Sustainable WNC

The Gateway to Sustainability in Western North Carolina

Archive for July, 2007

Permaculture has the edge -July

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007

I enjoy playing music, but I rarely feel inspired to play alone. Music is one of those muses that is best shared in a group. When you get together with fellow musicians and play together something happens that is bigger than the group. The “groove” that we get into is cathartic. It can be reached by oneself to a level, but there is a more thorough clearing and release with more people. When I am in a “jam session” it is important to listen to others find the common beat all the while trying to weave in my own style. There is my style, the other musicians styles, and the tune where we all meet. If we are all listening to one another we draw from a larger pool of creative resources. New ideas and new ways of looking at a melody or rythym appears as from nowhere. It is fertile ground… dancing on the edge of my style. Inspirational and creative.

As a woodworker, my work depends on cultivating a fertile and diverse context to be creative. Trying to op[ ]en to new ideas, new ways of looking at things I allow myself to get excited about different hobbies. I really enjoy flower arranging. Particularly, a style of Japanese arranging called Ikebana. I am interested in metal work as well. I took some Ikebana classes last year and at the same time I was taking a welding class at the local community college. Needless to say, there were two very different demographics represented at these classes. The Ikebana class was entirely woman 50+ years of age and well heeled. The welding class was exclusively men and mostly the NASCAR bunch. It struck me if I could bring these two arts together I would have something really unique. Aside from a new genre of racecar driving in high heels, it has resulted in one of the most lucrative lines of furniture I have created in the last 20 years! It’s about integration of diversity and the confluence of the depth and richness of working out conflicts and prejudices and creating something new and unique.

To explain this visually I would draw a circle and label it “A” I would draw an second circle and label it “B”. I would overlay part of “B” over “A” and shade the space in between calling it “C”. You really only have two elements, but some alchemistic magic has happened and you now have three elements at the price of only two.

To explain this euphanistically one might say, “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.”

“C” is not about “A” playing louder and faster than “B” nor is it about limiting my self to only working with wood and staidly using traditional styles and lines. “C” is not about domination, fear, or narrow mindedness. “C” is about sharing, diversity, working together through conflict. It is holy ground where there must be surrender and faith that something bigger and better will manifest if I give up a little and make some room for something else, another idea, a different rythym, my partners feedback… *gulp*.

No place does this play out more universally and graphically than in nature:

What I refer to as “the edge” is “C”. Anytime you have an “edge” in nature you have the most diversity, richness and abundance. I look at the edge of my backyard on these sultry summer nights where the garden meets the woods and there is a spectacular show of glowing flashes of luminescent delight. Lightning bugs love the edge of the tree line. Look at a pond where water meets dry land and look at the tangle of flora. The land creatures come to drink water, the water creatures come to the shallows to breed and a entire other family of critters, the amphibians, can only live in “C”. How about the Ocean. Is that universal enough? We all know about estuaries where the fresh water meets the salt, and coral reefs…is the horse dead yet? Naaaaay, it isn’t even out of the gate yet!

Permaculture is a philosophy and a practice that looks at existing successful sustainable systems in nature and tries to emulate them in agricultural practices as well as social practices and environmental practices. One of those concepts is the “edge”. Since the edge creates such diversity and abundance in nature why not make as much of it as possible? Emphatically, those permaculture rascals do! Just the other day I was rescuing my leaf mould (rotting leaves and mycilium) and worms (I am completely enamoured with them as was Darwin his entire life) from my old garden (*1). I noticed that on the edge of my leaf pile where it met the grass, was the most worm castings (digested leaves or “worm poop”) and the largest worms. I suspect they like going between the grass and the leaves. To read about the edge is one thing, to see it in nature is another thing, but to create it in a garden and see the results be congruent with the laws of nature is really a thrill! ( Ok, half a beer gets me drunk and I dont get out much, but it’s still really cool.)

Practice of this concept, maximizing edges, is as easy as planting tree. A tree has edges all over it. An abandoned field on my farm in West Virginia was ransacked with a tractor, plow, herbicides and corn for a number of years and the soil has been completely denuded of fertility. The only way to get it to even grow some grass would mean the introduction of beaucoups of fertilizers. There is an ash tree in the middle of this field and I went under it last time I was back. Mind you, the entire field was parched, cracked and devoid of life, yet under this tree the soil was moist and the grass was lush and green and there were animal tracks. A tree creates microclimates, which are full of edges. You have full sun on top of the tree you have shade in the bottom of the tree, you have dappled shade mixed in. You have protection from predators, you have opportunity for predators, you have a source of food being produced by this tree in the form of leaves fruits and seeds. It’s all about Habitat, habitat, habitat.

Edges are everywhere. Where your neighbor’s property meets yours. Where your driveway meets your lawn, where the lawn meets your hedge where the hedge meets your house. Consider playing with your edges like putting some curves in them, if space affords it. From the observations of my leaf pile, extending your flower bed edge by meandering it, the more prolific your worm activity and castings will be. Castings have amazing properties that retain moisture, are PH balanced, and make nutrients most available to your plants. This means healthier plants lower fertilizer and water bills. If you have a water feature, meander the shoreline rather than having a perfectly straight edge. Diversify the depth levels of the pond and this will support a wider variety of plants. Plant a tree on the edge (not the dam) to create shade and shelter… I built a pond on my farm in West Virginia and made the banks as steep as I could to minimize cattails and to keep the water deep and cool for swimming in the summer. I also put catfish in there and feeder minnows for them. All was fine as long as I fed them, but since I dont live there anymore and feed them regularly, the feeder minnows are all but gone and the catfish have become stunted. If I had made some more shallows and more edge then the feeder fish would have had more room to proliferate and would have ultimately made the catfish more productive. The pond is not a sustainable self-supporting organism if I want to have catfish there. I am dependent on the shipping in of expensive bags of catfish food, which is heavily dependent on fossil fuels from the growing of grains to the shipping and packaging to the running of the grain mills, to trollers unsustainably farming fish meals from the ocean…. I have in fact simulted monocropping in my pond. If I had used nature’s model by creating more edge, more diversity, that pond would be able to support healthier catfish with no effort or expense on my part. It is, however, still a great place to swim.

Creating an edge socially is easy as well. It could be as simple as waving to your neighbor. Or instead of going to a box store to buy a shovel, asking that same neighbor if you can borrow a shovel to plant your new pie cherry tree. What has happened is “A” (you) have taken a risk and overlapped with “B” (your neighbor). The surprising conversation you have, sharing of information, building of community, money you saved not buying a shovel, and safety in knowing your neighbor is really a nice person is “C”. Tutoring kids in school is creating an edge, as is helping a community volunteer organization, as is giving blood. So is asking your kids what is important in their lives, so is listening to them without saying anything. What if “A” (US) quit trying to dominate “B” (them)? What if “A” tried to understand “B” better and then “C” what might happen? “C” rarely costs anything.

Here’s a challenge to the choir. I propose the creating of another edge- a cultural edge. Instead of criticizing mainstream monocropping, industrial agriculture (”A”). We could accept it and allow it to overlap it with permaculture (”B”). What would “C” be? Another permaculture idea is to use small and slow solutions. What if farmers set aside 10% of their farm for research and development? Creating new edges and niches. A scientific mixing pot to experiment and play with unique plants and animals and see what thrived on their farm’s unique ecosystem. Quite often “C” shows up in the form of some unpredictable beneficial that alleviates the burden of expense of pest control and fertilizer. Pay particularly close attention to the edge of “C”. Maybe there will be a “D”?

To learn more (learning is one of the great and most fertile edges of all) come to the southeast regional permaculture gathering at Celo, North Carolina this summer Aug 3rd -5th. Contact Sam Ruark at or call 828-675-0863. There is a yahoo group as well at

*1)B.T.W. The potatoes I planted in there did quite well despite the drought and my garden partner and ex K.G.B. agent Laura and I, got 3 shopping sacs full of 5 varieties of potatoes from one row of unwatered plants. The purple ones did surprisingly well!