There seems to be an emerging consensus that the choices we make around food, and thus agriculture, are important. That the individual decisions we make about food have planetary significance. These dietary beliefs are coalescing into words like conventional, organic, vegetarian, vegan, locavore and paleo. Each of these represents a different view of our collective situation and suggests how we might act if we wish to be of benefit to our world.
I’d like to begin with what I hope is an uncontroversial starting point, and then explore a little from there.
If humans want to continue to exist (in anything approximating our current population) we must provide for ourselves from within healthy ecosystems.
Okay, so what’s an ecosystem?
An ecosystem is a community of organisms living in a specific place. Ecosystems are dynamic and constantly changing. Species disappear and new ones arrive. Sometimes ecosystems “die” and sometimes ecosystems are “born”. Ecosystems can look like almost anything: a coral reef, a desert, or a forest.
Okay, so how do I know if an ecosystem is healthy?
The amount of life that an ecosystem can support indefinitely is called its carrying capacity. The maximum carrying capacity is determined by the resources and constraints of the place the ecosystem occupies (eg. sunlight, water, temperature, minerals, shelter, pollution, wind etc).
Ecosystems are healthy when the amount of life they contain matches the maximum carrying capacity of the place they inhabit. If the amount of life within an ecosystem is below the maximum carrying capacity and steadily decreasing — we can think of that as a “sick” ecosystem. If the amount of life is below the maximum carrying capacity and steadily increasing — we can think of that as a “healing” ecosystem.
Life within ecosystems is organised in complex food webs. As ecosystems heal not only will the quantity of life increase, but new species will arrive and new interactions between species will occur. As the complexity increases so does the quantity and availability of food. In turn, this will increase the carrying capacity until it eventually reaches the underlying limits of the place it occupies (eg. space, pollution, minerals, sunlight etc). This allows us to use complexity as an indicator of ecosystem health.
As ecosystems heal they increase in complexity. As ecosystems sicken they decrease in complexity.
To assess ecosystem health you need to have some idea of its carrying capacity. Imagine an exposed, rocky hilltop compared to a sheltered, warm river valley. At full health, each might have a dramatically different carrying capacity and complexity. This can be confusing because a healthy desert ecosystem might be less complex than a sickly woodland.
Okay, so why are healthy ecosystems important?
As ecosystems degrade, the amount of life they can support decreases. If there are more humans than the ecosystems of the planet can support, then eventually humans will die back to a population that the ecosystems can support. Since human population is projected to continue growing (at least for a few more decades), it would be sensible for us to focus on increasing ecosystem health. We are especially vulnerable because many of our industrial practices create pollution which further damages the ecosystems we rely on.
The focus of this article is about food, but humans require more than food from ecosystems. In addition to our needs for fuel and fibre, healthy ecosystems also regulate temperature, create rain, mitigate flooding, reduce pollution, pollinate crops, etc. These are sometimes referred to as ecosystem services.
In a broader context, anthropogenic ecosystem degradation is not a new phenomenon. Humans have been damaging ecosystems for millennia. Perhaps the first major shock began about 50,000 years ago as we started hunting most of the world’s megafauna into extinction. Then about 10,000 years ago, our early attempts at agriculture began turning some of our planets most abundant ecosystems into deserts.
One of the unfortunate realities of long-term ecosystem degradation is that every generation sees their degraded experience as normal. It’s hard to comprehend what was lost before we were born, let alone what was lost before our grandparents were born. For most of us, the loss over the last 50,000 years is unimaginable.
Despite this long history of destruction, there is also a long history of humans working skilfully within ecosystems. All indigenous people developed rules and culture which enabled them to partner with the ecosystems on which they depended.
Okay, so what does any of this have to do with farming and food?
At this point I hope that we can agree on two things:
that healthy ecosystems are essential to a future of healthy humans, and
looking at the complexity of an ecosystem is a way to evaluate ecosystem health.
Agriculture was developed on the floodplains of the world. The regular floods brought nutrient-rich sediment which makes floodplains some of the most fertile ecosystems on the planet. Most agricultural crops require ecosystems as fertile as the floodplains we originally cultivated them on. While carrying capacity and complexity can vary dramatically between ecosystems, when talking about agricultural ecosystems we can assume a degree of uniformity because the crops have similar requirements. By comparing the complexity of different agricultural production systems, we can get a sense of the ecological health they engender.
Below are some photos typical of conventional production. How complex are these ecosystems? How many species can you see?
Now let’s look at some photos of alternative production systems. How complex are these ecosystems? How many species can you see?
In both sets of photos it’s hard to see the climate, pollution, soil type, microbes, insects and the details of plant species. Even without those details, you can get some sense of their health and how close they might be to their potential.
All conventionally produced crops use a mixture of monoculture, tillage, irrigation, fertiliser, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Combined, these techniques kill soil microbes, cause soil erosion & compaction, cause drought & flooding, kill vast amounts of wildlife and poison our water. Sadly most organic food production is also destructive as it also uses monoculture, tillage, irrigation, fertiliser, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides (though the fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides are less toxic to humans).
When you buy food at a supermarket you are buying conventionally produced food. The amount of care and skill that conventional (and organic) food is produced varies tremendously from farm to farm.
While the amount of damage varies from farm to farm, the reality is that conventional production damages ecosystems no matter how much care and skill is applied.
That all sounds terrible, what’s the alternative?
The good news is that people have been figuring out how to produce food within healthy ecosystems for decades. The current catchphrase for farming systems which can also heal ecosystems is Regenerative Agriculture. However many farming systems have been developed with this intention. Agroecology, Permaculture, Forest Gardening, Natural Farming, Syntropic Agroforestry, Holistic Management, Analogue Forestry, and Biodynamics are some of the farming systems which attempt to produce food, fibre or fuel while healing ecosystems.
While there is a steady increase in numbers of acres under regenerative management, overall there are very few farms using these systems. In Western countries, adoption has been particularly slow. In part, because the increased complexity of these regenerative farms makes mechanical harvesting difficult (and the low cost of food and the high cost of labour means manual harvesting isn’t financially viable).
The good news is that we know everything we need to know to farm regeneratively. We aren’t waiting for a technological breakthrough, we aren’t waiting for scientists to figure something out. There are regenerative farms producing high quality, nutrient-dense food. And they’ve and making a good living doing it for decades.
What we are currently lacking is the political and social will to regenerate ecosystems on a massive scale. This is something that everyone can help with. Find your local regenerative farmers and buy as much as you can from them. Talk to your friends, coworkers and family about the importance of ecosystem health. Talk to community leaders and local politicians. After all, history shows that only 3.5% of the population is required to catalyse massive shifts in public perception and policy.
During those early months of Earthlight, there was a frighteningly long period where I had almost no idea what I was doing. These days your average grandparent knows more about computers and the internet than I did. Yet on the desk next to my bed, basked a Sun Microsystems SPARCstation. After a couple of months of slow progress, we made the decision to move into a basement office underneath Ruby in the Dust in the Octagon. Here we hoped that I could focus on the task at hand, and be alone with the terror of not knowing what I was doing.
Slowly over the following months, I learned. I learned to build a 286 from parts and turn it into a KA9Q router. I learned to build a 386 and turn it into a BSD terminal server. I learned about IP networking and how to connect these computers to the internet and hopefully, our customers. In retrospect what I did was only possible because of how ignorant I was. If I’d understood the magnitude of what was required, I would never have begun.
One of the ways I made it through those first six months was the kindness of strangers. Each day I’d try and solve another piece of the puzzle. Most days I’d fail. Most weeks I’d end up close to tears in frustration. And then something that still seems magical would happen. Sitting in the middle of the floor, surrounded by cables and components, someone would walk through the door. They’d ask if we were starting an ISP and I’d point to the mess on the floor and say I was working on it. We’d chat and I’d explain what I was trying to figure out and — they’d have a missing piece of information! They’d ask to use the keyboard for a moment, or for a piece of paper to explain something. One time a gentleman even went and bought me the missing piece of hardware. Over and over this happened.
I wonder if those strangers, whose names and faces I can’t recall, remember those acts of kindness? I suspect they don’t, but I carry those acts with me every day.
Over the years I’ve noticed a pattern. When somebody makes a point of telling me I helped them out, I rarely remember doing or saying what they describe. It seems, that many of the meaningful things I’ve done for others, were inconsequential to me at the time.
I find enormous hope in this. All the kindness and generosity in the world which is performed almost effortlessly by people who just happen to be in the right place at the right time. It’s a reminder to leave the space in my life for those small acts. And a reminder that I’ll probably never know what they grow into.
To those nameless and faceless strangers. Twenty-something years later I still remember. Thanks.
PS. There were also family, friends and acquaintances who were crucial to the success of Earthlight, but that’s a different story.
Wildfire is a feature of many sites and climates. and can be created even in hot humid climates by logging. or by block plantings of eucalypts and pines. It is notoriously violent in summer-dry climates peripheral to large arid areas; “wet” savannah or chaparral scrub will burn fiercely when strong advected heat blows in from deserts.
Periods of high fire danger coincide with periods of strong ground winds from continental desert interiors, and affect many climatic types on desert borders, up to 200km from the desert edges themselves. These winds are the normal precursors of widespread and catastrophic wildfires. which in the presence of enough local fuel may develop into terrifying firestorms, which themselves generate a type of fire tornado, with fierce ground winds. In the southern hemisphere, fire winds blow anticlockwise, and in the northern hemisphere clockwise.
The critical factors for firestorm are:
FUEL SUPPLY; this includes the dryness of available fuels and their distribution and quantity (loose fuels of more than 6cm diameter}.
OXYGEN SUPPLY as winds to fan the flames, especially hot winds.
PREHEATING as upslope or radiant heat in front of the flames, or as advected desert winds in unprotected forests.
UNSTABLE AIR MASSES, so that wind shear, ground whirlwinds (dust-devils), scattered cumulus clouds and shifting winds all presage fire danger when dry fuels reach to less than 35% moisture. In unstable air, smoke does not level out at low altitude, but ascends to great heights, or is up and down in streamlines, and the air is otherwise clear (no fog or smog before the fire). In some forests, one can smell the volatile oils, terpenes, or resins, and light-blue haze develops over these forests.
A small proportion of fires start from lightning strikes, even in remote forests. This is why many ridge forests show pyrophilous (fire-dependent) species, and on some ironstone ridges, every tree will be scarred by strikes. Such places should be noted as areas where houses need earthing for lightning strike.
However, most fires are deliberately lit, or arise from previous “controlled” burns left smouldering (often lit to reduce fire risk!) Freak fires can start from electrical shorts (power lines). backfire flashes from vehicles in grass, heat focussed by bottles or curved glass, and welding, campfire. and cigarette accidents. In all, lightning and accidents are perhaps only 4% or so of total fires; the vast majority are lit by mischievous, psychopathic, or even well-meaning people. A few pyromaniacs light and attend many fires, and even enlist in volunteer firefighting organisations; in aboriginal or tribal peoples, an angry person will sometimes burn out a camp or forest,
Factors that Increase the Fire Intensity or Spread
Once initiated, wildfire can spread with great speed; grass fires spread after 10–11am (after the dew has dried off); forest fires from midday to 3pm After an initial flareup, an hour or so suffices to develop firestorm conditions, aided by:
Loose fuels of smaller than 6cm diameter, grasses and sticks, at less than 20% water content (a chunk of 75 x 50mm pine, unpainted, can be weighed to judge humidity and wood dryness; where saturated, this wood is judged at 100%). Pine woods erupt at less than 30% humidity or moisture content due to high resin or oil content.
Winds from 10–50km/h accelerate spread, as the square of the velocity. Eg., at 20km/h, if the spread is 2km squared per hour, then at 30km/h, the rate is 4km squared per hour. At higher wind speeds, tongues of fire break up the fire front. At 80km/h, ground fires may self-extinguish.
Winds “backing” (shifting) late in the day may blow out a fire flank into a broad front, or even blow a fire back on itself and make it safer, However. backing winds are unpredictable, and in wildfire the best strategy is to order an early evacuation of a broad area except for teams (in safe refuges) whose job it is to put out minor house fires in the first half-hour after the fire has passed. For this reason, forested suburbs need local refuges (gravelled areas with underground shelters), as do isolated homesteads, and long stretches of roads through inflammable forests.
Wildfire will always occur on arid borders; thus we need to first be able to live with fire, and perhaps only secondarily (over a period of years) design to exclude fire from settled areas by a combination of:
Altering the vegetation to create more fire-immune systems.
Designing dams specifically to flood flow over hillsides subject to fire.
Mechanical or grazing removal of fuels just before fire—danger periods—this includes dead brush, long dry grasses, and the dead lower branches of trees.
In uninhabited areas, both “cool” fires (damp and weather) and “hot” fires (dry periods) are sometimes lit as a management mosaic to preserve fire-dependent flora and fauna; this is unsafe and difficult to control, and often causes fires.
Houses, dense surrounds, village surrounds, and in town planting (or the forests at the base of settled slopes) should all be designed to minimise fire damage and mortality. Fire can be expected as wildfire on a more or less regular schedule in specific vegetation types at about 30 years in wet sclerophyll forest, 8-10 years in dry savannah, and even annually in unbrowsed grassland. Thus, fire provides a specific problem for designers and landowners progressing from grassland to forest operations. From 3–5 years, or until forest establishment, the system has high fire risk, and we need to programme planting mosaics to reduce district risk.
FIREBREAK is a way of decreasing fire intensity; roads act as firebreak, as do ponds, marshes, rivers, stony areas, and summer-green or sappy plant crops hedgerows. Horizontal firebreak weakens or reduces the fire front energy. Vertical firebreak, to prevent fire “crowning” in trees, relies on the removal of lower branches, dead tree material, and perhaps on planting sappy ground cover under the forest.
No firebreak (even 10km of water) is effective in firestorms, as fire tornadoes, with ascent velocities of up to 250km/h can develop on the lee ridge side of hills, travelling downhill and lifting aloft large logs and branches and pieces of houses, and creating massive aerial gaseous explosions. The ground winds near the base of this column (some tens of metres across) can reach 100km/hour and will roll people over and over. The noise is deafening.
In these tornadoes, or in more minor whirlwinds, incandescent material is carried aloft and dropped out from 1–30 km downwind to start fresh fires, and fresh firestorm sequences (Figure 5.23).
In towns, fire resistant design (for wildfire) has these features:
A simple roof and wall outline (no internal roof valleys or re-entrant wall corners to pile up incandescent ash).
No tarpaper roof lining projecting into gutters. Roof gutters should have either a leaf free profile, or can be plugged and water-filled in the event of fire (plugs are handily chained to the gutter near downpipes). Roof spaces often catch alight from leaves in the gutter.
No unscreened windows, underfloor, or wall cavity vent spaces; all need fine-mesh metal screens to reduce spark size. Even beds can catch alight with large embers. and cellars or underfloor spaces may have dry firewood or fuel liquids stored there.
No inflammable doormats, nor woodpiles or shrubs against the house walls. Large cans of petrol, or explosive materials, should be stored in a shed away from the houses, tightly lidded.
Siting of Houses and Buildings
In fire prone areas, houses are at most danger from upslope fire; few houses survive wildfire on sharp ridgetops, or in hill saddles that have diverging ridgelines creating a wind (fire) funnel effect. The same funnelling or intensification of fire is created by planting inflammable trees (eucalypts) or grasses (pampas grass) along a house driveway. I have seen funnel-shaped plantings of this type that would have the effect of a blowtorch on the house, when even concrete will powder, and steel posts behave like spaghetti influenced by Uri Geller (or an Indian snake charmer).
For every 10° increase in the angle of upslope, fire speed and intensity doubles; the effect is that of updraught plus enhanced drying out of the fuel ahead of the front due to upslope flame and wind. That is, if the fire speed is at 16km/h at 0° slope, it is 32km/h at 10°, 64km/h at 20°, and 128km/h at 30°; thus slope effect alone can wipe out hill ridge settlements. It is critically important therefore that downslope forests are not pine or eucalypts, but slow-burning deciduous trees, with low leaf oils, and are sappy or thick-leaved forests with a clean floor, or with succulent groundcovers and lily clumps, or succulent vines and crops interspersed.
To reduce the ridge effect, site houses not only off the ridge, and if possible on downslope plateaus, but also excavate the site instead of raising the downslope house wall on stilts or stumps. A house nested into a shelf on the hill is protected from radiation, has no open underfloor area, and can have a rim wall, pond, or earthbank on the edge of the plateau as further protection. Such houses can more easily develop a cave or dugout refuge behind the shelter of the house itself (these are fully earthed over and have a wet blanket door and a dogleg or curved entrance to further escape direct radiation). Each such fire or radiation refuge needs a small (270 litre) permanent water tank incorporated, a few old blankets, and a bucket of water or two. This is absolute “fire insurance” for those caught at home (often women and young children). All these fire aids also apply to barns, livestock shelters, and outbuildings.
Around house and building sites, it is essential to reduce forest and grass fuel to a distance of 30m (100 feet). This does not mean tree removal, but rather the planting of such trees as Coprosma, deciduous fruits, figs, willows, poplars (not olives, pines, eucalypts), lines and clumps of lilies (Agapanthus, spring bulbs, arum, Canna) or “summer-green” ground cover (comfrey, ice plant, Tradescantia, Impatiens, shortgrass sward) to reduce flame and radiation effects.
My own family survived in a dense eucalypt forest only by prior removal of all lower limbs, loose bark, twigs, fallen leaves, dry brush, dry grass, and dead stumps (every year); most of this material was chopped down and stone weighted into hollows and swales, or burnt as cooking fuels. The tall tree stems not only saved the house from fire wind, but regenerated after the fire. A downslope line of willows and fern-leaved (not hard leaved) Acacia was fire-killed but rejuvenated from the roots when cut down. This sacrificial hedge, or fire barrier, dampened out the ground fire, and even the leaves of the willows did not combust, but shrivelled and gave out steamy ash as the flames reached the trees. The house was blistered, and the zinc roof coating flaked off, but the close fitted boards were unburnt. All walls were white-painted, and screens fitted; we had ample bucket water stored both indoors and out for the many small spot fires that were left after the front had passed. Apart from sore eyes and some short beards and hair, little damage resulted (Hobart 1967, a firestorm condition). In my street alone, 70 houses were burnt to the ground, with 1,100 houses burnt in the area, and 90 people killed.
The safest house sites are in damp valley mouths, in well-tended built-up areas, on farms with flood-flow or Keyline irrigation fitted, in irrigated areas, on peninsulas in dams and lakes, and in any plateau site where the design and maintenance criteria are rigorously applied.
It follows that all designers should take fire into account over many climatic regions, and especially where we are developing forest from grazed areas, as long grass or tall stands of straw are the worst fuels for fast fire spread and for ground survival.
Important to human and plant survival are RADIATION SHIELDS; these are solid or reflective (or both) objects that reflect or harmlessly absorb the radiant heat from the fire front. It is radiant heat which quickly kills plants and animals. Most human casualties of fire are not at first burnt, but either smothered by toxic smoke or fumes from furniture or plastics, or killed (unburnt) by radiation.
Thus, radiation shields can be houses, stone walls, thick tree trunks, hollows or caves, hedgerows, and car bodies; a white-painted brick wall is ideal. White paint on houses reduces radiation absorption, as white roof areas reduce sun heat. Fireproof or slow-to-burn insulation in houses (mineral wool, seagrass, sawdust, feathers, wool) all keep the interior cool and assist fire control. Wooden panelling transmits little heat, while stone, brick, and mud may convey heat indoors, unless of sufficient thickness to absorb and disseminate it. Thatch and shingle areas must be replaced by tile or metal roof cladding in fire prone areas (by law in some districts).
Note that a fire shadow is tapered to about 4–5 times the height and width of the solid radiation shield, so make shields of trees or walls extend past the house (Figure 12.32).
A Note on Fuel Reduction
Wildfire will always happen, often every 8–30 years, on many sites. It will not be severe if normal annual fuel reduction is practised; the most unsafe way to do this is to “cool burn”. The safe ways are to graze off, slash, compost in swales, use as firewood, or to replace tinder with sappy green plants. Part of bioregional planning must be to keep monocultures of inflammable trees to uninhabited ridgetops, or better to scatter such stands throughout grazed or wet forested areas, or to tend them very well indeed in the matter of fuel reduction.
Ida and Jean Pain (Another Kind of Garden, 1982) have clearly laid out a broadscale, beneficial, fire–reduction system of chipping all dry forest fuels, composting or using them for biogas, which in turn fuels the chipping and carting operations, and lastly using compost and sludge to grow gardens, improve soils, and further reduce litter. Every bioregion should, perhaps must, adopt these methods if forests are to be preserved and eventually made fireproof.
Likewise, in the case of scattered suburbs, it should compulsory for houses to build to fire specifications, have large roof tanks and ponds, and for developers to build fire-damping dams able to operate by radio-control to sheet water over slopes on a Keyline principle. Fire will then be restricted to remote dry-ridge forests, and lightning strikes (as it should be).
Fire Effects in Forests
Fire sharply reduces litter, and leaves nutrient-rich light ash that can wash or blow away, or wash into lakes and streams as a clear or cloudy nutrient load. Hot fire will remove from the soil in low-intensity burns:
Nitrogen: 54–75% (109kg/ha}; replaced in 11 years by legumes, rain.
Phosphorus; 37–50% (3.0kg/ha); replaced in 20+ years by rain.
Boron: 35–54% (Figures from Ecos, 42 Summer ’84/85)
Additional losses come from those shrubs and trees where foliage is burnt, and particularly so if the fire occurs early in the growth season. As fires “glow” at 650°C and burn fiercely at 1,100–1,400°C when strong winds blow, sulphur and nitrogen are volatilised, as is carbon. Phosphorus and potassium are volatilised at 774°C and calcium at 1,484°C (cement structures powder at this temperature). However, organic compounds containing these elements may volatilise more easily than soil elements.
Obviously, there is a very slow recovery of soil nutrient after fire, and this depends on trace elements brought in by rain or birds, and minerals recycled to topsoil by deep-rooted vegetation. Clearly, fires never improve soil status. Humus loss of 10–12cm occurs in forest soils. and peats often combust to greater depths. Clays lose structure, and mud flows can result.
Stock Losses in Fire
Good stock managers can, by preplanning, reduce losses in fire. Some ideal situation would be to make sure that some paddocks (small areas) have been close-cropped from late winter (or late summer in monsoon areas) to early summer; so that these small fields carry no inflammable fuel and can be used as general refuges in fire. Even more effective is to place a water trough in deliberately bare soil area, even one where topsoil and shrubs have been bulldozed into a surrounding earthbank (for protection against radiant heat), and to use such areas as always open refuges off 4-6 prepared range paddocks; stock can be confined there early fire danger days. Stock enclosed by a temporary electric fence will clean off rocky knolls of grasses before the fire period; these too can be used as refuges.
Tethered goats or sheep reduce patches of fuel near houses, as do close grazers such as geese, wallaby, and rabbits. Wild wallaby or geese can be “fed in” with pollard on such areas, and thus encouraged to create marsupial lawns (or rabbit swards). A forest of young deciduous trees, fig, mulberry, or oak will make a stock refuge if close browsed before fires are expected (dry grass period). Short swards are fairly quickly developed by close grazers if first slashed, then limed and fertilised (phosphate). Eventually, such fire refuges become popular places with stock.
With respect to a house or village, close-grazed or mown areas form part of the (upwind or downslope) firebreak system, and in fire danger periods stock can be fed in or mustered, and secured in these areas or in the settlement itself. Chickens survive well in solid housing, as they often produce bare areas around such houses, or chicken sheds can be part-buried in banks to give complete protection.
Personal Survival in and After Fire
For people, the main survival factor is to cover the body. wearing wool or cotton. and to shelter from fire front radiation behind a tree, car, house, or in a trench; all the better if the whole body can be caped in a wet blanket (wet blankets are no longer considered a good idea, best is to cover yourself with dry wool blankets – Adam). Wait until flames have passed, then move cautiously onto burnt ground.
For civil authorities, radio stations must be commanded to keep constant reports going on fire direction, open escape routes, family location centres and refuge areas, and to give constant instructions to householders and travellers.
Just as the fire passes, well-equipped ground teams preceded by a bulldozer should clear roads, and put out spot fires in unoccupied houses. Police need to roster guards, or well-disciplined volunteers, to prevent looting until the area is re-occupied and services reconnected. Such services must be on standby at the fire periphery as it is suicidal to put forward teams in the path of the wildfire.
In firestorms, oxygen is periodically exhausted. and the fire goes out briefly. People cannot breathe and they faint. so they should never take refuge in small water tanks, dams, or rivers, as they will drown while unconscious. The sea, and large rivers of 100 m or so across, are safe to run to. but beware of fainting from lack of oxygen in the air and water (the skin needs oxygen too). Drink a lot of water to prevent dehydration, and make sure children and stock get water to replace lost body fluids.
We survive better if we have planned ahead, built fish ponds or bought metal buckets, prepared blankets and important papers to be picked up by the rear door, filled roof gutters, removed doormats, hosed down the garden, tied up or penned the stock, prepared woollens to wear, taken in the clothes, filled baths and sinks with water, and so on.
We recover faster if we have expected the noise, confusion. sense of isolation, and are prepared for looters and for “survivor guilt” (that is, “why should I have survived when people around me have died?”); for weeks, months, perhaps years, we can feel desolated by the losses we know of. It greatly helps if we have assisted others before, during, and after the fire, as we know we did our best. This applies to all catastrophes, not just fire. Even so, in every large wildfire in settled areas, people will be lost or very badly injured, much property and stock will be destroyed, and the psychological and social effects will persist for months or years.
And if your house burns down, do not build another “just the same” as most people do; build one to survive the next disaster. Thus, have realistic expectations, act on them, have some planned moves, and prepare better for next time!
Tink has been following the fires in Australia quite closely. I have a harder time, I reach emotional saturation and want to turn away from it. This morning I was jolted awake by the picture to the right. All I could think about is what it must have sounded like on that abandoned street.
My way of processing the horror of what’s happening in Australia is to try and tell the story of these modern fires from a historical perspective of land management. I mean no disrespect to my sisters and brothers currently struggling with the reality of these fires. If we can understand the root causes I see the possibility of individual agency and collective action.
The beginning is a bit slow, I hope you’ll bear with me for a few paragraphs.
One way to divide the world is between brittle and humid climates.
Humid climates, like much of New Zealand and Europe, have rainfall throughout the year. There is a wetter season and a drier season, but there is enough moisture for plants and microbes to stay active for most of the year. Without human intervention, these climates generally end up as woodlands.
Brittle climates, like much of Australia, North America and Africa, have distinct wet and dry seasons. A short, intense rainy season and a long dry season. During the dry season plants and microbes go dormant due to the lack of moisture. Without human intervention, these climates generally end up as grasslands.
One of the ways that microbes increase soil fertility is by breaking down plant material and returning nutrients to the soil. If microbes are dormant (or absent) nutrients are released into the atmosphere rather than returned to the soil. The more nutrients end up in the atmosphere the less fertile the soil becomes. As fertility declines so does the quantity and quality of life which the ecosystem can support.
Brittle climate grasslands co-evolved with grazing herbivores. The cooperation between grass and herbivores created some of the richest and deepest soils in the world. Grazing herbivores use the microbes and moisture in their digestive system to breakdown plant material. Grazing means that even during the dry season, nutrients can still be returned to the soil as manure rather than lost to the atmosphere.
One of the crucial distinctions between brittle and humid climates is the land’s response to rest.. Resting humid land increases soil fertility and ecological health. Resting brittle land decreases fertility and ecological health.
Our earliest ancestor, Homo erectus, appeared on the brittle African savanna. They spent two million years hunting and foraging the savannas of Africa and southern Asia. Roaming these grasslands were large herds of grazing megafauna. As humans began to spread across the world about 50,000 years ago, the extinction of megafauna followed. Only in Africa and southern Asia, where we co-evolved with them, does wild megafauna continue to exist.
Without megafauna, there was a shortage of grazing animals to consume plant material during the dry season. The fertility of the land began to decline. Indigenous cultures of the world recognised this and began to use fire to breakdown plant material. Fire is a poor substitute for grazing as many nutrients are lost to the atmosphere, but some nutrients return to the soil as ash. Over centuries the people who lived in brittle climates developed knowledge and practices of how to use fire to preserve the fertility of the land they relied on.
Five hundred years ago Europeans began to spread over the world. With them came the knowledge and practices of managing the humid environments of northern Europe. Their inexperience with brittle climates, and unwillingness to listen to indigenous knowledge, has caused widespread ecological degradation. In particular, the assumption that rest was a way of restoring fertility meant that they didn’t understand how indigenous fire practices were being used to create ecological health.
For centuries indigenous practices of fire have been suppressed. Without grazing animals or the skilled use of fire, these landscapes have been steadily accumulating fuel loads. The higher the fuel load, the bigger and hotter the fires. Hotter fires mean greater destruction of habitat for microbes, plants, animals, and humans. This is what we’re now watching unfold in California and Australia.
The bad news is that these fires are explicitly the result of poor human management.
Once upon a time, every human culture knew how to do this. We can learn to do it again.
PS. I’ve tried to write this without using any jargon or assuming any pre-knowledge. The risk of trying to keep things simple is over-generalising. If I’ve made a mistake or something is doesn’t make sense please let me know and I’ll fix it.
For much of my life, I found unresolved emotional tension nearly unbearable. Perhaps surprisingly, especially in my professional work, this meant that often I was the one willing to have uncomfortable conversations. My discomfort around the lack of resolution fairly quickly outweighed my resistance to initiating a potentially awkward conversation.
Less surprisingly, I’ve discovered that uncomfortable conversations are a skill that can be learned. Part of that skill has been developing a deep belief that clarity and directness can be a form of kindness.
When Amy and I teach Managers Anonymous workshops a recurrent theme is that for managers it’s almost always more important to be clear (and kind) than to be nice. Too often “nice” fails to say what is important or useful. Particularly in relationships with an inherent power imbalance (like a manager and employee), focusing on nice creates confusion. Being confused about what somebody more powerful than you wants, is a recipe for frustration and anxiety.
I’ve digressed, what I wanted to talk about is silence. Especially the silence where something important isn’t being said. Tink grew up in a family where very little was said directly and almost everything had a hidden meaning. She learned that to feel safe she had to ignore what was being said directly, and instead try and understand what was being said indirectly. To make it even more confusing, what was said implicitly was often more important than what was said explicitly.
I grew up in a family where the explicit rule was “use your words”. Implied was that expecting someone to intuit my unspoken needs was ridiculous. If I wanted something, I had to ask for it. Negotiating these differences has been one of the most fun parts of our relationship.
As we continue to navigate our way through this, I keep thinking about silence. In Tink’s childhood, silence was something that couldn’t be trusted, it was almost always pregnant with unspoken meaning. In my childhood silence was just … silence. I could trust that if something needed to be said, it would be said. Over the years I increasingly recognise what a huge gift this was, being able to trust silence.
As I spend more time working with people in leadership roles, I’m noticing how often they shy away from uncomfortable conversations. Leaders who do this teach their staff that they can’t trust their silence. I believe that one of the responsibilities placed upon anyone in a leadership role is to face those uncomfortable conversations as bravely and skilfully as possible.
We are all capable of giving the people in our lives the gift of being able to trust our silence. To trust that if we have something important to say, that we will say it. Even when it’s uncomfortable. I’d love to see more trustworthy silence in the world.
PS. Hopefully I’m being clear, but just in case. This isn’t a justification for being a jerk or a micromanager. This isn’t permission to nag about every little thing or use others to do your emotional labour.
There is an overwhelming abundance of information online about permaculture, but relatively little of it is specifically about New Zealand. This page is an effort to highlight New Zealander specific resources.
The strength (and weakness) of permaculture is that it is many things to many people. Ask any two people “what is permaculture?” and I can almost guarantee that you’ll get two different answers. At its heart permaculture is design language based on an evolving set of ethics and principles which help us work in harmony with the natural systems of our world.
My favourite way to think of permaculture goes like this: if being indigenous means to be “of a place”, then permaculture is a toolkit which helps the non-indigenous begin to relearn what it means to be “of a place”.
Things to be added: https://www.facebook.com/TheForestGardeners/
Permaculture in New Zealand – PiNZ is the primary permaculture organisation in New Zealand. They organise the yearly hui, certify designers and manage a website which lists events
PiNZ on Facebook – A very active community, lots of chat and some technical permaculture discussion.
Because there are so few books specifically about New Zealand, below are the books I’ve read and recommend for beginners:
An Earth Users Guide to Permaculture – An Australian based book which walks you through the process of designing a property step by step. You can read through the entire book in an afternoon, though it will take longer if you do the exercises as intended.
At Home with Holistic Management – Holistic Management is the decision making framework that permaculture forgot to include. Originally designed to help farmers manage pastureland, this book focuses on how it can be used to help organise a family or run a small business.
Easy, inspiring reads:
Miraculous Abundance – Wonderful story of a French couple starting a permaculture farm. Easy and fun read but also lots of great ideas and practical thoughts on what it takes to make a commercial permaculture farm work.
Paradise Lot – An inspiring story of two American friends creating a permaculture paradise on a tenth of an acre.
Books I haven’t read, but others often recommend for beginners:
Most of the information available on Syntropic Agroforestry is in Portuguese. In late-2018 English language content slowly became more widely available. I’m attempting to collect all of the English language resources in one easy to access location.
Multi-strata agroforestry, agrofloresta and successional agroforestry are terms often used interchangeably with Syntropic Agroforestry. However Syntropic Agroforestry is being used to specifically refer to the philosophy and practices developed by Ernst Götsch in Brazil.
Individual videos are collected in my YouTube playlist. If you are having trouble understanding, the closed captioning can help (click the [cc] button in the video toolbar). Below are other playlists and a handful of the best resources I’ve found.
Dennis Stanton was my 9th grade math teacher. Sitting in class on that first day of high school I was having a hard time reconciling the last two years of stories with the reality of what was standing in front of me. This monster of Soquel High School was a short, round, blonde man who appeared to have more in common with a teddy bear than the demon I had been led to expect.
Over the next weeks I learned to hate him. He issued lunch time detentions for being late, for getting answers wrong on homework. He mocked students, threw chalk, raged at laziness and carelessness. One by one he drove the kids from his class who didn’t want to work. I had a mixed past with math and I think it was only pride which kept me from fleeing his class.
But then this magical thing happened. Once all of the kids who wouldn’t work were gone, he softened into the most inspiring teacher I ever had. He told stories, encouraged us, pushed us, accepted nothing but the best we had to offer.
Today in a workshop I was asked to name a mentor and tell a story about why they were important to me. From out of nowhere came Mr. Stanton’s name and with it a flood of memories.
He taught me that people can be more than one thing. That a monster can also be a teddy bear. That a “jerk” can also be inspiring. He shared his life with us, unapologetically and without consideration for appropriateness. He treated us like adults who were worthy of both his scorn and his respect.
Recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how my time in the film industry effected (and continues to effect) me. It’s been pointed out to me repeatedly that I haven’t done much that’s “productive” since I left. Mostly I’m just fine with that, but I’ve known for a while that there’s more to the story. With a jolt the other day, I realised that part of what has followed me from Weta is a belief that work is futile. That it doesn’t matter how hard I work. That no matter how much effort I put in, no matter how much I prepare, no matter how clever I am, it will come to nothing. Regardless of what I do, forces of chaos, insurmountably greater than me, will prevail.
Right now, I can go back to Mr. Stanton and remember that he was the first person in my life who taught me that it mattered how hard I worked. It wasn’t a lesson I wanted to learn then, and it’s not a lesson I want to re-learn now, but I will.
So thank you Mr. Stanton, all those miles and years away. I hope you’re well and I hope that kids are still learning to believe in themselves because of you.
October 2018 about thirty people convened on Scott Hall’s Gabalah Farm for a workshop on Syntropic Agriculture (Agrofloresta). The workshop was led by Namastê Messerschmidt.
Below are my notes in case they are useful to anyone else. I wasn’t trying to record everything, this is just anything which caught my attention in the moment. Some is quite mundane, some very specific and lacking context, and some of it greatly helped my understanding of Syntropic methods and principals.
It’s quite likely that I’ve understood things incompletely and may have worded them poorly.
When doing high apical cut on Eucalypts sometimes they resprout from the bottom. They’ve found that if you leave about 5 branches at the top that is enough to stop it resprouting at the base.
In arid/temperate climates you can use cactus or agave as alternative to banana (for chop and drop with lots of internal moisture).
Stratification is not height or longevity based, there are high strata short plants (eg. kale). If the plant is from a system with less resources (arid, cold, poor soil etc) than the entire system might be shorter.
Stratification is based on light requirements when the plant is mature (eg. a high strata plant will be tolerate additional shade for the first part of its life).
Corn and okra are emergent. Tomatoes and kale are high.
If they need full sun they are emergent. If they get sunburned they aren’t.
Broad, dark green leaves are an indication of lower layers.
The best way to know a plant is to live with it. Just like our mother, she can cut her hair or change clothes and we still know her.
From an ecological point of view you could have all four strata in a single organism. However to provide enough space for each layer, the high and emergent layers end up very tall and hard/dangerous to work with. In general they have found it is better to mix emergent and medium (or high and low) cropping species in a single row so your crops stay closer to the ground. You can have non-crop biomass emergent species mixed in as well.
You need 1-1.5m between the top of one strata and the bottom of the next. So if you have low strata to 2m then the bottom of your high strata can’t begin until 3.5m.
With these height requirements you can’t have high/emergent tree rows at 5m because you create too much shade. They’ve found it works well to alternate high/low rows with emergent/medium rows. That way there are 10m between your big trees.
When pruning you must respect strata and relationships between species. For example, if you prune a high species lower than a medium species it won’t thrive.
For simplicity of management it is best to have only one species of each strata in a single row.
What is going to make organic matter in short to long term?
What to harvest when?
Respect stratification and lifecycle
Management considerations per species.
How to sell harvests
Plant sizes and spacing
Type of organic matter (eg. tilth, what can germinate)
Slope, sun & row orientation
Machine or human labour resources
Respect the vocation of the land/climate/season (grow what will thrive)
Protection from animals
Start planning from the species which will remain in the system the longest (not counting biomass species) and work down through species that will be shorter lived.
Start planting from the biggest to the smallest, with seeds coming after seedlings and grafted plants. Idea is to make the most mess early so as few species as possible are disturbed by later planting.
Put grafting wound facing away from sun.
When planting trees cut off half of every leaf (in their experience this works better than cutting off every other leaf). Cut off all fruit/flowers for first two years to give tree a chance to establish. Grafted trees think they are older than they actually are and so you need to hold them back as producing even a few fruit takes a lot of effort for a young tree.
When planting root crops (cassava, taro, ginger etc) larger roots will produce larger crops because they have more stored energy to get started with.
Young, or sun sensitive plants, are more easily damaged by the afternoon sun. You can angle cuttings towards the west so less surface area is exposed to afternoon sun.
Don’t cut ginger for planting, break it with your fingers. Let the wound heal for about 5 days. Keeps it safer from infection. Not critical.
Grasses have all the same strata considerations (emergent, high, medium low).
Rule of thumb is that it takes 3m of grass to feed 1m of bed.
A consortium is an organism. If you introduce a new species mid-cycle their observation is that it won’t thrive. In order to introduce new species you either harvest the entire organism or create a “pulse” by heavily pruning everything in the row.
The boundaries between organisms aren’t distinct. A row is an organism, the inter-rows form an organism, the inter-rows plus the adjacent tree rows for an organism.
General recommendation was to treat the inter-rows as an organism and the tree rows as an organism.
When learning start small, 1sqm is great. Working first with short lived plants gives you lots of iterations to learn fairly quickly.
Plants will influence other plants in a radius equal to their height. So if you have a row senescent trees that are 10m tall, they will be slowing down the growth of other plants within a 10m radius.
In three sisters you strip the corn of leaves once the cob is fully formed (but not dried). This stops it sending senescence messages to other plants.
General rule is don’t plant a seed deeper than 4x it’s size. Shallower is better than too deep. Corn is an exception and can be planted deep and makes it stronger. Also can plant three corns together in same hole (like onions) with wider spacing for 20% shade.
Cannot cover grass seed with any organic matter or won’t germinate.
Building bamboo is typically high strata so could build a consortium with an emergent.
Every plant has a growth curve (x axis is time, y axis is biomass production). You want to prune as soon as the rate of biomass production starts dropping off. See photo for how senescence works with this.
They have observed that when planting lots of seeds at once, plants thrive. Plants seem to cooperate to make sure that a few thrive. Ernst says plant 100 seeds if you want one tree.
Seeds adapt to their environment, seedlings can struggle to adapt to the change after transplanting.
Make a slurry and dip tree seedlings into it to help with establishment. Use rock dust, ash or clay or whatever you have and is appropriate for that plant.
Horticulture beds do best on east side, so develop system with new beds being added to the east of what’s established.(Wonder if that’s the same in cooler climates?)
Bird seed can be a way to get untreated seeds.
They’ve observed that putting pruned organic matter on top of grass weeds doesn’t kill them, it makes them stronger. By pruning you are making light and then feeding them.
Prune biggest trees first. If you damage the smaller trees you still have options for how you prune.
On living wood, always use machete to cut in an upward angle (in the direction the plant fibres have grown). This creates a much cleaner cut then cutting downwards.
On dead wood, if you are holding the base of a limb, you chop in a downwards motion with the machete (same principal as above). It’s less effort this ways.
Coppice on an angle, with cut surface facing south or east to minimise sun damage.
Diversity in organic material is important. More species is better.
They have observed that wood chip doesn’t create the same crumbly, black soil that diverse organic matter does. The finer “tilth” does make planting/sowing easier so sometimes is worth it.
When laying logs on soil it is important to cover them with organic matter or they seem to dry out and mummify rather the decompose.
When pruning citrus don’t prune a little off the tip of a branch, instead prune it back to just after a branch which can take over growth in the direction you want.
When creating a pulse any herbaceous plants which have completed their lifecycle (eg. flowering) can be cut because it won’t resprout. Then roots stay to nurture soil.
Producing some crops (seeds, fruit) will create a senescence effect. But it’s worth it if you want the crop.
You can’t compromise on organic matter. If you don’t have it you must grow it first.
Don’t sharpen the first third of your machete. Too easy to hurt yourself if your hand slips. Don’t use a machete two handed because if your blade side hand slips off you can cut yourself badly.
Trees don’t mind being pruned or even removed if it is in the best interests of the organism. Namaste said that we couldn’t think of trees like people (but I’m not sure that we are much different in this regard).
Once you have started a pulse you want to get everything planted fairly quickly so it can form an organism. Ideally you’d have it all done within a week.
Ernst says planting is 5% of the work, management is 95%.
Animals generally aren’t used within Syntropic systems. However some people were designing Syntropic systems specifically for chickens and egg production.
Nut crops and clear ground for harvesting. Perhaps grass rows next to trees? What about other plants within the tree row? Could you have berries which produce at a time that you could mow them after fruiting to harvest nuts?
Trade offs on deciding which ways rows face? Lower latitudes? Colder climates? Wind? Slope?
Would love more information on Syntropic chicken designs?
How Ernst’s daughter felled the tree, with deep V cut?
No mention of windbreaks which is unusual in tree systems. Is that because the entire system works as a windbreak?
When pulsing a row to introduce a new species I’m unclear if coppicing the biomass species is sufficient to introduce new species? Or if you have to coppice “everything in the organism” (which wouldn’t work well with grafted trees).