Raising the food forest

When a very large project needs to be done, in traditional communities, everyone gets together for a day or a weekend, to do it together.   The Amish or Menonites in this country still do this.  A small community of skilled people can build an entire barn in just a weekend (see the chapter on this in a lovely book by an MIT grad who goes to live with a Menonite community for a year: Better Off).   In the permaculture community (can we call it that?), we do something similar.  A group of people gets together and spends the afternoon making a big push on a garden project.  Call it a permablitz, or a garden raising, or raising the food forest.

Last November, I participated in my first garden raising with the Boston Food Forest, when we planted out 40 trees and more at the Ellington Street Food Forest.   Yesterday, I went to another one in Dorchester.    Just last week, we had one of our own at Big Foot.  It was posted as an event by the Boston Food Forest Coalition (thank you!).   Who would have believed it: ten people – 7 adults and 3 kids – who I had never met before, who had no relation to me, showed up on a beautiful Sunday, based on nothing more than the promise of working hard together outside, and getting lunch.   There was Mark with his daughter Ruby, who often goes to gardenraisings; Alison, who’s interested in healthy food; Lana, who was in Newton and just checked out what good Meetups were around; Monica and her family who are starting a food forest in Canton; Taylor who is moving back to West Virginia to start a food forest there; and Alex, who splits his time between helping to set up the next FIFA World Cup and doing permaculture.  Ruby and Izzy from Olin came as well.   And Mark said he would make us all lunch.

I had expected just two people to show up but at the last minute found out via Facebook that many more were interested.  A little frantic rush around the neighborhood procured more shovels and wheelbarrows – thank you neighbors!

It was fantastic!  There is such an energy buzz when a group of human beings get together on a joint project.  We are hard-wired to do this.  It sets off a gzillion positive neurons, firing all over our bodies, sending the message, Yes, this is good!  What we raised is Hugelkultur beds — more on those in another post (basically, these are raised beds with a core of wood to increase moisture retention and soil fertility).  I put out all the tools together in a clear location and added a little “sign-in” table, where you could list tools you brought (to be sure you took them home) and give us an email so we could stay in touch.  Then, together, we dug out lilies and asters where the Hugelkultur beds were going (putting the plants in a pile to be transplanted on to the hazel hill).  Some of us dug out a base of one Hugelkultur bed, then brought in wood and discussed how to best arrange it.  Another group of us went to the base of the hazel hill where we arranged large pieces of trunks to create a long ridge that will ease the end of the slope.  We talked, we dug, we laughed.  We moved piles of stuff that we thought “No way!” could we move those.  Appropriate technology indeed: many helping human hands.  Someone always kept an eye out for the kids.  At about 1 o’ clock, Mark called us all in for lunch and we sat on the deck, eating piles of food, and all of us happy with our work, happy to be eating, and doing lots and lots of talking.  Then we went out for a few more hours and did some more work finishing our Hugelkulturs.  Really, it was pretty cool.   This day deserves LOTS of pictures.  Here they are.



Permaculture zen

After Land of Plenty left, as I mentioned, we had two huge piles of brush, taller than a person, in the yard.  The original plan was to rent a chipper to turn this material into wood chips for paths, figuring it would take one work-day with Ruby – Ruby is our wonderful live-in intern/woofer, who helps out two days a week in return for room and board.  Unfortunately, it turns out, you can’t rent chippers of a usable size for us.  So, what to do with two gargatuan piles of brush?

I have read a fair amount about permaculture, including how to create hugelkulturs and terraces and swales.  I spent a day in a class at my earlier permaculture course just on this stuff.  But none of this prepared me for the practical question of dealing with enormous piles of brush.  How do you turn it into something you can use?   I did not remember any information about this very practical, and sizable, problem.

Ruby and I discussed our options.  Get a company to come and chip it with a big machine.  Get a big machine to stomp the stuff down.  Start a long, manual process of cutting the branches – sorting them into 1/2 – 2″ straight sticks, and then a pile of very small branchlet-duff.  Sticks can be piled fairly densely so they can serve as further material for the hugels and the terraces/swales, while the duff can be used to fill in gaps.  In the end, we reasoned, this manual labor would be creating a useful material we would otherwise not have.  Plus, in the spirit of permaculture, we’d be re-using what is on-site with minimalist tools.  It would be zen.

And so we went at it.  Six hours of clip, clip, crunch, throw, clip.    We talked about life, work, society, permaculture.  The sun came and went.  The big messy brush piles got a bit smaller.  Our organized piles of sticks got a bit bigger.   We did not finish.  The next day, I did three more hours.  I did not finish.  I started to wonder whether this is a sustainable solution – really, who in the world would ever pay you to do this long, slow labor even if it is rather nice to do?     The next day, Charlotte and I did a few more hours and were joined by her lovely friend Dana.  The day after, I did four more hours.   We are really near the bottom of the piles, but still not done, and we are 24 person-hours in.  Then came another 20 inch snowstorm, burying the piles for a week.  True zen.

Charlotte and Dana creating neat wood piles


Some Real Work

On Saturday, we started our first Real Work in the food forest to be: taking down lots of saplings and brush.   We don’t like to take down trees and bushes, but we also want to create the space for our intentional plants, ones that are really good at producing food for us or for wildlife, or super providers for the soil in our little micro-ecosystem.    It was exciting to get outside and use some muscle power to move a lot of Stuff around.

Mark went out with a chainsaw in the morning, in full protection gear with a face mask, mufflers, thick gloves and knee pads (chainsaws are super dangerous).  The chainsaw is noisy.  WHRRRRRR!!  WHRRRRR!! Crack, Swoosh, the sounds of the saw and wood falling.  It is also super-smelly, because it runs on gas and pumps out bad climate-harming stuff.   But it cuts through a lot of wood very quickly.    Meanwhile, I took my hand-tools – my new, sharp clippers, loppers, and tree-saw – pruned two apple trees and took out some of the black rot from the sour cherry tree.  Clip, clip, swsh, swsh.    Much slower pace – especially because I am such a novice when pruning trees! – but quiet.

Mark taking down some bushes

The next couple of afternoons, I was putting all of that wood into organized piles.  These piles will be the basis for our hugelkultur beds – raised mounds with a core of wood covered with soil and compost that are great for growing in.  Mark’s work had left lots of branches and trunks of all different sizes all over the place, some of them full of long, tangled vines of bittersweet that held everything together.  When you grabbed an armful of stuff a whole mess of more stuff would want to come along.  Still, it all got moved into intentional piles – some with small brush, others with sapling trunks, gnarly trunks, or straight branches – just going at it one armful at a time, taking the clippers or the loppers where needed to cut things into carry-able sizes.    Organized piles are really satisfying and have this great aesthetic balance between pattern and random shapes in the selected wood pieces of each pile.  Below is a little mound-collage taken at the end of the day with the setting sun (I am in three of the photos, but somewhat hidden – game for silly kids: can you find Babette?)

Appropriate Technology


Needham Gothic

The other day, we had a big snowstorm.  It dumped 12 inches (30 cm) of the white stuff, and made everything very beautiful.   Around here, with snow means snow-shoveling.  As the storm eased up, I headed outside, and grabbed our shovel, which consists of a blue curved metal shaft (ergonomic), a blue plastic handle, and a blue plastic blade.   With this simple tool, I proceeded to pick up snow, and toss it some feet over to the side of the paths or the driveway.   Pick up, toss, pick up, toss.   Like leaf-raking, this is an energetic-but-meditative repetitive rhythm of body movements. It gives a good work-out in the fresh air — in winter wonderland surroundings.  It’s a bit like going skiing really, except in your driveway with a shovel.  I felt so good! It occurred to me that the shovel is an exquisite example of appropriate technology – it is only as high-tech as minimally necessary, while utilizing Nature’s engineering of the human body effectively, and providing us a tune-up as we work.

I imagine my intermittent arcs of snow looked not unlike the continuous arcs of snow coming out of snowblowers, which many of my neighbors were using.  These are heavy machinery, run on gas instead of lunches, and the human behind them shuffles slowly behind the thing.  They are quite popular, and some of my friends enjoy them.  But compared to my shovel, I thought, the snow-blower under-utilizes what nature has already provided – our body.   It is not appropriate technology for the task of moving snow from my personal driveway.

While I was working, a big snow plow trundled by, pushing snow to the side of the street.  Seeing me, the friendly driver also pushed a bit of the snow from our driveway to the side.  Thank you, anonymous snow plow driver!   I recalled stories from Austria, where mountain villages used to be cut-off from the world for weeks while men opened up the roads with hand shovels.  Hm.  The snow plow, I thought, is appropriate for the task of clearing roads.

So when is a technology appropriate and when is it not?   Of course, we can’t make a neat categorization that matches each task to some technology, that would be silly – for snow, it depends on how big your driveway is, what your time allows, what your body can do.  And I like my high-tech, including internet and computer, as much as the next gal.  But we can strive to utilize the wonderful, amazing, strong, and flexible capacity of our human bodies and minds, while using as simple a Thing or Technology as possible.  That would get us closer, I think.