Permaculture Design Class

These notes have been copied from a now-defunct blog. I've not edited them nor checked for broken links...there are probably many. I took the course during the summer of 2008 at Regenerative Design Institute in Bolinas, CA.

On the morning, when we received our certificates in completion of the Permaculture Design Certification Intensive, Penny asked us to go around the circle and say one word or phrase that best described what we thought we'd take away from the class into our immediate future. I struggled to find just the right phrase with my rational mind, but only one thing came out of me: "live the truth." In many ways, this class helped me understand truths that I believe I've recognized in my heart, maybe for my entire life. And I feel that in many ways, our current mainstream culture requires us to lie to ourselves about the consequences of how we live.

I've debated how much of my notes to rewrite into my blog. There's an immense amount of material to digest. I've decided to make a first pass through my notes, picking out the concepts or ideas that impressed me the most, and that might best serve to convey the kind of experience I had, and not write up the notes right now that relate to specific design techniques and practices. It's difficult to describe to people, and I sense a sort of suspicion surrounding it. Maybe doing some of this will help; organizing the info might at least help me be a little more articulate about it.

  • The Iroquois Confederacy has striking parallels to how the founding fathers of the US Constitution set up the US government. (Though there is debate on this issue, the evidence suggested here looks pretty good to me.) One significant difference is that the Iroquois clan mothers held enormous power, being the ones to appoint the council members from each tribe. The Iroquois handled issues brought before the council with a policy of consensus, or "one heart, one mind, one law." If consensus could not be reached on an issue, each individual tribe was free to determine their own course of action, as long as it did not affect the other tribes.

  • I'm ashamed to admit to the realization that I didn't even really know what was meant by "consensus" before coming here. I'd thought it was a something like a majority, but probably much more than 51/49 split. The idea of consensus...that the entire group agrees to something...and that I hadn't previously understood it...blew my mind. Obviously not something commonly experienced in my culture.

  • Penny Livingston-Stark on permaculture: "This isn't rocket science. It's a lot more complicated." (Fortunately, it's a lot more interesting, too.)

  • The practice of permaculture as taught by Bill Mollison has well-defined ethics:

    • Care of the Earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply.

    • Care of People: Provision for people to access those resources necessary to their existence.

    • Setting Limits to Population and Consumption: By governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles.

    The last point is often described as giving away or reinvesting the surplus. The mnemonic you'll often see is "Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share"

  • The most important design tool for permaculture is a hammock. Good design is rooted in good observation.

  • Penny: "Permaculture is on the cutting edge of a 10,000 year old idea."

  • "Pollution is an unused resource" -- Bill Mollison (or: "Waste = Food")

  • Here at RDI they believe in "sustainable hedonism"...for example, you can't buy the food we'll be eating. (This was absolutely true.)

  • You've heard "you are what you eat." Brock Dolman puts another spin on it: "You are what you don't shit."

  • "Some people are more limited by what they know than by what they don't know." (Penny or Brock)

  • We don't plan for the future the way we used to. Examples from the past: The Beams of New College, Oxford; food storage of the Incas.

  • Embodied Energy -- this is a hugely important concept. We tend to think of objects in terms of their financial cost. But consider all of the resources used to create an object: raw material, labor, environmental impact, social impact, etc. All of this together is the embodied energy of the object. A stainless steel water bottle from REI might appear to cost $18.95, but when you consider the embodied energy, you'll find that the cost is much, much higher.

  • Permaculturists aren't "plant fascists"...native plants are preferred when they serve the function required, but proven exotics are also fine and testing of unproven exotics, with proper monitoring, is encouraged. Even Scotch Broom, a hated invasive, serves a, like many other exotic invasives, is a nitrogen fixer. These kinds of species make their homes in soil that's been disturbed, damaged. The need is to bring the soil back to life, not the futility of killing the exotics. If the sheer logic of this doesn't get you, consider that a large donor to native plant societies and others working against exotics is (drum roll, please)...Monsanto. "Monsanto Company has been a long-term sponsor of Cal-IPC with more than 15 years of consecutive sponsorship donations. As a company we are committed to supporting and assisting the invasive species control efforts of the members of Cal-IPC." [ref]

  • Another bon mot, either from Brock or Penny: "I'm so broke I can't even pay attention."

  • California Native Americans actually tended the "wilderness" was not an untouched ecosystem, but rather one that was managed in a way that was invisible to Europeans. Great resource for this information: Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources.

  • BLM: Bureau of Land Mistakes.

  • Jon Young: I may write up my notes from his wonderful talk, but a couple of things need to be included here: We form new brain patterns from only two sources: our focus (what we long for) and what our senses take in. More information makes people mentally ill. Connection is what makes culture...connecting to the world around us via our senses, rather than constant information gathering with the brain. What is more important than information? How happy are people? How strong is their heart? This is more important.

  • Phytoremediation: plants can be used to clean up toxins in the environment and treat water. For example, water hyacinths can be planted in water soaking with old photographic materials...they hyacinths will take up the silver in the water. You can then burn the hyacinths to recover the silver. Note that this also means you have to be careful about what plants you eat, with respect to what's in the environment and what they migth be taking up. Note that we do the same sort of thing, taking up chemicals that cause us health problems. (Penny believes that a lot of us are walking around with a form of organophosphate poisoning from pesticides, and that it's manifested as depression and inability to concentrate).

  • Water treatment folks have to deal with "PPCP" -- pharmaceuticals and personal care products. Many of the pharmaceuticals are endocrine disruptors and estrogen mimics (they pointed out that, given this, it should come as no surprise that viagra sales are up and fertility is down).

  • What is "Away"? Our waste water, trash, etc. all goes "away". Where is this "away" place? One "away" might be The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

That's about a third of the way through my notebook. More to come!

  • Fun fact: the composting toilets at RDI don't stink. The reason for this is that the urine is separated from solid waste...there are two seats in each outhouse; you pee in one and defecate in the other. Mixing the two causes the anaerobic reaction that causes the foul odor. (Personal note: I really liked the outhouse system in practice; I would personally rather dump a shit or pee bucket every so often rather than constantly trying to keep a porcelain throne clean in my house. A composting toilet never clogs. A well-placed outhouse is quite private and pleasant to use. And the more I know about living systems, the more absurd it seems to flush our waste into our water supply.)

  • The Arcata Marsh and wastewater treatment facility rocks. I need to get up there to visit this; this constructed wetland is a well-known birding destination.

  • Flow form fountains - allow the water to meander in a natural way; can help with water cleaning. These are beautiful; I've since seen one in action at OAEC and it's mesmerizing.

  • There is a pattern of civilization collapse related to topsoil depletion. Deforestation leading to desertification is also very typical in civilization collapse. The 1955 book Topsoil and Civilization by Vernon Gill Carter and Tom Dale laid this out in detail.

  • Soil: Starhawk gave us an amazing introduction to this rich topic. Highly recommended for further reading: Elaine Ingham. The Klebsiella planticola controversy is scary and hard for me to understand completely; This page seems to give both sides a voice.

  • Starhawk: We inoculate children with reading, writing, arithmetic, but they grow up not understanding ecology. Bill Mollison: "Evil is stupidity rigorously applied."

  • Water: 70% of the surface area of the earth is water. By volume, only 3% is fresh water. Less than 1% of the earths water is available to us and not locked up in ice in the poles and glaciers, or in extremely deep groundwatner. Half of that 1% is currently polluted. There is a finite quantity of water, but you might say infinitely available because it's cyclical.

  • Basins Of Relations: A Citizen's Guide to Protecting and Restoring Our Watersheds written by Brock - great booklet.

  • What is a desert? If evaporation is greater than precipitation, it's a desert. (If these two are equal, it's a Mediterranean climate.) If we use water in a way that evaporates it (or manage soil with the same result), we create deserts.

  • California is the most hydrologically engineered place in the world.

  • Ogallala Aquifer - underlies the Great Plains; filled by the Pleistocene glaciers (last ice age; studies of water samples have indicated that some of the water has been here for 20,000 years). Being depleted at an alarming rate.

  • The Green Revolution could only happen with a corresponding and silent "Blue Revolution" -- we're mining our fossil water. At current rates, we'll be asking for twice as much water as we do now.

  • Desalination methods are typically petroleum-fueled. We must think in terms of Appropriate Technology.

  • Andy Lipkin, Tree People, and Los Angeles: there's enough rainfall to provide 50% of their water needs.

  • Water testing: there is no overall test for everything. When you pay for a water test, you have to specify what you're testing for.

  • Usually get about 600 gallons of water on 1000 square feet with 1" of rainfall.

  • When you cache water off your roof, the materials of the roof will contribute to what's present in your water supply. Vinyl or plastics? Wood shingles with fire retardants. Heavy metals like cadmium? Baked enamel on steel very good; expensive but long-lasting; glass also very good (cache off greenhouse?)

  • Water tanks might be used as thermal mass to hold heat. Ferro-cement tank has very high embodied energy (every pound of portland cement requires three pounds of carbon emission to produce), but might be a very high use of this material.

  • Adapting demand. How much do you need? 50 gallons per person per day?

  • 20% of the electricity we use in this state is used to pump water. 30% of all natural gas is used to heat it. "Watergy"

  • Strategy for caching water on the land: Slow it, Spread it, Sink it. If you want to save a watershed, start at the ridge line. Swales can help put water into the well. Ponds for short-term water storage, swales for long-term.

I'm about half-way through my notebook now...

I never did finish typing these notes up...