Thoughts and musings on Permaculture, plants, economics, life, and other sundry reflections
Day 1: A Walk Through the Neighborhood
A journey about the neighborhood, a short walk, a stupendously harvestable walk: food, medicine, utility. Mineral, vegetable, animal, human. All here in abundance. The built environment, the waste stream, water pouring from the highest ridges, rivers of water teeming with possibility, coursing unforgivably down gutters and storm drains, when a simple ditch would do to keep the water where it falls. And the native overstory of this 250 year old settlement (Carbondale, Illinois), rich in biomass for the taking: acorn, crabapple, mulberry, too much of it, too damn much of it under tire, become macadam, and all it takes is reaching hands, and a tongue to taste the delicate flesh, or bring some home in a basket to dry, jelly, jam, drink. Did not plant them. The birds did. Did not weed around their feet.
Where is the work in this, let alone the money? A mulberry is richer than a bank president. Its account is endless, and it will never go bankrupt.
So, let us begin at the house. I have to conjecture that this 110 year-old home was built with materials garnered from a small radius of the map. Modern transport had yet to become “bonified”. Every home on this street is different. The circa 1900 houses that have survived are unique, singular, have character, no cookie cutter monolithic “design” of later burbs. I wonder at the waste stream of 110 year ago. Where did it all go? What of grids, gas fired stoves, oil fired boilers, and two car garages stuffed with toxic metals, fluids, plastics, emissions?
A fifth of an acre is a large parcel in the context of the neighborhood. We have 250 species of plants imbibing in this postage stamp of an Eden. I have an image of what has taken root in this yard breaking the hard pan of this neighborhood, forging an interactive web of mycelial madness and ripping apart unsuspecting pansy beds, but not before I harvest the flowers for my next salad, and scaring the daylights out of Puff, the neighborhood cat, bird hunter extraordinaire.
These roots, grafted to countless other roots, congealing into a mass of yield, predicated on human health and sustenance, balancing what already exists into an ecosystemic whole.
Have we swapped the carbon budget for a name: Carbondale? Have we mined the guts of Southern Illinois to power our power? Or can we rename: Carbon-sequester-dale?
Day Two in the Neighborhood
So let’s put this house in context: the lot is 50’ by 120’. The house has a footprint of 1400 square feet. How in hell have we gotten 250 functional plants into such a small space? The answer is that we did, and have, and will add 250 more species before it is all said and done. Done? Never. This kind of density is key to the way we will group plants in the future, and now.
The world of the monocultural debacle, spread out over thousands of acres of once prairie, once forest, is already a nuance of archeological spectator sport. Imagine the suburbs and the city as once upon a time forest and field, where transitions between forest and field were gradual, intact, supporting diverse species in what is called an ecotone in ecological circles. This is the place of thriving edges, full on filled in niches bursting with life as we might know it. We can create these kinds of edges, these transitional tempests of copious plant and animal milieu, of real profit: food, food, food!
But doesn’t this already exist in these grid patterned, up and downtown matrices designed by the pyramid builders of recent generations: prison, tomb, school, government building (all equal in design- yes, check them out).
Remember the mature overstory here in Carbondale? Remember that when there is a mature overstory we needs must plug into the understory all the way down to the tip of the taproot? And yet, there is already some of this understory in place. We have simply got to explore the neighborhood and assess what is already there for the taking. So this is where we will begin today. We will look at the residence in context and begin to expand out from there, in concentric rings, further and further, and just maybe expand far enough to take in the ring of the globe. The inner ring is non-different than the ring about Saturn. It may seem so, but what the heck…drop a stone in it and watch the waves eke out from there…
Day Three in the Neighborhood: Taking a Walk
I find it rather odd that the most dangerous thing that I do in my life is to take a simple walk. So, this evening as I was wondering I came to within three feet of a police car that, as I approached, pulled out in front of me for no apparent reason. Lights were not on. No sirens. No rush. I do not understand this idea of “sidewalk” when there are rarely any others walking on said pavement. The looks that I receive from those that drive automobiles are nothing less than incredulity (or maybe awe, which I have come to doubt?), even disgust, that I, a lone walker of all things, should dare cross the street at a stop sign. Your car can crush me in an instant. You hold the power in your steering wheel. What, may I ask, has become of a quiet walk in the neighborhood, a time when one may hear birds rustling about, or the voices of playful kids, or a lone dog barking in the distance? What is it that we have created a culture that wakes up in a box (on the hillside), jumps into a box on wheels, sees nothing along the way, works in a box, gets back into the box at the end of the work (?) day and goes home to a box to watch a box until one falls off into unconsciousness on a box spring.
So, I came home and worked in the garden. Another thing altogether. Why have we opted to grow our food miles and miles away from where we live, where the only way to get it there is by some kind of transport, that, when a lone walker is attempting to cross the street on a sunny morning, has to nearly fight for his life, Lord help him should he dare walk in front of that transport technology, when all he is doing is walking. WALKING! So, I take it that this is an exercise in observation, of being aware, of seeing the patterns and moving about based on these observations. I take it that in the world that I inhabit there is this hankering after “owning” a farm. What is a farm anyway? “Miles from nowhere, guess I’ll take my time, oh yeah, to get there.” If only we could take our time…
Day Four in the Neighborhood
Backyard. I often wonder at this term. Is it something we cannot see like our own anatomical rears? Must we hold up a mirror to catch a glimpse of it somewhat like a wart or mole between the shoulder blades? We have this propensity to plant our crops (if we plant them at all) in the backyard, behind the house, away from passersby on the street side that holds the mailbox and the numbers above the front door captive.
What are we hiding? What could be so God awful as a cucumber vine, a bumblebee mining for nectar upside down in a comfrey blossom? I get it, food off the vine not harvested off the supermarket shelf, must be a hazard, or better yet, a virus, a virulent virus of monstrous proportions. Lest the petunias in the window box be overwhelmed and engulfed by “fresh food”, or the lawn become delinquent with the subterfuge of dandelion taproots, or plantain stalks (potent foods and medicines for the taking).
The female gingko in the front yard streams nuts by the thousands every year. “They stink! The skin stinks!” But, isn’t it always what is inside, hidden from view (the backyard), where the buried treasure lies? What is so unbecoming as a ripe plum or peach hanging in all its delectable ripeness in the parkway betwixt house and street? Or a chicken laying an egg, or a Nigerian dwarf goat playfully hopping about like a newborn pup?
Imagine if we turned the tables on the backyard and it became the front yard, and the neighbors, hesitantly curious, plucked that plum and punctured its flesh with teeth accustomed only to plums shipped in from Argentina since childhood?
This is a statement, something worth more than a thousand words, a boondoggle to the code makers, the lawmakers who place chains around life and circumscribe the already diminishing abilities to touch and smell and taste the pleasures of bounty.
There are veils placed over eyes and ears. There are too many backyards written into the annals of suburban and urban history where many treasures lie, unexposed, fenced in, the “fruits” of our labors isolate from the taste buds of all creation.
Day Five in the Neighborhood
There are wide expanses of “farm” here in the Midwest, formerly wide expanses of prairie. Cities continuously mushroom out like stones thrown into water. This concept of “farm” is odd, is it not? What defines farm? Is it a place to grow food? For who then? Is it a place to grow biomass for fuel? Or do we turn pigs into the biomass that we eat, massively?
These unappeasable vistas, nary a tree. Uniform masses of corn tassel and soy pod, flush with nary an insect, “weed”, bird (blackbird?). I remember the time it rained incessantly for two days and what was once wet prairie became just that, wet prairie. The beavers started to move in searching for trees. But the fencelines had all been obliterated, so the beavers moved on to the rivers. It was a long journey, but when we are in search of food and shelter, sometimes the journey can be far-reaching.
So what is the point here? Where are the prairies now? The big bluestem? The butterfly weed? The butterflies? They have gone the way of the dandelion, once the arrogant flower of the American lawn (prairie? poison?).
There was this guy who wrote a letter to the editor when we were in the process of getting the livestock ordinance in our town overturned so that we could have a few chickens in the backyard. He was troubled by the fact that chickens would shit in yards and cause interminable ground water contamination and oh the smell would be dreadful (along with fossil fuel contamination, dog and cat feces, plastic and formaldehyde laden junk strewn about the yard?).
How far have we come? Maybe as far as the superstore. Maybe as far as the car will take us on one tank of gasoline. Maybe as far as the oddity that when I go “outside” in the morning to take a long walk I seem to be dodging automobiles by myself. Damn if there is not one other human being enjoying the sunrise while working up a sweat.
Or like the time I was driving to Dallas through Arkansas and it was cotton harvest season and there was this combine, big as a massif, and there was no one in the driver’s seat, and it was doing what combines do, and there was no one in the driver’s seat and I was thinking about the history of cotton production in the South, and slavery, and the fact that cotton destroys our precious soils, and that massive chunk of steel is voyaging over the landscape, and there was no one in the driver’s seat and I thought to myself, “what’s the use”, and I wrote an email to my friend and I said, “what’s the use?”, and he wrote back: “we have to hold out hope for people”, and I haven’t stopped since…
Day Six in the Neighborhood
Raccoons and Possums alternate under our shed. Recently I viewed a video where “they” tagged neighborhood raccoons and “they” surprisingly found that raccoons range only four square blocks. In the wild they range four square miles. What is up here? Tells me that there is abundant food. Could it be that we dwellers in the landscape are feeding the coons and possums of the world with the 70% of our food (a fact- 70% of all we prepare and eat little of is discarded) that we distribute to the wild animal grid? Not to speak of squirrel, cat, dog (feral and domestic), mouse, rabbit, bird, and then the hawks that swing by are eating all of the above, and on and on within the food web?
So, are we at the top or bottom of the web, the chain of so-called being? Are the animalcules of soil, porch, wall, kitchen and compost bin (where are all of these, by the way?) above or below in the hierarchy we think we rule? Us burly pharaohs of commerce? Us responsible, caring individuals feeding the coons and possums we want to exterminate for “getting into our garbage”? Garbage=food? Food=garbage?
The shed: every time we open the doors the roaches scurry about, junebugs flutter into faces, mice wind up their rear haunches and blast off like rockets launched from a battleship. Who captains that? “Admiral sir, what about all these here mice?” Hungry, small, eat their weight in food everyday, rapid metabolism, mouse is real. Got to set traps. Use cheese. Got to keep them out of our trash bin, our kitchen. Trash bin=kitchen? Kitchen =trash bin? What is up here?
You will notice that we have a chicken shack in the backyard. Took two years and 643 meetings to get the local livestock ordinance overturned in what is primarily a town of 50,000 (when the students are in session at the university) and in a town that is primarily surrounded by farms and forests within the 23 downstate Illinois counties. Herds of deer, foxes, multifarious animals make their homes in town. A few chickens in the backyard are quite the dilemma. Ten, one hundred and fifty pound dogs per household is not (code).
The local paper printed a letter to the editor in the midst of all this haggling, written by a local gentleman who did not even live within town limits. It went something like this: was upset that anyone (this Mr Weiseman guy) would want to have chickens in town. “If Mr Weiseman wants to have chickens I will parade my hogs through Carbondale with lipstick on.” Worried about chicken excrement and all the luscious things that go along with that. Did not mention all the roundup, oil, gasoline, dog excrement, cat pee, and countless other unsavory fluids and such. Chicken poop: compost it! Anyway, would have loved to see hogs with lipstick on parading through town. What a sight!
Yes, we have water collection off the roof. Yes, we dug swales. Yes, we have hugelkultur beds, etc, etc, etc…
But, you know, all in all, plants take center stage here. Plants: obsessed with them since childhood. Used to wonder at the breaking spring buds on the sycamore tree in front of our house in New Jersey. Could not explain it: why it happened every year and could count on the fact that it would happen every year.
So, let’s step back and take a look at the house, all 1400 square feet of it in a yard, ————measure————-. Now, let’s step away from the yard and begin our journey through the neighborhood for an infinite harvest. We need do nothing here, no planting, no tending, no zeitgeist flip out freak out nervous breakdown bug eating all “our” food type of derangement. This neighborhood is the farm. To reap what we have not sown…
Day Seven in the Neighborhood
Imagine an urban or suburban landscape where every niche in the landscape is filled with a diverse and healthy mix of flowers, fruits, herbs, vegetables, where paths lead one to the next scent, the next fresh and delectable, juicy apple or pear or persimmon, where one can harvest a tomato right off the vine and bite into it on the spot. Imagine a “food forest”, or for that matter, a whole city of food forests, places of gathering, where people harvest nutrient rich foods “at their doorstep”, and at their leisure.
There are many empty lots, former building sites, alleyways, parkways along street corridors, roofs, back and front yards, that are ideal for planting, places where we can, as human beings, produce high yields for our sustenance. And in these places we can reestablish some semblance of the pristine wild places that were here, intact for millennia, before us. We can “rewild”. We can create forage systems that cycle endlessly with food for all creatures, even food for stones. Nestled into these plant matrices, our buildings and homes are a few steps from tonight’s salad or stir-fry. We are enmeshed in an effort to “relocalize”, to bring the production of fresh food back into cities and towns, these once glorious thriving landscapes, prairies, forests, wetlands.
Now imagine the city as a garden city, teeming with the beauty and scent of many flowers and a potential selection of foods that is unlimited, foods that we choose to plant, foods that we do not have to plant, foods that we carry a short distance to our kitchen, prepare, and sit down with the family to a good night’s meal. There is no car going to the supermarket, no fuel being burned, no hunting and gathering at the meat counter. We walk to the harvest, we are surrounded by health giving plants, we meet others along the way and we talk, exchange ideas, find out from one another what fruit is coming ripe around the next bend, what herb can be used in what dish and how we might prepare it.
Imagine cities all over the world feeding a large majority of their population with food grown right at the doorstep. Imagine the urban gardening movement in America taking off in the next few years. It is incredible what can be grown on a postage stamp size plot! The nutritional health of people in urban environments is tantamount to health: socially, politically, economically.
And finally, imagine the ills of the “food desert” eliminated, where we grow healthy produce within city limits and supply the nutritional needs of the urban population, people gardening together, evolving into tight knit communities.
When people garden they benefit from the healthy physical practice of gardening. When people grow their food close to home it eliminates all the supply line issues of the corporate food scene and also the addictive use of fossil fuels for not only transport, but conventional farm practices: synthetic fertilizers, huge tractors and combines. When people gather to garden all the world’s pressures and constraints go by the wayside and we breathe easily, and eat from the fruits of our labors.
And do not forget the acorns this autumn. They are there free of charge. The only labor involved is the labor of thinking, time to get out there with the basket I wove and fill it with food. Time to break into the third, fourth and fifth dimensions of real life and put the information super highway to bed, let’s say flower bed, let’s dream of squirrels digging up my tomatoes and relishing in the juicy flesh, let’s say, “time to harvest a squirrel”, yes, let’s just say this…Imagine…
Day Eight in the Neighborhood
This is a piece that I wrote on Easter Sunday in another neighborhood, but I feel that it applies to all neighborhoods, and is worth repeating:
Easter Sunday: the Resurrection of the Trees
After finishing teaching a Permaculture course at the glorious Accokeek Foundation on the Potomac River, across from Mount Vernon, I find myself in Arlington, Virginia, a sprawling, peopled megalopolis of pentagons and national government. Peering down from my hotel room the yards of condos and apartment buildings are a blank slate: brown lawns, brick walls, a concrete and macadam mass, a conveyor belt of automobiles, and not a soul to be seen on foot. Where are the human beings? What two-dimensional world do they inhabit? What virtual non-existence?
The only forgiving grace is the trees, like church spires blinking in the sun above the rectangular meltdown of settlement.
We live and breathe off the “waste” of trees, oxygen cycling through our lungs, fruits cycling through our guts, biomass cycling though the intestine of the soil, and doing it all over and over again, endlessly. Knowing this, that the primary producers of this earth are circumvented by the willy-nilly and catastrophic reclamation of land by a petroleum addicted tornado of a status seeking culture, wallowing atop piles of greenbacks, these lone trees, church spires blinking in the sun (our backbone), is the grace of the world.
On this Easter Sunday, may the trees be the resurrection of this world. May the trees in their strength be the promise of this and the generations to come. May we plant them, and plant more of them so they may lift their sprawling arms to the benevolent sky and proclaim: “We are the cross to bear, we are the promise of all generations, we are the air you breathe and the giver of gifts. May we serve the humanity in all we do, but may you serve us, care for us, nurture us. Let us come to an agreement. The relationship works both ways. We’ll scratch your bark, if you’ll scratch ours. So be it.”
Day Nine in the Neighborhood
Today the neighborhood is a grid, a series of linear pathways intersecting perpendicularly, and albeit, if I continue on the “beaten” path I am forced to adapt my thinking linearly and into right angles of mentation. But how could this be if the world is in constant flux, circular, regenerative, eternal return in every instant?
I cut across a lawn and circle my house. As I return to the point of departure, slightly skewed, a “new” scene presents itself to my senses and recreates me as I recreate it. Does the yard even exist without me? Does this flower atop its staff rise up against gravity or does levity pull it up from the farthest plane of the cosmos? After all, how did the apple get up in the tree that conveniently bashed Newton on the skull?
This place has always been here, no beginning, no end. Granted, it has metamorphosed considerably in outward appearance, but its heart is still its heart. This flower, this fruit, this freshly scented herb are the vibrant colors that seep from the earth and meet the sky, and it is this in-between, these scintillating surfaces of life in all its trappings that enters our senses, knocks about inside us, until we synthesize all of it into pure thought, pure conception, until the force of our imagination conforms to a creative mind that is unrelenting and infinite.
This morning I surrender to Nature’s timing and the grid falls away like a receding wave. This morning I allow the sinuous convolutions of plants and insect flight and stones to break the bones of my habitual patterns into chaos and lift me into the order that gives birth to chaos. This morning I surrender to the bumble bees sucking nectar upside down from violet comfrey flowers and I taste the sweetness they taste, and I am good…
The plant throws off its body every year,
Peels itself back to seed.
Unencumbered by its skin,
The plant perpetuates the species,
From before the before,
To after the after.
The plant is primary: to our existence,
To the matrix of the life of the soil,
From the ground up,
In defiance of gravity,
Its colorful gesture an imago,
A stationary butterfly,
Bent and windborne by soft summer breezes.
Seed precipitated out of pod,
Sweat off the body green,
Swallowed in color,
Swelling in autumn,
Dropped as hard node,
Packed tight into it’s own essence and food.
A body clothed in thrift shop cotyledons,
Stems, leaves, flower, fruit, seed,
That never does not end,
Like an undammed river,
A road lost in the rain forest,
A bird migration north and south,
Every, and all years,
A blind alleyway that sees no limits.
How comes a plant from a nondescript nodule,
A point of biotic substance,
Seemingly a minute corpse lying supine
In a world of animalcule minutiae and mycelial madness?
The journey begins here for a plant created out of thin air,
And the carbonaceous waste of the creative breath.
Day Ten in the Neighborhood
The cucumbers are coming on like gangbusters (remind to look up the origin of this phrase), tomatoes are popping (and the peppers!), and the lettuce has succumbed to its own sweat. It is that time of year, or it is any time of the year, it is always and ever a harvestable feast. There is always food and medicine to be gathered. This date: cornelian cherries, gooseberries, lilies, Echinacea, elderberry, celery, peppers, squash, kale, currants. Couldn’t I simply say that the list goes ad infinitum (remind me to look up the origin of this phrase). And yet, we continue to scramble in our little metal boxes on wheels to the big box of synthetic forests and fields and pastures and lay our greenbacks down at the frozen meat counter
And then there is mullein and its exquisite yellow flowers:
Mullein: Survival Toilet Paper
It is difficult to drive down America’s highways without seeing tall stalks of mullein on almost every embankment. At times I have gotten so mesmerized with this plant that not even the person behind me blowing their horn and screaming loudly can get me to move any faster. The yellow blossoms at the top of the spike are the main attraction. When they begin to bloom in late spring I am a goner. I could not begin to count all the times I’ve pulled over to the shoulder of the road to sit next to the mullein plant. The velvetleaf rosettes climb the stalk until a burst of scintillating yellow grabs your attention, rivets you there. And when you finally come to, and take a look down at the embankment, and there’s a state trooper, light’s flashing, checking out your car (and you), you quickly pull a leaf from the mullein, rumble down to the highway, and present your treasure to the trooper (with a big, toothful smile, of course). After all, why do you think state troopers are constantly pulling people over? It is not to give tickets. No. It is simply to get a closer view of the mullein. Right?
Common mullein (verbascum Thapsus), also called velvetleaf, flannel leaf, Aaron’s rod, Jacob’s staff, and a variety of very descriptive titles, was originally brought here form Europe, becoming well established by the 1700’s. Mullein is biennial, producing a rosette of wooly leaves the first year, a tall stalk (up to six feet), topped by clusters of five-petal, sessile yellow flowers, the second. The leaves spiral up the stalk. 150,000 seeds are produced each second year and some of them can lie dormant for as many as one hundred years or reproduce immediately. Many bugs and beetles lay eggs and feed on mullein, especially within the middle of the first year leaf rosettes, and in the flowers. The yellow flowers bloom from June through September, and the stalks stand tall through the winter. The low-lying rosettes stay green through cold weather and snow.
Of all herbs used to treat respiratory infections and congestion, mullein is one of the foremost. It tones the mucous membranes and facilitates expectoration. Its demulcent qualities soothe soar throat and inflammation. Bronchitis, catarrh, hoarseness are all treated with mullein. This can be done with an infusion of the leaves or the dried leaves can be smoked. The leaves are a mild sedative, and they will help cleanse an overburdened digestive tract. A tea of the more astringent root helps stop diarrhea and bleeding, and is used as a wash for eye soreness. The leaves are also poulticed on sores, cuts, and skin inflammations. The whole leaf is wrapped around a sprain to ease pain and bring good circulation to the injured site.
A tea is made from the seeds of mullein is poured into a pond to stupify fish, for easy harvest.
The stalk is the preferred drill for making friction fire by hand. The brown stalk is taken, stripped of old dry leaves, shaved with a knife-edge and rounded off. This stalk is twirled between the hands on a notched fireboard, creating heat and a powdered residue that will soon, when hot enough, produce a coal to be dropped into a tinder nest for ignition.
I have made some fairly straight flying arrows from mullein stalks, but to get the right size, straightness, and proper weight is very difficult.
We used to laugh standing near mullein plants, thinking about the leaves as “survival” toilet paper or “primitive” halter-tops. And yet, this strong and powerful plant keeps us in awe. The mullein, naked on a hillside, withstands scorching summer sun and sub-zero winter winds. The beautiful, velvet, leaves must act as insulation against the cold. Yet, another possible use of mullein for us also.
[Gangbusters, from Yahoo Answers: Gang Busters was a famous radio program that was first heard in 1936 and aired until 1957. Its creator, Phillips H. Lord, worked with J. Edgar Hoover to bring closed FBI cases to the listening public. All scripts were based on actual police records and had to be okayed by the Bureau first.
The radio show was originally titled G-men. It began on July 20, 1935 under the sponsorship of Chevrolet. The name was changed to Gang Busters on January 15, 1936. Palmolive Soap was the new sponsor for the Wednesday night CBS show.
The sound effects of police sirens, tommyguns, and screeching tires that opened the show were dramatic. They inspired the expression “coming on like Gang Busters”.”
…and the expression was used to indicate that some one was coming on strong to right a wrong, or to apply corrective measures to some one who was out of line. Like your momma would do if she caught you doing something you weren’t supposed to be doing. It had nothing to do with being rude or obnoxious – except on the part of the person who was going to get gang-busted.] AHHHHH!!!!
Day Eleven in the Neighborhood
I have this picture. It is a picture of the neighborhood. It takes place in the suburbs. It looks like a farm, or to define it more properly, it looks like, and it is, a food forest, a medicinal forest, a utility forest. And the animals that roam this neighborhood are not the typical cats and dogs. There is my neighbor milking a goat, and another neighbor harvesting paw paws and hazelnuts.
Up the street little Noah is learning how to graft the scion he harvested this winter onto the crabapple tree in his yard. Or should we say that the distinction of “yard” is not appropriate here?
Someone relieved the neighborhood of its fences. There are no property lines to be found here. But, there are many foragers, wildcrafters, wildcrafting medicine from what used to be a fenceline.
No carbon leaves this neighborhood, and the trash haulers are a remnant of the past.
Storm drains have been rendered inoperable, and the tops of the ridges, the roofs, water future yields.
“Waste” has been relegated to the garbage heap of ancient dictionaries and composted there.
There is no “gray” water, so to speak. There is only nutrient dense liquid flowing endlessly to the trees.
The word “excrement” is excised, pruned from the vocabulary, and replaced with, “fertilizer”.
Those that pass through the neighborhood prefer to do so on foot, to take it all in, slowly reinvigorating the senses. And they have this unquenched thirst to observe, participate, converse, find repose in relationship.
Homes have retrofitted to collect and direct sunlight and wind.
A wetland can be found here, fish there, acorns strewn about for the taking (and processing) seemingly everywhere.
And there is this stultifyingly exquisite table, handcrafted from palettes, where those from all the surrounding neighborhoods congregate, and place the gifts of infinite harvest, gently, for consumption.
And then the whole thing starts all over again because you know…people make fertilizer after they eat. And it is all good…
Day Twelve in the Neighborhood
Musings While Standing in the Yard, on the Origin of “Farm”
What is the origin of a “farm”? How is it defined? From whence does the “farm” arise? And why are we so accustomed to reliance on farmers for our nutritional needs? What is it, really, that has played into the dependence on farms and large-scale agriculture? Who raises our food? Even if we establish organic cropping systems and rotational grazing of animals, even if we develop prime agroforestry landscapes, and we do all of this with the market in mind, we are willy-nilly enmeshed in the cycles and competition that markets succumb to.
Success and failure may be basic to our being as race, yes, but whose success and failure are we banking on? Why all this crazy research dedicated to “cash” crops, food fads dictated by the powers that be? To where has the farm led us as a race-progress as an expanding species?
The gadget syndrome. Of course there is always another gadget out there to satisfy our collective sweet tooth. But hey, don’t worry, because when the urge surfaces again, there is always enough to satisfy that sweet tooth once again, even if for a while, and again.
Back to the farm, the way it used to be, before agricultural chemicals and big ass combines and fuel fueled War of the Worlds style monsters that can strip a field of cotton in minutes took center stage. But who harvested the cotton before this War of the Worlds? Does anyone remember the history of the plantation culture in this country? Farms and markets. Markets and the greenback. Who can climb breathlessly to the top of the food chain and manacle the hoards? They are subtle, these chains. They make us obese, they flatten our lives into two-dimensional pundits that falsely make us believe that we “know” something.
What is food? Is it corn? What is sustenance? What is a farm and what does it really represent to us, and what have we become as a result of it? Foragers of the marketplace seeking the next best pluck for the holidays? Isn’t there something somewhere about teaching people to fish rather than putting fish on their tables? But hey, there are plenty of fish swimming in the basements of banks and office buildings, albeit, all across this “modern” world.
So we pay heed to all the delicacies spread out before us smorsgasbord style in the marketplace and we all live and breathe the little that is left, the last vestiges of a once thriving and abundant nature. We have fricked and fracked our way along a strikingly incongruous path that weaves and wends linearly from source to sink. We hollow out this earth like so many termites all for the precious baubles that dangle from our ears, noses and eyebrows.
When a product enters the marketplace it is suffused into the whims of price, want, desire and habit. Plant trees that yield nuts and fruit. Harvest healing herbs and use them to heal. Strip the outer cellulose of a milkweed stalk and make rope, baskets, clothing. It is all at hand and immediate and it travels not, except if a walk in the sun to fetch it is considered travel?
Day Thirteen in the Neighborhood
Today, after stirring the biodynamic 501 silica prep for an hour and spraying it on my plants I was taken up by these thoughts:
We cannot separate biodynamic agriculture from the entire lifestyle set forth by Rudolf Steiner that he delineated during his lifetime. Permaculture is much more explicit in the rendering of a complete lifestyle. Both systems are based, in essence, on a dynamic understanding of pattern and ongoing metamorphosis in action. Rudolf Steiner speaks of the farm organism, and we can extrapolate from Bill Mollison’s writing on Permaculture that he is also speaking of whole systems that operate as complete organisms in themselves.
It is up to us as practitioners of either system to develop astute and rigorous observation skills in order to design, implement, manage, and maintain not only our food production, but every aspect of our lives: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. We could say that an understanding of Rudolf Steiner’s work completes what Permaculture leaves out. Rudolf Steiner speaks intrinsically of the merging of cosmic and terrestrial forces whereas Bill Mollison leaves off pretty much at the physical level (earthly).
But for those who have eyes to see, imbedded in Bill Mollison’s writing in Permaculture one cannot help but find the cosmic spelled out in the ongoing discussion of dynamic pattern in play. “What is above, so is below”. Both Mollison and Steiner talk about how everything lies in functional relationship and lives in a dynamic ecological and cosmic web where materials and energy are in constant flux that cycles endlessly through the biological realm.
As we approach our work through Biodynamics and Permaculture it behooves us to tap into the biological intelligence of place and life. The mineral, vegetable, animal and human kingdoms are one unified whole. We are one being, so to speak, with countless gestures. “Congealed cosmic function”. There are few differences between Steiner’s and Mollison’s perspective on life.
As Permaculture states in its basic ethics, care of earth and care of people, this is a truth that I do not think Rudolf Steiner would have any difficulty relating to and expounding. In essence, the underlying intent of Steiner’s work is to cultivate a profound and deep experience of love. So, farming and gardening are a practice, for growing not only food, but for growing the person.
In my reading of Permaculture though the years, if we drill down into care of earth and people, and if we really live into these two ethics in the deepest way, then we can only come to love. Love for people, animals, plants, and stones can be the only outcome. The dynamic patterns and geometries of life are the rich artistic creation of the Creator that never stays the same, even for an instant. It is our job as observers of this changing landscape of life to learn, to fluidly move in synchronicity with all of metamorphosis. The senses do not lie. The mind does not stop. All ideas are found in the things and beings themselves. When we, as artists of life, gather the colors, shapes, forms, and textures through our senses pre-conceptually, then the creative and free workings of the mind blended with the heart’s calling can only bring about a scintillating creation of our own. Thus, we not only become designers of Permaculture or Biodynamic landscapes, we become active designers of life.
Just as the great alchemists of past and present have revealed that the practice of alchemy is not about strictly transforming base matter into gold, it was in reality an internal process of transforming base tendencies within ourselves into gold. So, all of life, no matter what avenue like takes each one of us is practice to become truly human and to be in service.
When we raise healthy, life giving organic produce for not only ourselves, but also for others, it changes us and those that we serve, and it is a step toward the education of those that we serve to learn how to grow healthy produce on their own and for their families and friends. Just as Jesus would say “teach a man to fish”, it becomes our responsibility to share with others what we have learned in the process of doing.
Practice does make perfect (well, almost). Practice in action is dynamic and a force of the creative will. Both Steiner and Mollison have asked us to step up with their call to action. They have given us concrete steps in order to proceed. Through a profound understanding of pattern in action we become creative thinkers and artists of our world in which we will never lack that inspiration to live into our humanity, en total.
Day Fourteen in the Neighborhood
Thoughts while out harvesting for a green smoothie this morning at sunrise:
Bill Mollison, the founder of Permaculture, has stated repeatedly that the “the problem is the solution”. Buried beneath a veil that looks to human perception as a constraint, whether uncontrollable or the reverse, lies the opposite of a constraint, an opportunity. Although our global community is beset with multiple problems, if we heretofore make the effort to begin a creative process of lifting and looking deeply beneath the surface, if we as explorers and adventurers in search of essential truths, principles and methodologies that reward us, when put into action, with sound templates for restoration and resilience, we must arrive at the shores, at the edges, of understanding that we needs must implement needed changes to what has become status quo.
As an example let us take a look at the overwrought concentration of carbon currently suffusing the atmosphere. “Climate change” is a topic that seemingly will not go away. Whether the over concentration of carbon in the atmosphere is caused by humans or not, it is statistically convincing. If, in fact, a constantly “growing economy” is the precursor to the “greenhouse affect”, when we take cognizance of this fact, it seems overwhelming to those that would follow its developments, almost with a sense of doom, albeit an issue that cannot be stopped.
But where lies the opportunity in all this? Plants, our primary producers, through a process of photosynthesis, sequester carbon and build their architecture with this carbon. It is as if plants appear out of thin air. With a bit of moisture and oxygen thrown into the mix, carbohydrates and proteins are created and embodied in green life that is our primary form of sustenance. Without plants we simply do not exist. So, here lies the problem, and here lies the solution. If one of the primary elements, carbon, that is responsible for creating our primary producers, lies just above the soil matrix in superabundance, we have the unthinkable opportunity to profoundly affect the state of the world by planting trees, and more trees, and the like. A dense plant culture can only benefit from this superabundance of raw materials floating just above their heads and ready to eat.
As Permaculture practitioners an essential focus, regardless of the agricultural methods that we choose, is the health and yield potential of a plant and is part and parcel predicated on the health and fertility of the soil. Although ninety-five percent of plant nutrition is absorbed from the atmosphere, the five percent taken up by roots is tantamount for not only the needs of the plant, but the mineral and carbohydrate density of the plant that we will ultimately ingest for our sustenance.
In the modern era we hear endlessly about peak oil, but in reality we cannot drink fossil fuel nor would we choose to bathe in it. Peak soil is another issue altogether. The depletion of our topsoil over the past ten thousand years of tillage agriculture is a well-known fact. Is it possible to grow our food, medicine and utility and grow topsoil at the same time? The key to all of this is organic matter. But what is organic matter and how do we build up a reservoir of it?
The biomass produced by plants is the key ingredient, not only in supplying food substance for plants and animals, but in producing the organic matter that builds fertility in the soil for the healthy growth of more plants. The animals that eat the plants produce rich and highly mineralized manure that adds to the buildup of soil carbon. This completes a never-ending cycle: plants-animals-humans-soil (minerals).
By including all kingdoms of nature in our own agricultural and gardening regimes we complete the circle. Our focus is, of course, on fertility. There are many techniques in order to secure these natural cycles and sequester the precious carbon that is required for plant structure and growth: sheet mulch, cover and green manure crops, compost, animal production, foliar sprays, biodynamic preps, hugelkultur, et al. The intended purpose in all of this is the reincorporation of all organic materials from the “waste stream” back into the soil matrix. Just as we go through a process of digestion after ingesting foodstuffs, the soil acts as the gut of this earth. The billions of soil creatures transform biomass into a nutritious blend of vitamins, hormones and minerals for uptake by plant roots. For example: in forest ecosystems all of the leaf and woody matter that falls to the ground throughout the year is food for soil organisms. We can mimic this cyclical process by designing plant guilds and food forests into a landbase. If we include a modicum of perennials in the systems the biomass that falls to the ground year after year maintains a consistent smorgasbord of carbonaceous materials for plants, animals and humans over the long haul. One of the essential Permaculture principles: RETURN.
We human beings have the advantage of consciously intervening in our gardens and assuring that soil receives what it needs in order for us to produce health giving food, medicine and utility.
In essence, all of this comes down to building up a constant nutrient cycle. As described above, the nutrient cycle is what keeps biological systems in perpetual motion. Plants are the progenitors of soil. By paying attention to our plant landscapes, by providing an ongoing effort to feed the soil with a diversity of nutritious foods for our soil livestock, we deliberately reincorporate the nutrients back into the soil that have been taken out by plants, animals and humans.
A nutrient cycle is the movement and exchange of organic and inorganic matter back into the production of living matter. The process is regulated by food web pathways that decompose matter into mineral nutrients. Nutrient cycles occur within ecosystems. Ecosystems are interconnected systems where matter and energy flows and is exchanged as organisms feed, digest and migrate about.
Day Fifteen in the Neighborhood
Want and Need
What do I need? What is necessity? Does it have something to do with my longing, with the maintenance of my body, my home? Can I distinguish between what I need and what I want? Or am I simply an impulse away from the next best thing? The next gesture from those that make things, leaves me little choice, and leaves me with leaving my thinking and emotions to them? Through all my years of digging in the earth, building things, crafting a life from the raw materials I have found around me, the distinction between a need and a want is more of a slow burn, a process of decision making, a struggle to find what would be best not only for me, but for my family, the neighborhood, the town.
And there is little instant gratification here, or should I say that the only instant gratification is in the process itself, in the making of the thing, in the doing of it, or in the planting of the tree that would bear fruit three years hence and flash its juicy freshness to the neighborhood, yes, to all those who pass by. So, in the long and short of it, literally, what is a need and what is a want? The line between them becomes obscured and our wants and needs merge into one sacrosanct effort, one gloriously creative effort of the human soul.
Day Sixteen in the Neighborhood
Perception and Landscape
How do we perceive “landscape”? Perceive. We are not speaking of conceive. This follows. When we walk the land we take in ridge and valley, plant, stone, animal sign, cloud above, soil beneath.
Do we take time to allow sensible perception to reveal the essence of the topography, chill of the north wind, sound of a body of crows, or are they crows? A mass of black movement against a pastel sky? An undulating wave of wings, rising and falling, sonorous cackle? Do we perceive intervals, melodies, harmonies as if a stupendous symphony conducted by circle of sun and cycling season tap a wand in rhythmic consistencies and inconsistencies, order concealed by chaos, chaos covered by symmetry?
Do we step back, step forward, do we allow the body to tell its tale: how it twitches here, spasms there, how the eyes tear from cold wind, and the feet measure slope, mud, protuberance of stone, stump, and crackle of leaf? Is it autumn, spring? What mysteries are hidden beneath grass, feed the grass, crush the grass? Above, below? Left, right? Cold, warm?
What textures, shapes, relationships, hue, chiaroscuro, line, circle, fluttering leaves, flagging trees? Does the wind move the trees, or do the trees give shape to the wind? Does the lip of a branch act as woodwind, like the reed in a mouthpiece of a clarinet? How is my body embedded in this vast grandiloquence of wind and water, earth and sun? And how is it, how, that I live off a waste product of trees breathing?
Can we say that the neighborhood or a vast forest are non-different? Different? How?
Day Seventeen in the Neighborhood
After arriving home from coastal South Carolina for a master planning consultation, and cruising the lost highways of the US, I have landed back in the neighborhood in Southern Illinois and am pondering the two dimensional state of the world as I pick cucumbers from the fence in the backyard:
Who will remember if I do not engage in the supersonic virtual where “friends” have no bodies and words make or break lives and render them silent? What is this kind of “engagement”? But if you were here and I looked you in the eye you may very well turn it all into a Seinfeld episode and nitpick it into oblivion. So I engage in the two dimensional stormcloud and wait impatiently for it to burst? But who cares because I can get whatever I want whenever I want it to stoke the fires of my identity and suck easily at the fruits of mine or someone else’s labor: physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual? Is this the true obesity? No family, no neighbor, no political representation can jog this juggernaut. Wasn’t there an actual physical disease called “consumption” at one time in history? Did consumption consume itself? Did the “free” gift delivered seamlessly from the corporation elicit a response? Or the promise of wealth and more toys in the now, until the stress of the credit ballooning into mountains of debt somewhere down the road shows up?
Or could we for once sit and watch a tomato plant grow from seed to fruit, and take pleasure in the first bite? The anticipation is enough to give me self-control…
We can comb the internet for more and more information, but who would plant that seed? Robots? But who would actually build that robot?
Day Eighteen in the Neighborhood
A point may sit at the very center of a circle, or assymetrically off toward an edge, somewhere in the enclosure of the circumference of the circular. When centered it seems stable, focalized, focused, with all eyes looking inward from the edge, from the extreme, from the skin. But the point that sits away from center seems more dynamic, expresses movement, wants out as it moves toward the membrane that is enclosure. As it travels it leaves tracks in its wake, a “line” of tracks, maybe meandering , curvilinear signposts for trackers to track, or eyes to follow, from point to point, or beyond a demarcation of points into infinite necessity. And then, this line rolls over itself, tips along the way, creates surfaces, planes, tables and mesas, buttes, and seats for butts. Tripping again into three dimensions, volumes appear, cubes and spheres and all matter of solids, or hollows with metes and bounds, architectonic opportunities, trees and inverted trees, valleys and ridges, bodies on two and four legs.
Color enraptures, qualifies, makes distinct possibility, draws us into an emotional envelope, washes over us like spring water, filled to overflowing with mineral rich substance, solid, liquid, gas. How might we translate this into design? How might the landscape obviate point, line, plane? What already exists, pre-designer? What language does this landscape speak? What textures: rough, smooth, or something in between? Does the mighty oak at the center (point) spread it’s branches (line) to the extremes and its trunk (volume) encircle what might better serve as a fruit bearing guild of shrub, small tree, pumpkin patch? Or have we not yet tasted the delicate acorn?
Day Nineteen in the Neighborhood
I am sitting in the backyard. The humidity is thick. Cicadas are thick with rhythm. The plants are a quiescent deep green, the deepest of greens. Sweetgum pods litter the drive. A comfrey leaf lifts its ovate leaves gently. Mints waft the air. The chickens are perched for the evening and the mosquitos swarm my ankle flesh.
It is summer, but I can feel the descent into autumn as the sun sets earlier each dusk.
I am blessed to have all this food strewn about the yard, alive with chlorophyll, dense starches, complex sugars for my family’s nourishment. It is the truest of victory gardens, and the basis for all we are and will be.
This transition to autumn is yet another circle of my sixty-two years, a vortex into which I gladly ascend.
In the front yard the forest of fruit and nut absorbs the moisture of the inbreath of evening. It is seemingly motionless, but the fruit swells and the nuts make rich and healthful oils, essential, disintegrate. The alchemy never ends, the distillation into gold, the incineration of substance from base matter into precious and unspeakable gold, an internal process, a metamorphosis of dark to light.
I am not alone: the plants are signposts to something much deeper than root, stem, leaf, calyx, flower, fruit, and seed. My mind root, my will flower, my heart leaf. And the four essences of all life, earth, water, air, and fire, are the sap and circumference of the world as we know it. We are born of water and earth, we breathe, and the scales are tipped toward fire, but the seed never dies. It rests for a time and comes to blossom yet again, and again, and again.
Six and a half billion souls inhabit the subtle matrix of life embedded in stone, plants, animals, planets, stars. And the garden is the juggernaut, the wild plants of the neighborhood the environs surrounding what we cultivate, the sky in all its constellated glory the letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, pages sequestering us in the very book of all existence, transforming us in time…
Day Twenty in the Neighborhood
The “Greening” of the Corporation
I remember a time when we uncovered the wrenching reality that corporations were perpetrating a slow and uneven death on all things life, how it hurt so deeply that we would go to sleep at night crying for the earth, and the plants, animals, the people. I remember how angry we were, that our lives were being compromised by greed, gluttony, and all the other “deadly” sins. And I remember, quite distinctly, when as a child I would stand in front of trees in spring in awe of the buds bursting with the season’s new life. We had arrived at a deep understanding, that if the buds would continue to revisit us each and every year, that we had to do something about it, we had to go to all extremes to save the trees from the sound and work of chainsaws eating wood in forests and making dust of two hundred year old living monuments to Nature’s scintillating existence. And when the precious soil started to erode away, and the rivers overflowed because of it, and the cities we had built were buried beneath millions of pounds of water and topsoil, we took notice, even if only for a short while, because we were in the path of it and we could not escape it, and when it had passed our awareness had passed with it and life went on “as usual”, all in the name of progress.
I remember when “green” became a thing, a marketable thing, a Madison Avenue juggernaut of a thing. I remember because it is not too far in the past that this happened, seemingly suddenly, and thus it is still with us. I remember that when some thing becomes that thing then it is all about “business” per se, about positioning, and competition, the cult of personality, about who might be the next darling of the green universe. And the fortress rises out of the desert and empire is bound to crumble to dust, some day, any way.
And then one evening, upon lying down to go to sleep, we find ourselves crying again for the earth, this earth that is our real Mother, our sustenance, from whose milk we suck and are nourished. And this ancient thought comes to the mind and dips into the heart of hearts, and we succumb to all the wonder and beauty that is forever and always. We cry the hurt, the kind of hurt that only our ribs could describe as an awe full pain, a melancholic pain, an earthly and mysterious pain, but a pain that has joy hidden right at the very center of it, at the core of it, at the seed of it.
And lest we forget why we got into this at all, why the spirit of life nudged us, prodded us, forced us up, to take a look, to listen, and smell and taste and, most of all, to touch. So yeah, we can make a bit of money out of this “green” thing, this marketable, newsworthy, thing. We can raise the quality of our lives, we can consume goods and services to infinity, but as we do this we consume all that lies precious, we re-source, or should we say that we simply source without giving back, we only work the contract and never go beyond it because, Lord help us, if we were to extend even a little bit beyond the contract, if we were to serve the people, and the animals, and the plants, just a smidgeon beyond what the contract says, then it “will cut into my time”. Ah, time! That gnarly thing. That cat and mouse of subterfuge, that ploy, that harbinger of non-existence, that beast that lies hidden in the jungle, those shadows that creep until death do us part.
And so, off to the marketplace! Ha! In the system. Care of earth and care of people? Where lies the courage to drill down into that and live it to the extreme. This is the real adventure, the scaling of Himalayas that no Sherpa dare enter…
Day Twenty-One in the Neighborhood
Every morning I awake at dawn, get upright and immediately step outside to begin the day. This morning I harvested dandelions for juice. All year the dandelion is available for harvest. Why spray these nutritious and medicinal plants when we have so much “free” food and medicine available, and we do not have to plant or cultivate them? So, there are many species that thrive here in Southern Illinois. A large percentage of what you see on this list is planted in my yard with more to come.
PLANT LIST: Southern Illinois, Zone 7B
- Edamame (soybeans)
- White Clover
- Kohl Crops
- Sweet Potatoes
Aquatic Plants for Pond:
- American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)
- Arrowhead/Duck Potato (Sagittaria spp)
- Bulrush (Scirpus spp)
- Cattail (Typha spp)
- Spatterdock/Yellow Pond Lily (Nuphar advena)
- Water Lily (Nymphae spp)
- Water Shield (Brasenia schreberi)
Ferns & Spleenworts (understory/full shade):
- Adder’s Tongue (Pterophyta filicineae ophioglossum vulgatum)
- Common Polypody (Polypodium virginianum)
- Lobed Spleenwort (Asplensorus pinnatifidus)
- Maidenhair (Asplenium trichomanes)
- Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis
- Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)
- Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis)
- Walking Fern (Camptosorus rhizophyllis)
- Basswood/Linden (Tiliaceae tilia Americana)
- Beech (Fagus grandifolia)
- Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)
- Black Walnut (Juglans nigra)
- Carpathian Walnut (Juglans regia)
- Heartnut (Juglans ailantifolia)
- Kentucky Coffee Tree (Gymnocladus dioicus)
- Kingnut / Big Shellbark Hickory (Juglandaceae carya laciniosa)
- Korean Nut Pine (Pinus koraiensis)
- Northern Pecan (Carya Illinoiensis)
- Oaks (Quercus spp)
- Red/Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra)
- Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata)
- Shellbark Hickory (Carya laciniosa)
- Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)
- American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)
- American Plum (Prunus Americana)
- Apple (Malus spp)
- Apricots (Prunus Armeniaca)
- Asian Pear (pyrus bretschneideris)
- Asian Persimmon (diospyros kaki)
- Cherries (Prunus spp)
- Chicago and Brown Turkey Figs (Ficus carica)
- Chickasaw Plum (Prunus angustifolia)
- Chinese Chestnut (Castanea mollissima)
- Choke Cherry (Prunus virginiana)
- Cornelian Cherry Dogwood (Cornus spp)
- European Pear (Pyrus communis)
- Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)
- Hall’s Hardy Almond (Prunus dulcis)
- Iowa Crab Apple (Malus ioensis)
- Italian Alder (Alnus cordata)
- Munson’s Wild Plum (Prunus munsoniana)
- Narrow-leaved Crab Apple (Malus angustifolia)
- Osage Orange/Hedge Apple (Moraceae maclura pomifera)
- Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)
- Prairie Crab Apple (Malus coronaria)
- Red Mulberry (Morus rubra)
- Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
- Shadbush/Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)
- Silver Bell (Halesia Carolina)
- Smooth Alder (Alnus serrulata)
- Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)
- White Mulberry (Morus alba)
- Wild Goose Plum (Prunus hortulana)
- Witchhazel (Hamamelis)
- Hardy Kiwi (Actinidia arguta)
- Fox Grape (Vitis labrusca)
- Muscadine Grape (Vitis rotundifolia)
Shrubs (small to large)
- Allegheny Shadbush (Amelanchier lamarkii)
- Butterfly Bush (Buddleja davidii)
- Goji Berries (Lycium barbarum)
- Jujube (Ziziphus jujube)
- Juneberries (Amelanchier spp)
- Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
- Dwarf Canebake Bamboo (Arundinaria gigantean)
- Stone Bamboo (Phyllostachys nuda)
- Sweetshoot Bamboo (Phyllostachys dulcis)
Low Shrubs (tall)
- Black Currant (Ribes nigrum)
- Black Raspberry (Rubus occidental)
- Blackberry (Rubus)
- Chinquapin (Castanea pumila)
- Dwarf Bush Cherry (Prunus japonica)
- Elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis)
- Goumi (Eleagnus multiflora)
- Hazelnut/Filbert (Corylus spp)
- Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)
- Mongolian Bush Cherry (Prunus fruticosa)
- Nanking Cherry (Prunus tomentosa)
- Rabbiteye Blueberry (Vaccinium ashei)
- Red and White Currant (Ribes silvestre)
- Red Raspberry (Rubus idacus)
- Siberian Pea Shrub (Caragana arborescens)
- Yellow Raspberry (Rubus spp)
Low Shrubs (short)
- Arrow Broom (Genista sagittalis)
- Chinese Indigo (Indigfera decora)
- Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolia)
- Rosa Rugosa (Rosa rugosum)
- Trailing Silky-Leaf Woodwaxen (Genista pilosa)
- Groundnut (Apios Americana)
- Jinenjo Yam (Dioscorea japonica)
- Maypop/Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
Clumping Herbs (above 6 inches)
- Anise Hyssop (Melissa officinalis)
- Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)
- Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)
- Blue Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis)
- Burdock (Arctium spp)
- Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
- Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
- Chicory (Cichrium intybus)
- Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
- Cinquefoil (Potentilla spp)
- Comfrey (Symphytum grandiflorum)
- Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
- Egyptian Walking Onion (Allium cepa proliferum)
- Evening primrose (Oenothera spp)
- French Sorrel (Rumex scutatus)
- Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosum)
- Ginseng, American (Panax spp)
- Goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis)
- Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus)
- Hollyhock (Alcea spp)
- Lamb’s quarter (Chenopodium spp)
- Lovage (Levisticum officinale)
- May apple (Podohyllum spp)
- Milkvetch (Astragalus glycyphyllos)
- Milkweed (Asclepius spp)
- Mints (Mentha spp)
- Mullein (Verbascum Thapsus)
- Multiplier Onion (Allium cepa aggregatum)
- Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp)
- Ramps (Allium tricoccum)
- Rhubarb (Rheum spp)
- Russian Comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum)
- Scorzonera/Oyster Plant (Scorzonera hispanica)
- Sea kale (Crambe maritime)
- Skirret (Sium sisarum)
- Sunflower (Helianthus spp)
- Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata)
- Sweet Goldenrod (Solidago odora)
- Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)
- Virginia Sweetspire
- Yellow Wild Indigo (Baptisia tinctoria)
- Yucca (Yucca spp)
Running Herbs (above 6 inches)
- Chinese Artichoke (Satchys affinis)
- Daylily (Hemerocallis spp)
- Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus)
- Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)
- Pink Tickseed (Coreopsis rosea)
- Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum)
- Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)
- Wood Nettle (Laportaea canadensis)
- Alpine Strawberry (Fragaria vesca alpina)
- Barren Strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides)
- Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia)
- Galax (Galax urceolata)
- Garden Strawberry (Fragaria spp)
- Green and Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum)
- Miner’s Lettuce (Montia perfoliata)
- Sweet Violet (Viola odorata)
- White Clover (Trifolium repens)
- Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense)
- Wild Strawberry (Fragari virginiana)
- Chicken-of-the-Woods (Polyporus sulphureus)
- King Stropharia (Stropharia rugoso-annulata)
- Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus)
- Shiitake (Lentinula edodes)
Addendum: Day Twenty-One in the Neighborhood
Early morning contemplation
In our Western culture we are entrenched in what German philosopher Ernst Lehrs has entitled, the “onlooker consciousness”, which has developed unmistakably from our scientific point-of-view in which we objectify and quantify all phenomena as something outside ourselves. Even our languages have developed the perspective of subject against object: a separate entity viewing separate entities. We describe persons, places and things through qualifying adjectives that delimit and delineate the objective being of the “thing” in all its vested glory. We grasp the forms in time and place but don’t see the essence, its inherent perfection. What of the spirit?
Benjamin Lee Whorf, a brilliant linguist, astutely clarified this aspect of the underlying structures of language that permeates our thinking. His study of the Hopi Indian language brought new insight into how our linguistic thought forms inbreed in us the way we view the world around and inside us. Everything in the language of the Hopi’s create a universe that is in constant transformation and dynamism. Nothing is stagnant or static. Nothing is separate from our perceptions. Everything moves together in a unitary process. Life is always alive and we are as much a part of this whole process as a tree with its sap rising in spring and a rock being weathered by water and wind. The human being is as much a microcosm of mineral, vegetable, animal and cosmic energy transmuted through time as anything in the external world around us.
How can I see the world of the Hopi? As I stand in front of plants, animals, other human beings, we are all changing, communicating, exhibiting our emotions and thought processes. We are in vital relationship with each other, our histories and dynamics, the general environment, the sunlight streaming in, the dust flying around, and the insects buzzing past our ears. Every minute the dynamics of everything in the space are affecting everything else in the space. Every action is another action acting on another action. Every thought acts on every other thought. We cannot separate anything from anything else in that place. Subject and object merge and disappear. The natural world becomes a great breathing in and breathing out. The divide between mind and body breaks down. If we possess the skills to observe this interaction we can take a giant step toward honest and truthful relations in all guises.
Day Twenty-Two in the Neighborhood
The industrialization of agriculture. How did these two terms merge? When I think of industry I think of stacks spewing contaminants, fish eating chemicals, complex machinery a substitute for hands, a petroleum driven maelstrom.
How is agriculture any different in its current configuration: stacks spewing contaminants, fish eating chemicals, complex machinery a substitute for hands, a petroleum driven maelstrom.
Odd, is it not, that our hands are replaced by machines, our bodies mere appendages to four hundred horses of metal, piston, explosive devices driving “seed” into a barren landscape? Assembly lines, conveyor belts, a pinball machine of life and we are the metal ball. If the flippers don’t keep us in the body of the machine we are dropped down an abysmal hole, but voila! Somehow we pop back into the machine, but…drats…game over! And who controls the flippers? Rack up points…free game! Free game! The play of the universe? Play of industry? Manufactured for our convenience?
Look down from any airplane: conveyor belts, pinball machines take us where we “wish” to go?
I often wonder at the term “industry”. Etymologically it arises from the Old Latin indu-in + struere- to build, to heap up, from stenere- to spread out, from Hittite andan-within. Through our “industry” we have built, we have heaped up and then we have spread it all around, eh? What exactly have we spread around? Chemicals, hamburgers, hybrid corn pollen, a culture of what? Heaps in places subject to the bottom of more heaps? Or heaps of money? Sitting on multi-billion dollar heaps of money=pollution? Heaps and heaps of information, spread willy-nilly across the virtual machine? Heaps and heaps of information unencumbered by wisdom? The fate of fastness=vastness. The fate of vastness=the wave that sits atop the deep blue sea. But where lies the real belly of the ocean, the unchanging, the slowness of it all, the eye turned toward what?
A big, dang, industrially agricultured, pinballed machine, two-dimensioned, oil driven soup of life?
How’s bout a leisurely walk in the woods…or in the garden…
In the Garden
It is hot here in summer
humidity striking the skin like a steel blade.
And now rain.
Rivers of rain and mud
and mud and miracles
and cherts and flints lifted like feathers carried on the wind
tilted for searching hands on banks and bars in creeks.
So we dig, weed, plant seed.
And soon the harvest reaches back into
backwashes of sediment
catalyzing mineral into wealth
pebble into food.
Insects settle in.
Day Twenty-Three in the Neighborhood
Four years ago, when we started working the yard, we had to cut down four rather mature trees to fetch sunlight. We chipped them and used the remainder for hugelkultur beds. We kept two large trees on the east side: female gingko (the largest in all of Carbondale) and pine. In the neighbor’s yard are several oaks and redbuds. We harvest nitrogen from the redbuds (and luscious spring flowers), acorns and medicines from the oak (along with its infinite ecosystemic functions), nuts from the gingko, and pitch and vitamin C from the pine. These are only a few of the functions allotted to these behemoths of the plant world.
How do I document the other 249 species in the yard, let alone the numerous species abutting our property and up and down the byways of the neighborhood? My daughter and I have been tattooed with purple mulberry dye for days and we spend more than a modicum of time sucking nectar from honeysuckle blossoms (those awful, invasive aliens from the “green” planet). I could swear she is a honeybee in the making!
So, today I will stick with the oak, glorious tree. There are eighteen or so species of oak in Southern Illinois and the bounty garnered from them is nothing short of miraculous. And again, we planted not one of them. Let the blue jays and squirrels do that for us. This is what understanding the biological intelligence of the region is all about…
Here is an excerpt about the oak from my book, “Integrated Forest Gardening”…
“The oak tree is a powerful symbol in many cultures across the world, and for good reason. Its ability to grow and survive in just about every climate, and its strength and beauty, are unmatched in the world of trees. Oak (Quercus species) provides sustenance for many, something that human beings should take to heart. It is, like many other tree species, the centerpiece of any guild, and it shares its bounty with all that moves across the landscape.
In Permaculture systems oaks are planted as an overstory tree, the tallest plant in the guild arching over all other herbaceous, shrub, and tree species. In many neighborhoods across the United States there is already a proliferation of oaks that were planted when these neighborhoods were constructed. The oak-hickory forest that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River is the most predominant type of forest biome between these great bodies of water. It is up to us to insert a diversity of plants in the understory of the oak for our plant guilds, or to forage the neighborhood in autumn when the acorns come ripe.
The oak is found on every continent. There are fifty-eight tree and ten shrub species of oak in the United States, and they feature countless leaf shape variations and have a tendency to hybridize.
The Indo-European family of languages that range from Sanskrit in the east to Gaelic in the west have in common the root word for oak. In Sanskrit the name for oak is duir; that word is also used for trees in general. In Gaelic, too, the word is duir. The English word door comes from this ancient link as doors were traditionally made from the strongest available wood, oak.
There are over sixty references to oak in the Bible. Druid rituals revolved around the sacred tree, and Zeus’s oracle was set in the midst of an oak grove at Dodona. Stability, longevity, strength, beauty.
Because acorns are so bitter to the taste, their tannic acid content must be leached out. This same tannic acid, as we shall see shortly, can be used as a medicinal. The white oak (Quercus alba) contains less tannic acid than the red oak (Q. rubra) and its acorn is much sweeter. Nonetheless, the white acorn must also be leached of its tannic acid for consumption.
Red and White Oaks
Oak is a long-lived tree. The red oak can survive to an age of three hundred years, and the white oak to six hundred. Most oak species fall within these two subsets, red and white. The red oaks are so named because the wood has a reddish color; that of the white oak is lighter. They can also be distinguished by the shape of their lobes: White oaks have rounded lobes and red oaks pointed, most of the time with small hairs projecting from the point of the lobe.
Red oaks contain more tannic than white oaks, but when we leach either subtype for flour we must be cognizant that even a small modicum of tannic acid ingested can cause digestive issues.
Functional Uses of the Oak: A Woodland Department Store!
Other than habitat or centers of diversity for nonhuman species, there are many purposes to which human societies have put the oak and its products and services. Whereas the cattail is called the “supermarket of the swamp,” the oak could be called the “department store of the forest.” Different parts of the tree are used as wild or cultivated edibles, as medicinal and first-aid remedies, for crafting splint baskets, as a dye, and to build structures and make tools.
As a source of durable wood products, the white oaks are almost unsurpassed among tree species. White oak wood is rot resistant and is a premier carpentry wood; it was used for ships’ masts for hundreds of years. Red oak is less durable and more prone to splitting, but it’s used also in furniture making and plywood veneers.
Oak bark was traditionally a source of tannins for the leather industry. The tannic acid content of any part of the oak tree is used to process animal hides when the brain of the animal (traditionally used for tanning) is not available. After the hide is scraped of fat, meat, and hair, it is soaked and wrung out several times in a solution of brains and water or oak tree decoction. It is kneaded until dry. The natural brain tanning or plant tanning process assures the softest and most beautiful of all leathers.
Oak First Aid and Medicine
Indigenous Native Americans used the bark medicinally. As a first-aid and medicinal remedy oak bark has internal and external applications. Prepare a decoction of oak bark as a gargle for sore throat after a cold night in the brush or resulting from a drafty window. As a skin wash for cuts, scrapes, and insect bites, it is especially soothing. After sloshing through a mosquito-dense swamp, chew a bunch of oak leaves, rub and poultice them on the bites, and enjoy quick relief. As an astringent for all kinds of ailments, oak bark is applied topically to fever blisters, herpes sores, ringworm ulcers, varicose veins, and various other skin disorders in the form of a fomentation or salve. Apply fomentations throughout the night to swollen glands, lymphatic swellings, goiter, and mumps. Oak bark decoction is an excellent douche for vaginal infections and a retention enema for hemorrhoids.
Internally, decoct and drink sparingly for diarrhea, bladder weakness, bleeding in the stomach, lungs, and rectum, hemorrhoids, prolapsed uterus, and varicose veins. A teaspoon of the decoction is snuffed up the nose to stop nosebleed. Oak bark is highly antiseptic. It will clean the stomach, clear mucous discharge, and help remove gall- and kidney stones.
Food, of course, is the best use for the oak as the harvest of acorns is a renewable resource. Around the world people have been eating acorns for thousands of years; some societies based their entire food culture on the acorn. Mediterranean cultures such as Greece and Rome used the acorn for food, as did much of Western Europe and elsewhere. Even today some Asian supermarkets carry acorn flour in the United States as well as in their native countries.
Leaching of the tannins can help to make the acorn meal palatable. This meal needs to be blended with another flour, nuts, fruits, vegetables, or herbs because of its bland flavor. Native Americans mixed it with cornmeal to make into bread. They blended acorns with dried or fresh berries, meat and fats, and maple sugar and fried it as cakes. John Muir said that the acorn bread he was taught to make by Native friends was a most compact and strength-giving food. To make acorn meal, boil the acorn kernels in several changes of water until the water does not turn its characteristic brown color. The kernels can also be dried, mashed or ground, placed in a tightly woven, porous bag, and then boiled or left in a swift-running stream for a number of days to remove the bitterness and astringency. Once the tannic acid has been removed, the acorns are eaten whole or dried, ground into flour, and used in breads, muffins, soups, or ashcakes. There is no gluten content in acorn flour, so if you’re making bread, acorn flour will not hold together as wheat does. It’s better to use it as an additive than attempt to use it by itself in bread making.
Ashcakes are a delicacy not to be missed by backcountry travelers and collectors of acorns along the byways and front lawns of America. Mix acorn flour with water until a doughy consistency is obtained, knead into a flat, round pancake, fold over (you can put raisins, brown sugar, whatever pleases the palate inside before folding, as in a turnover), then place in hot ashes and coals on an open fire. Endless variations are possible. Native peoples would make ashcakes and take them along on excursions as a delicious and nutritious food that would last for many months.”
Day Twenty-Four in the Neighborhood
I am sitting on the porch. 98 degrees. Do you all know what it feels like when a small ball of sweat rolls down the back through a labyrinth of hair and mole and takes up residence inside your belt? It stains the leather that once upon a time covered a cow, a modified cornfed cow permeated with antibiotics and the stench of piles of dung, bloated, then meandered to the slaughterhouse and its poisoned blood let loose from the highways and byways of veins and arteries. Another reality that is hidden away “over there”. The “meat” is available at the “super” market. Hunt it, gather it, grill it, at our convenience. And the hide? We are walking in it as it has been shaped to our feet, and it can be found through the loops of our jeans as it hugs the belly.
But could we participate in the process from animal to freezer and feel comfortable with this? When I used to teach primitive skills in Southern Utah for a month at a time with no equipment we would sneak a sheep in on the four-wheeler in the middle of the course. The students had to draw straws to see who would slaughter the sheep. It was an emotional time for many who had never witnessed the source of their meat. The group was required to use every last bit of the sheep for something (Ex: even the ears make nice change purses!). There is something in between beginning and instant gratification, there is a whole process that we have the habit of skipping past in our culture. This creative process takes time, revision, questioning, slowing down to a snail’s pace in order to observe before one takes a step, and another step. It as if we are to join a twelve-step program and leap from step one to step twelve in a single bound, lest we forget that steps 2-11 are where the real work takes place.
That ball of sweat would never make it to its landing place in the belt if all we would do is go inside to our climate controlled domicile. But can we know “weather” beyond what we see on the two-dimensional electronic window? Can we imbibe this weather with a full range of senses and joy in the cold, the sweat that rolls down our backs, where we become a tuning fork through total immersion?
If I cultivate my crops, I cultivate at dusk when the earth breathes in at the end of the day. Heated air rises, expands and picks up moisture along the way. As the day cools the air sinks back to the earth where it can be received. If I cultivate my life I cultivate the acceptance of the sweat rolling down my back, the moistening of the belt, in essence giving new life to the hide that traveled an uneasy life and death and has found itself wrapped around my belly.
As I sit in the backyard I am surrounded by a density of life in plants that is unfathomable. Plants are our primary producers. Without them we do not exist. Plants fed the cow that fed the craftsman that fed the loops of our jeans that hold those jeans in place. It is in the leaf that I rest and forgive the whiles and wherefores of the marketplace and its seemingly unending grip on us…
Day Twenty-Five in the Neighborhood
Management and Design
As a designer of small to large acreage I know that pretty pictures and scintillating narratives do not a comprehensive Permaculture design make. It does not end here. Nature has an intriguing way of succesionally filling all niches. Somehow these snapshots, these creative gestures that we create are only a conceptual map, a set of goals, a vision for only a “finished” product, a corpse of sorts. But, in the long and short of it, all life beyond the picture is management: grooming, fixing, dealing with human and animal interrelationships, the list goes on ad infinitum because it never does not end. Is infinite the proper adjective (take it as noun, verb, whatever) here, be that as it may? Is our protracted observation (per Bill Mollison) a one year deal or an always, ever, forever deal?
Who brushes their teeth upon awakening from a night’s slumber (or before falling into dream worlds)? Who does the dishes (all hail the dishwasher – got to rinse them off first – stack em in – soap – run – dry – back onto the shelves and into the cabinets)? Oh my, work, work, work. What to eat? Fast food? Off to Mickey D’s. Got to fuel up (the car). Got to order. Got to chew, digest, dispose of wrappers, and inevitably poop it all out (which can be work). So, we create beautiful designs. Works of aesthetically superlative art, simple snapshots that do not change outside of the fact that the paper that they are printed on deteriorates, the computer that they were created on contracts a virus, the hand that drew them withers with age, you know the scene, eh?
All life is management, maintenance. Install those trees! Build that straw bale house! Gray water! Yeah! All fine and good. Management! Management! Management! Maintenance!
When I was a framer I was a farmer. Sunup to sundown. Paperwork at night. When I was a builder: detail, detail, detail. When the house was finished (?) the homeowner had to adjust the thermostat for comfort, change filters, paint, sweep, plumb, egads…
Design is key, but in the long and short of it management and maintenance are life after the picture (and before it). If the picture is fluid, if it does not end with the printed page, if past and future converge on the present and all is immersion in constant change, if we never step in the same river twice but are still willing to step in the river, than we are immersed in the living and dying of it, always…
Day Twenty-Six in the Neighborhood
What, may I ask, does the skunk on the side of the highway do as we barrel by in our automobiles and upon seeing it “avoid it at all costs”? Does it spin tailwise and take aim? Does it waddle into our path of steel and wheel? Does the “stench” of the skunk remind us of something? Stress? Annoyance? Anger?
When I was a kid and young adult I would sit in stillness at the edge of the forest and the gentle skunk would approach and walk gingerly across my shoe tops. No threat, no spray, no posturing from either party.
Sometimes, off in the distance, a distinctive odor wafts in a broad band and seems to penetrate atmosphere and ooze from buildings and trees. Sometimes the dog comes home whining with skunk radiating from damp fur. Sometimes a roadkill skunk finds a tire or two and the heating unit in the car sucks it in like a sieve, a colander, a funnel.
It is only from a “disturbed” skunk that its smell is broadcast far and wide. In other words, what about the gentle and beautiful black and white creature that gingerly walked across my shoe tops? Where did he or she go? Obviously, and presently, under the shed in my yard, and the neighborly chickens don’t seem to mind a bit…
Day Twenty-Seven in the Neighborhood
We draw, as human beings, a line between opposites: inside and outside, subject versus object, hot versus cold.
Take, for instance, the garden. Always outside? What is the definition of “garden”? The Old High German etymology states that it is an enclosure (gart). Webster’s definition: a. A plot of ground where herbs, fruits, flowers, or vegetables are cultivated; 2. A rich, well-cultivated region; 3. A container (as a window box) planted with a variety of small plants. Let’s take a look at some of these terms. Plot of ground. Container. Enclosure. Region. All of these terms are predicated on distinct boundaries, the demarcation of a perimeter, as though separate. There is little diffusion across boundaries.
But how can we demarcate impenetrable boundaries in anything in life? What really lives (or dies) in isolation? In spite of myself, let’s say, even though I may feel isolated, I am still in relationship with the chair that I sit on, the air that I breathe in the room, the electronic device I listen to. There are infinite “connections” being drawn in every micro-millisecond.
So, let us step inside the house and blur the edges of indoor versus outdoor. The plants make no distinction. Why might we? Step into the kitchen, the living room (not sure why the other rooms are not the dying rooms in contradistinction to the living room, but…), the office, and witness wheat grass, microgreens, sprouts fermented vegetables, mushrooms increasing everywhere. What we habitually think of outside is now inside (or is it inside-out or outside-in?), fresh, succulent, delectable, nutritious.
Where the distinction? Where the demarcation? Where the perimeter? Yes, the lines blur, the edge (ecotone) is nothing but transformation and metamorphosis, the alive in-between, rich in diversity, and steeped in vigorous, robust, and vital growth. The senses are full to the brim…taste buds longing with bottomless anticipation…
Day Twenty-Eight in the Neighborhood
The Delectable Mulberry and Two Poems
The mulberries have come and gone this year, but the memory of these delicacies of the plant world is still vivid within. I cannot imagine a summer without mulberries. Here in the neighborhood they are superabundant! I have the fondest memory of riding bicycles around town with my daughter and stopping at every mulberry tree and ingesting one of the sweetest and most delectable fruits in the plant kingdom. Highly perishable, mulberries are best eaten fresh off the branch, but if you get them home immediately they are excellent for drying, jellies, jams, pies, juices, smoothies, the list goes on. They will last maybe three days in the refrigerator, but will soon turn to a mass of mulberry sludge.
The mulberry is in the genus Morus. There are approximately 15 species of mulberry growing in temperate regions all over the world. Sometimes considered a “weed” tree, they are fast growing and reach heights of 30-50 feet. I have several mulberries growing in my yard and most them are pruned to the size of a tall shrub, but even with a hard pruning they produce prolifically year after year.
The paper mulberry, which grows in the US, is a related species in the genus Broussonetia.
A distinguishing feature of the mulberry is its three different serrated leaf margins and shapes: single, double and triple lobed. The only other tree species in the US that has this distinction is the sassafras.
Mulberry trees are either monoecious or dioecious.
Monoecious means that plants have both male and female organs in the same individual. They are hermaphroditic and the stamens and the pistils are in separate flowers on the same plant.
Dioecious means that plants have the male and female organs in separate and distinct individuals, separate sexes.
The fact that reproduction can happen in these two ways makes for the prolific and opportunistic spread of this tree species.
The mulberry has a multiple fruit, is 0.79”–1.18 “ long. The fruits change color rapidly as they mature in possible white, green, pale yellow, pink, red while, dark purple or black phases. The fruits of the white mulberry (a non-native species) are white when ripe. The fruits of the white mulberry are sweet and in some cases have hybridized with the black mulberry so that telling them apart is near impossible. Regardless, they are all delectable and worth the effort to seek out and harvest. Once you get started you will be hooked.
Mulberry fruit, as already mentioned, can be eaten as a juicy, refreshing, raw fruit right off the branch. As a dessert fruit mulberry stands out and, cooked into preserves, jellies and jams it rivals the best of them. I have harvested mulberries for over more than a month continuously when in season beginning in June. If you take the fresh berries and put them into the food dryer immediately you will have a luscious dried berry within one day. Wine is made from the berry and is added to fruit ciders to enhance sweetness. It has a slight acid flavor.
Mulberry wood makes an excellent and resilient bow wood
Mulberry wood has a beautiful figure (yellow and a rich golden brown) in it and can be worked into many wood-crafting projects. It especially suits fine joinery and chip carving.
When I was a primitive skills instructor we made countless ropes and pieces of cordage out of fibers stripped from the inner bark. It’s applications for weaving and basket making are endless. You can also obtain dyes from the berries (dark purple) and the leaves (yellow-green). The mulberry is resilient to water. It is hard and durable and makes for good firewood with high BTU’s.
Dying wools with natural plant dyes yield subtle and earthy colors. Most plant dyes require a mordant in order to set the colors permanently.
As a medicine, mulberry has been found in the Chinese materia medica for centuries and used in the west for a variety of ailments. It is antibacterial and fungicidal, analgesic, emollient, sedative, anthelmintic and purgative, and it is used to expel tape worms The leaves are effective for colds, flu, eye infections and other illnesses requiring antibiotic action. I have made tincture of the bark and used it on toothache. As long as the toothache pain is not too severe relief can be had until one pays a visit to the dentist. The stems are antirheumatic, diuretic, hypotensive and pectoral. As with many cooling fruits the mulberry has a tonic effect on the kidney. It is used in the treatment of urinary incontinence, tinnitus, premature greying of the hair and constipation in the elderly.
The leaves of Morus nigra or black mulberry are inferior to those of Morus alba or white mulberry for feeding silkworms. The white mulberry was originally brought to the US in order to initiate a silk industry, but they did not fare well. The white mulberry escaped cultivation and now has become endemic to this country.
The leaves of Morus nigra are used as a fodder for domestic rabbits, cattle and goats.
We could go on and on here. What I have discovered through all my years of working with plants for food, medicine and utility is that the more we utilize the plant and the more we research and explore we find that the applications of the plant are infinite. Based on how the different parts of a plant are processed it is quite possible that each plant can be used for almost anything.
Modern medicine has the audacious habit of isolating single chemical actions of plant material into highly toxic medicines. When we harvest a plant from the wild, or from our gardens, and use it in its entirety we garner health giving attributes with a full spectrum of actions that balance each other out and work for us in the long haul in terms of medicine and food. For utility purposes we may find uses that go beyond anything we have thought of before.
It takes years to master the art of plant utilization, but at every step of the learning process we can make use of the plant at the point of what have learned. If we can imagine that what is growing in the alleyway behind the house is a supermarket of food, medicine and utility, we might be inspired to change the way we look at the world. And all those beautiful plant specimens growing in the alley are free for the taking.
We are unaccustomed to outdoors.
Outdoors, out-of-doors, swinging doors.
Maybe there is no distinction between in and out?
We build outsized domiciles. It is a longer walk to the door.
A tiny home says: yes, the living room is outside.
I remember the first observation my Bengali friend had after a drive from the St Louis airport into town (about two hours through the burbs).
This observation came in the form of a question: where are all the people?
Sprawled out in two-dimensional mania?
Ensconced in virtual irreality?
Crushed by piles of information, hip-hopping into inexactitude?
It all comes down to this:
The trees will tell you secrets that no one believes…
When They Said the World Was Flat
When “they” said the world was “flat”
The believers of roundness sailed ships
To disprove flatness and the idea that
One might fall off the edge of it.
And then “they” said that the world was
But how the fuck do “they” know this
How could they ship the heart into the unknown
Without contemplating the willy nilly subterfuge of
Life? What would be the reward of all this?
Riches, gold, power and “I, me, mine”?
So, there is this inevitability of the heart,
The foot, the hand, the pen.
And Lord help us, yes, there is the laundry…
Like Mohammed said, “Before you go to prayer,
Tether your camel first”.
The fish know this.
They are inevitability in motion.
They twitch and turn and dart and dodge.
And if the sharks of this world bare their teeth,
And the Pharoahs of commerce bare their teeth,
And the imperialists of yore and future bare their teeth,
The fish will twitch and turn and dart and dodge
And slip through the jaws of existence
Travel the oceans to the very edge,
And spin with the circle of fish lives
And shit, catch them if you can.
Day Twenty-Nine in the Neighborhood
The Night We Hit the Deer in the Neighborhood
A faint ellipsis
Cutting of words into two
A language older than language
Split ribs and a deer with broken legs
Leaping over fence with a burst heart
But no blood
We only went back there for the trophy
Antlers and a piece of skull
When it all stopped
Frozen but for the eye staring back
Into the windshield
So fast this slow motion
I often think
That life in its shortcomings
And long goings
Time in its yolk
Drags babies into death
And we have no reason to think
But for a burst heart
A broken rib
And the unenviable collapse of cultures
Day Thirty in the Neighborhood
Tonight the neighborhood is profuse with sound and rhythm. Have you seen the thick, veined, transparent wings of the cicada?
Cicadas feed on the xylem of trees with protruding proboscices. They love the taste of sap.
“Male cicadas have a noisemaker called a tymbal below each side of the anterior abdominal region. The tymbals are structures of the exoskeleton formed into complex membranes with thin, membranous portions and thickened ribs. Contraction of internal muscles buckles the tymbals inwards, producing a click; on relaxation of the muscles the tymbals return to their original position, producing another click. The male abdomen is largely hollow, and acts as a sound box. By rapidly vibrating these membranes a cicada combines the clicks into apparently continuous notes, and enlarged chambers derived from the tracheae serve as resonance chambers, with which it amplifies the sound. The cicada also modulates the song by positioning its abdomen toward or away from the substrate. Partly by the pattern in which it combines the clicks, each species produces its own distinctive mating songs and acoustic signals, ensuring that the song attracts only appropriate mates.” (From Wikipedia)
I cannot imagine living underground for 13 or 17 years as does the cicada. Or maybe I can. Maybe in some “other” world I could discover definition for my life, a 13 or 17 year meditation of sorts? Maybe I could find a comfortable way to fold my antennae in lotus position and empty myself of song and rhythm? If I am quiet enough could it be that the squirrels or birds could not find me, could not make meat of me?
The cricket also sings on this fine and humid summer evening. From Wikipedia:
“Most male crickets make a loud chirping sound by stridulation (a few species are mute). The stridulatory organ is located on the tegmen, or forewing, which is leathery in texture. There is a large vein running along the centre of each tegmen, with comb-like serrations on its edge forming a file-like structure, and at the rear edge of the tegmen is a scraper. The tegmina are held at an angle to the body and rhythmically raised and lowered which causes the scraper on one wing to rasp on the file on the other. In the central part of the tegmen is the “harp”. This is an area of thick, sclerotinized membrane that resonates and amplifies the volume of sound, as does the pocket of air between the tegmina and the body wall. Most female crickets lack the necessary adaptations to stridulate, and these make no sound.
There are several types of cricket song in the repertoire of some species. The calling song attracts females and repels other males, and is fairly loud. The courting song is used when a female cricket is near and encourages her to mate with the caller. A triumphal song is produced for a brief period after a successful mating, and may reinforce the mating bond to encourage the female to lay some eggs rather than find another male. An aggressive song is triggered by contact chemoreceptors on the antennae that detect the presence of another male cricket.
Crickets chirp at different rates depending on their species and the temperature of their environment. Most species chirp at higher rates the higher the temperature is (approximately 62 chirps a minute at 13 °C in one common species; each species has its own rate). The relationship between temperature and the rate of chirping is known as Dolbear’s Law. According to this law, counting the number of chirps produced in 14 seconds by the snowy tree cricket, common in the United States, and adding 40 will approximately equal the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit.”
I love this word “stridulation”. Do you? From the Latin, “Shrill”. From Webster: “to make a shrill creaking noise by rubbing together special bodily structures —used especially of male insects (as crickets or grasshoppers)”.
There are many people around the world who eat crickets. Somewhat of a delicacy I presume? When fried in an iron skillet they are crunchy. Does the first bite stridulate? “The food conversion efficiency of house crickets (Acheta domesticus) is reported to be five times higher than that for beef cattle, and if their fecundity is taken into account, fifteen to twenty times higher.”
There are many crickets in my basement. Yum…
And there is a moth fluttering about the lamp next to which I am writing. A triangular moth. Dusky grays and browns. Needle-like appendages. Moths belong to the order Lepidoptera, as do butterflies. Lepidoptera: from Greek lepido-, comb. form of lepis (genitive lepidos) “(fish) scale” (related to lepein “to peel;” see leper) + pteron “wing, feather” (see pterodactyl).
It seems that etymologically moths are related to pterodactyls? But maybe I am only remembering Mothra from my childhood? Or was that Rodan?
I think I will step out on the back doorstep to listen once again, and to search the skies for pterodactyls. I will let you know what I find. I will be accompanied by the song of cicadas and crickets. All is good in the neighborhood on this fine and humid July evening in Southern Illinois…
Day Thirty-One in the Neighborhood
When we moved to a house in Carbondale, Illinois the backyard was filled with “weeds” and reams of chickweed. I built flower boxes for the front of the building. In a matter of days, reams of chickweed. In the cracks of the sidewalk at the front of the house, chickweed. On the roof, literally, where dust had accumulated for years in a hollow created by rotting wood, chickweed. In the parks, on the beaches, in gardens, gutters, graveyards, and who knows, maybe even on the moon, chickweed! The ability of chickweed to survive almost everywhere rivals the dandelion. But in surface area alone chickweed seems to outdo all other plants combined. The split white flower petals and long, succulent runners are a familiar sight in all terrains. The flowers are actually five-petalled, but they seem like ten because of the deep cleft.
Chickweed (stellaria) stays green all year round, even beneath the snow. The flowers bloom early, sometimes in February, and last until December. It can be annual or biennial. The procumbent stems grow up to two feet, bearing small, opposite, ovate leaves. There are about seventy-five species of chickweed worldwide. The common chickweed (stellaria media) is relished by game birds such as quail, songbirds, especially finches and juncos, rabbits and mountain sheep. Because it can remain green in winter it is an excellent wildlife (and human) food source during the cold months. Even chickens and caged birds love chickweed. If you look closely you will see the tiny white flowers open a couple of hours after sunrise and close by nightfall (and on cloudy days).
I have eaten chickweed on many occasions, sometimes nibbling it along the trail, adding it to salads (mixed with young dandelion leaves it is delicious), or by steaming it along with other greens, roots, or corms. If an abundant supply of spring beauties (claytonia) is at hand, the combination with chickweed is outstanding. The profusion and easy adaptation of chickweed (in almost any environment) is a plus when seeking a guaranteed food source in the wild, the suburbs, or in cities.
As a medicinal plant chickweed is best when used as a poultice or ointment for cuts, wounds, itching, irritation, eczema, or psoriasis. It can also be infused and used to wash down irritated skin or as an addition to bathwater. As a tea, chickweed is carminative and it relieves constipation (demulcent). For blood purification, rheumatism relief, tetany, obesity, and toxicity of any kind, chickweed blesses our parks, empty lots, grasslands, mountaintops, swamps, and deserts with its presence, a true survivor that continues to thrive.
This year I have decided to let my garden grow as it will. I have deliberately planted nothing. I will harvest only what was planted years past and what grows “wild” now. It is summer and the dogwood has already bloomed. Lemon balm, ostrich fern fiddleheads, peonies, lilies, irises, apple trees, stink trees, pokeweed, comfrey, onions, raspberries, and plenty more, have all thrived, and are thriving. And the crows have decided this year that the old catalpa tree next door will be their conference room where they can chatter and bicker and set up the laws of sky and scavenge. Below that tree, and all the other trees back here grow mats and mats of chickweed. So, this year, I have decided to substitute chickweed for sprouts. I will steam it, boil it, eat it raw. I will dry it out, make flour, bake chickweed muffins. I will pot chickweed and place it on my windowsill. I will weave chickweed into clothing and rugs. I will build my new house out of chickweed and fuel my car with it. And I’ll use it for money (I know they’ll understand). If I live with a heart as omnipresent and abundant as chickweed is prolific where could I go wrong? What more could I ask? Hearts made of chickweed?…
Day Thirty-Two in the Neighborhood
Those two sticks over there cross in which one can imagine at the juncture a Golgotha, or the emptiness inside the Kaaba, or the hollow of an urn. There is not much else to look at at sunrise this morning for the eye (or two) is drawn undistractedly to this crossing of corpses, self-sacrificed from the towering sweetgum tree.
I can imagine, after the rain, a fungus forms and eats at it til the cross falls apart, the sticks lay parallel, and then become indistinct soil, food for minutiae feeding on biological refuse, a constant spiral taking all in to the center of the vortex, spinning all sorts matter out of control, the control that human beings wish to hammer on to all existence:
“Shall we say, I made it. I found success. Where do I find success? Success arises from the Latin meaning “to go near”. What are we nearing? Security? The veiling of fear? Power? Passion for something other than the living? Raw life? Like a squirrel planting acorns in the soil “bank”? I will sit on my money. It is my chair, my seat, the one that supports the human frame. The measure of my success?”
“Can’t get rid of these damn mice in the kitchen. The possums freak me out, especially the red in their eyes in the lights, and the long, naked tail, somewhat like a rat’s. Or the moth that keeps hinting at love for me, tickling my face like a blinking eyelash.”
Well… back to the two sticks crossing in the backyard at dawn. I can imagine a super highway for ants, and cicadas dancing to their own rhythms leaping from sticks into mud, a sort of amusement park for a miniature race. I can imagine one of the sticks as a bent stick, a bow, and the other a straight stick, an arrow, aloft now, after 50 pounds of tension let it fly over the towering sweetgum, over the cypress, over the oaks and pines, and finds its mark in some lover’s yet to be naked heart. I can imagine as a critter under crossed sticks looking up, wondering that they somehow landed just this way, and the only thing nailed to them is the sky, a treble of wind spiraling about, and the song of the cardinal enveloping them in gold-spun dawn…
Day Thirty-Three in the Neighborhood
What came to me sitting on the back porch steps before sunrise this fine morning:
We Are All Dying Inside
The animals are on the move tonight
Over the flat lung of the earth
All the rain is gone
The wind ancient alphabet
Long forgotten but for the
Wind chimes that give it shape
The animals are on the move tonight
Through arteries and veins
Dimensionless rivers unexplored
By ghosts in stone boats
It is the sleepless muscle
The red corpuscle of nothing
Pounding to a rhythm of
Snow piled ten foot deep
Made the land featureless
Only yesterday (yesterday?)
It is hard going for raptors and nighthawks
Ravens and salamanders and sylphs
This wounded healer
Horse and human fleshed into one
Can heal you tonight
But cannot heal himself
If it weren’t for the wind
How could he feel the pain?
How could he suffer the memories
Come circling back?
The clutch of Pluto’s riches tight
Upon sinew and the small
Muscle of the brain?
Canals have been dug
Earth scraped and rearranged
The wind must tell its secrets to no one
Blowing leaves about like
Shattered glass from windows of
Memory and thought
Where are you tonight little one?
Where is your sandbox of delight?
Your running buddies
The breast you never quite suckled?
Where are you old old man?
The animals are crossing great oceans
And ice fields of mercy tonight
And they are singing in the wind
Giving it shape
At ninety degrees they only wish
To rise upon their hind legs
And make like human beings
We are all dying inside
To the beast that bangs incessantly
Like a drum in a high school band
Marching backwards across
Anyone’s diaphanous membrane
Day Thirty-Four in the Neighborhood
After coming back into the house this morning after a short hike about the neighborhood and preparing to hit the road this week for master planning and teaching:
Astute designers rigorously attempt to lift the veil of a land base and penetrate to the essence of what they observe. A master plan is a complex endeavor and needs insight, intuitiveness and practical skill in order to create a comprehensive design that will pay heed to the ecological integrity that will bring health to the land for generations to come. It is a concept map.
This framework, based on P.A. Yeoman’s Scale of Permanence, aids the designer in delineating a master plan:
- Water Systems
- Access and Circulation
- Vegetation and Animals
- The Built Environment, Energy and the Waste Stream
- Zones of Use
- Aesthetics and Culture
These broad terms range from a “connection” to the earth forces of wind, sun, soil, water, heat and cold, to the inclusion of the often felt spiritual forces that our ancestors are watching over us, or that there is an ever present force, or God, with some type of universal plan. In light of this we will consider an eleventh point: Spirituality.
These eleven points of permanence ground the vision for the project in “real time” and offer a comprehensive framework for planning and design.
A master plan is by no means a finished product. It is a scaffold for depicting the vision and goals of the stakeholders involved in a land development project. We might liken it to a painting wherein the painter works within a frame (think of the property perimeter), and initiates the painting with broad, brush strokes before the details emerge. The painter sets the table, so to speak, before the guests arrive. One by one they are seated at the table, then all the meal’s courses are served.
Another point to note is that the painter enters the canvas from the outside. Think of this as the designer and stakeholders imprinting their ideas on the blank canvas. We also might think of the canvas within a frame as the land within the property lines, this land that is not isolated from the external forces that course through it always. Change is inevitable. The natural world is constantly forcing its hand on the plants, soils, stones, animals, structures, and human beings.
One of the critical dicta of Permaculture is to “make the least amount of change for the greatest affect”. Why would we make any change to a landscape? By making small (or at times momentous) changes we are attempting to augment the general health and balance of the ecological functions of the land and make the land viable for not only the present, but for future generations.
Without sound observation and rigorous design practice, the Scale of Permanence becomes just another list amongst lists. We utilize this system in order to help us organize our assessments, inventories, ideas, goals and visions into a comprehensive whole. Permaculture is about functional relationship and seeks to delineate the interconnections of the many functions of all elements in the landscape. A comprehensive design is a “whole” design, a unified expression of all stakeholders involved in the creation of a land-base.
The first step in delineating the environmental characteristics of a particular bioregion is to look at the macroclimate. This is placed at the top of the scale of permanence. Climate exists no matter where we are and we cannot escape its affects.
In Permaculture systems redundancy is a central principle. Redundancy means that we set up as many components in the landscape and the built environment so that there will “always be enough” of whatever resource we need to tap. For example: we are encourage the installation of several diverse methods in order to catch, store and utilize all the water that falls on a property.
We accomplish this need by evaluating topography and contour lines (which sit dead level) and creating opportunities for water management by:
Directing water where it is needed most and spreading it around the property so that all areas are on equal footing based on need.
Remember that the principle is to slow water down and spread it. The technique comes later. It is important in our work to understand the principle idea first and then seek out techniques in order to make manifest the idea.
General access and flow through a property helps to weave all the elements in the landscape together, and directs people and animals to nodes of activity (or quietude) where they need to be. There are vistas, gardens, homes, barns, meeting areas, places of meditation and contemplation, storage areas, forests, that are central to how and why we move through a site. These avenues of access are fairly permanent once established in the general design. Therefore, much contemplation is required for the appropriate direction, scale and frequency of use of these pathways. When we think of access and circulation we can think of the circulation of blood and nutrients in the human body. All of the veins and arteries are connected as they move from larger trunks to smaller capillaries in a network of flow. The paths and byways on a property do the same thing. We are directed into a main entrance and, as we proceed, we move to smaller paths, which point the way to significant nodes of life.
By developing microclimate, opportunities for outdoor and indoor crop season extension, building temperature regulation, outdoor recreation and gathering, present themselves. White walls reflect heat. Black walls absorb heat. Plant against these walls and we extend our growing season in northern climates. In hotter climates we use the natural shade of plants in order to shelter sensitive crops and smaller woody species and plant species that are accustomed to this particular climate.
Those of us that live in more northerly climates long to extend our growing season into the colder months.
Shelterbelts, screens, and walls will slow down incoming brisk winds, intense prevailing winds and rainfall squalls and such.
By observing the path of the sun we utilize sunlight to create pockets of sunshine for plants that rely on a good dose of exposure.
We use warmer microclimatic areas for season extension of sensitive crops. Growing seasons are delimited by frost dates and cold temperatures. As the farming and gardening process develops at a farm, home, etc. we seek out more opportunities for creating specific microclimate locales. A greenhouse is also a season extender with its own microclimate. For
As we become more familiar with the movement of wind (predominately from the northwest in the winter and the southwest and southeast in the summer months) we will be able to design efficient shelterbelts to slow down and dissipate strong winds from the west and northwest and to shelter the home and people form intense sunlight. An added bonus of this is that we now have another opportunity for microclimate areas on the leeward side of the shelterbelt.
Often, we overlook what we already have present on a piece of property. Edibles, medicinals and utility plants abound. Initially we take inventory of what we have and then do research to explore the many functions of each plant. Here is an example of some of the yields of a pine tree:
Uses for Pine Resin: Pine resin has multiple uses. Scrape resin from a tree and collect it in a tin container. Press the sap into the container until it is full, and light the sap at night. The odor will deter insects, and its warm glow will provide light.
Resin can also waterproof articles, such as boots, mittens, or tent seams. Heat the resin in a container, and use the resin as glue while it is still hot. Adding ash dust from your fire to the hot resin can help strengthen its waterproofing qualities.
If you can’t find enough resin on a tree, cut into the bark with a knife so that more sap will seep out. Come back later to collect new sap as it oozes from the cut.
Uses for Pine Needles: Brown or green pine needles provide an excellent bed for a survival shelter. Collect them into a pile, and spread them beneath you while you sleep. Laying pine branches and needles beneath you in a shelter will also form a natural insulation between your body and the ground so that you can stay warmer at night.
Make tea from green pine needles by boiling the needles. Fill a container with water, bring to a boil, and add the needles at full boil. Boil for two minutes before removing the container from the fire. Let the needles stew for a few minutes, and either strain the needles from the water or drink the water with the needles in the container. This beverage will warm you up if you are cold, and green pine needles are also high in vitamin C.
Uses for Pine Cones: The seeds of all pine species are edible, and they’re especially good to eat when they’re toasted over an open fire. In the spring, collect young male cones. You can bake or boil the young cones as a survival food.
Uses for Pine Bark: The bark of young pine twigs is edible. Peel the bark from thin twigs by stripping it off in thin layers with your knife or by pulling it off in chunks with your fingers. On a more mature pine tree, the tender layer of bark beneath the brittle outer layer is also edible.
Uses for Pine Wood: Pine twigs and branches make excellent dry tinder when you’re ready to start a fire. Cut pinewood into thin strips to use as kindling. You may also burn pine logs to fuel your fire after you get it going.
Ideally, the home is placed into the landscape in order to maximize solar gain, have protection from weather extremes, supply easy access, and for integration into the greater land base so that the building is both beautiful and part and parcel of the natural flow and texture of site ecology. Historically, when houses were constructed in the eighteenth century the need for passive solar was adamant. They did not have fancy hvac systems to control inner temperature for comfort. The fact that the home was placed near the streams meant that they could easily haul water to the structure as needed.
Structures are multi-functional entities that not only require inputs, but can also be a major source of supply for all that surrounds them in the landscape. Organic materials seem to pour from buildings. If we pay close attention to these “outpourings” we have ready resources to build soil, water plants, construct buildings and other site features, and utilize “waste” heat. The house is as much part of the “food chain” at a site as an animal that crosses the land every day or a tree that has fallen in the forest nearby.
Attention to the size of the building footprint and construction site disturbance is tantamount to achieving ecological integrity. How often do we pass by building sites where the land has been completely bulldozed of all vegetation, and when construction is complete, a small mono-crop of sapling trees is planted, without regard for what was there and could have been saved and included in the original site plan?
Local sourcing of materials is key in order to eliminate the footprint based on fuel costs, minimizing the ability for local businesses to supply needed materials, and making use of local stone, wood and other materials that “fit” local climate and bioregion.
Energy systems, such as wind, solar and geothermal are a big part of the discussion on how to power and heat the buildings.
Other major construction pieces that will need a closer look as to materials, construction methods and style and aesthetics, parking areas, paths, driveways, cisterns and the potential for animals to be inserted into the landscape later on that will require shelter, fencing and other needs.
Materials, energy systems, style and structure, the waste stream, footings, foundation, roofing materials, and much more go in to planning for a house that will withstand the affects of time and weather, and if planned consciously, will be completely compostable and recyclable at the termination of its habitation.
Soils can be classified in many ways. Classification systems group soils according to similar characteristics. One such grouping is called soil series. Physical properties associated with each series pose opportunities and limitations for various types of land use activities. For example, soil particle size, slope and permeability, and ground cover are features that influence erosion.
Soils composed of deep, well-drained sands or gravels tend to have high infiltration rates and lower surface water run- off potential. Other soils have low infiltration rates and higher surface water runoff potential.
Soil compaction, slope disturbance or placement of impervious surfaces in areas with high surface water runoff potential can exacerbate runoff problems. On the other hand, soil compaction or placement of impervious surfaces in areas of high ground water infiltration may undermine the value of ground water recharge areas. Therefore, employment of best management practices for new development is critical.
One often wonders why, in the Scale of Permanence, soils sit so low in the list. In reality, none of the points in the Scale of Permanence is any more or less important that any other. But, if there is a hierarchy here, then the one that sits almost last takes on even more importance. We are in an age of peak water and peak soil. So little of the water on this earth is potable and we have polluted it to no end. And most of the topsoil on our continent now lies in the depths of the Mississippi Delta. 2/3 of all drainages in the US end up in the Mississippi which happily makes its way past New Orleans and dumps what little is left of our topsoil in the gulf.
The key to all of our endeavors with soil is organic matter. We have this strange tendency to clear our land of anything that covers the lawn or creates what we perceive as a nuisance of rotting branches, leaves, cardboard, paper, and whatever organic materials get in our way. These materials are a source of gold to the Permaculture practitioner. Whether we are on sand or clay it is the organic materials that matter. This is what builds soil for our crops. And, as was previously stated, without these crops we simply do not exist.
Everything else that we have looked at in this master plan produces “waste’. All of this can be recycled into our soil matrix where the micro and macro organisms go to work on it, turning it into accessible nutrients for our plants, and then of course, for animals and us.
We will use numerous strategies to keep the soil in good tilth and good health. We will hold nutrients with keylines, swales, mulches, plant density and diversity, and eventually, animals integrated into the system to help build soil.
All “waste” from the entire site will be recycled into compost bins, a vermiculture operation, used for sheet mulch, in hugelkultur mounds and as part and parcel of the cycle of nutrients in the food chain and the great web of life and death.
We can establish several compost bins at point of use. This eliminates the need to move compost to planting beds from long distances.
It is, all in all, about a feeling of “place”. Proper placement of flowers, trees, and all types of plants, along with the motifs set out and the flow of the design will turn all visitors into “budding” artists and adventurers in the natural world. Attention to scale, building design, year round color in vegetation, the use of natural materials, the winding pathways, all of this, creates more than simply an aesthetic. Aesthetics go much deeper than surfaces even though these are shimmering and seductive.
As we knit together this landscape in all its possible and impossible connections and convolutions the delight that we obtain from immersing ourselves in it will reach into our personal depths. The opportunity for the “look” of the place, merged with the functional relationships that we design into it and that grow on their own, is an opportunity not lost to anyone with a heart for deeper communication and connection and an eye for beauty. Beauty, certainly, is not only skin-deep. A Permaculture landscape is a unique landscape, one that takes everything under the sun, literally, into consideration.
Day Thirty-Five in the Neighborhood
It begins. The leaves are peeling off the trees, and ripe fruits rot into seed beneath branches, not too long before sap is sucked down for winter. The exploding thunder this morning and torrent of August rain carries a swift scent of autumn with it as the great inbreath of the cycle of the year fills soil pores with oxygen, nitrogen and the disappearing forms of spring promise. No matter how exhaustingly we grasp at forms, it will change. And death will flatten form, reconfigure it, and yet, it will never reappear as before, but it will mimic itself.
Seeds persist and guard themselves against winter extremes. They anticipate the thaw, a time when revivification by warm spring rains swells the seedcoat that bursts into new life. It is a journey across the threshold and darkness of winter into the light, and a mantle of green, flower, and fruit.
So here I sit and can I say that this awesome thunder is a premonition of winter, or simply a premonition of fructifying rain? Or can I say from one thunder crash that the many are born? And we, the gardeners of this world, will take from the final harvest of the year our nourishment, our lifeblood, and put up the remainder for winter’s sustenance, as we retreat only to anticipate the spring yet again at the navel of the world that is here, there, and everywhere, because the earth must rise and the sky must descend, and always they must meet at the horizon…
Day Thirty-Seven in the Neighborhood
Sitting on the back steps watching the red clover flowers bob in the wind. Could not help but reminisce (and this is all because of a plant?):
Red Clover (trifloium pratense)
“The more you cut it, the more it grows. The more you eat it, the more you have to eat.” When we were kids all we knew was that clover had three leaves, and the ultimate prize was finding one with four. The trick was to split one of the leaves so carefully that it appeared as two. It rarely worked, but the search for the ultimate four-leaf clover took our senses into a more focused and in-the-moment presence. We were down on our knees and hands inspecting each plant intimately, smelling the fresh greenery, feeling the cool, clover-carpeted earth under bare hand and grass-stained knee. Our eyes were microscopes inspecting unusual details, and we would step back, take in a wider expanse, seeking new fields, new lands to discover, realms to uncover the ultimate four-leaf clover, secret treasure of gods. The only sense uninvolved then was the sense of taste. That came later: clover’s value as wild food ranks high in taste and nutritional value. No wild salad would ever be complete without it.
Run! Throw the ball! Run! Oh, what a catch! Run on the clover! See how it springs back? So alive. So green. Roll in the clover. Red, pink, white, sweet, three-leaf, four…
There are seventy-five species of true clover (trifolium spp.) in America. Of the many varieties of clover, tomcat, clammy, foothill, hop, rabbitfoot, white, alsike included, red clover is most abundantly found in all ecosystems. This durable perennial prefers meadows, grasslands, and lawns, but I have seen it in high mountain plateaus and in the driest deserts. It grows from one to three feet with several stems supporting many three-sectioned ovate leaves, each imprinted with a light green V. The flowers range in color from pink to purple. They are round, fragrant, and plentiful. The red clover is not a favorite of bees. They prefer the white clover as the wild source plant for clover honey production. The red clover is a favorite food plant for many other animals, though, game birds and fur-bearing animals being the most frequent visitors. Quail, grouse, wild turkey, partridge, marmot, and woodchuck (especially when alfalfa is in short supply), prefer leaves, seeds, and sometimes the whole plant. Songbirds eat clover seeds. Small animals such as squirrels, mice, and gophers enjoy flower pods and foliage, and deer browse on the entire plant. Clover is also cultivated as forage for range animals and as a nitrogen-fixing cover crop for soil improvement.
The entire red clover plant can be eaten. Because of its abundance it is an excellent wild food source. I have used hundreds of red clover leaves in salads, soups, stews, and steamed. The raw plant may be a bit hard to digest for some, so soaking for a few hours helps. The plant can be dried and ground into nutritious flour for all-purpose cooking and baking. Clover is excellent juiced, contains many vitamins and minerals, and is a good protein source. From city parks to deep wilderness, clover feeds and nourishes many.
Red clover is known medicinally around the world for its quality alterative and blood cleansing properties. Current cancer research sights its blood thinning activity which helps remove accumulated toxins from the entire system. Tonic for convalescents, clover stimulates liver and gallbladder activity, improving appetite and relieving constipation. For fevers and inflammatory conditions, and all debilitating illnesses (such as hepatitis and mononucleosis) clover can be used frequently with no side affects. It is slightly diuretic, and expectorant for coughs, mucus and colds. Used as a fomentation over rheumatic and arthritic joints, and as a poultice for sores, athlete’s foot, rashes, and cancerous growths.
A story from the past: In the Southern Utah desert, at a place called Tailrace, where a free flowing creek has been diverted for irrigation. It now rumbles over a rockface creating a spectacular waterfall amidst countless junipers and sage. Below the ridge the teeming waters crash to the canyon floor and exit rapidly in meandering and lilting orchestrations to the Escalante River that eventually empties into the mighty (or once mighty?) Colorado. It is early August, late afternoon. Black clouds billow out above, then focus on Tailrace Canyon where I am encamped in a small wickiup. In the distance lightning rips at the sky, thunder shakes and thumps canyons and creek beds for miles around. The blackened mass moves quickly overhead. I have never heard such loud and penetrating blasts of thunderous sound in all my life. As if the stone-walls would shatter in an instant, I shook and trembled with the earth beneath me, curled under stone protuberances for fear of lightning igniting my spine. Rain came in sheets, then torrents, thick as milk, robbing one of all sense of place. Thunder, lightning, rain, and more and more of it for an entire night. This was the very absolute in nature’s drama.
My eyes opened to glittering sun turning rain beads into crystalline fixtures, sequins on Mother Nature’s immaculate gown. Beyond the trees a small meadow glistened in the morning light and the creek ripped past careening, enjoying its glutted belly of sparkling rainwater. Amongst the thistles and grasses, red clover heads beamed with luscious pinks and crimsons and purples, leaves filled with the juice of rain, electrified by lightning, empowered by thunderbolts thrust by the hands of rain gods. Who could resist an inviting breakfast such as this? Peeled thistle stalks, grass seed, clover-leaves and flowers. Druids, trinities, red clover bowers! Hey! Let’s eat!
Day Thirty-Eight in the Neighborhood
Is the plant male or female? Or the stone? Are they timeless, eternal? Or are they simply temporary forms, delighting in emptiness? From where do these forms arise? And where do they go? To seed? But can we forecast the plant in the seed, or the seed in the plant before we see the flower? Expansions and contractions seem to go on forever, and life and death are always at play.
All is food for the other, and the other becomes yet the other. But are these others any different, are they opposite, dual, do they live and die, or do they simply throw off garments, and dress yet again for the next prom or dance?
As I sit in the garden, these many-armed plants are like Siva dancing in the dawn summer breeze. I think on all the bodies that had to die, break apart, in order that these plants could arise and fall in time, a green sheath resting upon the face of the world.
We human beings have a strange way of baring the earth’s soul, of stripping the green sheath from the world, of flattening circles into straight lines, and pointing the arrow at places already surfeit for tens of years, if not hundreds. To pollute is the opposite of volute, which arises from the Latin root, to turn. So says the online etymological dictionary: Pollute “from Late Latin pollutionem (nominative pollutio) “defilement,” noun of action from past participle stem of Latin polluere “to soil, defile, contaminate,” from por- “before” + -luere “smear,” from PIE root *leu- “dirt; make dirty” (cognates: Latin lutum “mud, mire, clay,” lues “filth;” Greek lyma “filth, dirt, disgrace,” lymax “rubbish, refuse;” Old Irish loth “mud, dirt;” Lithuanian lutynas “pool, puddle”). Sense of “contamination of the environment” first recorded c. 1860, but not common until c. 1955”.
I am reminded that the surface of this garden is never scratched with hoe or rake, that the insects, squirrels, cats, and coons disturb it just enough, tilting it slightly askew, create distrurbance, so that it moves, where wheels within wheels are set in motion, endlessly. I am reminded that all the wars, the bloodshed, the hate and fear of the world of the flesh are wheels within wheels, forever turning, repeating, mimicking, all through the cycles of history, that these plants also mimic the cycles of history, and that these two eyes that observe these plants, embedded in the skull, where comings and goings are the status quo, are caught up in a neverending drama of mercy, compassion, and severity, lest we fuse these two eyes and these plants into one because these plants are non-different than us…
“To everything, there is a season…”
Day Thirty-Nine in the Neighborhood
Cattail: the Supermarket of the Swamp
On the road to a different neighborhood today (Wisconisin). Do we ever really leave the neighborhood? Just like the climate we can never really get out of it. It is what it is. A piece on cattails here today, with a bit of reminiscence:
We had been hiking many dry miles through the Southern Utah desert, Escalante wilderness area. Our water supply low, several of us near heat exhaustion, and one hundred degrees of blistering sun radiating off the slick rock and sandstone floor, as well as beating down on our heads, the tensions beginning to run high. Images of life slipping away, bodies disintegrating for wont of liquids, merging with red and yellow sands, turkey vultures circling overhead…
As we traipsed slowly up and down saddles and benches, old and dry flood watercourses, dusty creek beds and playas, around crumbling sandstone monuments, the rich and colorful desert landscape the only attraction holding one’s attention above physical pain and thirst, our lead man spotted a stand of small brown tails, sticking straight up, waving in the hot wind. Could it be? Cattails? Here? In the middle of this parched land? But, cattails grow only in water, or at least where the water table is close to the surface. Electricity ran through the group. We took off sprinting, arms in the air, relieved. An oasis in the desert! This was no mirage…
Cattail (Typha spp) has been referred to many times as a wilderness supermarket, or the supermarket of the swamp. It’s edible, medicinal, practical and craft uses can never be exhausted by any backwoods traveler. As an all year round food source it is unmatched. A stand of cattails contains ten times the starch of an equal weight of potatoes.
A cattail grows up to twelve feet tall. It’s brown, sausage shaped flower spike and narrow parallel leaves are a familiar sight at pond and swamp edges. The flower spike is actually a mass of hundreds of tiny flowers. Green in spring, by summer’s end it turns its characteristic brown, giving the appearance of a cat’s tail. In the fall and winter the tiny flowers, gone to seed, break up into a fluffy mass of down, some released to the wind. Female and male flowers are found on the same plant. During the summer the stamens produce golden yellow pollen. The rootstocks are up to one inch thick and form an interweaving mat below the water’s surface. Many brown seed heads remain on the stalks over winter because of the cattail moth caterpillar which feeds on the seeds all summer long and, as autumn winds come, the caterpillars lay down a trail of silk that binds the tiny seeds in place, their winter food source intact. The caterpillars are white and brown striped and can be viewed all winter. Before pupating, some of the caterpillars are parasitized by wasps. In the spring either wasps or moths emerge. Another small and interesting creature that visits the cattail regularly is the snout beetle.
Other animals using cattails as food source are geese (blue, Canada, snow, tule), and muskrat and mink that eat the rootstocks (trappers here this!). Green-winged teal and sandpiper eat the seeds. Marsh wren, redwing and yellow-headed blackbird shelter and nest in cattail stands.
Cattails are found in fresh and brackish marshes, shallow water, and on the sides of highways where large puddles and drainage ditches form. They have an affinity for growing next to phragmites reeds, bulrush, and other water loving plants. I have often had to bushwack through thick stands of willow or the prolific tamarisk (especially in the Southwest) to get at these delectable treasures. From New Your to Oregon, Canada and Mexico, this plant is a godsend. One can locate cattails all winter long as many of the brown heads (or tails) remain.
In early spring the young shoots, just peaking above the water’s surface, are easily picked, peeled, cooked, or eaten raw. All through the spring the developing stalks are prepared the same way. The young, green flower heads are harvested, boiled and eaten like corn on the cob, or fermented into luscious pickles. The pollen that forms on the spikes in early summer is shaken into a bag. It is mixed with other flours (made from any number of plants), added to breads, muffins, and pancakes, and is a rich protein and vitamin source. All through the winter the rootstocks are picked, mashed, rinsed, dried and ground into nutritious flour.
As a first aid remedy and plant medicine the cattail possesses abundant healing properties. I have used the fresh, pounded root directly as a poultice for infections, broken suppurating blisters, and bee and wasp stings, with much success. The cattail has extraordinary drawing powers. Tape or tie the poultice in place overnight. Replace the following day. In most cases a plant like cattail is soothing for burns, inflammations, boils, wounds, and any number of external ailments. At the base of the green leaf is found a sticky substance that is antiseptic, coagulant, and even a bit numbing, used for cuts and abrasions. One can boil the leaves into a tea for an external skin wash. Use the starchy, mashed root as toothpaste, the pollen for hair conditioner. Drink root flour in a cup of hot water or eat the young flower heads to bind diarrhea and dysentery. The fuzz from the mature female flower heads is applied to scalds and burns, and is placed next to baby’s skin inside diapers to prevent irritation and help soak up urine.
The pollen is hemostatic and astringent. It is placed on a cut to stop bleeding or taken internally for internal bleeding, menstrual pain, chest and heart pains, postpartum abdominal pain, and many forms of blood stagnation. Mix with honey (which is in itself a superior substance applied to burns, bruises and cuts) and apply to bruises, sores, or swellings. The pollen is also mildly diuretic (clears excess fluids from the body) and emenagogue (promotes menstruation).
Late in autumn, when the seed heads begin to burst, collect the soft downy fluff. It makes an excellent insulation inside clothing, shoes, socks, gloves, hats. Stuff a sack and make a comfortable pillow, mattress, or baby bed. Line containers to protect precious articles. Be creative!
The down makes an excellent tinder addition. When starting a fire with bow or hand drill, or flint and steel, one needs to create a nest of tinder, taken from plant fibers or tree bark. Line the interior of the nest with cattail down and drop the hot coal, formed during the fire making process, into the down. It will hold the coal and burn slowly, thus creating more heat and easier ignition.
Dry stalks of cattail are used for the hand drill, and as arrow shafts with added hardwood nock and foreshaft (into which an arrowhead of stone, bone, metal or hardwood is inserted).
The leaves of the cattail are used for thatching material, basketry weavers, cordage, and to make dolls, animal figures and toys.
In weaving baskets the cattail leaves’ flatness is superb for plaited styles. For plaited mats, skirts, sandals, doors for shelters, insulation, blankets and mattresses. The long leaves reach eight to ten feet by August or September. The leaves are twisted, bound, corded, or braided. The stalk is also harvested, split, and utilized the same way.
Creating cattail dolls and animal figures is a joyful experience for children (and adults!). Indian children made duck figures to set on water and blow them about.
One can dip the brown seed head of a dry stalk into animal fat or oil and light it as a torch. It will burn for a considerable time.
As I sit here and write and remember, a special fondness for the incredible bounty of the natural world arises in me. In awe, I sit before a cattail and give thanks…
It is late autumn in the Midwest. The leaves have turned. A brilliant blast of oranges, yellows, purples, reds, flames of countless hues, still dots the landscape. We are leisurely hiking on an old deer trail worn into a v shape, from all appearances more than a hundred years old. Where does it lead? We move on… To Water! Of course, to water! On the pond edge hundreds of cattails wave in the cool autumn breeze, the cottony down waiting to explode. We look at one another, and without saying a word, our eyes say, “Why wait?” Laughing, screaming, running, jumping, we plunge into the pond and swat gleefully as the fluffy tails. Ahh!! Sweet pandemonium reigns. It is a cattail snowstorm! And pure joy…
Day Forty in the Neighborhood
It is time to tell this story. It is always time to tell this story. It is about a place, a home. It is about coming home, digging deeply into a place, treading lightly over the microorganisms in the soil and looking to the constellations overhead for the answers to the mystery that is life, and all lives. This particular story takes place on the bluffs of the Mississippi River, that grand, old body of flowing water and life, the most precious of substances.
Who of us inhabits the place that we were born into? How many of us have left our place of birth only to return? What is it in the memory of the land, family, that pulls us back, roots us permanently in place? Permanence? Impossible, one might say. Nothing is permanent. Or is it?
I am at Kinstone in Fountain City, Wisconsin, preparing to teach two courses over the next month. It is the neighborhood I shall inhabit for the next number of days. I live in Southern Illinois only 15 minutes from the mighty Mississippi. And now I am here overlooking this same mighty Mississippi from the bluffs above. This great river is the thread that ties my sense of place together. It weaves the way water weaves from north to south and empties itself into the Gulf a thousand miles from whence it arises in Minnesota.
From my vantage point there are backwaters, rich riparian environments supporting countless animal and plant species, a vibrant web of water, mud and life. If I could extend my legs a thousand feet down I would plant my feet in the mud and absorb this living vitality. What is it that pulls us to the river? What is it about water that draws us near? Our bodies are formed in it, and even at this juncture in our lives as “independent” souls we are still 80 per cent made up of this flowing stuff. It has been said that water seeks its own level. The levels extend here, there and everywhere. In this case we are walking columns of liquid that dissolves what makes us whole, renewing us in every micro-millisecond.
If we travel north of here we are at the widest portion of the river, the place they call “lake”, the home of the first water skiers. Needless to say, the Mississippi encompasses two thirds of the watershed of this nation. So, for the next few weeks, the physical neighborhood has changed, but the neighborhood is with us no matter where we travel, the journey into neighborhood is, in reality, a journey into the neighborhood inside, no matter where we set our feet.
Day Forty-One in the Neighborhood
And the beat goes on…
Day Forty-Two in the Neighborhood
Here at Kinstone, as in just about every place on earth, grows the mighty plantain (no, not the banana type thing). Breaking for lunch (in the middle of cordwood construction) I picked several small leaves to add to my afternoon salad. Packed dense with minerals. A bit of reminiscence and a bit of information here:
We were collecting willow branches in Illinois near the Ohio River. The perfect willow stand was about a hundred feet from the water’s edge between a limestone outcropping and the river road. We cut down eighteen poles and began to trim off leaves and shoots. As I sliced at the bark the knife slipped and cut a gash in my index finger. At once, my partner leapt up, grabbed a wad of plantain leaves, chewed them up a bit, and applied them to the cut with a pinch of tobacco mixed in, and wrapped the entire mass and finger with another larger plantain leaf. The bleeding stopped in a matter of seconds. An hour later, back in the neighborhood we cleaned out the wound and wrapped it with more plantain poultice and leaves. From then on I treated the cut with pine pitch, cayenne pepper, and more plantain, and not even a scar appeared! What would have initiated a wild ride to the emergency room for stitches turned into a self-applied healing process, and a very empowering course of action.
Plantain (plantago spp) has been referred to as the “white man’s footsteps”. When settlers arrived in America from Europe plantago major followed close at their heals, and it has now become, along with dandelion and clover, the most copious of all “weeds”. It readily invades lawns, fields, waste places, stream banks, just about anywhere with enough sun. Plantain is perennial. It has parallel veined, strong fibered, lanceolate basal leaves in the center of which grows a foot high stem terminated with tiny yellow-green or white flowers that yield a profusion of seeds, continually, throughout the growing season. Small animals are consistently attracted to leaves, seeds and stems for nourishment.
Plantain is a plentiful food source in spring, summer and fall. The tender young leaves make a first-rate salad green and cooked vegetable if steamed lightly or boiled. The fresh seeds make a choice breakfast porridge. Place seeds in a bowl, add boiling water, let sit for a few minutes, and you are ready to eat. A delicious, nutritious flour is ground from the dry seeds and used in breads, pancakes and the like.
The leaves of plantain are hemostatic both as a fresh poultice and in decoction. The fresh poultice promotes the healing of insect bites, sores, scratches, hemorrhoids, and minor burns. Taken internally, plantain cools all inflammatory conditions, clears catarrh and mucous, and is especially beneficial for mild ulcers and internal problems. The freshly pressed juice makes a good douche for women, and a vermifuge for expelling worms. Because of its mucilaginous properties, the seed of the plantain has been used as a soothing laxative for centuries. Either the whole seed, or simply, the husk is powdered and ingested, mixed with liquids, a teaspoon or two at a time. It promotes a gentle cleansing action on the intestine without destroying beneficial flora.
Who could imagine a world without plantain? Everywhere we walk, even in sidewalk cracks, and the remotest desert or wilderness, plantain waves its long-stemmed seed spike at us and invites us to eat, observe, heal ourselves with its presence. It is a plant that finds you, follows you, offers its healing powers in a pinch, proves that human beings are not the only beings that can adapt to a multitude of environments and ecosystems. It is not only the “white man’s footsteps”, but every man and woman’s footsteps. The front lawns of America are a virtual bounty of food and medicine, a rich and chlorophyll filled source of health and nutrition. Whether in a survival situation or, simply near the front porch, plantain persists and blesses us with characteristic multitudes.
Day Forty-Three in the Neighborhood
After a day of cordwoooding I am sitting on the porch (remember porches?) in the neighborhood, and the clouds, swift puffs maneuvering about the trees up on the hill, remind me that the shapes that we encounter everyday change, and some of them burst, and bring rain, water for plants, and there are some that flow from the clouds of our eyes.
As this cordwood building rises and we gain another shelter, it comes to mind that all these shapes and forms are also sheltered in sky, in caves, in neighborhoods, in trees, and inside the miraculous. If I examine this phenomenon of shelter I find I it hard to place myself inside walls. If I project this building forward I can see it fifty or a hundred years out as nothing but fodder for creatures of this earth lunching on the wood that gives this illusion of shelter.
We build for comfort, protection, for internal climate control. We build because this is what our race does. Whether it is a corrugated tin shack in the middle of Bangladesh or a five thousand square foot McMansion on the coast of South Carolina, it is shelter.
But I also know that there is something deep inside the shelter of the body, something that is sheathed in skin and bones, something in the way of soul, or of spirit (a seed). And I have to continuously and vigilantly ask always: Who am I, and what is my purpose here? And I have to be vigilant about this each and every metamorphic micro-millisecond of my existence in this particular manifestation of the spiral…
Day Forty-Four in the Neighborhood
More musings from the porch:
ECOLOGICAL RESTORATION: one of the essential goals of our work- along with Permaculture master planning for sites and education- is ecological restoration of degraded landscapes (this includes the built environment, gardening and farming, the waste stream, use of energy, etc)
The design process is an all-inclusive creative endeavor for all stakeholders involved in the development of a site. The key to Permaculture design is for the stakeholders to be completely immersed in all phases from assessment to design to implementation, management and maintenance. We are not landscape architects. We are facilitators in which we tap into the creative genius and educate all stakeholders in the principles and methodologies of whole systems design and the Permaculture approach of patterning the world. In Permaculture circles we say: “The only limitations in planning and the development of a high yielding and energy efficient land base is in the limitations of the imagination of the designers”. Our modern educational system does not support this kind of creativity. The development and implementation of a site is an ongoing and thorough educational process, a regenerative, restorative process in all areas of life: mineral, plant, animal, and especially, human.
Permaculture is about whole systems, not about separate components. Because each element in a landscape or the built environment affects every other element at a site, a complete, comprehensive assessment is tantamount to develop healthy, productive, energy efficient relationships between elements for the benefit of everyone and everything involved in day-to-day management and life. By paying attention to all details: topography, climate, water, wind, sun, activity nodes and corridors, buildings, machinery and tools, the waste stream, plants and animals, it enables us to make best use of what is already on the ground, and what we intend to put there. With a dynamic interaction of elements in process, and an assessment of both spatial and temporal attributes, organized around sound ecological principles, we maximize yields and balance the landscape.
A selection of the proficiencies addressed in site planning include:
- Practical homesteading skills
- Renewable energy (wind, solar, water, fire) systems
- Eco-building construction and home retrofit
- Biological waste management systems and waste detoxification
- Water collection systems
- Storage, cycling and distribution of fresh water
- Air and water purification
- Cooling, heating and climate regulation
- Land restoration
- Utility plant landscapes and food forests
- Nutrient storage
- Community gardens
- Peaceful sanctuary
- Biological diversity
- Noise abatement
Day Forty-Five in the Neighborhood
Deer seem too large for the modern suburb. Raccoons fit right in. So do opossums. So do dandelion, plantain, chickweed, but not so easily, the burdock, a likely remnant from a prehistoric era. At times the leaves grow so massive it feels as if dinosaurs might wander by for forage. After fields or old building sites are cleared it takes about two years for burdock to establish itself. And when it does the giant leaves make it the most obvious of all the plants on the site. Along with the first year rosettes of mullein, the burdock rosettes look like lily pads resting upon pebble, debris, caked mud, and patches of crab grass. One could easily remove them to a pond, sit back and watch them float, frogs and turtles lounging about on the massive leaves enjoying respite in the warm rays of the sun.
Burdock (Arctium lappa) is a large-leafed biennial originally brought here form Europe. It tends to colonize disturbed fields, old house sites, abandoned farms and pastures, railroad, road and highway embankments. Burdock establishes itself in relatively isolated stands and is considerably difficult to eradicate. The first year rosettes of enormous prehistoric looking, crinkly and undulating leaves are followed the second year by a thick, hollow stalk in the center carrying leaves with it as it grows. Purplish shaving cream brush-like flowers terminate the stalks. Each bristle of the bunch has a small hook on the end of it. When dry these flower heads “hook on” to passersby, animal and human, and ultimately cause a new stand of burdock to be created elsewhere. Within the purplish flower are flat seeds. The taproot of burdock grows as long as two feet. It is gnarly brown on the outside and fleshy white within.
As an edible food burdock is considered very fine fare, a delicacy, to say the least. The first year roots are dug up in late summer, through the winter (you must dig deep!) and either boiled in two changes of water until tender, or made into mashed cakes and fried. The peeled flower stalk of the second year plant is pealed and eaten raw, or added to cooked dishes, or steamed. It rivals the tasty thistle stalk.
Medicinally, the burdock is one of the best blood alteratives. The root is a blood purifier for skin diseases, infection, sciatica, or arthritis. Its diaphoretic properties promote sweat to help clear excess wastes and uric acid from the kidneys. Diaphoretic therapy for fevers is also extremely beneficial. An extract of the seeds is an excellent diuretic for kidney problems. It will also help clear toxins from skin surfaces. An infusion of the leaves is tonic for the stomach and digestive system. The Mohegan and Leni Lenape Indians used the mashed roots extensively as a poultice for boils, abscesses, sores, and poison oak and ivy. The Chippewa and Omaha used the leaf and root teas to relieve coughs. The Iriquois used the plant to counteract witchcraft. They tied burdock leaves to the head to relieve headaches.
The burrs of burdock latch easily onto animal fur and human clothing. They could be, and obviously have been, carried for hundreds of miles in this way. An ingenious method of transport. It is not difficult to recall a time when you returned home from a walk in the fields and you found a few burrs clinging to your pants. “Survival Velcro”.
We are a group of six hiking in the Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois. We stop and build a brush shelter from branches, sticks, forest debris. As we build, a herd of twelve deer cross our path. Quietly stalking we can almost touch them. We enter an old, abandoned field. We brush, unknowingly, against last year’s burdock stalks, dry and brown, and step on this year’s rosettes. We continue to pursue the deer, watching every idiosyncratic movement, every cock of the head, bob of the white tail. Burrs reach their hands out and grab onto our clothes for dear life. Apparently one of the deer in the herd gets suspicious, raises his ears and head abruptly and…takes off! And so do we! Through the burdock field, up and over the small rise and into the forest! And they are gone… We collapse and try to catch our breath. All of our legs are covered with burrs. Thousands of burdock burrs! Unwittingly we have transported potential burdocks a distance of a few hundred feet. As we pick them off our pants and throw them here and there we can only wonder if we have helped create a new stand of burdock. We shall gladly return to this site next year to find out and enjoy the harvest!
Day Forty-Six in the Neighborhood
From the back porch…
When was the last time you actually stopped and looked at the stars? And what did you feel? What mystery tore at your heart? What was the unknown that you attempted to gather together in thought that left you thoughtless? I have to ask this evening what is it that holds up these pinpricks of light? Why do they not come crashing down?
I am left with little in the way of words, if any. I am left only with an imagination of stars speaking to me of their own insubstantial light. And I have no ladder to take me there, or navigational device to any destination whatsoever. The only word that I can drum up is “dumbfounded”, or maybe just plain dumb…
So tonight I sit amongst the stars and thinking is no option…
After all the building, and the gardening, and the extravagant meals with friends and family, dreams, visions, missions, all the infinite days of this life, there is only this much: I have to ask myself, what is it that holds up these pinpricks of light?
Somehow, deep down in the center of all this, there is the other side…
Day Forty-Seven in the Neighborhood
The keys to Permaculture lie mainly in our ability to observe the landscape, to identify and utilize the resources at hand, located outside the backdoor. The hunter-gatherer relies completely on his/her ability to read the lay of the land and gather what is needed for food, medicine and utility. A hunter-gatherer gardener gathers plants and animals from the wild, fibers, building materials, water, etc., and creates the practical devices needed for sustenance, warmth and pleasure. How about “Wild Permaculture”, a comprehensive Permaculture Design Certificate course that takes place completely outdoors through the lifeways and folkways of the hunter-gatherer.
In order to learn the intricacies of the local terrain and the origins of technology, for homesteading purposes and a general understanding of the immediate environment, it is important to become familiar with the spatial and temporal dimensions of the lay of the land. Folk and life ways, settlement configurations, geology, plants, animals and weather patterns will give us the ability to hone in our observation and develop creative hand and eye coordination. The ancients were highly skilled at reading the landscape and knew, intimately, where to locate the materials and tools to meet their basic necessities utilizing materials culled only from the local environment. Some skills and equipment used are modern imitations of ancient tools.
Complete immersion in the local landscape:
Studying local native traditions and life ways in order to become familiar with the local region
Observation: tracking animals and reading the landscape
Animals: tracking, hunting, making traps, making bow and arrows, etc.
Gardening: identifying, harvesting and preparing wild edible plants
Aquaculture: making fishing equipment (hooks, lines, etc) and fishing, gutting and preparing fish for cooking
Shelter: building, using local materials found at the site; constructing a primitive shelter, paying attention to orientation for passive solar, mass and insulation, etc.
The waste stream: where to poop and pee
Invisible structures: the tribe and local tribal custom
Origins of agriculture and pastoralism
All of this can be accomplished in the suburban and urban neighborhood. Stones, plants and animals are not too particular about where they live as long as conditions meet their conditions. Food is everywhere. Water is everywhere. Materials for technologies are everywhere. We simply need to know how and where to locate them. Location, location, location!!!
Day Forty-Eight in the Neighborhood
Old man Hickory
“Squirrels love hickory nuts”. Doc was an old hunter from West Virginia. “Squirrels and deer make for the best huntin’.” Bald from the radiation treatments he was receiving for cancer, thin, weak, tired, but he continued to hunt. The first deer I ever saw shot was with Doc. And the way he handled it. It wasn’t that he taught me how to dress a deer. I simply watched. I was devastated. He took the meat and left the rest behind. No care. No understanding for a life. “And what about the squirrels?” I thought. “What about the squirrels in the hickory trees?”
“I love to wait for fall when the squirrels are eatin’ the ripe nuts and pick em off out a the trees with my .22.” And then what? Leave them for dead? Unfortunately, my introduction to hickories was not altogether pleasant. But the appreciation for such a majestic tree has easily diminished the disheartening experience of my initial acquaintance, and brought new levels of awareness and love for the hickory’s stately and strong demeanor amongst the trees of the hardwood forest. I have since become an experienced hunter, and the deer, all of it, is a treasure to be delighted in, and the squirrel, no less…
Of the sixteen species of hickory (carya ovata) the shagbark, with its “shagged” strips of bark peeling outward form the trunk, and pecan (carya Illinoiensis), with its delectable nut (ah, pecan pie!), are the most familiar of the hickories. Basically, a Midwest to East Coast hardwood forest tree, other varieties include the butternut, mockernut, pignut, and shellbark hickories. A close relative of walnut, the hickory has seven to nine leaflets per shoot with toothed leaves compound, the final three larger than the rest. The husk of the nut, mature in late August and autumn is split into four to six sections (more commonly four). Hickories range in height from approximately fifty feet (mockernut and butternut) to eighty feet or more (shagbark and pecan). They are found in a variety of habitats, including moist bottomlands with well-drained soil, stream-banks, dry upland slopes, swamps, and sandy ridges. Hickories are an almost exclusively Native American tree, with very few species growing elsewhere. They may live for 250 years, some not bearing mature nuts for eighty years or more.
The oak-hickory forest is the most widespread of all the Eastern hardwood forests, rich in animal and plant species and varieties. Many animals enjoy the nuts, bark, flowers foliage, twigs and leaves. Game birds, such as the ring-necked pheasant, bobwhite quail, and wild turkey, and waterfowl munch on the nuts. Crows, grosbeaks, northern jays, nuthatches, and woodpeckers enjoy the nuts and flowers. Black bear, raccoon, white-footed mouse, wood rat, and white-tailed deer eat bark, nuts, foliage and twigs. But the most familiar scene around the hickory tree in late summer is the commotion caused by prancing squirrels and prattling chipmunks. Who would not get pleasure from the playful and acrobatic bushy tails tightroping to the ends of pencil thin branches for treasures. Plunk! Plunk! Walking quietly at the edge of the forest. Plunk! Plunk! Plunk on the top of the head! Squirrels knocking hickory nuts to the forest floor (if it weren’t for your head getting in the way.). Chipmunks darting from cover, from underground tunnels to snare the ripened fruits. Some are eaten on the spot, some cached for the chipmunk’s long underground winter slumber. It is always an intriguing sight to come across “chipping beds” on top of rocks or stumps where squirrels and chipmunks have feasted. More fun than chipping arrowheads!
Hickory nuts are an outstanding autumn food and energy source for us humans too. As with many other nut varieties they are cracked open and eaten raw, roasted, dried and ground into flour, crushed, boiled and skinned for oil, dipped in sugar syrup and eaten as candy. Similar to the maple tree, the sap is collected in the spring and used as a direct water source or boiled down into sweet syrup. Along with walnuts and acorns, hickory nuts are one of the most important foods to cache for the winter. The fat and protein content is a first-rate defense against the cold.
As a medicinal the Virginia Indians cut knots out of the hickory, shaped them like cones, placed them on rheumatic joints, and, igniting them, let them burn to the skin to create a sore that allowed the excess humor in the joint to run off.
Prized by woodworkers for its strength, hardness, toughness, and reddish-brown beauty, it is utilized extensively for tool handles, athletic equipment, furniture and cabinetry.
For the survivalist and primitive weapon enthusiast, hickory, along with other hardwoods such as black locust, white oak, white ash, osage orange, and elm, makes one of the most reliable bow woods. It must be air-dried for a minimum of six months (up to five years) for the best results.
Yes Doc. Squirrels do love hickory nuts. And we love squirrels. What would a neighborhood park be without those happy-go-lucky, playful denizens of the trees. The sight of several squirrels running haywire after each other, chattering, leaping to their heart’s delight, is enough to take the edge off any kind of city madness. And lo and behold! Over by the baseball diamond, here in the burbs, a single, very tall hickory tree. It is early autumn. Plunk! Plunk! Plunk! Ouch! Squirrels at it again. “Hey, wake up down there. Look up. Look at us. Look at how much fun we are having in this big old hickory tree!” Dead in my tracks. Look up! Look up! Plunk…plunk…
Day Forty-Nine in the Neighborhood
How is heat generated in compost? I have heard many scientific explanations but I find myself somewhere between, in some transformational mystery, some alchemy that is inconceivable, rather out of the realm of the conceptual, at a border between manifestation and not. We combine materials, the typical greens and browns in particular ratios in order to generate enough heat to “kill” unwanted seeds and critters. Ironically, it is the critters that do the work for us. Is it that ingestion of substance carries heat deep within its structure? Is plant material a reservoir for the heat of the sun, stored as such until a force is applied to it for its inevitable release? There are all kinds chemistry and physics explanations in play here, but I wonder, if heat transforms the substance that we are so familiar with in our every day lives, what is it that transforms heat? And then what is it that transforms what transforms heat? We could say that this might go on ad infinitum, or ad nauseam, to a sickening or excessive degree (so says Mr. Webster).
But, what of mystery, what of permitting the unknown to be a companion on the journey through the curvilinear pathways of this life? Is there anything inside the infinite mystery that may be manifest in this world, but which we do not see as we rush about, fighting for greenbacks, and the scheduled television extravaganza? It has been said that the senses do not lie. Agreed. Whence can we free the senses from this will o the wisp mind, this conceptualizing, habitual rendering of what we have been subject to from the outside, regurgitated?
And so, and hereabouts and thereabouts, I find myself wishing only to penetrate to the inside of this pile of organic material heating up, and mingle with the creatures that ingest, metabolize, transform, release (?) heat, turn what appears to be dead matter alive, and ultimately utilize this revivified substance in order to revivify plants that will inevitably revivify us, so that we can pile up more of this dead matter and revivify this seemingly “dead” matter that is excreted by so many plants, animals, and human beings, and this goes on and on and on…
Is this the greater circle of life and death and life and death? I think circle, but I would rather think spiral, because we never step in the same river twice, so, we may never repeat with exactitude any process on the surface but the circle always comes around, but the spiral also always comes around, but somehow we are always and ever raised up a slight bit above the mere circle and so it goes…
So, how is heat generated in compost? I find myself not willing to accept only a narrow point of view on this creative process. I demand the mystery speak…
Day Fifty in the Neighborhood
Training: We are not One-Eyed Specialists Here!
Training in nature skills sharpens our ability to see life as it is and develop hand and eye coordination, placing us into an environment where we must observe and create what we need in an immediate and balanced way. If my assumptions are correct then there is still an enormous need to communicate information about these topics and related eco-agricultural and sustainable technological systems to students, educators, administrators, politicians, the media, farmers, architects, ranchers and the like. The dual approach of theory and practice is specific to what is purported here.
Leading trends in sustainable agriculture, i.e. Permaculture, Biodynamic Agriculture, Bio-intensive gardening, the eco-agriculture movement as delineated by Acres USA, organic systems, the natural way of farming of Masanobu Fukuoka and indigenous systems of agriculture. To complete the picture for comprehensive learning and implementation: renewable energy systems (wind, water, solar), ecological building practices (straw bale, cob, earthbag, etc.) and everything from toolmaking to animal husbandry. We merge these systems into a working whole.
With astute observation and an understanding of essential and cyclical patterns found in the natural world we are able to help ourselves and others to lift the veil of the landscape and create new ideas based on the archetypal energies and forms which give birth to all the diversified elements and interactions on the farm, in the garden, the home site, the village, suburbs and city.
Appropriate Technology and Small Intensive Systems
By utilizing appropriate technologies that sustain, rather than hinder and destroy the balance of nature, an ethic and attitude of care, cooperation and the need to follow nature’s pristine example become apparent. We learn to mimic the ecological processes within the local bioregion where we live and work, creating balanced ecosystems in their own right.
Because we postulate that we start small and stay relatively small with practices such as utilization of vertical space in our planning (stacking), ecologically based design, and increasing yields-not size of acreage, we develop the opportunity to deliver a unique point-of-view geared to people on small and mid-sized land-bases. We become more sensitive to the overall health of human life, basic needs, and the needs of all beings in the landscape. By seeing wholes rather than parts, we will be more apt and willing caretakers who work to restore and sustain the intended living environment for all creation.
A Balanced Middle Way
The current education-information system will become a more flexible entity where cultural exchange between educators, students and stakeholders establish communication that precludes a deeper reading of the Book of Nature and the practical application of ideas quarried from that reading. Through a mixture of theoretical and participatory hands-on teaching and learning in the art of living, a responsive, learning dynamic results. By delivering a systemic approach to a larger and more diverse audience, an ethically balanced “middle way” approach to land use leads to a sustainability “mind-set”, viable for a large cross-section of producers, educators and students.
The systems approach is all-inclusive. If the underlying “law of unity” is constantly at the threshold of our thinking in education, research and communication, we will always be called to look for what brings us, and nature, together in harmony, rather than the separation from the natural world that most of the populace feels. This includes farmers and stakeholders who manage huge mechanized and mono-cultural corporate farms. They have “lost touch with the land “.
- Encouraging self‑reflection on Nature
- Increasing and defining ecological and bioregional literacy
- Studying cultural and natural diversity
- Teaching global thinking and the spiritual understanding of the natural world
- Celebrating change, observing and studying the rhythms and evolution of Nature
- Creating sustainable designs for living within a region of study
- Recreating the life and folk ways of local prehistoric and historic cultures
- Intertwining environmental and ecological studies with our daily existence
“We must create designs for human settlements that incorporate principles inherent in the natural world in order to sustain human populations over a long span of time.” (John Todd)
Biological-Ecological Design Precepts (By John Todd, Creator of the “Living Machine”)
- The living world is the matrix for all design
- Design should follow, not oppose, the laws of life
- Biological equity must determine design
- Design must reflect bio-regionality
- Projects should be based on renewable energy sources
- Design should be sustainable through the integration of living systems
- Design should be co-evolutionary with the natural world
- Building and design should help heal the planet
- Design should follow sacred ecology
An ecologically-biologically sound and sustainable rural, suburban or urban settlement, emphasizing zero-waste, circular models of development and energy integration for all.
- Hunter-Gatherer living skills
- Settlement, village life-ways and folkways
- Map building and modeling
- Permaculture principles
- Concepts and themes in design
- The local ecosystem
- Forms of eco-gardening and farming
- Broad scale, bioregional site design
- The application of specific methods, laws and principles to design
- Pattern understanding and observation skills, landscape analysis
- Climatic factors
- Plants and trees and their energy interactions
- Water: collection, storage, purification
- Earth-working and earth resources
- Infrastructure and roads
- Zone and sector analysis
- Food forests and small animal husbandry, forest management, agroforestry
- Cropping and large animal husbandry
- Harvest and utility forests
- Natural forests
- Land and forest restoration
- Planning the homestead
- “Green” structures, ecological building practices: rural, suburban, urban
- Craftwork and chores, machinery
- “Natural” medicine
- Cooking and food preservation
- Equipment, tools, bio-fuels and vehicles
- Renewable energy, system design and implementation
- Energy conservation
- Biological waste management and recycling
- Strategies for different climates
- Urban and suburban strategies
- Small farm and garden management and marketing
- Project planning, budgets and timelines
- Office procedures
- Building and planning software
- Emergency preparations, safety procedures
- Building codes
- Political, social, economic issues and solutions, cooperative economics, money and financial systems
- Designing public policy
- Designing sustainable economy
- Human settlement and local ecology
- Site selection, mapping and modeling
- Dividing, distributing, apportioning land
- Practical work on design, broadscale landscape and systems design