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Succession of Evolution and Oregon, a Land of Seasons

Hello once again beautiful world.

It is as always an end, and a new beginning. As I mentioned in the last post I am dealing what seem to be growing pains. I’ll paint a metaphor appropriate to my residence for the next two months: a seven acre parcel of gambel oak forest and grassland in the countryside a couple miles north of Central Point, Oregon.

Observations on the land in Central Point, Oregon


Land Observation Photos Clockwise from Top Left: 1) A look west and slightly northward from the house, showing the bird feeders and the westward view. The gambel oaks thin out into grassland and ranchland in the valley below. 2) A towering gambel oak at the end of our driveway. A westward look from the house, showing the thinning wood and grassland below. 3) An eastward look up the lightly wooded hill behind the house. Gambel oaks dominate. 4) The gambel oaks lose their leaves, dropping a cushion of mulch as much as 6 inches deep, keeping the soil moist and cool even on hot days. 5) A northward look from the house, showing the hill slope. The rebar in the foreground contains the former veggie garden and a chickenwire fence that kept out the deer. 6) The drive and the house, a mobile home, a bit run down but quite cozy, sitting on the eastern slope and getting the moring sun.

There is a permaculture principle that goes something like “Accelerate the natural evolutionary succession of the ecosystem you are building.”

The essence of the idea is to use your own as well as general observations of the succession of species mixtures that naturally occurs in the wild to fast-track your ecosystem to its climax and maximum diversity and yield.

In natural succession, one species mixture creates the conditions necessary for the next. For example, pioneer plants like grasses may arrive by wind in barren and damaged lands, fix nitrogen, loosen compacted soils, reduce salts or stabilize steep slopes and thus create a more favorable environment for low shrubs.

These in turn create in turn a more favorable environment for small trees, all the while attracting animals, insects and birds and the seeds and pollen they bring from other places. The small trees will hold moisture, contribute to the formation of clouds, keep the soil moist under all the leaves they drop and make it ripe for mycelial networks that will in time drive the emergent forest to new heights and new heights of fertility.

While on the land here, I am largely working the day job that brought me here, working on building the “infrastructure” that will enable Vertecology to function as a “real business” that embraces both the permaculture principles and the tactics necessary for function in and eventually transformation of the current economic system, and of course getting a bit of exploration in too.

While that isn’t leaving much time, it is leaving me enough time to do some observation on the land, and even the hour or so I am able to devote daily is proving incredibly fruitful. I am able to glean much already about the history and possible futures of this beautiful landscape, and spot opportunities to accelerate the ecosystem to its climax.

Here are a couple of videos.

And strictly for the hardcore, an online mind-map of my observations of the land and its opportunities for ecological acceleration:

Observation and exploration of how to maximize the ecosystem yield at the land I'm renting in Central Point, Oregon

The notion of succession of evolution can be applied just as easily in the business and spiritual realms, and in such places it hints at the very zen notion of “letting go,” so easy once its done and so hard until it’s been done. As a twentysomething soaring visionary, the idea of letting go to me was synonymous with killing, destroying, leaving something I loved by the side of the road. And so I held on until I pretty much destroyed whatever it was I was holding on to.

Now with a little more wisdom under my belt and a growing ability to trust the intelligence of life/universe/unfolding whatever you call it, I’m just beginning to entertain the radical idea that letting go is actually more of a move in a dance that you repeat and repeat. When you pick your foot up off the floor you are in a way letting go. And letting go, and letting go, and letting go, and at some point you realize you’re delivering a staggering performance, telling a story, building a legacy and have only an instant to notice before its time to move again.

In ecosystem building, it could be said that holding on is the equivalent of mowing the lawn week after week, making sure that grass stays perfectly green with no patches and nary a dandelion, making sure the sprinklers work through the summer no matter how hot it is, and yelling at the neighbors to make sure their dogs don’t poop on the lawn. Yes, you have a beautiful lawn, dear sir, but it is ecologically dead, dead to opportunity and a drain on all around it including you.

And by contrast, it could be said that letting go is letting the weeds, shrubs and mushrooms in. Even dog poop is a nutrient reservoir. You let the grass go so everything else can come in. And you may find that at the end of it, on the floor of your towering forest, you still have some patches of very fertile grass that ask nothing of you at all and play a vital role.

Such it is with the towering forest Vertecology wishes to become in days to come. I pioneered the realm with this blog, telling of some early projects and explorations; if the blog is the pioneer species, then what are the shrubs and the trees? A year ago, I had only ideas. Now…

  • The patent pending Hanging Gardens and the fundraise to complete the prototyping process , develop market ready product and finance further experiments and initiatives.
  • Water Harvesting Systems and educational media about how to build them.
  • Maximizing the opportunity that two months on the Central Point Land offers to make myself a far more capable permaculturist, designer, consultant, writer and educator
  • Further development of festival concept structures which began with the Geo and integration of these into the greater permaculture driven vision
  • Other educational media around economics and permaculture
  • And more ambitious initiatives to come

With some of this coming to fruition and demanding time to develop further, and with more of it now becoming feasible with greater financial, spiritual and social capital coming into my realm and greater experience and skill in my hands, I am seeing that focus of Vertecology itself crying to change. It’s not about the grass anymore; it’s now about the shrubs and trees. I’m not shutting down the blog, but I am seeing that its role is destabilizing as an ecosystem emerges around it.

For a time the blog may become a little more erratic. For now I don’t know exactly if that means more or less blogging, or a new form taken; I’m just giving myself permission to be erratic and unpredictable so that a new rhythm can take shape. I would have in the past called this a death and would have been deathly afraid. Now I am seeing that it is only the natural succession of evolution. It is in fact, a birth.

I have thus far been trying to update the blog weekly, and have been struggling to do that the last couple of months, and couldn’t let myself see why as the last of my fear has held on. Now it is clear and in fact has been clear for some time. It is because for now, in this stage of the emergence of Vertecology, I need the time and energy to build the rest of the ecosystem.

Geodesic Sphere Diagram

It’s time to begin upgrading the web site, creating videos for the upcoming fundraise, finalizing prototype designs for the Hanging Gardens, and half a million other tasks, hiring out when I can’t do them myself and doing the research regarding even how to that in a way that will best serve the vision.

And of course I will keep you all posted in whatever form is most appropriate. Here’s to the next stage of evolution!

Thanks!

Five New Square Feet of Urban Economic Liberation: Planting the Hanging Garden

I’m pleased to announce that the next phase of Hanging Garden R&D is underway. Starting with a 1-1-1 mix of sand, homemade compost and potting soil, I’ve seeded all five levels of a Hanging Garden now swinging from the rafters at the Sugar Shack with small herbs that will help prepare its soil for later planting, attract birds and beneficial, predatory insects like ladybugs, long-term test the Hanging Garden’s performance in outdoor conditions and offer the intentional community here another baby step toward urban economic liberation.

Part of the fun is getting to experiment with five separate “test tubes” if you will. The bottom three levels got dusted with seeds of the yarrow plant, which according to legend was carried into battle by Achilles because of its effectiveness in treating battle wounds, and whose tendency to accumulate minerals means rich soil will be left in its wake. The fourth level up is planted with both yarrow and echinacea purpea seeds to get an idea of how the two behave together. The top level is seeded with echinacea alone, and echinacea is the go-to plant for easing a cold out of your body (something the house could use right about now).

For both herbs the winning planting formula appears to include spreading the seeds no more than ¼ inch deep. The yarrow seeds are little bigger than fine grains of sand and get spread liberally. The larger echinacea seeds get dropped individually about 2 inches apart. Then on all levels, I overlaid some exhausted coffee grinds from the house coffee maker.

The setup will get lots of sun on the rooftop, just like these plants love. It is winter here of course, but it is Southern California and these plants which would get planted later in the spring further north can take the couple of frosts we might get this season. If all goes well, we should start to see little green leaves popping up in about a week or so.

And this is a great opportunity to explore what the Hanging Garden can do best. For while we grow these herbs here, as other installs go up, Hanging Garden clients can begin to share notes – I hope to have a forum for this on Vertecology as  more installs go up and things come together.

And finally, a bit of cross pollination – it’s great to be watering the Hanging Garden with water from the rain harvesting system in the downstairs garden. Already watering the Hanging Garden on the rooftop, I’ve taken on watering the whole roof garden; prior to building the water harvesting system, I knew simply that our rooftop garden needed water. The water messily came out of a hose when I turned on the spigot, and that’s about all I knew.

The Sugar Roof Garden takes about 4 gallons of water per day in winter.

I always felt a pinge of guilt in watering the American Way, having no idea of how much water I was actually using, and only knowing that the water was coming from places like Mono Lake and the Sacramento Delta. By watering with buckets from the harvesting system, I’ve learned that the rooftop garden requires about four gallons per day in the winter time. Sure the watering is a bit more laborious but the information gained while exercising – climbing stairs with bucket in hand, has named the unnamed and means that I can now realistically design for how much water a design-build-permaculture install will actually need and yield.

Thank you Norma Bonilla for the soil mix formula and Baza Novic for the seeds and planting direction. I’ll keep y’all posted, and of course I welcome feedback. Thanks!

How 500 Toilets Could Change the World

One of permaculture’s 20 or so principles goes something like “Make the smallest change possible for the greatest effect possible.” In a sense it’s taking efficiency to the ultimate degree. It’s like the karate master taking down the boxer by quietly letting the boxer throw a thousand punches and then… wham!

From another direction you could think of it like the overquoted statement “a butterfly flaps its wings in China, and a hurricane occurs in Brazil.” Systems scientists talk about “chaos points,” pivotal convergences or moments whose outcomes can cause the direction of history. I think it was Malcolm Gladwell wrote something interesting about Duke Ferdinand, whose assassination in 1914 led to World War I, and World War II since that grew out of Germany’s response to the Allies’ punishment for World War I. Ferdinand had been traveling in the American west sometime around the turn of the century. He stopped at a rodeo show and stepped up when one of the performers for a volunteer. She asked him to put an apple on top of his head, and then she shot it off clean with her six-gun. Apparently the story goes, she never missed. But what if she’d missed that one time? We might have had a very different 20th century.

So chaos points are apparently random. None of the people at the rodeo show could have predicted the future. But sometimes we do have foresight. Sometimes we can see the rough outlines of staggering opportunities. Which brings us to the 500 toilets. Haiti is considered the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. That’s a story told by economists, who, as far as our government, media, etc., are concerned, might as well be priests. Seeing through their “gross national product growth” model where product and growth and even human livelihood can only be conceived in terms of dollars, Haiti is the poorest country, and it’s pretty much fucked. The debt-load, which to economists is like a physical object, as real and non-negotiable as a tree, a plastic bag, the ocean or a person, is just too great, there is little dollar-generating business or export, 90% of the population doesn’t hold a paying job and without money, you can’t do anything.

The story I experienced on the ground is something more like this: the Haitian people do indeed face incredible hardship. Their institutions are barely functioning, and where they are, they’re propped up by NGO’s that have a lot of problems of their own including the politics that affect any organization, but also well-meaning but one-dimensional goals and a tendency, perhaps to see things in economists’ terms – the biggest complaint is often lack of resources. The streets and waterways of Port-au-Prince are filled with rubble and garbage. There’s the cholera, the depleted soil, and lots of people build their houses and livelihoods out of whatever they can find. The literacy rate is something like 50%… most of us who care to read this far probably know enough of the story that I don’t have to go on. But that’s only half the story – more on that in a minute.

If Haiti is an extreme, Cite Soleil, a district within Port-au-Prince is an extreme within an extreme. It’s an area with about 2,000 residents, cut roughly down the middle by a slow moving river that flows into the floodplain and ocean that borders the area to the west. If history had gone a little differently, Cite might have been a beach resort. Here the garbage shapes the landscape to a whole other level in places, and it’s also mixed with human feces. With only 2 functioning toilets, people just shit in the streets, or in the river, where other people bathe and wash clothes. With no toilet paper, they’ll just use whatever they can find or nothing at all. In Port-au-Prince you often see hungry, feral dogs in the streets, goats, and even the occasional cat. In Cite Soleil, there are also pigs, who wallow in the shit-smeared mud and garbage. To the average American, this just sounds disgusting. Don’t include Cite on the itinerary, and what’s wrong with those people, why don’t they help themselves, maybe they need psychologists to plumb the depths. Enter the chaos point.

For 2,000 people, figure 500 toilets. One toilet for four people, enough that people won’t fight over the bathroom in the morning, or just give up and head for the river. But how would we do this? We’re talking about millions of dollars to retrofit the town, tear up the ground, lay pipe, rehabilitate sewers, import toilets, prepare the water for flushing the toilets with a filtration plant – and that would certainly be millions. This time, we’d bring in safety inspectors so that the buildings don’t collapse the next time there’s an earthquake or a hurricane, and oversight to ensure transparency and nip corruption in the bud, and people to staff the plant and maintain the sewers. Haiti could borrow the money it needs at interest, good news for the global credit system, the Haitian government cajoling and incentivizing farmers to pull more out of depleted soils for export, finding ways to get its urban populace to compete with the Chinese, GNP and tax revenues being shoved upward up to help pay the debt, but it’s never enough. Wait a minute… And where would the Cite sewer go? To the Carribean? Human shit in the ocean, algae blooms killing the coastal ecology, so another treatment plant on the other end. Hold on. We’re talking about a chaos point, a staggering opportunity, not… this.

Another permaculture principle goes something like “pollution is resources out of place.” Matter is a resource, even human shit. There are lots of ways to build a compost toilet, but the simplest is a toilet seat on top of, say a 15-gallon bucket. You sprinkle some organic material, like sugar cane scraps in the bowl when you’re done. At GrassRoots United we used rice hulls, and voila, no smell. When the bucket gets full, you empty it out into a large compost bin, shovel some more organic scraps on top. Dumping can be a bit queasy, but think of the alternative, remember the street and the river? Make sure the bin is covered so that rain doesn’t get into it. The compost gets hot, human pathogens get fried, and wait about six months, at which point you have the kind of black earth gardeners salivate over. You’ve taken water out of the cycle completely. No pipes, no cholera, no algae blooms, no sewage treatment plants, no oversight, no corruption, no jobs for jobs’ sake, no permanent NGO installations, no debt, and readymade soil for the garden, food scraps for the newly clean pigs, who can now become a food source, and food for returning wildlife that will carry biomass, seeds and soil in the form of droppings all over the country. The healthy soil makes healthy gardens, which make more soil, and healthy, self-sufficient people regaining their dignity, hooray for such advanced technology, and hold on we don’t have to stop with Cite Soleil.

Excited Cite residents spread the word about those 500 toilets, the difference they’ve made. Other districts begin building them. A bucket in a box, with a toilet seat, four posts and a tarp… it takes a lot of skill. Haitians with an average 6th grade education could never build them, let alone understand the benefits, wait a minute…. Really? Soil starts coming back in other areas. Within, say a year or two, compost toilets become standard fare in Haiti, embraced by the government, and the benefits are on the ground for all to see. The country begins turning a corner, focusing resources elsewhere, planting in the channels, addressing the mountains of plastic garbage, etc. And the world, even the so-called developed world begins to accept and consider this technology more seriously. “Haiti has virtually eliminated cholera, reforestation is well underway, and the Carribean around Port-au-Prince is becoming clear” the news report goes. Oh yes, the mainstream media is still talking about Haiti’s dollar poverty, but facebook, twitter, and a hundred thousand blogs are getting the word out, and creaky-boned old Uncle Sam just can’t avoid it any longer.

In LA we don’t want to do it with just a bucket and four sticks and a tarp. We want bio-mechanics to do the queasy parts and custom tile floors to boot, but having the best of both worlds just means we’re learning how to really live in style. And by then, the Haitians might have enough resources to lux their toilets just a little, even if they’re broke. The oceans get cleaner, we get more drinkable water, the soil cycle gets completed, we’ve got food on the vine, and we’re all a little freer. The best part about it is those Haitian people, who in the GNP growth paradigm can be nothing but victims, are actually an intelligent and resourceful bunch who are aware of their situation. There are leaders among them who are going to run with the opportunity when they see it and they are already seeing it. While in Haiti I met several Cite locals enrolled in the Love & Haiti / Larry Santoyo permaculture course who, with new knowledge in hand, couldn’t wait to get to work. I’m not sure, but by the time of my writing this, after two weeks back in LA, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that they’ve already made connection with the Sustainable Oganic Integrated Lifestyles folks, who are already working on compost toilets in Cite Soleil. It’s amazing that, with their backs against the wall, the Haitian people might just embrace an approach that we in the USA are unwilling to consider, and that it could eventually make them among the most advanced and richest in the world, in an age when “advanced” and “rich” have come to mean something very different. It wouldn’t be the first time in history something like that has happened.

And I really hate to do it, but I think it’s in order, I feel strongly enough about it. I’m not really in a financial position today to be donating a lot to causes, but maybe some of you are and it will make some difference if you can’t make it to Haiti. So here goes – http://oursoil.org/donate. Thanks again & much love.