Essays in Social Permaculture - using natural succession
I recently attended an amazing waananga just outside Whāngarei, at a place called Permadynamics. It was run by Klaus Lotz and Frida Keegan, on the subject of syntropic polyculture. That sounds complicated but basically syntropic is the opposite of entropic: it means a system which becomes more ordered. Polyculture is the opposite of monoculture, and refers to a diverse and deeply interconnected cropping system. The particular polyculture at Permadynamics is anchored around the banana, and Klaus is the biggest commercial banana grower in Aotearoa.
The system was first developed by Ernst Gotsch. As far as I know he hadn’t heard of permaculture when he first established its principles, but it meshes perfectly with permaculture thinking. I fully recommend searching the web for his videos and writings. He developed his system in South America where he was a farm advisor working with people trying to make a living from highly degraded land. This was land that had been rainforest, had been logged, and then cash cropped for a few years until there was no soil left. Finally it was abandoned and then occupied by some of the poorest people in the region.
Ernst realised that attempting to grow high value crops without bringing the land back to health first was pointless. He also realised that the land was already in a process of rehabilitating itself. Those prickly thorns and nasty weeds that kept coming up where people were trying to farm were actually playing an important ecological function. They were beginning the process of rebuilding the soil. Left to itself the whole area would simply return to rainforest. Instead of trying to arrest the natural succession that was already taking place, with poison and back breaking work, he realised he could accelerate and shape it.
Instead of trying to eradicate weeds, Ernst identified the most useful ones and sowed them. He interplanted with whatever crops might survive – obtaining at least some kind of yield for the growers – and used heavy slashing to mulch and keep the ground covered. Over time this strategy built enough soil to move to the next stage of succession, where perennials and semi-perennials could be introduced with higher value crops. Ultimately it moves to a system of forest farming that is probably not very different from traditional indigenous practices.
Succession itself is complex and multi-layered and this brief inadequate explanation does not do it justice. It takes seeing it working in action, at places like Permadynamics. Seeing the deep soils that have been grown on very steep clay banks with no topsoil when they began, and hearing the narrative as we walked through this incredible sub-tropical forest full of food.
I see the same thing taking place on my land. There is an area of slip, where the ground is bare, with no soil and deep, rapid scouring. The only plants able to hold on there are gorse and pampas grass. I have been learning not to panic about these invasive plants because in other places I can see where kānuka is already coming through them, and starting to shade them out. Same for the blackberry. If I was to do nothing but watch I know that over time the whole area will go into kānuka, which will give way to other natives and exotics and will eventually turn into forest.
I don’t work on forest timeframes though and human life is short. I am impatient and don’t want to wait that long. I also want the forest to provide for my family’s needs as much as possible, so I want to influence what grows, to accelerate and shape that succession. With that in mind I will plant a local variety of kōwhai, to fix nitrogen, build soil, to look beautiful and to feed local tui. I will collect kānuka seeds and sow them, to speed up the kānuka cover. I will plant some acacias, also to fix nitrogen, to feed bees and birds, to provide coppice wood for fires and handles and poles. Given how degraded the area is, I won’t ask more of it than that for now. It is not capable, for example, of growing fruit trees and anyway I want those closer to the house. So I will just let the birds take it from there and watch and learn as nature transforms it. As Gotsch says, ‘we think we are intelligent, but we are just part of an intelligent system”.
I was pondering Klaus’ approach to weeds while clearing out my spring. When a weed turns up in his food forest, he does not say “arrgh a weed, we must get rid of it”. He welcomes it as a friend, and seeks to understand what it’s function is. He doesn’t just leave it to do it’s thing, rather he prunes it heavily to use as drop mulch and build soil. He doesn’t allow it to flower and seed (and talks about other benefits to the overall system in keeping it at a juvenile stage), but he doesn’t try to eradicate it. It is a valuable source of biomass.
Occasionally there is something that is genuinely looking to take over but that is rarely the case. Usually a weed is there to help move succession along. Once it has played its role, the conditions that it came for will no longer be there, so it will leave. Most weeds are only a problem if you are trying to artificially maintain your land at a lower level of succession, for example by trying to prevent grassland from becoming forest.
Similarly David Holmgren, when explaining the principle of ‘observe and interact’ says that ‘there is no right and wrong in nature’. If we apply that thinking to society, to some of the spontaneous manifestations of human culture that cause such general consternation, we can maybe start to find better ways to approach them.
Gangs are a very good example. Gangs are something that politicians have generally treated as weeds to eradicate. Like gorse in a paddock, they have done everything they can to get rid of them. They have tried to ban them, threaten them, and police them out of existence. Only rarely have they tried to understand the social function that gangs play, why they arose in the first place. Rather than try to arrest natural succession, like poisoning gorse on a degraded slope, perhaps if we try to accelerate it we might have better outcomes.
New Zealand gangs started as a very human response to alienation. Alienation comes with poverty and lack of status. For many Māori, alienation came with the killing of their rangatira, the theft of their land and economic base, and the subsequent urban drift. It left people cut off from their kin and the most important expressions of their culture.
The worst of the gangs arose out of the extreme alienation from society that resulted from institutionalised rape, abuse and torture in state care. At the start of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in State Care, I remember listening to an interview on the radio. It was one of the guys that had been kidnapped from his family as a young boy by the NZ Government and put into a home. It is no coincidence that most of those boys were Māori. In ‘care’ he was sexually and violently abused. Repeatedly. He was shoved from one abusive place to another until he turned 18 when he was turned out onto the street with nothing. No one cared about what happened to him, not a soul, except for the other kids who had been through the same. They joined together, like a family of sorts. If the world didn’t care about them then they didn’t give a fuck about the world. But they did care for each other, whatever that meant for people whose only ‘care’ had been abuse. Is it a surprise that many of those boys became our most violent criminals?
Now a man, he spoke about a judge sentencing him for some crime or another, talking to him with disgust and contempt about how he needed to come out of the gang life. He said to the interviewer “you locked every door to me. I am not welcome anywhere in your world. The only door that was opened to me was the gang. Why would I give that up?”
People need social connection almost as much as they need food. The gangs became a way of bonding, of forming connections both social and economic. Alienation was the ground that they sprung up from. To try to stamp them out with force is simply adding to that alienation, degrading the already degraded conditions that give rise to them in the first place. Like trying to burn gorse, whose seeds germinate in fire. Or worse, clearing the ground they have covered to make way for something even more rampant.
Gangs thrive in areas where people, especially young people, have few options for participating in legal society. Given growing inequality in New Zealand and the diminishing of opportunities for many young people, it is no wonder than gang membership is growing. Worryingly we are starting to see more of an influx of more violent criminal gangs from overseas. If we want to see gangs on the decline we need to improve the soil in which they arise, to make it richer, healthier, more structured, more full of life. And we need to recognise how the gangs themselves might help do that.
I work on a community and ecological restoration project in Whakatāne called the Awatapu Otamakaokao Kaitiaki Trust. One of the driving forces behind that is a bunch of guys who have been or still are actively involved with Black Power. That is where they come from. That is their friends and family. Leaving that entirely is impossible for most of them, and would they?
But they don’t want their children to go through what they went through, to live the lives that they have lived. They are the ones now organising the local Christmas in the Park, learning mau rākau, planting baumea and carex knee-deep in lagoon mud.
Permaculture works with nature – and that must mean human nature as much as tree nature. Civilisations rise and fall but people’s nature remains invariably the same – socially cooperative and primed to seek connection and belonging. Humans by-and-large care about other people and care what other people think of us. But our natures can get distorted by our life experience. We can become so bound up in our peer group that we lose our sense of our place in the wider ecosystem. Yet the drive to provide a better life for our children is a common human trait. Left to our own devices I think even the most distorted social conditions will revert to equilibrium over enough generations. But as with our landscapes, we do not want to wait. We want to accelerate the natural succession, to speed up the journey towards system health.
This doesn’t mean being naive to what gangs can be. The opposite, in fact. If you are using gorse for a nurse crop and for mulch you need to pay special attention to the thorns. But it does mean recognising what is coming through underneath. It does mean feeding the soil and enriching it, pruning and mulching. An example might be to put seized proceeds of crime into the communities that give rise to gangs rather than into the consolidated fund. Or to put a much stronger focus on feeding those communities with education, work opportunity and community building initiatives rather than just more policing. It does also mean supporting, in practical terms, efforts within the gang communities themselves to change
Politicians will do more harm than good if they continue to try to eradicate gangs without understanding what gives rise to them and the social function they play. Most importantly, we have to be better at paying attention to and supporting the direction of the natural succession already taking place, that Government policies are so often antagonistic to.
(first published at nandor.net.nz)