permaculture

What is freely given and what is stolen

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The Maths Captain and I finally put our electric motor to the test and took The Runcible Spoon, our long-refashioned sailboat over three hours and 12 kilometres up the Danube to Ottensheim for Ottensheimer Cremeschnitte (not just any Konditorei cream slice, but one with a special dash of redcurrant jelly). E-motoring back down to Linz with the current took just an hour and ten minutes but even so, such a journey is a little tedious when you’re not sailing but especially when you discover the cooking gas is empty and you can’t cook an adventurous cup of tea in the tiny sailboat “galley” on the floorboards. (Boat tea is the best-tasting tea ever).

The journey back was made far a little more exciting as I had collected fallen twigs covered with lichen at the mouth of the Rodl river where we anchored. On the return journey I used The Maths Captain’s knife to scrape off the lichen into a little beeswax cloth, ready to dry and process as a dye for wool. A lovely acquaintance of mine who teaches nature connection cautions her students to only gather and forage what nature is giving freely. Normally, I’d leave lichen on trees and rocks as that is where it is doing lichen services like photosynthesising, rock decomposition, soil formation and looking lovely as well as being a bio-indicator, but a recent storm had shaken these dead twigs and small branches off to the banks of the Danube and Rodl and were about to be washed away into a very big and commercial river. A gift indeed.
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Even though I somehow knew that lichen could be used as a plant dye, I didn’t exactly know how the colour should be extracted and it turns out that C+ lichens (I made a test with bleach)  can produce a pink-violet colour when fermented over months with ammonia, or historically, stale urine.

So, I’m drinking a tea and considering collecting my urine in a pickle jar, and letting it stand in a warm place in order to ferment a tiny batch of lichen dyes with.  I’ve done a wee bit of research (hah!) about the many pre-industrial chemistry uses of urine and how stale human and animal urine (ammonia) were commodified and used to process leather, whiten and soften laundry, whiten teeth and make Saltpeter for gunpowder. Here in Linz I live near Lederergasse and Ludlgasse (Leather and Piss Streets) and frequent Gerberei, a lovely cafe named after the tanning industry that existed in this corner by the Schlachthof (slaughterhouse / abbatoir). Nowadays, a couple of kilometres away is the Chemiepark where Borealis uses huge amounts of natural gas and electrical energy in the Haber-Bosch process to extract ammonia and amongst other uses, produce nitrogen rich agro-chemicals.
 

So here we are in the modern world where urine, a freely surrendered resource, along with commercial fertiliser runoff ends up polluting waterways as ammonia naturally forms. Permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison describes a pollutant as any output of a system not being used productively  by other parts of the system. Permaculturists and other organic gardeners are onto this and often use fresh, diluted urine as a natural way to add nitrogen to the soil, combined with carbon rich matter in compost heaps.  Of course, if using a composting toilet makes sense, a urine diverting toilet seat makes it even easier to gather the flow of urine’s nutrients.
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Thinking about processing my 20g of dried lichen with my own, stale urine, and wondering what pink or violet accent colour I can incorporate into a knitting project is obviously just a starting point for a number of distractions including other natural dyestuffs (indigo! black beans! avocado pits!), the ethics of foraging and wild food and colourstuffs and whether I should ferment the carrots sitting in the fridge.  Often though, these distractions contribute to a line of thinking about how dependent our lives are on globalised, late-stage capitalism and fossil-fuel dependent industry

Even when we claim to be self-reliant, back to nature or simplifying our purchasing patterns by say, dying and making our own clothes, cleaning with vinegar and baking soda, minimising packaging, or “frugally” cleaning the oven with just ammonia rather than an over-priced commercial oven cleaning product we remain entangled.  We still need to get those basic ingredients from somewhere, even if they come in bulk or are traded in a non-monetary economy – they are still dependent on the industrialised system. What on earth will we do if this brittle system breaks?  It’s enough to make me hoard baking soda and consider cleaning the oven with stale piss – though of course, in that potential scenario there would be no electrical grid to supply my apartment kitchen with power, so I wouldn’t be able to use the oven, clean or dirty.  I think I would happily keep my standards low – the oven hasn’t been properly cleaned since I started my Masters degree and will probably stay that way for a few months more.

Even with gas canisters stockpiled, my little gas camping stove would of course eventually fail both for boat-board cups of tea and to cook in an emergency, power rationed scenario. Mindful of redundancy I am waiting for a Kelly Kettle to be delivered, ready to optimise summertime boating adventures, brew freshly gathered wild herb teas, grill a cheeky sausage and take advantage of the pinecones that were also shaken down in last week’s early “summer” storms. There is a fine line between doing things for general self-reliance and “deep prepping” and that is probably when you stop doing it for fun and satisfaction and are motivated by fear alone.
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The box of pinecones I have gathered for the storm kettle is nothing in the big scheme of energy vulnerability and possible futures both good and bad.   It is one thing to make a pot of herbal tea or have an off-grid home, but how would roads be repaired, materials for infrastructure quarried and foundations for bridges dug in a low-energy future?  And I think here not only of a low-energy future in the framing of peak-oil, but also in terms of low-energy when energy distribution fails, demand becomes too high or the global financial system reveals its inherent fragility.

I can use pinecones to heat my tea, but even electrically powered digging machinery requires vast forms of electricity from a stable system. Without energy to power industrial tools, we go back to manual, human labour, without a functioning economic system that exchanges value for labour, our societies could easily return to a large-scale slavery model.  It is tempting to think that forced labour hasn’t existed since the abolition of slavery and serfdom. However, slavery and indentured labour is still present in the modern world and touches us indirectly through the goods we buy and services we make use of.

This Twitter-story by on racism, incarceration and labor exploitation in Louisiana, USA reminded me of the yet another way that slavery is present in modern life, though one that is far more mandated by the state than drug and food growing, the sex-industry or shellfish-production.  William Gibson is reputed to have said that the “future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed” and with that in mind I began to chase down leads on the potential return to slavery in a peak-oil, low energy world, including a call to move away from “energy slavery” to participatory democracy and appropriate technology from Ivan Illich.

I think that where my thoughts have been going with this is that 20g of lichen, my own urine and pinecones could all be considered as “gifted” resources along with the gifted labour of friends have helped us to restore the boat, whereas exploitative use of nature and humans can only be thought of as extraction and theft. But at what point does foraging of nature’s gifts or cooperative and volunteered labour practices step into misuse?

I am reminded of the permaculture ethics and how directly they relate to Principle 5 to Use and Value Renewable Products and Services of co-founder David Holmgren’s interpretation of permaculture principles. In  Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability Holmgren discusses valuing ecosystem services, wild products, water and working animals but doesn’t directly include valuing the labour of human inputs into a system.  The People Care ethic and _efficient_ design is inherent to permacultural practice, so maybe “avoiding the need for exploitative labour practices and slavery” doesn’t need to be said or considered in the immediate systems such as homesteads we have the opportunity to design, we should be careful though. Like so many things though this reminds me of why we need ethics-based approaches like permaculture at a higher and more widespread model so that we design societal culture futures to avoid widespread slavery too.

On Hot Topics

I have to say I am feeling both excited and overwhelmed at the thought of holding my first heatwave planning workshop_this_ weekend. One motivation for my Masters research has been driven by concern that my hometown Adelaide would be in heatwave conditions and have rolling or catastrophic power shortages at the same time.  And bang on time – a heatwave blasts the country and power starts getting “managed” across Adelaide.
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Welcome to hell on Earth in Australia – Higgins Storm Chasing

Inevitably this leads to criticisms of sustainable power generation – but very rarely is the heatwave and power conversation broadened to consider the nuances of demand – our own, justifiable air conditioner use, compounded by the multiple televisions, appliances, extra fridges for beer that we take for granted. We blame power generation for not keeping up with demand and are concerned that life support systems, basic infrastructure and traffic lights fail to run, but we don’t engage with our own complicity in peak _demand_.
We feel we have the right to keep the power on, but what about our responsibilities ensuring everyone else’s comfort and safety?
My gut feeling is that the general population is not yet engaging with heatwaves as emergency situations that affect _everyone_ and which, opinion again, should trigger a heightened awareness  of responsibility and corresponding actions.
Heatwaves and their increasing threat, demand for electrical power from air conditioning and other services, sustainable power generation and climate change mitigation. It is all a wee bit complicated and interconnected and not something that is going to be _fixed_ in my MSc workshop. But – I am going to host a conversation and work out ways to stay as cool as possible when the power goes out and the thermometer is high.
If you are interested in being part of this discussion and are based near Adelaide or in Sydney, there will be two further workshop events as part of my research project.
Adelaide Heatwave Planning Workshop #2
The Joinery, 111 Franklin St, Adelaide, SA 5000
Saturday, February 25
10am – 2pm
Sydney Heatwave Planning Workshop
Frontyard, 228 Illawarra Road, Marrickville, NSW 2204
Saturday, March 4
10am – 2pm

Whither the Weather

I’m back in Australia for a couple of months meeting up with family and friends and to prepare and enact the research phase of my Masters dissertation around climate change adaptation.

It is the festive season and there has been a lot of parties, drinking and catching up on years passed and the tricky question “What are you working on?”  After a drink or two I may end up working through the litany of issues that occupy my thoughts: performance and security of energy provision infrastructure against climate threats, unsustainable building materials and design, social inequality, vulnerability, isolation and an aging population, changed social practices and expectations of warmth and coolth, social norms and air conditioning, existing environmental threats and a rapidly changing climate and governments, industry and populations not sure how or what to respond to. If I am not yet in my cups I say “Heat waves. I’m working with people to develop heatwave plans.”

Having grown up in an Australian Mediterranean climate and now living in continental temperate Europe my cultural experiences and understanding of Austrian climate and its changes are somewhat restricted. That said, the changes in snowfall that have been apparent over the 7 years I have passed in Austria are visible and culturally present. As an Austrian bank teller confided after I queried whether my bank was divesting from fossil fuels, “My children have never built a snowman.” Upper Austrian adaptation plans identify threats to hydroelectric power generation, propose establishing wine regions in the Muhlviertel and also predict radically changed winters and the loss of ski tourism. I tried snowboarding once, but cynically have avoided over-investing in ski culture and equipment.

Returning to my hometown to celebrate Christmas Day with my family for the first time in at years the cultural memories of climate and its new incarnations are stronger. On the 25th the top temperature broke records, reaching 41°C. My memories are that it was often cool at this time of year, in the 20s on the 25th.  The heat that laid us out three days ago is something I always associated as happening in January and February when heatwaves traditionally hit. In central Australia rainfall and flooding led to evacuations. I was reminded of Cyclone Tracy which devastated Darwin on Christmas Eve in 1974.

There has always been extreme weather, but it is changing its patterns.

Two days later and the weather has become tropical: clothing and paper feels moist to the touch. Last night a wonderfully exciting, yet destructive storm came through the state.  My partner and I have been sleeping in my mother and stepfather’s camper trailer and the wind and rain felt deliciously intimate to our tiny protected bubble.

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A Mighty Wind (27 12 2016)


Across the city trees are down and homes and industry are without power. Luckily my Mum’s place still has power, is undamaged and is just very soggy. There are fewer young avocados on the trees though, but the larger fruit has held firm.

Had the power or gas gone out we’d have still been able to cook and have a cuppa (camping gear re-purposed as emergency preparedness). Should water stop flowing there’s a small rainwater tank. There is a productive food garden and pantry full of staple ingredients. My parentals are able bodied, can walk long distances comfortably and own bicycles. The biggest challenge is that despite having rooftop solar, the way grid connected solar panels operate in Australia is such that if the network fails you are often unable to use the energy being operated overhead.
Facebook tells me that some people have internet access on their phone but no ability to make a cup of coffee.
This storm has got me thinking (again) about permaculture and its role in developing resilient societies and how we prepare for disasters whether they be small or large, slow or immediate. I grew up in the hills and black-outs were a regular event in my childhood, but over the decades we have become accustomed to things working and retain memories of governments with the intent _and_ capacity to respond to social need at scale and when required. There is a fine line between being able to do things in good times and troubles and responding to threats with a locked down, isolationist prepper mindset.

How do we design our lives so that they are full and abundant in times of plenty and security, yet provide us with the capacity and knowledge to respond, share and assist in times of scarcity and challenge? Does everyone need to learn permaculture, or do we willing permaculturists work towards designing a world in which the mindset and worldview has shifted so that a transformed and resilient society is normal?  Is that even possible, or should we just focus on growing out own lifeboats?

They are big thoughts which support my research yet can easily distract from the around the more practical and urgent thoughts of _dissertation_ preparedness. Review the proposal, put out a call for participants, make some heatwave plans and analyse the conversations and write it up by June 31st. Then I can think about changing the world.

 
 

On trying to do better

Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share
These are the permaculture ethics, ways to live. Every day I try to be better with them, to consciously apply them to decision making and my interactions with the world.
When I follow the guidance of the ethics life feels better, it’s like there’s something sunny and rosy and a little bit exciting. It feels like hope.
A lot of the time these ethics are really hard to maintain: easier, cheaper and more sparkly options are presented, other people are difficult to engage with and the world just feels full of horribleness.
You know what? That’s ok. You acknowledge that you are always going to be learning and you try again tomorrow.
Maybe these aren’t your ethics, but they are mine and I’ll let you borrow them for a while. Take a moment with the words, place them in your mouth, lay them on your eyes, hold them to your ear.
Things will be different.

On storing wood

Venie Holmgren, the poet and mother of David Holmgren passed away recently. Together with his son and a friend, David made her coffin out of saved and salvaged wood, each piece with a memory and meaning. And then it was covered with poems.

I read somewhere that you can’t learn gardening from philosophy, but you can learn philosophy from gardening.

So, this “permaculture” with which I am so enraptured?

It is not just about gardening or sector analysis and zones. It is not just about ethics and principles and patterns and learning from ecosystems.

It is about a way of being: consciously assembling and creating the worlds we want to live in and at the same time collecting meaning and crafting it together so that the systems and objects we create are beautiful and are read as stories.

Let’s begin.