(This sermon is part of an ongoing series on the Principles of Permaculture. The 8 principles we are using come from Starhawk's "Principles of True Abundance")
"MAKING THE DESERT BLOOM, SUSTAINABLY" from Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway
In 1986, [sculptor Roxanne Swentzell] moved onto a parcel of bare land on the Santa Clara homelands. She describes the place as "no trees, no plants, no animals, just pounded-down dirt and lots of ants." She and her two young children built a passive-solar adobe house and began planting. But the climate was too harsh. Dry winds swept down from the scoured, overgrazed hills and burned up the seedlings, killing those that hadn't frozen in winter or baked to husks in summer.
Local permaculture designer Joel Glanzberg …helped her ferret out techniques for gardening in the desert. They dragged in rocks and logs to shade seedlings, and dug shallow ditches, called swales, to catch precious rainwater and create sheltered, moist microclimates. To cast much-needed shade and generate organic matter, Joel and Roxanne planted just about any useful drought-tolerant plant, native or exotic, that they could find. Thirstier species they placed within reach of the … irrigation ditch, that surged with water once a week by tribal agreement.
They hauled in manure and mulch materials to build rich soil that would hold moisture through drought. Once the hardy young trees and shrubs had taken hold, they set more delicate plants in their shade. They blended berry bushes and small fruit trees into an edible hedge along the north border, to provide the family with food as well as to block the winds that roared down the nearby canyon. All these techniques combined into a many-pronged strategy to build fertile soil, cast shade, damp the wild temperature swings of the desert, and conserve water. Together, these practices created a mild, supportive place to grow a garden.
Roxanne told me, "The garden was hard to get started, but once the little seedlings took off, then boy, they took off." At my visit, the landscape was eight years old, and trees, where none had been before, were as tall as the two-story house. Blessed, cooling shade, from dense to dappled, halted the searing rays of the sun. Instead of baking the soil, the fierce solar heat was absorbed by the thick leafy canopy and converted into lush greenery, mulch, food, and deep-questing roots that loosened the soil. ... Even in the shade, a many-layered understory of shrubs and small trees divided the yard into a path-laced series of small rooms.
I caught glimpses of birds dancing from twig to twig before they disappeared into the shrubbery. A constant rustling and chirping enveloped us on all sides, and I knew that dozens more birds were hidden in the foliage. … Roxanne carried pruning shears with her as she walked, and lopped off the occasional too-exuberant branch from [the] vigorously growing trees and shrubs that lined the paths. These would feed her turkeys, or become more mulch.
Roxanne and her helpers had rejuvenated a battered plot of desert, created a thick layer of rich soil, and brought immense biodiversity to a once-impoverished place.
Before I begin, I want to say a little something about the sermon series this worship service is a part of. This year the worship team has chosen to explore in a series of sermons the principles of permaculture, which is a school of agricultural and garden design in which human and environmental sustainability are they key values. Wiccan religious leader and activist Starhawk uses a different name for these- “Principles of True Abundance.” This is really at the heart of what we are doing with this series- look at principles that will bring true and lasting abundance to not only our human community, to our spiritual lives, and to our eco-systems. It is a system of values and virtues that we learn from the earth. With this series we ask ourselves this year “how are our lives like a garden?”
I believe that though it is an objective fact sometimes folks who have plenty of money they are not living lives of true abundance. And I know folks who live lives of abundance without much money.
Today, I want to talk about how sometimes building from the ground up can help us create true abundance in our gardens and in our lives.
I love my house. It is a little slanty and crooked in places, since it was built in 1890 and has been “settling” ever since. But from the moment we saw it we know it was for us. We love the kitchen. It is about twice the size of our old kitchen in California, and there is plenty of storage and counter space for everything we want to do. Here’s the thing though, that we didn’t really think about until we’ve lived in it for a while. The refrigerator is right by the door to the kitchen, so if someone has the refrigerator open, no one can enter or exit the kitchen. The dishwasher door opens right in front of the sink, so that if the dishwasher is open, no one can use the sink to, say, pre-wash the crud off a plate before putting it in the dishwasher. Someone didn’t think that through when they were installing the updated cabinets into this hundred year old house, and so it will annoy us multiple times a day for as long as we live in this home. As Permaculture designer Patrick Whitefield writes “Time spent in careful and patient observation before acting will pay for itself many times over when you are planning permanent fixtures like woods, buildings and earthworks.” (Permaculture in a Nutshell p. 38) Our kitchen is an example of a design that wasn’t patiently thought through before it was implemented.
So why did we buy a house with poorly positioned appliances? Because the house itself is positioned just exactly where we wanted it. This whole story begins when we were living in California. We were 20-60 minutes from everything. Nearest friend? 20 minutes away. Yoga studio? 20 minutes away. Daycare? 20 minutes away. And those were the close things. My commute? 25-45 minutes each way. The farms that supplied the local CSA programs were about 100 miles away. All the great culture in San Francisco that we moved to the Bay area to enjoy? 60 minutes away on a good day, 2 hours away during the weekend rush-hours. Anything you wanted to do involved sitting in bumper to bumper traffic on a 6-8 lane road. We had looked for a home where we could walk to things, but those pedestrian friendly towns were way out of our price range. And a house in a good school district? Definitely out of our price range.
Our decision to move 3000 miles was made after a lot of patient observation and thinking and planning. We learned that in Ithaca ordinary people like us could afford a home in a good school district. Moreover, if we were willing to sacrifice a few things like off street parking and a big yard, we could even afford to live in walking distance to things worth walking to. I can’t tell you how happy we are now to live 3 blocks from a public library, 4 blocks from 2 different yoga studios, restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores. We re-built our life from the ground up.
Permaculture teaches us that (Permaculture in a Nutshell p. 25) “ A year’s careful planning is much better than a rush to get he plants into the ground followed by a lifetime’s regret” So the first thing to do is just to observe, and watch. And maybe make a map of all the things you notice and observe. Then when you begin to build, you can make use of the microclimates, the trees, the existing communities already in place. So for example, one of our dreams when we came to Ithaca was to have a little coffee shop where musical events would happen. Thank goodness we didn’t start that project before we’d had a chance to observe because it turns out that niche is already filled in Ithaca. Before tearing down the old to build something new, stop and listen and observe. The vision you may have in your mind can and should change as it meets the very specific and very local place you want to plant your garden or build a life.
Now once it is time to plant and build, you have a better idea from all your observation of what will flourish where. One of the main ideas of permaculture in gardening is the idea of zones. It’s a simple idea but one we don’t use as often as we could. For example, you put the things you use every day right by your back door. If you want herbs in your morning omelets, and cherry tomatoes in your dinner salad, plant your herbs and cherry tomatoes right by the back door so you can get them without getting your bedroom slippers wet. That’s called zone 1. The compost bin should be close enough to the kitchen so that you don’t procrastinate taking the compost out because you hate tromping through the mud to get there. Then zone 2 is things you don’t need to look at every day, This is the area of your yard that you put on your old gardening clothes on a Saturday to work with, for example pick stewing tomatoes for canning. These areas can be further from the house. Zones 3 and 4 are farther from the house, things you only need to deal with once or twice a year. I don’t have these zones in my yard. Zone 5 is the edge of your property, the wild part of your property, whether it backs up on uncultivated woodlands, or onto a downtown parking lot. Permaculture design is very supportive of leaving wild un-tended places in our own lives and in our ecosystems.
But I think it’s not much of a leap to apply this idea of zones in our lives beyond gardening. For me Zone two includes my yoga studio and the library. These are places I go several times a week. I assure you that since I moved my home to within a few blocks of the yoga studio, from a house where it was a 20 minute drive, (more if there was traffic) I do a lot more yoga. Same with the library. So We chose our home with the idea of what we wanted in our “Zone 2” Once we bought our home, we had other decisions to make about what would fall in which zone, even though our property is so small all of our yard is really zone 1. When I first moved to Ithaca I got recommendations for a dentist about half an hour form our house, but I was persistent, and managed to find a good dentist who is about a 25 minutes walk or a 5 minute drive from our home. I recently found a primary care physician about a 15 minute walk away, and a vet who is about a 10 minute walk away. Even City Hall and the places where most political rallies are held are walking distance from my home. Because we spend that time at the beginning finding a home in the right location, and finding services that are located in walking distance, I can say to my partner “you can have the car all day, I can walk to everything I’m going to do today”
Once you are done observing and ready to roll up your sleeves, remember to build from the ground up. The first step is the earth moving and amending. If you need to change a slope or amend the soil, it is much better to do this before you plant anything. The next thing to do is to plant trees, because they take a long time to mature and they are going to impact the little microclimates in your yard and garden by changing the areas of shade and sun, they are also going to form complicated relations with their roots that you don’t want to disrupt later.
I think that story of Roxanne’s desert garden is a wonderful example of building from the ground up. The first time she planted everything died. But by planning carefully, by moving rocks and building walls and digging swales, those first plants were able to take root and grow.
I want to draw another parallel with how we plan our lives. There are some things that we may wish were in our lives, but we never seem to have the time for them. Maybe we’ve always wanted to go back to school. Maybe we want to spend more time at home with our family, or supporting an aging parent, but there so much going on we can never seem to find the time. Let’s think of those like trees in a forest garden. What are the metaphoric trees you’ve been wanting to grow in your life? The big things that might take years and years? The things you are never going to have time to squeeze in before dinner one night. Like any time management schema, you might find in the business section of the bookstore, this value of “building from the ground up” shows is that we need to plant these big important long-growing things first, or there will never be room in our lives for them.
Now I don’t want to discourage folks who already have full lives and are realizing there is a tree missing. Many folks get to midlife and realize that the life they planted as a young adult could be better planned. Permaculture teaches us that is certainly easier to do this planning when you are building something new, but sometimes we need to move structures if there is going to be a long term benefit. Take our move from California to New York. It took a lot of energy, worry, planning and money to make a move of that magnitude, but because we spent a lot of time and though planning and knew what we were trying to plant, it was worth it for us.
Because we weren’t just guided by a vision of life with more cafes and bookstores, we were also motivated by a vision of a life that left less of a carbon footprint, a life without quite so many hours on the freeway. Maybe a life with only one car! Part of our vision was about leaving a sustainable and fertile world for our children and grandchildren. And I don’t just mean from an ecological perspective, but from a perspective of justice and equality for all.
When I was a brand new minister with a brand new baby, the other parents would commiserate with me- it’s hard to work for justice when you have children. It’s impossible to find time for your spiritual life when you are a parent they would say. The metaphor of the permaculture garden shows us that if those things seem too far out of reach, we need to move those things, those critical important things into zone one. If you can’t move your whole family nearer to your yoga studio, keep your yoga mat in the living room where you always see it. Build your altar next to your desk, keep your senator’s phone numbers on the desktop of your computer where they are so easy to find you can use them every day. Find a place at your daughter’s soccer practice where you can sit under a tree and meditate.
There is one more concept that gives help to those of us who feel there is no room in our lives for some of these critical important things, like spirituality, or relationships or justice. It is called “stacking.” “Nothing in nature has only one purpose- it’s furiously efficient this way” (Gaia's Garden p. 26) Remember Roxanne had planted fruit bearing shrubs that cut the wind. Those shrubs give her two gifts instead of only one. Her walnut and pomegranate trees provide not only food for her family, but have a critical function providing shade for the other plants, and their deep roots loosen the soil. Stacking is not the same as multitasking, it is about collaboration and synergy. I want to suggest that in our lives we don’t have to choose between time to leave a legacy and time to play with your kids, you can plant a tree together which does both, and one that bears fruit and it can be a tree that you can meditate under. That’s what nature would do.
The final thing we want to hold with this idea of building from the ground up has to do with relationships. Grass roots community organizing uses this idea. The basis of organizing is talking to people. Getting to know them. Getting to know what scares them, what they are worried about, whether it’s the health of our planet or the need for a stop sign near the school. Then when it’s time to act you can incorporate everyone’s worries and need into the plan, but you don’t’ stop there, you keep talking to one another, you keep building relationships you stay in touch. Have you ever planned a big party and sent out invitations and not as many people showed up as you had hoped for? When you build an event from the ground up, you start with the people. You start talking to them well in advance and making sure the date works for everyone, including them in the process and asking for their advice and input. By the night of the big party, or if we are talking about community organizing, by the night of the big Action, if you pretty much have spoken to everyone who you hoped would be involved, you will have a clear picture of who will be there.
Big culture changes in these past 2 centuries have happened because the people joined together to create a swell of momentum. Movements like civil rights and GLBT rights and women’s rights were built from the ground up. By the time legislation was passed in the Congress, those representatives and senators knew their constituents would stand behind them and back their decisions. We see this same premise in the Occupy movement. A group of ordinary citizens building consensus about what concerns them and what they are calling on our country to do. I’m not saying there aren’t leaders, that there isn’t organization, but the organization starts from the ground up. “Real change takes place from the bottom up, not form the top down." [Intro to Permaculture p. 5]
True abundance is not really about having what you want when and where you want it. True abundance is not about having it all right now. Sometimes the most effective thing to do is just to watch, and listen and wait. We gather information and make a plan. And in that plan we start with those critical things we can’t skip over if we want our plan, our vision to succeed. Whether we are planning for a garden, for a life of meaning, or a more just and sustainable world, we start by watching and noticing. Then we plant the trees- those long term slow growing pillars of our vision that will protect and nourish not only our own lives but those of our children and grandchildren. We take the time to consider what things we need close to hand, and which can be further away. And we take time to understand the needs and dreams of those around us as we build relationships and set down roots, these will give strength and cohesiveness to our shared and enduring vision as they are planted in the ground. True abundance is about stepping out on your patio in your bare feet and clipping fresh chives and cherry tomatoes fresh off the vine for your morning omelet. True abundance is having a beautiful library in walking distance from your home. True abundance is having a community of people working for a common vision.