LandPlant SystemsTrees

Spontaneous Organization for Polyculture

I think one reason monocrop agriculture has pervaded history is mental simplicity. It is a process that removes all possible variables. Beginning with eliminating all plant life, there are clearly defined steps. The whole procedure can be executed in less than a year, without a followup plan. The conventional crops can be applied more or less the same way, with the same equipment, almost anywhere there is dirt. If I crash landed on an uninhabited island, having never gardened, but with a basic understanding of the process, I could probably grow some food from seed. Till, sow, weed, water, pray. This would be far simpler, if riskier, than learning how to use the native food plants. The history of civilization is a history of colonists and refugees.

In an unstable world of its own making, agriculture must be culturally resilient (like coffee — not inherently necessary, but ritually simplistic, addictive, and handy in a pinch).

And perhaps the best argument against permaculture is that only passionate ecologists can master the complexity of polyculture. Most people don’t like to consciously design every aspect of their livelihood like David Holmgren does.

My observation of traditional technology is that stone age people tended to pass on skills in the form of simple recipes, or packages. In a given culture, there is a particular way to build a bow, a house, or a boat. In traditional cultures, you don’t have to design anything, you can just follow the recipe. I think polyculture needs to be more like that, if it is to be successfully passed on. That’s one reason I’ve written about what I call ‘taxonomic diversity’, as it simplifies the organization of plants and animals for polycultures.

After three years, I’m still overwhelmed at how to prioritize and time all of the interconnected projects I’ve envisioned. For instance, I’d like to thin my birch groves. I’ll get larger healthier trees this way, and more forage production in the understory. The best time to cut birches would be the Spring, because then I can easily peel and save the valuable bark. But spring is my most busy time (planting). And thinning is low priority because it doesn’t directly or immediately address my food or financial needs. But if I don’t do some thinning, I can’t plant nursery trees, because I don’t want to fell large trees onto my nursery plantings and break them. Complex overlapping situations like these leave me frozen, just trying to figure out the proper order and timing for my work.

The Zen part of me has a solution for this: no plan. I know my foraging, firewood collection, waste accumulation, and disturbances are slowly having a positive influence on my habitat. I discard a lot of fruit seed, and tend to drag home fertilizer like banana peels and animal bones.The land is slowly becoming more park-like and habitable just as a result of me living there. My influence attracts wildlife that associate with people, my guild. For instance, my clearings and fruit trees favor robins and doves, which disperse the seeds of the fruits and forbs we both eat. As long as I don’t till the ground, overgraze/browse, log out my seed trees, or import polluting materials, or export nutrients, then my selfish activities tend to improve my habitat. I wish there were more people camping here, if only to amplify this positive human impact.


A bird’s eye view of the disturbances and nutrient concentrations of a nomadic human group

But the more neurotic part of me attempts to improve upon the unconscious approach. Perhaps strategy is prohibitively complex. But what about protocol? A protocol is easier to implement then a plan. It is organization the way ants do it, bumping around rather randomly, but behaving in prescribed ways when particular situations are encountered. Thus, creatures with hardly any brains can construct complex colonies, grow food, and even wage war. As ants attest, this is an extremely resilient form of organization.


An Oregon forager nomad with his harvest. The land could use more like him.

It’s hard to get up in the morning, worrying about convoluted priorities and cascading ecological effects of the day’s work ahead. I’ve found myself behaving according to unarticulated protocols, to cope with decision anxiety. Doing anything correctly is better than doing nothing. It seems natural to me to organize my protocols by species. Eventually I’d like to write down all of my mental protocols, for sharing and comparing. But here is one example.

So, I eat my breakfast leftovers, put some pants on, duck out of the lodge, and encounter a Douglas Fir, Pseudotsuga menzezii:

This species is by far my dominant plant species in terms of biomass, here in Washington state, USA. It is the staple crop of the local timber industry, which has increased the density, if not the health, of stands. Historically, it was not common at my altitude, which was less forested in general. It regenerates very successfully almost everywhere. It is no underdog. As a conifer, it tends to crowd without disturbance and it is a poor nutrient cycler. At close spacing, it is a catastrophic fire hazard. With regards soil development and understory production it is undesirable. However, it is a superior carbon pump and an excellent building material. At wide spacings, its shading and sheltering effects are of great benefit (I need a formula to determine optimal spacing, accounting for moisture savings due to shade vs. moisture loss due to transpiration).I’d like to remove a lot Douglas Firs, but leave enough for long term regeneration, so I can always have their products and positive effects. I am favoring pines and larches over firs, which seem to share the soil better.

Is the tree big (hug-able) and healthy, with a full crown?

  • leave it alone (cut any tree in the pasture area, and use for fuel or Hugelkultur, if no large timber is needed for other purposes).

Is the tree big, but crowding a bigger, healthier tree?

  • let it grow, until heavy timber is needed, unless it is leaning into an intended planting site, then cut it for fuel or Hugelkultur.

Is the tree big but unhealthy?

  • priority to use for large timber projects
  • or let it die and fall on its own, unless it leans into an intending planting site

Is the tree medium sized, with a partial crown?

  • cut it and split it for rails. store rails for innumerable future uses

Is the tree medium sized, with a full crown?

  • consider for regeneration tree
  • or cut for fuel

Is the tree pole-sized (easy to cut with a hatchet or axe, versus a saw)?

  • allow trees in planting areas to grow to this size before cutting them, as this is most useful and manageable phase
  • cut for poles. store poles for innumerable uses
  • use the slender boughs for floors, tinder, thatch, or spread for prescribed burning
  • leave a few for regeneration

(It is relatively easy to make and maintain an axe. An axe can even be made with stone or copper. But one cannot make and maintain a saw without industry and money. After initial thinning, and if thinning is continued according to protocol, one should rarely need to cut a tree with a saw. The trees permitted to grow beyond pole size grow to full maturity — future old growth.)


Cutting fir trees with an axe

Is the tree smaller than pole sized?

  • leave it alone until it reaches pole size. It will shade the ground for a while, fix carbon, and make gopher deterrent roots. It is better to plant some kinds of nursery trees into groves of firs this size (as nurse trees) than it is to plant them on open ground
  • thin only if a fire hazard is evident

General rules:

The purpose of thinning is not to increase timber yield, as done in the timber industry. Avoid soil disturbance. Avoid dispersed slash. Mitigate soil acidifying factors such as shade, evergreen shrubs, and conifer mulch. Ideally, a healthy sod of grasses and forbs develops, which inhibits the germination of conifers. Low severity burns or herbivores may kill conifer seedlings.The need for thinning should decrease. This understory growth feeds people, animals, and the soil. Conifer spacing can be adjusted to provide maximum possible carbon sequestration. This cannot be achieved without the native conifers. These protocols are appropriate only for low altitude sites close to human habitation. Wildlife appreciate a diversity of stand ages and densities, as well as a diversity of clearing sizes and types.

  • de-limb regeneration trees as high as you can reach, allowing light to penetrate the understory, discouraging fire, and increasing navigability (but not on marginally dry locations)
  • always de-limb a tree the same day you cut it down. Stack the limbs according to intended use. Don’t leave a tangled mess.
  • in the spring and summer time, always peel poles and rails, so they will last longer. In other seasons, this is a judgement call, since peeling will be difficult.
  • peel the nutrient rich bark where you felled the tree, so as not to export the nutrients
  • spread conifer boughs are perfect for creating small controlled burns for reducing brush
  • take care that ash from burn piles does not blow or leach away
  • free native deciduous species from tangles of fir
  • cut all trees from the pasture area
  • allow trees to self regulate in marginal and inaccessible areas
  • sell firewood, but not lumber — the timber industry is ridiculous
  • take care not to smash rarer species when felling firs

If you had protocols like this for all of the major species on your property, you could build toward a complex balance, approaching from any random direction, at any level of commitment or investment. You could teach these to someone else in a day. These protocols could become a thoughtless part of culture, like edging the lawn, or wiping off your shoes at the door. Simple stupid routines, but for a beautiful symphonic result.

Our conscious minds are overworked anyway. I’m realizing that the conscious mind needs plenty of play and rest, so as to be ready when truly needed, for crucial moments of creativity and cunning. Focused on survival, one never sees death coming. The lords of life play on the forward edge — high stakes leisure.

3 Comments

  1. I hope that over time there will be developed a series of patterns and routines for each bio-region and sub-regions.

    A series of things like A Pattern Language was for architecture.

    An example of a move to this kind of thing is Linda Woodrow’s The Permaculture Home Garden

  2. Hi Kyle. A very thoughtful article. What you are considering is that edges provide the greatest diversity of plant and animal habitats. They also produce some of the best soils. I also live in a forested environment down under (eucalypt obliqua trees 50m tall) and create multiple edges for the benefit of the birds and animals that live here. It works nicely and creates habitat and forage at the same time. The questions I keep coming back to are similar to yours though: How to undertake this task? I’ve recently been reading a historical account of land management practices by the Aboriginals written by the historian Bill Gammage “The Greatest Estate of Earth”. The book seeks to address many of the questions that you have raised and they would perhaps be just as true in the US as here. PS: The mountain range I live in has some old stands of Douglas Fir which sound pretty much as you describe them. Regards. Chris

  3. An ‘app’ on a mobile device could be perfect for accessing the protocols and documentation of the work done.

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