So, are you sad that you didn't get to go to the Permaculture Voices conference? Did you go but you can't remember what was said? Well, I am an obsessive note taker (most of the time) and I took notes at most of the talks I attended.
I will share them here with you!
Please note that this is in no way a transcription. These are my notes, taken in real time, on the fly, whilst trying to look at the slides (or video) and follow along. I find that note taking helps me synthesize information. None of this should be construed as an accurate quotation, even when I put it in quotes. (For example, I'm pretty sure not a single speaker used the utterance "Yo.") Much of the time, I am trying to summarize and it's entirely possible that I've gotten some things wrong.
My fourth notes document is Geoff Lawton. The topic this time was "Reading the Landscape"
We’re going to go through a new video I’m going to release as part of my new online course, about reading the landscape. It’s kind of like learning the alphabet, like my little daughter is doing right now. It’s something I’m passionate about and something I really enjoy, but it’s a little hard to pick up. However, once you get it, suddenly, it’s something that you really can’t not do.
Video: the planet from space. You can see there’s really just a thin biosphere on the planet. When you look at the landscape, there are lines, and connecting elements you need to see. Particular points, of activity, of habitat, of nutrient flow, of water flow. We need to see what we can do, what’s possible. It’s hard to imagine in the sort of time lapse, of what can be. Initially, things can look quite crude, things like animal interactions that change the sequence. It takes some experience before you realize that you are initiating permanence.
Permanence is really easy when it’s actually happening. It’s a bit difficult to initiate.
The young people will be able to visualize a future world that we can’t even imagine. “Eternity is an awful long way, especially towards the end.”
What we are laying down are infinite systems. Here’s Bill out in Arizona, checking out the Roosevelt swales. President Roosevelt went out to repair the landscape with absolute intention and pretty minimal tools. (video of Bill amongst trees, shrubs and ground cover). The swales were put in, and nobody planted them (it’s really good that nobody planted them, actually). You can find the historic swales on Google Earth, now dense with life versus more barren land in between. If you interview the people who worked on these, they didn’t even know what they were doing. These swales planted themselves, and there’s been no maintenance whatsoever.
Sometimes you can see “happy accidents” where putting in a roadway interrupts water flow and slows it down, lets the water infiltrate.
(The viewpoint moves way up, you can still see the trees grouped in the swales, also big rectangles of formal agriculture) If you leave those square fields alone, they will degrade to something worse than before.
The work of Tony in Africa, in Niger can be seen from space. He taught people to reforest using a pen knife, showing people how to prune copppiced trees that had been overgrazed by goats.
Here’s a canyon in the southwest desert, a place where evaporation is higher than rainfall. The arid, the angular, shaped by heat and wind. Very large flows of water when they happen. The human landscape is a rounded landscape, not an angular landscape.
Design alone is not enough, you need to focus in and see what you have. Is it dry, is it humid?
Video of gambion system in saudi arabia, putting in rocks, laying out rock walls on contour.
Video of Geoff’s work in the Dead Sea valley, one of the most hostile places on earth. Once we got things going, we had soil developing. I started out with rocky, salty soil, ended up with rich dark soil.
The starting point was the lowest point on the highest boundary. This will give you the longest highest contour line. You lay that out and then you can start spacing out your contours.
This particular site ran out of funding, had no support and it did degrade without stewardship, but really very slowly. He was able to go back an observe, and he learned some things when he could see how it did with no help. Later on, they got a piece of land with more permanence: greening the desert 2.
On our little site, a western slope with very difficult, hard ground, slowly, we started to build biological infrastructure. If you look at it now, you can’t see the lines, because it is all canopy. (Luckily, Google Earth has some archived images: Geoff says, always take 100 more “before” shots, with hope and confidence.) On this property, all the nutrients deliver to the vegetable garden, down in this corner.
Here’s a shot of a 14 year old food forest in the dead sea valley. It is a walled garden, that creates a microclimate. Now, 14 years later, there are earthworms in the soil. It looks like Florida, but you are in the desert. It’s lush garden in the city, in the desert. There’s a custard apple growing there! The support species are well positioned (tall leguminous canopy trees). It could be better maintained, really. It’s practically self sufficients. It’s definitely self mulching. (Oh, there’s the video of Geoff finding an earthworm in moist dark brown soil). “I think we are under-optimistic.”
OK, here’s where the international conference was held in Jordan. Within sight of the conference I had this site. I didn’t bring people over, because people were accusing me of showing off. But, here’s a video of it. The agricultural engineers said “it isn’t working” and I came back and saw they weren’t following my design. I installed one of my Jordanian students and within a year it was working as designed. We were working with a massive agricultural corporation, who gave us 10 acres as a demonstration site. The water they gave us was irrigation water that was in surplus. (Big picture: massive center pivot irrigated plots all around this little site.) They had a leak, and they said we could use that.
You can’t contain water, you have to work with it. Although they’d flattened the landscape, we worked with it. Now, it’s so much better, it’s such an experience to walk through the trees, to hear the birds that show up. People told us it was impossible.
What we needed to do was cover more than 50% of the landscape in trees. We needed to shade the landscape and shield it from wind. I’ve documented systems that are 2000 years old. We can recharge the groundwater if you do the right things on the surface. You can’t go deeper than 800 meters for water.
Here’s John Liu, we’ve pledged to work in partnership to show the world what can be done (footage from his great film Green Gold)
The Loess Plateua, 30,000 sq km, $1250/hectare spent. They terraced the hills, reforested the tops of the hills, only natural habitat on the steep slopes, productive trees on lesser slopes and crops on the flat lands, 2% or less. They used 40% of what they were using and tripled the production. They contained the animals to let the forest develop.
If you want to see something amazing and dramatic, have a fly in on Google Earth to look at the Loess plateau. Yes, they used some earthmoving equipment, they used a lot of human labor. Now you see a landscape in continuous regeneration. The people have come out of poverty. They have more food, more nutrient dense food.
There are now some very large projects out there being proposed. People are looking at it, as, this is what HAS to be done. It’s not that expensive. Very large areas are going through this process, assessments are being made, This creates true wealth: clean air, clean water, clean food. We need to redefine wealth in those terms.
Chegrane, Macedonia: an ex-refugee camp. 46,000 refugees on 200 acres. Now you can see the water harvesting swales we put in. We initially put these in with the land covered in (hostile) refugees. I had to walk around thinking positive (ed: sounds difficult). We were near the bottom of a valley. We put in almost 4 miles of water harvesting swales. In the first year, we built buildings, we put in education centers, we put in forestry, we put in crop gardens (we made 6 tons of tomatoes). Even in areas of conflict, when people are sort of desperate, they become open to new ideas.
I was in Guatemala in the last year of the war there. I went back to one of our projects. You can’t see the patterns anymore, because it’s all canopy. In our first workshop, we built the first swale with hand tools. A year later when I came back I saw they didn’t need me, which is what I really want. The people put in four swales. This site is the sink of all the flood water for the town (the reason nobody wanted that ground). It was near the abattoir, used to be horribly compacted ground, now lush and green.
These people grow coffee an hour and a half walk up the side of a mountain “coffee slaves” Geoff calls them. It doesn’t have to be that way. Coffee is an understory plant. It doesn’t need inputs. It grows happily under the other plants of a food forest.
Stop being obsessed with “the big pumpkin fallacy.” Stop being a trophy hunter.
Davis California—that is flat land. Village Homes in Davis California looked exactly like that when it was developed. geoff visited there recently, made a cool video. He says he was blown away by the awesomeness. “It needs to be a natural heritage site, really.” It was just a classic permacutlure approach: water, access, structure. Water comes first.
The place is the same density as normal suburbs, but it feels so much bigger. They can take in the floodwater of Davis. City engineers tend to think that swales will flood the landscape, but they don’t—they take in the water, soak it into the landscape. When there was a flood, they opened the gates into Village Homes “and it sucked Davis dry.”
When he grabbed fruit off trees (on camera) in Village Homes, every single fruit was “perfect.” He’s never had that experience, anywhere else. Wow!! Why aren’t we doing this everywhere? This development is 38 years old—there is so much more that we can do now. We need to do this.
What can you do with flatlands? THAT’s what you can do with flat land. Look here, from high up it doesn’t look all that different from the surrounding suburbs. When you get closer, you see more gardens, a big grassy field for celebrations, a half mile of garden plots on one border.
When Michael (ed: and Judy!) Corbett developed the property, he didn’t put the motorcar first, he didn’t put the houses first, he started with the flow of water. You are harmonizing with the cosmic energies that shape the landscape.
Bill Mollison and Michael Corbett were coming up with very similar ideas at the same time, independently. We may be in a similar time now.
Footage from an ancient Russian helicopter, flying over a giant canyon system in Yemen. “I was absolutely terrified, filming this.” They’ve had some major floods in recent years. This landscape has been occupied for thousands of years. There are 11 story high mud brick homes there. “My family has lived in our house for a thousand years.” Oh. That’s pretty permanent.
Because of the modernization they recently had floods and houses just collapsed like biscuits in a cup of tea. We were looking at this, trying to figure out why this is happening now.
Combine the information from the past, the biology of the present, the availability of new technology, we can get the people involved, show them new knowledge (it takes a lot of effort).
Here, in this canyon there is surface water. The ancient houses are on the edges of the valley (well away from the water’s edge). We had reasons for what we did. (The modern fields are in between the old houses and the lake.)
We become the new indigenous people of earth. The true indigenous people who think globally, act locally. The fertility of landscape, increasing the abundance of landscape. We are using a set of reference points, and it starts by being able to read the landscape. Profound thinking in the initial understandings.
There is no such thing as a simple permaculture system. It starts with identifying the undeniable elements. Take your time. Do not rush the initial understanding of the alphabet before you start to construct words.
There is no limit to this. Our reference points go back thousands of years.