Lessons from the Past

As a permaculturist it is my goal to “work with nature rather than against it” to create landscapes that provide for the basic needs of myself and others. In the permaculture movement we often look to the past to see how people provided for themselves without taking too much. Presently humanity is unwittingly a part of a system that takes far more than it puts back to provide for both the needs and the voracious wants associated with commercialized consumerism. Most people seemingly have no idea that the way of life we live in North America, much of Europe, Australia, Japan etc is absolutely devastating to the systems which support us. There is little taught in schools about the need to replenish the soil or to find alternatives to consumer culture. Instead globally recognized brands are finding there way into school curriculum under the guise of “teaching aids” when really they are just trying to build a new customer base amongst kids in public schools thus perpetuating a cycle of unsustainable, unhealthy, consumer behavior.

Tribal cultures seem to most often have lived within their means and harmoniously with their surroundings. That is not to say that they did nothing to alter their environments, or lived in some sort of Brahman’s ascetic mode where nothing was killed, and everything was left to be. To say so is just as false as saying that Monsanto is “trying to solve world hunger”. Rather, many indigenous tribal societies learned the ecology of where they lived and learned how to provide for their needs from within that framework of knowledge. Environments were altered to be sure but it was done in a way that worked harmoniously with the environment rather than in a destructive way as is the case too often today. Today humanity in the name of profit seeks to alter the ecology of the planet for short term gain as is witnessed by property development (like Las Vegas), extractive industries (mining, fracking, logging et al) and commercial agriculture with its focus on Confinement Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and the heavy use of chemicals which create far more problems than solutions (see Rodale Institute’s multi-decades long side by side study of organic versus conventional agriculture for details). This current model completely ignores what is knows about ecology and the basic needs for human survival. Conversely, indigenous cultures took the time to understand their surroundings and then designed systems to support themselves, which is exactly what permaculturists today seek to do.

Europeans arriving on the shores of North America found areas of park like forests where the various tribal groups gained their sustenance. Creating these areas took an understanding of ecological succession (the pattern of growth that occurs after some sort of disturbance on the landscape). Indians in the area of what is now Connecticut told the European based newcomers that prior to the arrival of “whites” that they could easily go into the forest and in very short time find many kinds of foods from easily hunted game to foraged plants and also drink their fill from any stream. Often they changed their landscape through the systematic use of fire as Charles C. Mann notes in his excellent book 1491: New revelations of the Americas before Columbus. They used fire to both control the succession of growth in the forests and also as a tool for hunting large game. Such was there alteration of the forested landscape that the northeastern area of what is now the U.S. supported a substantial buffalo herd. Had it been completely forested without gaps and fields there would have been no way for buffalo to survive and thrive there. This type of managed succession is precisely the same thing as the modern permaculture idea of creating a “forest garden” of perennial tree crops that incorporates the naturally occurring layers of a forest (overstory trees, understory trees, shrubs, vines, herbaceous plants, ground covers, and root layer). Fire ecology was also used on the Great Plains to create in essence a huge pasture system for the enormous herds of buffalo found there.

In the cultures of what is now Mexico the people there created a brilliant system of agricultural sustainability thousands of years ago that is still in use today in some areas known as the milpa. Again, Mann writes of how the environment was altered to meet the needs without destroying it. The milpa system created crops that are “nutritionally and environmentally complementary”  and was “one of the most successful human inventions ever created” (Mann, 198-9). Contrast that with modern agricultural production of mono-cropped commodities produced using soil destroying techniques and toxic chemicals which causes myriad problems from soil loss (I’ve read that top soil is actually America’s number one export) to chemical run-off that poisons the watersheds that we all rely on and it’s easy to see why permaculture is such an important area of study and the relocalization of food production is so imperative.

When the Polynesians first arrived in the Hawaiian Islands they found very little in the way of ecological diversity there due to the remote nature of the archipelago. Fortunately, they brought with them many things with which to create a new home of sustainable abundance that given the ideal growing conditions in the islands would indeed flourish. By the time Captain James Cook arrived in Hawai’i the indigenous peoples had created an amazing system of food production that utilized the many varied ecosystems and microclimates that occur from the ocean (makai) to the mountains (mauka). No ground was wasted in the ingenious ahupua’a systems found throughout the islands. One of Captain Cooks junior officers remarked upon seeing these systems that “the Hawaiians are terrible farmers, but the best gardeners in the world” (from Tropical Organic Gardening by Richard Stevens).

Each of these systems was vastly different and made the best use of the ecology, geography, and climate available to them. Additionally, each system proved to be successfully sustainable for long periods of time without fossil fuel inputs and famine producing crop failures because they worked within natural limits and produced a wide diversity of food crops. We would be well served to consciously convert our lawns, golf courses, and mono-cropped fields to a similar style of food production in the near future designed with the changes in climate in mind. The current model is not only demonstrably unsustainable, it is a recipe for famine. that serves only agribusiness conglomerates whose only goals are profit and control of “the market”. We can do better. Many hands make light work, so lets get after it.







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