Living with Nature

Permaculture. Now to some this means absolutely nothing, to some it is a kind of pastoral ideal that may or may not exist anymore, but to others, it is their way of life. Now for the readers in the former category, I hope that by the end of this you’ll come out having learned a little more and appreciating the simplicity of a permaculture-based life.

Now, to say that permaculture in itself is simple would be to completely undermine the system and almost ridicule it. The network of conservation techniques that are employed by a permaculture setup is so interconnected and complex that it requires intensive planning and design. David Holmgren does a wonderful job in explaining the principles and design of permaculture and demonstrates why planning is so essential.

Permaculture can be defined as “the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.” The systems are meant to minimize waste by recycling the materials as new inputs through sustainable methods. By using these valuable resources over again, the system makes its way to becoming self-sufficient.

For example, gray water can be used on different beds that are growing crops or in a greenhouse if there is one available. Composting organic material that comes from table scraps or food preparation allows for soil nutrients to be replenished. The design of a permaculture house itself often utilizes natural materials and green architecture techniques (i.e. clay, straw, earth) and is designed with the layout of the land in mind. Mother Earth News and Deep Green Permaculture are just two of the many sites that contain useful information on different setups and methods to make your lifestyle more self-sufficient.

Permaculture considers all aspects that can (and everything will) play a role in the design and function of agricultural land and other production spaces (e.g., greenhouses), the built environment, water resources, and renewable energy sources. This all sounds like hardcore planning to get started, and it is, but once it gets going, the system can basically be self-maintaining. The water cycle will feed the crops; the crops will replenish nutrients in the ground; and the sun will bring life, electricity through use of solar panels, and help cook meals using a solar oven. The initial energy input can be offset by the little energy necessary to maintain the system, if done correctly and efficiently the first time.

I had the opportunity to visit a New Mexico location where permaculture is done correctly. The Ampersand Sustainable Learning Center is quite the marvel, as the whole place was designed with sustainability in mind. Amanda, who runs the property along with her husband Andy, designed the plot to maximize both water and energy resources.

Living off grid is not easy. Amanda and Andy’s home has a greenhouse attached to the south-facing wall, so that it will get the most amount of sun throughout the day. The heat generated by the greenhouse can be released into the home to keep the house warm (as they don’t have a heater). The house is built into a hill (for thermal mass) and the steep slopes below are contoured to direct rain water to crops plots and fruit trees. Berms are used to help slow and spread the water so that it doesn’t run off and instead sinks into the garden plots.

Just by looking at the location of their veggie plots and fruit trees and watching the sun’s rays travel over them, one can see the ingenuity of the design. The sun travels over the east-facing hillslope throughout the majority of the day, provide the maximum amount of sunlight to hit the plants. To protect the plots from the cold and the wind, Amanda uses straw as an insulator and has a barrier of sticks set up to reduce the chilling effect of the wind. She explained not to use a barrier that completely blocks the wind because then the wind will travel around it even more strongly, possibly blowing down more plants. Instead, use one that allows some wind to travel through so that it will reduce the wind strength and not redirect it entirely. The wind breaker that Amanda used was sticks that were placed inches apart.

Though Amanda and Andy are living a permaculture lifestyle, they aren’t completely self-sufficient as they still frequent the grocery store to obtain some foods. Amanda’s permaculture classes help sustain their livlihood. It just goes to show that in today’s day and age, it is hard to live a subsistence lifestyle, however, one can get extremely close with very little.

-Posted by Martin

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