I remember first seeing a picture of the clam-shaped house of the permaculture educational conservancy at Channel Rock during Hannah Roessler’s guest lecture in Environment Studies 200 class and being awed by the ingenuity of such a design. Its arguable whether this might be considered an example of permaculture principle Mimicking Nature, for in truth clams have evolved their specific shape for the purposes of movement, allowing it an ideal form for rocking in back-and-forth motion. Nonetheless, the clam-like shape of the house at Channel Rock allows for the back (north) side of the house to keep cool and dank, providing an ideal location (i.e., UsingRelative Location) for a root cellar and pantry, while the yawning south-facing side of the house allows light to penetrate and heat the house. In a perfect example of passive solar heating, the angle of the clam-house allows light to fully penetrate through the windows in the winter when the sun is low on the horizon, while the shade produced by the lofty summer sun provides natural cooling.
Of the total floor area in the house, the designers have ensured the floor space that falls directly behind the glass windows is in the decisive self-regulating range of 7-13% to prevent over heating in the summer. Further, the precise accuracy of the two roof angles allows only the winter sun to glare its full radiance on the back wall, where it is absorbed into the naturally sourced thermal mass of cob: a synergy of permaculture principles Catch and Store Energy and Use the Biological Resources Available.
The building materials for the house also include local sawdust, clay and wood. The breathable clay walls provide self-regulation of moisture as well as an inhospitable environment for bugs, while the wood, by being sourced from the property, serves the multiple functions of providing the house with a sturdy structure as well as thinning out the nearby forest, thereby protecting the place from fire hazard. Moreover, the “living roof” held up by the wood beams contributes to curtailing the recent unprecedented flooding of the garden by fostering a “slow it, spread it, sink it” function.
In another example of catch and store energy, Mark shows us the solar panels atop the Channel Rock bluffs. He stresses that solar panels aren’t a completely sustainable solution. Indeed, they harness solar energy from the sun in a greenhouse gas-free fashion, yet they require batteries, which are toxic, and, Mark remarks, their material lifespan is a mere 20-25 years. If solar energy is relied on excessively, then the system required would be a colossal contraption cycling into the mounds of non-biological resource crap that Oliver Kellhammer and his troops of permaculture-blitz guerillas are trying to clean up from the environment—and this isn’t to mention their embodied energy (i.e., the energy that goes into producing such material technologies).
This goes to show that nature’s solutions are rampant and are being discovered at a breakneck (or littleneck?) pace. They are found even in the subtle treasure chest of a clamshell, yet there is likely no panacea. Mark says that first and foremost we must learn to use less. The permaculture principle Use and Value Diversity points to the varying advantages of using both passive solar and solar cells as we work towards a better world that is alight with loveliness and in which we are sufficed with what we have. “Slowly, surely, [the light] will come back a little bit more each day,” wrote Gilean Douglas on the winter solstice, “As slowly and surely as it is coming to the human world, even though here and there are dark minds—as there are dark places in the forest to which light barely penetrates.”
What fortune for us to be blessed this week with the presence of punk rock virtuoso, conceptual artist, permaculture-restorationist extraordinaire Oliver Kellhammer, who traveled all the way from New York to lift us from dismal despair into plastic-loving, perma-blitz guerillas (O.K., Oliver was already on his way to Cortes regardless, but do we ever still feel special!).
“I like to use permaculture to fix things,” says Oliver. He views permaculture as a metaphorical “C.P.R. for the planet,” and with more and more of us drinking the Kefir Kool-Aid, learning the art of permaculture and putting the principles into practice, we can all join the passion party, the late-night drum circle before the great dawn, beating in a massive biorhythmic planetary resuscitation.
Now, before Oliver’s arrival we’d already received a brief introduction from Linnaea steward Jeff into the miracle of mycelium’s rehabilitative… shall we call them… superpowers? Jeff told us about the symbiotic partnership formed between Friends of Cortes Island (FOCI), Paul Stamet’s organization Fungi Perfecti, and the Linnaea Farm Stewards—you know, those self-proclaimed Linnae-aliens. Together the team had strategically placed woodchips—which had been inoculated with Gentle Giant spores—throughout the Linnaean landscape to serve as a filtrating mechanism. Linnaea Farm is located at a principal facet of the watershed connected to Gunflint Lake, which, incidentally, is undergoing an unprecedented algae bloom with one cause thought to be associated with excessive nutrient deposition. Jeff tells us that an astonishing 90% of the water entering the lake passes through Linnaea, demonstrating the potential here for mycoremiadiation of the hydraulic cycle.
So how exactly can mushrooms “chip in”? Mycelium, especially that of the Garden Giant (Stropharia rugosoannulata) loves micronutrients and bacteria, such as nitrogen and fecal coliform (e.g., E. coli), which can find their ways into the water system due to the frequently held poo-lates classes in the pastures upstream. The mycelium creates a sort of “micro-filtration membrane” whereby its digestive exudates (the enzymatic and chemical byproducts of its growth and metabolism) break down various pollutants in the water. But that’s not all. We’re talking multiple magic fungi functions here. Through Linnae-alien handiwork these mycelial mounds have been secured in the exceedingly wet places of the farm using willow wattles (yet another Biological Resource put to use) and, Jeff tells us, the sponge-like mycelial woodchips assist the water in penetrating and being retained within the wider environment, helping to serve the “slow it, spread it, sink it” objective of permaculture, which is particularly important given recent sporadic and titanic rain events in the region. Moreover, because these upstream contaminants aren’t harmful when broken down—unlike heavy metals—the mushrooms can also serve as a nutritious addition for sumptuous stir-fries. Further still, “After three to four years, [the] chunks of wood [that make up these mycelial mounds] are totally reduced into a rich, peat-like soil, ideal for the garden.” Not least and surely not last, the Garden Giant also flourishes in woodchip-free substrate, hence Jeff’s ultimate goal of seeing the mycelium spread out to become established in the fields as well. “Ultimately fungi generate soil,” Paul Stamets said in a lecture I happened upon at Burning Man last year, “They are the grand soil magicians of nature.” In a self-regulating manner mycelium replenishes and enriches the soil, increasing its biological activity and moisture content, “[unlocking] natural nutrients, [and holding] soils together while providing aeration,” thereby enhancing crop growth and reducing the need for tillage, which can be detrimental to soil structure (and gives the designer less reclining time). Abracadabra, this mushroom magic sounds like C.P.R. for the soil at its finest.
So, what about Oliver Appleseed’s planetary C.P.R. ventures? As previously mentioned, Oliver arrived in Cortes from upstate New York the day prior to our lecture and he recounted his work there, some of which incorporated a combination of sheet mulching and mycoremediation techniques to suck heavy metals, such as lead, from the city soils. The Oyster mushroom, he says, has the ability to concentrate heavy metals within its fruit, which can then be gathered and placed beneath Black Locust trees. We learn from Oliver, as well as Linnae-alien Brent, that these fast growing trees have an array of functions and properties making them superbly qualified for sequestering lead and other non-degradable contaminants. Black Locusts are long lived and don’t rot, therefore preventing release of the lead back into the environment, while what they do release is an aesthetic scent for passersby. Take a whiff of that win-win! These trees are seriously the bees knees, serving an impressive pollinator function as well. They are also nitrogen fixing and their trunks, which coppice well, make fantastic fencing material and firewood.
We take up Jeff’s offer to keep the mycelial running and return to the mound to gather woodchips for our own homes. It suddenly occurs to us that we are literally carrying on the legacy of Paul Stamets’ first experimentations with mycoremediation in the late 1980s, as we collect what had in fact been a gift from Paul Stamets himself when he donated $2000 dollars worth of inoculated wood chips to Linnaea Farm in the spring of 2015. I recall sitting in the heat of the harsh and dusty desert listening to Dr. Stamets speak in the Earth Guardians tent of the goings-on in the mycelial milieu, and never could I have expected that in less than a year some Baby Soil Magicians from his experiments would be bumbling around in my own satchel. How fortunate am I to be slowly learning ways to perform planetary resuscitation with a class of such beautiful earth guardians.
The first few days of our time on Linnaea Farm are flushing like a holy shiitake log of time-honoured, experience-derived farming wisdom. One such knowledge sporing session comes from Adam Schick, a humble sage of food production on the island. Right off the bat, Adam demonstrates he is Designing for Resilience by noting that although the far corner of the garden is cooler and partly shady and thus does not host the best conditions for his tomatoes, he has still rotated the tomatoes to this location. Indeed, the decision will likely result in a decreased yield, yet the overall resilience of the garden will continue to be bolstered by Adam’s faithfulness to crop cycling, which reduces pests and disease by breaking their cycles.
Adam also consistently emphasizes the importance of paying attention to phenology, especially being that “global weirding” has made exact dates of the classic Gregorian calendar less reliable for referencing plant life histories. Using phenology requires special attention to nature (i.e., the permaculture principle Observe & Interact), as well as recording these observations year by year to document new trends and patterns in order to most appropriate apply other such permaculture principles as Creatively Use & Respond to Change [or “Weirding”]. Since 1998, Linnaea Farm has been recording various phenology events—e.g., noting bird migrations, butterfly hatchings, and the bloomings of upwards of thirty plants found on site, all of which are “among the most sensitive biological responses to climate change” and, being novel expressions of nature’s dynamic calendar, are precise indicators for when such crops as tomatoes can be most successfully planted.
Adam’s advice of not planting early just because you can plant early is reminiscent of the permaculture principle Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback. One might interpret this principle as meaning we should self-regulate ourselves—our desire to start planting in January in order to get the biggest, bestest tomatoes on the block. Rather, this principle refers to the self-regulation of the farming system itself (which, when heeded, may tackle our egoistic desires too!). A reason for aspiring to facilitate self-maintaining processes in a system is that it allows us to put in the least amount of effort for the greatest return; we neither want to exert our energy or that of the system by unnecessarily increasing inputs—nor do we even want to always produce as much and as big of vegetables as we can. You might be thinking, “But isn’t permaculture about getting a surplus and sharing it?” To be sure, sharing the surplus is a way to get rid of extra when there is extra, but too much extra too often makes waste, and permaculture designs seek to Produce No Waste, including not wasting human energy. Moreover, Adam points out that giving away loads of crops can lead to a devaluing of even the toppest-drawer tomato product, as next year people might be like, “Oh my dear Aunt Ruby German Cherry! Five bucks tomatoes?!”
Yet another aspect of planting that plays into timing and the relational planting of crops, Adam remarks, is the timing of planting other garden crops. This means being mindful of when we grow our tomatoes so that they most ideally correspond to the maintenance of other plants in the system. By reducing the number of crops that require a farmer’s attention at the same time allows the farmer to lean back a notch or two in his or her recliner.
The outdoor tomatoes Adam introduces us to are deemed determinate tomatoes, meaning they grow to a determined height, produce all of their fruit at a similar time and then die. Adam has come up with a system for transplanting these tomatoes from greenhouse to garden that is riddled with permaculture theory. First, Choosing Elements that have Multiple Functions: the cages used to uphold the Reemay cloth blanket that will keep the baby tomato plants warm in their new field will, upon later growth, then become the framework which supports the tomato plants themselves (again, working toward self-regulation). Another example of the Multiple Functions principle is that the leftover biomass of each determinate plant can then be snipped post-harvest and used as cover crop—i.e., recycled back into the system as compost, while in the interim serving as mulch for the soil until the next rotation.
Speaking of mulch, multiple functions, and self-regulation, lining the paths between Adam’s plants is a cover crop known as Dutch White Clover. Beyond providing a “living mulch” that suppresses weeds and protects the soil from the heat of the sun sector, clover, Adam teaches us, also serves to “hold space”; it is a container of biomass preventing soil leaching by storing nutrients and rooting the soil in place, thus preventing erosion from wind and water sectors. Furthermore, clover adds nutrients to the soil by fixing nitrogen from the air in a symbiotic process with the microorganisms suffusing its root hairs. Seriously whoa, I’m N2 it. Adam didn’t touch on this aspect of clover, but its mere existence effectively deters pests. That is, it buffers unwanted wildlife sectors by being an attractant for ladybug beetles and green lacewings, both of which are predators to those pesky tomato phloem tissue-sucking aphids! So, straddling tomatoes with paths of clover is a prime case in point of Integrate Rather Segregate (Locating Elements for Functional Interconnection).
Intercropping, naturally, is one step on the permie-path away from monocropping, yet implementing clover helps to fulfill the Striving for Diversity on a whole ‘nother level, as it increases the richness and abundance of beneficial insects as well. As we’ve just seen, clover has a variety of benefits. Now just consider the advantages of a diversity of plant species in the garden! The length of this post indicates it should be rotated, but stay tuned for some more Linnaea allure coming to fruit soon. Don’t know about you, but I’m feeling the permaculture permeation up to my head, down to-ma-toes, and around and around the White Wonder moon.
I step into my new bedroom for the week at Linnaea Farm on Cortes Island. I’ve been assigned “The Loft,” as our professor Mike Simpson recalls his old bed from when he was training here during a Garden Apprenticeship Program eight years ago. The permaculture principles already start sprouting out of the woodwork: Permaculture principle Choose & Stack Elements for Multiple Functions… Check! (I stretch out my mat and bedside table becomes yoga studio, both saving space and allowing me to pull off a Supta Virasana Anantasana Side-Reclining Hero Leg Lift Pose in Zone 0.5). What else… Aha! Principle Obtain a Yield… Check. (I stretch out my legs and begin picking the figs just outside the bedroom window). No need to even jog outside for a midnight snack (track)! Wait, something smells a bit figgy; I’m not even a designer yet, how do I already get to play the recliner? Linnaea, you’re too good to us.
Alright, alright, I admit the figs aren’t quite ripe, but hey, check it out, is Choosing & Stacking Elements that have Multiple Principlesa principle itself? Ok, this is getting deep. Nonetheless, an old piece of steel wool hanging above The Loft is ‘feeding two birds with one scone’: Mimicking Nature AND Cycling & Recycling Energy. The steel wool, which has long seen its dish-washing days, now hangs beside the bedroom window mimicking a beehive and effectively fending off other house wasp colonies, an occurrence found in nature by which wasp colonies keep sufficiently spaced apart. As our Permaculture textbook authors Bloom and Boehnlein write, “Electricity, money, time, steel, potatoes, and potentially love are all just different forms of energy from which we can benefit.” Forms of energy tend to be seen through our ‘norms of society’ lens, meaning that our dispensable commodity culture far underestimates the multi-lifespan of a given energy—we throw things in abandon when they’re still rendering services! (e.g., as a pesky wasp deterrer). Time to pin up that steel wool, tie up that loose end, close the loop, and keep the energy in the dance(!), and damn Linnaea seems to be a mad good dancer so far. We haven’t even stepped into the realm of Linnaea’s food production, yet I can already feel the permaculture permeating!
Before bed, professors Hannah and Mike lead the class through some icebreaker exercises. In one of them we have to choose two other students in the room and attempt to occupy the space directly between them at all times. We become like elements in a system working towards our most appropriate spots. When we finally approach equilibrium, Mike tells one of us to move position. By one slight move, everyone is directly or indirectly affected and the equalizing process begins again. Not only was this a belly-laugh of a group-building exercise, but it also alludes to the principle Bloom and Boehnlein term Locating Elements for Functional Interconnection. Everyone and every element is interconnected and therefore as “permies” we aspire to learn how to ease each element of a given system into its most functional, mutually beneficial position amongst the whole, while remembering that it is a dance: the most ideal structure of plants in a garden, or people in a room, is never set in scone.
the precious world’s biophysical swirls all so pressingly need US.
We are the earth’s people. And without it we are dust.
We need it. It needs you. You need you. WE need US.
Artwork by Inanna Sokil
ॐ Permaculture’s Twelve Principles:
Observing & Interacting: How often in our agricultural ventures do we impose our plans on the ecology of a place without taking the time to listen to the enchanting tale already in the process of being written? Through observance and cooperative interaction with this story, a system can emerge that both bolsters the ecological integrity of the landscape as well as suits the needs of the envisioned food system.
Locating Elements for Functional Interconnection: It’s like Martin Luther King, Jr said: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Our design elements are part of this interconnected reality. So how can we locate them to facilitate right relationships in the landscape to create most efficient, lower maintenance and mutually beneficial associations?
Choosing Elements that have Multiple Functions: A good guide in designing our permaculture systems is to favour those elements with multiple characteristics that are of benefit to us and the surrounding ecosystem. For example, what about a hedge that could be wildlife habitat, keep out grazing deer, provide nectar to hummingbirds who stop to chow a few insect pests on route, while concomitantly giving us food, medicines and flowers for our loved ones!
Designing for Resilience: We want to make sure that our systems are resilient in the occasion of disturbance. The most essential functions, like water and food provision should be extensively reinforced with backups, which themselves should have backups (which themselves should have back-ups!). Who’s got yo back? We got yo back.
Obtaining a Yield: As ecological systems progress, their component species produce yields, such as nutritional sustenance, building materials, carbon sequestration, etc. These yields occur at different stages in the progression and therefore through awareness and crafty planning we can create systems that offer yields at all stages of development. Whoa.
Looking for Small-scale Intensive Solutions: If we screw up, which as humans we are all too good at (indeed we revamp our idea-lamps through our mistakes), it’s best to do so on a small-scale. This way we can learn from our slip-ups without slipping irredeemably feet-up. Also, making the most out of an intensive area allows for creating well-organized, closely-knit bliss with minimal opportunities disused or missed.
Mimicking Nature (From Patterns to Details): The forms and, most importantly, the functions found in nature are time-honoured, testified techniques presenting valuable lessons to observers (us!). Natural patterns can thus be used for guiding and deriving the details of our designs.
Using Biological Resources & Producing No Waste: It’s best to use biological resources rather than pollutive, non-renewable ones. Duh. Biological resources facilitate sustainable energy cycles in our system. Just like that concept of trash to treasure so too is waste a resource for another.
Striving for Diversity: Harkening back to the notion of “designing for resilience,” diversity in a landscape gives it a greater capacity to endure in the case of disturbance or upon loss of (an) element(s). Enriching biodiversity also results in increased potential yields and increased potential for functional interconnection. Diversity good. Big love for diversity. As well, cultural and social diversity allow for increased functional interrelations of ideas, perspectives, opportunities and love.
Solving Problems Creatively: Within the rotten fruit of a problem is the seed of its own solution. Looking beyond the symptoms, what is the core of the problem? Is there a solution that would be less labour intensive and even solve other problems simultaneously? Diggity-Ding!
Managing Edges: The space of interface, the zone of ecotone, that place where one distinct ecological system butts up with another, is one of dynamic interplay. Depending on the context, different measures can be taken to facilitate the operations of these locales in order that they align their missions with our design visions.
Cycling and Recycling Energy: As Bloom and Boehnlein say, “Electricity, money, time, steel, potatoes, and potentially love are all just different forms of energy from which we can benefit.” Forms of energy tend to be seen through a norms-of-society lens, meaning that our dispensable commodity culture far underestimates the multi-lifespan of a given energy—we throw it in abandon when it’s still giving offerings! Time to tie up that loose end, close the loop, and keep the energy in the dance(!), learning to benefit from these energies as they take on new structures and purpose, new cadence and jazz.
Note: “The lists of permaculture principles found in various publications range in length from four to forty” (Bloom & Boehnlein 2015:22). Therefore these are a distillation slightly adapted from: Bloom, J., & Boehnlein, D. (2015). Practical Permaculture for Home Landscapes, Your Community, and the Whole Earth. Portland, OR: Timber Press.