Permaculture and Food Forests: Leaving an Awesome Trace

“You can solve all the world’s problems in a garden” – Geoff Lawton

By Wesley Thoricatha

“Leave No Trace” is one of Burning Man’s oft-quoted ten principles, and its greatest gift is that it inspires a broad and lasting sense of environmental and social responsibility in many of the festival’s participants – Black Rock Solar and Burners Without Borders being stellar examples. Having discovered both Permaculture and burn events at the same time in my life, I immediately recognized the implications of Leave No Trace and thought of ways to take it further. The conclusion that I and others have reached is that in our permanent home, the planet that houses both the playa and the default world, leaving no trace is not enough. We need to leave an awesome trace.

Permaculture is the ideal tool for such a project, being a design system that can be applied anywhere to address human and environmental needs in the most resilient and efficient way possible. Just as Burning Man resurrects ancient social rituals of personal transformation, Permaculture reintroduces ancient methods of agriculture that transform the environment in incredible ways. The best example of this is the food forest, a low-maintenance, high-yield, self-maintaining system that provides food, fuel, animal habitat, soil regeneration, water retention, and a litany of other benefits. To nurture both people and the earth, the food forest is about the most awesome trace we can leave.

What is a Food Forest?

Food forests are beautiful, diverse, and abundant forest gardens based on observing and mimicking nature with adjustments made to meet human needs. They provide local organic food, which is the most healthy and environmentally friendly way to eat. They yield timber for building structures, and wood for energy and heat needs. The trees and plants in a food forest also regenerate and protect the land via soil creation, erosion protection, and wind buffering that provides stability in extreme weather. They even assist the air and climate with CO2 sequestration, oxygen production, and microclimate creation. It’s hard to overstate how beneficial these perennial systems are, but a good way to sum it up is that we know how to create the garden of Eden, and we can do it everywhere. Let that sink in for a minute. What does the earth need more than environmental regeneration, food security, renewable resources, and beauty? That sounds like Radical Self-reliance and leaving an awesome trace to me.

Forest Layers

Let’s delve into one of the key design elements that allows food forests to produce such a high yield – the understanding of forest layers. Almost every mature forest that you find in nature will have the following layers represented: the rhizosphere or root layer, the ground cover layer, the herb layer, the shrub layer, the small tree layer, the canopy tree layer, and the layer of vines and vertical climbers. In food forest designs, all of these layers include either edible or helpful plants, allowing a huge amount of output in a small area. Next time you are in or near a forest, take a look and see if you can spot all of the different plants that are inhabiting these various layers. Then imagine if each plant, tree, and flower was edible or helpful to you in some way. The bounty achievable by these systems is simply staggering, and there is no reason we cannot implement them all over the globe.

Taking it to the Streets and Beyond

Excitingly, food forest implementation is starting to gain traction and recognition in certain areas of the world. The Beacon Food Forest is a great example, the US’s first large scale public food forest in the heart of Seattle that will be open for anyone to enjoy and eat from. A more mature example is a site like Village Homes in Davis, California, 70-acre subdivision where edible landscaping is featured throughout the community alongside the houses and streets, providing ripe fruit and nuts year-round to the residents. One of the most extreme examples is Permaculture visionary Geoff Lawton’s site in the Middle East, which he describes in his famous Greening the Desert short film. In one of the most arid areas on earth, he was able to turn salty, dead soil into a small forest of figs and other fruit trees, using zero chemical fertilizers or pesticides and a fraction of the water that industrial growers normally use.

So now that we know of such a brilliant way to regenerate, reshape, and harvest from the world around us, what are we waiting for? Let’s not just party responsibly in the desert, let’s green the desert. But really let’s do both, because at the heart of both movements is taking an evolutionary leap in human culture.

Wesley Thoricatha is a lifelong creator and student of the Universe, whose exploits include graphic design, visionary art installation, Permaculture studies, founding a spiritual/educational nonprofit, running a small eco-village, and organizing the world’s first flow arts and sustainability festival.

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