REGENERNATION AND RESILIENCE

site april 09
site april 09
cultivated ecosystems
cultivated ecosystems

Regeneration and resilience—some brief notes(as there is abundant lit. see for ex. Ben Falk’s “The Resilient Farm & Homestead”) from our experiences here at Motheroak.
These are two major objectives for most permaculture designs—and indeed the world is in dire need of both at many levels, from the vast oceans to our own households and lawnscapes. After aspiring to actualize regeneration in our landscape ecology here over the last six years, I can happily report positive developments—more on this momentarily. Two essential aspects of regeneration, or in other words, what we are looking to regenerate specifically, are biomass and biodiversity. They naturally tend to go hand in hand , and they are both equally important.
Regeneration
In an elemental sense, increasing biomass can be seen simply as a build up of carbon in various forms: trees and other woody perennials, as well as both perennial and annual herbaceous plants and grasses(including all their root masses), though perennials naturally(over time and size scales) accrue and sequester carbon(think humus) and other minerals more effectively than most annuals. The helianthus family(sunflowers) are an example of annuals that are excellent at biomass accumulation.

It bears repeating that science tells us that a mere 2% increase in soil carbon would virtually pull down and sequester most if not all the excess CO2 we’ve foolishly burned into the atmosphere—effectively reversing the heating effect which drives climate change. Not as easy as it may sound, but definitely doable with a concerted effort(not nearly forthcoming yet from the status quo, but some of us can start). A second major aspect of increased biomass/ soil carbon(and other minerals) is to increase the food/ nutrients available to microbes, fungi, and other decomposers, thereby stimulating the soil food web towards greater fertility, robustness, and health, though there are limits beyond which imbalances develop if the timing and/or scale of carbonaceous build up is off. Detailed knowledge about the soil and the characteristics and requirements of whatever plants are grown is obviously very helpful.
In our landscape here, in contrast to the poor pasture it was, we now observe carbon build up in the lush patches of cattails in the ponds, the equally lush reed canary grasses in the pond spillways, the many trees and bushes surrounding these ponds and in the orchard gardens. Additionally there are the cover crops and mulches in the annual gardens, thick grass in the access ways, and the ever precious manure & bedding piles outside the livestock barns. We also make small quantities of biochar in our woodstoves over the winter, and that and the wood ashes both go into garden beds. Weeds play a role too, and we have an abundance of Queen Ann’s Lace, one of my favorites, as well as an ever increasing abundance of dynamic accumulators, particularly comfrey and elecampane, the latter being in the perennial sunflower family, and amassing quite a big root system.
Along with the increasing number and variety of plants, which is in itself an obvious increase in biodiversity(the role of biodiversity in resilient ecologies is well covered, so I won’t go over it here), are the many habitats and foodstuffs these plants offer—especially to pollinators, birds, amphibians, and reptiles;lots of frogs and snakes around here. The increase in rodents within these niches and habitats, especially close to food crops, can be problematic, so keeping a good dog and the occasional cat around proves to be helpful in that regard. In our climate, and with our clay soils and heavy mulches, slugs can also be quite destructive to our vegetables, so it definitely pays to have foraging type ducks—we keep a threesome of Khaki Campbells through the winter, and they usually multiply themselves up to around twelve or so each summer—and besides enjoying just having them around quacking and splashing, they are another high quality food meat for the freezer. This is quite natural, yes?
One of the major objectives in designing and creating such a cultivated landscape is to steer it in a low maintenance/ self sustaining direction and at the same time having it be relatively productive. It sometimes gets said by permaculturists that great abundance is possible(maybe so in the tropics) with very little work—if you buy that, well….good luck; nothing in my experience bears it out. On the other hand, as I mentioned, if we design for low maintenance and accept a more wild(untidy) look to things, we can definitely reduce our workloads. Using the permaculture design principles as guides certainly moves us in such directions. As I learn and coevolve with this place, it becomes clearer that our human work here is both integral and necessary for the system, which includes us and our food, to thrive.
For example, we grow a lot of comfrey (and spread it around more each year), especially in the so called forest gardens. Now I could certainly just leave the comfrey to fall over and regrow on its own, but by scything it twice per season(pleasurable, healthy work) in a slash and drop pattern, I stimulate/ accelerate its growth and thereby the regeneration process as well. Another example pertains to fertilization. I’ve seen a number of so called permaculture “do nothing”style gardens that seemed quite pathetic to me from a plant potential yield viewpoint, when all it would have taken to quadruple(at least) the productivity of the kale(in this example) was to provide sufficient urine tea(30%pee/70%H20+/-)—or a “pee feed” as we call it around here. This is not much work, makes a huge difference, and the results are amazing to see. And quite natural too, yes? This simple closing of a nutrient cycle contributes to both regeneration and resilience in various important ways, and it seems to me not only very silly but also irresponsible to just continue the conventional habit patterns around this. We have all over our lifetimes contributed to degrading both local and global ecologies with our massive footprints—if we don’t begin what is in essence a healing now, then who will, and when?
Much more could be said about regeneration, but let’s move on to resilience.

Resilience is a bit more complex to discuss in these contexts. One standard short definition I like of resilience is simply “ the capacity to withstand disturbances(not always external to the system, such as a broken arm) without seriously compromising the essential functions of the system.” Another is “bouncebackability.” Resilience is also observable at different levels: the personal, the household, the farm/ homestead, the community and all the way up to planetary scale. For this short writing I’ll stick to the first three mostly.
Personal resilience, as I see it anyhow, is an expression of a combination of characteristics(and proportional to them)—general physical health and fitness, qualities of mind such as alertness, being relaxed, open and confident as one’s story unfolds(which includes dealing with stress/ difficulties); skills and knowledge regarding how the world works and what it takes to make things happen, and ready access to sufficient resources—these ranging from land to food & water to tools to friends to money. It’s probably worth adding that since of course we all have to some extent our little “comfort”dependencies/habits (especially in this culture), from chocolate to a walk in the woods or you name it— how one functions if these become partially or wholly unavailable would certainly impact personal resilience. It is helpful in this regard to imagine different possible scenarios and ask what the effects would be. For example, what happens if I sprain my ankle? Is the harvest then lost? If the horse or tractor or chainsaw stops working, if we run out of coffee, if yogurt or the internet becomes unavailable, if I run short of money—what is the impact, especially on the continuance of essential functions like keeping sane, fed, warm, healthy and able to do chores? Obviously the answers to these questions are contextual and therefore possibly complex, but I think it’s still a thought exercise worth doing.
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At the household level , resilience(providing everyone is more or less functional in addressing their own personal needs) naturally increases, especially in proportion to the number of able bodied workers.It is unquestionably true that the unit of human survival is not the individual but the community. Indigenous cultures understood this at an instinctual level, and we had better get it too as the non-industrial future unfolds. Cooperation is the key, I dare say, and so we must relearn to communicate and share and live and work together again, overcoming our dysfunctional(from a simple survival perspective), culturally learned tendencies toward hyper individualism and a powerful clinging to “my privacy”. This may prove difficult for many of us(especially adolescent mindsets), but there it is. It’s no coincidence that permaculture was conceived with “intentional” communities in mind, or that the world over people naturally self-organized primarily into villages sharing common land. This notion/fact is behind our goal to form a bigger(4-10+/-) community here at Motheroak. Although two is double the one, it simply is not enough, and anyway I agree with the idea that culture change begins with a minimum of three.
Anyhow, in a household of say two, if one sprains an ankle, the other can take up the slack. Or if we pool our money things become much more affordable. If you cook and I do the dishes, then we both get more potential leisure and possibly less stress. If I forget maybe you’ll remember.Or one mends clothes and the other tools.Quite natural, yes? And as we move inevitably into a future with less energy slaves(if you haven’t looked into this yet, please do), well…JM Greer’s advice of “crash now, and avoid the rush” comes to mind.
Here at Motheroak the pattern for many years has been that the number of able bodied adults increases in the growing season with temporary interns or woofers. Certainly things would not be what they currently are here without that help, and it is a rhythmic pattern of exchange(seasonal help) we intend to continue as long as possible.
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Although the resilience of the farm/ homestead can be discussed somewhat separately, it is important if not essential to a clear understanding to see the system as a whole—people, infrastructure, livestock, the landscape ecology, the patterns of exchange with “outside” systems and much more—in other words the “big picture.”
For example, although the homestead’s system resilience is enhanced by our various water catchment designs(there is always back up/ redundance, a critical feature of resilience) most of these require periodic interactions with us, the people. It may be reinstalling the garden siphon hose in the spring, or manipulating the tank catchment devices during rain events—the point being that except for rain naturally running into the ponds, human interventions are integral to the “proper” functioning of that sub system as the design stands now. And though feeding ourselves from this land is part of the picture(and our resilience), of course not the beans nor tomatoes or most other annuals plant or tend themselves. This of course is one reason perennials are so desirable, which is that after initial planting and establishment there is minimal work except for harvesting.
To make a long story shorter, to help evaluate the depth & breadth of resilience, we can ask of the homestead similar questions that we previously asked on the personal level: what happens in a serious flood or drought, or if local water becomes somehow contaminated? If the freezers malfunction or electrical power is lost? If the help doesn’t show, or the vehicles or power tools break down? What if grain suddenly becomes unavailable? What if your market somehow breaks down(think job losses)? Is there a plan B(actually we need many)—a back up, in other words? This is where permaculture style thought and design play a major role. For example, if there are livestock integrated into the system, food security is much more resilient—think eggs, dairy, or meat(if you know how). Think woodstoves, root cellars, a well stocked pantry. If the tool inventory is good then there are manual wood cutting tools etc. If one has the know how and gear, perhaps a horse(or bicycle and trailer) can replace a tractor or car—this is all part of our reskilling, and ignored or taken lightly at our peril. What if there is no doctor or dentist, or the first responders can’t show up? These are not questions with easy answers, and these type of events can and do happen. From a simple survival perspective, I feel that stating cooperation is the key can hardly be over done, and is perhaps our greatest(and perhaps most difficult) imperative in these times. The truism that it is best not to wait until the well runs dry to dig a new one is quite relevant in this regard, no?
Much more could be said of course, though I hope this little piece helps clarify things a bit. As mentioned at the outset, there are a host of good books, periodicals old and new, and online resources available on the how to—but if you haven’t already started, it is high time for action.

 

designs(there is always back up/ redundance, a critical feature of resilience) most of these require periodic interactions with us, the people. It may be reinstalling the garden siphon hose in the spring, or manipulating the tank catchment devices during rain events—the point being that except for rain naturally running into the ponds, human interventions are integral to the “proper” functioning of that sub system as the design stands now. And though feeding ourselves from this land is part of the picture(and our resilience), of course not the beans nor tomatoes or most other annuals plant or tend themselves. This of course is one reason perennials are so desirable, which is that after initial planting and establishment there is minimal work except for harvesting.
To make a long story shorter, to help evaluate the depth & breadth of resilience, we can ask of the homestead similar questions that we previously asked on the personal level: what happens in a serious flood or drought, or if local water becomes somehow contaminated? If the freezers malfunction or electrical power is lost? If the help doesn’t show, or the vehicles or power tools break down? What if grain suddenly becomes unavailable? or your favorite soil amendments? What if your market somehow breaks down(think job losses)? Is there a plan B(actually we need many)—a back up, in other words? This is where permaculture style thought and design play a major role. For example, if there are livestock integrated into the system, food security is much more resilient—think eggs, dairy, or meat(if you know how). Think woodstoves, root cellars, a well stocked pantry. If the tool inventory is good then there are manual wood cutting tools etc. If one has the know how and gear, perhaps a horse(or bicycle and trailer) can replace a tractor or car—this is all part of our reskilling, and ignored or taken lightly at our peril. What if there is no doctor or dentist, or the first responders can’t show up? These are not questions with easy answers, and these type of events can and do happen. From a simple survival perspective, I feel that stating cooperation is the key can hardly be over done, and is perhaps our greatest(and perhaps most difficult) imperative in these times. The truism that it is best not to wait until the well runs dry to dig a new one is quite relevant in this regard, no?
Much more could be said of course, though I hope this little piece helps clarify things a bit. As mentioned at the outset, there are a host of good books, periodicals old and new, and online resources available on the how to—but if you haven’t already started, it is high time for action.