Where is my wilderness?

Is this a forest or an old strip mall? By the end of this you might question the difference. (Or be like: “Zach, that is clearly a forest. What are you talking about?”)

By Zach Cameron

In permaculture design, the concept of zones is fundamental to planning out a space. Zones are numbered 1 to 5, where zone 1 areas are daily used spaces and zone 5 areas are unmanaged wilderness.  But as Bloom and Boehnlein describe in their book Practical Permaculture for Home Landscapes, Your Community, and the Whole Earth, the idea of wilderness as unmanaged is false. Especially within the coastal regions of British Columbia like Cortes, indigenous people have intensely managed forests and other areas in order to maintain productive lands. Settlers also change the landscape constantly through activities such as logging, clearing land for agriculture and development, and many other transformative activities. So what is wilderness?

While walking through the forested area at Hank’s Beach Forest Conservation Park, we were stopped at a point in the forest and asked to look around. It took a few minutes, but eventually we saw the abrupt line in the forest. On one side of the line there was dense forest with many different ages and species of trees, on the other side there were fewer trees and a dense undergrowth of ferns and bushes. What we were looking at was the cut off between older forest and the regrowth after logging. This land had been changed by human activity whether we recognize it or not.

Another example of unseen human development was at an abandoned homestead next to the property of Oliver Kellhammer, a guest lecturer during our stay at Linnaea Farm. After a trek through dense bushes and sword ferns, we found ourselves in a relatively flat, open space of young grand fir and moss. Oliver explained that this area was actually an old tennis court. To prove it, he casually pushed aside the layers of moss to reveal an underlying layer of concrete, the white lines of the tennis court still visible, while we all stood in vague disbelief. Once again, the landscape had been completely changed by human action and we had no idea.

In retrospect we probably should have questioned the flat open space after all of the branches our faces walked through to get there.

It is amazing how easily landscapes change due to human activities and are just as easily forgotten. When so much of nature has been influenced by human activity either directly or indirectly, it starts to be questionable whether true wilderness devoid of human influence really exists. Parks meant to conserve nature are inherently fabricated due to our attempts to keep them static in history. If areas are not conserved, they become corrupted by human impacts nobody tried to prevent from degrading them. Whether an area is protected or not, our influence as a species is so large that the chances are human influence will reach it eventually. Oliver described the reclamation of old industrial sites by nature as a sort of rewilding, but with this example the circumstances are heavily influenced by the context of human development. Could this be true wilderness?

No, there is no true wilderness, at least not the popular definition of wilderness that defines land as untouched by human hands, pristine and something to revere. We constantly try to remove ourselves from nature even though we are an integral part of it. This limits our interactions with nature, usually this means we either abuse it because we believe there to be no consequences or we don’t do anything to it for fear we will destroy it. Neither view is particularly good. Indigenous peoples around the world have found ways to survive without destroying nature, you would think the rest of the world would be able to as well. As we change, nature changes and there is nothing we can do to change that.

How alien are you?

By Zach Cameron

After a workshop on natural cheese making by David Asher I made the joke that one of the key ingredients, a bacterial culture known as kefir, is an alien symbiote. Kefir, which has uncertain origins and can survive weeks at freezing temperatures with little feeding, can only be acquired if given to you by someone who already has a starter culture that they were given from somebody else. After a few leaps in logic I found myself with the perfect B-movie sci-fi/horror plot about an alien parasite slowly infiltrating our ranks through the guise of healthy, natural food production. While this is obviously nonsense (or maybe that’s just what they want you to believe!), after giving it more thought I found that while kefir is not an alien symbiote, it is both alien and symbiotic.

I don’t know about any of you, but I had never thought about how cheese was made before the creation of standardized, freeze-dried packets of bacterial cultures hit store shelves. To the members of our class the revelation of a natural source of milk fermenting bacteria seemed to be accepted fairly easily, but it is not hard to believe that the general public, who are so used to pre-packaged industrial foods, would find the idea gross or revolting. The very idea of locally accessed and maintained food has become alien due to our reliance on the industrial food system. Because of this, we have also lost our relationships with food items such as kefir, which a hundred years ago would have been prized staples of many households and are now slowly becoming relics.

Wait, milk comes from where?!

The relationships between humans and kefir bacteria are inherently symbiotic. Kefir is something that would not and cannot exist without human intervention to feed and culture it and before the creation of industrial cultures, humans relied on kefir to create nutritious, delicious food items. The fermentation provided by kefir enriched our diets with diverse probiotics long before mass marketing started using it as means to sell us products. But the relationships kefir helped create go much further than simply nutrition.

Kefir is something that requires a community and a culture to maintain and benefit from it. Since kefir granules are only acquired through someone who already has some, you already need at least two people just to start. You need people who raise livestock such as cows for the source of milk to feed the bacterial culture and cheese makers who can use the created kefir to create cheese. Tools, methods, and cultural practises are all need to be maintained by a supportive community to keep these traditions alive.

A community already started to form around taking care of the kefir grains gifted to us by David Asher at the end of his workshop. Many of us took a part of it, which we will develop into our own usable cultures. I affectionately named the jar of bacteria Sutherland in reference to the great Canadian national treasure Keifer Sutherland (it’s a pun!).

Finishing off back on the topic of sci-fi. In the novel Fallen Dragon, author Peter F. Hamilton creates a future in which food production has become completely automated and synthetic. As a side-plot to the main narrative, one of the main characters finds himself in a community that has cut itself off from technological society and return to land based practices of food production and living. At first, the character is amazed at the quality of the food he is being served, but quickly becomes physically disgusted when he finds out the horrible truth that the food had come from the ground and living things instead of test tubes and machines. In this future all natural foods have become alien (in a world that literally has extraterrestrial beings no less). Hopefully this narrative remains fictional and not prophetic. Maybe with workshops, like that of David’s, that focus on reintroducing natural foods into our lives and diets, we can avoid this type of future where we have lost all connection to our food.

Care for the people, a case for procrastination

By Zach Cameron

Oh, so much work was(n’t) done here.

If there is one thing to take away from an experience at Linnaea Farm it is that community matters. If you want to run a farm, having people to support you is essential to ensure everything gets done every day of the year. If you want to save a forest, you need to have a community to rally behind your cause. And if you want to make it through a grueling field course, having a few friends (about 20) to laugh at your stupid jokes makes it feel like a vacation.

Two months, two years, or two decades after finishing this field course I won’t remember the best plant to use as a living hedge or what crops should be rotated with which, but I will remember the jokes, the late nights spent fruitlessly tying to work on assignments while somebody else talks about the super amusing internet article or video. I mean how can you work on something while there is a group ecology rap session going on right beside you (yes that was a thing)? When it came down to it, enjoying the moment was more valuable than the impending due dates even though I knew it was going to be a chore later on (spoilers, it was).

Poetry, music, and intense desire not to do work (I mean build community).

There is a reason that one of the core tenants of permaculture is care for the people. People are what keep projects going, what support them when the money has run out and adversity hits. People are what make things worth it. Sure you can admire the beauty of a forest, but it is when you can share those feelings that true appreciation occurs.

So yeah, enjoying and engaging with the material and the experience is more important than learning the material itself. Now I have a network of over 20 people who went through the same experiences as I did. These are people who I can go to for help with projects and can come to me for the same. It doesn’t matter how many facts I know about the best planting times are, plant varieties, or soil chemistries, I’m not going to accomplish anything by myself.

In a lecture by Adam McPhill, he told us: “If you want something done fast, do it yourself. If you want something to last, do it as a community.” I could have spent all my nights locked in my room working on assignments. I would have gotten everything out quickly and had plenty of time to look over my work and I would have forgotten most of it by the next week, but I would have missed out on the important community building that was going on all around me. The experiences are what will last and I wasn’t about to miss out on any of that.

Stacking the deck in the name of higher functionality

By Zach Cameron

In permaculture, the concept of stacked functions is used to describe components of a system that provide more than one function, service, or process. Stacking functions is a useful tool because it allows for redundancies and increased functionality of a system compared to one where each part only has a single function. With the example of plants, a single plant could provide food through its vegetation or fruit, attract pollinators with its flowers, deter pests with secondary compounds, and fix or accumulate nutrients for other plants to use later on. By having a single plant that fulfills so many functions, more space can be opened up for a diversity of other plants or structures. By having multiple plants that fulfill the same functions you create redundancies so that if one type of plant dies off from disease or other factors, another plant can fulfill the same role without too much damage to the system. Plants are not the only things that can have staked functions, anything can have stacked functions if they are planned for and used correctly.

At Linnaea Farm everything had stacked functions. The people and animals especially demonstrated this concept in action. The cows grazed the fields keeping the grasses under control while fertilizing them with their manure so that they were ready for new growth. Their manure was further used to emend compost, creating a nutrient rich cocktail ready for use to grow important cash crops. Their dairy cow provided milk daily, which can be consumed directly or used in baking, cheese making, or other cooking needs. Of course cows are also raised to eventually be slaughtered for meat, but the point is that that is not their only purpose, which isn’t always the case in many industrial meat and dairy farms. Other animal such as chickens and sheep all provide more than one service to the farm, which can be a necessity on small farms trying to produce a diversity of products.

The chicken, it turns food scraps to nutrient rich poop, provides delicious eggs, tills soils, and gives one mean glare.

The people of Linnaea Farm are where the concept of stalked functions is demonstrated the best. The community of the farm refer to themselves as stewards of the property. Everybody has their own interests, strengths and projects, but everybody is also responsible for the health and maintenance of the property. This means everybody milks the cows, everybody knows how to farm, and everybody has a say and participates in choosing the direction of the farm. This is essential in situation where everyone’s livelihood and well-being depends on the success of what is going on. If somebody gets sick, somebody else can pick up the slack. If somebody needs a vacation, visit relatives, or do business off the island, others can handle things while they are gone.

When you consider that there are plenty events that will come up in a normal person’s life that can disrupt a person’s life (as the ancient proverb goes: “shit happens”) and that running a farm is often a year-round job, it’s actually amazing that anybody can do it on their own. You need a community and in essence that is what stalked functions are when applied to a group of people. By having a community of people working together, a task that has the potential to be disastrous for an individual is just another day at the farm.