Written for Permaculture magazine vol.1.2 winter 92/93 (pub. Permanent Publications)
Me and my partner Lyn moved up to the Dolgellau area from Aberystwyth in 82, looking for land, among other things. The first patch we saw was 7 acres of marginal land with a rough, old barn; very varied with streams, marsh, scraps of woodland, hill, flat, old meadow, hedges. We really liked it, had no money and watched it go. Over the next few years we looked at a score of other patches, always ending up thinking, well, its good, but not as good as that first bit. I kept trees in pots and Lyn bought a young pony anyway, scrounging grazing where she could. In 85 we heard someone was selling some land and went to see him. As he started to describe where it was, we realised it was that first bit. We raised the money.
That first year we had three weeks of late, hard frost that froze the colour out of the world. Wandering around the rough patch I found a wild primrose flowering, a brilliant splash of green and yellow. I delighted in the plant, wondering what the hell it was doing alive in this empty, frozen wasteland. As I watched, a wierd bee-fly bumbled out of nowhere and with a long, snout like proboscis, dipped into the flower and drank. I have not ceased to be boggled by land and its life.
Six years on and its difficult to select the few brief experiences that will fit in a short piece like this, and the mass of stuff I'll have to leave out. So I'm going to try to be honest and tell you what's inspired me but also what hasn't. Land is a strong teacher and it takes a certain amount of courage to turn mistakes into lessons that can be shared.
On most sites there are generally one or two main factors which limit yield. Giving attention to these limiting factors will allow life to explode. Sometimes it is water. In the dense shade of coniferous plantations it is light. Here at Penrhos, as with maybe 80% of Britain, it was grazing animals. The minimum intervention was to exclude them. The consequence of this is that forest starts to reappear.
The rough patch, which has resisted all attempts to rename it Argel, (sanctuary or refuge in Cymraeg, (Welsh)) was the first piece from which we excluded grazers. Its now a regenerating forest with some trees up to 20 foot.
At first we were renting a house about three and a half miles away, commuting daily to check on ponies. I spent hours each day walking about on the rough patch, observing, counting new tree seedlings, watching the grasses loose out to all sorts of stuff that Lyn had names and herbal uses for. Some of it, raspberries and blackberries, you could eat, and you didn't have to do anything. A forester friend Eurig Ap Gwilym told me about this guy he knew, Robert Hart, and a forest garden he was starting somewhere in Shropshire. I was interested.
Eurig had also told me about something called permaculture back in 83; I mentally shelved it along with biodynamics and other stuff. One day I'd have a look at it; for now I was into just watching.
After several seasons on the rough patch I began to realise that although it (whatever it is) was doing it by itself, I was part of that regeneration, interacting with it even though apparently just observing. The faint maze of my paths were adopted by feral deer, (our area has a herd of fallow deer). The slight compression generates two parallel edges, varies the herbage. The deer browse the path sides and leave dung. Gorse clumps shoot out seed and expand. Where I walk around one to examine the trees seeding in its interior, I compress the soils about its periphery; I move a bramble runner aside, twisting it into the bush to hold it from the path. I cough and spit; I urinate. Observation is a form of intervention. Very nice it can be too.
Over several years I became more confident that I could make interventions on the rough patch without damaging what was going on there. When you've removed the main limiting factor to yield, you reveal another, then another; they are nested. I pulled bracken where it seemed to be engulfing other stuff, using it to mulch trees or as bedding for animals. I cut gorse and found horses liked to eat it in the winter and that it can be crushed for cattle. Besides this there were blackberries, raspberries, wild strawberries, many useful herbs, plants and tree seeds which formed part of a harvest. If we are careful, all our interventions, including observation, can be in the form of harvesting. (Observation gathers information, the first harvest.)
So in wilderness regeneration and management we have soil building, nitrogen fixed by gorse, potassium concentrated by bracken, phosphates from birds with the increasing availability of nest sites and food sources, plenty of organic material mulching what were impoverished soils, wet areas drier through increased life activity, dry areas wetter for the same reason, increased diversity, gorse clumping then clearing formation, new spaces, microclimates, trees, harvests etc. etc.
It upsets me to hear ignorant (literally 'not knowing') people saying how cuts in farming subsidies will mean farm land reverting to unproductive scrub. The truth is that scrub is more productive and sustainable than subsidised agriculture and far more interesting. And what's more, scrub turns into forest which is yet more productive. Remember that forests include clearings and animals, among a billion other things.
These experiences formed the basis of my approach to gardening. From here, we can steer in various directions; we can add in fruit and generate semi-wild orchards, or interesting hardwoods stacked over coppice, or perennial graze systems (which it already is for fallow deer) or add people, open up little clearings with a goat on a tether, build simple dwellings and start up intensive gardens, or we could let it go on to wilderness. Or we can generate designs to include all these and more; that is, practice permaculture.
The tree-less impoverished hills of Cymru or Cumbria, (previously Cumberland, land of the Cymru) or Scotland or anywhere can be regenerated and it needn't take long, but it will need people, a lot of people, to do all the harvesting. And we'll need to find uses for those invasive species such as rhododendron, Japanese knotweed and others that have filled the empty spaces of agriculture.
Now for some mistakes or maybe lessons. The critical factors were and still are ignorance and ego, or bad attitude; more precisely, inappropriate patterning in zone 00.
As soon as we bought the land we applied for planning permission. We did a little sort of design, (without knowing anything about PC design at the time) showing how we intended to manage the land for conservation, forestry, horticulture etc. We didn't approach anyone, just stuck an application in an envelope with a cheque for ninety quid and posted it off. It was turned down flat because it didn't fit the structure plan for our area. We didn't even know what a structure plan was.
It took another four or five years. The key elements are;
1) do a really good PC design for your site. This means that you have a morally and ethically sound argument for what you want to do.
2) make contact with the people in the institutions. This was definitely the hardest part for me, learning to see these officials as human beings suffering from some really impoverished zone 00 patterning rather than just idiots you want to shake, hard! As Bill says, these people are our servants and should help us. We have to learn how to offer them the opportunity of helping. In particular you need to make contact with a planning officer or two, a community councilor or two, possibly an agricultural advisor and an ecologist depending on the planning authority where you are. These are the people who are going to speak on your behalf at the actual planning meetings. This is all part of;
3) raising support and interest. We got together more or less supportive letters from individuals, groups etc. such as the Farmers Union Wales, (an excellent letter that proved instrumental in getting the permission), Forestry Commission, local Plaid Cymru MP, Alternative Technology Centre, the local college of further education, (where I ran a PC stand as part of a green exhibition) and of course the PC association itself. This means going out and meeting people.
If they turn you down, try again. Or get the people who are blocking your progress thrown out. These are public servants; if they do not serve the interests of the public, they should not have the job. Remember that there are at least 7000 PC designers on your side.
Building our first "dwelling" from the Douglas Fir that nearly surrounds our site was fun but hard. Everything we've achieved rests at some point on the help of friends/family but its generally been me and Lyn at the sharp end putting in the sweat and blood. If there's one strong lesson I've learned its that working as individuals is just going to take too long. What's taken us 6 years to do, a dozen of us could do in 4 or 5 months or less. If we can work as groups, get PC communities up and running, then we will be in a position to withdraw serious amounts of support from destructo-culture. Until then, no matter how many green oases we generate, we're still on that downward spiral.
Other strong lessons are contained within the Designer's manual which I dearly wish had been around in 86. I've noted below a few of the errors that I've made which I now consider basic and that you don't need to make, ok? These include;
A good, thorough design to begin with. This is especially important when more than one person is involved and avoids a lot of argument and times of floundering around wondering what the hell to do next. This implies good observation prior to the design. We excelled at this due to initially failing to get planning permission.
In the implementation of any design, start with the elements which generate energy, then those that trap and store energy. This does include mechanical devices but the main thrust has got to be towards life in terms of plants, especially trees. Getting caught up with animals in the early stages of implementing a design can mean tying yourself to bought feed, (destructo-culture) and work. Design and grow the environments first, then add in animals.
There are always exceptions. The fallow deer at our place demonstrate that regeneration can include animals from the start so long as they are extensive. Small stock in small numbers can be ok if you're prepared to put in a bit of work until their environments have grown. My goat, Nibby, has stalwartly produced milk for me, (and a design course team) on an 18 month lactation on about 80% home grown fodder. We're getting there.
Similarly, we can sometimes use animals to generate their own environments (as they do anyway). So pigs can be run between electric tape fences set up along contours to turn ground prior to planting. They can thus generate swaled swathes of plants and trees through fields, bracken or whatever. The two prerequisites for this strategy are a good local food source (to avoid destructo-culture) and very large numbers of plants (ie. a nursery, which should be included in any site design anyway). Given these we think pigs could generate their own system, running between fields, (ie making fields into clearings) with you planting up their food behind; crab apple, oak, sweet chestnut, artichokes, occa etc. etc.
This leads into knowing when to stop or recognising when something isn't working. We were feeding loads of bought fodder to our pigs and ran out of plants within weeks. We don't keep pigs anymore and won't until the land is ready.
Sustainability is the key issue. Whether you choose to eat meat or not is personal. Those who argue that meat-eating is somehow going against the spirit should talk to any tribal people about it. After ten years as a veggie with dabbles into veganism I've eaten lamb, pig and venison from our place and as far as I'm concerned they are welcome to share my body with me, and vice versa. (In the end, everything cycles.)
In the early years, (pre-PC) when we were still renting a house and commuting, I worried about how I kept loosing control of my first mulch beds, in the rough patch. It took an introductory PC course for me to recognise the basic problem of having a three and a half mile step from my backdoor to backgarden. Zoning is eminently sensible and should be carefully considered. Even now, living up here in a temporary dwelling, our intensive garden is sited for the permanent house, 19 paces from our temporary back door. Its still a little far, but for now we can bring it nearer in tubs and troughs.
I've really enjoyed setting up a mulch garden, feeling an absolute beginner. Again, its all in the manual; start really small, do a little bit well and spread out when you're ready. Not everything in our intensive garden is edible, its not fantastically productive yet and I couldn't get at it all to harvest it, but this summer, after just two seasons attention, it looked a bit like a jungle and that gives me great confidence. As we learn more about species and varieties, in particular native, local edibles and wild foods, I think it will get easier and better. There is a lot of work to do in this country but there are a lot of people doing it. Excellent exchange of good information is what is required as much as anything.
I realised after my first weekend PC course, that the fundamental limiting factor in yield is neither light, water, grazing animals, soil or even anything like that. It is rather the attitudes of the gardener, farmer, PC designer or whoever; that is to say, yield is intimately related to an individuals zone 00 patterning, (their ideas and beliefs). If we think that the world is a mean place and that wilderness is chaotic and must be sorted out, enclosed, divided up, ordered then this will result in a certain type of agriculture. If we recognise that the world and life is boggling and wonderful and that wilderness is fantastically ordered, (far beyond our simple concepts of order) then this will generate a very different relationship with land.
If we are at all serious about greening the Earth then changing attitudes (both other peoples and our own) is vital. Developing an awareness and appreciation of good zone 00 patterning means not just site designing (for ourselves and others) but appropriate patterning for our meetings and our organisations. Otherwise we remain just another part of destructo-culture that happens to be musing about PC.
Here on the Mawddach, the local group is preparing to move out into the wider community, (coincidentally with the magazine reaching to a wider audience). We need to hold onto the idea that it is bad patterning, (in zone 00) which we may meet rather than bad people. Given that, It is quite surprising what respect and good attention can achieve in even quite extreme situations.
I very much hope to have the opportunity to develop these ideas further in the magazine.