Thursday, March 15, 2012

716. Book Review: Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture Design


By Kamran Nayeri, March 15, 2012

Toby Hemenway. Gaia's Garden:A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture Design, Second Edition, White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2009 

About 10,000 years ago, some groups of our species made a transition from gatherer-hunter way of life to permanent agrarian settlements. Recent research show that this transition, called the Agricultural Revolution, was not some rational choice for a better way of life.  It is suggested that climate change forced some gatherer-hunters to use existing knowledge and technology to eke out a living from agriculture and that standard of living of the early agricultural settlers was probably lower than their gatherer-hunter contemporaries.  However, it was on the basis of these agrarian settlements that class societies emerged and evolved up to the present day capitalist world economy.  In the process, competing social organizations—whether gatherer-hunter groups or pastoral (nomadic) tribes—were either suppressed or absorbed into class societies’ “civilization.”  Thus, the emergence and rise of class society (domination and exploitation of direct producers by a ruling class) was founded on the basis of domination and exploitation of nature.  Modern humans either domesticated animals and plants to suit our perceived needs or destroyed whoever and whatever got in Our Way of Life.  Under industrial capitalism this process has reach its critical point with the planetary crisis we face today.  Either we reverse course and attain a harmonious social organization that lives in harmony with the rest of nature or much of life on which we depend will be destroyed.   Permaculture should be placed in this context, as a revolutionary theoretical and practical step in the direction of reversing humanity’s catastrophic course.

While permaculture finds its roots in earlier forms of farming such as forest farming of indigenous people or organic agriculture, Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren formulated it as a method during the 1970s. According to Mollison permaculture is "a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than premature and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single project system."[1]  Peraculture originally meant “permanent agriculture.”  However, as the social aspects of the theory became better understood it has come to mean “permanent culture.” As a young field, permaculture is evolving rapidly.

As a novice gardener I purchased Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden to learn about gardening; I certainly recommend it highly to others like myself instead of any traditional gardening books.  However, it is perhaps even more useful for more experienced gardeners who are getting tired of fighting Mother Nature to maintain their garden.

The book has three parts:

  • Part One: The garden as Ecosystem;
  • Part Two: The Pieces of the Ecological Garden;
  • Part Three: Assembling the Ecological Garden.

Part One, Chapter One introduces permaculture and the garden as an ecosystem and tells the story of a number of successful permaculturally designed gardens.  Chapter two introduces some ecological principles relevant to garden design and some techniques that is explored in some detail later in the book.  Chapter Three provides a road map for designing a permaculture garden.  

Part Two deals with four components of the garden as an ecosystem: soil, water, plants and insects, birds and other helpful animals.

Chapter Four is about the soil (Hemenway notes how it is degraded in English language as “dirt”). As Hemenway points out that soil is where “the dead are brought back to life.” Only recently scientists have began to view the soil not just in terms of its physics and chemistry but also as something alive.  A teaspoon of good pasture soil contains a billion bacteria, a million fungi and ten thousand amoebae.  Combined with clay, silt, sand, water, air, humus, assorted molecules, and small critters that make up the rest of soil, it is a complex life giving force.  Hemenway offers a great introduction to understanding and developing healthy soil.  Topics covered include recycling, composting and mulching.

Chapter Five deals with water conservation and use and is similarly informative and practical.  It begins with the observation that only 3 percent of the Earth’s water is fresh water and that three quarter of fresh water is frozen. Half of what remains is embedded in rock 2,500 feet or more below the surface.  Thus, only 0.375 percent of the planet’s water is useable and accessible in the form of lakes, rivers, groundwater, and atmospheric water.  Water is indeed a scare resource.  Hemenway covers a number of techniques for catching water, designing grey water systems, and creating wetlands.

Chapter Six is on plants and begins with an instructive outline of the many roles of a tree. This outline is powerful because in a couple of pages it undermines the mechanical worldview of nature so prevalent today where speices are viewed in terms of their utility or disutility for humans (click here for the text). Instead, Hemenway demonstrates how a tree is multifunctional and part of a complex ecosystem in which everything and everybody is connected to everything and everybody else.  He then singles out a number of plants for illustration including Maxillian sunflower, goumi, maypop, comfrey, mashua and bamboo.  Given this context, plants are also classified and discussed as mulch makers, nutrient accumulators, nitrogen fixers, soil fumigators and pest replants, insectary plants, fortress plants, and so on.

In Chapter Seven Hemenway introduces the reader to the role insects, birds and other helpful animals (e.g. chicken, ducks, rabbits) play in a permaculture design.  He discusses predatory insects, parasitic insects, pollinators and weed feeders.  He also discusses birds and how to attract them to the garden as well as techniques such as chicken “tractors” and rabbit cages (more on these later).

Part Three deals with the implementation of the permaculture design.  In Chapter Eight Hemenway discusses creating plant communities—where each plant supports others.  He begins with early attempts to return from monoculture to polyculture including Ianto Evans’s polyculture and Jakakot’s advanced polyculture.  Next, he introduces the concept of guilds defined as “a group of plants and animals harmoniously interwoven into a pattern of mutual support, often centered around one major species, that benefits humans while creating habitat.” (p. 183).

Chapter Nine offers design ideas for garden guilds using natural plant communities as guide.  He introduces techniques such as function-stacking in guilds. He then proceeds to “super guilds” (a guild is organized around a tree and a super guild around a number of trees). 

Chapter Ten introduces the concept of food forest. Chapter Eleven offers techniques for permaculture design for cities where land and space is scarce. Hemeway devotes the last chapter (Chapter Twelve) to brining together all the key ideas he has introduced in the book and adds a few more general ideas to show how the whole is larger than the sum of its parts. In fact, some readers may want to browse this short chapter before reading the book to get a sense of how various ideas may will come together.

Hemenway has written a wonderful book about permaculture home-scale garden design with many practical suggestions rooted in a philosophy of nature that  includes aesthetics and ethics.  Expanding on the ideas of Masanobu Fukuoka (the visionary founder of the Natural Farming movement) he writes:

“…[G]uilds ask for a subtle adjustment of our relation with our environment.  The order of a conventional row-crop garden is the order of the machine.  This regimentation invites us to view plants as mechanical food factories. We fuel them with fertilizers, service them with rakes and hoes, and measure their production in bushels, bins, and tons. We view the plants as part of our dominion. In a guild, we are but one living being among many others; and, like all other animals enfolded by this community, we nurture and are nurtured by an almost-wild place. We prune and cull, as do the deer and mice. The fruit we leave does not rot on the ground to breed disease; it is gladly devoured by many companions.  We turn over a bit of soil, and the worms turn over yet more. We participate rather than rule. With guilds, we begin to shed the mantle of command and return to nature the many responsibilities we have unnecessarily assumed.” (p. 207)

In my view, this ethics of permaculture is consistent with the ethics of ecological socialism—a future society where permacture will become the norm and not a marginal activity.  However, Hemenway is not always consistent is applying this ethics.  The idea of “chicken tractors” and “rabbit cages” suggested by him in Chapter Seven as a way to scratch the land and/or produce manure is not consistent either with the ethics he outlines in the book and quoted above or with the ethics of an increasing number of people who are concerned if not with animal liberation yet but at least with their welfare.  The idea of “Free range chicken” trumps Hemenway’s “chicken tractors”  and the like. 

1.  "Healthy Environments and You". Shirley MacLaine.com, Inc. and MacLaine Enterprises, Inc.

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