I recently attended a course on Edible Forest Gardening (EFG) at Milk Wood Permaculture, in a small town called Mudgee, a few hours north of Sydney, Australia. The course, taught by Dave Jakie, was top notch. The course was well planned, the staff at the farm are pros, the food was actually grown on the farm, Dave’s a champion, and the place is beautiful. I learned a lot of practical stuff about design, forest ecology and perennial agriculture. But the real take home lesson was related Permaculture as a concept. I’ve taken Permaculture Design courses before, I’ve worked with a Permaculture Designer, and I’ve implemented some Permaculture Gardens, but until this course I can’t say I could have given a distilled nugget on what the word “permaculture” really means. This course helped me get my mind around a fundamental irony present in the concept. Ultimately there is no such thing as permaculture, but still we all need to practice more permaculture, and permaculture design has nothing to do with making anything ‘permanent’. It is about developing an intentional relationship with the environment to sustain people on a healthy planet.
Permaculture is a bit like equality: it’s a chimera. Permanence doesn’t exist in nature and culture is meant to evolve and change. I say this because if we don’t change the current culture we live in all the climate science indicates that soon we’ll be toast. Yet if the cultures we had before were perfect we would not have compelled ourselves into the ecological mess we’re in now. I think people tend to perceive sustainability as an achievable end-goal – as if it is a final or eternal answer to the world’s problems. Yet sustainability is a fiction, just like equality. No one has ever seen or achieved total sustainability or total equality. Even though these can’t exist as finalities, it is still good to strive for them as goals. Sustainability is a noble motive. Despite the hard truth that every living thing dies in the end, life spends its days focused on living. The sun will eventually go out, but still we don’t give up on the future. Humans have this drive to make things better, but things are destined to be not quite as good as they could be. Some goals are inherently positive as goals even if they can never be fully achieved.
Well, Dave helped me realize that a good productive edible forest garden is impermanent and in a constant state of change. Dave knows a lot about forest ecology, and he helped me better understand succession. In school I remember learning the linear or traditional version of forest succession. Bare ground becomes grassland, then a shrub land, then a young forest, before ‘ending’ as a mature forest. Dave described it something like this: Once upon a time there was bare ground, then there was moss and lichen, then some weeds and some small shrubs, then bushes, then trees, then different trees, then all the trees eventually live happily ever after in a climax ecosystem. The story of succession I first learned ended here. It was a fairytale, but naturally climax ecosystems don’t live happily every after. They get old, stable and in need of disturbance to be healthy.
Dave also described a few other more complex models that helped me understand succession. You can google ecological succession to get the latest theories. But my favorite theory is the one Dave ended on: the ‘unified old-field theory.’ This model speaks to the observations of traditional succession models. But it recognizes that in reality it is never actually this straight forward. A healthy ecosystem is going through numerous phases of succession all at once. As Dave explains: “The importance of each contributing process or condition and determining factor [in a forest] will vary from time to time and place to place.” In short this means a forest is always changing and responding to a wide range of factors that exist in its context, and within a forest multiple levels of succession are occurring simultaneously. Because the universe is a surprising and unpredictable place a forest does not achieve some ultimate state of sustainability. Or rather a forest exists in an epic saga of destruction and regeneration.
Thus, I realized that a healthy ecosystem is not a sustainable one but a properly disturbed one. Disturbing forest ecosystems is healthy and necessary. It is especially important to disturb an Edible Forest Garden. Think about large predators, one of the key integrators of a healthy ecosystem: they spend most of their time disturbing the peace and eating things. Or beavers that cut down trees to build dams. In fact most animals make their living disturbing some other life form. This is what an ecosystem is: living things interacting with other living things in various and often disturbing ways. Humans, you may have noticed, are masters of ecological disturbance. If we want to be ecological or ‘sustainable’, we need to learn how to disturb our ecosystems in positive ways. If you’re designing an Edible Forest Garden be prepared to disturb it regularly. It needs us to be healthy and to avoid getting into any unproductive ecological ruts. In fact, a forest is most productive during ‘middle succession’ (according to Dave). This is that hairy adolescent state where little shrubs, grasses, and big trees all exist in one forest at the same time.
Humans do have a place in nature, and for that place to be happy we need to learn how to behave correctly in our own ecological context. Or to go back to the unified old field theory: people have to understand that “the importance of each contributing process or condition and determining factor will vary from time to time and place to place.” Humans are one of these “contributing process or condition[s]” If we deny this we become destructive disturbances. If we recognize it, we begin to develop an amazing capacity to actually improve our ecology. But to do this we need the right kind of values, make the right observations, develop the right knowledge, and then create an appropriate design. The course focused on ecological design, and how to design a forest based on ecological principles, that provided for the needs of humans. So as we learned about the key principles of a healthy forest garden which creates, as Dave puts it: “food, fuel, fire, fodder, fertilizer, pharmaceuticals, and fun,” we also learned how to follow an ecological design process. As Dave so aptly stated, “If you want an ecological design you need an ecological design process.”
Dave outlined this process, as well as a list of EFG principles similar to the twelve widely recognized Permaculure principles. To learn about these principles you can purchase his book Edible Forest Gardening Volume one & two. Or better yet, you can sign up for the next course he teaches. His design process involved: developing first impressions, articulating goals, doing a thorough analysis of the site, doing the design (including schematic designs, detailed designs, a succession plan, and plant layouts), as well as implementing, and then reflecting. But I’ve realized this is only the beginning. Now you have an Edible Forest Ecosystem to interact with. It doesn’t just sit in your yard in a state of completion. For it to thrive, interaction is essential. You will harvest the fruit from the trees you plant, do some coppicing, plant a few new species now and then, manage wildlife that comes through and deal with unexpected changes. Ideally, as time goes on you’ll learn more and want to make changes based on new understanding.
This is as close to Permaculture as I want to get: A journey towards stability, resilience, sufficiency, and abundance, with an attitude of surrender to change, and unexpected events. Because the truth is that things change, and nature isn’t permanent. We live to die. I used to be focused on saving the environment. But what I was actually trying to save were preconceived ideas about how the environment should be, along with my fairy tale that we should live forever. This is the nugget of truth I discovered learning about Edible Forest Gardens at Milkwood Permaculture Farms. Accept the environment for what it is, and find ways to relate to it well. Be an active participant in nature; plant an Edible Forest Garden. I’m not sure it is sustainable, but I’m hoping I can make one that can sustain me.