Musings On Permaculture, Part II

We have enjoyed countless scenes of natural beauty and order in the last six weeks. Like little transmissions, they unfold in waves, set apart from each other in sequences: the horses emerging through the milky early morning mist, that same mist dispensed by the later-morning sun to expose the green and amber grasses in the pasture, a wind whipping up that tosses those tall grasses and cools the skin, swallows flittering about, the intense heat and humidity of the day, then the dusk, and soon the curtain of fireflies twinkling against the dark below the stars.  Never quiet, the night broadcasts over auditory channels in crickets, frogs, an occasional whippoorwill, and a cascade of other sounds.  It all adds up to a separate dimension of experience.  Something that strikes me as complete, a wholeness composed of the little transmissions experienced every day anew.

It is unfortunately hard to talk about “wholeness” without it sounding like some sort of vague mumbo-jumbo.  Yet we know what it is when we encounter it.  The human face has this instantly recognizable wholeness that can’t be reduced to any one of its parts.  The earth’s water and carbon cycles, likewise, present a picture of wholeness as do so many systems both natural and human-made.

If I had to make an axiomatic statement about permaculture, it is that it is about human interventions that anticipate and preserve the wholeness inherent in different structures, living or not.  “Preserve” them as opposed to “divide” them from the rhythms of the sun and the soil, keeping things in their place and moving along the processes that run the great wheel.

There is no better way to talk about this wheel than to look at the land right around you.  So today, I’ll try to wear the permaculture designer’s hat and start from a model, letting an important element of the model– the foundational values–flow from it.

First, the lay of the land.

Beyond the window where I now sit, to the south, lay roughly eight acres of pasture across a paved road from H&M’s house.  The house sits near the bottom of a valley below a wooded hillside that rises steeply a few hundred feet to the ridge top.  On the slope at the west side of the house is a sizable kitchen garden, terraced into the hill that curves down to the road.

Garden View

Between the house and garden sit four containers of various size with compost in varying forms of decay, or readiness.  Above the house (out of sight and in the woods) to the northeast lies a chicken pen maybe slightly larger than your average above ground pool.

Chicken Pen

30-70 year old trees shade the house on the north side, with the south side largely open to direct light to the front of the house and to the garden.  There is a gravel road cut into the hill above the house, and simple earthen drainage channels that direct rain water to the sides of the house and into a ditch on the near side of the paved road below us.

If you think of the land around as made up of concentric circles, like a target in darts, the house sits in the very center of the circle, or Zone 0.  As you move out from the bulls eye, in any direction, you encounter other zones (or rings on the target) that serve different purposes.  Zone 0–the house–pretty much speaks for itself: basic shelter, a well pump that provides water, south facing windows to capture sunlight and warmth, small compost containers for kitchen scraps, and other elements that help us live, work, and relax.

El Casa

Just around the outside of the house we find Zone I, comprised of frequently visited areas. Here we find the garden w/ herbs, flowers, and vegetables, bush fruit (raspberries and blueberries), compost bins, and most of the other structures (outhouse, shed, dog pens, etc.)  This zone also includes the chicken pen, an area of paving stones set into dirt with a table and chairs, a hammock in the trees, wood piles, and so on.

Heading even further out, into Zone II, we find things that need less and less maintenance: beehives, fruit trees (cherries and pears), the winter pasture, the nearby wooded hillside.

In Zone III, we get out deeper into the pasture and find cows and horses grazing, their barns, range for the chickens, and windbreaks comprised of trees and hillside.


Even further out, in Zone IV, comes the mostly unmanaged but still productive area, where we can collect wild edibles and gather wood for burning.

Finally, in Zone V, the furthest ring on our circle, is a primarily unmanaged area: the river and the forest.  Zone V is a place to leave be. There, natural cycles of plant succession are happening, wild animals forage, insects, fungus, and bacteria break down biomass, and generally uncultivated nature exists in its most self-organized form.

There are sectors that move through the zones, carrying resources through them.  Sun, wind, fire, slope (gravity) are all energy sectors that move through the zones like the dividing lines of a target board.  How they interact with a piece of land should determine where trees are planted, how the house is oriented, where to slow down or capture water, and so on.

Part of the permaculture designer’s role is to think about what’s happening in these zones and how the energy sectors interact with the zones.  Most importantly, how do we interact with these zones using mostly or entirely the energy already flowing through them, and NOT external sources.  The less we bring in oil, gas, diesel, tractors, fertilizers, pesticides, power lines, pipes, etc. the less we divide the world around us from its inherent rhythms and cycles.  The permaculture designer’s goal is create harmony with minimal work, within a system, as opposed to disorder, or chaos.  Another way to put this is that the designer aims to use only that amount of energy that can be productively absorbed by a system.  Too much fertilizer, for example, burns plants, runs off fields into streams and causes algae blooms, and ultimately wreaks havoc on aquatic life, which can ruin the livelihood of fishermen, etc.

Energy is all around us–but how do we work with nature to let it flow?  How can we help the land around us fulfill its own needs, these needs being sun, water, bacteria, and everything on the whole ecological chain?  How can we get a good yield for human beings that also is sustainable?

These questions start to verge on issues of value, of ethics, of what is good vs. what is expedient.  The ethics of permaculture are as basic as they come:

1. Care for the earth

2. Care for people

3. Give away surplus (pass on anything surplus to our needs to service 1 and 2)

The core underlying value here is that living things (and the resources that help them meet their needs) have intrinsic worth.  They are ends in and of themselves, not just instruments.  These exist to remind us that we should intervene in nature for purposes beyond extraction for extraction’s sake, for profit, etc.  It is to do what is good, to preserve the wholeness of the world around us.

Back in the thirties, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) made plans to buy up the valley we’re in, dam it, and sell the power.  All of this land around me could have just ended up as a giant lake, with recreational motor-boaters and oil slicks.  And of course, because it wasn’t, it is likely that more coal was used in its stead.  Because the river was not divided from its natural flow to provide power, somewhere else has seen more extraction as a result, division from its natural state, mountaintop removal, and so on.

Wholeness is a recognition that everything is connected to everything else.  Permaculture is a viewpoint from which to help maintain the connections, but also a design science, a methodology to how to go about it.  More on this next time.


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