True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice. — Martin Luther King Jr
Today we remember Martin Luther King Jr. His birthday is actually the 15th, but in recent times our culture has decided to stick holidays to the closest Monday so that there is always an actual holiday from work. Not that many people don’t work on weekends in these times, but the government does not… and it’s their holiday.
I work for a college that does not honor this day with time off work or classes. I am not happy about that… I am also in a bookstore that does not have a special display of books that remind the younger generations why we need to celebrate King and all he stands for. I am not happy about that either…
So here is a very good reminder.
The major purpose of all teachers of humankind was the understanding of the rational and irrational roots of our nature. — paraphrasing Tolstoy from the Calendar of Wisdom for 16 January We should be ready to change our views at any time, and slough off prejudices, and live with an open and receptive mind. A sailor who sets the same sails all the time, without making changes when the wind changes, will never reach his harbor. — Henry George (again from Tolstoy's Calendar for 16 January)
It is a measure of just how pervasively colonialism has stamped us all that I’ve begun to feel uncomfortable calling myself a permaculturist. I have been doing research on turning my jungle into a food forest. This is basically a permaculture project, so many of the authors I’ve been reading are followers of Bill Mollison and his design ideas. I have read much of Mollison’s writing, and I find that it is generally helpful in plotting a path out of many of our messes. However…
First of all, I am not as interested in the design as in the application. Garden planning seems to me to be a oxymoron, especially coming from the creature that has the least input into actually making the garden work. Moreover, I find that much planning makes almost a fetish of the drawing and layout of a potential garden when that is the least important process. In permaculture classes, the first thing you are taught is to plot out the design. But this tends to be highly counterproductive in real-world settings. A garden is a living thing. It grows. It changes. It does not hew to the whims of a designer; it molds itself to the needs of place and all the organisms in that place. Most importantly, for all those who have not yet begun to garden, emphasizing the design as an obligatory preface to the garden tends to be a deterrent to ever picking up a trowel.
One problem is that many people who want to make a garden have little time, even fewer resources, and quite often no facility with technical drawing. It may be nice to spend winter evenings imagining the garden, but who actually has the free time to sit down and draw it out, never mind plotting the whole business to scale on a large bit of poster board? How many people feel truly comfortable with scaled mapping? How many have the tools to make a scaled map? Or, again, the time? If the map is going to be a useful visual aid, it probably needs to be quite large so that you can at least read the labels. Where does one keep this map when one lives in a small house such as the favored permaculture “tiny house”? How do you refer to it ten years down the road when you actually start to see perennial harvests? And how relevant is it going to be after even just a few seasons of all the false starts and mistakes that inevitably arise in a garden? Or how about all the new ideas and living beings you will inevitably encounter after you start gardening — well after you make the map?
But the bigger issue with stressing the primacy of the design stage is that it forces the whole garden process to follow the design — and to feel like a failure when that doesn’t work. And it will not work for most gardens. There is that complication with a garden being a living entity that changes itself in time, without respect for your whims, however completely and complexly mapped. But there is also the implication that you must build the garden from the infrastructure up, which begins with intense and usually extensive construction and often involves quite a lot of up-front expense, to say nothing of time, skills and hard labor. Many permaculture design books say — often explicitly so — that you don’t get to do anything so soft and fluffy as plant or tend to anything until the landscape has been forcibly molded to fit the design. Apart from this being the exact opposite of growing a garden — to the point that the first stages are often to eradicate existing living things — this serves to inhibit anyone who does not have access to earth-moving equipment and a very hefty initial budget from ever starting a permaculture garden.
In other words, design is the gate-keeper, excluding all those who do not have that level of privilege. And those who do not have privilege are both historically the best at growing things and tend to have the greatest need of what a garden can provide for a human. Design is appropriation of the garden process from those who want to help grow living beings to those who want to control inert things.
Sounds a bit like colonialism, no?
Now take into account what is going into those designs.
Mollison was from the northwest of Tasmania. His design system purports to be adaptable to many climates, but as with many “one solutions” this is not really true. His primary concerns — water scarcity and saline soils — are far from universal, though everybody needs to be aware of these issues, especially as we head deeper into climate chaos. But the processes and toolkits he and his followers have developed are often not even possible in, say, forested ecosystems. There is also little accommodation for winter in permaculture circles. The basic idea itself — that you can feed yourself from perennial plants with little need for annual tillage — assumes far less seasonality than we see here in Vermont, for example. In a cold climate, you need nutritious foods that store well for months after harvest, and the fruits of perennial plants are not ideal in that regard. This is the origin of gardening, you know. Gardening is a system that provides food for humans when there is no food for humans growing out there in the bush. Except if you want to eat ruminants and rabbits, I suppose…
This is all probably excusable. Bill very likely didn’t mean for his ideas on swales and arbors to be applied to Vermont. Or maybe anywhere but the desert. I don’t know. I do know that his followers are sort of forcing permaculture wholesale, by the book, onto places where it will never work — and, to my mind, causing no little harm in the process.
One book I was reading recently began with dozens of pages of the author’s very cerebral “design process”. It detailed all the uses that were to be made of the food forest to be manufactured and then described steps to make what was a boggy landscape into a woodland with stone-tiled glades that would serve as event spaces. I’m not going to judge that one… you do you… but to spend money and diesel fuel on paving a bog… for?… However, one of the first actual things done after the design was to cut down ash and elm trees. And that I will judge. This is the blindness of colonizers. Why would anyone cut down an elm in the aftermath of Dutch elm disease? If there is one left in your world, cherish it. It may be the last one you ever see. Same goes for ash. And while the cutting of trees described in this book took place before the ash borer apocalypse really got underway, the book was written recently. It is unlikely the author is still unaware of the travesty in cutting down an ash tree. More to the point, no ethical forester or gardener should advocate killing a healthy tree — a living being that is far older and far more essential to its place than any human — just to make room for human designs.
Then the book got into the plant list, which is the heart of any garden plan, and this is where things got really squirrelly. Again, Mollison was working primarily in arid conditions. The plants that he relied upon do very well in prairies and deserts. And they do well in these conditions because they are fiercely adaptable. They are generalists. They will grow well anywhere. And if they find themselves in places that are more amenable to plant life, they will spread, colonizing vast spaces and knocking aside all the plants that have more specific, place-based needs. They are invasive.
This book’s plant list was sort of a who’s who of invasive species. I was surprised that loosestrife and kudzu weren’t included. Ground ivy was…
Now, I’m not convinced that invasive species are a concern. Inasmuch as humans are invasive and have moved our favorite things around with us for millennia, I think that ship has sailed. As the saying goes, “it is what it is”. But that doesn’t mean that you have blanket permission to cause more problems. If there is already Japanese knotweed (and there probably is), then deal with it. Gently. If there is not, then don’t bloody plant that monster where it will run over any and all native species, taking up water and nutrients and blocking access to sunlight for all things that are less aggressive.
Then there is the darling of the permaculture crowd — and I confess to being one of the ninnies who has planted it — the Jerusalem artichoke. Contrary to its name, it is neither from the eastern Mediterranean nor any relation to artichokes. It doesn’t even look like a thistle. The portion of the plant that humans eat is not the flower bud, but the tuber. It is one of many perennial sunflowers native to the Americas, most of which can be found growing on marginal dry-land, usually near some seasonal source of water. This should be a clue that you do not want to plant this thing where water is not seasonal, but abundant year-round. But, yeah, ninny me was taken in by the prospect of a big lovely plant that attracted butterflies and bees and produced a potato-like tuber year after year with no input from me — other than to try to contain the thing. Which… is a full time project in a smallish garden in New England. (Don’t even get me started on how “potato-like” the actual food stuff is…)
This reliance on a standard list of plants that some distant expert has curated is perhaps the very essence of colonialism. And I think Bill would be appalled. Though I don’t know. I have heard one of his more ardent followers claim that ecologists are themselves trapped in the colonizer mind-set. This person alleged that those who talk of invasive species are actually just making a fetish of the life-forms that existed in a given location when white people first encountered that place. I am not convinced that plants and animals are quite as competitive as many ecologists seem to think, but I’m also not going to go so far as to say that there are no invasive species. (There are humans, for example…)
Invasives are living beings that have been moved to places (by humans, almost exclusively) distant from any natural checks on their growth, within a time frame that does not allow local species to adapt to this new presence. Biological balance will eventually be achieved, but not before the newcomer causes quite a lot of harm just in doing what it does naturally — that is, growing as much as it can. And a standard list of plants is first of all, going to be composed of many generalists, those aggressive plants that can grow well everywhere, and secondly, are generally not local or localized in any way. Most of the plants in the book I’ve been describing are not even Mollison’s desert species, those that at least have problems with root rot in wetter climes. No, this book was recommending the very Eurasian pests that ecologists spend years trying to pull out of wetlands and forests where they are killing the natives indiscriminately and feeding nobody but themselves. (Sounds rather like a colonizer, no?)
Anyway, I am becoming disillusioned… maybe this standardized (colonizer) approach to gardening is partly an artifact of book publishing — an industry that has to be generalized in order to sell to the widest audience. But I can’t help but hear echoes of the stories of local Natives who have been displaced and disrupted by the incoming hordes when I read these permaculture texts. And I wonder why nobody in this group stops to question things like trebizond dates or locust trees or buckthorn. (I mean, the names should be warning enough, no?) In fact, I’ve even seen permie cheerleaders for Japanese knotweed, when a drive down any road in New England patently reveals that this plant has utterly escaped our stewardship and is running amok over anything it encounters. (I do agree that the bees love it… though, more so the non-native honeybees than the local pollinators.)
I believe firmly in reducing our impact; and in general, growing perennial foods has far less of an impact on a place than annual tillage. The reduction of soil loss alone makes permaculture a worthy goal. But replacing the locals is not reducing impact, and I’m not at all convinced that a new ecosystem will develop from the imports. Not in human timescales anyway, much less in the lives of most local plants and animals. How does a butterfly that finds its food by looking for a particular color and form adapt to a landscape of new forms and many colors it can’t even perceive? Most butterflies don’t see cool tones like blue and green, the typical color of many flowers in the large mint family that includes most of our herbs… More importantly, soil organisms are adapted to local biochemical assemblages and do not spontaneously appear when we plant new organisms in the dirt. This is why we have to “inoculate” beans and peas. All that nitrogen-fixing power is useless if the microbes that actually do the fixing are not present.
So don’t go by the book. Go by the garden. Learn what is there and how it fits into its community. Then fit yourself into that community. It may be that you have to carve out a small portion that provides more for your needs than others. When you do that, make it as localized as you can. Grow foods that have been grown in your neighborhood for hundreds if not thousands of years. If there is something that you absolutely must have that does not fit in your ecological niche (hello chiles…), then grow a little of it in as controlled a location as possible — which, by the by, is another reason traditional gardens are the way they are. Raised beds in a delineated space that is kept somewhat isolated are wonderful tools for keeping potentially vigorous annuals — that is, most of our food plants — contained. Do not plant from a list that is globally standardized. Plant locals, as many special snowflake plants as your garden can accommodate. Or just learn to meet your needs from the local snowflakes that already grow in your garden.
The thing about that is humans have lived all over this planet for a very long time and have modified nearly every part of it to meet human needs. No matter what your local snowflakes are, you can be sure that many of them were planted and favored by humans in some distant past. Nearly everything that grows “wild” is not, in fact, wild in the sense that it grows totally independent of cooperation with others, including humans. Most plants want to meet the needs of other species. That’s what nearly everything in a plant aside from the chloroplasts is designed to do.
So wherever you are, there are plants that will nourish you. It’s great to make a food forest. But you don’t need to plant — or eat — Jerusalem artichoke… that is, unless you are, in fact, from the American Prairie… Which is sort of not a food forest… Instead, go look at an actual forest in your region and learn to eat from that.
And above all do not cut down an elm tree to make room for your patio…
© Elizabeth Anker 2023
10 thoughts on “The Daily: 16 January 2023”
Ha, I planted sunchokes as a way to make a barrier against some Japanese Knotweed. Battle of the rhizomes, though it seems to be working. I decided to leave be other patches of knotweed growing along a track made of “millings” (ground up asphalt) when I learned its native habitat includes areas recently covered in volcanic ash and lava. Its purpose seems to be to heal land that has suffered the most violent forms of disturbance, rapidly producing biomass to become future soil. Having recently read Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution I’m inclined to agree with his view that we know nothing about nature, that non-doing is better than doing. Small and slow solutions, perhaps?
We should be careful to view permaculture as a monolithic concept. Indeed viewed that way it’s colonialistic. But there are as many ways of doing permaculture as there are of gardening. Eric Toensmeier has created wonderful lists of Eastern North American plants that are multifunctional and align with Doug Tallamy’s work on high value native pollonator plants. I took a PDC with a local teacher whose focus is on using the plants of the Chesapeake watershed. Permaculture, when thoughtfully approached, can be a wonderful introduction to learning to understand our role as partipants in the living processes of the land.
With gratitude for you and your writing which I count among my favorites.
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I’ve been out to Toensmeier’s farm. I loved it! Wanted to move in. Instead, I took notes and vowed to replicate it. I made a little progress on my farm in MA, but then, well, life intervened. Now, I’m giving it another go with this 1/4 acre lot in the middle of a small city in Vermont. It seems to have been an orchard at one time. There are apple trees and you can sort of see a grid to the whole thing. If you squint. Anyway, I’ll be working on that for the rest of my life.
You know, I did the exact same thing with sunchokes and knotweed in MA. The “orchard” had been used as pasture and then just left to rot. Knotweed was moving in on two edges. I planted sunchokes, willow, and a few other things to make a barrier hedge. Makes sense that knotweed likes volcanic levels of salt. It is most prevalent along the roads here in New England. Which is fine, as far as I’m concerned. But when it follows the driveway down to the orchard… not so happy about that.
Ha, garden books definitely always seem to be written by people who don’t have weather extremes and for whom the word “small” means half an acre. But I do enjoy looking at the pictures in the middle of winter 🙂
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Good points. Particularly in regards to the blanket rules of Permaculture and the over rated use of garden plans. A rough sketch will do and starting small is generally not a bad idea. Observation of the existing landscape and its ecology is key. I’m curious what local food you’ll be growing or foraging in your garden?
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I’m still working on it, but there will be all the berries. I have great blueberry soils. There are already crabapples, juneberry, highbush cranberry, nannyberry, witch hazel and hawthorn. I’ve got hazelnuts & bearberry on order. I also planted a butternut, but that will take years. Maybe decades. So that’s for the future, not for me. Same goes for a white oak and a beech that will go in later this year. I have space for a few more apples, cherries, a few plums and a couple pear trees. Jury is still out on other pit fruits. If that happens it will be something I plant in the veg garden, not the jungle. Then, there will be white willow, hemlock, red cedar, and arborvitae in the least accessible parts, more for critters than humans, but also so I can indulge my holiday greens fetish… 🙂 I also always plant ash trees to see if they will take. As I have three on the property now, that might actually work for once.
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Sounds like a delicious food forest! I have a volunteer young ash which is a bit close to house but I’m leaving it.
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An excellent post! At age 61, I completed my Permaculture Design Certificate and created a 3-year plan for my 4000 sq foot garden. I had been studying permaculture ideas via books and workshops for the decade before my 1-year program. Like so many other ideas/fads/movements, there are always extremists or fundamentalists who insist on working from their set of interpretations/rules/manifestos. I have discovered that most of them are men who want to attain status in the permie world. Mollison seldom acknowledged that his systems design approach to growing food is based on the ancient practices of indigenous people. Escaping or at least temporarily vacating the limited thinking of colonialism and patriarchy is always challenging and in my opinion, men have a harder time doing so.
I love the fundamentals of permaculture: the ethics and the principles guide not only my garden design and annual planning but I have applied them to my general approach to living. I own a couple of permaculture books (Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway was my first book) but like you I rely on my practical experience growing food in my climate. Many of the permie ideas don’t work for me so they are discarded. I do have a Jeruselum artichoke patch and I eat them! I also planted a bed of nettle which people think is bizarre but I am also trained in herbal medicine and nutrition, and nettle leaves are incredibly nutritious greens and the seed and leaves are used medicinally. But I plant in my vegetable garden that which I eat, preserve, and enjoy. If you are interested in learning more about permaculture I recommend Permaculturewomen.com: they offer a free introductory program and have many articles written by women. An important book to read about invasive species is Tao Orion’s Beyond the War on Invasive Species. The first half of the book is a mini-course in ecological principles and theories, the problems with reductive science, and the insanity of governmental toxic approaches for the sake of corporate gains. The latter half applies permaculture ethics and principles, offering both a practical and visionary approach to the reality of invasive species.
Lastly, I offer a slightly different reality on the removal of trees. I live on five acres of mostly forested land and just had 30 large conifers removed because they posed a significant threat to my home and barn. I live on the drier side of the Cascades and wildfire is now an annual threat each summer and fall. Removing trees and shrubbery near my home has been a harsh but necessary function now called Firewise, a science-based program promoted by my state. It is all part of the human and landscape interaction: If I am going to live on this land then I have to alter it to be safe, to grow food, and as part of my permaculture principles to support other species. in the now naked landscape where some of the conifers lived, I am rewilding with flowering and berry-producing native and not native plants to support wildlife as well as offer some food and medicine for me. I hope I have inspired you to look deeper at the ethics and principles and to look to the women in permaculture who are very much aware of colonialism, poverty, and access.
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Thank you for all the recommendations! I will check them out. I have read quite a lot already, but not the Orion book. That I want to read!
As to removing trees, absolutely! If you, others, or even the tree is/are at risk, then take it down. As gently as possible, of course. I’ve had to cut my share of trees. Most painful was a pinyon that had pine borers. The beasts hadn’t yet spread to our windbreak ponderosas & I really didn’t want that to happen. So… goodbye nuts… (Though to be honest, it wasn’t a great nutter.) But this book I was describing literally took down trees to make a wedding event space paved in stone. I couldn’t take anything else in that book seriously after reading that.
I agree that permaculture is a form of colonialism, though I had not thought of it from the design perspective, but from the fact that much of the ideas are taken from indigenous culture and packaged up as new and scientific white people knowledge. But yeah, from the design perspective, it is completely colonial. We are exhorted to get to know the land in order to work with it while at the same time encouraged to massively change it to suit our needs. I usually just skip over garden design stuff in garden books anyway since I learned early on that it does not work for my space, never has, never will. And the plant lists, well those rarely work for my zone 4 sandy-soiled small garden, though sometimes I find some good suggestions, which is why I still skim through garden books from time to time. But for people who are new to gardening, it’s just one more overwhelming and complicated thing to try and figure out that could possibly keep them from setting out on a garden adventure to begin with.
Jerusalem artichokes, we call them sunchokes, are native to my area and I have a lovely patch of them at the end of the garden. They are pretty flowers in summer, the roots when dug after frost are sweet and tasty, and some of the taller, sturdier dried stalks are very useful the following summer to make trellising for peas and beans. Oh, and the chickens love the roots too and are very useful in helping to keep the plants contained. So in the right place and conditions, they are not bad plants, which is pretty much true for everything. 🙂
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I hoped you might chime in on the sunchokes in their rightful place. They are indeed native to your neck of the woods and not so inclined to go galloping all over the garden. Down in New Mexico, we have Maximillan’s sunflowers, close relative. They aren’t very good eating, but they are really high in inulin, higher I think than sunchokes. Very good at regulating blood sugar!
I’ve almost given up on garden books for utility. But the pictures are pretty, I guess. Too many are written by people in the mid-Atlantic states where there apparently are no gardening challenges… so… the point to writing the book? No idea.
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