Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Feral Farm - August 25

Pictures of Feral Farm will be loaded later once we find the cable for Tim’s camera.

Matt Van Boren hates agriculture. He produces zines about it and pretty clearly lays out how, no matter what, no matter how organic, agriculture depletes soil and releases carbon into the atmosphere. He allows that permaculture does it better than most but still…he believes in going feral with a light touch on the habitat. So his land is an exploration in forest management and the planting and harvesting of useful perennial plants ala the ancient practices of indigenous peoples prior to the invasion. His land doesn’t look like a farm, it looks like a forest and it takes going on a tour with him to realize how much food he is restoring to this ecosystem. Chestnut trees are tucked into the forest throughout as well as all kinds of fruits, berries and medicinals. He does not irrigate. The plants make it or they don’t. For meat based protein, he harvests road killed deer. There is plenty of that in this part of the world.

It made me think. Irrigation is not only a pain because of constant maintenance needs, but is also ultimately untenable as water becomes a dwindling resource due to aggressive and wasteful agricultural practices. The farming practice of harvesting annuals that must be replanted each season takes huge amounts of water while stripping the soil of microbiota due to tillage. Southern Cal is in for a bad ride on this account. Surprisingly, Tim and I have come upon a number of interesting techniques in this water rich part of the world (Skagit County, Washington) that can be retrofitted to our desert needs. Such as:

Hugelkultur – instead of raising the beds into big mounds that have too much surface for evaporation, sink the beds and line with clay for moisture retention. Better yet run your greywater to the bed in an underground perforated pipe. Use the bed to grow food and medicinal perennials by reusing your recycled household water.

Biochar – sequesters carbon, aids in water retention and creates a rich medium for soil microbiology. Mix biochar into the Hugel beds.

Go feral – concentrate on desert land restoration. The Mojave desert we see today is not the Mojave of even 200 years ago. Gold miners cut down the native food rich mesquites for smelting. Cattle decimated the food rich native Indian rice grasses. The loss of ground cover has led to less ability for the soil to hold moisture. The land dries out and drains away into gullies and arroyos. Let’s research how to restore the mesquites and the grasses that can provide food for us and for the local fauna.

Carbon ranching holds intriguing possibilities.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Tim and Lindsey with the fruit gleaned from Mr.
Mitchell's community trees.

August 27 - We arrived at Windward Farm near Klickitat in southern Washington. Windward is an old and well established intentional community that has had a recent influx of young permacultue-minded members and interns. Windward is an interesting blend of the philosophy of the Oneida Community and the politics espoused so cogently in the Robert Heinlein novel "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress".  Mensa intelligence abounds here. Senior member, Walt, has been working on a biomass to liquid fuel technology. The idea is small scale local fuel for lumber rich areas. It's all DIY and ties in seamlessly with wholistic forest management. He has nailed the wood chips to natural gas phase and is now working on the gas to liquid fuel phase.
Tim checks out the wood chips
to gas technology
Walt demos the in-progress gas to liquid fuel process
Jill finds the big wrench

Our first day, we helped 6 year community member Lindsey harvest apples, plums and grapes along the public road way in downtown Klickitat. For the last 30 years, a local resident named Mr. Mitchell has planted hundreds of fruit producing trees on public land for the public good. Unfortunately, only the Windward Community members recognize, utilize and honor this great act of service. Klickitat, like so many other communities here in the Pacific Northwest, went into serious decline with the end of the logging industry. It seems to have resisted the turn towards ecotourism that has lifted so many other towns out of that decline.

The next day, we helped Andrew dig out another Hugelkultur bed. The community is putting its full energy into building these amazing water retaining and soil building beds. Windward is on the eastern rain shadow side of the Cascades so water holding is a much bigger issue than it is on the western side. The ecosystem reminds me very much of the forests of Idyllwild in the San Jacinto Mountains.
Tim and Jill dig the initial trench for the
Hugelkultur mound to be. The trench is
dug "on contour" for maximum water
holding capacity.

First layer of biomass in the form of logs.
More woody material added and pounded
down until trench is full. Next comes more
layers of logs, sticks, soil, manure with final
layer of top soil covered by a mulch
of wood chips or straw.

Desert Take Away:

Revolutionaries should have fun.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Larry Williams makes biologically
activated charcoal.

We arrived at the Whatcom County Skill Share Fair on August 23. I had been reading about biochar just before leaving on our road trip and was very excited about the possibilities for soil remediation and water retention in the desert. I was happy to learn that Larry Williams would be teaching a DIY workshop at the Fair on how to make one's own biochar.

I glued myself to Larry and photo documented the whole process. It's actually very easy to do. Biochar is controversial particularly because it could be ecologically devastating done as Big Business (what else is new?). But done correctly and small scale, it can do the following:

1. create a biologically active carbon condo that soil building microorganisms love to occupy (Occupy Carbon!)
2. increase soil water retention dramatically
3. sequester carbon!

Can't wait to get back home, share knowledge and make some.

Desert Take Away:
Occupy Carbon!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Doug and Sam

Our next stay was at the Bullock Brothers (Doug and Sam) Permaculture Farm on Orcas Island off of northern Washington. The Brothers and family started the farm back in the 1970s way before there were any books or local mentors on permaculture. They are Permaneers in the best sense, constantly trying this and that, planting everything and anything, teaching everything they’ve learned and building the soil as they go. Early on they rebuilt a small dam so that the marsh that had been drained for potato growing was able to re-flood and regenerate. It is now a verdant ecosystem that is one of the great birding spots on the west coast.

On our first morning there, I volunteered to go with Luke (one of the interns) to collect marsh muck for mulching a new garden bed. We took the canoe into the middle of the lake, jumped out into thigh deep water, scooped up armfuls of weed/muck and dumped it into the canoe. I was crazy happy with this job! I mean really. I'm serious. Then we wheel barrowed it back to the garden and laid it on the surface of the beds as mulch and fertlizer.
The marsh

Meanwhile Tim was helping with fruit tree pruning. Later in the day, we both helped clear grasses from around newly planted forest trees which we then mulched heavily with sticks and pruned branches. The brothers are constantly planting in the woods to rebuild biodiversity in the conifer forest.
We helped do some forest management

In all our travels so far, the Bullocks farm was the most advanced food forest we’ve seen. The food production was incredible. Everywhere we turned, there was something delicious to eat. We were stuffed from grazing on berries, apples, plums, not to mention the prepared meals of fresh veggies and salads. Their irrigation system is No Waste. In the morning, the small pumps turn on and start pumping marsh water up to the tanks on top of the hill above the farm. The water is then gravity fed down to the irrigation system. The farm surrounds the marsh so the water in the gardens eventually seeps down and returns to it.

Desert Take Away:

Re-building biodiversity is essential.

The brothers have been planting Monkey Puzzle trees that bear a large fruit. The look of the tree and the leaf structure made Tim and I wonder if this tree might do well in the desert.

Everywhere we have been, the farms are growing comfrey. This is an important dynamic accumulator that is a very vital component for compost tea.

Friday, August 22, 2014

What the Land Wants

The retreat center in progress

On August 9, we traveled onward to Gabriola Island to visit Brenda. Brenda bought land 25 years ago as a young lawyer starting her specialty in protection of local Indigenous rights. For those 25 years she dreamed of a retreat center on the land that would hold space for spiritual quests and now she is building it with full glory. She often talks in terms of what the land asks her to do. I could understand why. The land overlooks a small fecund bay that opens around a spit to the Straits of San Juan de Fuca. The in and out flow and breath of the land, the ocean, the flora and fauna is mesmerizing on a daily basis.

After thorough internet research to make sure there was no red tide or bacterial weirdness, we harvested oysters from the bay for two consecutive nights of indulgence. Incredibly, I achieved overload. It took a few days before I could fathom ever eating an oyster again.
Tim shucks oysters

As usual, we cased out our host’s site to see what we could do to help out. The composting toilet system was in fast need of attention. Is it strange that one of my great satisfactions is putting a composting toilet system in order? I got immense satisfaction from putting it right and teaching everyone how to use it.

Tim helped Pollen make compost tea for new cabbage starts in Brenda’s super abundant food garden. The recipe was a 55 gallon bucket of water with heaps of fresh comfrey, yarrow, dandelions and kelp soaking in it for 24 hours. Pollen is part owner of Watercliff, a two family permaculture farm on the other side of Gabriola. He comes over to Brenda’s once a week to work on the new garden design that includes fruit tree guilds, hugelculture vegetable beds, and some water harvesting catchment swales and diversion ditches.
Brenda's garden

Desert Take Aways:

While water harvesting swales and berms are essential to desert permaculture, they are not often used in these more northern rain rich areas. Though they would be advantageous during the dry summers, the winters bring rainfall that needs to be diverted off the land. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Free Republic Of ....

The Ferry Dock on Lasqueti

.... Lasqueti. The northern most point of our travels. Fabled throughout the Gulf Islands and beyond. The mention of the name brings a coyote-ish grin to the face of the knowing listener. Lasqueti is fiercely off grid. There is no car transport ferry to the island so any cars there appear to be mostly from the 1970’s influx of U.S. draft dodgers and back-to the-landers that bought up land back in the day. That means the cars appear to be held together with chewing gum and sea glue (rust). Hitch hiking is a way of life. Walking is too. The Lasquetians (?) say “every ride is a safe ride”. There is no police force and no building codes (at least not ones that are followed). Electricity is produced individually by ingenious DIY hydro-electric generators in the winter and solar in the summer. Lasquetians are wary of strangers (pot growing – way of life), but once you establish your non-narcness, they are extremely open and helpful. The bottom has fallen out of the pot market so it will be interesting to see the next evolution of the Laqueti local economy. I’m sure it will be innovative.

DIY hydro-electric system

On our arrival at the ferry dock, we decided to get a beer at the only local bar. We had a vague satellite map and a letter of introduction from my friend who had invited us to camp on her land. I showed it to the fireman sitting at the bar (I have a deep faith in firemen). He informed me that we would never find it with that map. Calls were made. We were given a ride to the firemen’s picnic where everyone at the bar was sure someone would know the land. There we were given over to a car driven by a neighbor of the land. S was in the car too and knew the exact footpath from the neighbors land and so we were escorted right to it.

That was our first introduction to S. He appeared many times throughout our travels on Lasqueti and we became good friends. S is 30 something and has been living on the island for 6 years. He makes a living gardening for others. He also does deep research into the problem of how to get brain cancer drugs to cross the blood/brain barrier. S has one of those intelligences that beams at you. My traveling partner Tim is a neuro-scientist. He was astounded at S’s deep grasp of the complex issues that are at the heart of cancer and cancer treatment.

The path to the property.
Tim and S at the Tea House on our friends land.

The peat bog and beaver pond that borders
our friends property.

Every day we got up early, hiked to the road and caught a ride into town for breakfast at Mary Jane’s. Then we let the day take us.

One day we visited the Community Center where the People’s History of Lasqueti is written on the side of the building. It was the best history lesson ever! Eccentric, authentic and mythic.

An excerpt from the History of Lasqueti

One day we met Joy, owner of the Crystals and Chamomile store, who has lived on Laqueti for 20 years. She told us about the successful and nearly complete community effort to build a medical clinic with senior housing so that their people would not have to leave the island as they aged.

Another day, we made our way to the Leviathan, a truly impressive hand built (one might say hand woven) dance and retreat studio. M (the architect, builder and owner) graciously took time out to give us a tour. He also showed us a small out building that he had built using plastic bags as insulation packed between the cob and wood walls.

The Leviathan

On yet another day, we caught some rides to the far south end of the island for a picnic with a group of islanders who were starting to practice permaculture. We talked the talked and snorkeled in the warm bay. As usual, I was impressed by the dedication and energy of the younger permaculture crowd.

Picnic on the beach with our new permaculture friends.

In many ways, the people reminded us very much of our own Joshua Tree community. It was hard to leave the Free Republic of Lasqueti.

Desert Take Away:

From Jill – There are many communities as fiercely independent as Joshua Tree. It’s great to feel that resonance as we travel.

From Tim - It’s one month into our travels and, to my surprise, I haven’t killed Jill yet. There’s still time.

From Jill – a coyote-ish grin.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Return

The demolition of the Elwah dam is complete. The return
of the wild salmon begins.

We arrived on the Olympic Peninsula and decided to find some wild hot springs in the interior that Tim knew about. The exciting thing was that the area (and the trail to the springs) was closed to the public because of a 3-year project to take down a hydro-electric dam on the Elwah river for the purpose of restoring the salmon run. The demolition was complete but the equipment had not yet been removed. The big red sign made it clear that no one was allowed in, which just made it all the more compelling.

We camped in the designated campground, debating about the merits of embarking on a 12 mile round trip hike that night. First we thought no….then we thought YES. We set out around 6 pm. Within an hour we came to the demolished dam. There we met a local who shared our anarchist tendencies. We stood on the lip of the chasm that had once held the lake. The newly restored river meandered far below us. She told us in a reverent whisper that beginning this fall the salmon would now run the full 35 miles of the river for the first time in 100 years. In a world of bad news, this was deeply moving to hear. We also met a hiker who had just come through the pass and down from the springs. She was clearly shaken to the core by the bad condition of the suspension bridge that she had crossed over to get here. But after thorough cross-examination, we decided that we could handle it. We pushed on.

We reached the bridge about 2 hours later. The damage was impressive but so was the engineering of the bridge. A landslide had fallen on our side and a large boulder had catapulted onto it, breaking half way through some of the floorboards. Fortunately there was still some light left so we scrambled our way over. Indiana Jones couldn’t have done it better.

In another hour we reached the hot springs. Needless to say, we were alone. It was intensely dark. There were seven shallow pools but most of them had filled in and grown over. One remained clear. We relaxed in the silence and warmth of Heaven for about an hour. Then, like the salmon, we began the return.

The damaged suspension bridge just before
we cross back over in the dark.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

O.U.R. EcoVillage (aka Champions of the World)

Tim talks with Ashley and head gardener Grant about
the benefits of carpet seeding lettuce beds
Sheet mulching the terraces for the future food forest
Compost tea made from dandelions, comfrey and yarrow

We are currently on Gabriola Island in BC but catching on blogging about previously visited sites.
In mid July, we spent two nights with some more champions of the world. You know, those people who have spent their lives doing the work to bring abundance, peace and harmony to their communities. I’m always humbled in their presence. Having spent my life as an artist I was probably more in the camp of “do no harm” since doing good is hard to prove in an artistic practice.

O.U.R. Ecovillage is on Vancouver Island. It’s about 20 years old and, like most intentional communities, has gone through many iterations. The last of the original residents and land holders, Brandy, is a force of nature and is now helping to take the community to its next ambitious step. The Ecovillage is already a highly regarded learning center for all things sustainable. They are planning a cob building workshop for the coming year that will be dream team taught. A large cob constructed eatery was being built during our visit where chefs who understand the deep natural medicine of healthy nutrition will conduct classes.

Again, we met an amazing group of people who intern, garden and build as champions of the world. Many thanks to them for their good work.

Desert Take Away: This summer, the drought is being felt for the first time here in BC. We have been told that the winter rains stayed steady but the summer has been completely dry for the first time in local memory. The drylands permaculture lessons we are learning in Joshua Tree may be important ones to share with the rest of the world at some point.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Another Vortex

Lot of folks in Joshua Tree talk about the vortex-like nature of the place. It pulls you in, entices you with its hard beauty and makes it difficult to leave. Williams Oregon has a vortex too. We never intended to stay for 4 days but the connections just kept coming on. Williams is a lush remote agricultural valley where lovers of pot, organics, kombucha, Rudolf Steiner, biodynamics, ceremony, fermentation and permaculture (to just name a few of the passions) come together. Thanks to the citizens of Williams for being so kind and open to us!

Open mic night in Williams

The lush food forest at Seven Seeds Family Farm.

Jill helps harvest Calendula at the Herb Pharm.

Tim discovers Mesquite flour in the Williams general store.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Gate Crashing

Capturing ideas from the NorCal Transition Leadership meeting

We arrived in Sebastopol to find a Northern California Transition Leadership meeting happening that we gate crashed. Despite being the water usurpers from the south, we were welcomed with open arms. We met LOTS of the Transition leadership from Transition Initiatives all over Northern California, all doing the work of all works. It was great to connect up again with Scott Mckeown, a founding member of Transition Sebastopol and our Trainer for Transition in Joshua Tree. Turned out we had good things to offer at the all day meeting about our successes particularly in transitioning to an elected Coordinating Council. Very few Transition groups have successfully made this change. We gave due creds to Scott who helped us with Best Practices suggestions through the process. Maggie Fleming, new co-director of TransitionUS asked us to write an article about it for the TransitionUS newsletter. 

Water harvesting systems at OAEC
Our OAEC digs for the weekend

We spent our 2 nights in the area at Occidental Arts and Ecology Center where I did my PDC in 2012. Tim got to meet one of my teachers, Kendall Dunnigan. We were able to hang with her a bit and hear about her recent work in Haiti with the SOIL group - putting together a humanure (cholera is rampant), soil building, tree planting program permaculture-style.

We stayed up on the hill in the tipi by the pond. Very sweet digs. The hot tub didn't hurt either.

Coffee and research to figure out our next destination

Take aways for the desert:

1. Reconomy efforts are working well in some of the Transition Initiatives, one in particular is Transition Humboldt.

2. We can be very proud of our Transition Joshua Tree successes! Having a well functioning Coordinating Council and learning group processes techniques are essential.

3. While traveling make sure to immerse yourself in a body of water every day (bath tubs and showers don't count).

Thursday, July 17, 2014

On The Permie Road 1

My permie design biz partner Tim DeLorey and I have hit the road for a 2 month exploration of all things permaculture in the Pacific NW including the Gulf Islands off Vancouver. Networking is a permie art. Two days out and the connections are coming fast. We are currently in Paso Robles staying at Franklin Hot Springs (funkified!) where the owner, Norm Franklin, has just taken steps to lease his barn to a compost tea maker. His daughter is going to chefs school and wants to start a farm to table restaurant on the land. Cal Poly is helping work out some possible aquaponics using fresh water shrimp.

Way funky pump at the hot springs.

Yesterday we visited Ambeyth Certified Biodynamic Vineyard and learned about "dry farming". No irrigation. The harvest depends solely on the rains. This kind of drought training drives the grape roots down deep to find water (they can go down 100 feet!) and intensifies the flavor and nutritional value of the fruit. They age the wine in clay amphori imported from Italy. Thanks to owners Mary and Phillip for taking the time to show us around! Later that day we bought a watermelon that had been dry farmed. It was incredibly delicious with an edible rind.

clay amphora for aging biodynamic wine

Today we met Jim Coles who helped start Oak Commons Co-housing, teaches a PDC course and is a founding member of the local Transition Initiative. We compared notes on what it takes to launch and maintain a Transition Initiative. The Commons includes a 10 acre, Blue Oak woodland. Jim has started a discussion with the other co-housing members about using permaculture techniques to jump start the "succession" process of the woodland - the natural process by which nature builds bio-diversity. The correct kind of grazing could help with this. He's considering turkeys.

Take-aways for the desert:

Investigate water harvesting techniques to aid in dry farming.

Grape varieties from the Rhone valley are well adapted to dry conditions.

Try dry farming some Klondike water melons under the grapes.


Monday, March 10, 2014

No Waste

Home-made composting toilet

One of the beautiful notions of permaculture is that there is no such thing as "waste". In an integrated system that mimics the patterns of nature, everything is recycled...including human manure (called humanure in permie circles). It has to be done right but when it is, it produces a rich soil that is excellent for mulch basins. I built this composting toilet in one day. Inside the green tote is a 5 gallon bucket that is nested in a styrofoam template so that the bucket is correctly re-aligned after emptying. The toilet seat cover is on a plywood sheet that has cork spacers under it - again for correct alignment. The bucket will be emptied into a large 55 gallon drum. The drum will sit for 2 years with occasional aerating with a compost aerating corkscrew. It's not hard to do but the correct method should be carefully researched. Dave Omick's website is excellent. Also check out The Humanure Handbook.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Ripple Effect

Building boomerang swales. Photo credit: Stacy Doolittle

It's been awhile since I've blogged. One year ago I helped form the 4 member Transition Joshua Tree Permaculture Project Team. Our mission was to research the best method for quickly bringing practical knowledge of permaculture to our community. After much thought, we developed a framework for hosting workshops on local private land that will  teach different permaculture techniques to the public. Our first workshop was on Feb. 23. There were 20 participants. We started with an overview of permaculture and then explained the principles of water harvesting. We watched Brad Lancaster's great short video "Free Water". That was followed by an explanation of "guilds" - the technique of companion planting food, medicinals and pollinator attractors around an overstory "nurse" tree. We then explained the plan for the day - to build a series of boomerang swales in which we would be planting an olive and a Mesquite tree for future guilding. The team had pre-planted a guild around an already existing mature Mesquite on the property so that everyone could see what the boomerangs would look like a few years from now when the new trees had developed canopies large enough to shade and nourish a guild.

Energy was high. I might even say the energy was ecstatic. It is a beautiful thing to behold 26 people (4 teachers, 20 participants and 2 wonderful property owners) working intensively together to manifest a vision that was developed by observing and respecting the patterns of nature. The Devas were with us. The swales were gorgeous, the trees were vibrant, the birds were singing.....and so were we!

Our project mission is complete and the Transition Joshua Tree Permaculture Team is now open to all new members who wish to join us. The knowledge is rippling out to the world. I'm so grateful to make this my life's work. Heart filled thanks to team members - Tim Delorey, Damian Lester and Janet Tucker and to Transition members and property owners - Eva Montville and Kathy Jennings. And a big shout out to the extraordinary workshop participants who made it happen!