What is life?
It is the flash of a firefly in the night.
It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime.
It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.
~ Crowfoot, Blackfoot warrior and orator
The book we’re reading for my permaculture discussion group now is Ben Falk’s The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach (2013), in which he strongly recommends a 5-step process of:
1. goals clarification – not primarily our goals but the land’s goals: what does it have “a high capacity to produce” and what does it “trend away from”?
2. land analysis – exploration of the site’s context and characteristics, including geology, climate, ecology, topography, aspect, microclimate(s), soils, vegetation, wildlife, views, water and hydrology, infrastructure, access points, and so on.
3. design criteria statements – these are guiding statements for the next design phase, relating to vegetation (e.g.: “be diverse and proven for multiple yields, including foods, medicines, habitat, biomass and fertility, thermal value, interest, and so on”) and infrastructure (energy, materials, accessibility, air quality, etc.) . Falk suggests an imaginative immersion in the place and the process, a sort of mental time travel that can see the future now. This is our best word picture of the inputs, outputs and relationships we envision and hope for, given the possibilities and limitations of the place and ourselves.
4. schematic design – drawing the design on paper, and/or photographing aspects (or printing out a Google Earth map photo of the property) and overlaying our desired structures, plantings, topography, etc., onto it.
5. working master plan – a plan of action, but not a plan set in stone. Details, to scale, about how and where to build, plant, and install each element, subject to change as new information or goals come along. As Falk says, the main point of these is “to avoid huge mistakes.”
I said in our group yesterday that I don’t really do this; I use landscape paint (or, in the past, I’ve used hoses, but hoses are obstreperous and perverse) to draw, life-size, gardens outside, and then I make and plant them, adjusting dimensions and shape as I go along. Later, I move things around if they don’t work. Which is OK on a property like this one, small and not needing to feed me year-round.
“Design is not making beauty; beauty emerges from selection, affinities, integration, love.”
In other words, if you surround yourself or a space with what attracts you, what is in right relationship with each other, what calls your heart and soul toward it, then beauty will emerge. For me, this means lightly curating (“selection”) for my house, my garden, my life the kind of pattern, colour, texture, scent, movement, longing, presence, silence, emptiness, mystery, holiness, and wholeness that – in the words of another book I’m reading now, Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter (2013) by NH writer Howard Mansfield — makes a good place for my soul’s daydreams.
This process of selection, creating or recognising affinities, integrating into relationships, and loving it all can certainly be part of a design process ; for Falk, I think it definitely would be part of the deep imagination immersion, and for Kahn and his architecture students it was of course part of a lengthy design process that included 3-D models. It can also be part of a creation process, the activity of creating the garden or what-have-you, whether a drawn design is part of that process or not.
For me, “the beauty that emerges” makes itself known to me in an embodied, sensual appreciation of the here and now, the overall grace of a place. The way it feels when I am in it. Good design — planned on paper first, or not — evokes that feeling by allowing beauty — or, as Mansfield says it in Dwelling in Possibility, “peace, silence and dreams” — to emerge.
Mansfield also describes the building of canoes by traditional Samoan canoe builders, the building of tipis, the weaving of carpet, and the building of a timber frame house as process-driven: “Design is not done on paper. It emerges from the process. … ‘The foundation is built as an extension of the ground. The walls are built as extensions of a nearby mountain or street. The roof and its overhang are built as extensions of the walls.'” And following these steps, one after the other, “the builder … creates a ‘lovely harmony’ that is ‘simple, well-adapted and profound. We see it and feel it in the constructed details.’ …
“‘We feel alive in these places. ‘Plants and flowers bloom. Cows, dogs, horses, cats, fish, birds, and insects are all there in their well-being. The air is fresh. The storm blows. The water runs. Shadows glide over fields. Evening red light colors the bushes. Tiles crack. Plums fall on the ground'” (quoting architect Christopher Alexander in The Nature of Order; Alexander published A Pattern Language in 1977, which has been highly influential in permaculture, architecture, and computer programming.)
I think, actually, that Falk might agree that “design emerges from the process,” even if he also draws it on paper; it’s a back-and-forth conversation between design and process, each informing the other. He might also agree with another architect, Le Corbusier, that “It is always life that is right and the architect who is wrong.” Our gardens and our hearts will tell us whether the design is a good one or not.
“Warmer. Rain in the night. Frogs again. At first the waterhole — (four feet long at most) had one frog or two. Now they are a small nation, loud in the night. The innocent nation, chanting blissfully in praise of the spring rain. — Thomas Merton
So, thinking about this another way then, my goals clarification statement is: I want the beauty to emerge from the land and from the plants as they interact with each other, with animals including insects, and with me. I really don’t know how that looks except that it’s a happy fraught struggle that more often than not imbues a sense of peaceful activity and equilibrium on the land and those inhabiting it.
Land analysis: I have observed and measured, to some extent, this land, and know as well as I can after 4 years its microclimates (hence the kitchen garden, though it faces northwest); geology (how many boulders have I pulled from this earth?); sun and shadow places in spring, summer and fall, moist and dry spots; slopes (one main one); soils (clay along the back fence, sand along the house foundation and sidewalk, loam most everywhere else); and so on.
My design criteria statement is vaguer than it should be, I fear. I’m really not interested in the future. I do consider the terminal height and width of plants when I plant them, because I am lazy and don’t want to have to thin things out later if I can avoid it, but what I really care about is how it all looks and feels today and, if pressed for a future vision, then this year. I want the plants to be happy where they are, and I want them to provide habitat, food, sensual beauty, and solace and respite for animals, including me, spring through winter. I want them to be a riot of mind-disorienting colour, scent, texture, pattern.
As for the house, I want it to have a soul and to be a place for the soul, and there are so many ways for that to happen but mainly, I think, through our living fully in it.
When it comes to the schematic design, I’ve done it before, drawn on paper, for house #1 in Maryland and house #2 in inland Maine. That covers my first 11 years or so of gardening. Now, if I use a Google map to plot out a bed location or shape, I consider it quite a lot of planning; usually I resort to walking around the yard, with or without landscape paint, being my own garden-dowser, letting myself sense where the garden wants to be. It feels like intuition, and sometimes it just feels like dumb trial-and-error, but mostly I think it’s a combination of simple insouciance, some experience — knowing the plants I prefer, the situations they prefer, and how much work I am capable of doing — and close and constant observation of this land for 4 years, taking photos almost daily and walking it at least 250 of 365 days of the year, always wanting to discover what it offers, what it attracts, what it hides (the shadows and subterranean places are important to me).
So, finally, we come to the working master plan, the changeable plan of action, meant to avoid huge mistakes. The main thing for this property in terms of what I would view as a huge mistake — the barred owl probably viewed it as a disaster when the electric company came though last spring shearing down the trees they made their nests in, just behind our property — is to undermine the septic system or field. Knowing where it is, I have avoided planting anything but annuals in the space where the septic and sewage suckers have to slice through the sod to get to the tank when they clean it every 5 or so years, and I have been careful about planting on the leach field; no large trees there. Still, there is a semi-dwarf peach and a sand cherry that might be poised to do damage. I’m considering that possibility.
Otherwise, I have no fears about huge mistakes. I can move most things that don’t want to bloom where they’re planted, or I can sometimes change their soil from acidic to more neutral or alkaline, or prune something nearby to give a plant more sun, or build a swale to provide more constant water; and if I am a little vigilant I can catch disease and pest-damage early and mitigate it, if I want to.
Twenty-three years ago, I knew nothing about gardening. I had never done it and had never seen anyone do it. My dad terraced one back yard to make it easier to mow the grass. Until my family’s last house, which they moved to after I went to college —
behind which my mom had a Japanese garden built, heavy on azaleas, something she had apparently always wanted after spending time growing up in Japan — I don’t remember our houses having gardens at all, except one small mulched island of evergreens that my dad built on a lawn in the late 1960s-early 1970s. That same property backed to woods (whose?), with a long felled tree trunk that provided a favourite, silent, private place to play when I was 6 and 7. The house with the terraced back yard backed up to deeper woods, which led to fields, and in those unceilinged spaces I spent many afternoons and weekends roaming as a teenager, building impermanent shelters and forts, checking out the insects and amphibians in the streams, noticing but having no names for trees and lower-story woodland and meadow plants.
But cultivated, or even chaotic, gardens? No, in my memory our yards were almost always just lawn with a few foundation shrubs, maybe a small bed of roses, plus more shrubs (forsythia?) between lawns to delineate property lines.
So when I had my first house, with an acre or so of land in Maryland, in 1991, I was starting from scratch. I took an 8-week class in landscape design and after that, having learned mainly how vast my ignorance was, I hired the instructor to come and make a plan for us, for our new developer-barren plot that used to be farmland and now held a redbud, an ornamental plum, and a few foundation plantings (though amazingly they had left much of the back wild, a field in which we once spotted a ring-necked pheasant). With the landscape designer, I went through a process similar to Falk’s, though I don’t think we cared much what the land itself wanted to be.
In my second house, in inland Maine, three USDA hardiness zones to the north, and with 10 acres to play with (about an acre of yard and the rest wooded), I took matters into my own hands and created a book of plants (as mentioned in an earlier posting) to teach myself what was possible in this climate and topography (a bit of land analysis) and what I envisioned (a sketchy design criteria statement), then set about drawing designs for various garden beds and borders, including my first vegetable garden.
When I wasn’t outside, I was attending copious lectures on topics such as “Designing for Difficult Properties,” water gardening, “Unusual Perennials;” a course on Herbs and one on Healing Arts (making balms, salves, tonics, etc, from plants); a workshop on “Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Marsh;” and scouring garden center newsletters and handouts as well as their rows of organised plants, trying in a somewhat hyper way — because the learning curve was so large — to funnel all this information into a design that also incorporated the features of the land I was working with, my style sensibilities and my desires for output (veggies, herbs, abundance of cut flowers, frogs in the pond, and so on). I remember it being rather overwhelming and exciting.
Since leaving that property, about 12 years ago, I have admittedly been playing fast and loose with the design process, apparently preferring a more spur of the moment sort of non-process. If I were hoping to grow most of my food, or change the topography or hydrology of my land dramatically, or truly optimize every bit of this space, or win a garden club prize, I might spend more time at the drawing board and less walking around the yard with a plant in my arms and an unresolved glazed look in my eyes, just another shadow across the grass, fading into the western light.