Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Revolution in Fence Design

Something I do read when I read my books is to turn the page corners over on pages where I find interesting passages or thoughts. Then, when I reread the book, it amuses me to try and re-find what had previously resonated with me. The other day I was once again reading Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when I came across not only a bent corner, but an underlined sentence, “ When you live in the shadow of insanity, the appearance of another mind that thinks and talks as yours does is something close to a blessed event. Like Robinson Crusoe's discovery of footprints on the sand." I can't say if this is true or not. I was likely just being hopeful. In reflection though, I think I felt a bit like this when I first found the permaculture design manual while browsing the stacks at the London Public Library. Before you start lowering my coolness factor by a few notches, I'll have you know that I am permanently banned from this library, as I believe is my brother. In any case, the information and philosophy of the book seemed to make so much sense to me; it was like I found something that I didn't even know I was looking for. So they live happily ever after right? Not really. I think that being a permaculturalist in our type of society and civilization can make you feel isolated from the masses. It is probably the same in any type of movement that wants to totally reconstruct society along different principles than it is currently following. And the further down the path you go, the more estranged you will feel. Of course you are regarded as the crazy one for wanting to design something along sustainable ecological principles instead of living as if we have unlimited renewable earths (which is totally insane). Ah, to be able to take the blue pill of the Matrix… T’would be so much easier. Once you know though…

Alrighty, this blog was supposed to be about building a fence. Hopefully it will tie back together with my rambling introduction in the end, if not oh well. In permaculture, a fence is not, CANNOT simply be a fence, as that would mean no stacking of functions. Let’s backtrack a bit so I can explain a bit more about what I mean and give you a glimpse of the permaculture design process. First the problem: the western edge of our property faces a road and offers a perfect view of our yard to anyone passing by and to our neighbors across the street. Don't get me wrong I like my neighbors, but I also like to do tai chi and yoga in the backyard and it can be a bit unnerving when there is an audience. So the main function of the fence, as defined by the problem, would be to block the view to give us some privacy. I could of course buy some lumber to make it but then that brings in the problems of cost, chemicals in pressure-treated lumber, and the destruction of forests, etc. Luckily, because of my policy to try to not export nutrients and material from the property, I still had a huge pile of branches from two trees that took down this winter to make room for some full sun garden beds, as well as some fruit trees (you have to break some eggs to make an omelet). Free indigenously grown building materials! Furthermore, instead of a single function fence, why not use the branches to make a trellis for the vertical gardening of beans, peas, cucumbers, tomatoes, morning glories, et cetera. As a bonus, the wall would be situated behind the kids’ “restaurant” that is located under a weeping mulberry, which I have previously written about. It will further define their restaurant area and give them something to munch on as well. Nothing like a living living space for the kids to play in. So, instead of a consumptive single observation barrier, we would have a multi-purpose observation barrier/trellis/wall/food system. That is what I mean by a stacking of functions.

Many hands make light work so I asked my son if he wanted to build a garden fence with me. He said, “I'll help you with anything you want in the garden Daddy.” Music to my ears. He asked what we were going to make the fence out of and I pointed at the massive, inter-tangled branch pile and said, “Some assembly required,” which he found pretty funny. There was nothing really difficult about making it. We dug holes and placed upright delimbed branches them with a bit of cement to make them more stable and then affixed horizontal branches using rope and square lashing. I found the instructions for the lashing I on the internet. The bed around the trellis still has to be dug and/or mulched, but that can wait until next weekend.

Most of the reactions the fence have been positive. My kids like it, my wife likes it, even my sister-in-law likes it. I even had a couple stop along the street while I was making it to tell me that they liked it and that I should check out their parent’s garden. However, a friend of mine commented on a picture of the fence I posted elsewhere, “Is that to keep the neighbours’ kids out of your pumpkin patch??....I’m scared just looking at pics of it....oopppsssss.....sorry Deb...I wasn't supposed to say anything about Paul's garden....” (Deb is my wife and he was referring to how she often doesn’t like my ideas I imagine). Of course he was just teasing; we are always ribbing each other. I do think though that even though he was joking, it does highlight some of the underlying views that people have about my style of gardening and ecological landscaping design, i.e., it is off-the-wall, so to speak. Thus the tie in to the beginning of this blog, something that can make me feel more at one and inline with nature can at the same time make me feel estranged from society. As for being scared, I agree with them. The fence/observation barrier/trellis/living wall/vertical garden is only the TIP of the iceberg of what I have planned. And the plan calls for a COMPLETE restructuring of civilization, if it is enough to only restructure it, and that IS scary. One way to pull it all down is to start growin’ your own. Why would growing your own food be a threat to society? Because it is free, for, as Daniel Quinn says, our civilization cannot have free food, if it were free, who would want to work?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Paul Jasinski’s Foundation Books

The other day in an earth science class that I was teaching I mentioned that there are a number of books that I regard as my “foundation books”. These are the books that have shaped (or confirmed?) the way that I look at the world, how I interpret it, and how I respond to it. Some people in the class wanted me to post a list of the books. For better of for worse here they are:

Ishmael – An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit, Daniel Quinn
The Story of B, Daniel Quinn

What makes Quinn’s books interesting is his ability to step back and see things that we are so immersed in that they seem to be the natural order of things. He is like an alien anthropologist examining the earth and its inhabitants. These books deal with how and why our culture is destroying the world. Ishmael has a really interesting take on the Garden of Eden creation myth and how it ties into what we call the agricultural revolution, one that really makes sense. Another important point is that it is not humanity that is flawed, but our civilization. There is a difference between the two.

It think Daniel Quinn’s other books are better written that Ishmael but I would still start with it, as it is a quick read with some really deep concepts. The Story of B expands on these concepts in a much better literary fashion. All of Quinn’s books have something to offer.

Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond
I like this book because it is kind of scientific parallel to Ishmael and deals with how civilization has developed over the last 13 000 years. He discusses the preconditions that were necessary for the agricultural revolution and why it didn’t happen in other areas of the world.

Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond
I think it is kind of funny (well not really funny) how our society seems to have an “it could never happen to me” attitude to disasters and cultural collapse. There have been many societies that previously flourished and then collapsed due to combinations of climate change, resource overuse, and a lack of societal response to warning signs of an upcoming disaster. This book provides several examples of these collapses. It is a good follow up to Guns, Germs, and Steel, which focused more on the build up of civilizations.

Shovelling Fuel for a Runaway Train: Errant Economists, Shameful Spenders, and a Plan to Stop them All, Brian Czech
A great book looking at economics from an ecologist viewpoint (and there really is no other way if you want to have a planet to live on). This book basically says something simple: you can’t have unlimited growth on finite resources. He argues for a zero growth or steady state economy. Besides linking the economic and ecological systems, he also discusses how changes in societal perceptions and choices could help overthrow our current system. What would happen if rich people, instead of being looked upon as powerful and successful, were regarded as wasteful and as resource/Earth destroyers? What if this was part of the “mating game”, where people did not want partners that were rich because they had an understanding of what this actually meant to the Earth and the rest of society? Well, for one, I would likely be a hell of a lot more popular.

Permaculture – A Designers Manual, Bill Mollison
Switching to the applied and practical, permaculture is a design system for constructing sustainable (i.e., can survive (and thrive) through time) human settlements and agricultural systems that use principles derived from observing natural systems. This is the classic permaculture “textbook”. Even after having it for years I am always finding new stuff in it or reinterpreting things that I have already read before. The key point of this book is the word “design”. Let’s design something that works. Right now our systems are not working and they don’t seem to be led by design. Also key in this book is The Prime Directive of Permaculture, which is, “The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children”. What would happen if all of our decisions and designs were shaped by this directive? Get this book and start designing and implementing a positive, sustainable future.

I also suggest reading David Holmgren’s books including Permaculture – Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Holmgren is the co-founder of permaculture and offers a bit of a different viewpoint. The Earth Care Manual – A Permaculture Handbook for Britain and other Temperate Climates by Patrick Whitefield is another good book. In fact, I think you should read them all.

Gaia’s Garden – A Guide to Home Scale Permaculture, Toby Hemenway
This is the book that I would have liked to written. It is permaculture at the garden scale and shows how to design a garden that mimics natural systems for maximum outputs and minimal inputs. Learn about no-dig gardening, polycultures, garden layers, importance of biodiversity, edible weeds, garden guilds… A must have for any gardener.

The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming, Masanobu Fukuoka
This book outline’s one mans journey from scientist to a sort of farmer/monk. He developed a system to grow rice and grains with no pesticides or fertilizers. While his methods would have to be adapted to other crops and regions, the point is that food can be grown in a sustainable, non-destructive manner. To me his philosophical outlooks are just as important as his farming techniques:

“If we do have a food crisis it will not be caused by the insufficiency of nature’s productive power, but by the extravagance of human desire”.

“And the scientists, no matter how much they investigate nature, no matter how far they research, they only come to realize in the end how perfect and mysterious nature really is”.

So these books (along with perhaps The God Delusion and Zorba the Greek) pretty much sum up my viewpoints and perspective of the world. It should now be pretty easy to figure out my motives for wanting to transform my yard into an urban garden and why I don’t really care what the neighbours may think (in fact, I would argue that those who are not urban gardeners are either not thinking or are simply uniformed). As always, I am interested in hearing your thoughts and views on these books or the subjects contained within.