Spoken, or in this case written, words about permaculture often defy or misrepresent the essential qualities of the practice. When I say to you that it is necessary to sit for long hours and learn to see nature unfolding, it is easy to mistake the falling of leaves in this season, or the melting of snow in another for what it is that I suggest and this, in turn, necessarily leads us into forgetting that the time signature of the ages encompasses many snow melts and many fall seasons. Just how a leaf falls in the presence or absence of an overhanging tree, the seeming vagaries of where snowdrifts form in different conditions or the minute details involved in exactly where a squirrel chooses to bury his/her nuts can be confounding to those unschooled in the ways of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Even after becoming adept at seeing into these realms, knowing the spirit inhabiting each and all is also crucial to understanding this management scheme.
When we learn to think in terms of longer time signatures, it can seem daunting. A friend went organic nearly twenty years ago and on her way to finding a path forward, she had several seasons of difficulty and strife. She had an idea about what she wanted to do, but the land had a different idea. Most farmland that is for sale has been treated much the same as the rest of the planet. whatever was good and had value has been removed and whatever was promising an expedient return has been injected or broadcast over it for decades. even the soil microbes are sick or absent after a few doses of anhydrous ammonia or roundup. The “scientific” approaches to agriculture have led so far down a path of oppression, abuse, neglect and exploitation that it often takes several years to begin to bring balance back to the soil. My friend had three seasons in which nothing grew but dandelions, burdock and thistle. What she knew instinctually was that these plants had a reason for growing there even though she planted seeds for very different crops.
All three of these weeds are deep rooted and helped to overcome years of compaction and sterilization. By the end of her third season, there were patches of healthy soil breaking out amongst the clay and waste that had been left for her by the previous owners. Additionally, her approach was to feed the soils organic materials and compost as much as she could get her hands on. She turned the focus from the next harvest to generations down the line. Now, after nearly two decades, she raises organic vegetables in abundance on soil that could not support anything taller than a few sickly dandelions that first year. What had been a hard packed clay surface has become rich loam and both absorbs water better and holds on to it too.
Getting to know the land involves forgetting the clock, forgetting your ideas about what you want to make the land do and looking more deeply into what is needed in each discreet location instead. I have places that get overheated and used to dry out quickly after a rain. Those places got perennial sun-chokes, Jerusalem artichokes two years ago. The first summer I did not harvest any of them, I just weeded a little a couple times, each time adding more mulch. This year that handful of seed had turned into a five gallon bucket of high fiber delights, pink and beautiful. That is not the real reward for me however, it is the quality of the soil. What had been a difficult patch of hardened clay, impenetrable by rain and parched to cracking in the sun has now become a rich sandy loam that will offer up more abundance for being given a couple years to be protected from sun, infiltrated by rain and the mulch has built both tilth and nutrients in the soil. I’m not the biggest fan of waiting, but in this case it was well worth taking a couple years to begin to heal that difficult part of my garden.