In these times of food scares, predictions of eco-holocaust and political upheaval, it would be nice to think there is a way in which mere individual gardeners could help put matters right. If there were, then we could all potter around our plots doing what suits us best not feeling guilty for ignoring the important national disasters by hiding in the garden. In more than a trivial way I believe gardeners have already been helping out in some small manner for many years. Not much of a help maybe by itself, but by providing a second source of food for the kitchen, by creating areas of green that can nurture wildlife and as a side effect reminding people a little of what nature can do for herself, it all adds up to a tidy sum. Every little helps. It takes a major leap of the imagination to think these efforts would ever really change anything. Amazingly though, now it is possible. The humble gardener, even of only a window box, can show the world a thing or two if we do it right. How do we do that? By Permaculture. Don’t worry, this is no gimmick or wonder cure-all even though it sounds that way. It does look too good to be true when you find it is dreadfully easy to do, almost stupidly rewarding and what is more it’s totally safe but then we are due for a piece of luck.
Enough of the introduction. What is it? In part, Permaculture is the structure of the natural interconnections between plants and animals that keep everything on this planet going. Bill Mollison recognised it as being something rather useful about thirty years ago whilst he was studying rain forests. Mollison had been fascinated by these forests ever since his time as an Australian lumberjack. After a dehumanising period cutting them down he asked himself what it was all for, and came up with some very wide ranging answers. He has never since cut down a tree although he would if it proved necessary, it just never has. His answers had lead him to his first attempts at forest conservation.
He began by investigating how forests work. The rain forests are some of the oldest stable communities of life to be found anywhere on the planet. His forest once grew on an ancient continent known only to geologists, they called it Gondwanaland. That was the single land mass which split up under the power of continental drift to form the globe map as we know it today. Geological time has the slowest clockwork on Earth and yet the forest is still here. This makes the forest (not the individual plants and animals) older than most of the rocks that make up the surface of the Earth. You can’t get much older than that. What could be so special as to out-live not only the Dinosaurs but also the continent on which they evolved? (A certain blue-green algae has beaten that record. It is also very special, it first made the oxygen in our atmosphere so it had to start early.)
Mollison and his team realised that in order to survive at all, all parts of the forest or any other stable system interact as a mutually supporting, self - balancing and renewable whole. It was much less obvious to see exactly how this trick was managed over such tremendously long time periods. Here Mollison was helped by his almost
Buddhist way of seeing things. It was his feeling for the overview or totality of life that let him concentrate his efforts on uncovering the ‘shape’ rather than the details of the full forest system. Working in this way he began to find multiple parallels between the ways in which the different plants and animals interacted and he reasoned that the stability of the total forest system must come from the shape or pattern of these relationships rather than have anything much to do with the detail of how any particular interdependency works. He knew it would be hard to explain this almost mystical concept when it was exposed to the hash light of scientific scrutiny, so he shone that light on it first himself.
Mollison’s rigorous scientific studies did nothing but sharpen up his feel of the pattern. Then, armed with demonstrable facts and edible information he found he could go further. He could copy the pattern. He took a selection of seeds and cuttings from the forest plants, put them with the insects and animals that occurred naturally in the original and transplanted them in the correct forest pattern somewhere else. The new forest worked. Many years later it still shows all the stability of a real rain forest right down to the correct level of rainfall. This water trick is managed by the plants themselves. They grow a bacteria which is released from the leaves. It then rises and ‘seeds’ clouds in the otherwise clear but moist sky. The rain then falls and keeps the plants alive. Very early on in his experiment he saw that the soil condition of his plot also began to match that of the original. Ground litter from a real forest had been transferred to start the system running but unlike other attempts at forest building his leaf layer did not dry up and blow away. This was because he had kept the relationship between the plants and the leaf litter unaltered so the layer stayed and grew in just the expected manner. He had transferred the system that supported the forest itself without even knowing exactly what it was.
After a while he wondered if he could go further still. The next stage after showing that the important aspect of a forest is the pattern of interdependencies between the flora and fauna is to try and fit different plants and animals into places in the pattern replacing the tropical species. That way he hoped he could design a system for another climate. This would have the long term stability of a rain forest and also produce humanly useable crops in a non tropical climate like ours in Britain. The hope was that such a system would be able to provide a small scale low maintenance food source for the somewhat lazy. He tried it and it worked. Hey presto - Permaculture.
The story does not end there at all. Copied plant and animal systems are very good at growing, much better than anything we have managed to achieve. Even with all our chemical fertilizers, genetic engineering and insecticides we can’t begin to match nature at her own game, and nor should we try. A remarkable finding at first sight, but not so strange when you think about it. Nature had been working on the most efficient way to turn the sun’s energy into living organic matter for many millions of years before we evolved. Nature has come up with tricks that we can’t yet even see let alone understand. Our not understanding them doesn’t change the effect they have on our very existence.
This lack of understanding seems not to have taught us caution. We blindly go on with our ‘tried and tested’ methods of agriculture and production regardless of the costs while teaching there is nothing to worry about. For example the ‘Water cycle’ as taught in schools of my time is 80% wrong. Only 20% of water returns to land as rain. The rest condenses out of mist and fog every morning onto the plants. If we lose the trees then we lose that water, which is our only fresh source apart from rain. Remember rain only falls once clouds have been seeded by bacteria grown in plants. That same bacteria also triggers ground level condensation. Dust particles are too small to do the job by themselves. Get rid of the plants and we lose the remaining 20% as well. We can’t even put our hope in aquifers as they will soon dry up, the water table is kept in place by the pumping action of trees evaporating water back into the atmosphere.
It is not only deforestation and land clearance that is causing problems. Nearer to the home back garden there is a genetically altered strawberry that has been made frost resistant by suppressing its ability to grow the rain seeding bacteria. If this technique is widely used without due regard to the newly understood water cycle then we are in for big trouble. No one would deliberately do this, but do they see the danger? Another worry is that in a world without plants we don’t need to fear of dying from thirst. As plants still produce all the oxygen we breathe we will have suffocated long before the water runs out. It is essential to learn every little we can of nature’s methods so that we can avoid destroying or damaging the natural balance which has kept as alive until now.
That is enough of the dangers of fighting nature, what of the benefits of working with her? As Mollison has shown it is not necessary to understand everything to benefit from the largess of nature, so it is not all gloom. In fact Permaculture could be the longed for panacea for a stupidly large number of our ills. For example, findings from a working farm show that within eight years of running the business under permaculture conditions it has been possible to do away with all farm subsidies and yet still produce greater profits than traditional agro-business driven agriculture. The benefits mount with the fact no chemical fertilizers are required. This is because the land retains a high fertility which is normally washed out through over watering. A permaculture system stops the land drying out by using a heavy mulch which also keeps off the weeds, keeps the soil temperature level and holds in the moisture. Eventually it rots down to feed the next crop. The land is never ploughed, worms and beetles keep it aerated so the need for a tractor and other expensive farm machinery is much reduced. Indeed a horse would be a splendid self-renewing, fertilising, self-fuelling alternative. The harvest becomes totally ‘organic’ almost as a byproduct. Crops of meat and plant produce contain no toxins from insect spraying as the flora and fauna in a mixed crop do not offer the incentive to insect or microbial invasion that literally plagues a monoculture. The farm causes no pollution save from the exhaust of the odd tractor. It does create extra work at harvest time but that should be seen as another advantage as the labour force needs no special skills. Also, the modern dangers of a farm will not threaten any untrained workers as the dangers are simply not there - unless they annoy the bulls.
This is not as childish a hope as it sounds, there are major precedents for massive reorganisation of human systems in the hope of universal rewards. For example there are the agricultural system and the free market enterprise culture to mention just two. Both of these establishment ‘panaceas’ have shown exceptional results in their own spheres but only now are the costs of flying in the face of nature becoming too great either to hide or ignore. It is long past time for a change and this could be it.
Permaculture, like all Godlike gifts, is very powerful. It can be applied to anything from desert reclamation to window box herb growing. It is not even restricted to the ‘lower’ life-forms, there are many parallels to be found in the way people interact in human societies. That could be called the Miss Marple effect, the habits of a single small village community accurately reflect on the dealings of big businesses etc. She too was laughed at, but she was fiction, you can prove the truth of Permaculture with the window-box test. First you need to know how. To find out more simply contact the Permaculture Association, 8 Hunter’s Moon, Dartington Totnes, Devon TQ9 6JT. There are many books on the subject, each has the word Permaculture in the title so they shouldn’t be too hard to find. There is no excuse left for not looking!
Written and first published 15/1/1991. What has changed since then? Well, lots. We gave up - save for still thinking about it.
And now, a link to my last employer's site:
Electronic Control Services. - which I still maintain.