Saturday, June 25, 2011

When They Come

Ever since I was a kid growing up in suburban NY, I've been pissed off about the loss of wild things. My parents house was an old victorian that bordered a small forest. Way down below the house were the railroad tracks that took most of the fathers to NYC each day. Along that track ran a marsh. The tracks marked a line in my young head that formed a balance beam between seemingly opposite ideas - NYC versus the tadpoles, ducks and turtles in the marsh by the tracks. My mother taught me to love nature. My father taught me to love art and complex stories. Nature versus culture. Since the culture of my people seemed hell bent on destroying nature, I found it very hard to reconcile my twin passions.

8 years ago, when I moved from my 30 years of adult life in Los Angeles to Joshua Tree in the high desert above Palm Springs, I had a strong desire to connect with the non domesticated animals of my new world. My desert studio could not have been more urban, situated in the heart of downtown Joshua Tree and right across from the paramedic station. There were no animals in my stripped and barren backyard. Not a bird. Not even the ubiquitous desert rabbit. It seemed that only the inside of my  previously vacant studio had any signs of life - stinging centipedes (a desert friend said "one bites you, get your ass to the emergency ward"), black widows and the occasional scorpion. I'm not squeamish about insects...but come on!

And why would there be animals around? There was nothing to eat or drink and scary emergency sirens across the street. Still, it was and is a good place for my studio. Call it a half way house for an urbanite coming off fast lane addiction.

Over time I slowed down. Permaculturists say the process of land and habitat repair begins with Long and Thoughtful Observation. Here's another reason why permaculture appeals so much to me as an artist. That's what I'm trained to do. I apply that process to the observation of my surroundings and the way my mind interacts with those surroundings. This motto also appeals because our culture rarely engages in this kind of observation which often leads to thoughtless and destructive action being taken. I started to apply it to my rented studio. I learned a lot and managed over time to bring some life back via a vegetable garden, some grape vines, cactus garden, pomegranate trees.  Now there are birds, quail...still no rabbits. Currently I'm applying Long and Thoughtful Observation to my my newly purchased land.

My land is not too badly scraped and not too barren....and very quiet. So there are actually some animals to observe. I keep a journal of animals sighted, the direction they are moving, the time of day. Also I track the direction and velocity of the wind and the temperature. I've long looked forward to living in a thriving habitat and I know that a few years down the road I will be looking on a desert food forest where everything works together to make an abundant environment. In the days of living in my studio, I thought about When They Come....the animals, that is. Now, they're beginning to arrive.

A week ago I was sitting under the big tamarisk tree next to the border hedge of very old and big cactus. I was looking out over the land and thinking about what it will be like when they come, when movement caught my eye. There at the edge of the cactus was a huge beautiful King snake. It's very lucky to have a King snake in residence. They are rattlesnake antagonists and do a great job of keeping them away. This one was moving very slowly and carefully and was clearly making the rounds. A perfect moment for long and thoughtful observation. I followed it at a respectful distance for the 45 minutes it took for it to navigate through the hedge, cross some open territory and disappear into the huge oleander hedge on the east side of the house. Here are some things I thought about during that long observation:

1. The animals are already here. Even with a habitat that has still gone through some destruction like my land, they are around and ready to enter.
2. The snake is here, so close by, maybe because baby rabbits were born in our outside demolition pile during remodeling of the house. Why did the mother rabbit feel that this was a good idea? Maybe because the noise of demolition would be keeping predators away. Now demolition is done, there are more rabbits and so a food supply for the snake.
3. I wonder where my passport is.
4. My mother had a horror of snakes. In fact, the family couldn't even utter the word snake. We could say S.P.Q.E.N. if we needed to say something about them.....go figure. But I'm not afraid. Fear doesn't have to be passed on generationally.
5. I wonder if it's true that toenails continue to grow for awhile after death. Since I discovered when I was 12 that women DO NOT have one more rib than men, I'm deeply suspicious of all definitive statements.
6. I noticed that in between my thoughts, my mind was clear, alert and deeply engaged. I felt plugged in. I liked that feeling.
7. No thoughts. Good! Damn, thinking again!
8. Maybe long and thoughtful observation is similar to meditation.
9. I wonder if the snake has a circuit it makes on the land and how often? Got to consider this when placing structures so as not to interrupt its path.
10. I thought about how amazing it will be as the permaculture plan unrolls and the food forest takes effect. Each stage will bring it's own challenges as the animals come and I learn how to deal.

In the next few months we will hook up the greywater and direct it all to our first swale in which we will plant fruit trees and other plants that will form a beneficial guild. I look forward to seeing who comes along then and how I'm going to deal when they start eating all the fruit. Permaculture says "The problem is the solution". I'm intriqued by this statement. Its implications unroll as I encounter the challenges of transitioning to a new way of life. I look forward to understanding how it will apply when they REALLY come.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

8 Tips For Selecting A Desert Habitat for Permaculture

Fortunately, by the time I bought my current home, I'd read enough about permaculture to know what to look for. Whether you're renting or buying - if you're interested in permaculture - here's my list of attributes to look for:

1. The long side of the house should be facing south and should NOT be shaded with high foliage or trees. In the northern hemisphere, the south facing side is referred to as the "sun side" of the house. In the Southern hemisphere, the sun side is the northern side of the house. This should also be the side with most of the windows. Very few contemporary developers know how to or care to correctly orient a house so it takes some looking on your part. This orientation will give you the most advantage for passive solar gain. The roof should have a substantial eave (somewhere between 2 and 3 feet). The correct eave width will allow maximum amount of sun to enter the windows in the winter and will shade the windows in the summer. Here's a link for calculating the correct eave width at your latitude (you'll need to convert from metric with this calculator). Our latitude in the Morongo Basin is 116. Some green builders say the sun side eave width should be no more than 25% of window height  and recommend keeping any further coverage flexible by using retractable awnings or a trellis of vines that lose leaves in the winter. 

2. Look for shading from either porches or trees on the west and east sides, particularly the west. In the summer, the day will be the hottest in the afternoon as the sun moves to the west.

3. Look for the land to have a slope of no less than 4 % and no more than 25%. This will be very helpful for harvesting water run off and for using gravity for greywater systems. No matter how great the view, look for the house to be sited somewhere down the slope, not at the top. Desert winds can be fierce and you'll want as much protection from them as possible.

4. Look for washes and gullies that show water movement on the land. These are places where water can be captured by slowing it, spreading it and sinking it into the land. In this way you will begin to rehydrate the land.

5. It will be a great perk if all the windows in the house are dual glazed. This will help a great deal to keep the house temperate. Of course, it will also be very helpful if the house is well insulated.

6. Even the desert has micro climates. Some areas get more rain than others. Try to locate in the areas of highest precipitation (usually up against the mountains). Ask people in the immediate area about rainfall.

7. Most desert houses use swamp coolers. These simple and very effective cooling devices use evaporation to cool air that is drawn over wet pads and  then blown into the house. They are far more effective and energy efficient than air conditioners. The best place for a swamp cooler is on the north side (shade side) of the house. Although many desert homes have the swamp cooler on the roof, in my opinion this is the worst place for it to be. Not only is the sun constantly beating on it and heating the water inside it but any undetected leak is liable to damage the roof.

8. One of the most destructive practices of new home builders in our area is scraping the land - removing all vegetation in a large swath around the house. This is basically an ecological disaster. This contributes to particulate dust pollution, removes essential animal habitat and food source and destroys the intricate microbial balance of the native soil. Look for land where this kind of destruction is at a minimum and then work to restore the balance by planting food producing and medicinal natives.

For superb information on landscaping with our local native food and medicinal plants go to Robin Kobaly's

The beautiful news about permaculture is that it can be done anywhere; on dead flat land, mountainous land, house oriented all the wrong way, in the driest of the dry climates and in the monsoon howling tropics. This list just makes it easier if you've decided that the desert is your choice.

Long side of house faces south. Picture taken in
late May when eaves already block the summer sun.
Large Tamarisk shades west side. House is sited
about half way down a gentle slope. The scraped
land will be planted with food producing and
medicinal natives. Demolition work on interior 
has just been completed. Next step is long row of
dual glazed windows on south side.