  Serially Found.  This follows from the previous ‘Previously Lost’.  I chose to write about lost soils, with a view to presenting ‘doable’ solutions to the key problems of this contemporary age.

Another inspiration for this post came from a work-based request to share a favourite book in readiness for Children’s Book Week next week.  I chose ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’, a short heart-warming and highly believable story by Jean Giono.  As I am leaving employment in 3 months time, and my work entails the use of a great deal of paper.  I have promised the universe I will redress the balance by planting trees… one blister at a time!

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In Search of a Lost World

Nick Robson posted a beautifully constructed documentary short by Spencer Cathcart.  It is visually inspiring and the issues raised have formed the basis for Blisters, Bunions and Blarney.  However, like many similar documentaries and literature, it fails to address solutions.  It urges us to make a change, but neglects to advise how.

Similarly, I wrote an article on the International Year of Soils (2015), which outlines the problem of the lack of sustainability of existing arable land.  The United Nations has outlined several potential solutions, but they are so vaguely proposed, that little would be achieved in terms of individual empowerment.  One of the facets of permaculture that I like, is that courses focus not on the problem, but on the solution.   Permaculture is best thought of as a verb denoting grass-roots political revolution.

This ‘Lost’ series is intended to present small steps that everyone can make towards regenerating our soils.  The first will focus on what can be achieved in your own backyard, the second will generate awareness of cooperative community developments in the UK that may inspire your own community initiative and the third will focus on soil regeneration internationally.

Readers are invited to comment and share links to their own posts about regenerative activity in their own backyard or neighbourhood.

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This post was a response to the Day Four Writing 101 Challenge: Serially Lost, to write about a loss and to make it into a three-post series.