I will assume you don’t have a nuclear reactor. With that assumption all the rest of the energy of the world originates from the sun, with some help from gravity. Fossil fuels, wind, hydro, and animals are all different forms of solar energy. Fossil fuels are plants and animals squished under layers of sedimentary rock. Wind is formed by differences in temperature creating areas of more or less dense air, and gravity is constantly trying to level out those differences. Solar energy also does the extremely heavy lifting of evaporating water...think of all the potential energy in the water lifted up into the sky. Last but not least, the current collection of solar energy by plants that feeds all of the life on earth, large and small.
As a sustainable designer that is our job, making sure every life form in our care has enough to eat. We get ourselves in trouble by just trying to feed our families. This is not woo woo hippy stuff. There are many types of soil organisms in a heathy soil ecosystem. These organisms do valuable work (ever pay for fertilizer?). They break down organic matter and convert it into usable forms of nutrients that our plants need access to. In return, our plant roots send them little thank you notes in the form of squirts of sugars (exudates). These little squirts of sugars combined with, organic matter, and the soil life are what give healthy soil its rich smell and slightly sticky crumb structure. Healthy soil creates bioavailable nutrients which creates healthy plants and the base of the food chain.
If we are only worried about feeding ourselves, and destroy the soil life, we will have to attempt to find a way to provide all the nutrition our plants need. It’s my opinion (and many others), that this is a big part of why we have seen culture of sickness forming. We are not capable of providing the proper nutrition to the plants like a heathy soil ecosystem is. Scientists are measuring lower and lower levels of nutrients in our food supply, because the soil ecosystem has been continually abused. Without the proper building blocks you can't build a healthy ecosystem.
Before the industrial revolution allowed our current situation, many civilizations would cut or burn down a forest to gain access to the forest soil. Modern farming only worries about the three nutrients critical for plant growth (N, P, K). Moving forward we want to do all we can to capture as much incoming solar energy as we can, converting it into fertilizer, feed, food, fuel, and building materials that provide for all we need, with some left over.
I don't believe true wealth can disappear over night, and we have all seen that happen in the stock market, and probably will again (soonish?). That doesn't mean no one worked for any of that "evaporative" wealth, but does first world labor really deserve such a larger payday than that of 2nd/3rd world labor? This can all get very complicated, and the goal isn't to pin one part of the world against another, so I'll leave that part alone, but my point is that part of the VAST difference in standard of living is partly because of "Monopoly money" rather than us being that much more productive.
A lot of the wealth today has been created out of thin air (monopoly money), to which it might return. Much of the rest of the real wealth (potential energy) has been pumped out of the ground and wasted, some has been used in amazing ways. Only a small percent is currently tangible and sustainable (mostly sun energy, stored and rearranged by creative people in any way possible).
The good news for the poor of the world, is that the sun shines on the rich and poor alike, and the sustainable type of wealth can be created out of what's available. The issue then becomes equitable access to land and education. The education part is quickly becoming free to those who want it.
If your reading this you likely fall into the 1st world, likely overpaid (thanks to massive unpayable debt, due to the perceived credit worthiness of our bankrupt nation(s)) category. While I don't give financial advice, I think it's worth thinking about wealth more as the storage of potential energy rather than a number in a computer.
You might be thinking land or food storage or precious metals, which aren't bad compared to computer numbers. But what truly has the most potential energy, and the ability to harness that energy into more useful forms? I think people do. No, not like slavery, more like social capital. Investing into people and places, so they make your/our local economy truly richer. Everyone has different gifts and skills, the more of a blessing we can be to one another, the less need have for those numbers on our computer screens.
I'm not calling for the abolishment of money, it has its place (though it could stand improvement), but I'm more trying to spur some thought into the things that have real lasting value, and hopefully spur some changes into what we invest our time and energy into. Maybe your current skills are all in handling money "department", maybe you should see what else your good at, on the side. Maybe your rich in skills but not financial resources. Maybe your rich in land, but are tired of managing it all... opportunities abound for everyone. Let's think about how we can make them more available!
I've recently been doing some thinking about what the soul of my business looks like. If I boil away all the science and techniques of producing healthy food that have been rattling around in my head for the last decade, what's the point?
And the conclusion I came to is hope. Hope is the point! But its not blind or unreasonable hope, and it's not because everything is rosy.
I've heard it said that the more you know or see, the more you hurt. The deeper you dig, the darker it gets. I have found this can be true. If I am anything, I am a digger and a seeker, and all that digging and looking around for answers has lead me to discover some dark truths. Probably the darkest of those truths is that at the core of the medical and agricultural industries, the main concern is a constant increase in profit. That's very far from saying Doctors and Farmers are evil, I believe the opposite is true in general. However the systems that control these industries are based on corporations that have a legal duty to shareholders to increase profits. To boil that down, sell more chemicals is the goal of both. If people are getting healthier the medical industry is losing money. It can be hard to believe, but that's what I have seen, both in research and in my own health journey. Even from truly caring Doctors, the only real option is a drug. Even though I was told I have a disease that isn't going away, the symptoms of my illness are GONE! What's my secret? Eating real food! That's it!
So that hope thing I was talking about. Creation is actually fighting for us, if we stop fighting against it, things naturally get better! People often talk about how bad there soil is. Then you drive down the road and there are 500 bags of leaves along the road.
Take a second to think about how people have been farming for all of history (the good and bad), it will dawn on us that a forest floor is what farmers are hoping to see when they dig down into the dirt. So much of history people have cleared forests to allow the sun to shine into these great soils that have been built by decades of falling leaves being broken down into a rich, life filled layer of soil. Then when you realize that if we start working with nature instead of against it, we can extremely rapidly increase the rate of improvement! Everywhere we look there are waste streams that can be turned into rich soil in very little time.
When I try to simplify permaculture, its really to realize there is no such thing as waste in nature. We know this, but its a little easier to just follow the crowd, and do our duty to have a "tidy" yard. Sure we "feed" our soil from the bag of salt based fertilizer that's "perfectly balanced".
How about we try to mimic nature instead? Look how much abundance is in a forest! And no garden Gnomes are spreading 10-10-10 in the middle of the night! Lets do better! Lets stop fighting nature and each other, and start building communities that are capable of feeding ourselves a natural diet based on what grows in our region!
How much water can you be capturing?
What to do with this bit of land that was your pretty garden in the spring, but now is full of half dead plants and others that are thriving that you didn’t plant (weeds)? The good news is you have several options that can bring you into spring with little effort and also improve the quality of your soil. First the basics.
Every gardener experiences problems. It takes some time to learn, and it also takes some time to improve your soil. Most of us are inherently impatient, so let me give some basic needs for soil, and look at some of the "normal" ways of gardening, that are quick fixes, but end up not being the best. Todays topic, tilling. I'll try to stick to the facts, and point out the good and bad fairly.
Basic soil needs: Living microorganisms, nutrients, air, and water. How do we get there?
Tilling- The good: Tilling is the most common first step to gardening, though boxed raised beds are becoming more popular. So tilling does work, and it works by getting rid of competing weeds, and allowing air into the soil. It also decimates the soil ecosystem, and while that sounds bad, the microbe death creates a short term boost of nutrients, which if timed right can give your plants a shot of growth. Also not all tilling is equal, a shallow cultivation method is much less harmful, and if there is any way you can till broad acres following the contour of the land (a level curving path), it will drastically reduce runoff and thus erosion.
The Bad:#1 It takes a lot of time for natural systems of organic deposition and decomposition to create healthy soil, especially if mature trees aren't nearby (think leaf fall). If the soil becomes quickly bare from tilling or any other major disturbance it only takes a few heavy rain storms to wash out all that "work", and the soil is what the rest of life depends on. By weight it is estimated that soil is America's "#1 export" is top soil (look at aerial maps of the Mississippi River dumping tons of soil into the gulf, or closer to home, the Chesapeake Bay). A major part of the solution to this erosion is plant roots, and natures solution is what we call weeds, fast growing ground covers.
#2 The weeds. You must understand that their are hundreds of weed seeds in every square foot of your garden (or lawn). These seeds stay dormant until all of their germinating conditions are met (temp/moisture/soil contact, etc.) Tilling normally satisfies all these conditions, so a week after tilling the "green fuss" is showing up everywhere, and the battle continues/repeats. Although weeds are "evil" to gardeners, they play an important role in nature, and if we want to control them, we need to understand what that is are various types of weeds/ weed roots, and they normally, thrive in conditions where they could improve the soil if left alone. For example, dandelions thrive in compacted soil, and send down that deep tap root that many hate. But if allowed to stay there, the plant will eventually die and that tap root decomposes into a tap root shaped natural compost. Think of it as natures aerification machine, that also adds organic material instead of a hole. Weeds with a hair net type structure thrive in very loose sandy soils, and hold it together. Others thrive after a fire, and boosts nutrients that the fire destroys...pretty awesome system.
#3 The microorganisms, are what create the coveted "crumb structure" of great soil, when you see it once you just know its good. Its dark, smells like fresh earth, and it almost looks like a dark batch of biscuit dough, with all the little lumps of butter holding the pea sized clumps together. In a healthy soil the microorganisms give off sticky substances to hold the crumb structure together, which creates air pockets (good), and prevents nutrients and water from just running right through. The organisms also have a complex relationship with the plants growing in it. The plant roots can actually expel starches and sugars to attract certain types of organisms that they can benefit from. These sugars help give the organisms energy, and in return the organisms have been breaking down organic matter and other organisms into forms of nutrients the plants can't get by itself. Beneficial fungi are a whole other topic, and the more you learn the more it blows your mind. They are like the highway system of the soil and also like the internet, where information can actually be shared among plants, warning each other of pests, so chemicals can be emitted to deter them. I know... sounds sci-fi, but its not.
One last downside of tilling is compaction of soil beneath the depth that the tiller can reach. Compaction, shuts out air and water, and turns the soil ecosystem to an anaerobic environment, which becomes more acidic, and overall not good.
Feel free to post a comment and let me know what you think, have questions, or disagree.
Everybody knows that "healthy soil" makes it easier to grow healthy plants. However there is a major flaw in the thinking of many gardeners about what makes soil "healthy". Too many falsely believe that the chemistry of the soil and right balance of nutrients is the key. Soil life is the key.
Most soils have all the nutrients they need. These nutrients are simply not in a form the plant can take up. In a similar way to how our digestive tracts need "probiotics", a healthy soil ecosystem is needed for the plants to take up the nutrients. One example of this in the key nutrient of Nitrogen, it is the N of NPK fertilizers. 80% of Earths atmosphere is nitrogen! The problem is this nitrogen is not in a form that the plants can use. The legume family of plants and trees however have a symbiotic relationship with a bacteria that is capable of taking atmospheric nitrogen and converting it to the form plants can use. That is why these plants can thrive in almost any soil, and a lot of them end up on invasive plant lists, because they grow so well with access to this key nutrient.
Unfortunately, many that try to grow things run into problems, and the attempted solutions end up waging war on soil biology instead of cultivating it. This is also a very similar with the treatment of human health and the lifestyle that would produce a healthy gut ecosystem. I'm pleased to see the growing trend of education in this area.
In my next post I'll talk in more detail about problems with current "quick fixes" and what other solutions are possible.
At its core, what is work? Isn't it the use of energy to rearrange things into a more useful form? What do you do at work all day? No matter whether your rearranging digital data, physical objects, or music notes, most jobs can be summed up that same way, right? But what is the origin of the energy we use to do our jobs? Unless your using nuclear power it all comes/came from the sun!
Natural systems use energy from the sun to rearrange things in the environment into more useful forms. Why not tap into that energy, and let it work for us instead of just fighting (mowing?) it? It IS possible to rearrange the places we live so that the energy of the sun is working for us, rather than making work for us.
The job of the Permaculture Designer is to understand how energy flows through where you live, and then to layout an efficient system, where (preferably) the needs of everything in the system are met by something else in the system. Again, small steps are ok, but its so much fun enjoying your environment, rather than fighting it, the steps come easily.