by Robert Waldrop
The permaculture movement in Oklahoma is both new and very old. It is old in the sense that many of the practices and principles of permaculture were used by our pioneer ancestors (both the Native Americans and the European settlers). For example, generally in rural Oklahoma, you can spot the sites of the older homesteads, even if the houses are gone, by the grove of trees that the homesteaders planted around their houses. They had no air conditioning, and they knew the value of shade. Often you can find heritage fruit trees growing in such groves.
My house in urban Oklahoma City was built in 1929. It has high ceilings, many windows, and excellent overhangs which help shade the wall in the midst of summer. Already growing on the lot were mulberry trees, lemon balm, and various kinds of mint. The balm and mints were planted next to the doorways, suggesting the permaculture principle of putting "cut and come again" plants where they can be easily snipped on your way in or out of the house.
Of course, our pioneer ancestors made a number of drastic mistakes, which resulted in ecological disaster and set in motion one of the greatest internal migrations in US history as farmers left the Great Plains are for the west coast. This however encouraged the development and implementation of permaculture principles such as terracing, swales, contour plowing, and shelter belts.
The Old Farmers Market building near downtown Oklahoma City is a testimony to the extent that Oklahoma farmers once fed our urban centers. This huge expanse of buildings was once entirely dedicated to the sale of locally produced foods. You can see their original rules on the wall, which clearly required that all products must be produced within the state of Oklahoma.
So in a sense permaculture isn't really new to Oklahoma. The basics have been here all along, but as with many traditional cultural practices, there has been an almost complete breakdown in the transmission of this knowledge over the generations. My great grandfather Waldrop came to southwest Oklahoma in a covered wagon. They knew how to live within a solar economy. They taught that to their children, my grandparents. My father says that my grandfather Waldrop was known throughout southwestern Oklahoma for his ability to make sausage and cure hams. But Papa did not teach that skill to my father, and thus he was not able to teach that skill to me. Papa knew how to plow with mules, I wouldn't know how to hitch them up in the first place. There is a lot to learn, and permaculture offers us a way to organize that knowledge.
I think the most important thing that I have learned about permaculture is that it is first and foremost a design system. It is not merely a collection of currently trendy practices. It is a discipline that helps a person observe and learn about a particular site, and then design a way to use that site that meets the needs of the land, the owners and that is respectful of all of the stakeholders and does not deplete the resources that will be needed for future generations. I would like to say that it is a way to develop sustainable lifestyles, except that at this point in time, I am not sure if we actually know what a truly sustainable urban or rural lifestyle looks like. That ignorance, however, should not stop us for one minute in our search for this goal.
This is why permaculture is rooted in ethics - care for the land, care for people, fair-sharing of surplus. There will never be a coercive structure to enforce these ethics. We the humans will either learn them and abide by them or we will eventually perish from the planet.
Permaculture as a movement is an organism, not an organization. The basis of the movement's expansion is the Permaculture Design Course, designed by Bill Mollison, and presented by "teaching lineages" that have developed in the movement. The permaculture movement is generally not supported by business, government, or academia, but rather spreads spontaneously based on voluntary associations, perhaps "rhizomes" would be a good metaphor.
My personal experience with permaculture began in the 1980s when I first read about permaculture in the Co-evolution Quarterly magazine (later renamed Whole Earth Review). I began reading in greater depth in 1999, when I became responsible for an urban property in central Oklahoma City where I now live. Last year I enrolled with an on-line Permaculture Design Course and have been working on a design report for my property.
When people think about permaculture, the first thing they think about is growing things, and that is certainly a major aspect of permaculture. However, permaculture is not gardening class. Permaculture considers the entire lifestyle of a person (or household) that lives at a particular site. Permaculture design can be done for apartment dwellers just as easy a it can for someone with forty acres and a mule. Obviously the design looks different for the apartment dweller than it does for the holder of a rural acreage, but the same principles are applied to the unique situations to produce the desired result.
It is not necessary to receive a Permaculture Design Certificate in order to learn permaculture design. Certification is primarily for people who want to do design for others as a job. Anyone can learn design principles without attending a design course, and can implement those principles in their own life. My own teaching lineage in permaculture is interested in developing "barefoot permaculturists" to help people learn to do their own designs for their own unique situations.
If a person wants to do this, the first thing they need to do is to really understand Socrates' maxim, "Know thyself." The Barking Frogs Permaculture client interview, which is filled out by people who have hired Dan Hemenway to do a permaculture design, is 28 pages! The goal is to help the client come to know himself or herself AND to know the site as well as they know themselves. This sounds easy, but it isn't. During the online certification course, I filled out my survey 3 times before it was accepted as complete.
So you start with WHO you are (and "who you are" includes all of the stakeholders, including children) and WHERE you are. The "WHERE" is sometimes easier than the "WHO", but don't be deceived into thinking that this is a cursory examination.
Under WHO you need to know who will live there, who will visit there, what the stakeholders goals are for the site and their life. You need an inventory of all assets (economic, practical, resources, networks, vegetation at the site, water availability, skills, tools, buildings existing and desired). What do the stakeholders like and dislike when it comes to what we often call "sustainable living"? You need to know what you eat, how you prepare your food, where it comes from presently, and where you want it to come from in the future. If there are physical limitations that need to be included, you need an inventory of those.
Under WHERE you need an inventory of challenges (problems and hazards with the site and/or the people). It will be a great help if you can find ten years of climate data for the site (or the area), including the high and low temperatures for each month (not the average temperatures, but the minimums and maximums), the precipitation (rain, snow, ice) for each month, heating and cooling degree days for each month, sunshine minutes (actual and total possible). In my report, I was also able to find the number of days each month at 32 degrees F or below, and at 90 degrees F and above. In permaculture, we design to meet extremes, not to meet averages. Dan Hemenway tells a story to illustrate this. If six bullets are fired, and only one of them hits and kills you, then are you only 17% dead? Or are you 100% dead because you failed to design for the extreme situation? If a disaster can happen, design for it, because chances are the disaster/catastrophe may in fact happen. Ask the people of New Orleans.
Where does the water flow on the site? Where are the sun paths? What microclimates does the site possess? Wild animals? Domestic animals? Birds and insects? Plants existing and plants desired?
The site cannot be analyzed without consideration of the community/area of the site. What is the larger eco-system? What invisible structures influence the site - e..g . local and state building and heatlh codes, national laws, community associations, informal networks, religious influences, economic systems, educational opportunities, neighbors? (This can be a much longer list than most people think.) How do each of these impact the stakeholders and the site?
I have lived at my property since 1999, and I thought I knew a lot about it, but I have learned more since I began to analyze and observe the property with "permaculture eyes, ears, mind and heart wide open".
I think the experience thus far is that this "client survey" needs to be put into writing. There is too much material for a person to keep it all in his or her head. You need to be able to study it. Since it is for personal use, it doesn't have to be a polished work of prose, but it does need to be in writing.
Having learned something about your present situation - who and where you are - you can proceed to design. It is better to design first and then implement. In my case, we began implementation on a piece-meal basis without having an overall design. This can be done, but it means that your implementation will cost more (money, resources, labor) and take longer. The design phase considers everything about the site and the people. It considers and makes recommendations for all of the following issues::
+ Nutrient cycles - soil management, food production, food processing and storage, human excreta management.
+ Shelter - all aspects of the buildings
+ Access - not only to the property, but to other needed services, and includes modes of travel
+ Energy - passive solar applications on the site, recycling and waste management,
+ Water - access, rainfall, consumption, water harvesting and storage
+ Community - markets, job opportunities, education, other invisible structures
+ Economics - budget for implementation, source of funds for implementation, economic contingency plans.
+ Hazards - in my case, I identified tornadoes and other severe weather events, fire, rodent control, street hazards, city code enforcement, crime, peak oil, other interruptions in food and energy supplies, power failure, chemical releases, and some mature trees that needed trimming.
+ Appendices - in a professional report, this is where all kinds of supplementary info will go, and the same is true for a personal design.
Our lot is only 1/7th of an acre, and there are two buildings, a concrete driveway, and city and private sidewalks. So it is unlikely that we could be self-sufficient in food production here. This is one reason I started the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, as it provides a way for "urban eaters" to get their food in a more ecologically sound manner than going to the grocery store and buying from the transnational agribidness corporations. The Oklahoma Food Cooperative is an "invisible structure", like a farmers market, or a CSA, that helps people without enough land to grow all their food to get their groceries from a local food system.
Our site is not the best site for passive solar applications, but that is fine with us. I probably would not have bought this property if I had known then what I know now, but it was cheap and available and I could afford it, and its solar disadvantages and limited space make it all the more interesting as a permaculture demonstration site.
Our goal for our house is a place that is comfortable and will remain so even if off-site energy such as electricity or natural gas becomes much more expensive or even unavailable. At first glance, that shouts out "wood heat", but we had to think about that a bit, because we are in a city and wood smoke is a source of air pollution. Wood heat also requires work to acquire, split, and stack the wood, and then the fire must be fed. It requires space to store the wood. So we decided that if we were going to use wood heat for backup to solar, the first thing we needed to do was minimize our need for additional heat.
Our first line of defense therefore was to radically insulate our home. We put R-50 in the attic (R-35 is usually recommended for Oklahoma), and we put R-33 in the walls. To get this much insulation in the walls, we first insulated the existing walls, then we built a new interior wall 5.5 inches inside of our existing exterior walls, but dry-wall over that and insulated the new cavities. We used blown-in cellulose insulation, which we chose for its ease of installation, and its low embodied energy (it is manufactured from recycled paper). We did all of this work ourselves.
In order to access sun for the south side of the house, we had to tear down a detached garage. It was in poor repair anyway, and tearing it down gave us more room and light for our southern wall and wood that we used for other purposes (nearly all of the wood was recycled, if not by us, then by others who came by and picked up the wood - this is an important principle). Then (with the assistance of Tom Temple) we took the brick off that south wall (of our utility room), and replaced that wall with windows to create a solar sun porch. We replaced our existing doors and windows, and installed storm doors. We had our chimney relined so we could use a wood burning stove as backup heat. For hot water, we installed an electric water heater with a shut-off switch so we only turn it on when we need hot water. Electric hot water tanks do not have the standby losses of natural gas tanks, so we only need to turn it on maybe twice a month.
These renovations to our house have served us well since last fall. During the winter, on any day where the sun was shining all day, we did not need to build a fire in the wood-burning stove. One morning it was 7 degrees outside, and 61 degrees inside our house with no back-up heat source operating. During the winter, our electric bills were consistently in the 450-500 kilowatt hour/month range, which was less than we had used before, plus we had disconnected from the natural gas system entirely, so we no longer have a gas bill. (US natural gas supplies are in worse shape than petroleum supplies.)
During the heat of the summer, our system also works well. We installed a whole house fan and ceiling fans in every room. During the night, we ventilate the house to bring its temperature down to the night-time low, then as the morning dawns, we close the house up and keep it closed until the temperatures equalize, which tends to be sometime between 7 and 8 PM. Future infrastructure plans in our design report include installing a rainwater harvesting and storage system, a solar hot water system, and an underground root cellar/tornado shelter.
Outside we continue to cultivate the "forest edge garden" which we began planting in 1999, and each year we are harvesting more food. We focus on food items that grow well here in Oklahoma, that are hard to find or expensive to get from local/organic sources, and which add a lot of value to our diet. So we grow a lot of tomatoes and herbs and greens and fruit and alliums.
We also continue to cultivate and work with invisible structures that help spread the word about permaculture and sustainability, including the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, the Oklahoma Sustainability Network, and the growing local permaculture community.
I hope these ideas are useful as folks consider developing permaculture designs for their own households. Included with this text is a reading list of books that are important for sustainability. I have placed an asterisk (*) by the ones I think are the most important.
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