This post is potentially (depending mostly on available time, internet connectivity and motivation to write) a first in a series where I will try to call upon some metaphors from the world of Yoga in my attempt to make sense of permaculture. Nothing would please me better then being able to add a link to the word permaculture to a resource that would provide a simple explanation of it – but I haven’t encountered such a resource nor do I believe one exists. My attempt to make sense of permaculture is leading me on a path of learning that is shaping my own personal perspective and understanding of it. I can only recommend that if you too are interested in it you do the same.
There are diverse aspects to permaculture as it is a life-encompassing approach and the one I am most preoccupied with at this point is growing food. Though that can come across as a somewhat primitive term – it is the only one that works for me right now. Agriculture, farming, gardening are all fairly loaded with preconceptions and assumptions that need to be mitigated. So “growing food” is the most precise description I can offer. Specifically I am focusing on plant-based food – since (a) we eat primarily vegetarian food; (b) we are less inclined to growing animals for food; (c) our neighbors are more inclined towards growing animals and we intend to collaborate with them.
There are two key concepts which have completely revolutionized my approach and understanding of working land for food. The first is that the most important long term product grown is fertile soil. Everything that grows from the ground depends on soil fertility so the highest priority is to develop an approach in which soil fertility is constantly maintained and, where possible, improved. The second concept is that short-term plant food yields that we as humans consume are actually just the leftovers that remain after soil fertility is achieved. This is almost in complete opposition to common agricultural strategies where soil fertility is sacrificed for maximized crop yields.
Yoga as a Framework
With these two concepts at hand I find myself flooded by options and information on how to grow food. My challenge is to sift through all the information and bring it into context of our life: our resources, our needs, our climate, etc. But so far I’ve been overwhelmed by the flood of permaculture information. I believe is it due to the fact that I don’t have an existing frame of reference to relate to permaculture: I am not a chemist so nitrogen and PH levels do not mean much to me and I am not a gardener so plant species and names don’t mean much either. What this means is that there is no way for me to organize and retain all the information.
That was until I found that I do have a framework. I have been identifying common modalities that I know from my Yoga studies and that seem to be aligned with permaculture. Since Yoga philosophy is rooted in Samkhya philosophy and Samkhya is a metaphysical description of existence … it makes sense that the two should resonate well. So … what follows is my attempt to make sense of permaculture.
Modes of Practice: Recovery, Preservation and Intensification
The first model that came to me as I was trying to make sense of permaculture was the modes of Yoga practice. This model outlines three modes or applications of practice: recovery, preservation and intensification. It is a teachers responsibility to properly ascertain the mode of practice best suited for a student and then to offer a supporting practice. If a student is, for example, recovering from illness then a therapeutic practice is called for – it would be unwise to introduce a higher intensity practice. If a student is, for example, in great and steady health, then a more challenging and intesifying practice can be applied.
Soil Recovery in Permaculture
A plot of land that has been traditionally farmed in cycles of fertilized, plowing, harvesting for large mono-cultures (large fields where a single crop is grown) is very likely depleted. It will have very little nutrients and biological life in it. It may be able to support (probably with the help of chemical boosters) undemanding crops at best – but not much more. This land needs to be recovered (physically and metaphysically). This soil needs to be rested and then gradually brought back to life, to an increased level of fertility where it can sustain diverse crops.
Soil Preservation in Permaculture
A plot of land that has been respectfully farmed with a spirit of permaculture may be in better shape. If it was used to grow mostly annuals (plants that need to be replanted every year) then it may be sustained with less effort using mulch (ground cover) and natural manures from farm animals. With proper crop rotation (replacing crops that were demanding of soil with crops that nurture soil) the soil can be kept healthy (preserved) and vital year after year.
Soil Intensification in Permaculture
If you’ve ever walked in a forest then you have witnessed first hand the potential of soil intensification. A forest can grow and expand indefinitely without any maintenance at all. Its soil is always naturally mulched by fallen leaves and it is always fertilized by animal droppings (the next time you are in a forest move the leaf ground cover and have a look at the beautiful and rich soil beneath it). It is never plowed or sowed – it is an autonomous ecological system.
Now imagine that your house resides near a small forest and that forest is dominated by plants (trees, bushes, shrubs, roots) that are edible and like wild forests it is a self perpetuating (planted with perennial and self-seeding plants) system that continues to maintain itself and regrow year after year. This is what forest gardens are all about – mimicking the dynamics of a forest to create a sustainable source of food that, once established, continues to grow and proliferate (intensify) year after year … so much so that most of what little maintenance is required involves cutting things back.
We are not eager to do much planting on our newly purchased land. We are grateful that it has been mostly rested (except for animal grazing) for many years – this means that it may need only a little recovery effort. We may be able to preserve it by gradually introducing cover crops and then next season begin establishing a forest garden.
The first step in working land is exactly that – working the land itself, bringing it to a sustainable level of fertility. You have to inquire about the history of the land, observe it’s current situation and then act accordingly. An incorrect assessment can lead to incorrect action and wasted effort.