Permaculture

When I was a child, my parents — lifelong New Yorkers — rented a small plot of land from the farmer next door when we moved from dad’s post in Detroit to rural Chelsea, Michigan. The food they grew was unforgettable. All summer, we ate fresh corn, peas, beans, beets, carrots, cabbage, corn, tomatoes, broccoli, brussels sprouts, potatoes, strawberries… PEANUTS. My mother would have big canning days and we filled a freezer for the year. The whole garden experience has flavored my imagination throughout my life and everywhere I have lived, I have made some attempt at horticulture. My goal for this year is to continue my efforts to reclaim the wasted landscape on my property and convert it into a sustainable garden.

I have had some successes and failures in gardening. Vegetables, in particular, eluded me, though I had built a nice repertoire of wildflowers and native plants.  I was working with a pretty awful canvas, chipping away at neglected shrubs and impacted day lilies cast into solid clay.  I spent the first winter planning my attack.

Intensive composting, soil moving, worm encouragement, and weed removal over the course of 10 years brought me close to conquering the front yard, but the heaviest infestation of wire grass and turf weeds yet remained, baked into a woody mat  woven across the front of the yard to the curb.

I was thrilled when I heard that Bountiful Backyards would be offering a class on Edible Landscaping at Durham Tech this spring. This is where I was turned on to the nuts and bolts of permaculture.

When you do the math, there is no question that conventional farming techniques are not sustainable. The act of pouring petroleum based fertilizers year after year into depleted dirt to yield tons upon tons of modified starches has created a race of obese modern humans and a plague of poisoned rivers and streams. The earth has its own systems in place to sustain life.

Many people acknowledge that they are out of touch with how food gets to their plate. It is easy to conjure up an image of a farm if quizzed on where the food originally came from, but sadly, that is generally where our imagination ends. The truly stunning mysteries about how healthy soil lives and breathes are rarely considered, let alone taught to anyone not specifically looking for it.

So my goals are as follows:

To modify my diet to include a greater diversity of fresh vegetables in order to facilitate my exit from participation in the proliferation of unnatural food sources, primarily monocultured and subsidized wheat and corn products.

To create a sanctuary for beneficial insects and animals that cannot be sustained by conventional agriculture.

To eschew artificial chemical fertilizers, relying instead on the use of composting, cover crops, natural soil amendments, and vermiculture to restore underutilized and diminished parts of the yard.

To include heavy use of perennial fruit trees and shrubs in conjunction with perennial herbs and native plants to achieve symbiotic relationships of mutual nutrition and self mulching, mimicking the self-sustaining qualities of the forest.

Looking ahead, I can see that it is going to be important for as many people as possible act to carry forth a small kernel of un-fucked-with vegetable genetics as corporate food producers continue their assault on nature. The greatest goal is to expose our son at an early age to the art and mystery of growing his own food, because I suspect that nature will not favor the weak in the future.

This year we have completely paved over the remaining stretch of turf with a sheet mulch of cardboard and 8 cubic yards of mulch, followed by a mix of compost and topsoil in the vegetable beds.  We have the following vegetables in production on the front yard:

Beets
Carrots
Potatoes
Radishes
Green Beans


We also have added two blueberry shrubs, a fig tree, wildflowers, sunflowers and basil. A special herb garden contains several different types of oregano, thyme and rosemary. Native ground cover plants (i.e, weeds) have grown to cartoonish proportions, screening out invasive grasses. Everything is growing at at absurd rate and it is all delicious.

Shop Class as Soulcraft

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By the time of my layoff from the cushy graphic design position I occupied at the tanking and corrupt MCI WorldCom in 2004, I had established myself as a dependable co-worker and recognized employee. There was nothing difficult about the rules of the job, expectations were easy to anticipate and exceed. My ability to multitask was top-notch. Indeed, the spike in the amount of awards I received coincided directly with the invention of Napster and the availability of non-stop, music-junkie euphoria that kept me tied to the keyboard all day now and which served as my salve against the monotony of the job.

Afterwards, I was fortunate enough to quickly determine which of my job skills were learned and adopted out of necessity after college (mindless flexibility, the ability to speak and understand doubletalk) and which were natural and enjoyable for me (a willingness to fill a niche by learning new skills.) The more time goes by, the more my memories of that job become like that of a long video game — a bunch of endless pixels on a screen, forever. I was good at it, but who really gives a shit? I was embarrassed to tell people what I did for a living.

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Not long after that, I secured an apprenticeship in Edward Wright’s frame shop in Hillsborough, North Carolina. After six months of intensive tutelage, I was commissioned with building hand carved and gilded picture frames on my own. For the first time in my career, I was producing a physical object — one that melded beauty and function, and that I was proud to stand behind because I had created it myself from the rawest of materials. The standards of this job were higher, and in many ways more subjective than the last… Were the dimensions of each frame correct? That was easy enough to determine. Did each one capture the spirit of the artwork it surrounded to the satisfaction of the clients and the other artisans? That was up for endless debate around the shop. The careful examination of each gilded surface brought all of us closer to a mastery of our own individual style and forced us towards the kind of technical perfection that you cannot possibly find in a corporate cubicle. There is no way to diffuse the blame to a vague “other” when you are looking at a mislaid leaf of 22k gold.

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My sister sent me a copy of Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford for my birthday and I am eternally grateful for the gift and the wisdom contained within. I am particularly enthralled with it right now because it is providing me with an articulate framework of concepts that I have struggled to join together since rejecting the cubicle and beginning this latest phase of my career. This book could be a crucial bolus of information for anyone who makes a living using their hands, no matter where they are on the learning curve. Skilled labor is becoming increasingly rare in our culture. It will never become obsolete, however. My new job is in the fabrication of prosthetic limbs and custom orthotics. A job where the tasks are usually 100% clear, and the metrics are solid and understandable: what did you build today? Was it done correctly? Taking on a task that requires skilled labor involves patience, dedication, planning, and steadfastness. It simultaneously requires improvisation, flexibility, problem solving and a good deal of risk-taking. It exposes one to the vagaries of the market and the occasional dangers of the feast-or-famine cycle, but it keeps you active and on your toes. This book has been instrumental in helping me to understand the many ways in which I am proud to talk about my work nowadays.

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