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Why the fixation on ponds?

 
Angela Aragon
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I understand the benefits of having a pond on your property, from aesthetic, property value, water harvesting, and food production perspectives. However, I do not understand the the fixation that many in Permaculture seem to have on ponds, to the point where they are willing to go to almost any lengths to have one.

An acquaintance of mine, and fellow PDC graduate is a case in point. The soil on his property has little clay, so he trucked in about 100 bags of bentonite and rented both a backhoe and special compactor to do the job. After suffering numerous setbacks, he finally finished it and promptly began filling it with municipal water via a hose connected to a  faucet on his house (and to a meter). The pond developed an algae problem and began to stink. Under pressure from his wife to solve the problem, he invested in a solar-powered water pump system to oxygenate the water. It helped with the odor but not with the algae (which are aerobic). Simultaneous to adding the water pump, he spent a day at a nearby lake digging up some cattail plants and transferred them to his pond. They brought the algae problem more or less under control, but now his pond is overrun with cattails. It looks like a jungle swamp.

I do not know what his next step will be, or if there even will be one, but, from the perspective of an observer, I cannot help but wonder why? In Permaculture, are we not supposed to work with nature?

He probably could have avoided this nightmare with some expert help. However, that would have involved even greater expense. Again, I have to ask: Why? He obviously does not have a water problem. He filled the pond with a hose!

Where was the design behind all of this expense and effort? I have not heard him talk about how the pond fit in with the rest of his design elements. Instead, it seems that he views Permaculture as a smorgasbord and wanted to put a pond on his plate. Have others encountered this mentality?
 
Eric Bee
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"Have others encountered this mentality?"

Please don't get me started.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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I think there is a primal connection that we have to ponds.  They are the oasis in the prairie, savanah, desert, tundra, or forest from which we take refuge from heat and thirst, find game, gather food and medicine, clean ourselves and heal.  I'm not saying that this is an excuse to go to all ends to make a pond happen, or that every property should have a pond, but that i think there is possibly a very deep intrinsically human need to have bodies of water nearby their place of permanence, that might not be easily explained, even by those who crave it.   
 
Marco Banks
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I agree with your perspective.  Any time you are going to such heroic measures to create something that the land doesn't seem to want, you are working too hard.

Running a hose to the pond to fill it?  Isn't that the exact opposite of what you want to see happen?

Permaculture mimics nature.  In nature, it would be beavers that would create such ponds, or they would be naturally occurring potholes (like the ones that used to dot the great plains before farmers filled them all in --- eliminating all that wonderful duck habitat).

Your friend should get some pigs and let them do the sealing for him.

https://permies.com/t/38201/Progress-Gleying-Pond-Pigs
 
William Bronson
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I get his fixation. I had a dream of switching my house hold to using rainwater for toilet flushing and laundry.
I spent a lot of energy planning ,but it turns out a low flush toilet and a high efficiency washer are a smarter way to conserve.
Now imagine I didn't have a clear motivation and had built the rainwater system.
It would be very hard to give up on it,no matter the cost.
 
Eric Bee
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"Permaculture mimics nature"

Nice post Marco, 100% agree. Any time there is significant effort or cost there's a good chance you are doing it wrong. And any time I see someone banging their head against a problem like this I know they've entirely missed the point. Oh, I'm plenty guilty of it too at times. But using the guiding principle of working with nature and not against it and measuring that by my effort, I have saved myself a heck of a lot of heartbreak.
 
Ben Stallings
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I don't know, it's easy to judge other people for not being on the same learning path as you. It sounds like the neighbor needed to learn from hands-on failure. Some of us do. Actually, I think most of us do. It's just a shame he lost so much money and resources in the process.

I have a very small property, so although I wanted a pond for wildlife habitat, the largest I could build it was only about a meter across. My first pond had a hard plastic liner because I got one for free. After all the work to get the hole just the right shape, the liner leaked. Then we got a heavy rain and the empty liner floated out of the ground like a boat. Lesson learned!

Since grazing pigs is not a viable solution for those of us who live in town -- sorry, Marco -- and raising the water table was also not viable since most of it is in my neighbors' yards and not my own, I got a soft plastic liner and put it in the previously dug hole, with a buried old recycling tote to help it hold its shape. Put a few goldfish in, and everything looked fine for a month or so, but then it filled with algae. No nutrient runoff; just fish food and no aeration and too much sun. Lesson learned!

The third year I tried not feeding the fish (since they eat whatever falls in the pond) and shading the pond. It still filled with algae and got stagnant.

So long story short, four years in, I finally got a pump running. Specifically, I took my indoor aquaponics setup and moved it outdoors. You can see a video here: 
  That was a total win, because it got the power-sucking, humidity-producing aquaponics out of my basement and onto free solar power with free fish food, and I started a lot of cuttings in the grow beds that I was able to sell at market for $$$.

Should a pump have been part of my design from year one? Yes. Any water-garden installer in this part of the country would have told me that. But I wasn't ready to listen. This was my learning path, and it brought me to success, whereas if you'd just told me from the start that I needed a pump I might not have built the pond in the first place.

Was I "fixated" on having a pond? Maybe. I'm still waiting for the wildlife (especially frogs) to show up. If they don't, maybe I'll fill the pond in. But mostly it was the right thing to go in that place in my landscape, and I was determined to find out how to make it work. I don't see that as a failing.
 
John Polk
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I understand the benefits of having a pond on your property,... However, I do not understand the the fixation... 

A body of water is a focal point upon which all life on this planet evolves.  I think that it is symbolic of 'life giving'.
On many properties, a pond is a great addition.  But, it certainly won't fit all situations.

I would love to stretch out on a lawn chair each evening of summer and watch (and listen to) water cascading down a rocky waterfall into a pond.  Would its practicality outweigh its cost in materials and labor?  I don't think so in my case.  To mimic nature is fine, but to try to create it where nature normally does not, is actually working against nature...not in the best permies design principals.
 
Angela Aragon
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My reason for making this post was to point out the overall lack of design principles that were applied in the example I gave - which, by the way, is not an isolated incident.

I understand that we all learn through experience and that failure is part of the process. All ideas carry both potential for success and inherent risk for failure. Our challenge is to tip the scales in the direction of success by managing the inherent risk. In Permaculture, we do this by observing nature, trying to mimic her, and by observing what others have done, their successes and failures.

geoff lawton, for example, still is doing earthworks projects on Zaytuna Farm. One might ask why he did not simply develop a grand design for the entire property, like students are required to do in his PDC courses (and many other PDC courses offered throughout the world), and implement it. The reason is obvious: new possibilities emerge through continued observation. Geoff takes an evening observational walk on his property each day (that he is not traveling).

The adage "look before you leap" would seem to apply here. It is great to have an overall vision, but I advocate that it be implemented in small steps, with time in between to confirm if nature agrees with it.

Too often I encounter people (and all of them want ponds) that take what I called a smorgasbord approach to Permaculture. What I mean by this is that the approach is superficial. A smorgasbord has something for everyone, but few if any connecting themes. You just take a little of this and a little of that until your plate is full. Thus, ponds in my post represent a symbol of a much more important problem that relates to approach.

The pond-fixated guy that I described in my original post did not "go deep". Instead, he took a superficial approach and consequently is playing a game of catch up to fix his mistakes. The problem is that nature is way ahead of him.
 
Eric Bee
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That's a good way to put it all Angela.

To me it's a mindset and way of thinking, and all the various tactics and projects are just possible ways to implemtent that overall strategy.

But then again, I suppose I'd rather see people dabbling than outright ignoring it. I might shake my head in disbelief when I see things as you describe, but I'm not going to ridicule or condemn them for it, even to myself. If even a few people "go deep" as a result of dabbling, isn't that a gain?

Let me back up though and describe my own experience: I can't go deep. It's just not economically possible. There are myriad reasons and I can go into a great deal of detail about why organic farmers face economic challenges that compromise our ability to be sustainable, but the upshot is that there are many tactics that I cannot employ because they are not practical on a scale that would pay my mortgage. Maybe some day, but not right now.

No doubt many will say that's hogwash, but how many of them have run a production farm on which their livelihood depends?

In a way that's exactly why I have the strategic rather than tactical perspective. Because over-all my farm employs a baseline permaculture strategy that while far from perfect and not what I want ultimately, is still leaps and bounds ahead of most organic farms. I see that as a good stepping stone...
 
Ben Stallings
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So it sounds like what you're saying is that people aren't fixated on ponds specifically, but they fixate on specific goals that may not be appropriate for the landscape. Is that correct?
 
Angela Aragon
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Yes, Ben. Perhaps I am the one that is fixated on ponds .

I agree with you too, Eric. I am all for practicality. This informs most of my decisions as well. However, if you are going to work with nature in your area/region, you have to observe it. Either that or rely on observations of others. There is no getting around it. Does this mean that you have to spend hours upon hours each day doing it and/or studying Permaculture books, listening to podcasts, watching videos, reading Internet material, talking to others, etc? Of course not! That would not be practical! Instead, you do it when you can, but still remain committed to it.

I am not criticizing the guy in my example as much as I am the mentality - one in which an individual takes a PDC and believes that they suddenly can tackle a major earthworks project. PDCs are broad-brush overviews. There is not time to "go deep" and still cover all of the material. The expectation is that the student will do that on her or his own.
 
Roxanne Sterling-Falkenstein
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I'd introduce the concept of a rain garden to him. It may satisfy his desire to have a water scape in a more practical way for an urban setting. 
 
Eric Bee
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Is this the time to say I don't have a PDC and never will?

Because I believe all the answers are right there if you simply observe. Doesn't mean I don't need help observing at times, but half the fun for me is in the observation and unlocking those puzzles for myself. Then I build on that with the ideas and experience of others. If I try it the other way around it never makes sense.
 
elle sagenev
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We don't have any surface water near us. None. It's not a big thing in our area. Surface water is scarce. Have you seen kids or adults around bodies of water? The joy, the peace, the absolute pleasure of it all.

I'm digging up black clay with all my kraters and moving it to where I am doing our swim pond. Digging, working, laboring over this. Then I'll fill it with rain water and the hose.

Absolutely worth it.
 
elle sagenev
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Angela Aragon wrote:My reason for making this post was to point out the overall lack of design principles that were applied in the example I gave - which, by the way, is not an isolated incident.

I understand that we all learn through experience and that failure is part of the process. All ideas carry both potential for success and inherent risk for failure. Our challenge is to tip the scales in the direction of success by managing the inherent risk. In Permaculture, we do this by observing nature, trying to mimic her, and by observing what others have done, their successes and failures.

Geoff Lawton, for example, still is doing earthworks projects on Zaytuna Farm. One might ask why he did not simply develop a grand design for the entire property, like students are required to do in his PDC courses (and many other PDC courses offered throughout the world), and implement it. The reason is obvious: new possibilities emerge through continued observation. Geoff takes an evening observational walk on his property each day (that he is not traveling).

The adage "look before you leap" would seem to apply here. It is great to have an overall vision, but I advocate that it be implemented in small steps, with time in between to confirm if nature agrees with it.

Too often I encounter people (and all of them want ponds) that take what I called a smorgasbord approach to Permaculture. What I mean by this is that the approach is superficial. A smorgasbord has something for everyone, but few if any connecting themes. You just take a little of this and a little of that until your plate is full. Thus, ponds in my post represent a symbol of a much more important problem that relates to approach.

The pond-fixated guy that I described in my original post did not "go deep". Instead, he took a superficial approach and consequently is playing a game of catch up to fix his mistakes. The problem is that nature is way ahead of him.


We had a huge learning process making our duck pond. It finally works and it was worth the 4 years it took to get it right.
 
Josephine Howland
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I am just starting on my permaculture adventure, but I have been living on our 13 acre (mostly forested) property for 15 years.  along the Southern property line there is a fairly stagnant stream.  I would like to make a pond pulling off of that stream.  The headwater for that stream is a huge pond/marsh/ that comes off a mountain in the White Mountain National forest.  Our property is over an aquifer, and our ground water is usually less than 2 feet underground.  Our goals for the pond would be fishing, relaxation, fire protection, and of course wildlife attraction.  Normally, the area has deer, moose, and bear, but we don't see much through the forest, the pond would give us more sightings, and hopefully venison in the freezer.  I believe the pond would help to aerate the stream as well.  Does that sound right?
 
Mark Clipsham
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Why I have a fixation with ponds is that I live in Iowa and the rivers and lakes look like vomit mixed with diarrhea. I love to swim - it is not unusual for there to be warning signs posted by the lakes about nasty bacteria in the water. I would not begin to consider the rivers. All the nice water is on private land or not usable because the city/county whatever doesn't want you to (I have asked). I go swimming on vacation. Sad.
 
Hans Quistorff
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Opposite fixation trying to plow every foot and therefor trying to drain ponds that form on an undulating flood plain.  This is what I am trying to undo. Now that the shallow ponds are starting to overflow I was thinking I would have to put a culvert where the high ridge that I want to be able to drive on was ditched. But as I fallowed the level of the water clearing the buttercups I found that the water naturally flowed to  the next low point going around the high ground.  So I am filling the ditch with debris from clearing th old swale and getting the water to travel farther across the land.

I am working on a go slow and observe. Experiment and observe. Keep assessing the desired possibilities and potential plan for production. So far what works is to fill the dry pond with cut grass at the end of the summer to keep weeds fron growing in it. Now I am raking the mulch out of the water and onto the flooded edges to smother the vegetation there. Now I am forking out the dead roots and filling flooded areas that are not contiguous with the pond borders. Eventually I may have my rice ponds.
DSCN0356.JPG
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Philippe Wyss
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Angela, I agree completely on your view. In my opinion this example has actually little to do with permaculture, but more with creating a natural garden with a pond, also called a "biotop". Any learning step is fine and some people think that creating an isolated element like a pond or a hugelbed, is permaculture. But it's not...
 
Angela Aragon
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Hans. Might you be able to develop a variation on the theme of chinampas? This approach would work with the water and could require less work overall.
 
Hans Quistorff
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Angela Aragon wrote:Hans. Might you be able to develop a variation on the theme of chinampas? This approach would work with the water and could require less work overall.

I gave my example as permaculture thinking where I am not trying to impose a pond on the land but use the natural development on a wetland to create a usable water feature in my usual pattern of mowing and mulching. As it turns out the land has a natural swale that runs diagonally across most of the floodplain and then back again. So I am trying to undo the agricultural thinking which was to ditch parallel to the property line to drain to the road dich.

Any way the frog was happy to have the pond to hop into this afternoon when I was working on the edge. I made one and a half circuits around the perennial flax with the scythe and moved it to mulch the garden for the winter.  In the process I discovered that the natural swale is complete with a large pond at the beginning and three at the far end. I will fill the ditches with the muck from the edges to expand the end ponds to hold more water for the dry summer months.  By September the anaerobic bottom of the ponds is dry and has become aerobic so I can harvest it for potting soil.

to answer your question directly.  chinampas are for a deeper floodplain that doesn't dry out. My floodplain is rated at one foot. So again it is a matter of not trying to impose an idea of what was done in another environment. I suppose it could be considered the reverse. Instead of creating land in the water I am creating water in the land. The frogs and dragon flies approve and the flax gets taller. Maybe eventually I will have rice with baby ducks swimming around.
 
Eric Bee
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I gave my example as permaculture thinking where I am not trying to impose a pond on the land but use the natural development on a wetland to create a usable water feature in my usual pattern of mowing and mulching.


To me this is the essence of it. If you have to work so hard to re-shape things to get that pond, that in and of itself is "not" permaculture. OK OK! I'm not telling someone what is permaculture and what is not, and the "it depends" rule is always going to apply. But the principle of working with nature is so central and so important it at least begs the question.

As I've said elsewhere I measure my success in adhering to permaculture principles by physical effort and money spent. I don't mean to say this is about permaculture as a culture or industry or a particular website or book or person. Rather the essence of what permaculture thinking tries to do for us. If you are trying to jam a square peg into a round hole by trying to create a pond where nature doesn't want one, you are bumping up against the question of does this fit with the overall goals and principles of permaculture.

You alone can judge that for your particular situation but I think as we learn and help guide each other it's rather important to have these types of discussions and to help each other keep the fundamental reasons behind this thinking firmly in mind.
 
C. Letellier
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You asked why?  the answer is variety, preparedness and a host of other factors.

Variety if you can have fish and ducks and assort wildlife it adds to your production capability and gives more nature to enjoy.  Most people have an inherent enjoyment of water features is part of the psychological reason for this too.  More importantly though is preparedness.  The pond will let you irrigate through a drought year or keep you in drinking water if everything goes down the tubes.  It gives you someplace to throw a pump in for emergency fire control.  Some place to go swimming is another piece of the puzzle.  The reasons to want a pond are many.  Not always practical but there are valid reasons for it. 

As for algae odor control that one is easy.  Balance it out with something feeding on the algae or dry the pond up once a year to kill the algae off..  That problem was about poor design implementation.   Another answer would be to harvest the algae for mulch.  It can be one of the best water holding mulches going.  The barely straw trick might help with it to with no pumps.

 
Angela Aragon
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Let me be clear. I am not opposed to land owners constructing ponds on their property. After all, water is life. I merely was pointing out a trend that I have observed in people jumping into the deep end of the pool (no pun intended) without first observing and applying design principles, both in the selection of the earthworks project, its location on the property, how it is dug, and how it will connect with other elements on the property. This is not rocket science and does not require that much effort or time.

Permit me to provide another illustration. A fellow student in the PDC that I attended presented his final design project. In it, he had located a pond uphill of his kitchen garden. Other students commented that this might not be such a great idea and that he either should consider relocating the kitchen garden or the pond. At the time, he held firm and articulated his reasons for locating both elements where they were.

Circumstances caused him to wait on the pond project. In the interim, he dug some swales on another part of his property (also part of his design). The rainy season came and he happened to notice that water was beginning to accumulate in an area where the slope of the hill (where he had dug the swales) levelled off. A key line and he had completely missed it, because he was focused on having a pond closer to his house.

He was able to install a really nice pond in that area and abandoned his plan to dig the one above his kitchen garden, now able to recognize that the catchment area was not particularly good in this location and that he might have experienced challenges keeping it full.

Circumstances forced him to postpone his pet project. It was not design. However, in the process, he had a lot more time to observe and it paid off big time. I am sure that there are others here that could recount similar stories, applying to earthworks or other things.
 
Levente Andras
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I have been a rather judgmental person since I can remember, so until not too long ago it would have come natural to me to join the chorus of those of us who criticise So-and-So for going against common sense and trying to build a pond in an unsuitable place.

But as I grow older I'm becoming a bit more open-minded and tolerant, because...

(a) I myself have done things that went against common sense or the advice of others, and failed miserably.  I have catalogued these failures under "lessons learned", or "not to be repeated".  They are a way of learning first-hand, from one's own failures / errors. Some of these errors may be costly, but this is the unavoidable price that obstinate people like me will have to pay in order to learn certain lessons in life.

(b) AND I've also done things that flew in the face of (other people's) "wisdom" or "common sense", and turned out to be a definite success (while also proving that their "wisdom" was rubbish).

As a combined result of (a) and (b) above, I feel I'm in a better place intellectually and materially than where I was 5-10-15 years ago.  Each of us is walking his/her own path, which hopefully leads from ignorance to (some degree of) knowledge and wisdom...

The guy who builds a pond on sandy/rocky soil will also learn something from his failed experiment.  He may not admit right away that it was a bad idea, he's still attached to his pet project, and he still sticks with it... but if someone asked him in confidence whether he would advise building a pond in a similar place, I trust he would say no.

... When you get infected with Permaculture ideas, you can easily get carried away by a feeling that you have been given the power (tools, knowledge, etc.) to create your own paradise, and you may feel a tremendous urge to JUST DO IT. You want all those nice things on your property.  A pond.  A forest garden (whatever that means). Fantastic earth shapes, water features, plant combinations, etc. etc.  But your enthusiasm and eagerness to plunge into it may blind you to the objective reality, the difficulties, limitations and insurmountable obstacles.  No amount of PDCs and permaculture books will prepare you for completely overcoming your biases and irresistible wishes.  Only experience can help you.  On the simplest level, it's the "once bitten, twice shy" situation.
 
Levente Andras
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Roberto pokachinni wrote:I think there is a primal connection that we have to ponds.  They are the oasis in the prairie, savanah, desert, tundra, or forest from which we take refuge from heat and thirst, find game, gather food and medicine, clean ourselves and heal.  I'm not saying that this is an excuse to go to all ends to make a pond happen, or that every property should have a pond, but that i think there is possibly a very deep intrinsically human need to have bodies of water nearby their place of permanence, that might not be easily explained, even by those who crave it.   


This summer I built a small pond.  Only about 10 metres by 6.  Tiny.  I can't say it will serve any practical purpose at all, as I know I won't be using the water for irrigation, and I won't populate it with fish in the foreseeable future. 

It cost me money to make it, which I could have spent on more "useful" things. Also, it takes up an area which I could have put to some practical use - grow vegetables or fruit trees, or place the chicken coop, or bee hives, all of which are things that I value and would produce a tangible yield. 

And yet, I decided to build the pond. I haven't regretted it.  The spot has now a kind of magic feel, and the satisfaction it gives me (and everyone who sees it) cannot be explained with rational or utilitarian arguments.
 
Levente Andras
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Eric Bee wrote:"Permaculture mimics nature"

Any time there is significant effort or cost there's a good chance you are doing it wrong. And any time I see someone banging their head against a problem like this I know they've entirely missed the point. Oh, I'm plenty guilty of it too at times. But using the guiding principle of working with nature and not against it and measuring that by my effort, I have saved myself a heck of a lot of heartbreak.


"a good chance" is the right way to put it - because there are many notable exceptions. 

As for "working with nature and not against it" ... it's one of few concepts in Mollison's teachings that I really don't know what to do with or where to put.

Take a minute to watch this video:  


How would the principle "working with nature and not against it" apply in the case of the peasant woman who reforested the desert, where all that "nature" wanted to do was to create desert, and again more desert? How can you work "with" nature in that context?

But I don't need to resort to such extreme examples, because I have my own case to show for illustration. For the past 3 years I have been working hard to establish a mixed-species hedge, orchard/forest garden, and mini-forest on my property, on fairly fertile soil, favourable microclimate (south-west facing slope), in a geographic / climatic area (temperate continental, with abundant precipitation) that's perfectly suitable for trees.  I chose the best-suited species for my type of soil (clay, moisture-retentive, fertile) and for my climate/microclimate.  I prepared the ground prior to planting, and gave a lot of TLC to every little tree or shrub that I put into the ground.  Results?  Not great.  I'm losing about 10-15% of my trees each year. Three weeks ago I planted 20 new trees (replacing some of the dead ones) - and only a week after the planting, 3 of them were already dead !  Killed by voles ...! 

Question: how do you work with nature (and not against it) in such a situation?  Give up on tree planting altogether? Perhaps I should focus my efforts on herding voles?  Make cheese from vole milk?

Joking aside, there are certain outcomes that are desirable in absolute terms - more trees, more biodiversity, more water retention / better water management in the landscape, etc. etc. - and it may well be that the current conditions in a given location are such that "nature" is already on a downward spiral towards the exact opposite of those outcomes.  E.g., desertification, trees that are dying, water bodies that are disappearing, all this on a scale that you cannot simply reverse with just a gentle nudge.

So if you accept that those outcomes ARE desirable, then forget about "working with nature" - you do what you have to do, spend all the effort and money that you can afford, to actually reverse what Nature intends to do.

Come to think of it, if humanity had always worked with nature and not against it, we would never have left the balmy climate of Africa (where we as a species were born) and would never have migrated to harsh places such as Iceland, Finland, Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet, Canada, Alaska, .........

 
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