Thursday, July 21, 2011

Regenerating a planet: updates from Sirius

Sirius Community Center
By Mark Scialla

Tonight marks the end of Week One of the Permaculture Design Course I am attending at Sirius Community in Western Massachusetts. The week progressed so fast, and each day is packed with so much information. I thought I'd give you all a quick recap of my week here that includes some of the things I've learned and what this means for the projects in the park.

First, I want to give a quick explanation of permaculture since many people I meet have no idea what this amazing design process is about. In a nutshell permaculture is about design to meet human needs while improving ecosystem health. It focuses on thoughtful observation of the landscape so that when designs are implemented we avoid thoughtless toil. It is design for sustainable land use. But, permaculture is a bit different than traditional ecological landscape design.

Permaculture is about renewal. The process of renewal and growth that makes life resilient to change. This concept is, as permaculturist David Holmgren suggets, is beyond sustainability. But, what does that mean? Well, lets take a look at the word "sustainable." It is a word that has been used to describe the practices and purchases that have non-negative impacts on the environment.  Our culture now is one based on fossil fuels and consumption It is a culture that blows the tops off of mountains, harvests the seas until collapse of fisheries and flushes human waste with clean drinking water out to the sea. Do we want to sustain these practices?

Permaculture is about regenerative sustainability. The design for a landscape is to have as many positive impacts as possible. Permaculture seeks to not only create a landscape that is in better health the following season than the one before, but also a culture based on a close connection to the land and to one another. A culture that realizes it is a part of the ecosystem and not separate. When we regenerate we improve the conditions of whatever we are using. Nature regenerates on its own, we assist to accelerate this process. Or as a permaculturist would say: "We are nature, regenerating."

When we sustain, we support what we are doing and figure out ways to do it into the future. Do we want to sustain acidified oceans with failing fisheries, do we want to sustain clear cuts of old growth forests, do we want to support the largest loss of biodiversity this planet has ever known? Or do we want to regenerate our oceans and stop accelerated loss of biodiversity so that our fisheries are larger this year than the year before, and our forests are more resilient this year than the previous one? Regenerative design is the way permaculture works. We look at the whole and design to the finest detail.

This week my course-mates and I learned the three Ethics of Permaculture: Earth Care, People Care, Resource Share. We learned how to read a landscape using the Scale of Permanence. This scale is in descending order of features of a landscape that are hardest to change to easiest:

Legal Issues
Access and Circulation
Wildlife and Vegetation
Buildings and Infrastructure
Zones of Use

When we design we observe all of these factors and build an analysis from them. We use our principles to guide us in the design process. Some principles include, Principle of Multiple Functions, which states that everything we design ought to have more than one function, preferably more than three. The Principle of Functional Interconnection states that the needs of one element are met by the yields of one of more elements. An example would be a vine growing over a pond drops leaves and berries that feed the fish below, while the fish fertilize the water providing nutrients for the vine.

We have spent many hours outside observing the land. We had a sit-spot session where we simply sat in the woods to observe the interactions in the forest. We learned how to basemap, how to analyze species niches, how to do a site analysis and assessment. We met with members from the community who are our clients and need us to make a design for their property, which we will present to the community in the third week. We visited permaculturist Jono Neiger's homestead and food forest, and we worked in the food forests at Sirius learning how to sheet mulch. Food Forest expert Dave Jacke came to our learning community to teach us about ecological design. His talk was full of gems and truly inspirational.

A session a Jono Neiger's Food Forest

There is so much that I have learned in the past week that it would too long to tell you. You will all have to wait for my workshop when I return to Providence in August. I am planning the workshop as the course progesses, and will have a better idea of what it will be like at the end of this course. The methods I learned for building our food forest will help the process. I'm sure many of you are eager to learn as much as I am eager to share.

Until then, here are some books to read:

Introduction to Permaculture - Bill Mollison
Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability
Edible Forest Gardening - Dave Jacke

This weekend I'll be at the Northeast Permaculture Convergence in New York, and next week we will be visiting an urban food forest in Holyoak, MA. I'll be sure to write an update for next week. Please be sure to send questions and comments. I'll be happy to answer them while I'm here.


  1. Permaculture made the NY Times on July 28:

  2. I'm curious to hear what the coolest thing you've heard/learned/seen/done has been so far, and what you're excited to try!

    The Edible Forest Gardening books are great resources, but I've had a hard time deciding what manageable bits I can integrate into my city yard. There's also just so much information to absorb and put into practice, I've found it a little overwhelming. I'm really looking forward to working with a bunch of folks to start this project!

    Enjoy, and I look forward to hearing more!!