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Brian Fey “Solving the Human Problem on Earth” with Permaculture in the Bosque Village

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By lambert strether of Corrente

Brian Fey is creating permacultural systems in the forest at the Bosque Village, in the Mexican highlands, a really interesting project that includes an intentional community. Bosque Village is “off the meat grid,” “off the egg grid,” and “working to get off the alchohol grid”! Here he describes some of his thinking. Very little visual interest, but you can listen to this instead of NPR, if you still listen to NPR.

This segment caught my attention:

BRIAN FEY (15:04): The most important [plants] are the trees. When you look at an oak tree it has more biomass than I don’t know how much of a cornfield. A cornfield is fallow most of the year. A cornfield is going to have dead earth, right, an oak tree is going to protect the earth, and so we don’t think of oak trees as what we would eat, but they’re really actually very important. We have oak here, we have pine, we have madrone, we have capaline [sp], there are some other native trees, and those are actually, coming back, since this land was logged awhile back, so we’re seeing trees returning.

Back to the oak trees. In traditional farming, in industrial farming, you pretty much cut everything down and just have a naked field. You really kill off the earth after awhile and then you have to dump chemicals on it and everything.

We’re looking for maximum biomass, and it does not have to be biomass that is directly useful to humans, because we’re also trying to feed a biosystem. And there’s going to be a lot of things in it that we don’t want to eat. Some of them may even bug us. I mean, we want more animal life. There’s foxes here, coyotes, ocelots, bobcats, armadillos, a lot of nocturnal life, lot of bird life, we’ve already seen bird life increasing radically, and that’s because we’re not cutting things down. We’re leaving trees where they fall, and that builds more fungus layer in the soil.

So when you talk about perennials, I don’t want to just talk about the food perennials we normally think of.

There’s a surprise here, though. The oak tree is actually food. One of the biggest sources of food for indigenous people in North America was flour made from oak acorns. So you’ve really got to get suspicious about the idea that we should cut down the oak trees and plant corn.

And this:

BRIAN FEY (27:00) The goal here is to have an old-growth forest with massive biodiversity that we can still get products out of. The biggest problem is the humans, then. If we just left this alone, if we just walled it in, and left it alone, it would naturally heal itself, it would naturally diversify. But we also want to learn how to get food. And so the question is, can we have humans near nature without the humans utterly obliterating it? …

If you look at the evolution of community and people, what do they do? They went to a place, they took resources from it, and then usually they went to another place, we started nomadic, they went to another place, often seasonally. That’s a really good strategy. But when we started staying in one place, and doing agriculture in a more intense way, we started stomping all the ground around it. And you just see death, radiating outward from all the humans. …

We’re smarter now, and we see the pattern. We see that when we show up in a place, we’re going to destroy the land. So the question here in the Bosque, is can we lower the actual literal human footprint? For example, the trails. We just don’t walk everywhere, because even our feet will compact the soil and we’ll get less mushrooms. Mushrooms are a great harvest here, and I don’t want to learn how to grow ‘em in a building. I want to learn how to work with nature, so we’re supporting their own life. …

So reducing the human footprint, then, is about not having lots of… For example, I don’t want to divide the land up and have everybody have their own separate systems. I want to figure out what things we centralize and what we don’t, and how we can crush less of the land, and how we can harvest less of the stuff. We keep learning that … If we can really figure out how people can live in a forest, even a whole town, if a hundred, four hundred people, could live in a forest, and have all of their basic food needs met by that system, even their clothing needs, with rabbit furs, sure we would still import some things, and sure we could trade some things out. But if we could really figure that out, so that we have an old growth forest, sustainably, with a community of people, then we have solved the human problem on earth.

Makes the ambition on display at Davos look trivial.

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38 comments

  1. brian t

    I think he’s right about the possibilities and the numbers of people that can be supported in this way, but there’s a major disconnect between this and the realities of human population numbers, today and in the foreseeable future. It could only support a fraction of the people, but any time you talk about permanently limiting the numbers of people in a biosphere, even implicitly, you’re liable to attack from the “be fruitful and multiply” crowd. Well, the numbers of people on this planet will go down, eventually; the choice is whether we do it the easy way or the hard way.

    1. Glen

      All very valid points, but our options to enact change on a large scale are somewhat limited at present as national and international governance seems focused on further propping up and bailing out the ultra wealthy that imploded the world economy rather than progress on the very real problems the face us.

      So acting local has real merit, and could lead to acting on a larger scale.

  2. TimR

    I know NPR is flawed, but it’s still got a wide range of coverage. I’m not aware of *any* purported news outlet that doesn’t have an agenda or worldview of some sort. So I just try to listen skeptically, and find other news sources as well. Maybe I’ll listen to this instead of Click & Clack though..

  3. Chauncey Gardiner

    Thanks, Lambert. Fascinating. Reminded me of the post a while back (I think it was one of the links) about the 2 acres in Hanoi. Also, a previous post about the trout farmer in Austria was interesting. Lots of developments in these small scale endeavors and in urban agriculture too.

    My questions about all of these initiatives revolve around the number of people that can be supported, how this translates to different climates, soils, growing seasons, and whether there are crops produced beyond the needs of the community that is engaged in production there?

    As an aside, it looks and sounds like a beautiful place. Maybe it could double (an earn some aoutside income) as an arts colony along the lines of what Tagore initiated in India.

    1. jsn

      It’s not really the same thing, but a friend of mine is in his sixth year of converting a farm in Colmar to pure organic. This year he got better yields than the conventional farmers in the area who’s fields had much less resistance to some extreme heat and rain over the summer.

      He’s also looking into running his tractors on canola he grows on site. This is a near term fix while he experiments with solar robotics. There is huge potential in this stuff, he’s trained as an artist and in six years has it commercially viable and kicking off an R&D budget (really modest and subsidized by tourist events at the farm)

    2. AllanW

      We’ve had a few good links on here that begin to answer that question;

      http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2012/12/bullock-brothers-homestead-a-25-year-permaculture-project.html

      Self-sustaining and income-earning community in the States.

      http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2012/05/greening-the-desert.html

      This looks to me like a perfect model to switch much of southern Spain’s salad growers towards. Might even stimulate areas in the Middle East that desperately need economic regeneration.

      http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2012/12/sepp-holzer-aquaculture-synergy-of-land-and-water.html

  4. ks

    Fascinating. I’d love to have seen footage of the village, what kind of canning equipment they use, etc. NPR would never have given him so much space describe what he’s doing.

  5. Paul Tioxon

    The chestnut tree, with chestnuts roasting on open fire, were also a source of food, before the blight wipe them out, almost to extinction in N. America.

    1. different clue

      But not all the way out. Some persist. Some groups are back-crossing them with blight-immune chinese chestnut, and back-back crossing and back-back-back crossing and etc.; to try getting a nearly-American chestnut in terms of tall straight-trunk timber growth and high yield of small sweet nuts and still retain the Chinese blight immunity. I have heard people tell me that full-sized American chestnuts they personally know of may well be naturally blight-resistant or at least tolerant. They too could be worked with.

      And non-profit sound science public institution genetic engineers might well transfer the blight immunity genes into the American chestnut genome. ( This is not something the corporate junk science genome-highjacker patent-tollgaters at Common-Enemy-of-All-Humanity corporations like Monsanto would ever pursue).
      http://www.acf.org/

      We may yet restore the vast thundering herds of American chestnut

      1. different clue

        By the way, several years ago I walked the trail up Prospect Mountain at the southernmost edge of the Adirondacks. About halfway up the trail, in one of those stretches where the trail braids and spreads out, I saw a 3 foot tall chestnut sapling growing in the trail between footpath-braids. Chinese chestnut? Maybe. Would some joker plant a Chinese chestnut that high up the trail? And the leaves looked longer than on Chinese ( or Euro) chestnuts that I have seen. Though maybe that is a feature of extreme sapling youth).

        1. Christophe

          American Chestnut saplings grow quite abundantly in the US, mostly as volunteers off the root structures of deceased giants. The problem is that they are struck by the blight before reaching reproductive maturity. That is why nature has not been able to develop a resistant strain on her own.

          1. different clue

            I have seen a few of those old-root regrowth saplings. They keep trying and trying. I did not see any trace of a deep old root system under or around the little chestnut sapling I saw growing in the middle of Prospect Mountain Trail about halfway up the trail. It may have been there and I just couldn’t find it, but I did not see any such trace. I hope it is still growing there and that someone reading this comment decides to walk up the trail and take a look at it this upcoming Spring/Summer.

            When I was visiting family in Saratoga Springs last Sept.
            I mentioned this to someone who revealed himself to be interested in Chestnut. He said he personally knows of several full sized fully American chestnut trees bearing and shedding large quantities of nuts. He speculated that perhaps one in a million of the billion-or-more pre-blight chestnut trees once existing may have had a natural accidental level of blight tolerance or even immunity. He speculates these trees may be showing that . . . as against just being a few among those rare survivor trees so few and far between that blight spores cannot physically find them.
            And there are a few pure American chestnut trees surviving here and there for just that reason, including some planted beyond the chestnut’s natural range where the blight never went. They are noted and kept track of.

            I will again suggest that the site I offered just above might be both informative and inspiring regarding the work people are doing to bring back THE chestnut someday maybe, and meanwhile to bring back functional near equivalents which could be useful in the realtime now.

            If I ever go back to East Tennessee, I will try very hard to visit Dollywood for the Chestnut Research Farm residing on Dollywood’s property. They are among the people working to bring back the chestnut.
            http://americanprofile.com/articles/rebirth-of-the-american-chestnut-tree/

      2. jonboinAR

        I’ve also heard that the few remaining American chestnut trees are at least somewhat blight resistant. It would seem that they could be genetically intermingled and propagated.

  6. Tiresias

    Fey’s solution will work for small groups of like-minded people with the commitment and expertise, and control over of suitably-sized piece of fertile land with adequate rainfall – and an absence of armed, starving hoards beyond its boundaries.

    As a solution to the human problem on Earth? Cloud-cuckoo land.

  7. ebear

    “Bosque Village is “off the meat grid,” “off the egg grid,” and “working to get off the alchohol grid”!”

    These people need to get off the ganja grid.

    Anyone notice how this “off the grid” cliche (or “meme” as grid fanciers call it) has become the “new normal” amongst the neo-cartesian thinkers of our day? What’s his name was right – mankind will fail as a result of its inability to come to terms with exponential functions, and all this grid-talk is a prime example of that.

    Science may not save us all (there’s an ice age coming, remember?) but I’ll put my money on Monsanto before I head into the bush with wooly shirted optimists. Besides, what happens to the dream when he’s gone?

    As a prime example of “be careful what you wish for” these people are really off the grid:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kqFwVuQ-Hg

    1. JGordon

      You couldn’t even link to a real clip, but a Hollywood, that biggest purveyor of lies and propaganda in the history of mankind, movie clip?

      Yeah, those who can’t understand the exponential function are doomed. Not figuratively or in some distant future, but here and soon. On the other hand, permaculture learning does tend to force delusional thinking out of people, so that is a roundabout cure for exponential-blindness. In other words, we’ll be around helping people long after the mainstream culture and all their bizarre and fanciful economic theories sink into the dustbin history.

    2. different clue

      If all food grown deliberately with or from GMO inputs were labeled, you could find that food and buy that food to show your support. So you too would benefit from forcible and forced food GMO labelling.
      I hope the “just label it” movement goes further than its narrow imagination seems to allow at this moment. I hope they can effectively demand that every GMO food item be forcibly labled with the NAME of the GENE or SEQUENCE and the Legal Tracking Designator of the PATENT and the NAME of the CORPORATION whose PATENT it IS. That way, if you own stock in one of the GMO companies but NOT in aNOTHer, you can find food grown with the patented GMO inputs sold by the company YOU own STOCK in. Forced Total Detail Labelling would allow you to support your team, as it were.

      1. ebear

        “I hope the “just label it” movement goes further than its narrow imagination seems to allow at this moment.”

        People ’round here are pretty good at labeling. Maybe they can stick some on the food after they’re done sticking them on each other?

    3. different clue

      By the way, I went to view your yoo toob sequence and a few seconds in, realized it was the work of cinematic fiction called Apocalypse Now. That’s it? A fictional movie sequence as evidence of something.

      You must be as stupid as you flatter yourself to think that we are.

      1. ebear

        “You must be as stupid as you flatter yourself to think that we are.”

        And yet people feel compelled to respond. Why is that?

        For the record, I don’t think everyone here is as stupid as I am – in fact there’s some brilliant and often funny commentary going on. Not as hilarious as Zero Hedge, but then this is serious stuff, right? I mean, you people take yourselves seriously, right? I know I sure do.

          1. skippy

            Conformists that can’t formulate their own opinion are pathetic bootlickers.

            Skippy… its sad really… needing mental crutches to get through life.

    4. bmeisen

      If it weren’t for your daunting wit I’d wish you an eternal diet of roundup ready granola – “get of the ganja grid” and “I’ll put my money on Monsanto” – absolutely f*+king funny!!!!!

  8. different clue

    This Mr. Fey and his group will hopefully learn and discover some things. Unfortunately his (and also theirs?)
    antihumanitic antihumanism will get in their own way. I used to be a self-hating antihumanitic human myself, but I recovered.

    I mean really . . . ” the human problem on earth”? “The biggest problem is the humans, then”. ” We don’t just walk everywhere.” Elephants don’t worry about that, they walk wherever they god damn please. The thundering herds of wildebeest and buffalo and etc. were not ashamed of their own presence or the hoofprints of that presence. Humans are an animal and Humans Have Animal Rights Too.

    Somewhere in one of his books (The Desert Smells Like Rain perhaps?), author/scientist Gary Paul Nabhan writes a chapter about the bio-diversity especially as measured in bird species around a little Washingtonia Palm-surrounded oasis in Organ Pipe National Monument as against another such oasis on the Mexico side of the border also surrounded with Washingtonia Palms. On the US side the local Tohono O’odham people (name remembered correctly?) were forbidden to carry on their normal and accustomed burning-away of the dead-leaf skirt forming around the palm trunks. On the Mexico side, the local people of the same nation were not forbidden from doing that burning (as well as other traditional management methods.) And biodiversity was highER on the traditionally managed Mexico-side oasis palm groups. What management methods will Mr. Fey blind himself to through his antihumanitic antihumanism?

    Would Mr. Fey abjure the use of the chinampa where appropriate? The Mexico Valley lakeside Indians used Chinampas for maybe thousands of years for one of the very highest food-yield-per-acre food systems on earth. They didn’t neurotically obsess over their own nass-ty human footieprints and their evil human impact.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinampa

    I’m afraid Mr. Fey’s group will be very self-limited and self-limiting in what they allow themselves to do and to learn. But they will surely learn something, and other broader minded groups and persons can build on what the Fey group learns.

  9. Ron

    “can we have humans near nature without the humans utterly obliterating it?” …
    I think we know the answer to that..interesting project and not focused on creating a new mass food source for export which is why it is poorly funded!!! The biggest long range problem facing the forest is mankind as his gas and oil supply dims and the locals return to cutting down trees for firewood.

    1. different clue

      Forest or firewood? Forest or firewood? How about both?
      The problem was solved centuries ago and has been refined ever since.

      Coppice! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coppicing

      The people who wrote a big book of edible permaculture forestry are writing a big book of coppicing around the world. http://www.coppiceagroforestry.com/

      And your coppice permaforest need not only contain renewably cut-downable re-growable firewood species. It can contain fast-regrowing dual-use species . . . for firewood when cut down, and for fruits and nuts while they are growing before they are coppiced down again to regrow again from the ever-expanding rootbase-stool at and below the ground. Mulberry and hazelnut and chestnut and no doubt others. And other fruit/nut/berry trees,shrubs, and bushes down between the dual use coppice-trees for food right straight along.

      The Fey group may learn all kinds of interesting things which can be integrated into the coppicing practices of people who are not too proud to coppice and not guilt-shame ridden about their humanimal need for firewood as well as food.

  10. tiebie66

    Nurturing the goose that lays the golden egg instead of killing it to extract as much as quickly as possible. The contrast with ‘economics’ is always very stark. To me permaculture is in many respects real economics. Note a proper grasp of austerity too: you can’t eat more than you produce and you have to go without or reduce consumption until you can reliably produce a surplus. Excessive consumption provokes either austerity or leads to a collapse.

  11. casino implosion

    I have a kneejerk hatred of these back to the land dorks, whom I overdosed on as a kid in the 70s being exposed to that decade’s iteration of their nonsense.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Well, up here in Maine the back to the land dorks started MOFGA, several seed companies including Johnnies and Fedco, and in general sparked a renaissance of Maine farming. We are grateful to them.

    2. different clue

      Perhaps you can perform a Jedi Mind Trick on yourself so as to avoid suffering that reflex hatred when encountering fresh new dorks with a fresh new approach. Perhaps you can tell yourself: ” these are not the dorks I am looking for”.
      And perhaps you could thereby avoid mistaking serious worker/researcher/developers in the field for the dorks whom you remember.

      For example, it would be unfortunate if you suffered a dork-gag reflex upon hearing about this upper Midwestern hard-nosed Permaculture Commercializer.
      http://www.forestag.com/index.html

  12. Eric

    Great Video. Since liguid fuels will be getting scarce and I doubt there really is a 100 years of Nat Gas in N America, this may be the only way of the future for humanity to survive.

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