Working With What You’ve Got: How Losing My Vision Gave Me Perspective
House front — before
House front — after
We all encounter rough spots in our lives. Fortunately, we get to choose how we handle them. For me, permaculture provided the perfect lens for placing hard times into a healing, long term context.
So often today, we are taught to think of things in the short term: a week, a month, a season. Within this timeframe, rough spots can seem monumental and occur as a total breakdown in our way of life. However, by slipping on a permaculture telephoto lens, we can begin to see the solution in the problem.
In 2005, life dealt me a rough spot of a magnitude I had never encountered. After months of odd symptoms, I was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease, Wegener’s Granulomatosis. While Wegener’s can attack any bodily system, it affected my vision most severely, to the point where I could no longer perform my IT job. Now I live my life seeing the world around me as if it was an impressionist painting – a very blurry impressionist painting.
I’ll be honest with you; I spent almost two years in bed, zoned out on the heady drug cocktail that was keeping me alive. In this drug-induced state, my fantasies ran to abundant gardens and happy animals. In July 2007, I rose from that daze at the mention of an urban chicken class. Urban chickens? I simply had to get out of bed and see this for myself.
And see it, I did. The urban chicken class was held at a suburban property called the Bee Oasis. What had once been an ordinary, ranch-style home in one of the driest cities in the US, had been transformed into a foliage-filled sanctuary where curious hummingbirds buzzed your cheek, industrious chickens tilled the earth and the namesake bees buzzed happily from one blossom to the next. The sheer lushness of the property shocked me. Surely this could not be Phoenix Arizona! How was this possible?
I learned a lot from that class, including a very basic understanding of permaculture concepts. Redundant systems, working with what you’ve got and creating an interconnected community — it all made perfect sense to me and got me excited about life again.
Understanding sustainable systems would consume my energies and creativity from then on. And, as anyone who has scratched the surface of the permaculture concept knows, I found out that observation and experimentation were key. In fact, that’s what got me hooked — the thought of observing, then making a plan, implementing the plan and seeing if it worked, was thrilling.
So what happened next? Well, while I was still pretty smashed on the drug cocktail used to keep the disease at bay, I set about making and implementing a plan for my 50’ x 150’ (1/6 acre) property in Phoenix, Arizona’s urban core. This property would eventually come to be known as “Dolce Verde” (Sweet Green).
My main helpers were my parents; they came down about twice a week for three to four hours at a time to help out. And lest you think that you have to be a fit, 20-something to implement permaculture projects, I’m here to put an end to that notion. My crew included: myself (Jen), then 43 with vision bad enough to qualify me as “disabled”; my mother (Julie), then 67 with an injured right hand, and my father (David), then a hale and hearty 71 year old.
Over the intervening five years, we’ve designed and installed numerous systems. Because we live in a desert, water harvesting and passive solar practices were the most critical. Here’s what we’ve done so far:
— Implemented a series of sun screens in the west-facing front yard. The screens are made up of a series of plants of various heights, including: deciduous trees, shrubs and vines (see images at top of article). The screens serve to block the summer sun from hitting the house. It’s effective too; my front yard and home stay about 8-10° F cooler with this living solar buffer.
— Built a multi-purpose outdoor addition onto the back of the house which faces east. The addition features a hen yard, two compost piles, the outdoor shower and a propagation area for starting new plants. Grapevines fed by graywater from the shower grow on the east side of this structure to block the early morning summer sun, reducing passive heat gain.
House back – before
House back – after
— Turned a nuisance water source into a collective boon by working with my neighbor to divert their rainwater runoff into a French drain system that supports 30 fruit trees.
Side of house – before
Side of house – after
— Built eight, sunken bed planting areas for food crops. These beds are designed to passively harvest rainwater and hold irrigation water in the bed.
Back corner – before
Back corner – after
— Moved the washing machine to the back porch and built an outdoor shower to passively harvest graywater for surrounding trees and grape vines.
— Hosted a number of tours, classes and seed swaps. Because we’ve been open about what’s going on at Dolce Verde, the natural outcome has been a significant increase in the number of neighbors who have gardens, water harvesting features and chickens of their own now. These folks go on to share their own experiences with the neighborhood.
Of course, there were many setbacks and do-overs along the way; I didn’t spring from Zeus’ (or Bill Mollison’s) forehead as a fully-formed permaculture practitioner. But what we call “mistakes” are simply very powerful learning opportunities that allow us to rethink our plan and try another strategy. But those are postings for another day.
I count myself extremely lucky that permaculture crossed my path when it did. After the many personal and financial hardships I experienced during my initial flare, permaculture taught me to take stock and work with what I’ve got. It’s an incredibly powerful and liberating tool. For my part, I’ve tried pay it forward by continuing to observe, implement and add to the common knowledge pool.
- Hope for a New Era: Before/After Examples of Permaculture Earth Restoration – Solving Our Problems From the Ground Up