Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Community Supported Horticulture

This idea is raw and unpolished.  I'm just getting my time and date stamp on it as published IP.  There is plenty of searching and seeking of advice left in this notion.

Everyone knows about Community Supported Agriculture, so much so that perhaps "CSA" is a more familiar term than the spelled out version.  For anyone who has been residing under a rock for the last decade or so, a CSA is a prescriptive relationship between producer and consumer that cuts out any involvement by expensive middlemen.  You pledge your support to me (the producer) in advance, stating that you want so much produce every week, for such and such a price, and I promise to provide that produce at the pre-arranged price for the life of the contract.  Producer and consumer share the risks and rewards.  It's a beautiful cutting edge food-sourcing agreement that has begun the arduous work of reshaping the unsustainable industrial food production model.  In short, from an energy descent perspective, the CSA idea is pure brilliance.  It will reproduce itself exponentially without a doubt.

Community Supported Horticulture is the next phase.  What I have in mind is to take my limited 10-member CSA, and for those who have faithfully subscribed for the last two years, I want to offer them an exclusive opportunity to join our emerging CSH.  This is all pure visioning of course, as my CSA hasn't even officially begun yet, but the seeds of.succession always seem to sprout as soon as the soil is properly prepared.  If this idea is a success it will be because of the vanguard ecosystem that made it possible, not because of me.

But I love it, here it is:

Membership in the CSH will be offered based on tenure, tenure that will have exposed the potentials to a certain level of permacultural thought, through mere exposure to the CSA manager and his systems, and it will cost more, not sure how much more, doesn't matter, doesn't even have to be in traditional monetary units, but more, because the membership perks will be far more valuable, and intensive.  The underlying CSA should at this point practically run itself (with the help of an intern perhaps, another valuable layer of pedagogy).  The CSH is now the hierarchical level that matters for the general steward.  It should include at least 2-3 hours of consultation work on the member's (hopefully) developing site, and 12 hour a day free tech support (those are our normal phone/email response hours, 9-9).  The physical product on offer will be bush, bramble, and tree fruit, herbs, ecologically-appropriate contract meats, and mushrooms, (+?), but the most important bit will be rooted plants: grafted fruit trees, rooted cuttings, bramble starts, fruiting bushes, mushroom logs, blocks, boxes, and buckets, herb starts, that sort of thing.  Physical product could be opted out of by preferences for consultation services (probably by the hypothetically-interested 3).  The goal of this stage of the operation will be to help establish a new local hub of ethical food production off-site, another node in the network, through the proper spread of both potted plants, and more importantly the biologically-active, mineral-dense soils in which they are packaged (terrestrial seeding), and appropriate human ecological systems perspectives (more pedagogy).  It's basically the weaning and training phase.  After about 2-3 years of CSH participation the interested subscriber's system should be functional enough to begin his or her own limited-membership CSA, then CSH, and so forth and so on.

 This doesn't require that everyone moves in the same direction, only that a few inevitably will, especially if jobs patterns hold (and I imagine that will be the case), and that will be plenty to expand the horticultural pattern.  Three of my ten, then three of their ten, and so forth.  In this way the whole of the region could be organically brought up to speed in a matter of a couple of decades, mean consumption declining the entire time, stretching Hubbert's curve out to the right even farther.  Growth will be cellular, not by gigantism, and limited by design, but at no risk of failure by over-reach.  No metabolically-expensive regulation will be required.  "Greedy" individuals who choose to expand from a 10 member to a 15 or even 25  (these numbers are all spectacularly arbitrary at this point, and by no means prescriptive) member CSA will get bogged down in the initial phase change, and effectively lost for the next.  But enough will move along successfully to matter, and at this point the whole region will basically be one giant local marketplace, and the next phase of energy descent will then favor the emerging timely and informed.  Can't wait to see that one.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Fast Forward

Last week we revolutionized a plant's role in its landscape.  Plants are autotrophs, they form the base of most food chains, and as such they provide the fertility and energy support required not just for themselves, but also for the animals that depend on them.  Not the other way around.  In other words, plants grown appropriately don't require additional fertilizer.  Plants add fertility to the landscape, they don't take it away.  Animals take fertility away, and so does cultivation.  It's tillage that robs fertility, not the growing of crops.  If plants removed fertility from the system then the Earth would be a dusty desert all these eons after those greedy plants arose.  So we've come to the idea that, by stewarding the system like Nature would, we can simply allow the plants in our garden to fix and cycle energy from the sun and atmosphere, and realize a net gain of system energy, in the form of fertility, year after year.  Beautiful old growth forests didn't require any help from us to become what they are.

Now that we understand the pattern, and our stewardship paradigm is beginning to shift, we should look for ways to harness that natural fertility-building cycle and press fast forward.  Life is eternal; Nature doesn't care if it takes a century to rebuild fertility lost in a natural disaster.  Compared to infinity, a century doesn't even register.  But humans, we work in a time frame far shorter than eternity.  In a mere 180 years of industrial culture, we've compromised our biospheric life support systems to the point that Peak Oil ought to be considered a godsend, because the alternative is utter systems collapse and the near extinction of our kind.  There is no way that, without the massive fossil energy subsidy, the planet could support even the comparatively paltry number of humans that lived on Earth in 1800 CE.  Back then people had no electricity, no cars, no pavement, no supermarkets, and they rarely traveled more than a dozen miles away from home over the course of their lifetime.  They mostly grew what they ate, organically of course, though they obviously didn't call it that, and their economies were based first on gifting, then barter, and as a last resort, trade.  In most pre-industrial cultures, trading goods for money was considered lewd.  Only when we struck on more or less perpetual growth (for a time), from coal and oil, did we abandon personal relationships and uniqueness for standardization and trade with strangers.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Along with most of the planet's natural resources.  You will often hear modern day philosopher Derrick Jensen talking about salmon in a cold clear mountain stream so thick that you could walk across their backs, or flocks of passenger pigeons darkening the skies (at 60 mph) for days at a time.  I've never seen anything like that.  And I can't even imagine what this continent must have looked like 500 years ago!  The landscape around me now is so bleak and desolate, so nuked and paved, (and covered in turf grass that needs to be kept green through the drought for some insane reason or another), that I wonder how it will ever recover.  We think this is just normal, and it is, for a culture seemingly bent on killing its mother.

But we're here to talk about how to make things better, not to lament the demise of the passenger pigeon or the Stellar's sea cow.  We can't bring them back with any amount of crying, or penance with hair shirt donned.  What's done is done, and those of us here only played a tiny incalculable role in the madness.  But we're not going to participate in that part of our history anymore, are we?  We hang around blogs like this to pick up new tricks for growing food with fewer inputs, or ways to sequester carbon with our activities.

So I'm going to walk through a couple of well-studied ideas for speeding up our fertility cycling so that we can enjoy lush gardens of Eden within our short lifespans.  Shall we?

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is probably the champion of my garden.  I turned one plant into 60 in two seasons, and they adorn every fruit tree and large shrub in my garden.  Call them my favorite horticultural handmaidens.  And I will multiply them by 4 at least again this year.  Eventually the whole 40-50 acres of crop land under my stewardship will be sporting a fine green jacket of "chop and drop" comfrey mulch.  Surely we could employ a couple of college interns full time just in the maintenance of comfrey mulch!  The one in the photo above isn't even a big one.  It's just a pup getting established.  But  it looked to me like this little nectarine tree could use some love, so it will forever be remembered (by me at least) as the first comfrey to play the role it's here to play.

Simply cut the whole plant off at the ground and drop it around the tree as mulch.  You don't have to be gentle with it, this is the most robust plant on planet Earth I think.  I find that they come back slightly faster if you leave a few of the small emerging basal leaves, but I can only see that as feasible if you only have a few to manage.  Cutting the little guys back only costs you a 2 or 3 days really.  And considering this thing will be right back to full size in a month (6 weeks tops), what's a few days?

Here you can see that the mass of comfrey cut is nearly equal to the crown biomass of the young tree.  Spread it out within the drip line of the target tree and let it break down naturally.  Comfrey is a fantastic miner of potassium, which is so important for fruit trees.  Think about it this way, all you'd need to add is a few chickens or ducks to wander, (once the system can handle their physical presence), and you've got the 3 major nutrients covered in beautiful organic forms.  And natural fertilizers like poultry litter and comfrey aren't just limited to the macros like NPK fertilizers are; they also bring an entire suite of micros to the scene too.  My gardens are fenced off into separate "rooms" to control the movement of poultry for that purpose.  They also break pest cycles in the orchard, but that's a different post.

 This is what's left of the plant after you chop it back.  Looks injured doesn't it?  Hehehe.  Not.  You can do this multiple times per growing season, instead of just the once that Nature would accomplish with the first hard frost of fall.  In my bioregion I expect to be able to cut my comfrey at least 5 times per season, speeding up natural fertility cycling 5-fold.  We haven't changed the way she does it, just the pace at which it happens.  If restored mineral cycles were going to require a century for Mother Nature to accomplish, we've now reduced that to a time period in which humans can think and function.

 Did I mention that I have one under every fruit tree?  I'll have several under each by this time next year.  The one above started as a single pup in January, but looks like at least 4 in this shot taken in May.  That's normal for comfrey.  It's aggressive.  Make no bones about it.  But we're talking about an intensively managed human ecosystem here. Five years from now we'll be looking for something else to do other than eat overflowing baskets of fruit.  Chop and feed, chop and feed.  Like any weed it will eventually work itself out of a job.  That was one of the main lessons from last week, and it's a tough one to get a hold of.  Don't let comfrey's beauty fool you.  It's still a weed.  Or better yet, try to see an equivalent beauty in ALL of the weeds that are there to enrich your system.  You'll reach optimum productivity and mineral density faster that way.  That was Nature's intention in sending them.

 Here's another way to use comfrey's goodness.  Chop it up and drop it in a bucket instead of on the ground.

Fill the bucket up with water and soak overnight.  Don't soak it too long in the heat.  It goes rancid fast.  Still great for compost, but I don't know about spraying it on my plants.  After the overnight soak strain it off into a pump sprayer and apply as a foliar spray to ailing plants, or healthy plants for that matter!  It's good tea.

Nature has legions of critters that turn woody biomass into topsoil, and the Kingdom Fungi is well represented among them, but even with the onslaught of these minions, large branches and tree trunks can take years, even decades, to break down.  Nature doesn't care.  She has all the time in the world.  But not so for us.  To me this is a great example of the use of appropriate technology.  I used about two quarts of gasoline in a shared family chipper to create about 15 bushels of wood chips with a greatly increased surface area to volume ratio.  This stuff will break down wicked fast compared to branches laying naturally on the ground.  Most of the mass will come into direct contact with regular moisture and soil microbes, including fungi that I am growing on purpose.  And it's not just any woody biomass, this is all from vanguard shrub and tree species like privet, cherry laurel, and water oak.  The kind of plant community that precedes a more mature, more productive one, like the one we're trying to build.  The expense of 2 quarts of gas has taken several years off of a big load of soon-to-be soil humus, which will take a whole lot of pressure off of the input requirements down the road, saving far more than half a gallon of gas.  In a developing food forest this stuff is worth a king's ransom.

Geoff Lawton says that we are the weeds that can repair the Earth.  While I'm not claiming to be as good as the weeds, I hope we can pick up important patterns through observation and interaction with Nature, learn to capture and store energy like she does, and apply those lessons in meaningful ways, quickly, for the benefit of all who follow.

Thanks to John Michael Greer for the lesson in hair shirts.  Religion seems to make people do some pretty strange things sometimes.  And thanks to regular commenter Blockhill (NZ) for pushing the conversation in the direction it's taken this week.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

When the Student Is Ready

The teacher will appear.  Along with the permaculture cadre, Nature has been my teacher for the last few years. Although I was an ecologist before that, I still thought in terms of Cartesian dualism - Nature v. Culture, in a zero-sum game.  Permaculture changed that paradigm radically, and the reintegration process has been underway in earnest ever since.  Sometimes the process is hot, like a wildfire, and sometimes it is stagnant, like a cypress swamp.  I told my wife this winter, as we settled into the new farm here in south Georgia, that I didn't feel like I had learned anything revolutionary in a while, that I was mired in one of those stagnant swampy pools.  Our best guess relied on the fact that we were repeatedly reliving the first year in our garden system, and hadn't progressed into new material since we caught the permaculture bug.

Seems fair.  If one is involved in a nature-based learning cycle, the lessons of perennial systems never have a chance to form if one just picks up, digs up, and moves every year.  I have plenty of fruit trees that have spent three seasons in three different gardens.  They have nothing good to say to you if you cut them off at the roots every winter.  In essence we've been attending our freshman year at the University of Nature over and over again.  Not that it wasn't worthwhile!  We learned a whole helluva lot about establishing a permaculture system!  And as far as being able to help first year permies get established, we might be some of the best.  We have 3 straight years of learning-by-doing in the first year of site establishment.  Our systems get bigger, better, more connected, and more quickly productive every time.  It's like having two do-overs of the most important year of  your life.  No complaints, but the education was starting to slow and lose its luster.  I can only imagine what teaching first grade year after year must be like.  Wonderful, rewarding, but sacrificial too.

When I had that mental breakthrough back in January '09, I was watching the interview with David Holmgren on Peak Oil and his book 'Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability' that you'll see linked in the right-hand column of my blog under "Videos Worth Watching."  And boy was it ever worth watching.  Rocked my world, and I've never looked back.  Immediately I sent the video link to everyone I knew and cared about, so that it could change their world too.  When that didn't work I sent the list of books I'd been reading recently, telling them that if they'd only read these books, in this order, that a wonderful paradigm shift would be their reward.  What a fool.  When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.  And not before.  And probably never by the same route someone else takes.  So I stopped trying to help people get there, wherever "there" was, and just started practicing what I was preaching.  And yes, now I'm writing about it, but I'm not forcing anyone to read it!

Had I thought about it for even half a second, I would have recalled that even I had seen that interview before, several months earlier in fact, in Florida, before we left for Washington.  Nice guy, this David Holmgren fella, has some interesting ideas, I remember thinking, but nothing earth-shattering.  I wasn't ready yet.  But when I was, it became the atom bomb that forever changed me, separating me from my dualistic agrarian nature, and giving me a more vigorous connection to how natural systems work that I'd never known as an ecologist.

About the same time I watched a YouTube video called "A Fukuoka-Inspired Permaculture Garden," created by Emilia Hazelip.  Emilia grew up in Spain, then interned at an organic farm in northern California in the 1960s (where, incidently, she was one of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters).  After becoming distressed about the methods her farm owners were employing - cultivating, manuring, etc - she started studying Masanobu Fukuoka's work, and adapted his revolutionary theory to her climate and production goals, creating the French Intensive Method of gardening.  I was fascinated with Fukuoka, and enthralled by Emilia's new gardening system.  The tenets made so much sense to me, based on the way Nature works:

No cultivation
No fertilizer
No chemicals
No compaction

I put her model into practice immediately, and produced the garden that served as the header photo for my blog for nearly the first year.  It was amazing...
My first permaculture garden in Spokane, Washington, 2009
And I was hooked!  I put it into practice again, right away, when we moved to Macon, Georgia, the following spring, where the ghetto soil yielded immediately to the gentle coaxing and nurturing it received under Hazelip's method.
My little ghetto garden in Macon, GA, 2010
 I focussed more on integrated small livestock systems in Macon than I did in Spokane, but what garden space I had became lush and fertile quickly under the French Intensive system, without any need at all for fertilizers or chemicals.  And when I say no fertilizers, I mean NO fertilizers, of ANY kind.  Not compost, not rotten manure, and definitely not 10-10-10.

Remnants of broccoli left in place.  They are clipped off at ground level, with the rhizosphere intact, and chopped up a little (which is more for aesthetic purposes than ecological, so probably wrong - Nature doesn't chop up dead plants at the end of the season and arrange them neatly across the soil surface).
Nature fertilizes her soil with the detritus of the plants growing in that place.  In a balanced, integrated system a little manure is dropped off around the plants too, by whatever is cruising by, munching on the fruit and other offerings of the plants and fungi in that spot.  However, if the only muncher is human, and that human doesn't leave an offering of manure, an imbalance has begun in the system.  After many decades of this cycle, all that is left is dry, dead, worn out dust, like what is in the fields of our new farm.  The return of human waste to the system is an issue that must be addressed if we are to even approach sustainability in our food production systems. Properly composted, humanure is safe and mineral rich, and an absolute requirement in a closed system.  (If we go no further, "closed" could for now just mean "without the massive importation of fossil fuel subsidies into the system.")  It has to go back into the system somewhere; doesn't mean that you need to pile it up around your lettuces, and gross out your as-yet-uneducated lunch guests as they gag on your special house dressing; but it has to be added back somewhere, perhaps around the blueberry bushes and apple trees, where it doesn't touch the stuff your in-laws are going to eat after their garden tour.  Nothing wrong with it, we seem to be OK with composted cow manure touching our food, but it is definitely a cultural taboo that must be approached carefully (but approached nonetheless).

But here's the real eye-opener for most agricultural people.  Plants don't take fertility from the system, they add it.  They are autotrophs, which form the base of the food chain upon which all animals and fungi exist.  Plants are the reason we're here, not the other way around.  A plant takes only about 2.5% of its mass from the soil; the other 97.5% is collected from sunshine and atmospheric gases.  In effect, plants are "fixing" free nutrients from the larger system into yours.  Plants are Nature's anti-entropy devices.  Without them, animals wouldn't last very long in the ensuing maelstrom.  So the very basis of western industrial agriculture, the very basis of agriculture actually, all 10,000 years of it - the idea that plant production takes from the system and requires added fertilizer - is wrong.  If that were the case animals and fungi wouldn't exist.

Cultivation is what robs the system's fertility.  Hence the 'No Cultivation' rule.  Cultivation breaks down soil structure and supercharges microbes that, like marine organisms, would very much prefer their oxygen in small filtered doses, thanks.  Yes, initially you can get some extra performance from the soil food web by churning it up, but the reward downstream is a biologically impoverished system that requires increasing intervention.  Increasingly expensive intervention.  Enter American agriculture as Exhibit A.  We don't have topsoils in this country, we have "growing media" that hold plant roots in place, and act as delivery systems for an ever-larger, more toxic chemical cocktail that supposedly produces food.  It produces a ton of something, but I'm not sure I'd call it food.

This season's cauliflower is spent, trimmed off at the soil surface, and laid down  in place where it grew.  The subterranean economy, hosted by the root systems of the plants that helped build it, is still intact, adding humus, anchoring fungal hyphal networks, and slowly releasing the nutrients acquired during the last growth cycle to the next growth cycle.  We took far less than 97.5% of the plant away, so the net fertility gain is positive.  Energy from the atmosphere and the sun have been sequestered into the system for our use.
From seedlings to the biggest, most beautiful heads of cauliflower I've ever seen, there was no need to add any fertilizer or use any chemicals along the way.  And the soil will be even healthier and more fertile the next round, because we took less from it that the plant added.  Still seem far-fetched?  Consider this:

In a garden of this type, where, after establishment, the soil is never disturbed more than what is required to pop a seedling into it, the soil food web is healthy and robust, and can gain 10,000 lbs/acre of earthworm castings, and nearly 80,000 lbs/acre of bacterial corpses in one season.  The "supercharging" that cultivation causes burns up this organic matter very quickly in the presence of excess oxygen, leaving your plants as the only carbon source available to maintain the ~25:1 carbon:nitrogen ratio required by the soil microbes.  Once they turn on your plants' carbon bank, the only recourse is some sort of pesticide.  Keep your soil cycling nutrients slowly, and keep a carbon bank on the surface from which withdrawals can be made at will by microbes as nitrogen becomes available.  The straw mulch laid around the cauliflower in the photo above was pretty much spent by the end of the plant's life cycle.  But we had huge delicious cauliflower, that didn't require any additional attention, in exchange for the carbon donation at the beginning.  Once the system starts getting established there will be less and less need for additional mulches.

Look at all the depth those tomato roots have to enjoy.  The mounded beds will never be stepped on by humans, and the soil will get fluffier, darker, and more fertile each cycle, as new humus provides new sites for cation exchange, and microbial respiration creates a living, breathing, porous soil structure .  Tomatoes produce copious biomass that will get laid down as mulch after the first hard frost, and in soils this biologically active, disease build-up isn't a big concern.
There will also be fewer weeds to deal with as the seasons roll by.  As in any garden the first year will be a supreme exercise in weed control, but unlike a conventionally-tilled garden, as the weeds do their jobs, and as we cover and build healthy soils, they will gradually go away.  We've discussed this topic before, but it doesn't hurt to mention it again, that weeds all have a job to do.  Weeds are nature's way of repairing damaged soil.  In mature, established ecosystems you will hardly ever find any of the plants commonly thought of as weeds in the agricultural sense.  That's because in a cultivated crop field the soils are immature, biologically impoverished, and in need of repair, where in a mature, established ecosystem the soil is living and healthy.  Left to its own devices a dandelion will work its way out of a job.  If the gardener can learn to let it do it!  That stout, recalcitrant taproot that makes dandelions such a pain in compacted soils slides right out of healthy loamy soil with barely any effort.  A conversion that occurs because of the dandelion, by the way.  I know because I've seen that happen in three different gardens now.  By the end of the first season my dandelions are always spindly shadows of their former selves.

I had a mentoring client in my garden this morning, and she pointed out a dandelion in my herb garden and admitted that it made her crazy to see it there.  Then I told I was about to freak her out.  "Watch this," I said, and brushed my hand through the mature fluffy seed head, sending the little white parasols flying in all directions.  I think I could feel her heart skip a beat.  I WANT those dandelions in the garden, because I've finally come to grips with the reason they are there.  They are doing me a favor, and I am grateful for it.  And the greater the diversity of "weeds" that I allow to remain and do their thing, the healthier the soil will be when they get it done.  Each "weed" works in a different way to undo the damage of cultivation, fertilization, chemical treatment, and compaction that we humans have wrought upon the soil.  My approach has shifted from "I don't know this plant so it must die" to "I don't know this plant well enough to kill it."  That's a really big mental shift, especially for someone of my cultural background.

Here is a good view of the permanent pathways that facilitate movement around  the mounded beds in the Intensive garden.  There is no need to walk or drive on your productive soils, as these activities are highly damaging.  Your plants will thank you for choosing another route.
As the soil cycles and strengthens, in its undisturbed condition, the mineral cycle is restored, plants become healthier and more naturally robust.  The need for pest intervention is reduced to near zero.  Healthy, mineral dense, enzymatically-active plants fight for themselves.  They produce foul-tasting chemicals when a browsing animal starts munching on them, they release pheromones that signal predators to come to their rescue, and probably a hundred other tactics I don't even know about.  A truly organic vegetable will probably have a few holes in the leaves, but these little holes are also "batsignals" for the incoming predators.  A hungry caterpillar leaving a few little holes out in the open spaces of a cabbage leaf is basically signing its own death warrant in the ecological garden.  One of my hunting wasps will be with you shortly!  Fascinating stuff to watch.  Only the most vain among us can't abide a few little holes in the leaves of their vegetables.  And it requires a whole lot of unsustainable energy to intervene.  Then what have you got?  A plant that is deficient in flavonoids and anti-oxidants that would have been there to fight the plant's battles had it been left to its own methods.  Once again, human interference leads to individual weakness, and systems impoverishment.

I've known this stuff for over two years now.  I've actually taught this material in a professional setting.  But until our experiential systems dealings progressed beyond the establishment phase I had a hard time soaking this one in.  Perhaps it was my lecture on the subject last Tuesday, coupled closely with the cauliflower going to rest that helped it all click in my head, but suddenly, just this week, I finally understood the lesson.  And if you can skip all the pig-headed resistance, and pick up on this idea earlier than I did, you will be light-years ahead of the game in an energy descent world.  In essence we're talking about a food production system that requires nothing more than a shovel and some mulch.  To me, the hardest part of it is wrapping your head around ideas that fly in the face of 10,000 years of enculturation.  Cultivation - that's just what we horse-powered farmers do!  But we did it during a phase of human existence when there was always more to take.  Always more virgin land to be cleared, always more energy to burn, always more bank loans to take out when we needed them.  Now all of that is changing.  In a contractionary future we won't have much if any of that.  We'll need to develop methods that actually realize a net gain of energy, that put more calories on the table than we invested in getting them there.  And we haven't done that in a looong time.  This method of gardening is a giant step in that direction.  Please watch the Hazelip videos as soon as you can.  I promise you won't regret it.

Emilia, I can't thank you enough!!

Nothing in this picture was fertilized!  And we (and our rabbits) have been eating lettuce, spinach, and greens from these patches for two months now, and cutting bigger sweeter broccoli, with more and larger "come again" florets, than ever before.  It's all just beautiful, especially knowing that it did it by itself, without human intervention, and that because of our new and deeper understanding of Nature's ways, we can simply allow it to improve every season from here on out.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Pending Systems Restoration

I had a really great post almost finished when Blogger went down last night.  My draft isn't there anymore.  I'm going to run a few errands and see if it shows up while I'm gone.  Otherwise I'll rewrite and post it as soon as I can.  AAARRRRRGGGGHHHH!!!!!

In the meantime, there is at least a new header photo for May...

Monday, May 2, 2011

Who Will Eat All the Soylent Green?

The human population of planet Earth will be in decline soon, but what will happen to all the people, and how fast will it happen?  Well, in the most vulgar of terms, we are killing each other off in war and genocide at an increasing rate already.  It's impossible to disconnect what has happened in Libya, Egypt, Sudan, and Somalia, among many others, from the reality of decreasing resources upon which our population depends.  Actually I think it's telling that the most obvious societal deterioration of today is centered in the birthplace of agriculture 10,000 years ago - agriculture marking the beginning of our journey into questionably-sustainable population densities.  Just because we're not fighting over bread in the United States doesn't mean that the net movement of human population dynamics isn't already crossing the max population peak at the global level.  And in that context, when one culture is living on comparatively easy street, other cultures are already suffering.  We burn coal to make ice for us, even our unemployed do, but most people have trouble finding clean water to drink.

Part of the answer to that question also lies in the fact that we will (quite naturally) redirect energy from less critical activities into producing and feeding babies.  Considering the amount of energy dedicated to unnecessary activity in the industrial world, we could potentially keep our numbers heading north for some time to come.  But the industrial world was not where the population growth was coming from even a decade ago.  A household of "dinks" (double income, no kids) in Atlanta who make 150K between them, and maintain a vibrant social calendar, might assume that they can't afford a baby, where the tiniest trifle of first world philanthropy, let's say the equivalent of an extra chicken and 5 lb sack of rice per week, could be translated into another child in a very poor country.  When it comes down to giving up the cell phone or the annual Heifer contribution, those guilt-sponsored children in poorer nations may be hit harder and faster than anyone.  Matter of fact I think it's safe to say that that trend is already underway.  We've dumped both in this house.

When you begin to realize that agriculture and affluence, and the concentration of people and resources they underwrite, are really the unsustainable bit, it's a short leap to the realization that we don't need more city-dwelling farmers. Sorry guys, maybe that seems cold, but...

In nature, there is no such thing as an invasive "pest" organism.  Not for long anyway.  In a healthy ecosystem the suite of resources on offer in any given system is being fully utilized by the members of that healthy community.  There is no excess with which to sponsor a new problem.  But if you cook more food than  you need for dinner someone is going to eat it.  Whether that's crazy old Uncle Pete stopping by unannounced, or a new breeding pair of rats that smelled the unmistakable aroma of excess wafting by,  the outcome is rarely pretty.  In the case of what we often consider "invasive species" in the landscape, the invaders are simply filling an open niche, almost always created by us.  If we humans were living at typical background populations and energy regimes, we wouldn't be able to create enough disturbance, or add enough excess energy, to a system to sponsor the pest organisms.  They would pretty quickly find a balance with the recombinant ecosystem.  Consider the implications of this paragraph in your garden.

As an example let's consider the problem of kudzu in the US southeast.  Problem?  Really?  Kudzu is a soil-stabilizing, nitrogen-fixing, top notch fodder plant that produces copious amounts of biomass.  Any southerner would second that last part, although the first 3 descriptions might be more elusive!  Kudzu, like any plant out of place, is simply an opportunist, and what oil-powered human activity has made readily available in the US southeast is an enormous niche for a plant like kudzu to fill.  Fragmented forests, worn out soil with almost no biological activity in it, eroded landscapes - we freakin' NEED kudzu to do what it's doing.  Yet we spend millions and millions a year fighting this "invasive pest" plant.  (You invasion biology types think about who makes the money from this "noble" fight against such a dastardly enemy.)  As energy descent puts the brakes on our meddling ways kudzu will find its place in a recombinant but healthy, balanced ecosystem.  So will the rest.  Disturbance opens the door for invasion, and out-of-balance nutrient and mineral cycles maintain it.

So what happens in Nature when one organism gets out of control?  Well, in time another organism or guild of organisms will evolve or step in and utilize it as a food source, or its own food chain will collapse from the pressure.  The classic example in ecology is the island populated by deer and wolves.  As the deer numbers surge, so do the wolves, but eventually too many wolves will crash the deer population.  The deer's food chain and reproductive strategy simply can't make deer fast enough to keep up with the pressure of the growing wolf population.  And so the wolf population starves and their numbers crash to a point that the remaining deer can now support.  There is almost always a remnant, but it can be devastating for the species.

For any of you who have read Toby Hemenway's book, Gaia's Garden, or who, luckily, might know the Bullock brothers personally, you should recall the story of the cattails being wiped out by the growing muskrat population in the Bullocks' recently restored marsh.  Confounded about what to do to bring the system back into balance, (and get some of those tasty cattails back into their diet), the brothers decided to do nothing and let Nature run its course.  For a couple of years they were unable to harvest a single delicious young cattail shoot for themselves because of the greedy muskrats, but then something extraordinary happened.  Their intuition paid off, and a group of otters showed up to feast on the muskrats!  Oh, and some eagles moved in to enjoy the bounty as well.  So now, instead of having a muskrat problem, they were enjoying another whole link in the food chain that their system was supporting!  Not to mention the cattail shoots they had been patiently waiting for for the last few years.  Anyone who has read my essays on food chains will know that adding a top predator to the food chain means that an exponential gain in systems energy is represented by the otters and eagles.  That's what allowing Nature to take care of things accomplishes.  The conventional option would've been to trap and poison the muskrats, and the reward would have been a shorter food chain containing less embodied energy.  That's what human intervention usually accomplishes.  Systems poverty.  And the need to pay for the energy that Nature would've offered for free.

Even the ecologically-motivated act of restoring the Bullock marsh caused a systems disturbance and allowed an invasion of new species to occur.  Many people consider the cattails themselves to be a weedy pest organism, albeit a tasty one.  Had the system stewards kowtowed to conventional thought the newly evolving ecosystem might have been cut short long before the otters and eagles arrived.  Poisonous sprays might have been deployed against the cattails in an effort to achieve a "more natural" marsh ecosystem.  But by changing the way they thought about such things, the Bullocks turned the problem of the cattails into a regular food source, thereby checking the expansion of this "weed."  By acting as they did, in line with Nature's ways, they lengthened the food chain and the energy contained within.  The muskrats represented another link in the food chain, and had the brothers been more desperate, they probably could've exchanged their cattails for muskrat etouffe.  But by taking their lumps with the cattail shoots, and letting the system evolve naturally, they added two top predators and an exponential increase in systems energy to their farm.  It's not necessary to think of each new link in the food chain as a food source for ourselves, but each new link does mark a large jump in overall systems energy.  And that energy, properly managed, can be translated into a large jump in productivity of the human food system buried within the larger ecosystem.  It's fertility.

One weed then.  There is really only one weed on Earth today.  We all know his name - Homo sapiens.  And fossil fuels are his abettor.  Really that's the difference that defines the distinction.  More appropriately we might think of the invader as the industrial human mind, more than Homo sapiens himself.  Homo sapiens was at one time just another animal member of another healthy ecosystem.  Ten thousand years ago a visitor from outer space would've had a tough time identifying what the dominant life form on Earth was.  Humans participated with their ecosystem, and lived within its background energy.  Even if they did have curious habits of making art and jewelry, and used fire to modify their food production systems.  Since then, he has moved onto every continent, and into some of the most inhospitable climates Earth has to offer.  He dams rivers, and depletes underground aquifers.  He poisons air and water with his industry.  He levels forests and plants monocultures that require more expensive inputs every year to maintain.  His presence on Earth is prominent.  Geologists have even considered a new geological epoch called the "Anthropocene" to delineate the impact of industrial humans from the rest of human history during the Holocene, the time since the end of the last ice age, when humans moved out en masse to colonize the planet .  It's that prominent.

Now, it's not that what we've done is monstrous or aberrant.  Actually I think, given our cleverness and the presence of millions of years of stored up solar energy in the form of oil and coal, the industrial age, followed by human population overshoot and collapse, was absolutely inevitable!  But the time has now come to recognize that the energy that created that population and affluence can't simply be replaced by our own manufactured technology.  Sure, with the fossil energy we have left we can build things like solar panels and hybrid engines that will lengthen the amount of time it takes to descend, at least for the owner of that individual technology, but ultimately that energy will be unavailable, and the maintenance of that high technology increasingly unrealistic, and we will be back to where we started in terms of energy availability.  Wiser perhaps, for what we've seen, I mean, if nothing else permaculture was a byproduct of our high energy society, and permaculture will allow us to maintain a somewhat higher standard of living than we did pre-industrial revolution.  Applying permaculture principles, we can create food systems that largely take care of themselves, and lifestyles that more closely fit our energy descent reality, and that will allow more time to engage in other activities, like art and community functions.  But if we don't take the lessons of the past 200 years and apply them to our lives in low-energy ecological terms, then we can probably expect our children to toil in the fields, have chronic degenerative ailments, and be more or less consistently malnourished, not to mention bored senseless, as the remnant of our former glory.

And the ones who can't or won't adapt?  They will become surplus and probably a new food source.  Whether that's applicable in a literal sense - if the collapse following the overshoot is abrupt and there is a catastrophic die-off, or whether the collapse comes in the form of fewer children every generation until we reach a sustainable human population, who knows.  But we will be returned to balance one day, just like kudzu, and probably not too far out.  Plenty of isolated human populations, when confronted with their own version of energy descent, turned to cannibalism to survive.  Descriptions of explorers who discover such cannibalistic populations usually talk about meek, deranged, frightened, and malnourished people before them.  I imagine it would take a lot out of me to have to turn to that too.  If we catch it in time, our soylent green will consist of nothing more than slowly exchanging humans, generation after generation having fewer children, for a wholesale increase in other biodiversity.  Rebuilding our life support systems that is.  But knowing us, it's far more likely that entire populations of humans will be leveled in the attempt to keep things "normal."  After all, that's what we're doing in the Middle East right now, whatever more palatable term it's being given...

I read the other day that the cost-cutting of the prior hundred years, in relation to first world affluence, has been completely wiped out in the last eight.  This was the CIO of a 106 billion dollar investment firm talking too, not some doomer from the blogosphere.  Amazing how quickly the dream world can evaporate when confronted with the laws of physics.  Practice your scales and chords this week.