How Does Nature Do It?
I stand in a respectably sized vegetable garden set in a small clearing between two stands of oaks. A smattering of fruit trees rises in the background. Some cauliflower and Swiss chard are at my left. Artichokes shoot purple flowers into the air a few feet away. My feet rest on a bed of loosely strewn straw that provides cover for rows of fruiting seascape strawberries.
Penny Livingston, a farmer and an educator in Bolinas, California, stands in the same spot, witnessing an entirely different scene. Bird migrations, deer movement, and even raccoons passing along the creek’s steep banks define WILDLIFE CORRIDORS all around—and above us. These must be carefully preserved. Willows, native currants, and hazelnut trees line the creek. These create natural RIPARIAN BUFFERS, earthen barriers that hold the farm’s vital soil nutrients—especially nitrogen—in the ground instead of them leaching into nearby waterways. Curves gently cut into the soil create contoured SWALES. These capture rainwater, redirecting it into the ground, where it can be utilized by nearby plant roots. Finally, FOOD FORESTS (multi-layered gardens) allow some crops to be planted above—and below—one another. These carefully considered design principles, each inspired by lessons learned from the natural world, are examples of PERMACULTURE.
While biodynamics provides farmers with a vaguely spiritual framework coupled with rigorous practices codified by DEMETER CERTIFICATION, permaculture is more observational and free-form; instead of rules to follow, it offers a lens to look through. In the natural world, a meadow maintains its equilibrium because all its inhabitants do their part. Bees pollinate. Birds control insect populations and help spread seeds. Plants draw carbon into the soil, then decompose to provide GREEN MANURE nutrients for others. The meadow thrives because its “participants” do their share. Nature preaches balance.
“One of the questions we ask in permaculture is, ‘How does nature do it?’” Livingston explains. She’s a seasoned permaculturalist who spends most of the year traveling the globe, showing farmers how to work with what they have, and to see both their land and ultimately themselves differently. “We look at nature’s operating principles, then try to humbly mimic them in our human design,” she continues. “We use gravity, the sun, and the landscape’s natural flow. We move domestic animals like chickens, goats, horses, or cows around this landscape to keep and maintain meadows. If you do all this right you can actually build soil and sequester carbon in the process.”
Livingston shows me recirculating ponds. Dry creek beds brought back to life. Structures built from cob, a local mud transformed into pliable architectural clay. Outdoor showers that open onto meadows of chamo- mile grass. Nature is clearly trying to tell her something; not only is she listening, she’s taking notes.
“When you have a long row or a big field of potatoes, everything is homogenous. The soil has roughly the same pH. The amount of sunshine the plants get is roughly the same. If one gets hit by the Colorado potato beetle they’re all equally susceptible to it.
“In a permaculture system, you don’t grow things in rows. You’re not growing a big monocrop. You’re going to add a lot of texture to the landscape and have your potatoes grow in all kinds of odd places throughout this very bizarre landscape. Then if you see a potato plant that has Colorado potato beetles on it, you don’t care. Clearly that potato plant shouldn’t be there and Mother Nature, acting through the Colorado potato beetle, is going to take that plant out. Once that potato plant is gone, something else will do really well there. In another patch, there is a healthy thriving potato plant that won’t succumb to the Colorado potato beetle.”
PERMACULTURE is farming that eschews crop rows and trusts in natural selection. Where I imagine chaos, Wheaton sees a sound investment strategy: Call it the inescapable logic of diversified risk. I need look no farther than my own garden, where gophers got into one raised bed and plowed through two dozen potato plants. In another bed I lost every row of lacinato kale to aphids. I certainly could’ve benefited from “diversi- fied risk,” from spreading things around; that’s simple enough with a small garden like mine, but how do these principles work on a larger scale? Will they feed the world?That question leads me to Geoff Lawton, an interna- tional celebrity in the permaculture movement.
“When people talk about rebuilding local food systems, they often refer to scale,” I say. “After a certain size is reached you lose ‘localness.’ Would you say the same thing applies to permaculture? Does it too have limitations of scale?” “No,” he replies. “It’s limitless. It’s infinite. You just need to re-pattern the system.”
“Let’s take the state of Iowa, then” I tell him. “Ninety-two percent of the state’s agriculturally available land is planted with corn and soybean, yet the entire population of that state is only three million. How would a state like Iowa transition from its current industrial-economic model into something that can be patterned along permaculture principles?”
“By feeding the three million people with two percent of the land that’s now presently used for industrial agriculture,” he answers.
“And what would happen with the other ninety-eight percent of that land?”
“They would go back to wilderness.”
“Wouldn’t there be a loss of output?”
“No, there would be an increase in production and
people would be happy and healthy, though some rich people involved in large corporations at a distance would be a little unhappy.”
“Just so I can wrap my brain fully around this,”
I continue, “What you’re saying is that the entire agricultural output of corn and soy in the state of Iowa could be managed with only two percent of that land and—”
“No, I’m saying corn and soybeans in Iowa are worthless, useless. They only build money for rich people. They don’t feed people. It actually makes people ill. It destroys the land, creates lots of pollution, and concentrates surplus in the hands of the few. How can that be ethical? It’s a destructive, extractive, exploitive process. Instead, we’re talking about BIOMIMICRY. It increases fertility, increases nutrition, increases health, and creates abundance in surplus. We only need two percent of our present land area to produce all the world’s food needs. Agriculture in its present industrialized form is absolutely obsolete. We will look back on it as being applied stupidity, rigorous applied stupidity for the sake of lack of understanding.”
“Does sustainability play a role in your permaculture work?” I ask.
“Yes, absolutely. A sustainable system produces more energy than it consumes and nothing surplus to maintain and replace its component parts over their lifetime.”
“It’s almost like a magic show.”
“There’s nothing magic about the sun,” Lawton says. “All energy on earth comes from the sun and all living elements are solar collectors. The biggest transfer of solar energy comes through PHOTOSYNTHESIS in the form of starches and base sugars. Those are the building blocks of all life on earth. If you want surplus, you have to produce more energy than you need to maintain and replace those component parts of the system, to have something extra to trade. You have to link the sun’s energy through photosynthesis to living systems. It’s biomimicry and ecosystemic-patterned design. That is the teacher. That is the model. And it is a pretty good one. It’s been around since life began on the planet.”