Outside Inputs, Experimentation, and Self-Compassion

As I’ve written about before, my milpa farm experiment of gardening in the heart of the forest is an attempt to grow food without material inputs (other than seeds, tools, knowledge – all extremely important!).

For me, this experiment is important because we need to relearn how we could still grow food if we didn’t have access to fossil-fuel transported compost, manure, straw, rock phosphate, or even waste stream products like municipal yard waste or woodchips. Even more important to me was to be able to do this work without any fossil fuels used to prepare the fields, chip woodchips or shred leaf mulch, or using a chainsaw to clear the forest. If we don’t know how to do this, we may be unable to grow food one day. This is motivation enough, but I also believe in the ability to have this experiment teach me far more about how to tend the wild and work with nature than I would ever have to learn if I could just purchase and import solutions.

At the same time – this year, because of this slow approach and my lack of knowledge of limits, my plants did not produce food for us.

One of the vital Permaculture principles is Obtain a Yield. I obtain many yields from my milpa farming experiment: joy, learning, inspiration, wonder, beauty, healthfulness, but I do not yet obtain food. We find ourselves at the grocery store frequently and I find myself unable to feed the family, friends, neighbors, and community I love.

My sense of mutual indebtedness to all the beings that have so long supported my body and my heart has led to a longing of many years to simply feed others. It was so sad for me this year to realize I will not yet be able to do that and to understand that the milpa experiment, vital for the future and the way of farming I hope to ultimately rely on, may take a while.

Pickle is one of my main teachers of the profound arts of gentleness and self-compassion. She is also an avid and to me legendary harvester of the Waste Stream. Constantly on craigslist farm and garden section and neighborhood listservs, she deftly discovers abundantly available free or cheap resources to support our vision. Master of the Create No Waste Permaculture principle, she sees others’ refuse as something that can serve life instead of landfill.  If at any point I’d asked her, “Please help me find manure for the garden!” she’d have been able to track down enough to provide all the nitrogen the milpa could need in a day – but, I did not ask. This experiment is too important to me. At the same time, I was aching to produce food to nourish us and others and to begin selecting and saving seed for the future. What to do?

In an act that feels like the kind of peace-making synthesis that I am a student of, I finally decided to accept the reality of our scenario – i.e. it will take a few seasons for us to slowly generate the fertility we need to create food, but we also want to produce food right away – and find a simple pattern to harmonize these two seemingly contradictory facts. I have designed a “zone 1” garden close to the yome in which I will welcome waste-stream inputs. Yard waste, woodchips, even manure – if it’s free, organic, and in the right proportions, I will use it within the annual and perennial forest garden beds around the yome.

With this, I can already see a clear path to producing abundant food next Spring. Meanwhile, the milpa experiment will continue in the heart of the forest, slow and input-free, working only with what the forest itself can create, with me learning and responding to feedback from the plants and discovering how to grow food in this old and simple way.

I am a person who tends to feel the weight of the world and, because of my pain for all of our loss, I tend to try difficult and somewhat extreme solutions. My usual thinking is that enough people understand how to walk a middle-road; my role in our cultural immune system is to discover the marginal solutions that will make life possible when the middle collapses. I know this is part of my purpose and welcome it. At the same time, I am learning that the medicine for this way of being is to be gentle and kind with myself; to trust that slowing down and offering myself self-compassion, forgiveness, and ease doesn’t compromise the edge experiments I am working on but actually enables them.

To hold in one hand the help of all these in-this-moment available helps from the outside in terms of free nutrient flows to our deprived soil while holding in the other the awareness that these flows will not always be available and that we need to learn how to tend the wild from the wild alone heals my spirit. I love my fossil-fuel free milpa who is my greatest teacher and I love my simple beautiful easy waste-stream garden who can feed us as we learn.

The joy I feel looking at the ducks and geese playing in the truckload of free spent mushroom straw has been a gentle rain upon my heart.

bonus tip: if you also tend towards extreme solutions because of world pain, look into a tincture of Passionflower, Milky Oat, and Wood Betony from Medicine County Herbs or make your own.

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