The Permaculture Earthworks Handbook
, by Douglas Barnes
, by New Society Publishers
is a good choice.
I gobbled up The Permaculture Earthworks Handbook last year in a few sittings, and decided to pick it up again. I’ve waited to write a book review
until I finished reading it twice.
I’m glad I purchased this book. That said, I purchased it discounted by perhaps half of its MSRP cost of $32.99. I feel that discount was warranted from a quality perspective. I really hope this book gets an updated second edition, as I think it could really shine with a few tweaks.
This feedback is essentially a “wish list” for a second edition. It has great room for improvement, and I give it 6.5 out of 10 acorns
First, some of the positive: Mr. Barnes speaks from experience
, the book is well referenced, and it covers a very complex and technical topic which is quite new to most of us. Lets face it, earthworks is a specialized area which, if practiced lightly without strong site and goal analysis, could result in huge catastrophe. So the fact that there is a book that the permie community
can go to with respect to this topic is fantastic. This is not the kind of topic which can be found in a grade-school science class
(like tree biology, climate, soil structure, etc.). The tone of the book is what I’ll call “left-brained” which I actually appreciate for the most part. Reading it helped me to temper that silly mindset of: “I NEED to build a swale because….PERMACULTURE!” Earthworks requires goals and analysis, first! That concept alone made the book worth the cost.
I could go on and talk about what I liked and learned from this book, but I feel some constructive criticism might be more helpful to the community. Of note, I do not claim to be a permaculture designer in the professional sense! But I do think a goal of permaculture at large is to develop the designer-owner-builder-maintainer within each of us.
1) Handbook? ( - 1/2 acorn)
I mostly envision a “handbook” as something that a designer would definitely want to carry around with them, on hand as a field reference. Something smaller in breadth and depth compared with a full on manual, figuratively and literally. Sadly, the dimensions of this book are not conducive to fitting in a cargo pocket. Additionally, I think of a handbook as a ready reference that does basic teaching, but also easily and quickly triggers one’s own memory or conveys a concept, pattern, or procedure to a client or crew. For instance:
1) “What is the name of that term?”
2) “What order should I accomplish these tasks? Ahh yes...”
3) “Let me find a quick picture of what I envision…”
2) Glossary? (- 1/2 acorn)
I think there is quite a bit of the “curse of knowledge” with this topic. Yes, some terms are part of the broader permaculture lexicon that the average permie audience will not have trouble with: swale, gabion, keypoint, spillway. But there are many recurring or special terms that are perhaps new for the non-hydrologist or novice like myself: vadose zone, sand filter diaphragm, groin, weir, bund, riser, spurs, VPAT, limonia, spate, nigarim. Yes, there is an index, but a glossary would help.
3) More (and better) pictures, diagrams, and illustrations? (- 1 acorn).
As the 43rd president of the US once said:
“One of the great things about books is sometimes there are some fantastic pictures.”
I think this book needs at least double, but preferably quadruple as many. The front of the book is the only “inspirational” and colorful photo. There are only a few token pictures, and the illustration and diagram styling varies a bit. An illustrator would be nice
to achieve some stylistic unity.
Additionally, some of the concepts have either no associated picture or illustration, or a confusing illustration. Three quick examples, there is no “trapezoidal bund” diagram around page 97, the “Chisel plow” picture on page 102 of a tractor
has a very distracting disc harrow too, and the “spur-type diversion” of figure 7.12 is low contrast and too conceptually vague to clearly show what is happening in the landscape.
While the publisher’s low-VOC environmental and energy
efficient printing is commendable, more colorful and pretty “Tada! See what is possible!” before-and-after pictures here and there wouldn’t hurt. I think books should supply knowledge, but also inspiration. Quality pictures achieve both.
4) More procedural and sequential formatting? (- 1 acorn)
In conjunction with the above, I would have absolutely loved to see some more checklist-esque information and formatting. (It must be my pilot background speaking, where checklists and procedures are everything.) Sequential diagrams would be fantastic of course, but also simple text delineating procedures. A table here and there with step 1, step 2, step 3...Even better, a quick reference guide appendix. Checklists for overall design workflow, site analysis, “how to construct a swale”. I got it, earthworks are complex, but some of the essentials could be distilled and presented in a nice dummy-friendly format. The appendix as it stands only marginally achieves this. You really have to dig -- pun not intended.
5) Typos. (-1/2 acorn)
I am not usually distracted by typos, but this book got me. There were a handful. I’m not perfect, but typos in the second opening sentence of a chapter? Ouch. Using a completely different Greek symbol for pi?
I know, it's critical, but overall, I found Barnes' "The Permaculture Earthworks Handbook" essential knowledge on a unique and complex topic, with fantastic potential should it ever get an updated edition.