Permaculture Design Principle #1: Observe and Interact. This takes many forms and often, I have to be reminded that I'm already doing it as I'm scratching my head over a (perceived) problem. This principle leads so nicely into the old permie saying, "The Problem is the Solution." Anyone who has been designing for any length of time has heard this quite a lot. It's another way of saying "Make lemon-aid." One of the best ways I heard it expressed was a permie venting about his ducks, who just wouldn't stop mudding-up an area of the paddock that he really wanted to use for something non-muddy. No matter how many times he offered them pools and waterholes elsewhere, all they wanted to do was go back to that one spot and dig in, creating mess like only ducks can. The end of the story? "Well, I solved it: I dug them a pond right there, and moved my garden elsewhere."
Here's one of our more positive experiences with this: The front lawn used to be... well, lawn. Before Sam and I took over, it was a beautiful carpet of neatly trimmed grass. I barged in last year with my sheet mulch and grand plans to turn it into a zen garden. It gets lovely afternoon sun, and I wanted a place to sit quietly. I planned out all my flower beds, and my herbs, and Sam planned a little pond for frogs and water noise. Then spring came and an invasive plant had spread all over one side of the walk: problem #1. That plant was not supposed to be there. But then I noticed that the bees were all over it as one of their first nectar sources. Problem is the solution! Leave the plant! Good.
Next: I did this to myself, but I managed to wear a path right through the middle of the flower bed. All fall and through our no-snow winter, I have been stepping off the side of the doorstep and cutting through the dormant garden to get to the barn, wearing down the soil into a packed path. As I stood there pondering whether to be mad at myself for this hard-pack earth, Sam reminded me: "Observe your interaction. Looks like you needed a path." Huh. Problem = solution: I will make it an official path, and have more edges in the garden. Perfect!
Okay, so what to do about this last one?
We have a cat. Like most cats, he likes to be outside, but he will come inside for a few days of gorging on the free food and sleeping in a nest of blankets. And while he's inside, of course, he stinks up his litter box after all that cat food gorging. We have been through several types of litter, but we really don't like the environmental impact of the scoopable ones. I mean, the container is about the only saving grace (those buckets make great nesting boxes in a chicken coop!) but we only have so many chickens. So, last time we were at PetSmart, we were totally hook-line-and-sinkered for this new wood pellet litter. Biodegradable! All natural! Great!
Around the same time we put in that litter, I also planted flats of pumpkin seeds. That night, Dill (our cat in question) got into the seedlings, dug them all to pieces, and poohed right in the middle of the dirt mess. I cleaned it up in quiet rage, blaming the new litter. I put him outside, set toothpicks and elaborate plastic coverings over my replanted fresh soil, and then let him back in.
That night: total destruction, with no mind to the tooth pick mines I had planted.
I went through about three rounds of this before I finally decided it was ALL the cat litter's fault. Who wants to pooh in wood chips, after all?! Stupid marketing, we were drawn in and should have known better.
But now, wait a minute. Observe and Interact. Problem is the solution.
Observe: the cat likes the dirt.
Observe: the cat poohs outside just fine, without the need for store-bought litter.
Problem: the cat is using an inappropriate box of dirt.
Solution: put garden dirt into the litter box.
Why haven't we thought of this before? We have a farm full of dirt. We have compost piles that will sit for a year or two, so any chance of toxoplasmosis should be long gone by the time we grow in it. Why not use the garden dirt he is determined to dig up, and then dump it into the compost? He's probably already using the pile on his own when he's outside, right?
My pumpkin seedlings - the few who survived the onslaught - survived. And so does the wisdom of Principle #1. Make the problem the solution, people. Don't kill the kitty; just listen to what he's saying about his pooh preferences. Walk the path you need to walk, and stop worrying if the plan you imagined isn't what ended up happening. Maybe what ended up happening was the right thing, after all.
We live on a farm. Until last year (and possibly again next year), we home schooled our eldest son, now 12, and our middle daughter, now 8. Our 4 year-old has never set foot in a classroom. Our kids live, breathe, and eat FARM. We must have the ideal child-raising scenario, right? Our kids probably wake up early, throw on their muck boots, and help with the chicken chores. After a hearty breakfast of eggs just fetched from nests, they banter about in the fields and gardens, playing hide-and-seek and helping us plant seeds. Sounds wonderful, doesn't it?
Except that it doesn't happen. Here's a more realistic picture of kids on the farm:
They wake up and immediately ask me for breakfast. I have already done the chores and had my coffee (in truth, I love doing the morning chores alone; it's my peaceful time and I have precious little calm-and-quiet space when it's just me, the animals and the sunrise). I provide breakfast they don't want and field the badgering questions for things they'd rather have ("can I eat my leftover birthday cake? What about mac and cheese? Why can't we go to Dunkin' Donuts? My friends get breakfast there on the way to school!") and, if it's not a school day, they immediately launch into woes about being sooo bored it would practically be child abuse for me not to let them play video games and watch TV.
Sam and I don't think TV and video games are good things in excess, but we do love our screen time, and we're not afraid to admit it. After the kids have gone to bed, the ducks are herded into their coyote-proof house, and the day's updates have been shared between us, Sam and I are total suckers for Netflix reruns of Scrubs, and DVR catch-up marathons of Big Bang Theory. The more laundry I have to fold, the more episodes I can justify before finally putting myself to bed too late. The kids are allowed some PBS and some Wii time in their own schedule, too. But it makes me crazy that they would trade a gorgeous, sunny day for a marathon of Mario Kart in a heartbeat.
Last weekend, the temps reached into the high 60s. Spring birds were in a riot, and the daffodil and tulips, confused by the early warm weather this year, were competing for who-can-bloom-while-it's-still-winter status. Every ounce of me wanted to be outside raking, digging, and prepping for the growing seasons. I wanted the kids to be outside with me. Here's how that went:
What's WRONG with this picture?!
I stood in the kitchen staring down my non-farming children for a bit, then remembered some words of wisdom from a Joel Salatin book I'd just been reading. Kids will engage, he said in not so many words, when they feel empowered by growing food. Bingo.
I put on my "I'm in charge" voice and herded all three whiners outside. I sat them down at the edge of the most fertile of our myriad garden beds, and told them it was all theirs. The rules were simple: they could dig in any place, plant any plant, and choose anything in our box of saved seeds. I would offer advice when asked, but otherwise would not interfere. They would be free to succeed (or fail) on their own, which Salatin rightly asserted is one of the best ways for kids to learn about life's ups and downs.
I was prepared for a bit of bribery (I'll help you plant, I'll help you weed), so I was shocked when they immediately ran for the garden barn to grab hoes and rakes. They had the garden cleared of last-year's debris within an hour, and our eldest had a row hoed an hour later. I was tempted to ask him why he'd created a row for peas that ran south-east and would shade the rest of the plants, but bit my tongue. Instead, I asked him his plan, and through respectful listening to his ideas, found that he began to ask me questions. We decided together to try the peas there, and plant sunflowers on the shaded side. Problem solved.
It's an ongoing lesson for me to remember that permaculture is about community growth and learning within our families just as much as it is for the larger community. I am a work-horse, and tend to want to get it all done myself. The lesson here is that allowing the kids to experiment and take ownership of this piece of garden allowed them to invest in a way they would not have if I'd just "allowed" them (ahem, forced them) to help me with my own space. Putting the power of choice and control into their hands got them excited to see what they could do. It's a parenting lesson I think we all need reminding of from time to time, but it extends beyond that, too.
What if we all chose a bit of garden, walled it off from our "supposed to be" spaces (supposed to be flowers, lawn, etc) and allowed ourselves the freedom to succeed or fail? Why not plant peas on a strange angle? Maybe it will prompt an idea that wasn't there before. Or maybe it will fail, but the lesson in that is valuable, too. How can we engage with our gardens this year in a way we have not dared to before?
Inheritance Farm is a permaculture homestead in Chichester, New Hampshire. Our mission is to educate people about sustainable farm practices that use old methods of symbiotic farming, as well as incorporate permaculture principles and designs.
Everything that we have - and everything we will ever build, whether here on the family farm or later on a different piece of land - will someday belong to someone else. Much the same way the water rushing by in a stream was not created at the headwaters, our existence as stewards of the land is on the shoulders of those who came before us. Those who come next must have strong shoulders for their next generation to likewise stand upon. This has been a basic principle of land stewardship for centuries: without the land, none would survive. Since the Industrial Revolution, modern culture has rapidly been losing the basic knowledge and common practices that made our forefarmers successful. If we allow our soil and the knowledge to preserve it to perish, what inheritance are we leaving for the next generation?
The sad reality is that our culture has come to a "cutting edge" way of thinking. Those who came before - farmers, land stewards, the people with dirt under their nails from a lifetime of coaxing food from the earth - were "primitive" and are now "outdated." The problem with that way of thinking is that it means we are lost in the moment. We have become so concerned with instant gratification, we have lost the foresight of investment. This leads us to do things like destroy soil life by using pesticides and chemical fertilizers, by raising too many animals on too small a system, or by planting the same crop in the same place year after year. The goal is a bountiful crop, and in the short term, it appears to work. But in the long term, the soil will be so depleted the system will fail. Think of this: in one teaspoon of soil there are a million bacteria, all working together to enrich whatever grows there, because for the bacteria, the return investment is solid. When we kill that bacteria by misfarming the land, we kill a natural farm resource that takes years to rebuild.
On a small scale, this means poor family gardens over time. On a large scale, this means disaster for our population on this earth. Soil that took thousands, millions of years to produce is being washed into the ocean in the process of feeding us today, while we all worry - and with good reason! - that there won't be enough food to go around down the line. So many of us believe that because the power to control our own food source (and resources) is not in our hands, there is nothing we can do that will make a difference. We are so far removed from the inheritance of knowledge our ancestors left us, we can't imagine a world without the dangerous systems we have in place now.
This doesn't have to be the inheritance we leave for our children, though. We need to stop looking at "primitive" and dismissing it out of hand. The notion that "primitive" practices can solve modern problems sounds ludicrous, but with a shift in perspective, it can do exactly that. Does this mean we need to return to a world before any modernity came about? Heck, no! We are very fond of refrigeration and the advances our culture has made in understanding microbiology, for example, are pretty radical. We'll even admit that we would be hard pressed to give up Netflix. But the notion that it takes science and bureaucracy to feed people is insane. With our loss of knowledge of the basics - soil, animal husbandry, natural fuel sources and ecosystem thrival skills - went also the loss of our sense of efficacy. Permaculture gives that back to us, in abundance.
We chose the name Inheritance Farm because we believe that it is our responsibility to pass along to the next generation a sustainable and thriving planet. Too often in our culture we think of "inheritance" as something we get for free, something passed to us that is a boon, a windfall, something we have not earned but expect all the same. If we shift our paradigm away from this mindset of "wait for it to be handed to me," and instead think of "inheritance" as the continuing legacy we are passing forward, generation to generation, we will all become stewards of a better planet. By taking some responsibility for our own self reliance now, and by teaching others to do the same, our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren will inherit the greatest boon of all: the means to thrive. And ironically, if we can accomplish that, then the inheritance will, in fact, be a gift, a boon, a windfall passed along with ease and grace, forever in abundance.
Ray is part of the Ray and Randi duo, who actually don't live on the farm. They have a micro-homestead in Gilmanton, but are VERY active over at IFP and are guest bloggers for them.
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