Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Friday, November 16, 2012

Teaching Running Water How To Walk

I'm urban farm-sitting, up late at my uncle Andrew's dining table - this is my uncle Andrew who is 6 years younger than me, my dad's youngest brother, and he and I grew up more like brothers than anything like an uncle/nephew relationship, so in true Southern style, let's call him my "brother-uncle" - late in the evening after a fun but financially dismal farmer's market deep in the heart of Atlanta.  We had a potluck Thanksgiving dinner with the market community, and over some really good food I got to know a few people better that I'd been meaning to get to know better for a while now. 

I'm actually kind of amazed at how common something akin to the worldview expressed on my blog is among that crowd, for starters.  The percentage of farmers marketeers aware of energy descent and its implications is far higher than it is in the average population.  Nearly everyone there is expecting things to change radically in the not-too-distant future, and I'm talking scenarios like the end of the automobile age, currency collapse, and the like.  Some have a "bail bag," or something similar, set aside, if not a well-armed, well-stocked bunker, or "doomstead," as I've heard them colorfully called.  An emerging friendship with a guy about my age exposed a bag full of MREs, matches, silver coins, and a couple hundred rounds of shotgun shells...to be ready to go, just in case. 

You may already be wondering, what does this have to do with teaching running water how to walk?  Bear with me just a moment if you will.

We spent a significant portion of our time inspecting and admiring the various forms of lighting and heating devices on display at the after-hours, and after dark, outdoor potluck dinner tonight, and talking about ways to keep closed living space more comfortable with wood stoves.  People who actually face, and smart people who understand that they might soon be facing, these sorts of new challenges tend to do that sort of thing apparently; heating a dwelling without fossil fuels takes up a significant portion of one's time after all.  But yesterday our heat-activated, wood stove-mounted fan from Lehman's arrived, so I had something special to add to the conversation.  It runs on a tiny dynamo, the current created by the temperature differential between the hot solid base and the cooler aerial radiator, or that's my take at least, and it spreads the heat nicely around our little tent house, giving us an extra 5-10 degrees of warmth I'd estimate, based on the first night's use anyway.  We need to see how it performs on a really cold night before I crow about it too much, but I'm hopeful; Mrs. Small Batch Garden and I were outside the covers at times last night, shedding PJs, with outdoor temps in the low 40s.  That used to at least merit the top sheet and comforter, if not the goose down.  Not bad for a $150, virtually indestructible device.  At full speed - the hotter the stove is the faster the fan spins - it moves 150 cubic feet of air per minute, which means, theoretically, that every bit of air in our 2400 cubic foot "yurt" crosses the wood stove every 16 minutes.  I pencilled that out in my head while I was lying awake and too warm on the comforter at 2 am this morning; makes it easier for my brain to understand.  The 150 cfm figure doesn't tell me anything.  But that kind of "valuable information," shared in the middle of the night, annoys the Missus to no end.

Speaking of getting to know people better that I'd been meaning to get to know better for a while now, I met an internet friend in person a couple of weeks  ago - a fellow who calls himself "ProgressOrConserve" on the peak oil sites.  I can't help but call him "Sam Elliott," because that's pretty much who he sounds like on the phone.  I always want to ask him what's for dinner.  Beef would be my guess.  Maybe some roadhouse food.  Nice guy though.  After three and a half years of online conversation, he and his wife, Mrs. POC, came to visit us at Small Batch, 40-ish miles west of their 5 acre homestead, just a good day's horse ride if it comes to it.  The meeting had been too long coming.  They actually offered us the use of some old family land and a farmhouse in need of "some work" outside of Athens, GA, earlier this year, before we ever met.  A lot of old family land, so we thought hard about it.  Big livestock systems were on the table.  In the end we chose full ownership, and I think the right place, and I think Mr. and Mrs. Elliott agreed.  They loved Small Batch.  During their visit we had the 10 second tour of the "house" (yep, nice tent, bro!;), and a more protracted tour of the land and my rough designs for it.

A transitional phase mountain forest moving toward a climax system dominated by white oak, red oak, and white pine.  The co-dominant Virginia Pine population is steadily dying out as succession moves the system toward maturity.

By my estimation our property was clear-cut 50-60 years ago.  Fast-growing Virginia pine colonized the denuded landscape fairly quickly thereafter, following a shrubby pioneer seral stage dominated by dog fennel, fleabane, broomgrass, and blackberries.  That's the dominant suite of plants I'm clearing from my neighbor's overgrown garden plot right now, including seedling Virginia pine, so I'm simply extrapolating that onto my adjacent acreage half a century ago.  On most of the property the red and white oak nursed to health and height underneath the Virginia pine is overgrowing, shading out, and killing its benefactor.  The nurse pines are all coming down, one way or another, so dealing with this literal windfall of pine biomass appropriately is the first big ecological question to be dealt with here.  Do it right and the system benefits mightily, and my gut says to lay as much as possible of it down on contour across the landscape to slow runoff and promote infiltration, deteriorating into organic topsoil over time.  We're creating "Polish swales," as Rocky Mountain permaculturalist Jerome Osentowski calls them, on top of hard rocky soil instead of dug into it, that are inexpensive, nourishing, and great for water retention. 

Penny Livingston-Stark calls these sorts of techniques "teaching running water how to walk."

Slowing water down as it makes its way toward the creek - retaining its potential energy higher in the landscape, moistening the soil more thoroughly, and getting more uses out of the water before it runs offsite - these should be primary goals for the mountain forest gardener.

Darren Doherty's mnemonic device for this primacy in permaculture, agroforestry, and keyline design is "first blue, then green, then black," meaning slow the water down and infiltrate it (the blue), then the plants will grow better (the green), and then more soil carbon will be produced (the black), creating a positive feedback loop that creates richer and healthier soil, and therefore plant and then animal communities, every year.  It's a regenerative, procreative, circular process instead of a linear, and ultimately destructive one, like modern conventional agribusiness tends to use.  And, just as putting our new fan's 150 cfm capacity into terms of how often the air crosses the stove helped me get a clearer mental grasp of what was being accomplished, (despite the missus's midnight indifference), having a grasp of real world numbers to clarify the benefits behind "first blue" is useful.  A mere one percent increase in soil organic carbon (OC) content increases that soil's water holding capacity by 100,000 gallons per acre!   This sort of OC increase is easy to achieve in one season when water is held up higher on the landscape and forced to infiltrate the soil, instead of running across it.  Moister soil of course promotes happier, lusher plantings that grow faster and produce more biomass that drops onto the soil surface, increasing soil OC again for the next season, which in turn retains more water in the soil, and...you get the idea.  Positive feedback loop.  By simply teaching running water how to walk, we enrich our food production systems passively and continuously.

This is the same view to the south as the photo above, just pulled back a little farther, showing the beginnings of my borrowed "Polish swaling" process.  This contour pathway holds hundreds of gallons of water up higher on the landscape, promoting infiltration instead of runoff.   This process will be repeated and improved upon across the whole property.  Note the two tall stumps astride the path - Virginia pines that have been dropped and used to retain the slope right around them.
I'll post a picture of the vegetable garden next time - I haven't got a good one today and I'm not at home to fetch one - but I've been doing similar things there.  This month I converted the first two summer French Intensive beds into one large raspberry hugelkultur at the top of the garden.  This big raised "mound culture," in Austrian permaculture guru Sepp Holzer's jargon, containing piles of half rotten logs and charcoal (biochar) within it, will go a long way towards arresting and infiltrating many thousands of gallons of rainwater that would have otherwise run off along the primary drainage line.  In Australian P. A. Yeomans' concept of keyline design, contours are not built to be exactly level, but rather sloped slightly away from the drainage line, rewatering the whole of the slope in question instead of collecting the water in ever-larger channels in the typical veining drainage pattern found in nature.  We live at the very top of our little watershed and our efforts at terraforming so far have placed an emphasis on stopping water flow right at the peak.  Subsequently, the whole landscape below benefits from that retained potential energy.  As cheap abundant fossil energy stocks play out, becoming more familiar with natural energy flows, and how to control and use them, will be increasingly important.  Controlling water flow passively for our benefit is perhaps the number one priority for organic systems in an energy descent scenario.  (More on this in an upcoming post called "Keep Your Eye On That Brass Ring.")

The upslope side of our little tent cabin, adjacent to the first apple/herb planting.
You can't quite make it out in this shot, but the top left edge of the photo is also the top of the eastern slope of the geographic saddle on which we live.  Our first gardens around the house start right at the edge of the gravel road that runs squarely on top of the saddle between us and our lovely nieghbor, and are mulched heavily.  I've since laid several yards of oak mulch over the wheat straw, and it retains runoff water very effectively, right at the top of the watershed.  It takes a whopper of a storm to see any water at all running out from under the mulch along the back edge of this orchard area.  Also not quite visible up to the left are a few logs I cut from a troubling pine tree dropped back in late spring (you can see the stump at the end of the fence); the herbs and fruit trees just below them are doing much better than the ones in areas without logs, lending credence to the idea of using the nurse pine crop in this way.

The stretch of field fencing provides a little protection and supports a few varieties of muscadine that I intend to graft together to make a living fence, maybe Spring '14.  Once it's well-established I think the wire support fencing can come out.  Never seen a living fence I didn't like!  And when the walk from the workshop - currently our house - to the compost area involves admiring this kind of biological architecture, and a handful of sweet native grapes, how much less like work will it seem?

We could spend a week on this topic, and get into some really encouraging strategies and statistics, although I think you'd probably rather do it with Darren Doherty and/or Penny Livingston-Stark.  I did, a few Halloweens ago in Aromas, CA, and it was very worth it.  Update photos of these developing areas will of course be featured in future posts.

First blue, then green, then black.  I think we can use that as a metaphor for adapting to the emerging realities of energy descent in general, as well.  In learning how to move from having dense fossil energy do everything for us to doing most of it with our own brains and muscles, and a fair amount of it not at all, I think it's above all important to move slowly.  Let the descent process infiltrate and fertilize your worldview.  What's most important? 

Think like a watershed. 

First blue.  Adjust your own oxygen mask first.  Learn how to mimic Nature's most fundamental successes and the rest starts to cascade automatically.  That's the hardest part for fast-paced Americans, I think.

We don't need to plan for every eventuality; what we need is a mental toolkit with new guidelines for navigating strange waters in the years ahead.  So far permaculture has come in pretty handy for that.

Don't panic.
Tripp out.


  1. Happy 77th Birthday to my grandfather, GW, and Happy 29th is it?, to my mom-in-law, Carol, out in Washington!

  2. Did a bit of farm sitting, myself, a couple of weeks ago. My friends went to Idaho to hunt elk with their daughter (got one, too!). So, I was taking care of 4 goats (two on the bottle), 30 chickens, too many cats to count and 5 spoiled lap dogs that weren't very housebroken. :-( .

    By the 5th day, it was "I'll never do this again." By the 6th day, it was "Sure, I'd do this again." Most of my earlier negative feelings were just character defects on my part. Generally feeling stupid about stuff and feeling angry about it. Everything from how to work the tv remote to where's the extra dry cat food?

    There were plenty of fringe benefits, besides a little extra $$. All the eggs I could eat plus a dozen and a half to take home. Lots of used chicken and goat bedding to take home for my compost bin. A pickup truck load of "spoiled" hay to mulch my garden. Agate hunting on the Chehalis River where I also found some Mums growing wild on the bank. Harvested some seed to take home.

    They're going to go back in a month or two. I've been asked to come farm sit, again. Sure!

    Looks like you folks are moving right along. I checked out Lehman's for those stove fans. They have a slightly smaller version for less money. Both versions were temporarily out of stock. It reminded me that there's an old wood stove kicking around here that has ... how can I explain this. A mettle plate and wire. As the plate expands or contracts it operates the damper.

    I also read with interest the sections on water retention. The area where I'm going to put my garden has a decided slope. As I plan it out I'm going to think long and hard about water retention.

  3. Hey, LLB! Nice to hear from you. Sounds like your farm-sitting was more about farm-sitting and less about net-surfing than mine was. Bunch of holiday craziness sprinkled in, a few farmers markets, some helping my brother move back to Georgia from Iowa, and oh yeah, filling up the chicken and rabbit feeders now and then. And lots of computer time. Spent way too much time at CFN.

    Just about to write another post on garden contouring strategies, so hope you stick around to catch that one too!

  4. an absorbing and fascinating blog. Here in the UK things are on a much smaller scale, but we all face the same basic problems I think.
    If it's OK I might borrow the odd factoid from you for my own musings on http://www.yourmedievalfuture.com/
    with due credit of course

    1. Sure, Norman P! There is definitely plenty of oddity 'round here to borrow from! Help yourself. And I like the name of your website; I think I'll have to check it out...

  5. Batch Plant
    Amusing marker.
    Good information nowadays.
    Thanks for sharing with us.