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.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.