Permaculture in Practice: Straw-Book Swales Make Meadows Easily
Here's my August column in the Santa Fe New Mexican. It's a how-to primer/preview to a video that I will be releasing tomorrow.
Since erosion control and land restoration are a couple of Santa Fe Permaculture’s specialties, we typically get anxious phone calls from property owners after major rainstorms. Sometimes, due to a vicious monsoon or two, they’ve lost a chunk of a backyard patio. Other times, they report a flooded garage or a vestibule that came “this close” to full-blown inundation. Most of the time, however, there is less drama in their stories, and people are simply trying to do their best to prevent the continued slip-sliding-away of their real estate.
One of the interesting chacteristics of high-desert storm events revolves around how localized their epicenters can be. After Hurricane Alex, we received three queries from folks who all lived within a radius of 2,000 feet. None of them knew each other, but each was clearly rattled in their own way by what they discovered at dawn. Evidently, the northwest corner of Eldorado got especially hammered during the wee hours of July 3. “Looking out the living-room window at 3 a.m.,” one client in the affected area told me, “I not only couldn’t see the lights of my neighbor’s house, but I also couldn’t even see my own driveway.”
I’m pleased to report that an April installation of straw-book swales (just like those described in my May column) passed this extreme-rain test with verdant colors. Located on either side of the aforementioned rain-whacked driveway, the straw books held up perfectly as they simultaneously did their job of retaining native seeds, soil, bugs, mycelium, and moisture. About a week after the storm, I was scheduled to sow a mix of grass seed on the same job. “In my 10 years here,” the client said as we walked around together, “I’ve never seen this part of my property look so green.”
Thanks to the straw-book swales, the place did look much greener, but there were still vast swaths of exposed soil. Mostly unrecovered from the overgrazing of long ago, you could almost hear the ravaged land begging for blue grama, alkali sacaton, galleta, and all of the other seeds in Plants of the Southwest’s “Dryland Blend” seed mix.
Around the disturbed areas of the project, I had waited to sow because I knew much of the seed would have blown away between our spring windy season and our sometimes rainy (and sometimes not) summer season. The revegetation job also had to work around a path that led to seven bird feeders on the south side of the property, so waiting to sow until just before monsoon season made sense to keep the seeds from being eaten.
Even though we installed a roof waterharvesting cistern at my client’s home, no supplemental irrigation would be directed to the seeded areas. With nothing but a natural binder mixed in with the seed and a light straw mulch strewn on top of it, the seed will be on its own. But given the healthier microclimate we’ve jumpstarted, the grass will not be even greener on the other side of the fence.
Nate Downey is president of Santa Fe Permaculture, an ecological landscape-design, -consultation, and -installation firm. His book, Harvest the Rain, will be (has been!) published by Sunstone Press this year.
Greenhouse Bust Backfires on Cops, Us
Here is my recent "Permaculture in Practice" column, which is published in the Santa Fe New Mexican's monthly real estate magazine. You can find it on page 40 of the November issue of this link or in the text below the link.
It was a typically permacultural day at Camino de Paz School and Farm. The students had tended the chickens, goats, sheep, and horses. They’d weeded and watered vegetable beds, picked fruit, made cheese, canned tomatoes. They’d taken math, English, Spanish, and history. Two students, Sasha and Sarah, prepared campus-grown potatoes, cheese, applesauce, and a medley of fresh greens. Under the shade of an old apricot, Ben and Reyes set 25 places for lunch.
It was a normal day until our tax dollars showed up — not some long-awaited grant or rebate; sustainability-based education isn’t subsidized like big banks and oil conglomerates. Instead, our tax dollars flew in by means of a U.S. Army helicopter, four entrance-blocking vehicles, and various “personnel” donning guns, ammo, bulletproof vests, and at least a little attitude.
“Did you know we’re open to the public?” school director Patricia Pantano asked a DEA agent who claimed possession of a search warrant. “With these 11-year olds here, do you think this demonstration of force is appropriate?”
“What?” countered a state trooper, “Are your kids afraid of cops?”
Afraid? Nah. Cops, drug agents, soldiers, SUVs, and helicopters in attack mode. Fortunately, kids these days can’t avoid a hefty dose of ludicrous violence on big screens, TVs, and telephones. There’s not a true American kid who wouldn’t love to be raided by special ops, especially if it cuts into music class.
But whether or not kids are uncomfortable is of much less importance than whether or not adults express their anger in a loud and constructive manner. As much as I deeply appreciate the need for police, as citizens it is our duty to question authority in situations like these, and the easiest way to do this is with financial accounting.
On the expense side, you have one gasguzzling helicopter, four environmentally unfriendly vehicles, endless on-site and off-site personnel (of at least four government agencies, including the judge and the staff of the judge who signed the warrant), countless drug-war trainings, numerous expensive technological gadgets, plenty of guns, ammo, and protective gear, and a requisite number of reports and other paperwork.
For what? They were hoping to find a large amount of marijuana growing in the school’s greenhouses. What they actually produced — heirloom tomatoes — has become an embarrassing and distracting public-relations nightmare, a problem that could have been avoided given five minutes of web surfing. In a democracy, even the “What-were-they-smoking?” mistakes of the police and the military are also the mistakes of those who relinquish power to the lawmakers, judges, and executives who manage law enforcement and our armed forces.
Has the prohibition of marijuana in our fast-food culture come to this? That probable cause includes the possession of a greenhouse? In permaculture, we say “the problem is the solution.” In this economy, it’s a big problem to be wasting resources on such a gratuitous war on a weed. The solution simply depends on when will we grow up and admit this.
Earth Care International's Sustainability Guide Publishes My Piece on Water Harvesting
I tried to find my recent article in the 2011 Sustainable Santa Fe Guide (about the blessings of bike commuting), but it’s not online yet. Here’s last year’s article in the same annual magazine published by the wonderful youth and staff at Earth Care International.
Community Water Harvesting: Alive, Well in SFe
This one is about the positive effect on our local economy due to Santa Fe’s community-wide and vigorous “water-consciousness.” It was first published in Green Fire Times in October.
Bioneers Day 3: Not as a God, but as a God Might Be*
On the third day (a wonderfully wet Sunday Morning), the Lafayette Bookstore (the bookstore at the conference) graciously let me sign books. One might think a 100-person line at a signing would be impossible for a new author like me, but in fact it actually happened! The catch was that the line was made up of early birds waiting for Jane Goodall.
Oddly, it wasn’t at all surreal to have one of the environmental movement’s founding mothers scheduled to sign books right after me. All of us in the movement seem to be doing the best we can do given our lots and talents. Sure, she’s borderline godhead, but so are YOU! (And she’d probably be the first to admit this.) Plus, when all was said and done, I noticed stacks of Goodall books that were NOT purchased, whereas we came a mere two books shy of selling out of Harvest the Rain!
*from “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens
Bioneers Day 2.1: Green Jobs? Toxicologists Wanted. (The Sad Tales & Real Promise of a Green Scientist)
A longtime Polaroid employee addressing thousands of cutting-edge environmentalists? Sounds like a concoction for conflict, but it turned out to be a fabulously successful experiment yesterday. John Warner told his story about becoming the founding father of Green Chemistry with one part optimism, two parts tale of innocent death, three parts useful information, and four parts humor (ranging from deadpan to verbalized slapstick).
While taking Chem101 merely to fulfill a college requirement, Warner stumbled into extra-credit research because he suddenly found hours of time on his hands. The drummer of his busy rock band (which he said, “sounded a lot like The Cars—but with better lyrics”) died of Leukemia, and Warner needed something to do. Warner said he would have probably held on to his preconceived notion that science is boring and uncreative if it were not for the death of his friend.
Years later, a more terrible sadness would overcome him. While vaguely pondering his life and his career and his awards and his success at bringing “green chemistry” to industry, he looked up at the ceiling during his two year-old son’s funeral and wondered if something he had touched, some chemical, had caused the birth defect that killed his child.
Mourning the fact that he had never taken any toxicology during all of his years as a chemist, he added an important fact: “Not one college chemistry program in this country requires a course in toxicology.” Fortunately, the chemistry landscape is changing, he said, as more and more young people come in with a desire to use chemistry for sustainable purposes. “You’re no longer laughed at for talking about sustainability,” he said. The industry is slowly turning its focus to green chemistry not only due to societal and market pressures, but also because mimicking nature (as opposed to creating materials that combat nature) tends to work better than the industry previously expected.
Warner’s tale is terribly sad, but his message is ultimately a very entertaining one—filled with a keepable promise to help us save civilization from itself using biomimicry, green chemistry, and intellectual ecology.