Monthly Archives: April 2017

after the rains

Nearly 3 months, a quarter, a season now.

Weeks ago the leaves came out later than anywhere around us and everything changed completely.

Each leaf revealed the surprise answer to our attempts at Winter botany. All the sudden, old friends get new names; and, all the sudden, there are hundreds of unnamed new friends just now showing up.

Pickle has been bathing in the creek. I didn’t think I ever could feel like I was bathing in something so shallow. Then, today the creek flowed with our five inches of rain like the ones I know from the mountains. I could hear its song more clearly than I ever had. Seeing it flowing so strongly is like seeing into another time in this forest; past or future, I don’t know. I yearn for the creek to flow more fully, even while knowing its gentleness is also its health. I have so much to learn about supporting the life of this creek.

The field where I hope to grow food survived the record rains, shining. The little channels carried the rain down to the little basin and on to the creek below. Working with water through a contoured garden feels profoundly freeing and life-giving.

I feel like fresh air is entering into the spaces between everything and that everything is only ever made of more and more spaces between the spaces between. I imagine this is how lichen feels.

Evolving Thoughts on Permaculture

I talk a lot about this movement called Permaculture. If it gives me no other gifts, it has transformed my life simply by bringing together the people it has. By running around using the p-word all the time, I meet plant people, healer people, poet people, animal people, appropriate tech people, community people, most of them closer to the wild margins of our world than not, and almost always holding some living wriggling sprouting question in their day-by-day healing bodies.

When you go to join the official formal lineage of Permaculture as a movement, you take a Permaculture Design Course. For many students, it is transformational. Depending on the teacher, the place, and yourself, you can be taken apart and remade. In the twelve-plus days, you’re being filled with knowledge received through all senses on dozens of interwoven topics. If taught well, every topic is a holon containing the whole. For me, what I learned in fourteen days was more important than what I learned (and had to slowly unlearn) in the 14+ years of formal education because it primarily concerned what was real and meaningful in a world where we are separated from the earth, ourselves, each other. Receiving this knowledge, my hand flew through notebook after notebook, filling multiple books in just two weeks, writing and sketching as a frantic prayer to hold some of the soil of this new learning through the inrushing waters of life.

I have never gone back to these cherished notebooks. A year later, these ten thousand vital facts sit in a plastic file box somewhere. Meanwhile, one lesson from the class never leaves me. It sits in the center of my heart. It was there informing me when I walked away from my job. It is there each time I take a big leap to go change my whole life or a small leap to be radically honest with a friend. This lesson was not how to build a cistern or what the 12 Permaculture Principles are, but a talk shared one evening near the end of the course where a teacher sat down with us below the stars and told us, without slide or structure, a story of future weather.

I can’t tell this story of the weather here. It is a sacred story that can only ripple out from one heart to others in person beneath the darkness between stars. I can tell you how that story now is calling me to be curious again about what this Permaculture path really could be and what I can offer to it.

The last thing you do in a Permaculture course’s curriculum is a Permaculture design. You use all the skills you hopefully learned to understand the patterns of a landscape and its inhabitants and then, on paper, create a drawn design attempting to weave all the elements in a harmonious arrangement that reconciles, amplifies, heals the forces embodied there towards some aspiration of ecological reintegration. What this feels like at its best is like gently holding a blessed paradox; a poetic image where opposites dance into each other; the closing chord resolving the orchestra swirl big bang chaos of the Beatles’s Day in the Life: here it is, all working together, dissonance into abrupt reunion. What it looks like is a bunch of squiggles and circles on paper in different line weights in a rectangle and with some color.

If you practice Permaculture design for someone for money, you are usually delivering to them the paper (and of course, a lot of support and discussion, too). After you leave, they are primarily experiencing what this paper with drawings looks like. You hope that if they are one day lucky and determined enough to see this vision teased, sculpted, raised, and seeded into physicality from the living material of the land, then they will also get to know the harmony that went into the design, too; but this is not guaranteed by the long and expensive paper design process. Ultimately, Permaculturists at their best get to embody the harmony, hold the paradox, and be changed by their communion with the patterns of the land; and their clients usually are left with the design, the two-dimensional left-brain plan, the visually appealing way forward into something we can only hope approximates what is living in us when we set pen to paper at all.

This pattern is where some of my current questions about Permaculture come in. As far as I can see, Permaculturists, if they get to ‘do something’ with Permaculture, end up doing one or many of a few things:  they design, they educate, they work on their own place, or they find a way to have a livelihood from growing things. All of these ways seem worthwhile to me and are appropriate and usually land- and people-regenerative uses of the systems thinking of Permaculture; but when I think of that moment that transformed me, of that story of the weather, I glimpse a new deer track through the forest I have an urge to wander down a while.

What if the culmination of Permaculture for our clients / friends / neighbors / beloveds / selves wasn’t on-paper design at all, but the laying of the first stones of a lifetime path towards their own gnosis of the whole – their / our own awakening of them-/ourselves as all the land, plants, animals, fungi, waters, soils, and people of the place? What if we focused first on helping students to awaken to the deep life of the land – not separate from the deep life of themselves – inviting it through personal work seamlessly interwoven with ecological gardening and systems design to remake them, even if only for a time, as an extension of the land and its beings; on letting the vulture soaring above them in the field teach them how to see the field as a whole and themselves as an inextricable part of it; on feeling the dryness of parched soil as the dryness in their own mouths begging for moisture relieved by rain entering a keyline; on linking themselves in an unbroken circle flow of nutrients by fertilizing the land with their own composted waste after a feast from the same land; on letting them discover the tears they didn’t know they have been too numb to cry by learning to feel where and how and why the land is suffering?

The other day, I was meditating by our creek. I was so curious why I was feeling so distant, so shut down, so distracted, checking the news daily against every intention I’d set not to, only half-living this life I had been praying to live every single day.

When I sat in silence and birdsong with this curiosity, what came up was a sunken river of grief. I was aching with subterranean sorrow for our world, but I was too far away from myself to cry. I stayed with this feeling with curiosity, and then something else came to me: you need to help the land cry.

A week ago I’d discovered that the Milpa field I work in has a very high water table. When I did a test dig for a possible charcoal trench, I struck water. When the rains came multiple days in the week, all the low places between the first garden beds filled with water. The water stayed. I was ecstatic and afraid. There was certainly enough water, but maybe too much. I thought about chinampas style agriculture, about ponds, about working with the water. The water didn’t go away. It stayed and stayed, and it led me to the feeling – not thought – that the land needed to cry. The need wasn’t separate from my need. The body of the field is my body and we were already woven together as one so much more than I had consciously known.

That day, the motivational slump I was in shed completely. Mostly with just a grub hoe, I dug channels all over the field from where the water was pooling down the hill. I invited it to move, to flow, to let go. I sang as I dug, feeling limitless energy to move the water through the soil. I got down with my hands in the ecstacy of wet clay covering my arms and hands, the scent of it, the coolness of it. Trickles of sandy water and trickles of clay water met in a dancing harmony of mingling fractals: the pattern of the harmony of opposites, joining to move downhill – to cry.

I didn’t shed any tears that week, but something changed. I’ve been finding it so easy to motivate myself to work non-stop. Something brought me home. The next week, when I sat in stillness with myself, I could see an image behind my eyelids of water gently washing over me and around me. I saw myself as reeds being bathed in estuary flows, gently being cleaned and cured – and the next day my buckwheat, having cried away its pooled water, sprouted its first precious leaves. The healing of the land is the healing of ourselves. Care for the land is care for ourselves.

As systems thinking, Permaculture is always about perceiving and integrating the whole. For myself and others from my cultural background, we never know what it is to be whole. We reject people, groups, whole cultures outright. We name some plants bad and some plants good, some dreams bad and some dreams good, some feelings bad and some feelings good. We struggle daily with addictions, self-judgement, aggression, and mediated disconnection all to avoid experiencing the terrifyingly beautiful wholeness of ourselves.

Permaculture follows from the assumption that we can learn everything we need by observing and interacting with forests, rivers, meadows, oceans. I’m wondering, then, if one of Permaculture’s greatest possible outcomes for some of us is the offering of a powerful way apprentice ourselves under natural systems for reweaving ourselves into the whole that the exiled places in us are patiently waiting for us to become again so that we may then begin to seat the whole of that personal ecology within communal, cultural, and greater biological wholes – all the way up to relearning, re-experiencing we are a planet, and we are a whole whose known boundaries are the cosmos.

When we relearn from beautiful wild complex ecological systems that we ultimately are beautiful wild complex ecological selves, we will be endlessly more able to heal, love, or even recreate from a parking lot the beautiful wild complex ecological systems yearning to be in all of our surroundings and in each other.

If I read a book about designing water systems, I can better help water move through the landscape; but when I remember I am the rain, then I am the rain welcoming itself, healing itself, drinking itself, quenching itself.

Chaos Rabbit

Sponk is a chaos rabbit.

Sponk on left

Most rabbits I have lived with are the perfect pets. This is a secret few people seem to know. Rabbits hop around being bunnies. They make you laugh constantly. They have completely unique personalities, proclivities. They poo where you’d hope they do (and then you have finished compost to use where you want). They sometimes give you little kisses. They make absurd shapes. They flop and yawn and play with things and snuggle each other like snuggling bunny calendar bunnies. Bunnies are an adorable and enduring part of my life and it is good, and almost all bunnies are easy; then, there is Sponk.

Sponk is a reminder of primordial chaos. He is a young bun who behaves randomly. Nothing is that Sponk cannot return to compost. All is futile, says Sponk. Sleep is futile: he dances loudly at 4am, hurling his body into little explosions, throwing cardboard boxes in the air, chewing the supports of the loft bed above him that you are sleeping on. Possessions are futile: he finds them and eats them. Anger is futile: you want to be mad at him after not sleeping and finding he destroyed your permaculture maps, and then you see how absurd his shapes are and how he’s a big baby.

Sponk returns it all to zero and then takes a nap. Good job Sponk. We love you.

Buckwheat and Experiments in the Garden

The first principle of Permaculture is “Observe & Interact.” The “interact” part is very important. My original plan for creating soil fertility in the 1/8th acre Milpa garden relied on creating charcoal out of the trees we cleared there in a big old dug trench. My design for the garden’s layout included determining where to put that trench for the charcoal burn; then, I dug and water slowly filled the hole. Not a good place to make a fire.

I’d been working in that field, observing and interacting, clearing and visualizing and planning; but until I dug that hole as a test, I had no idea the water table was so dramatically high. With this interaction, parts change; and when any part changes in a holistic design, the whole changes in relation to it, too.

Now, I’m going back to designing around the water. I’ll do my charcoal in an above-ground kiln, most likely. In the meantime, I’ve put some of the cut trees in the paths between beds just to make them walkable. I also tried a somewhat sloppy “hugulkultur” application into one of the beds, seeing if I can use that to raise the beds higher above the water table. I could focus on that approach more substantially, but I don’t want to dig that much.

the cardboard will be covered with layers of leaves; the hope is that it will suppress weeds and build soil for next year that can be scooped onto the bed to build it up further

After preparing three beds in the field, I finally started buckwheat cover crop. It made me so happy to sow them that I don’t really want to do anything for the next week but watch for signs of their emergence. These are only the second seeds I have put in the ground out here.

The first were stinging nettle seeds I sowed in a dozen places around the woods. These are far too helpful a plant not to have in abundance. Nutritious food, healing medicine, compost activator, soil amendment as green manure, and even source of fiber for making clothing. I planted them near, but not too near, the paths because they sting.

Yesterday, though, I planted cover crop. A happy constraint on not having irrigation water available is that you have to dance with the rain. When you put new seeds down, you want them to be watered soon. When you can’t get water to them, you need to time it such that the rain will follow shortly after. Watching the sky, listening to the wind, trying to time it right; this time, I finished preparing the bed and scattering the seeds seconds before the heavy rain came down. It was beautiful.

Preparing the beds, too: as the clouds purpled and rushed, as the birds collectively freaked out, as the wind pulled at my hat, I was out there with grub hoe and broadfork opening everything up, doing the broadfork two-step, opening the mouths of the soil for all the rain that would wash into it. At the end of the day – satisfaction. Seeds are in the earth getting watered in as I take cover. My life is with theirs, opening slowly, reaching up.


Yesterday, I finished inoculating my 20th shiitake mushroom log. Doing this without power means going very slowly, working in tiny sessions of battery powered drilling until the batteries run out. Then, they have to be charged at Pickle’s job, coffee shops, or friends’ homes.

At first it was discouraging, since we also have no way to refrigerate the mushroom spawn yet. I had a timer in my head saying: “we have one week to drill 40 logs or else all the spawn will go bad.” 4 days into that 7 day week, I’d drilled only 8 of them. A friend came by with a lithium ion drill and we knocked out 7 of them in a day – very encouraging. Now, I’m done with 20. The rest of the logs are Oyster and King Stropharia (which needs a chipper, not a drill, to make its substrate of wood chips).

I think about using non-powered hand drills to drill logs. Would this be crazy? It seems like so much more effort, and maybe the way to burn out on doing this. Our plan is to have 500 Watts of solar and soon, so realistically, we will be able to do next year’s mushroom logs with a power drill. This is great because other than cutting and hauling the logs, getting our batteries charged was the only hard part. As many others have discovered before, preparing mushroom logs is easy and satisfying. It is peaceful, tactile work. Soft mild smelling spawn, hot cooling wax, the assuring click of the inoculation tool. Brushing wax like sloppy painting, tucking in spawn, protecting.

Right now we buy our spawn from small businesses I feel OK working with, but I’m still curious about whether this could ever be something that begins and ends right in our little region. Could this be a seed-to-seed (spore-to-spore?) food for us in the same way that maize can be, or does it require a scale larger than this? Or, is the way simply for the shiitakes to naturalize here and begin showing up on their own, unbidden? Future generations, passing through and finding edible mushrooms they have no idea we helped to bring in; I dream of leaving something like this behind, just as acorns, hickories, blueberries, who knows how many others were left for us.

I have a loose goal now to start 10 more logs per year, perhaps focusing on less common edible and medicinal species like Lion’s Mane, Reishii, and others. We couldn’t afford to eat mushrooms every day, nor have as much medicinal mushrooms around as I would like; but working this way, we can have all we’d ever want. It’s another example of why living out here doesn’t feel like a sacrifice to Pickle and me. Living simple can mean eating wild mushrooms every day.