Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Part one: Permaculture Principles

This is part one of a series introducing permaculture to our readers who may not be already familiar. Permaculture is a term you'll hear kicked around here a lot... and in my experience it tends to raise eyebrows when I take it somewhere new. The term was born in the seventies to two Australians (shout out to Australia) and it's a portmanteau (some of you may be familiar with my love for the portmantau) made from “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture.” Essentially, at its modern iteration, permaculture refers to a sort of loose association of philosophical approaches to gardening, agriculture, and human settlement in general that uses natural ecosystems as a model for effective design of human settlements. Not to get too deep or philosophical here, but much of the history of western agriculture, by contrasts, strives to sort of wrangle nature into order and keep everything in line by isolating variables, etc. Instead of dominating, permaculture puts humans working alongside nature, or, to take the line of thought further...
“We are nature, working.” -Penny Livingston Stark 

The pivotal example often given is the forest- no one has to plow the forest or fertilize the forest or weed the forest. It's a integrated, self-sustaining system. So the idea is to great productive human landscapes that integrate our activities with the natural world.

At it's core, the ethics of permaculture are care to for the earth, care for people, and a commitment to sharing the surplus. Through careful and long observation of natural systems, folks have outlined some of the guiding principles that we can perceive in nature's design process, and we list them and call them permaculture principles.

 1. Relative Location Each site or landscape presents its own unique opportunities, needs, and challenges. We have to design for the site, not for ourselves. Start with the site.
 2. Stacking functions Each element of a natural system performs many functions... for example, a small pond may provide water storage, fish habitat, animal habitat, niche plant community habitat, and create microclimates and edges.
 3. Each important function is supported by many elements Building redundancy into the system provides backup plans for each function- minimizing maintenance and input. For example, the important task of water preservation and storage may be served by water stored in the ground table, a pond, a rain barrel or cistern, and the well.

 4. Conservation of energy I won't call nature lazy, but you definitely won't catch her carrying water uphill. With this principle, we're taking into account zones: which reflect human usage (not putting herbs you want to cut for each meal at the far end of the property) and sectors-factors in the landscape, like sun exposure, slope, the behavior of water, and using these factors to your advantage rather than trying to change them.

We'll cover four more principles in the next post.

Note: These photos were taken at Bear's Den in January. I'm now in Burkina Faso in a very different landscape...so this is a sweet little taste of home.

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