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.

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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.

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Charlotte and Dana creating neat wood piles