Chapter 9 EARTHWORKING AND EARTH RESOURCES
9.2 Planning earthworks
9.3 Planting after earthworks
9.4 Slope measure
9.5 Levels andlevelling
9.6 Types of earthworks
9.7 Earth constructs
9.8 Moving the earth
9.9 Earth resources
- - - - -
For someone who grew up with "gender-appropriate" Barbies and not Tonka Trucks, this chapter illuminates a number of mysteries about heavy equipment that is surprisingly hard knowledge to come by if you are starting from nothing.
I wish I'd read this chapter three years ago before I started having to hire contractors. The guys who dug my septic drains did let me do some of the digging; it seemed to amuse them. I said I was paying, they were on the clock, so they showed me how. And my general contractor let me drive his monster back-hoe when they were digging my foundation, but not for very long. I could have a lot of fun with my own backhoe. Or wreak a lot of havoc.
- - - - -
The illustration of the two person shovel is hard to understand, these are better: DIY instructions to make one and a Youtube video of one in use:
Grumpy warning: I seem to be in a particularly critical mood.
I did like the advice about earth-moving, I'm just starting to wonder how reliable some of this advice is.
Of the things I already know, I'm seeing typos and misleading statements amounting to maybe 10% of the content. This makes me very wary of trusting any other part of the content that I don't already know, since I assume the accuracy is about the same overall (90%, but not edited to anything better). Does anyone have a more recent edition which has been edited better? Mine's 1988, 3rd print run, apparently.
One thing that concerns me about this chapter is that "tracking and signs" and other forms of observation are almost afterthoughts.
Yes, it can be delightful to discover things in the depths of the earth, or on the blank faces of disturbed earth piles.
But it can also be horrifying, if you know what you're looking at. For example, wondering if you've broken up a plough-related salt pan, or permanently damaged a fragile lake bed (in my garden near the pond, digging down to do buried hugel-type water retention beds). Other things don't come clear until the next rain: for example the damage that heavy equipment can do to the clay tiles or septic drainage systems, resulting in noxious basement flooding of existing houses in every rainy season following ill-planned excavation. Or buried electrical wires, and other utilities. Carelessly planned "improvement" projects will now require further hours and expense to fix the new problems you've created. These particular problems are less likely on virgin sites, which makes me think again that this book is written as a "kinder and gentler" pioneer manual for destroying further tracts of wilderness, instead of for the urban and suburban reclamation projects that Mollison claims to support.
The type of water-diverting earth movement described here would be illegal in most Western states without a permit, as it has large effects on neighbors' water rights, and potentially on groundwater levels.
(Why groundwater is regulated, while the water drawn from wells, aquifers, or altered by deforestation, is not well considered. Legal remedy is also hard to obtain when a neighbor's past actions have resulted in permanent changes to water flow or availability, but even if the laws aren't enforced, the ethical issues remain serious.)
We are trying to remediate a damaged natural pond, which is probably leaking and has also had some of its inflow diverted, due to two neighboring property owners valuing "drainage" over water storage in our arid climate. This is an easy mistake to make as a transplant from a wetter climate; and most people who can afford to buy land here make their fortunes on the coastal cities or industries before moving here for retirement / homesteading / vacation. Both Australia and the United States have some of the poorest cultural awareness for considering how private choices affect public welfare. (Doesn't help that we think "welfare" is a dirty word for someone taxing us to help lazy people.)
By "welfare" here I mean well-being. Public welfare is the community's well-being. Managing projects with the public welfare in mind means ensuring that your 'improvements' not only increase general abundance, but also being aware of the community's shared goals, often reflected in laws and local enforcement priorities. Managing projects for private gain, by contrast, might involve limiting resources to create artificial scarcity that will drive up prices. A company that harvests clean water for bottling, while polluting downstream water so others are forced to purchase bottled water, destroys the public welfare for private gain. A landowner who diverts a stream or water catchment to serve his flock's needs, without regard for downstream neighbors, can be accused of the exact same lack of ethics. (Unfortunately, we seem to be getting around this issue by ignoring region-scale groundwater management, and depleting aquifers and watering our stock from subsurface waters instead.)
Most states have "call before you dig" lines, to discover buried utilities before accidents happen. If you are contemplating illegal earth-moving, you had probably best call anyway, and make up an excuse that sounds legal. Digging up a buried utility sounds like a terrible way to meet your local authorities, while in the midst of an illegal project.
There's also HUGE potential for doing damage, if you don't know your region well enough to plan a thoroughly useful and harmless project. I don't know any "call before you dig" lines for checking the soil type, microclimate rainfall, soil salt levels, or groundwater management issues, but local agricultural extension services seem like a good place to start. Regional conditions are key; and while some general regional terms have already been defined, I'd love to see a lot more specific, well-documented training material on site assessment and recognition of critical variables. The indicator plants for minerals in the preceding chapters were useful, but we need more fine-tuned info for specific regions. Is there a data bank available?
Mollison did emphasize being ready to replant immediately. And he mentions tarps in the context of preserving useful clay deposits. But there is ZERO attention to the general, proper caretaking of piles of destabilized earth.
In Oregon and Washington (and likely most of the USA), the law requires erosion protection (tarps, absorbent barriers) to prevent piles of disturbed earth from washing away in rains.
Private landowners who do not have the construction experience to be aware of this law can lose piles of topsoil, contaminate groundwaters with their piled soils, and generally underestimate the necessary time and costs to do earth-moving properly. The fines for disregarding such laws can also be severe, as they are designed to penalize large construction companies and speculative property developers. It pays to research local laws about water, earth, and fire management; these are not private choices, as the results can affect the entire neighborhood.
When building a home, or any complex structure involving precise grading, drainage, pipes and culverts, etc., there will always be delays between initial earth-moving, and the replacement and planting of topsoil. You can cover-crop the topsoil pile, but most people would see the cover-cropping of mineral soils as a waste of time. Site managers need to plan on physical protection of exposed mineral earth piles, equipment paths, and so on.
I'm also having some problems with the basic level of information presentation.
Little things like describing slope as "a proportion of base to height" and then proceeding to elaborate the usual (inverse) proportion: slope is expressed as "rise over run," or height over base. (p. 230, 9.4 paragraph 4)
This kind of convention is crucial for communication: telling your chimney supplier you need a roof kit for a roof with a 3:4 slope (common), when it's really 4:3 (very steep), will get you the wrong kit.
In Figure 9.27, "tilt" is shown twice with two different meanings.
In Figure 9.22, it's never made clear which is a levee and which is a polder. Wikipedia gives a general definition (polder is a lower elevation landscape protected by dikes; a levee is an artificial embankment or dike, like a long dam). Later on, the need to scrape out polders is mentioned. Do we need more info about long-term maintenance of these systems in general?
Nearby on p. 241, section 9.8 paragraph 3, he states that "designers and architects have seldom been personally involved in earth moving." Too true.
This reflects my original mental problem with the "design" approach to land management, period.
Often the people designers accuse of "doing it wrong" have in fact more local knowledge and experience than the designers, and "designed" systems often fail to achieve the same basic level of function and maintainability as the vernacular solutions. Only where the "locals" are recent transplants from a different biome, does an experienced designer have an advantage in laying out a more functional, productive, and sustainable system. Wherever locals are available (even remnants of local tribes, or second or third generation farmers even if they are "doing it wrong"), locals should be consulted about proposed designs, and local landscapes consulted to see how the results of previous "design improvements" have proven out over time.
It is unethical to experiment with someone else's land and livelihood, or with intact natural systems, when proven local methods are available and existing disturbed sites can be improved.
Once or twice in this manual, lip service is given to observing local conditions. In the specific, technical sections, lots of big theoretical changes are proposed, and the point about ongoing observation is poorly reinforced. The possibility of SUBSTANTIAL HARM must be considered alongside any proposed improvement. Occasionally, wry anecdotes are offered about the white man's casual and catastrophic disregard for native wisdom, but the lesson is not carried over to humility on the part of the author himself, or the methods he advocates based on ... what? One human's brief years of personal experiment and observation? I would love to see more examples of the author's catastrophic early mistakes alongside blithe predictions of improvement.
p.240 (9.7 section 6) acknowledges, again toward the end of a long section on how to dredge and berm marshlands, that "natural marshes need protection for their unique values and for waterfowl." This should be at the BEGINNING of a section on sensitive, protected, and largely underappreciated environments. Hopefully we'll get more reinforcement of the value of natural marshes later. He did mention the unsustainability of burning peat.
p. 231 Figure 9.5 has two dotted (dashed) lines, used for nearly opposite purposes (one indicating a theoretical slope compared to a concave curvature, the other indicating a natural concave curvature compared to an artificially straight-angled slope). This makes the reference in the text below somewhat unclear (section 9.4 paragraph 9).
230 - figure 9.3 - "recommended proportions of slopes for stable rest angles" in various materials. They look steep to me: like maximum "angle of repose" slopes, not stable non-erosive slopes. Anyone else have soil-moving experience enough to give a range for each soil type described?
I had some similar problems with the chemistry discussion in the previous chapter, which I'll be retroactively adding to that discussion if anyone's interested.
I did appreciate the range of possibilities mentioned. Maybe I'm just grumpy that they're mostly not legal, or ethical, in our forested slopes and level meadows. This chapter didn't have a lot that seemed personally applicable for my present situation.
Erica Wisner wrote:Grumpy warning: I seem to be in a particularly critical mood.
let it fly! I hope that's why we are doing this. Bill no more belongs on a pedestal than you, me or dare I say it, Paul.
Erica Wisner wrote:I had some similar problems with the chemistry discussion in the previous chapter, which I'll be retroactively adding to that discussion if anyone's interested.
This chapter does not deal much with legal aspects and what can go wrong, but Erica’s comments clarify this. Much of what is contentious about permaculture is in this area. Aside from roads, we mostly are interested in using earthworks to control flow of water and to contain water. It was good to be reminded of other uses such as shelter, noise and wind breaks. My grandmother said the warmest house she ever lived in was sod. Some of the earth shelter structures of the past such as the native American round houses and sod houses of pioneers are fascinating and could have some relevance with respect to the newer structures such as wofati and more resent building methods and materials.
A great deal of the trouble with earthworks have to do with the scale. “Small is Beautiful” as Schumacher would say. For example, in California where I live, much benefit could be achieved by many small ponds (earthworks) high in the water shed where water flow volume is low as we continue to lose snowpack due to a warming environment. However, in the past, the mode of operation was to build a few large dams to meet water needs which resulted in huge environmental cost and fish species loss. Also, harnessing the flow of large volumes of water leads eventually to major disasters. If one does have the benefit of a sizable river or large volume of water flowing (seasonal or otherwise) through their land, it is wise to divert a small portion by way of earthworks in different places rather than try to harness the total flow in one place by way of earthworks.
Thinking small and replicating what works is the way to go. Distributed small diverse is resilient. Mollison states “Small earthworks are so immediately effective…” (top of p. 22.
yes, we often start with small earthworks.
but, as I think was also pointed out by Bill,
"small" clearings for hippies camping out... then building and gardening ... then inviting their friends out to form a community ... created the pockmarked holes in a vanishing stand of Australian rainforest, nominally protected as a public trust.
Rabbits are small. So are goats.
So are cows, compared to elephants:
And yet the total number of cows is only slightly greater than the total number of people; and I suspect each cow has a far smaller environmental footprint than each person. Cows merely walk and graze; people also drive and plough.
Given our place on the XKCD.com diagram above, we have a certain responsibility to make sure that even the small changes we make to our local environment, are beneficial rather than harmful.
It's a scary point in history to be alive, but potentially a very important one.
This multiplication of impact is why I'm still staring at most of the black plastic around the pond, and poking around at the edges, rather than renting a bulldozer. I know that I don't know how to operate the pond, the landscape, (although I'm getting closer to being able to operate the bulldoze ).
I only know that it looks ugly to my eyes, and I've made some small-scale efforts to improve it. These have not necessarily turning out as planned. Not bad, not worse perhaps, but not as planned, and not necessarily much better. I have discovered a number of things that I didn't notice 3 years ago, or 2. I'm hoping that with more education, and more small trials, I can find a way to make things better without making them worse. Because the pond up here seems a very precious thing.
Meanwhile I'm still driving back and forth to social and work and medical destinations. All that incurs costs, too; I see oil in the meltwater, and cringe. Don't know if oyster mushrooms will survive up here. Know I can't, without contact with other people. I have not yet made enough friends up here to have any confidence in surviving without a car.... in fact I'm not sure it's a livable place without a car, unless you are really dedicated to living like a Sherpa. And that takes a lot more land and sheep than I have ... and see above about the world having a finite amount of land, and a lot of it is already holding sheep.
blah blah blah ... paralysis ...
I think the biggest thing is to start with something that is messed up, somehow - a degraded farm, urban lot, over-grazed or logged-out patch of backwoods. Then you can work on building that back to at least the level of abundance that the surrounding wilderness shows. But so often, my first few guesses as to what is "wrong" are wrong. My ancestors did the same thing, trying to improve on what was there, and their efforts gave rise to what's here today.
So it's important to start with broken, take it apart, fix it, and keep doing that until you can fix it so it works. Like the old-fashioned kids' method of learning about radios, alarm clocks, watches. Don't take apart a working one until you absolutely have to - but you can keep working on broken ones, until you are confident you can improve a working watch that just is running a little slow, ... but even an excellent watchmaker is going to be very cautious about peeking inside a watch that's working.
And unlike a watch, nature has some very complex and difficult-to-understand functions, and we may not always be clear that it's already working, or how.
Bill did mention this earlier, see the discussion in the main thread about Type 1 error: Leave the bush alone. Don't break into intact wilderness - it's working great, there's too little of it left, and we need it as a manual for understanding what's going on in the rest of it. And I believe he said something about your needs will be in conflict with so many other things that you will need to commit a great deal of destruction to meet your needs.
Yet a lot of these chapters read like manuals for how to start fresh - and a lot of people's idea of 'starting fresh' is a plot without any buildings or signs of human activity .... in other words, intact wilderness, or something that looks a lot like it to our novice eyes.
I would love to have a "before" and "after" plot for each improvement suggested - showing why that site called for that technique.
I think greening the deserts is another place that this type of invasive management really shines - especially old-world deserts that clearly show ongoing human involvement. As long as you do little patches, not whole regions, the lizards probably don't mind moving two hot rocks over and having a few more insects to choose from.
What is wilderness anyway? What Bill didn’t know about the wilderness is that it was likely altered by human activity. We now know, from research and books like 1491 by Charles Mann and Tending the Wild by Kat Anderson, that what Europeans perceived as wilderness, when arriving in land that was new to them, was actually a human altered environment.
As far as leaving things alone or not, I am in agreement with folks like Joel Salatin, Wendell Berry, Allan Savory and others. We need more people on the land. We need more stewards of the land. Leaving the land alone is not necessarily a solution. Of course we should start with the land that is obviously damaged by us. There is an abundance of it.
The problem has not been that we are on the land and use the land. The problem has been the mentality in which we are here. Are we here to conquer, extract, and leave? Or, are we here to practice good husbandry, nurture, and stay?
It is true, as Bill says, when referring to wilderness. There is too little of “it” left, whatever “it” is. We think we know it when we see it. It just may not be.