You’ve heard me mention the term Permaculture. It’s the focus of my study and the design inspiration for most of the things I’m trying here on the farm. Google it, and this is the definition you get: the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.
It’s a great definition, and there’s a lot to unpack here (which I cannot wait to do in up-coming posts!), but for now, I’m going to point out a single, glaring omission.
Permaculture is built on community.
Sure, it’s about ‘inputs and outputs’, self-sufficiency, and several downright revolutionary ideas, blah, blah, blah. But there should be a sign on the permaculture door that says:
Beware, all ye who enter here! Proceed together, or perish!
Why, you ask? Why can’t I learn how to do it all on my own, move to an undisclosed location and go off-grid on my self-sustaining farm?
Well, you can.
But here’s the thing. You only get so many growing seasons to try it on your own, and there are lots of things that don’t work.
How do you find out what really grows in your area? Ask the people who are growing it.
How do you learn how to build up the quality of your soil without becoming a microbiologist? Talk to one. There is neither the need nor the time to ‘specialize’ in every area of research. Learn from others.
And did you know that there are passionate growers everywhere who are looking for people to gift with divided plants? Or seeds, or cuttings? And they will tell you exactly how to care for them. Growers are one of the most generous groups of people I’ve ever met.
Here’s what happened to me:
- I was picking mint in my yard one summer, and I asked myself why the rest of my landscaping couldn’t be edible and perennial. Less work, more food. I went to the library and asked for a book about edible perennials. It took months to find even one. But that book led me to this book, which led me to the word permaculture.
- I discovered my friend Elizebeth was already trying all these interesting things in her backyard. (Cue the inquisition!)
- Elizebeth introduced me to Antioch Urban Growers.
- At an AUG event, I met Bob, a master fig grower and all-around fount of information.
- Bob introduced me to a Facebook group where the members identify Missouri native plants (and non-native) from pictures, and are able to share uses, problems and control ideas.
- From this group, I learned of the Missouri Prairie Foundation, and specifically an event of theirs called the BioBlitz. This year’s BioBlitz was an entirely free exploratory camping weekend on Linden’s Prairie near Mt. Vernon, MO. And let me just say that it was the most profitable scientific event I’ve ever participated in. And it was a blast.
As I was pitching my tent under a brilliant June canopy of blue and white, I had to ask myself how I got here. Community and the providence of God!
The kids and I spent the school year studying our farm, using Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy’s book, The Living Landscape as our frame of reference, so this trek to the prairie felt like the best possible capstone to the year. And it was entirely fitting that Elizebeth and her son joined us for the adventure!
We arrived just in time to set up camp on the prairie before our first class began: Reptiles and Amphibians. The instructor shared a few frog/toad/snake/lizard/turtle basics before we hiked out over the prairie to locate sheets of metal that had been previously placed for snakes to hide under.
We didn’t discover any snakes, but we did find a box turtle and learned how to tell it’s age by the rings on the shell. After the hike, our instructor showed us several of Missouri’s most common snakes up close, and taught us how to identify the few venomous ones in our area (this time with plastic props. 😉 .) We’ve got plenty of snakes on the farm, but I’ve come to see them as friends who take care of the mouse population for me. We’ve yet to see anything venomous here, thank goodness. But in case we ever do, he gave us three words of advice, which I will pass along to you: Leave. It. Alone. 😉
After a delicious pot-luck dinner, (someone smoked venison tenderloin on-site, and another man made rabbit and pheasant stew!) a doctoral student from Kansas State University told us about his research studies on grassland spiders, specifically how the presence of predators (in this case, spiders) influences the feeding activities of prey insects, like grasshoppers.
I was keenly interested in this because last year’s grasshopper decimation of my okra crop. Good news: his study is showing that even the presence of a spider in the area convinces a grasshopper to feed less and keep moving. Now how to convince more spiders to take up residence near my okra!
At sunset when spiders become active again, we fanned back over the prairie for a spider safari. The kids beat the tops of the grasses with nets to collect specimens, then they dumped their collections onto trays for study. I was shocked at how much life was collected in a few aggressive swipes of a net. Nearly a dozen spiders and double that many insects!
Someone gave the boys walking sticks made of reeds that roughly resembled bow staffs, and that’s the last we saw of them for the evening…
Sunday morning, at dawn, this:
A voice says, ‘Call out.’
Then he answered, ‘What shall I call out?’
All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
When the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.
After breakfast, we watched as ornithologists identified and banded a Western Meadowlark. They had spread nets across the prairie and waited nearby to secure the birds so they wouldn’t injure themselves in the nets.
The bird banding station remained open all morning, so the boys hung out with one of the ornithologists asking questions, before jumping into a class on prairie mammals.
We girls headed back out onto the prairie for an ecology hike, where we learned about various wildflowers, grasses and sedges specific to prairies, along with interesting facts about them and identifying characteristics.
We discussed soil types and the effects of burning on the various plant, mammal and insect species present in a landscape. My takeaway: I’d love to learn more about restoring our fields with native grasses and wildflowers. And I know we need to investigate controlled burning. Our fields are overdue!
Incredibly, one of the directors of the event is putting me in contact with a Missouri Prairie Foundation board member who actually lives in my town!
We accidentally skipped our last class on butterflies when Elizebeth and I got carried away interrogating a man who began his permaculture farm in the late 90s. What a treasure to talk to someone who’s been doing this for almost 20 years! He’s invited us to visit his farm, and I definitely intend to take him up on it. I’ll tell you all about it, don’t worry.
It’s interesting that the more I study, the more I discover how deeply and intricately the plants, animals and insects in an ecosystem depend on each other to thrive, and sometimes even to survive . They are more than connected, they are interwoven. The delicacy of the tapestry is largely hidden from human eyes. It is below the surface, smaller than we can see: invisible strength woven in strands of connectivity, diversity, and even vulnerability.
Haven’t we been created for the same?
Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.