Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Is Permaculture Daoist?

I've been visiting my dear and beloved wife in Saint Louis Missouri this month.  One of the many things that bind us together is our interest in permaculture. To that end, we spend a good part of yesterday cutting off bits of a dead apricot tree in the back yard and piling it up in the garden to create a hugelkultur bed.
Hugelkultur in a Nutshell

The theory behind hugelkultur is that it uses dead wood as a mechanism for creating a structure to build plant communities around.  From the picture, it is obvious that part of this is a physical structure in that builds mounds that people can plant vegetables and fruit on top of.  Less obvious is the way rotting wood provides nutrients for the soil.  Rotten wood also retains water, which allows plants to thrive even through dry periods, even though the system drains during wet ones because of its shape. Hugelkultur even helps with climate change because a portion of the carbon in the wood remains in the soil after the wood is completely rotted away, which not only increases soil fertility, but it also drains carbon out of the ecosystem.

Hugelkultur is one specific type of permaculture amongst several other systems that have been developed during both ancient times and the 1960s.  Another example of permaculture is a food forest, some of which have existed for a very long time.  Take a look at this YouTube video about one in Morocco that purportedly has existed for 2,000 years.  

The thing about permaculture is that it involves seeing a garden as a whole system embedded in the entire natural world instead of as an isolated patch of dirt with discrete plants growing under human supervision and control. This systems analysis is integral to the whole project and cannot be over-emphasized. 

Donella Meadows
At the same time that I've been visiting my Saint Louis home, I've hired a friend to keep an eye on my Guelph property and care for my pussy cat.  Before left, she asked me to get her a book from the library (I get special loan privileges) so she could read up about systems theory. There is a book that she wanted from a woman by the name of Donella H. Meadows titled Thinking in Systems: A Primer.  Ms. Meadows had a pretty interesting resume in that she was the lead author for the very important Limits to Growth report that first raised concerns about the carrying capacity of the earth and what limits it gives to exponential growth in modern industrial, capitalist societies. 

Anyway, as it is being explained to me, Meadows describes systems as "games", and suggests that it is far, far more important to change the rules of a game instead of changing the players.  So in the case of agriculture, it is more important to develop new agricultural systems (such as things like food forests or hugelkulture) than it is to try and educate or regulate the behaviour of individual farmers who are operating within the current paradigm of industrial farming. 

Masanobu Fukuoka
Readers of this blog sometimes accuse me of not really being a "Daoist" but rather a "Green philosopher". I don't agree. Instead, I would argue that what I am trying to do is understand the "marrow" of Daoism instead of the superficial. I would argue that the systems approach that animates things like permaculture is the way of looking at the world as a "Dao" of "Daos".  The way of  living a good life, the way of creating a fruitful garden, are all parts of the Great Way.  I think that the people who accuse me of not really being a Daoist are missing out on the core of the thing and focusing on the superficial.

I will suggest some evidence in support of this point of view.  One of the schools of permaculture is called "Natural Farming".   It was founded by a Japanese fellow by the name of Masanobu Fukuoka and is based on a combination of both a spiritual revelation and also a lifetime of practical research. So, if you will, it is a combination of both "merging with the Dao" and also "kungfu".  He was very explicit about using traditional Daoist/Zen language to describe his personal experiences of developing his permaculture system.  In support of this argument, I would suggest that people look at this YouTube video. It is somewhat long, but I think that most readers would find it worth it.  Pay special attention to the language that he uses to describe his personal journey. I would argue that it could have easily been lifted from an ancient Daoist text.  

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