Can't Hang with the Monocult - Lessons in the Forest

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Can't Hang with the Monocult - Lessons in the Forest
Kickin it on the Farm - Month Seven

(i wrote this a really long time ago for a magazine called Slug and Lettuce)

I'm sitting under a huge cedar tree on a thick cushion of moss and needles and decomposing wood, it's early Saturday afternoon, and I'm in the middle of the forest across the lake from the farm. I've been working clearing trails in the park here for the past bunch of hours, cutting back sollal roots and pulling up ferns; now I'm watching the squirrels run across the upper story of the trees and resting my sore arms in the shade, feeling sweat beading down my neck, listening to the sound of my breath and the birds chirping and the wind blowing across the lake. I'm about at fern level, looking straight up into the crisscrossing network of spirals and whirls of tree branches, light flickering through the patterns of needles and swirls. The soil under the cedar needles I'm resting on is thick and black, held together with decomposing organic matter - constantly in flux and full of life. It's all mulched under a carpet of the tree's energy - breaking down and building up and breaking back down again - slowly getting taller and deeper - holding the energy in and letting it go little by little over time. Life in this forest is an endless flow of producing, consuming, and decomposing. The tree I'm sitting under sheds it's weight and builds the soil it stands in. The old growth fir trees stumps everywhere that were hand-logged back in the 1920's have giant new hemlocks growing out of them - the new trees taking advantage of the old root systems carved through the soil and rock.

Here in the forest, everything is connected up and down and underground - from the smallest microbe fixing nitrogen in the soil to the cougar catching a deer for its dinner on the edge of the bluff. There are a lot of important lessons to learn out here.

The Backdrop:
So while most of my friends are back in the city somewhere cultivating their stress and balancing activism and computer temp jobs or scamming their way along the trainlines and supermarket dumpsters of America, this urban kid has been learning how to grow food and living at a farm near the edge of the forest on a tiny island in British Columbia for the past half a year.

Here's my routine: I wake up in the morning with the sun and write down my crazy dreams, slip out of the house and feed the pigs, water the greenhouse full of tomatoes and peppers, tend to my little broccoli transplants which are just starting to make heads for Fall, maybe jump in the lake if it's not to chilly. Usually after breakfast, me and the rest of the crew head out to the production garden and harvest corn and beans and squash and carrots and eggplants and leeks and beets and lettuce and tomatoes and zucchini and basil. We work on building compost or building fences or slowing down erosion in the creek that feeds into the lake by our house. A couple times a week we'll have a discussion group kind of class on soil chemistry or composting toilets or land trusting. A couple of us are building a seed bank and networking with a bunch of local farmers and seed companies and exchanges.

All my housemates are really busy with projects: canning tomatoes, cooking jam, drying plums, threshing amaranth and quinoa and beans, making pesto and tending to the berry wine. Our eight month sustainable agriculture program ends in six weeks and we're all planning our futures, heading off in different directions ready to take on the world with all this knowledge in our hands and arms and minds.

My days are really full and completely revolve around food - sowing it, tending to it, talking about it, studying it, harvesting it, processing it, eating it. I've been t-bud grafting fruit trees and rooting semi-hardwood cuttings of shrubs and trees in tins of wet sand, saving tons of different kinds of vegetable and flower and herb seed, staying up late at night reading drip irrigation and biofertilizer and plant propagation textbooks. I swear it's so magical - like casting spells - getting the timing down and mixing up the right amounts of soil and seeds and water and sun and - poof! - it all starts growing.

Reclaiming Lost Knowledge
What's incredible is that people aren't learning these skills anymore - food cultivation and land stewardship are rapidly becoming lost arts. Not so many generations back most of our families were providing their own food in one way or another. Our grandmothers had fruit trees in their backyards, our grampas would catch their own fish, people would save their own seed and grow the same tomatoes their gramparents had grown. We lived in tighter communities with more localized economies and had a closer connection to the land we lived on and the people around us.

Now a couple multinational chemical companies own most of the crop seeds in the world and genetically alter our food to be dependent on their fertilizers and herbicides. We grow our food on huge tracks of monocropped land and transport it all over the place in monster trucks and buy it wrapped up in plastic from nightmarish superstores. We've sprawled out of our cities in strangleholds of highway and covered up our best agricultural soil with cancerous growths of suburban development and industrial parks. Our economy is based on an infinite growth model that doesn't factor in our limited natural resources or peoples' livelihoods and happiness. The rivers are full of toxic waste and there's a law against fruit trees in my home town because the fruit might fall on peoples' cars. Kids like me grow up in big apartment buildings totally alienated and clueless and never knowing where our food really comes from or how anything really works.

When I listen to the news on the radio full of war and catastrophe and stock market bullshit, I take comfort in the fact that the skills I'm learning will never become outdated. No matter what I end up doing I will never be downsized and replaced by a machine. I'm going to spend the rest of my life helping to clean up the mess the corporations have created in all their greed and shortsightedness. And just like the rest of the people I work with everyday, I'm just going to get better at all of this stuff as the years go on. Anyone can learn how to grow food and take care of themselves and the world around them. What follows are some rough notes about some of the stuff we've been learning out here.

Straight Up Permaculture
Everything we do on the farm is somehow mimicking things that happen out in nature. The principles and forces at play out in the forest are the same ones we use to design our fields and gardens and homes and lives. Where I've been living is like a big experiment in organic development and sustainability. Instead of acres of tractor tilled monocrops full of pesticides and herbicides and fungicides and factory buildings pumping out mutated cows and chickens, we have an organic vegetable gardens and happy animals and what we call little patches of permaculture scattered throughout the farm.

Energy Cycling
In the forest water falls from the sky, soaks into the soil, moves through the soil and across the land, rises up in the stems of trees, and returns to the atmosphere. The same way the trees in the forest hold onto water, use it, then let it back out - we try to turn flows of nutrients and energy (sun, water, wind, organic wastes) through our farm into cycles.

We have a pipe which runs from our water source (a spring) up in the hills and intercepts the flow before it runs down the creek and into our lake. Our pipe connects down to a big ferrocement tank at the top of a bluff which connects to a number of other pipes which carry water down to our houses and fields. The idea is to catch, store, and use all of our resources before they run off the property. Recycling kitchen waste into compost, channeling household greywater into the garden, raking leaves up around trees as mulch - those are all different ways of energy cycling. Rather than using expensive, complex machinery which need petroleum and random parts from the other side of the world, we use hand tools like scythes, wheelbarrows, forks, and spades. The energy we expend out in the fields goes into our food cultivation, then we eat the food and the cycle starts all over again.

The idea is to create a closed circle where we feed ourselves and don't have to be dependent on the global market for our survival. The idea of localized economy is based on the same principle - supporting your friends and regional community and keeping the trade flowing in a circle. Buying from the neighborhood family market rather than the megamall - supporting local businesses rather than giving it to people who already have plenty of money and live really far away from you in fancy houses somewhere.

Accelerated succession - pioneers and climax species.
The forest develops and changes over time, always giving rise to a new succession of different species. Each stage creates the right conditions for the next stage. When the trees get cut down on this land, the first thing that happens is the alders grow. There are patches of alder all over this forest from where the old trees have been clearcut. Alder is a pioneer species. Their roots fix nitrogen in the ground and build up the soil for the next generation to come along. As the rest of the flora and fauna develop around them in layers of vines and shrubs and ground cover, the cedar and fir slowly begin growing again. Eventually the alder fall and break back down into soil, shaded out by the climax species cedar and fir.

The same thing happens in abandoned rubble lots and pastures and anywhere else where the land has been disturbed. Areas will be colonized by a new weed and herb layer which might hold the soil against erosion, bring water to the topsoil with their roots, break up compaction, fix nitrogen, reduce salts, or bring up nutrients from the subsoil which will end up in the topsoil as they die back and decompose. Blackberry bushes with big old thorns will invade an area and keep everything else away while the land heals itself. Eventually, just like with the alder, trees will grow up through the blackberry vines and shade them out.

We can do the same thing by building up the soil and substituting our own herb, pioneer, and climax species. Depending upon the type of soil you start with (which might be eroded, salted, swampy, worn out, acid, alkaline, clayey, or sandy) - it's possible to introduce plants that will easily survive and might by more useful than the existing vegetation. We can grow cover crops of clover or alfalfa or peas or beans which fix nitrogen in the soil and then turn them in to build up the fertility. We can grow buckwheat which is a phosphorus accumulator or winter rye which suppresses weed growth. We can introduce animals into a system and have them do our work for us while they happily live their lives. If we play our cards right, in 20 years we can end up with forests of hazelnuts and peaches and blueberries. That's the plan - a permanent agriculture.

Sheet Mulching
There's all these subtle little sheet mulching projects all over the farm - it's a really basic, cool idea. The grass is full of nutrients cause it's so good at pulling minerals up from down in the subsoil. It becomes obvious pretty quick that it's a waste of time and resources to try and pull it out of the ground and clear beds for growing stuff. It's much easier to just throw a thick layer of wet cardboard or an old carpet over an area - wait a year - and when the top layer of weeds is dead and rotted back into the soil from all the heat and lack of air, then it's time to sow the vegetables. Periodically I stumble upon one of Brent's mulch spots - sets of bamboo poles or alder branches with nitrogen fixing beans trellising up from the cardboard, getting the soil ready for next year.

Pigs and Junkus
The pigs I feed everyday are fenced off in an area full of this thick weed called junkus that's scattered throughout the pasture land. It's really hard to get rid of with farm machinery, but pigs love to dig with their snouts and root up whatever they can. The longer they hang out there, the clearer that soil gets and eventually the farm crew is going to plant another fruit and nut orchard. We get to feed them our garbage, they get to play around all day and be really cute, and a bunch of people (not me) are going to be eating a lot of meat in the Wintertime.

Cows and Bamboo
The cow barn is close the lake. There's a huge clump of bamboo that's been planted at the edge of the barn which absorbs the excess nitrogen from the cow manure which would otherwise run down into the lake. The clump gets periodically harvested for poles. Everything works out.

Plant Stacking and Time Stacking and Swales
In the forest there are a series of interconnected levels - from the understorey of ferns and bushes to the upper canopy of the mature trees. Instead of planting a flat field of one crop which needs tons of attention and water, the idea is to intercrop taller and shorter species, climbing plants and herbs and different kinds of trees - everything placed according to their shade tolerance, heights, and water requirements.

In one of the permaculture sites there is a sequence of swales connected to a small dugout pond which carry nutrients down to the bottom of the slope. At the bottom of the slope there's a bunch of raised beds made of sticks and mud where all the garlic is planted. Swales are just these long level excavations that are dug to store water in the underlying soils or sediments. They're different than ditches because instead of just diverting water so it can drain somewhere else, swales work to intercept the water flow, hold it for a few hours or days, and let it slowly infiltrate the ground water, recharging soils and tree root systems. The site was a big swamp full of alder trees a couple years ago and slowly the permaculture crew has been rerouting the water to make the wet areas nicer and the surrounding areas more fertile for growing ground crops, carefully removing the alders and replacing them with fruit and nut trees. Trees are totally important parts of swale planting systems. Our teacher Brent shows us how he cuts the alder trees to harvest their wood but does it in such a way that the younger trees can take advantage of the old root systems and exposed sunlight from removing the canopies. Just like everything else around here, the idea is to set up the system so that it doesn't need any inputs from the outside and can totally function as a self-contained ecosystem.

The fir trees in the forest have like 26 different types of fungi and scrubs and insects that somehow pay a role in their growth and life. In the forest, the trees, bugs, birds, fungi, ferns, and huckleberry bushes all work together to create an interconnected web. Sometimes, rather than thinking about organisms individually, it's useful to think of them in clusters or groups. When the individuals are clustered around a central element we call these groups guilds. In the forest we can talk about the fir tree guild.

There are a couple of fruit orchards spread around the farm, mostly apple and plum trees. There are also a small heard of sheep which keep the grass down in the orchards by grazing. They also eat up any fruit which falls and rots on the ground, preventing diseases in the trees. Every week or so the sheep are moved from one orchard to another so that they don't graze the grass too low. To keep the trees healthy and not competing with invasive grasses, we grow yarrow and clover and borage and nettles and comfry around the them. The sheep also eat these and like them too. We can say that the sheep and herbs we grow in the orchard and the trees are all part of the fruit tree guild.

The quintessential crop guild is the traditional Native American planting of corn, beans, and squash. As the runner beans trellis their way up the corn stalks, they fix the nitrogen that's being lost to the soil from the corn which needs a lot of nutrients to grow. As the squash plant provides an understorey which keeps away weeds and helps to keep the soil moist, their big spiny leaves also keep the animals from trying to climb up and steal the corn ears as they ripen.

At the edge between the forest and the lake there's always a mix of both ecologies and whole other set of species that doesn't exist in either of the two. Ecological productivity always increases at the boundary between two ecologies because the resources from both systems can be used. This is true for land/water, forest/grassland, estuary/ocean, sidewalk/street, wherever.) Energies and materials always accumulate at the edges - soil and debris are blown by the wind against fences or walls. Increased edge makes for a more productive landscape - creates more surface area, more patches of microclimates. People always want to live on the edges.

When we build our garden beds or ponds, we take edge into account and don't just always make them normal rectangles or circles. We built an herb spiral next to our house out of smashed up concrete from an old building foundation. The raised spirals condenses space, creates a bunch of little microclimates for shade and sun tolerant herbs, increases the surface area, and looks really cool. Edges define areas and break them into manageable sections - look around and see what I'm talking about.

Relative Location
Out in the forest the individual plants and animals and soil organisms aren't nearly as important as how they all relate to each other. When the birds eat berries from the trees, they fly to the other side of the forest and plant new trees by shitting out the seeds. Bark beetles carry the spores of fungi into fallen trees and the fungi help break down the wood of the trees back into soil which provide the materials for new trees to grow. If we separate out each organism it's hard to appreciate what's actually going on. If you haven't already figured it out, this is a reoccurring theme here. Rather than viewing everything on our farm as separate entities, we try to figure out how as many of the elements in our system can work together as possible.

In our production garden we have a five year crop rotation. The idea is that we keep up the soil fertility by growing a succession of crops that complement each other: after corn we grow beans and then tomatoes and then squash. To throw off the pests and diseases, the same crop is never grown a bed two years in a row. We also factor a slew of chickens into the whole thing. We keep the chickens fenced off in a nice big area and as they hang out they scratch up the ground and eat the pests and shit all over the place to get the soil ready to plant in. They have a nice life on the farm, rub themselves in the dust and have sex and all that, they eat bugs and food scraps and corn scratch, we eat their eggs, everyone's happy. At the beginning of the next growing season, we move the chickens to the where the corn was growing the year before and keep rebuilding the fertility. Just like in the forest, we're in the process of creating a long term self-sustaining cycle filled with different interconnected elements.

By growing tons of different kinds of things, we're guaranteed to be eating well year round. When onion season is over, leek season is just beginning. When the kale is starting to all go to seed, the first heads of lettuce are ready to harvest. In our orchard there are early, mid, and late season apples trees all right next to each other. With all our canning and drying and freezing, there's no problem eating jam and pesto sauce all sorts of other goodies all year round. No one ever goes hungry around here. If this was an industrial monocrop farm, we'd have to ship in tons of food or things would get really boring. Diversity is all about stability and living large - the important stuff.

Urban Guerrilla Gardening - Growing Food in the City
We need to start growing food where we live and reclaiming all this knowledge for ourselves and future generations. We can't keep importing and trucking all of our food all over the globe and let big corporations control the most basic aspect of our lives for us. There is so much potential for growing food in the cities and suburbs. Taking over abandoned rubble lots and roof tops and lawns and starting community gardens. Building compost with all the organic wastes from supermarkets and restaurants and our kitchens. Catching water before it runs off into the sewers - building ponds and attracting birds and insects. Creating urban woodlots of fire and timber wood grown around industrial zones can filter pollution from the air, produce oxygen, create habitat for birds and small animals, and not make all the buildings so damn oppressive. Locals parks could be full of fruit trees and berries. We could graft scion wood of good fruit trees to crab apples in alleyways or non-fruiting cherries and peaches and plums in parks, come back later for the harvest. We can dumpster tons of bathtubs and tires and milk crates and refrigerators and other good stuff to grow things out of. There's more edge and vertical growing space than you can shake a stick at in the city. The possibilities are rich. It's all like sculpture and art - dealing with living systems that change over time. It's so important to bring this stuff into the city, bridge connections between people of different generations and cultures, teach the kids that there's more to life than concrete and hate and fear.

Everyone around here knows me as the aggro city kid, the one who's sometimes too impatient and loud and talks faster than everyone else and goes out smashing up concrete slabs with a sledgehammer and builds raised vegetable beds out of sticks and blackberries just to prove we can grow food even in really crappy soil. As I've lived on this farm for almost an entire growing season, I've learned a little bit of patience and calm and a whole bunch of skills that I'm looking foward to bringing home.

Information and Imagination - Books to Check Out:
The thing about all this stuff is that it's a lot more information and imagination intensive than capital or energy intensive - we rely on each other, our observations, and the thousands of years of accumulated knowledge from peoples experience, ideas, and experimentation.

There are some really good books out there that cover a lot of the basics of food cultivation and sustainable agriculture. Here are a couple good ones. I've included the ISBN numbers because I used to work at a bookstore and I know how much easier it is to look shit up that way if you have a computer.

Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison with Reny Mia Slay 1991 Tagari Publications 0-908228-08-2
Everything I've just been rambling on to you about is all covered in detail in this book. It's changed my life. Nuff said. Check it out.

Start With the Soil by Grace Gershuny 1993 Rodale Books 0-87596-567-9
Very eloquently lays out the basics of building soil: humus and compost and moisture and nutrients and basic chemistry. Beautiful tables and diagrams of indicator weeds, cover crops, organic amendments, acid and alkaline tolerant plants, etc. Really good chapter on dealing with fucked up city soil.

Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally by Robert Kourik 1986 Metamorphic Press 0-9615848-0-7
Incredibly thorough manual on creating gardens and orchards step by step next to your house. Great chapters on tree crops and reclaiming the suburbs with vegetable gardens. Full of useful photos, drawings, and charts.

How to Grow More Vegetables (than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine) by John Jeavons 1974/1995 Ten Speed Press
All you need to get started learning how to feed yourself and your community. This book has been translated into a bunch of different languages and is used all over the world in successful sustainable agriculture projects. Really good sowing charts and illustrations.

Seed To Seed by Susan Ashworth 1991 Seed Savers Exchange 0-9613977-7-2
The definitive guide for anyone who wants to learn seed saving techniques. Includes 130 vegetables. Describes botanical classifications, pollination, isolation, caging, seed harvest, drying, cleaning, and storage. Really important stuff.

And please don't complain about books being expensive - get a library card for fucks sake. And if there's twice as many cops in your town as there used to be but they've cut the library funding in half - make some noise about it - educate and articulate your bad self.

Further Resources

WWOOF Willing Workers on Organic Farms is an international network of farms that rely on volunteers to help out in the fields. In exchange for a hard days work you get 3 meals and accommodation and as much practical experience as you want learning about farming. Usually how it works is that if you're over 16 you can pay like $20 for a listing of hundreds of farms and an ID number. Then you call up or write to specific places to find out more details. I know a slew of people who've worked their way around the country acquiring skills, getting strong, and living well from hooking into the WWOOFing network. It's an incredible resource and working on a farm sure beats hanging out on the street drinking with your smelly friends and talking about how much it sucks in the city.

The Permaculture Activist PO Box 1209 Black Mountain, NC 28711 USA
Published 3 times a year and always full of good articles and contacts. The classifieds always have interesting offers for work and trade. The latest issue is about patterns in nature and has been keeping me up at night spellbound.

Intern/Apprenticeship Directory
Northeastern Organic Farming Association (NOFA) - Mass

411 Sheldon Rd. Barre, MA USA 01005

(Found this ad in the back of the Permaculture Activist)
Write to Eric Toensmeier and ask for their Directory of Organic Farming Apprenticeship programs for farms all over North America and internationally.

ATTRA (Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas)
This group is based out of Fayetteville, Arkansas and they put out a 23 page list describing internships and apprenticeships for organic and sustainable farms across the United States. You can order a free copy by calling 1-800-346-9140.

That should get you started, punk. Get out there and grow some food.
If you want to write us, we're here until November 1st. If you're interested in this sustainable agriculture program I keep talking about, address your queries to David Buckner at the same address. The farm accepts 5 to 10 students every year and they need hard working, dedicated people. Good luck out there.

Linnaea Farm
PO Box 98 Manson's Landing
Cortes Island B.C. VOP1K0 Canada

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