All the Water Is One Water #3

In honor of World Water Day, part 3 of my chapter “All the Water Is One Water”from Finding Our Way Home.

At the Earth Activist Training we learned about Permaculture, a science of designing systems that can meet human needs while regenerating the land around us. Its ethical mandates are to care for the earth, to care for the people, and to share the surplus. I especially loved the cheerful atmosphere of hope and creativity that was engendered. Much of the environmental situation is foreboding and terrifying. But at the training I discovered a merry band of folks who sang while they gardened and went around the world demonstrating alternatives that make a real difference.

Permaculture observes natural patterns to create highly productive environments. For example, it uses the model of the forest to create food forests—gardens of fruit and nut trees, vines, bushes, and ground cover that can function together to feed a family while nurturing the land in a sustainable way. Agribusiness narrowly regards one crop as the only valuable entity, and sees all other life forms as weeds or pests. But if we look more closely at the natural world, we discover diversity is the norm and there are beneficial relationships throughout the plant and animal realms. In one example recounted by bio-chemist Linda Jean Shepherd,

Researchers at the University of California at Santa Cruz studied the traditional Mexican farming practice of pruning back, rather than pulling, a weed that commonly sprouts between rows of corn. They found that the roots of the weed Bidens pilosa secrete compounds lethal to fungi and nematodes that destroy corn. Instead of competing with the corn, the weed controls the pests without significantly stealing soil nutrients from the corn. The practice protects the soil and provides more wholesome food.[i]

The more we learn about nature, the more we see that everywhere diverse plants and animals are interconnected with each other, offering mutual benefit and function; modern agribusiness has ignored this to our detriment. To live sustainably, we must learn from nature, we must open our eyes to the lessons it can teach us about how all beings are related to one another.

Permaculture design also offers sustaining and restorative approaches to our use of water. In a natural landscape, water is absorbed and held in place by plants and trees, and advances very slowly through the ecosystem. When the surface of the earth is covered with concrete for buildings and roads, the water rushes quickly over the surface, picking up pollutants it brings to rivers and lakes. When forests are cut down, or grasslands uprooted for agriculture, the drylands can devolve into desert. Permaculture designers have created tools to slow the water down, and capture it for use. These designs can purify water moving through a system, or reverse the process of desertification.

Swale

[Swale creating at the Earth Activist Training]

We learned about and built one such tool, called a swale. This is a small ditch created in alignment with the contour of the sloping soil, so rain washing over the soil will be captured, and can be used in plantings near the edge of the swale. The plantings then serve to keep the moisture in the landscape. A swale can also be used to direct water from one area to another. The goal is to slow the flow of water for as long as possible, and thus restore the fertility of the soil, rather than letting the water wash away into creeks that flow rapidly out to rivers and to the sea.

Adopting another practice, Margy and I purchased two rain barrels to collect the rain-water that ran off our garage roof, for use in watering the blueberry bushes and vegetables and flowers we had planted in our front yard. We learned about how high off the ground the barrels needed to be, in order for gravity to pull the water all the way to the plants. We learned that water in a rain barrel heats up in the hot summer sun. We learned how quickly a rainstorm can fill two fifty-gallon barrels.

It is important to take these small steps toward changing our relationship to water use, even in our comparatively water abundant climate in Maine. Even here we need to learn about conserving water and treating it with respect. We face challenges from multinational corporations who bottle our Maine water for sale around the world. The bottled water industry isn’t concerned about the water needs of local communities or ecosystems. They negotiate contracts to extract the water for almost nothing, and put it into plastics that end up in the waste system causing further pollution.

Permaculture design follows the principle that in nature there is no waste. What one system doesn’t need, another system uses. Our human society wastes an incredible amount of water, even though we know it is scarce. We use it for washing and showering and then let it drain into the septic system or sewer. Why not build gray water systems that take the water from washing and showering and pipe it out for use in the garden?

[i] Quote from an article by Linda Jean Shepherd, “My Life with Weed,” The Sweet Breathing of Plants: Women Writing on the Green World, edited by Linda Hogan & Brenda Peterson (New York: North Point Press, 2001), 200.

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Life and Death in the Back Yard

Yesterday I was sitting in a recliner in our back yard, just soaking up the sun, and listening to the birds and other critters. Suddenly, a hawk flew to the ground about 20 feet away from me and landed awkwardly. Its wings seemed to be splayed over the ground, and it was facing away from me. I didn’t have a chance to get a good enough look to identify it, but got an impression of a light color. I was surprised it was so close to me. Then it flew away toward the back of the yard, and I saw it was carrying a chipmunk in its talons.

I was astonished and humbled to witness this moment of life and death in the world of nature.  Perhaps the hawk was taking food to its young.  Perhaps the chipmunk was the one who, earlier in the day, had been startled to see me in the screen tent, when it poked its head under the fabric at the bottom.  I thought it would run off, but then it scampered right under my foot on its way to the other side of the tent.

Two years ago, just a little later in May, I had seen four baby chipmunks in the yard, in about the same place.  I went outside and sat down near them and watched them play.  They were completely unafraid of me and didn’t mind my presence close by.  At one point, they heard an alarm call from their mother, and ran to the hole to their underground homes, and sat right nearby looking around and waiting to hear if they must go back inside.  But mother must have given the all clear, because they resumed their play.

I wonder if today there are babies underground waiting for a parent to return. The yard became utterly quiet after the hawk attack, except for an alarm cry from a bird or another chipmunk–I wasn’t sure. No birds at the feeder, so squirrels chasing each other up the trees, no chipmunks emerging from the rain spout. But later in the evening, life went on.  At least two other chipmunks were dashing back and forth, and gold finches lined up to get their turn at the feeder.

What a gift to sit outside each day, learning what the land wants to reveal of her secrets.  What secrets have you discovered, just sitting outside being quiet?

Chipmunk babies

Chipmunk babies

Human Beings Are Part of Nature

Many of the ecological problems we face are rooted in a foundational assumption of western culture that human beings are separate from nature. We see ourselves as distinct and superior to nature, and imagine that the earth is like a resource bank to exploit for our own use.

Starhawk, in The Earth Path, notes that some environmentalists go the opposite extreme. Because of the devastation that human actions have caused, they see human beings as a “blight on the planet,” and suppose that the earth would be better off without us. But, as she points out, “it’s hard to get people enthused about a movement that …envisions their extinction as a good.”

What we need to understand—emotionally, intellectually, physically, spiritually—is that we are not separate from nature at all. We are part of nature. She passes on a story from Allan Savory, about land management in Zambia and Zimbabwe in the 1950’s.

People had lived in those areas since time immemorial in clusters of huts away from the main rivers because of the mosquitoes and wet season flooding. Near their huts they kept gardens that they protected from elephants and other raiders by beating drums throughout much of the night… [T]he people hunted and trapped animals throughout the year as well.

The herds remained strong and the river banks lush …until the government removed the people in order to make national parks.” The parks set up rules to protect all the animals and vegetation from any sort of disturbance. Within a few decades, the vegetation had disappeared from miles of riverbanks. What they discovered was that the fear of human beings kept certain grazing animals on the move, and that prevented over-feeding that damaged soils and vegetation. With the removal of one species—the human farmers and hunters—the ecosystem had lost its balance.

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

This story illustrates the truth that human beings belong to this earth—we are a part of the ecosystem, for good or ill. We can be a part of the balance as well as a cause of the imbalance.

Some Indigenous stories of North America say that we are like a younger sibling on this earth. The other beings and species are more acclimated to their purpose and their relationship to the whole. And so, when we are feeling overwhelmed by these messes we have created, we might turn to our older relatives on the earth to find wisdom for our journey.

Face to Face

Clouds DSC04297When I was a devoted Catholic child, I learned about the saints who had visions of angels or the Blessed Mother Mary or even Jesus himself. There were the children in Fatima, and Bernadette of Lourdes, and Margaret Mary Alacoque, and Joan of Arc. I wanted to have a vision, too. I prayed for Jesus or Mary to come and show themselves to me and speak to me directly. I imagined spirituality should include a holy person coming down from the sky and standing in front of me. It never quite happened that way. Why not, I wondered? Why tell us these stories if we could not have those experiences?

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most famous of the 19th century intellectuals who became known as the transcendentalists, wrote something similar in 1849:

The foregoing generation beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?”

A spiritual journey is our search for our own “original relation to the universe.” A spiritual journey is our search for our own face to face, personal experience of “God and nature,” whatever those might turn out to be. A spiritual journey brings us to our own experience of the larger reality of which we are a part, our awareness of connection to the earth, to each other, and to the Mystery within and between all life.

When I was growing up, it seemed that only a few special people might have such a personal experience of that Mystery. But now I believe that I was confused about what I was looking for. Let me use an analogy here. I was looking for something like a trip to a great auditorium to see “The Mystery” in concert; but the Mystery really emerges more like the sound of a tune in one’s own imagination.

Quote from the Introduction to Nature; Addresses and Lectures (1849).

The Apple Tree

Apple Tree summer DSC05635There is an old apple tree that I love to visit. It lives on a small bluff by the bay in South Freeport, in Winslow Park. I first met this tree when we went camping there a few summers ago, and now we always try to get that campsite near the apple tree. The tree is old and it is hollow. Or, as I like to say, it has an open heart. If I contort my body just a little, I can squeeze into the inside of it.

Horseshoe in Tree DSC03192The tree has a history with human beings. There is a horseshoe embedded in the trunk, from some bygone caretaker. A horseshoe for luck.We go back in the autumn to gather the apples that fall around her. I have never seen anyone else collect them, and they make really wonderful applesauce. I have taken pictures of the tree in all seasons.

Henry David Thoreau wrote about becoming acquainted with particular trees in the woods where he built his hut at Walden Pond. There is something wonderful and profound about going deeper with a tree. I feel nurtured by my connection with the old apple tree.

Apples DSC06174Such connections can be created with any living being. The earth is so big and so full of life, that it would be impossible to know every species of flower or fruit or animal or bird. But something comes alive in us when we open our awareness to one other species, or to one special place, a place that becomes important because we are paying attention there. Because we are finite human beings, it is helpful to pay attention to the small things, in order to come to know the ultimate things.

If we seek to restore our relationship with the earth and all of nature, one practice to begin it is to restore our relationship with one species or one place. Thoreau became well acquainted with the few acres around his tiny hut at Walden Pond. We might become acquainted with the yard around our house, if we have a yard. Or if we live in an apartment, we might choose a spot in a city park, or a trail in a nearby woods, a beautiful tree, or a big rock.

What it takes is some time and attention. Sitting underneath the branches of my apple tree, gazing out at the water, sometimes I imagine what the apple tree has seen in its life. Sometimes I imagine being a tree, with roots in the ground, and branches swaying with the breeze. One year, the leaves on the seaward side were all blackened from the salt spray of a big nor’easter. What must it be like to bend into all kinds of weather? And of course, with trees, it is always good to lean up against them, and just be quiet.

Apple Tree Photos by Margy Dowzer. Horseshoe Photo by me.