Permaculture And Faith
I stumbled upon permaculture by accident in 2012. At the time, we were living on ten acres of land in Nelson County and had decided to revisit the task of growing a garden and raising our own animals.
Having been raised on a dairy farm in Northern New Mexico, I had been immersed in all things farming and gardening. Hard work was the motto. The art of self-sufficiency was our way of life and, with a mother raised in the Mennonite faith and tradition, she was a master at growing a large garden and canning/preserving food. To this day, I can still hear the canners rattling and hissing away as yet another batch of tomatoes and green beans were put up for the harsh Rocky Mountain winter ahead.
Years later, as our family settled on our own piece of land, I realized that farming and growing things had never really left my blood. It was like my fingers itched to get into the soil as soon as March and warm spring days hit our patch of grass. However, unlike the rich soil of our tiny, New Mexico town, the soil we encountered was clothes-staining red. It was so heavy with clay that we were at a loss as to how to plant in this new place. We were attempting to successfully raise food on land that had only seen a passing herd of cows. Somehow, we needed a new approach. Enter permaculture.
Through our initial study of permaculture, we quickly figured out that the incorporation of sheet-mulching and organic leaf material from the woods nearby could quickly increase the soil’s fertility to then grow things quite successfully. Permaculture was a whole new way of thinking that took the traditional way of gardening I was raised with and made it a richer, deeper experience.
I can tell you that there was nothing quite like harvesting our garden that first year. While it was far from a perfect harvest, the fact that we could take a previously unyielding landscape, and see it produce bountifully, was exhilarating. However, the piece that I was not expecting, was how much the practice of permaculture resonated so deeply with my own personal faith practice. As I read more about the 3 ethical pillars of permaculture - the call to Care for the Earth, Care for People and the practice of Fair Share - I was reminded of this Biblical passage from Genesis 1:28;
“And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
As a young girl, I was raised in church with the belief that this creation we see and experience each day has a Creator; a Creator who I could have a personal relationship with and experience, not only through faith, but also through interaction with the world around me. However, as I grew and studied Scripture for myself, I began to
understand that part of that relationship with my Creator was to answer the mandate given in Genesis to care for the earth, people, and animals He had created. In fact, if you’re a student of the Biblical text, you will find other passages that point to this call to care for the earth and God’s people throughout Scripture.
I’ll be honest and admit that we as a people of faith have not always heeded that call and the ramifications of that neglect are seen in our world today. However, for me to wait on someone else to step up to do what I feel God is saying in my life, is not to live out an active faith, but rather a disobedient one. I embrace the practice of permaculture because I feel it best expresses how I am called to care for the Earth and the people that make up my community and beyond. It is through the practice of permaculture that I feel I can authentically work in harmony with creation and the patterns of nature set forth from the beginning.
As a young girl, I spent enough time outdoors to see those patterns of nature emerge in everything we did on the farm. The coming of new, Spring calves and watching the way a garden grows - from seed to greening plant - with the help of care, water, and sun. It is when we honor these cycles of nature and how they work with one another that we have the opportunity - dare I say privilege - to enrich and heal the land instead of robbing life from it. However, just as much as permaculture and my faith is about the care of the earth, it is more importantly an opportunity for me to care for people in my life well.
Throughout the last 16 years of being a business owner and employer, I have seen how my own practice and understanding of permaculture has impacted the company I own and lead on a daily basis. We are a company that builds things but, more importantly, we strive to build-up people. By focusing on building people through job placement, skill acquisitions, and care for one another as a work community, I also answer the call of caring for people through the lense of my faith. It matters how we treat people, receive them, and choose to care for them beyond just a paycheck. If I truly believe that each person is uniquely created and has infinite worth, then my faith calls me to care for them well by building-up and serving the community God has put in my particular sphere of influence.
As I reflect on all I have learned through the last few years of studying permaculture, this quote from the Scotsman, John Muir, sums it up well for me;
“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, days in whose light everything seems equally divine, [that open] a thousand windows to show us God.”
May I forever look through the windows of creation to its Creator as I hike the bounty of the Blue Ridge Mountains; as I bend to press my hands into the soil of this valley I call home and care for the people within my greater community.
Rope A Dope Style - A Case Study In Creative Use and Response To Change
How many of y’all hear Gerald Levert looping in your head right now behind that title? Or have visions of the Mayweather vs Mcgregor fight last year? As a 90’s kid with an appreciation for combat sports, I could say a whole lot about both. But this blog is not a nostalgic ride through my childhood, it’s about permaculture and farming.
And farming is a blood sport.
Why then the Rope A Dope?
For those not familiar with the Rope A Dope concept, it comes out of the boxing tradition. The Rope A Dope was made famous by Ali. At its simplest, it is a strategy in boxing where the boxer appears weak, by doing so, invites his opponent to fire off a flurry of ineffective punches. The boxer is on the ropes, which allows the rope to absorb the shock of the punch. In this scenario it appears as though the boxer is being beaten badly, only to turn the fight in their favor quickly at the right moment with a well-placed blow on a tired opponent. Ali beat Foreman (a heavily favored opponent) with this strategy. The fight is up on youtube - every time I watch it I get goosebumps.
In permaculture, we often find ourselves in systems where we are over matched.
I’m on the ropes.
For the last decade, I’ve been vegetable farming at the market scale. I started out building a not for profit farm and then transitioned to build my own small farm. I have learned much.
The seasons on an intensive small scale vegetable operation are long, brutal, and rewarding. Revenue can be extensive, but profit, in the early years especially - is sparse. It’s not uncommon to watch the thin margin on the season disappear in one night in a clandestine orgiastic Roman style feast at the hands of the local whistle pig community (that’s groundhogs for those not from the valley). Excess consumption is not unique to the human sector. I have come to love hunting the beasts down with a crossbow, literally counting the dollars saved with each kill.
Photo from left to right: the farm a decade ago, an overhead of the farm now, a picture of the lower field that is now flooded.
Some seasons are difficult,
Some seasons will sink you.
We live in a valley, peppered with microclimates.
Last year, in my corner of my county, my site received almost 80 inches of rain. We average 36 inches a year.
In all of my design work on the site, I never imagined this much water. The perennial systems performed well, but the annual systems, on which I depend for income, failed.
By July, my neighbor’s property sprung a spring, and a creek developed that ran across my driveway into my lower fields. 9 months later as I’m writing this, there is still water running across my driveway. And my lower field has been underwater since last summer.
Feedback, not failure.
What do I do?
I could lease extra land off-farm, and push forward through the barriers refusing to change the direction I set ten years ago.
This would require pouring more resources, human calories, gasoline, infrastructure - money - into keeping the dream alive.
Instead, I lean on my training.
In permaculture, we look at the goals of a project, our ethics, and the 12 principles to evaluate a design.
In the middle of this crisis, both existential and financial, the two principles that provided the most relevant support in our evaluation were; obtain a yield and creatively use and respond to change. We asked ourselves the questions, what are our goals? What are our yields?
Our goals point towards connection, sustainability, and financial stability.
The vegetable operation isn’t cutting it.
After years of pushing sometimes 60 hours a week, I am 40 years old, broke and facing an effort to salvage an unsustainable project.
This cold analysis is hard. Permaculture is not for the brittle spirit.
But, it is freeing.
My next step is to point positive. What do I have?
I have a killer homestead. Professional grade paid-for infrastructure, tools, and equipment and deep knowledge of plant systems - I have my formal training in counseling, deep roots in a community that I am native to, and passion for medicinal and useful perennials.
By focusing on what I have, rather than what I’ve lost. By applying my assets to goals of the project plus hard climate realities I am able to move forward.
What it looks like.
It’s time to stop the vegetable hustle. My site is no longer appropriate for it, nor my familial context. I am in the midst of pivoting toward a more perennial system and utilizing my present infrastructure to grow out and produce medicinal and edible landscaping nursery stock. In addition, I can lean on my formal training as a mental health counselor to find off-farm work that supports resilience in human sectors in my community and my family.
Psychologically, this moment creates an opportunity to re-brand. Our new name is Moonstone Plant Company.
Zora Neale Hurston - the anthropologist and writer once described strength as like being a rock or a blade of grass. The rock is hard but worn down and broken by water, whereas the blade of grass is unfazed and yielding - strong - when confronted by the elements. (Students of Taoism/Ch’an Buddhism may recognize this idea. I love the thought of Hurston reading Lao Tzu.)
In permaculture, we can’t be hard rocks, breaking ourselves against uncontrollable sectors.
At the end of the day, rather than moving forward stubbornly only to crumble like last Christmas’ peanut brittle, turn to permaculture principles, ethics, and the design process as the structure for a thoughtful, relaxed, and flowing decision making process. This is the seat of resilience.
We must change.
When you find your project at this moment do three things.
Small price - big yield
Find the leverage point in the system.
Projects stumble - shit goes sour, just remember the Rope -A- Dope.