By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Here are a couple of videos that I encountered serendipitously on the YouTube searching on “permaculture,” because I couldn’t bear to write on the Donald after spending the evening straightening out my routers when the real problem turned out to be outside the house at the ISP, snarl (it was a full moon). Anyhow, the title of the first one — ” Compost-Powered Heating in the Vermont Hills” — caught my eye, partly because Vermont has been all over the news lately, but mostly because winter is coming — as I can tell because now I hear crickets when I sit in my garden — and the prospect of winter concentrates the mind wonderfully on heating. But then I listened to it and found a lot of other great stuff. Here it is:
I didn’t learn to garden until I got to college and did an internship at a farm.
Societal implications aside, founders like (Australian) founders Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, or propagators Geoff Lawton and Toby Hemenway, entered the field only after long careers and life experience elsewhere; they didn’t become inspired by a college internship! And while earlier generations seem much more inspired by actual contact with the land, the site, Falk’s presentation throughout is no less inspired but also informed by what feels like an interdisciplinary approach; academics at its best. We’ll see more of this in the second video, but for now, here’s Falk on his woodstove, because I’m so envious; I have a wood stove, but it’s nothing like this one:
[1:32] It heats the whole building and we cook on it and dry on it and bake in it, so it does all of these basic uses, and it’s just a wood cook stove but it’s not like your grandparents’ old wood cook stove, which is all ornate and has a lot of air flowing through it, and doesn’t really heat well? It’s like a high-performance wood cook stove. …
It heats all of our hot water, so we actually have to take a bath in the winter or definitely take a shower or we’ll end up with too much — it makes more hot water than we need.
It’s free hot water ’cause we’re we’re running the wood stove anyway to keep the building warm.
It’s just a little piece of stainless steel tank in the wood fire box we put the wood and there’s fire? There’s a tank that holds a couple gallons of water and that’s connected to hot water tank, and so the water flows via convection, you don’t need a pump. It flows and the cool water comes in down low and heats up and the hot water leaves the top side, and it just cycles through the 40 gallon tank.
You’ll have to listen to the whole thing for heating compost (tubing thruough the heap), and also the part about how although the tropics beat cold climates for fruit, we beat the tropics for vegetables, because I want to focus on this part at the end, on value(s):
[8:04]So you start start noticing more? The place around you starts to mean more to you? You might get values from it that you thought you wanted to get, like save money doing something? But then you start to get other values you never expected that are a little less measurable sometimes. So that’s what I see happen to people when they start to take steps to engage in the world around them and empower themselves and solve problems around them.
You know there’s a big part of what permaculture is, as I started to realize by gardening and living on this land, that by living on land and homesteading a bit? But . Not just less bad, not just throw away less or use less resources? But I could start to produce resources, like increase the fertility of the soil and make more habitat for more animals. So actually do good things that have a positive benefit, not just have less of a negative impact. And now to me the idea of impact, like reduce your impact, which I used to be all about, like I want to reduce my impact?
I find that encouraging. When I look at videos, I always try to focus on the background, and when I look the construction and the fixtures of Falk’s house, I see wealth (of a sort), and I imagine some sort of “collapse in place,” forty or a hundred years from now, where Falk’s House has rambled out, as New England farmhouses do, into something like Zove’s House, in science fiction author Ursula LeGuin’s City of Illusions, after an evolutionary chokepoint (in LeGuin’s case, invasion by aliens):
Zove’s House was a rambling, towering, intermitted chalet-castle-farmhouse of stone and timber; some parts of it had stood a century or so, some longer. There was a primitiveness to its aspect: dark staircases, stone hearths and cellars, bare floors of tile or wood. But nothing in it was unfinished; it was perfectly fireproof and weatherproof; and certain elements of its fabric and function were highly sophisticated devices or machines—the pleasant, yellowish fusion-lights, the libraries of music, words and images, various automatic tools or devices used in house-cleaning, cooking, washing, and farmwork, and some subtler and more specialized instruments kept in workrooms in the East Wing. All these things were part of the House, built into it or along with it, made in it or in another of the Forest Houses. The machinery was heavy and simple, easy to repair; only the knowledge behind its power-source was delicate and irreplaceable.
The work of the House and farm was light, no hard burden to anyone. Comfort did not rise above warmth and cleanliness, and the food was sound but monotonous. Life in the House had the drab levelness of communal existence, a clean, serene frugality. Serenity and monotony rose from isolation. Forty-four people lived here together. Kathol’s House, the nearest, was nearly thirty miles to the south. Around the Clearing mile after mile uncleared, unexplored, indifferent, the forest went on. The wild forest, and over it the sky.
So, a not unattractive possible future. (Being skeptical of wealth, and also of things that seem too good to be true, I wondered if Falk’s homestead had an external source of income, like a trust fund, but from his website, his small business is doing fine, costs in Vermont are not what they are in Manhattan, and if I were able to get heat and hot water for the whole winter with wood alone, and not oil and gas, you can bet the liberated extra would go right into construction and fixtures of my own!)
The second video, on “Good Design,” is a good deal longer, and seems to be part of a design class. Again, the focus moves from 30,000 feet to site-specific and back, and that seems to me to be a very new thing for permaculture (modulo what I regard as a 30,000-foot view from the fringe, or, to put it more politely, metaphysics; after all, biology and geology and hydrology are sublime in themselves, without the need of a supernatural admixture). Here it is, and I encourage you to listen to the whole thing with your coffee:
Here Falk starts with images of Vermont dairy farms and zooms out:
We need a lot of heat here, right, we’re in a storage climate. We need to get all our resources in a small amount of time. We can generate from what let’s say May to around this time of year really easily. If — anyone kept a garden here? You can make more food then you can eat in a short period of time. The challenge is really how do you extend that harvest across the seven or eight other months of the year that we hopefully plan to occupy this place; that’s why I like to think of this as a storage climate, because we’re dormant; our energy flow is dormant for more of the year than not. That also has its advantages. It’s good for controlling pests, it’s good for breaking disease cycles, and building soil. It’s really, really good for building soil.
So we have some social conditions that we’ve inherited as well as climate conditions; what what might this be? Around here. you see a lot of these driving around Vermont — yeah, dairy farms, this is how they look now there’s some new siloes on this this one, but this house, it’s boarded-up house, so it’s its hobbling along type of situation where now at the end we’re at the wane of the dairy era which was the predominant agricultural use for this part of the world for about a hundred years or more. Unfortunately, this is becoming challenging, and I know many of you you are aware of the challenges we face land use-wise, in this part of the world, but just to touch on it briefly, we only have about 10 to 15 percent of our land base as agricultural soil and this is how we’re treating it, right? We have a fossil fuel-based agricultural industry where we have to bring them nutrients back on to the land from which we harvested, and we do sell at great expense, at great cost with fossil fuels at every every turn, and of course beating up the soil not accruing value but extracting value each time we do it, right? This is a good way, a really good way to compact the soil, drive on it with trucks loaded with liquid, pretty heavy. So we’re not really building value this way. It’s more a mining process than a farming process, so we know that can’t last very long. [Such] agricultures never last for very long: The Fertile Crescent use to actually be fertile
Central Valley, anyone? Or Aroostook County?
Speaking of evolutionary chokepoints, I’ve been thinking about “the jackpot,” William Gibson’s premise for The Peripheral:
Droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but big enough to be historic events in themselves. And all of it around people: how people were, how many of them there were, how they’d changed things just by being there.
Gibson describes his thinking on “the jackpot” in an interview:
[GIBSON:] Our cultural model of the apocalypse is of a sudden event. That’s our cultural model of every apocalypse. The most likely apocalypse of my childhood would have been mutually assured destruction between the US and the Soviet Union, which actually almost occurred. We now know it almost happened a number of times. We were a hair’s breadth from the world ending. Nobody celebrates those dates, but I wish they would. The “day the world was saved” dates.
I think that’s something so basic about our culture – the idea of the abrupt apocalypse. We don’t even think about it. Something that kills 80 percent of the existing human population over 40 years – we don’t know how to react to that. We don’t know how to react to mass extinction events. But the passenger pigeons had their apocalypse. It took a long time – we had to eat them all.
If it’s not a sudden event, then it’s either completely out of our control — or potentially within the possibility of our control. That changes the way we look at the possibility of an event like that.
So if it’s slower, you could look at it and say, “There’s nothing we can do about that — these are vast systemic changes.” [But on the other hand] if it’s slower you could say, “It’s not like it’s gonna happen tomorrow, maybe we can get our sh*t together and do something about this.”
What I like about work like Falk’s is that it comes under the heading of “get our sh*t together.” Such work might not “save the world” — whatever that means — but it may well save a remnant of the world.
 In the transcription, with “?,” I just gave in to “The unstoppable march of the upward inflection?” So deal. And it is an interesting speech style, since it engages the interlocutor while keeping the disquisition moving forward. (And it’s not on topic for comments, OK?)