Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Vegetables for a Zone 6 Winter Garden

Seeing my neighbors walking down the sidewalk in t-shirts today, it's easy to forget that it's mid-late December. Especially when compared to the last two winters, which were some of the coldest on record. 

But it's also easy to forget that the last two winters were abnormal, at least in recent memory. In my lifetime in Michigan and Northern Illinois, we've had a white Christmas less than 50% of the time. 

And so long as there isn't snow on the ground, we can go outdoors and be greeted by some of our winter plant friends. Many seem to think you need a green house or hoop house to enjoy fresh greens in the winter, but it ain't so. In fact, even after having a good snow cover a couple of times, there are a whole cadre of over-wintering ephemerals and early spring ephemerals that only appear in the cold months, and they're some of the best!

So, here are some greens we can grow and forage to kick off the scurvy through the holidays.

Starting with some of the traditional vegetables, kale still looks great this time of year and in my opinion is at its sweetest after a snow. 

 This is a perennial leek, Babington's leek, but other winter leeks should look just as good right now. 

Arugula is also looking good still, though starting to get bitter. But harvesting young plants and small leaves still gives amazing gourmet salads. 

A wide variety of perennial herbs help spice up savory winter dishes. Sage is great with winter squash recipes. We're still making "Delicatta fries" with oil (or butter) and browned ssage sauces, and we'll soon move on to Butternut and Seminole pumpkin, sauteed with sage and turned into a pasta sauce.

A wide variety of thymes are also still helping out in egg dishes and soups. 

Our perennialized patches of garlic are producing greens this time of year and can be dug when the soil's dry for fresh garlic bulbs. An absolute farmhouse delicacy. 

Blood-veined sorrel and blue-stemmed Welsh onion. 

A crunchy cultivated purslane, Stella Minutina. 

Beautiful rosettes of endive, which were cut a month before to encourage fresh new greens over winter. 

Others endives were potted up and brought inside for a true gourmet vegetable, Belgian endive loaf, that sells for as much as $5/head at the store - if you can even find them! Blanched in a dark closet or basement, they produce crunchy green heads than can be grilled, roasted, or used in salad or pasta dishes. We like to use the crunchy spoon-shaped leaves as "dippers" for hummus or tapas dishes instead of crackers or bread. 

Deer stay away from the Evening Dame's Rocket, but I think it tastes better now than the Turkish rocket they've been feasting on. 

Turkish rocket is a bit hairy this time of year. Not my fave to be honest. 

Parsley is great in winter dishes. Next year I plan on growing way, way more. Bill Mollison says a sort of self-sowing permanant parsley patch can be set up so that you never have to do without. We'll plan on testing that out next year. 

Salad burnet is at its best right now, too. A nice cucumber flavor and a texture like pea tips. 

Egyptian walking onions are still producing green onions, and will continue to, even under the snow. 

Chickweed is going strong and reminds me of sprouts when added to a sandwich. 

Peppercress or shotcress is a great green that's a relative of watercress and gardencress. This time of year, it has a texture and flavor (and reportedly, nutrition) very similar to those two gourmet vegetables.

Speaking of, here's watercress growing in bowls of water on our window sill. A very economical way of producing winter greens that are very nutritious. 

Looks very similar to the wild cress. At this size, virtually indistinguishable.

A polyculture of chickweed, onion grass, cress and sticky willy carpet the forest garden this time of year. 

Young seedlings of miner's lettuce are just emerging and will be ready by spring. 

A few larger specimens are further along, competing here with dead nettle, chickweed, and motherwort (and a leaf of poison hemlock! One must be very careful when foraging.)

Sorrel leaves are tangy and tender this time of year. Unfortunately, the deer think so, too. 

The deer are also a little too fond of our campanula persicifolia, which is at its best this time of year. This one has been over-harvested by the deer.  

Dead nettle Vs stinging nettle. Can you tell them apart? The nettle stings and is just finishing it's growth cycle for the year. The Dead Nettle is a mint with no sting, and it's just starting its yearly growth.  Both are edible as a cooked green. 

Winter forest garden, looking pretty dormant to the untrained eye, but to the initiated, it's still a full-service healthfood store! 

Garlic and wild cress omlette with winter greens salad and olives. 

Tasty winter salad. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Designing Prosperity, Financial Permaculture and Harvesting Energy

Look at the diversity of life, the wealth and fertility of natural ecosystems, the beauty, the energy, vitality that nature has accumulated, generated and sustained over the ages, through cliamte changes, massive earthquakes and volcanoes, fridged ice ages, meteor collisions... 

For me, the generative power of nature is utterly awe-inspiring, so it was a major relelvation to think that we could harness that power and put it to work creating the kind of life we want to live, by modelling our livelihood on its wise patterns. 

Live in-tune with nature: Transform your life.

Like this:

And we can use models like this to transform life-sucking, decaying, "degenerative" human systems like this:

Into systems that are "regenerative" like natural systems, growing wealthier and healthier over time, like this:

And in so doing, live happier more fulfilled lives.

Two keys to making this transformation are 1) Identifying steams of energy we can catch, and 2) Identifying good places to store those streams of energy so that we can accumulate them.

So lets list a few potential streams of energy for a household economy. And lets be mindful that these same strategies can be used by individuals, families, communities or organizations. 

Conventional Income: These are mainly "financial," meaning they give you energy in the form of money, which is particularly useful in our society. These include jobs, home businesses, inheritance, investment dividends (those these are very rare today) etc. 

Saving: Meaning "not spending." A penny saved is a penny earned. But better, because you don't pay taxes on it. The only problem is that the potential growth of this energy stream is relatively limited and subject to the "law of diminishing returns." This is because in our society, for most people basic costs are somewhat fixed. I know few people who can thrive and create a regenerative, resilient life in North America on much less than $10,000/year.

That means if you start your Permaculture journey with expenses around $50k/year, your potential Return on Investment (ROI) from savings is around $40k. 

Now, if you can put 20 or even 40 hours/week for 1 year into creating hacks, systems or solutions that earn you $40k/year tax-free indefinitely that's a pretty fantastic ROI in anybody's book!

But once you get down to $10k of expenses/year it gets harder to find fat to cut. You could put the same 20 hours/week in and your maximum yearly ROI is probably a few thousand dollars at best. So the ROI of energy and time put into "saving" diminishes as you get better at saving (and as your income goes down.) 

So, the "financial experts" are just being a bunch of clueless, privleged a-holes when they tell a family of 3 making $30k/year that they just need to "save more." People with already low expenses or incomes should put less time and energy into saving and more energy into harvesting more diverse energy streams with a higher ROI. 

And this is why some of the standard advice that many Permaculturists and homesteading experts is misleading, too. 

The practical take-home is that if you're on the top side of that equation with a high potential return, then look for high ROI opportunities to save money, such as low-maintenance edible landscaping, sharing housing expenses, and home energy improvemments. If you're already frugal, maybe it's time to start spending money on things that will generate more energy streams.

Setting Limits: This is Permaculture's original third ethic (it's contantly being changed by everybody) but it's also an important source of energy that we can literally capture and put to work for us. This is probably the second most important energy source to understand, and is ENTIRELY differenent than the perspective of "saving," not spending, or cutting expenses. It has a virtually unlimited potential ROI.

If you're basing your happines on achieving the goal of making $10,000,000/year, and you decide you'd be equally happy with $50,000, you just saved yourself $9,950,000 a year! Ha! More importantly, you freed up a lot of time, income, willpower and energy that you can reinvest into more regeneartive activities.

But far more important than that, setting limits IS building measurable wealth in a tangible way. 

Social scientists have found that when people in most human communities are asked to spontaneously  rank people in their communities by their "wealth," they always put the financially RICHEST members of their community at the very bottom, along with the chronically diseased and homeless. Our art and literature are filled with such archetypes of the "miser," the rich-but-miserable, clinging to meaningless hoards for their own sake. Setting limits allows us to cultivate REAL wealth while avoiding investing our money in misery.

In the broader societal context, how much of wealth could be "freed up" by setting reasonable limits, that is currently wasted on such meaningless misery as making misers more miserable?  

The take-home is to set limits for ourselves. We need to decide what would really make us happy and stop: "spending money we don't have on things we don't want to impress people we don't like," to quote Chuck Palaniuk. 

Social Dividends: Yeah, your neighbors liking you is an energy stream you can capture to get work done, for example, keeping their dog Buddy's doo doo out of your salad garden. In the Permaculture literature, we typically call this social capital. 

The good news is that humans are inately good at building friendships and forming communities, so we don't have to spend too much time thinking about it.

The bad news is it comes with three big problems. 

Firstly, thinking about it too much makes you an A-hole. Some Permaculture sources describe giving neighbors cookies and zucchini to "pay" for their help on your new fish pond. Anybody with such a transactional view of their social interactions is basically an A-hole. And they will likely be seen as such by their neighbors, which kind of works counter to the whole point.

Secondly: Nobody wants your extra zucchini. 

Thirdly, the biggest problem with this transactional idea of social capital it is that it's largely BS. Social capital is non-transactional. Social research just hasn't upheld this very rational view of social capital where you do stuff for people and therefore they like you. People are just way more complicated than that. 

As it turns out, the research shows that more often the exact opposite is true. When you do stuff for people, they're likely to de-value your contributions to them and they tend to respect you less. Meanwhile, when you can manipulate people to do stuff for you, they actually like you better. 

Because humans are basically insane and irrational.

Think of all those movies where the Jocks pressure the nerds into giving them their lunch money, cleaning their rooms and doing their homework for them. Do the jocks like and respect the nerds more? Noooooo. Instead, the jock gives the nerd a playful noogie and says "you're alright, looser" and it's the best day the nerd's had all month.

So back to problem one: thinking about social capital too much makes you an a-hole. Also, it's a total bummer.

And yet, there are some smart, practical and ethical ways we can interact with the idea of social capital that are actually backed-up by social science research, and I plan on writing about those more in the future. 

But some basic advice is make diverse friends. Value people and generously INVEST IN EXPERIENCES with them. Don't try to buy friendship with transactions of good deeds or stuff. 

Loans: A lot of Permaculture people are really down on financing with loans. Me, not necessarily so. Especially when you cam use someone elses money at a very low interest rate. I'll write about this more later, but the big distinction throughout history has been that the prosperous borrow to invest in the means of production, paupers borrow to meet their needs. Often, the latter leads to forms of slavery. The former leads to wealth. 

So, when we borrow, we try to be mindful of using the borrowed money to invest in durable assets with a positive energy return. For example, we borrowed to buy our house, which is also a nursery and farm business which grows a large portion of our food and also a form of "regenerative" rental property.  When we purchased our car, we prioritized a vehicle that could be used as a productive asset to haul materials for our business and save us the money we were spending each month in rental fees. 

Chance: This is one of the most important streams of energy we can harvest, and possibly the most important to understand, yet it is seldom addressed, even in the Permaculture literature. 

While the downside of preparing for bad luck, resilience, is often treated in Permaculture, the scientific literature shows we can also learn to relate to chance in a better way and actually improve our luck. Which is good, because statisticians are finding that "luck" may be the #1 factor in determining the success or failure of most businesses and endeavors. Positioning ourselves to improve our luck can be one of the highest ROI activities we can invest in. Luckily, we'll be going into this in great detail soon. 

Culture: This is the stream of inherited knowledge that societies use to accomplish work. We position ourselves to "catch" cultural energy when we get edumacated, for example. Or when we write or recite poetry, or sing songs. We can take those streams of energy, sythesize them, improve them and then store them into useful (or not) forms. Like what you're reading now. (or not.) 

Gifts: Sure, getting them provides you with an energy stream, duh. But also giving them, if you're clever. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Give him a food forest garden and you'll feed him a diverse, healthy diet, make your community a happier, healthier place to live. We can structure our "giving" so that we can give freely and generously without an expectation of reciprocity, yet still obtain a yield from it. 

Living Assets: Speaking of Food Forests, they're the perfect example of a living asset that can catch energy from the sun, the wind, the rain, the soil, and transform it into goodies that can meet your needs, such as by feeding you. But living assets are usually also "generative," meaning they can be used to produce something to meet your needs, such as fruit. And they're also usually "procreative," meaning they reproduce more of themselves. In this case, a single diverse food forest should reproduce itself, in the form of plant material, almost yearly by the time its 3 - 5 years old. Such living assets are the key to harvesting sun energy and turning it into exponential abundance. 

There are a large variety of living assets one can invest in to set up powerful positive energy yields in their lives depending on their goals. The important thing is to match them to our goals and resources. Not everyone needs an agriforest, livestock, a fuel wood lot, or a fish pond. Everyone can and should have a forest garden, in my opinion.  

Natural and Ecosystem Services: You know, phsyics and biology and stuff. Gravity, for example, can do great things for you, especially if you want to go down a hill. For example, it can move water for free or help you transport mulch and firewood. Wind, sun, rain. Ecosystems can clean your water and air, heat and light your home. They can safely take and process your poo and wee. In Europe people have to pay to use a toilet. Just remember that. 

Anyone can begin to harvest energy from natural processes in a huge variety of ways: foraging, wild-crafting, making gifts and decorations from natural materials, making natural medicines, harvesting rain water....

Natural Succession: One of the most important sources of natural energy we can harvest. The best "living assets" are those which work with natural succession instead of against it. For example, a lawn is technically a living asset which is both "generative" (grass clippings for fertilizer) and "procreative" (produces seeds and plants to start new lawns.) However, to maintain it as a lawn, we have to contantly fight against the power of natural succession, which wants it to grow weedy and eventually become a forest, by spraying and mowing and cussing at kids blowing dandelions. Meanwhile, if our idea is to have a forest, all we have to do is stop mowing and we can harvest the power of natural succession, which will kindly transform our lawn into a rich, fertile forest for free. 

Trade and exchange: Great forms of energy we can put to work for us. Pretty self explanitory.

Am I missing something important? Help me out in the comments section.  

Next, we'll start talking about types of assets ("De-Generative, Durable, Generative, and Procreative") and forms of captial we can invest these energy streams into.  

Friday, December 11, 2015

Practical Permaculture: Catching and Storing Energy. And Fighting Vampires.

This is going to be a sensible, practical dispatch about making a living and learning to thrive in the modern world, but it starts with a journey into the deep, dark heart of the wild woods, under old growth forest, with cool, quiet air, the caw of a crow, and soft moss underfoot. 

Because this is one of the few places left that make sense in a modern world of "consumers" and "consumption," that seems to be doing it's darndest to consume all of us. Behind you now! Feel its claws on your shoulders? Do not look at it. Feel its breath at your neck? Hear the rumble in its stomach? It's toying with you - don't look! You would never see it anyway, because it's only in your imagination. 

And we wouldn't want to anger it. 

So, quick! Forget it's there. Focus back on the wood, the crow, the sound of cold water flowing gently over stones and sand nearby. We must travel to the heart of the Wildwood, to find imaginary allies to fight imaginary foes in an imaginary war, that - though it is only in our imaginations - is nevertheless heating the planet, polluting our waters and air, and killing us all. 


There's a reason why all the great saints and sages got their groove in the wilderness, as Robert F. Kennedy has pointed out. "The central epiphany of all wisdom traditions" according to Kennedy, happens on a pilgrimage to wild nature, whether it's the Buddha, Moses, Mohammad, Jesus, or take your pick of dozens of others. 

If you want to find the path to prosperity, the way to live a good life, you'd do well to look in the woods, or other wild ecosystems that naturally grow wealthier, more fertile, more diverse and more resilient over time. Ecologists and Biologists call this charactaristic of all living systems "negative entropy" or "negentropy." 

They are kind systems that prosper but produce no waste, have no need to exploit or abuse, or "export entropy" on to others in the form of pollution, oppression or war. 

Learn the wisdom found there in the wood, the patterns that allow ecosystems to generate increasing abundance over time, and apply it to the human systems that are notoriously subject to entropy, decline and decay, such as our homes, buildings, cities, organizations and civilizations, and you're on the path to plenty, naturally growing wealth. 

Designing this idea of "accumulating prosperity" into our lives is a deeply sensible thing to do. 

And it's the central idea of Permaculture. And it can be applied to all the systems humans inhabit, whether they're tangible ones like a city or homestead, or invisible ones like a PTA or a co-op. 

From that perspective, the key to emulating this "negentropy" is to design human systems to catch and store energy the way natural systems do. 

An ecosystem takes energy sources and converts them into forests, which in turn take energy from the sun, from the wind, from water, and invests it in new trees, which themselves transform energy into more growth.... Nothing is lost, as animals eat the fruit and nuts, reinvesting that energy into living beings. Their waste fertilizes the soil and grows new plants, endlessly reinvesting the energy into more complexity, resiliency, diversity and fertility. 

(Food chain image thanks to: 


We humans generally make things in a much sillier way, like this:

(Note: "outputs" here refers simply to energy lost to the system.) 

If you spend more than you make, you've got a problem. 

A simple in/out linear "open loop" system. But since we live in a physical world tied to the destructive patterns of weathering, deterioration, and fashion trends, the costs of maintaining our cities, homes, etc. are always rising, meaning that to continue, the system must always be growing. But in a finite world, the outputs will eventually outweigh the inputs and the system will decline. 

Incredibly, we've structured our whole economy this way, including our corporations. 

This is because we are deeply silly beings with fantastically overactive imaginations, and we thought it would make life more fun and exciting if we brought all of our most horrible imaginary nightmare monsters into the real world in the form of "corporate persons," doomed to kill, ravage and mindlessly feed on the life energy of non-imaginary people and systems or else they violently implode causing massive amounts of destruction. 

Think about that, we've created LITERALLY imaginary beings, corporations, that only exist in the imaginations of people when they come together to play make-believe and say "we are Shell Oil," yet they can steal, pillage, murder, and destroy whole communities and ecosystems in the real world. 

Humans, huh? 

Since these imaginary corporate persons have to feed and grow and feed and grow or else perish, they have had to grow to take control over virtually every aspect of our lives. One wonders what else is left for them to grow and consume to stave off their self-destruction.... 

When we rely almost exclsively on corporate solutions to meet our needs, we end up with a system that looks like this: 

Obviously, this isn't a "sustainable" situation. It isn't even a situation that can be made "sustainable." It certainly isn't a situation that's good for our cities. And this isn't something our politicians typically talk about, but it's a pretty obvious cause for Urban Decay. In such an unsuatainable system, cities are forced to convert their shared assets into waste to further feed the hungry imaginary beasts. Re-label that smaller circle "declining nation" and you've got a good picture of our national situation in the US.

If you re-label it "my family," does it still hold true?  

The basic thing to understand is that these imaginary corporate persons are at war with us. They don't care about you, your family or your city. Being imaginary, they didn't evolve, so they do not have cerebral cortexes, or the handy mammalian adaptations like empathy and love that are found there. According to the very silly rules of the game ("laws") in which we made up these imaginary beings, they only care about one thing: converting your life energy into "profit" and growth. They are literally, legally required to only care about that one thing. If a corporation were to prioritize "not being evil" for example, it could be found guilty of abusing its shareholders, either in a court of law, which would give it an imaginary slap it on its imaginary wrist, or in the "market," which would rip it to shreds ruthlessly and feast on its bloody corpse. 

So, whether you want to save yourself, your family, your city, your country or the world, fighting off these imaginary, but very deadly, beings is a good first step. 


And so we find ourselves now at the heart of the wild wood. 

Cool air,
Scent of pine, earth and deep memory,
Utterly still peace thunders through the trees. 

Here we must blow the ram's horn, paint our faces with mud and make a strong tea of the moss and lichens. 

Wait and be very still now. 


The Green Man and Woman, the warrior ethos of forest, will come to tea. Together, they can teach us how to change the rules of the game, to recruit the help of powerful forces to aid in our quest: mother nature, biology, physics, practicality and sensibility. 

Sensibility is a stake in the heart to imaginary corporate monsters and the deeply silly day-dreamers who imagine them into reality. 

Practicality is a wreath of garlic.

The Green Man, the Green Woman, together draw a circle in the sand, to teach us a practical, sensible approach to redesigning our City system in the image of nature: 

Such a city, designed like an ecosystem, becomes insulated from the energy-sucking attacks from outside entities, be they corporations or other communities. The BIG change here, is that this city is structured to grow wealthier from within, instead of from the outside. It survives off of photosynthesis instead of predation, both literally and figuratively. It DOES capture outside energy sources, but it uses them to invest in building internal sources of wealth. Meanwhile, it limits losses to the outside, especially corporations, keeping this wealth and energy inside the system, and intentionally investing it into more assets that generate wealth. When we structure our communities in such a sensible way, we strike a death blow to the monsters. 

I told you, sensibility is a stake in the heart. 

The same applies to the household or individual economy. A conventional home economy looks like:

Conventionally, we focus almost exclusively on corporate solutions to life. We get make-believe jobs from the corporate system and do make-believe "work" helping it in its silly cruel game. If we can't meet our needs or pursue our wants with what it pays us, we look back to corporations for ways to meet our needs in less costly ways, cheaper products and services. Usually, corporations accomplish this by "externalizing costs onto ecosystems or other people" ie, pillaging, raping, murdering, causing climate change, and other monsterous behaviors, all in our names.

Permaculture invites us to redesign the home economy so that it also looks like the forest food web:

We'll be going into this in more detail soon, but lets look at a concrete example of "catching and storing energy."

Polls show over and over that most Americans these days say they are "living pay check to pay check." Money comes in from work, and goes straight back out in order to meet needs such as food, transportation and housing. In/out, a dead-end losing game. 

Instead, what if we take part of our yearly food budget and invest it in food, but in a way that also builds a permanent, perennial food forest system to catch and store energy for us. A well-designed food forest will pay for itself in the first year, providing as much food as would have been purchsed from the corporate system. And beautiful, edible landscaping is known to be one of the best home investments you can make, so it's like putting every penny you spend on your forest garden into the bank. It will add financial value to your home over time. But more importantly, it is a "generative asset," meaning it will continue to produce an increasing value of food for every year thereafter, decreasing the amount of money leaving your system and freeing up capital that we can reinvest. Eventually, it will likely produce an excess that can generate income or feed your friends. But a food forest is also a "procreative" asset, meaning it reproduces itself, creating more food forests that can be spread or shared with neighbors for a stronger community. A well-designed food forest should more than reproduce itself every year after 3-5 years, creating exponential growth in wealth! Show me any corporate investment with that kind of return. 

Similar approaches can be used to transform your housing, heating, transportation and virtually every "need" and want you're currently spending money on. 

Again, when we use such a life-enhancing, practical approach to living and thriving, we fend off systems that suck away our prosperity. We start investing our life energy into assets and systems that generate more weath for us and heal our community, instead of ones that simply exploit and steal from us. 

When we build communities on this principle, we finally have solid ground to stand on as we fight back against the vampires. More importantly, we create a model of a beautiful, meaningful way of living and that doesn't require us to make up hideous monsters in order to have an exciting life. 

Soon, we'll be going deeper into the details, as we travel deeper into the wood. What streams of energy can be put to work for us? What kind of regenerative assets and structures can those energies be invested in to create a better life? Will the monsters (us) get the best of our hapless heroes (also us) or can the Green Man and Woman help us win the day? 

(To be continued...) 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Spiritual Abundance

The Great Eastern Sun Rises over a Forest Garden

By Rachelle N. Yeaman, Guest Contributor

The word “spiritual” is going to put some (most?) folks off right away. We’re uncomfortable with it. Many of us are quietly afraid that permaculture won’t be taken seriously if it’s associated with tree-hugging nonsense. Only numbers can prove the importance of what we strive to do. Many of us have incredibly complicated relationships with the religions of our childhood, and whether we still practice or not, we don’t want to be preached at on permie blogs. And in any case, does spirituality really have any place in real conversations about real problems? The world is burning, people. We don’t have time for navel-gazing.

First, let me point out that two out of those three arguments are based in scarcity thinking. That’s a big, flashing sign that they’re bogus. The middle argument is valid; spirituality is a deeply personal thing. But I’m not here to talk about what to believe or even how, only about why we need to openly acknowledge and celebrate the importance of spiritual work, which I define as any belief, act, or process that allows one to find an innate sense of peace and a deeper connection with the world as a whole.

So, not only do we have the time to talk about it, but we have an imperative, as well. Humans are not by our nature logical or mechanical beings; to shame or even merely ignore one’s search for personal solace and worldly connection is to undermine one’s integral strength. And to do that is to reproduce everything permaculture strives to reverse.

In 2013, I attended the first Michigan Permaculture Convergence. It was a long weekend of project presentations, wide-ranging conversations, campfire stories, and excellent food. I had a wonderful time meeting great people and delving deep into interesting subjects. But by the second day, something that I had dimly noticed in reading the program became an important topic of discussion: all of the presenters were male, despite having a roughly equal male/female attendance, and in fact nearly all of the presenters were cis-gender white males, specifically, though that was less of a surprise because there was regrettably little racial or sexual identity diversity in the overall group.

There was no The Man running the show. The call for presenters had gone out to everyone, and the application process was relatively informal. The group that coordinated the event was at least partially female. And we were all self-identified permaculturalists; gender (or race or sexuality or age or…) wasn’t supposed to matter in these things.

So there was no point in looking for anyone to blame. The important observation was that, with the absolute best of intentions to the exact contrary, we had reproduced a white male dominated setting and conversation. Seeing that staring us in the face, could it be any real surprise that Michigan permaculture is also consistently racially homogenous, with a few happy exceptions?

We had a long conversation about the issue as a group. A few of us shrugged it off as a coincidence; there just didn’t happen to be any women who felt like presenting, obviously. Most of us were vaguely uncomfortable with the circumstances, but couldn’t really put voice to why. We talked about women in our culture often feeling that whatever project they’re working on needs to be good enough in order to be taken seriously, whereas men appear to have an easier time believing they can and should talk about whatever it is they’re doing. We talked about female communication often being different from the male-dominated cultural norm of what a presentation to a group of peers should look like. And we talked about a feeling that many of us work on projects with our partners and so had nothing of our own to discuss. None of these were answers or solutions, but they were a chance to air unspoken tensions and perspectives, a chance to re-evaluate the roles we play in the greater system.

How many of these unspoken tensions are staked through each of our lives? And how can we keep from encoding them back into our brave, new world if we don’t find them and reckon with them?

Unconsciously complying with and perpetuating hurtful cultural norms is something we do out of fear. It’s not the dramatic fight-or-flight kind of fear of meeting a bear in the woods. It’s the quiet, constant kind of fear that comes of predicting patterns and understanding cause and effect. Much as feelings of scarcity lead us to drain ancient aquifers to water geographically inappropriate crops and to dump fossil-fuel based fertilizers into dead and dying soil, scarcity of self-acceptance and power leads us to act against our personal self-interests in countless tiny, daily ways. It’s how the current system keeps going, with each of us doing our parts to legitimize it, whether that’s in denying our own power or in denying the power and validity of people who don’t look or speak like us.

Permaculture talks about leaving behind a scarcity mindset and then often skips on to abundance of food and energy and water. But yields and hectares and gigawatt hours don’t create abundance in human beings. As scarcity is a fear, abundance is a feeling of peace and connectionIn a culture of scarcity, we cannot find a sense of abundance without persistent, conscious effort. What will change if we don’t tend and respect the fertility of our own inner selves?

One’s spirituality is a deeply personal process that should only be discussed and shared to everyone’s own comfort level. But the concept of spirituality, the idea that searching for peace and connection is an ongoing and important work, should be one that has equal legitimacy to discussions of soil health and micro climates. As we reclaim skills and biodiversity, we must reclaim ourselves. Because every time we go out to our gardens or confer about new projects, we are creating the system in our own image.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Busy Production Day

Busy day in a busy season as we try to process and store as much of our 2015 forest garden yield as possible. Since we keep pretty busy, all the storing we do has to be really high-value, such as wines, salt and oil cured vegetables, and medicinal herbs, tinctures and teas. 

Today, that meant a marathon of drying teas and processing country wines. 

This was the first year we processed Valerian in any quantity, which was a treat, kind of like working aromatherapy. While I've often heard the root referred to as "musky" or unpleasant, I think it's wonderful. It has much of the same "cherry pie" aroma of the flowers, with a mysterious earthiness and just a hint of musk. We dried some for teas and used some for a tincture. 

We also had a variety of other previously dried herbs to process and store for the year.

And then there was the massive booze-athon. I finished bottling some of last year's Elder Wine, and then got started on bottling this year's ferments: more elderwine (one of our favorites,) a 2nd run Elderberry mead, apple cider, 2nd run apple mead, and fox-grape wine, another one of our favorites.

Using spent fruit to produce a "2nd run" mead has been a real revelation for us. The 2nd run elder mead was ready to drink after a month and was one of the best drinks we've yet brewed. Our 2nd run apple mead is spicy and rich, but could easily pass as a cider. 

I also dug and potted a few pots of Belgian Endive, a great winter vegetable that can produce gourmet greens in the basement. I strongly believe in maximizing the more energy-efficient and economical forms of winter production before investing in the more expensive and energy-intensive forms like hoop-houses. "Cellar forcing" vegetables in the dark doesn't require any energy input beyond digging them and throwing them in a pot. A variety of veggies can be forced, including chicory, dandelion, poke, and asparagus. We also potted up walking onions. The pots can be brought inside and placed in a window for scallions through the winter. 

We're also experimenting with winter herbs and watercress as low-input sources of greens. Watercress, in particular, seems happy in a window, and is considered one of the most nutrient dense greens you can grow. 

In terms of cost-effectiveness, all of these plants have thrived in our forest garden without any measurable care or inputs. Today, I probably bottled $300 - $500, worth of wines, which was probably the equivilent of $50/hour or better. Not bad for a hobby. With the other items figured in, we probably produced a value close to similar to the wines, perhaps $30 - $50/hour. 

But honestly, I wouldn't sell a bottle of my Elder Wine for $20, or even $50. The satisfaction and surprise I get out of turning my own fruit into delicious wine - I can't buy that. And that's the kind of value that really makes farmhouse craft pay for itself. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Healing Ourselves, Healing the World

(This article is intended to stand alone, but is a continuation of thoughts started in "Civilization's Fatal Flaw,") 

I knew something was wrong, even when I was a kid, because I could see it.

I could feel that the old systems, the old ways of living weren't working for me, and I could see that the old maps would never take me where I wanted to go. Up ahead, the road was long and littered, with no destination in sight. My fellow travelers spoke of their weariness, their hopelessness, disconentment, disempowerment, like they knew in their hearts that there was no fitting end to their journey, no place on this path worth arriving. And yet they just kept trudging on...

But just off the road, I could see faint footpaths into the wood, into the wild. I couldn't be sure of where I'd end up. But I knew that to leave the road meant to start finally living.


Yeah, I'm resorting to poetic gobbledygook about a metaphorical road because these are things I felt long before I could understand them. Images and impressions I couldn't put to words. But I felt them to my core. I felt angry and disappointed that the system failed the people I loved. I saw the smartest, hardest working people I knew left in poverty while greedy predators were rewarded and treated like kings. I felt disconnected from nature, my food, my community and our past. I felt pessimistic about my future and the futures of everyone around me. It felt like the only way to thrive was to join the predators. I couldn't believe this was all "progress," the belief that is essentially our new modern religion. And I felt powerless to change any of it. 

When I discoved Permaculture that all changed. 


On the old road we've all seen community elders we respect lose their jobs, their careers, their savings - and it doesn't matter that they've worked their whole lives doing their part to keep this system running for the good of us all. In that situation, it doesn't matter that their families love them and their friends value them, the message from society is that their contribution is no longer needed. What they brought to society wasn't worth paying for or protecting. 

And it's crushing.

I've watched as we burned whole industries to the ground and wasted years of human life and capital, not to mention dreams and families, because the system didn't value experience and expertise.

On the other end, we've burned the youth away from a whole generation, and they'll never get it back. We've wasted the PEAK years of their productive lives, when they had the most time, energy, creativity, and idealism to invest in building the future. We've burned their youth as payment on our growing debts, to keep our colleges solvent, prison system profitable, our industries fueled with cheap lives and low-cost labor. Disappointment? 

"Would you like to super-size that?"

You stay on that road, you've got a good chance of getting burned in those fires again and again. It's not personal, or some conspiracy theory, it's just that we have debts to pay, as I described in the previous article, and burning off the over-complicated, over-valued, over-priced sectors of the "old" economy is the easiest way we can pay those debts. These large structures require unsustainable upkeep and no one can afford to pay the ever increasing costs, so we must convert the excess to "waste." Usually, this means, layoffs, centralization of authority, computerization. This has become so common it seems the most natural thing to us. "The new normal."

But even when we keep our jobs, we burn in this failing economy. 

In 2010, the Illinois Immigration and Refugee Conference funded a study to identify the biggest "problems" faced by refugees in the US, and found, as other studies had, that the number one problem was "stress." 


Life in the US was intollerably stressful compared with their previous homes. This was coming from people who previously lived in failed states, war-torn dystopias, threatened with starvation, persecuted by authoritarian regeimes. None of that was nearly as stressful as life in the US!

This should be shocking, but whenever I tell people this, no one is ever surprised, really. 

Because we all burn. With issolation. Disconnection from nature. Unsafe, unhealthy "food" that previous generations would have called poison, unfit even for beasts of burden. Epidemic levels of mental illness, depression, anxiety.

And we worry where the unfaltering trend lines of the last few decades will lead for our children. 

"How can we solve these interconnected problems? Change the system? Create a better world? It seems impossible! What does Permaculture say about this?"

That's the question from a reader that inspired this series of posts.  

The solution for us personally, for our kids and for our society is all the same: get off the old road, out of the old system. 

Take as many with you, show as many the way as you can. Together we can build new pathways to plenty. We can build new just, regenerative systems to meet our needs right underneath the old, destructive, suicidal ones as they crumble. 

Off the road is the only "destination" that matters, the only place left worth getting to.  

The key insight is that we don't have to wait for someone to save us. We don't have to work thanklessly against broken political structures. Why even bother to "fix" these old systems? Let them burn! Make them irrelevant. 

We can act now, joyfully, to build better lives and "be the change." We do so by redesigning our lives and the way we meet our needs. There are practical steps any of us can take to get started today. 


And your work finding your own path to a resilient, beautiful life is the greatest work you can do for the world. 

And in a culture sick with greed, discontentment and disappointment, your commitment to do regenerative work for your community and biome is the key to a beautiful resilient life. 

According to the old roadmap, life looked like a long road ahead, with a "goal" somewhere at the end, a house in the suburbs, a car, a corner office, a special title. We spend all our lives on the road, and when we reach our goals, we're usually disappointed to find there's just a new goal up ahead. It never ends and we never really get anywhere. 

But I'd propose a different roadmap, one that's cyclic, like this: 

With this new roadmap, we see that we can align our lives so that our personal work to build a happier more fulfilled life can make our community and biome a wealthier, more joyful, more resilient place. And our work to strengthen our communities and the natural world can be structured so that it reinforces our personal goals, building true wealth, increasing our security and helping us cultivate the qualities that lead to real happiness. 

Each act is its own goal, and each investment a meaningful end. 

"Enlightened self interest." 

As our personal weath grows, we invest more in our community and ecology, and as our community wealth grows, it can afford to invest more in us.

If we can structure our lives in this way, our lives become "super-fueled" with positive feedback loops that simultaneously benefit ourselves and our community.

Others can take up our model and our solutions. They strengthen us as they strengthen themselves and together we strengthen our communities. Even more become inspired to take up this model, abandon the old road.... 

This creates a whole different approach to thinking about our careers, livlihoods and needs. We become our own masters, designing and creating our own regenerative, mutually beneficial "systems" to meet our needs and fulfill our desires. 

And the first step is to start identifying streams of energy that we can start to "catch and store" into these community and natural "postive feedback loops" that will be the building blocks of those systems. And that's what we'll be exploring next.  


Hey! If you like what we do, help welcome us to the year 2015 by visiting our brand new Facebook page! That's right, we're finally on FB. 

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