Monday, July 13, 2015

Book Review: Sepp Holzer's Permaculture

Sepp Holzer: Sepp Holzer's Permaculture: a practical guide to small scale integrative farming and gardening, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont, 2004. 219 pages, numerous photos, tables, diagrams; index. Visually, quite impressive. A slight textual heaviness at times due to translation. A well structured, self-contained starter kit for do-it-yourself permaculturists. As a bonus, Holzer's text does double-time as an introduction to the philosophy of permaculture.

"Nevertheless the book's greatest value is not so much in the information it contains but in the attitudes it teaches. Its message is not so much "this is how you do it" but "this is the way go about thinking of how to do it". Sepp Holzer's way is the way of the future. In the fossil fuel age we've been able to impose our will on the land by throwing cheap energy at every problem. In the future that option won't be open to us any more. We'll have to tread the more subtle path, the path which patiently observes nature and seeks to imitate it. That future may not be as far off as we think." (from the foreword)

 Permaculture is the soul, the Krameterhof (Holzer's alpine Austrian farmstead) is the body of that soul.

       In a deep - and non-sectarian - sense, Herr Holzer is a "Buddhist farmer": we need to eat but must respect the life of the creatures we eat. Holzer is deeply aware of the injustice and indignity the children of the earth, human and non-human, suffer under the current economic system.

"One of my central ideas is: "Try putting yourself in the position of your fellow creatures, whether they are plants or animals, and you will quickly find  out whether the environment that you you intend for them is right or not. If you observe a plant or animal closely, you will quickly see if it is happy. However, if you would not want to live in that environment as a plant or animal, than change the living conditions there quickly! Only animals that live happy lives will work for you day and night and you will be the biggest winner as the owner of a healthy plant and animal kingdom"" (page 217, Concluding Thoughts).


          Holzer considers livestock as "workers". He attempts to have them live lives as natural as possible and, in so doing, they will "work" the land: removing cover crops and undesirable vegetation, turning the soil and fertilizing it. On the Krameterhof, animals live in small, dispersed, crude unheated shelters. This keeps them robust and saves energy. Their food is primarily foraged from the land they live on. Extreme winters may require imported supplementation but these are unusual circumstances, not the norm.

Permaculture design philosophy and "natural design". Generally, the parts (subsystems) of natural self-organized systems (cells, organisms, societies, ecosystems..) have more than one function. Conventional industrial design - based on a Cartesian analysis of wholes into parts - attempts to isolate and optimize functions. Example: how do you deliver a letter or parcel the fastest? If you've got enough cheap fossil energy available, energy expenditure (and resultant pollution) become irrelevant. In the limit, a billionaire could manage his own post using drones. It would be absurdly expensive and inefficient in use of resources of course..

           Nature, though, generally operates under fairly severe energy constraints and employs slower, less damaging processes to achieve its ends.

           Holzer eloquently sums up Permaculture Philosophy, based on "natural design" principles:

"The basic principles of permaculture are:

- All of the elements within a system interact with each other.
- Multifunctionality: every element fulfils multiple functions and every function is performed by multiple elements.
- Use energy practically and efficiently, work with renewable energy.
- Use natural resources.
- Intensive systems in a small area. (intensive organic agriculture, for example)
- Utilise and shape natural process and cycles. (ride the wave - don't fight it! saves energy, effort and money)
- Support and use edge effects (creating highly productive small-scale structures)
- Diversity instead of monoculture." (page xvii of the Introduction. My comments are in red)

             Because of the current dominance of Western Industrial Culture, our "bourgeois" Western aesthetics have become a major source of environmental destruction and loss. Our values have been exported to the rest of the world where they are now universally and slavishly imitated. We seem to fear wild looking spaces. We look down on people with weedy, "overgrown" lawns. We want "manicured" monocultural lawns which are ecological disasters: water consumption, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the energy and resources required to manufacture these inputs (and the resulting pollution!) It's not a pretty picture (ecologically speaking) and is not sustainable. Australia, California, Arizona and Mid-East oil producing states are flagrant examples. As Holzer correctly points out, our faulty aesthetic practices establish ecological vicious circles: we progressively deplete the soil of organic matter (humus) and thus require increasingly greater use of chemical fertilizers to compensate for nutrient loss, which - in turn - only accelerates the nutrient losses the fertilizer was attempting to compensate for in the first place!

                        Healthy soil: moist, dark, full of organic matter and life

               Healthy soil food web (en fran├žais) Kinda looks like a mandala don't it?

           Holzer argues that working within - as opposed to against - natural cycles and processes is more reasonable than our current sledge-hammer approach: monoculture agriculture with massive fertilizer, pesticide, machinery, energy and monetary inputs. "Working with nature" often requires less energy, cost and maintenance. If we understand  biodiversity (and its usefulness in nature), we will plant intensive polycultures with attention to plants - and animals (including tiny ones) - which improve the soil and attract desired pest predators. We will arrange things so that pest predators have access to pests on our land. We will establish bands of sheltering vegetation or shelter boxes for them to live. Rather than kill everything off with pesticides, we invite the predators of our pests to live on our land.. As virologists say: for every bacteria, there are at least 50 phages (viruses that predate on bacteria)!

             Sepp Holzer's Permaculture is not primarily a theoretical text. It is designed for the beginning permaculture farmer or gardener. There are many tables of plant species and their functions, for example, green manure crops for soil improvement, their uses and requirements. 
              Holzer pays much attention to landform variability, allowing him to produce "microclimate" cultures: ponds, terraces, raised beds, herb gardens.. which exploit, rather than suppress, the unique qualities - and potentialities - of a piece of land. Thus a properly oriented slope may support an artificial pond because the land at the bottom is wet from runoff. The pond may then be stocked with commercially valuable fish. Its surface reflects sunlight unto the nearby slope, terraces and raised beds, raising soil temperature and providing a habitat for sun loving plants that otherwise would not grow in the alpine climate of the Krameterhof. Attention to and exploitation of landform and soil variability allow Holzer to maximize the profitability of his operation. Such an approach is, of course, contrary to the "industrial" ideology of conventional monocultural agriculture which stresses uniformity of input, production and output for standardized markets. Holzer discovered that traditional but now forgotten fruit tree varieties grown at high altitude produce high quality fruit for niche markets, the production of schnapps, for example.. thus allowing him to locally (or regionally) "corner the market" and produce a profit from a specialized product.

            Holzer seems an interesting, likable character, a blend of ethical business man, "Buddhist" farmer, New Age guru and ecologically militant citizen scientist. His approach to food production provides what appears to be a practical alternative to current non-sustainable industrial "agriculture" or, more properly" "agribusiness" (note 1). His book is eminently readable and packed with information. (I only realized how packed while writing this review. Normally, fact filled books aren't good reads. This is one of the exceptions..) Permaculture is a rare achievement, combining practical information for those who want to get their hands dirty with deep philosophical insight into underlying ecological processes and their broader implications for humanity's moral and spiritual evolution. 


1-  Long term unsustainability of agribusiness in Norway. Since plants capture and store solar energy (photosynthesis) our farms should be energy sources NOT sinks!! This is not the case in Norway, for example. Their agricultural system absorbs more energy than it returns. And what happens to the 7.5 billion people of earth as cheap energy runs out?

"We conclude that the system is unsustainable because it is embedded in a highly fossil fuel dependent system based on a non-circular flow of nutrients. As energy and thus nutrient constraints may develop in the coming decades, the current system may need to adapt by reducing use of fossil energy at the farm and for transportation of food and feed. An operational strategy may be to relocalise the supply of energy, nutrients, feed and food"

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