Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Pendulums and Permaculture


It’s the darkest week of the year. Here in Madison, that means it’s just getting light at 7 am and pitch black again by 5. I have been swinging back and forth on a pendulum of motivation because of it.

We admittedly don’t usually make our bed (a mattress in the loft of our little cabin) in the morning, but I am a huge stickler about going to bed at night with the sheets in proper order, which often means re-stretching the fitted one over at least one of the four mattress corners. But I’ve noticed that some nights recently I just go to bed without even bothering. And some mornings I turn over and sleep in for a while too, even knowing I am missing some of those precious few daylight minutes.  

Luckily, the pendulum usually swings back and I heed the alarm, wake up before dawn, stoke up a fire and cup of coffee and read my magazines (current choices are Rolling Stone and the New Yorker), the stories from which inspire me to go - either to my office to ravenously work on the dozen different projects, or to wander our property wrapping up the long list of fall/winter chores (that the weather gods are letting us get away with doing now since winter is just getting here in late December). Of course, the holidays most cultures around the world recognize this time of year force the pendulum to stay on that motivated, sometimes-stress-inducing end of things, so that we all get out of our bed, and, if you are not Freddie and me, maybe even make it.

Anyway. I was sheet mulching the other day around our apple and pear trees, thinking about permaculture. Ever since I first heard of it, I cringed at the name. It makes me think of the ‘perms’ my mom put in my hair in the 80’s, those chemical treatments that cause a curly frizzy mess for months to a head of hair even as straight and fine as mine. Of course the word permanent also comes to mind: And nothing is permanent.

The idea behind permaculture is to create stable food systems modeled from nature. Think fruit and nut trees providing shelter for edible greens and perennial vegetables like asparagus, which in turn provide nutrients and attract beneficial critters. All this while diminishing or eliminating the need to water, weed and fertilize.

Like doing yoga, I think permaculture gardening is a perfect complement for my climbing/traveling life. After a month on the road giving slideshows and visiting friends and family and rock climbing, it was simply heavenly to collect a car full of cardboard from the transfer station, lay it out around all the young trees as a weed barrier, and dump dozens of buckets full of compost and topsoil on them, creating rich new raised beds.

In the new beds, I planted garlic and Egyptian walking onions (one of few ‘perennial’ onions, though not truly perennial, they just grow new bulb sets at the top of their stalk, and when the stalk dries and falls over at the end of the season, they reseed themselves), which I’ve read will naturally help repel apple loving pests, plus little bits of comfrey root, the magical green compost, the taproots of which will dig deep down for nutrients and encourage the fruit tree roots to spread. That’s what I love about the permaculture ideology; everything is planned for multiple purposes, and to create self-perpetuating systems. 
Just like the climbing world, there is a thriving subculture in the ‘permie’ world. While our climbing community banters about retro-bolting and charging for rescues, the ‘permies’ of our region busy themselves debating carbon farming, requirements for permaculture design classes and how our gardening can encourage or fight climate change.

I am a quiet observer at this stage in the game, reading the books, surfing the Internet, scrolling dozens of emails from the regional Listserv and most importantly experimenting with methods on our property. I may jump in deeper at some point, say, to work on changing that stupid name, but am thoroughly enjoying being a beginner and an outsider in a field I am so newly passionate about for now. And of course I am also happy to have one more hobby to keep me swinging through the long winter pendulum season. Thank goodness nothing is permanent.

Some permaculture resources for other newbies:
Edible Forest Gardens - a great books series for DIY permaculture, focused on New England
Fedco - Northeast resource for local, organic trees, seeds, bulbs and more

(All photos shot and edited on my new fancy schmancy iphone)

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