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 consequence. These dietary beliefs are coalescing into words like conventional, organic, vegan, regenerative, locavore and paleo. Each of these represents a different view of our collective situation and suggests different choices if we wish how we eat 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 is near 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 this way the amount of life the ecosystem supports will spiral upwards until it eventually maxes out at the carrying capacity (where the underlying limits of the place it occupies are reached). 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, reduce flooding, mitigate 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 living skilfully within ecosystems. All indigenous cultures, including indigenous European cultures, developed rules and customs which enabled them to live in harmony 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 alternatives. How complex are these ecosystems? How many species can you see?
You can’t see the climate, pollution, soil type, microbes, insects or the details of plant species in either set of photos. However, 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, insecticides, 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, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides (though the fertilisers, insecticides, 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 with which conventionally (and organically) 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 techniques damage 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, No-till, 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 been 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 Zealand 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”.
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.
Most of the information available on Syntropic Agroforestry is in Portuguese. In late-2018 English language content slowly became more widely anvailable. 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 refers specifically to the philosophy and practices developed by Ernst Götsch in Brazil.
If you have found any resources which would be helpful for people trying to learn about Syntropy, please let me know and I’ll add them to this document.
A few years ago, a friend gave us a (please note the singular form) shark’s fin melon. Also known as Cucurbita ficifolia,fig-leaf gourd, Malabar gourd, pie melon and Thai marrow.
We must admit to not eating it. Instead, it sat rather sadly in the laundry until we threw it into the compost. There it lingered for well over a year until earthworks moved the compost pile – and a mound of the surrounding soil – to the top of the paddock closest to the house. Over the summer, that patch of living ground was entirely ignored – we didn’t water it, no food, no attention – but when Autumn 2018 rolled around we discovered a bounty of 40ish melons.
After being harvested, the majority of those 40ish melons sat on the deck on the cottage, where Adam and I spent 8 months while the big house was renovated. One by one, as they began to decompose, I tossed them onto the bank. Side note, I remain faintly concerned that Adam’s Mum and Dad (Pam and Brett), who now live in the cottage, will wake up one day to discover pie melons trying to get into their house.
And so Autumn 2019 rolls around and it would appear that we missed a few of those indomitable melons in last year’s harvest. Wandering down amongst a sea of large cucurbit leaves we literally tripped over them…Easily 120, likely more, to be honest we lost count.
A friend sold a few at the local farmers market but most have been consumed by friends’ very large pet pigs, just up the road. Although, this time, we did eat a few ourselves but somewhat unfortunately the harvest coincided with our experimenting with a very low carb way of eating, and low carb they are not! Still, this land seems determined to grow gloriously abundant free food for us, so we will continue to let them do their in the paddock and hedge rows.
I (Tink) have been meaning to post regularly here for ages. Ages. But I keep getting stuck writing an update, trying to summarise what we’ve been up to for the last few years. I don’t like having our life at Peka Peka shared solely on Instagram and Facebook (as convenient as it is) so I’ve decided to start again here, with a few words, and a few photos each day. And in the the meantime, what have we been up too? Well, we built a cottage (or more accurately our wonderful team of architects and builders did), moved into it while the big house was renovated, moved back into the big house, Adam’s Mum and Dad moved up from Blenheim and into the cottage and gradually, with the earthworks complete, we’ve been chipping away at the garden. We’ve also dipped our feet into the waters of running workshops here and at some stage in the next year or so, we’ll turn our attention to the 10 acres of paddock running across the hill.