Yes, this is something completely different, but I wanted to get away, just for a little while, from “who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out”, and consider a subject that’s beautiful and long-lasting and useful and tasty; and something that’s maybe in the political economy of all our futures, if we’re lucky: Edible forests (also called food forests).
The Beacon Food Forest project will be breaking ground in Seattle this summer. Here’s one example of a food forest, maybe something like what they hope to achieve:
[GEOFF LAWTON] This is another interesting system that we’ve been lucky enough to visit in Vietnam, about seven hours south of Hanoi in the province of Ha Tinh. And one day, when we were investigating different areas of the landscape and culture, we were asked if there was anything else we’d like to visit, or anything we that could be helped with, as far as getting a better record of traditional systems. And I’m always interested in old suburbs, because there’s often very interesting little events and happy little accidents that happen in suburbs, because the microclimate of the buildings and the streets. That’s why I’d like to see an old suburb, and so I could just do a check on the possibilities of different trees and different systems that might have been established. Well, this was interpreted in a form that was quite different to old suburbs that we understand in Australia or most of the developed world.
When we entered the village, all the streets were extremely small. And our guests and administrators of the project took us through to this little garden, and it was a complete established food forest. [...]
And it was extremely well-established. Small gardens, vegetables, underneath fruit trees, large fruit trees, palms, climbing productive plants like black pepper, specific gardens with pineapples, tumeric, [...] onions, borders with herbs, bananas, papayas, many varieties of fruit trees in the understory, emergent palms coming out of the canopy, small animals, even a small grazing cow under the canopy, deer in a compound, which they used for their horns as a medicinal harvest.
And the old gentleman and his wife were processors for food for their meal, they showed us around, and I casually asked, How long had it been there, how long has this system been established, and it turns out — about two acres of ground, probably a little bit less — it’s been in the family for twenty-eight generations. So it’s a completely different timescale of establishment, because everything has been tried and tested. The bees’ hives, the natural bees’ hives in hollow logs, all the medicinal plants, every plant, every tree, in the system had a use, had a story, and if it wasn’t a specific, regularly used food, it was a very specific medicine or herbal tonic.
The knowledge was just encyclopedic. You could write a book just on this one small garden. This gentleman and his wife were both in their eighties, and their varieties of fruit trees had also been there for so long, and their older varieties had been well tried and tested, they’re actually used now as reference to the modernized area where people are coming back to these more stable, more traditional, and in some ways a lot more productive per square meter complicated layered food forest systems. And they come back for reference material asking if they could share some of their genetic material, because they now realized it’s actually a much more energy efficient system, because they put in very little work, for the amount of return they get. And the return is constant, it’s daily, it’s continuous. It’s just about every meal that they eat, and all their medicine contained within their garden.
For me, it was an absolute shock to try and understand the timescale of the establishment I was looking at. This is something that was literally off my scale. I couldn’t really see the way this had been established it had been there so long, and it was very hard to see the interaction between the system and the people, because they were literally so casual and so productive: An absolute pleasure to visit it. It’s the second time I’ve visited this garden, and every time we’re made very welcome, and every time we learn more about how to approach design in an established form.
A wonderful example of tropical food forest. This is a view of the past, and a view of the future. Any possible future we have is in the sustainable suburbs of the food forest. We had it before, we’ll have to have it again.
How rare in this life is “absolute pleasure”! And while the lifespan of the average oh-so-important multinational inhuman entity is 40 or 50 years, this quarter acre garden has lasted six times longer. Indeed, and thinking back to the pioneers in Seattle, an excellent litmus test for any political economy would be whether it permits edible forests to survive and thrive. (I certainly hope Monsanto doesn’t catch wind of this; they’d welcome the chance to put the old gentleman and wife in debt!) How rare, as well, is systems thinking.
Now, if I didn’t know who Geoff Lawton was (interview) I might be inclined to dismiss the video as New Age hokum, even if he is Australian. But I’ve also read Charles Mann’s 1491*, about “pre-Columbian” [cough] culture in the Americas, and it includes these amazing passages on the Amazon rain forest, which, as it turns out, was also edible. From page 306 forward:
According to Charles R. Clement, anthropological botanist at the Brazilian National Institute for Amazon Research (INPA) in Manaus [the approach of the first Amazonians was not] to clear the forest but to replace it with one adapted to human use. They set up shop on the bluffs that mark the edge of high water — close enough to the river to fish, far enough to avoid the flood. And then, rather than centering their agriculture on annual crops, they focused on the Amazon’s wildly diverse assortment of trees. …
Of the 138 known domesticated plant species in the Amazon, more than half are trees. (Depending on the definition of “domesticated,” the figure could be as high as 80%.) Sapodilla, calabash, and tucumai; babacu, acai, and wild pineapple; cocopalm, American-oil palm, and Panama-hat palm — the Amazon’s wealth of fruits, nuts, and palms is justly celebrated. “Visitors are always amazed that you can walk in the forest here and constantly pick fruit from trees,” Clement said. “That’s because people planted them. They’re walking through old orchards.” …
Planting their orchards for millenia, the first Amazonians slowly transformed large swaths of the river basin into something more pleasing to human beings. In the country inhabited by the Ka’apor, on the mainland southeast of Marajo, centuries of tinkering have profoundly changed the forest community. In the country inhabited by the Ka’apor, on the mainland south of Marajo, centuries of tinkering have profoundly changed the forest community. In Ka’apor-managed forests, according the Balée’s plant inventories, almost half of the ecologically important species are those used by humans for food. In similar forests that have not recently been managed, the figure is only 20 percent. Balée cautiously estimated, in a widely cited article published in 1989, that at least 11.8 percent, about an eighth, of the non-flooded Amazon was “anthropogenic” — directly or indirectly created by humans. [Clark Erickson of the University of Pennsylvania] told me in Bolivia that the low-land tropical forests of South America are among the finest works of art on the planet.
So, no wonder edible forests can give us absolute pleasure! And not a smidge of petroleum in sight, either. Funny, that.
So, having led you up the garden path, I’d like to circle back to political economy one last time, scattering some random thoughts:
1. Pleasure is important. So far as I can tell, our current dispensation don’t produce pleasure nearly as well as it produces, say, high fructose corn syrup, “innovative financial products,” anti-depressants, and debt slavery. But other arrangements can do better!
2. Begone, Thomas Malthus. I don’t accept the idea that we must have a massive human die-off to save the planet. (On bad days, I think that not only does the 1% of the 1% believe this, they’re engineering it.) Looking at edible forests, it seems clear to me that we have barely begun to work on systems that can sustain us all. Wildly optimistic? Perhaps!
3. To euthanize rentiers, abolish rents. In Seattle, Vietnam, and in the Amazon, you aren’t forced to cut some robber baron his 5% from the fruit you pluck from a tree. Isn’t that how life should be?
NOTE * Some miscellaneous material on 1491 from one of Brad DeLong’s classes.
UPDATE Cross-posted to Corrente.