The Nature of 'Things'
I could feel it coming; something was in the wind. Just moments after the first soft frost of the season, an unseasonably warm wind swirled through the garden for hours. The air felt hot at times, far beyond El Niño. The birds delighted in it, convening en-masse in numbers I hadn't seen in weeks. It felt ominous and foreboding.
I had originally planned on writing a lighthearted piece for the week — a simple how-to for urban food garden site assessment, and the beneficial impact of home-grown food at scale on the local fresh food economy. But then all hell broke loose. Mother Nature wasn't pleased, and she was shaking her iron fist ... again.
For the second time in less than five months, I am writing about climate crisis from the eye of the storm. My beautiful city is once again in the throws of a climate emergency, and the death toll is rising along with historic high flood waters.
The two small-hold farmers and one specialty grocer that I had been chatting with for editorial comment are unavailable. One is evacuating his family. Another is trying unsuccessfully to help neighbours coax terrified livestock from their barns. A third struggles valiantly to re-route five truckloads of frozen meat and fresh produce around mudslides that buried vehicles and shut down the major interior freightway for at least three months.
My heart is breaking for my farming and food chain dependent friends, and for my community, but primarily it aches for humanity. How did this happen?
It is so entirely human to gaze down at our navels so intensely and with such entitlement that we trip over the elephant in the room.
As alpha, or ‘apex’ predators, humans have been gazing and tripping repeatedly for centuries, in an endless negative feedback loop as we travelled along the path of so-called success and fulfillment, acquiring power, title, reverence, territory, dominance, and ‘things’. More things, bigger and better things, bright and shiny things.
This path of ‘injustice’— let’s call it what it is — has led us here to the brink of the sixth mass extinction; the elephant.
What does it take for us to be satisfied? How much is enough? Among apex predators, humans are the only species that is on average, never satisfied. Lions, tigers, sharks, wolves, and other alpha species all stop eating when they are full; they stop killing and accumulating territory when they have what they need to live comfortably.
But not us; we keep on buying and building, and consuming, and destroying, and taking, and slashing and burning to get it. We slash and burn rainforests for pasture to grow ever more cheap hamburgers. We slash and burn entire complex ecosystems to plant monocultures in order to populate big box stores with diet-of-the-moment inspired groceries.
We destroy nature — the very heart and soul of the planet — in pursuit of things. Things to eat, things to wear, things to elevate our status and validate our place in the world.
Not so long ago, before the start of the 20th Century, humans all over the world were by and large consuming locally. We adapted to our local environment and feasted on its bounty. Indeed we were enamored by exotic imports, but they arrived infrequently and under sail.
Fast forward a century and we are flying British Columbia spot prawns ‘live’ in temperature-controlled tanks of Salish Sea water to Japan, for consumption. We shop big box stores for fresh tropical fruits and vegetables, at bargain basement prices even when there is three feet of snow on the ground. We can online order 3.5 ounces of imperial beluga caviar for $1000 and have it delivered to our door within four days. WTF?
I live in Vancouver, Canada; on the mountainous edge of it, specifically. Vancouver is known for many things — plenty of rain, gorgeous temperate rainforest, miles and miles of beautiful beaches, and for its propensity for growing force-of-nature environmentalists.
Greenpeace first set sail from Vancouver in 1971. The extraordinary scientist, television personality, and environmentalist Dr. David Suzuki was born and lives here. Greenpeace and Suzuki informed my development as a human, and still, they can move me to tears.
Earlier this week as I sat here at my desk writing, I had the radio on in the background, listening for updates about the weather. I had been waiting hours for a heavily promoted segment with Dr. Suzuki to commence. Emotional tension was building, tears felt very near.
Suzuki generates audience and ratings, hence the frequent plugs leading up to his afternoon segment. He was to comment on the local climate emergency of the day — the historic flooding that buried our regional Fraser Valley bread basket and thousands of farm animals under metres of muddy water, caused mass evacuations, triggered mudslides that stranded thousands and cut us off from the rest of the province, and is in fact still raging as I write this.
This great man, role model to me and to millions, was quietly enraged. My heart broke for him as I listened to his heart bleed for the planet — explaining yet again how our consumer economy powered by insatiable unmet desires is driving us to extinction. This time though, I heard something more. He seemed tired of yelling into the wind of opposing opinion, and of apathy.
I sensed some resignation as he assured listeners that the planet will survive, but on our current trajectory we may very well not. He referred to the mass extinction of dinosaurs, how it made way for mammals, and he assured us that millions and million of years after our extinction, new species would surely emerge. He said what he’s been speaking, writing and teaching about for decades with foresight, but this time, with the tragic endorsement of hindsight.
In metaphoric example, he spoke of his family’s internment during the Second World War and how being poor inspired his respect for the iron-clad durability and sensibility of denim jeans — the very clothing item that consumers flock to today in historic numbers, paying designer label prices for torn and shredded ‘disposable’ versions, to replace last season’s disposable version. Indeed.
The realization that, within the evolutionary blink of an eye, we have consumed our way to the brink, was heartbreaking. We have broken the beautiful and perfect web of life that took millions upon millions of years to perfect. I cried for my children, and because I too have contributed to the world on fire.
Shocked back to reality by the purposeful interruption of a commercial break, my indulgence was cut short. How ironic.
I can only hope that the globally broadcast images of dead livestock floating in barns and in farmers fields serve as impetus for consumers to look up long enough to see the elephant, and to see that it is drowning; drowning and washing away like the fertile topsoil of our beautiful Fraser Valley.
As it is, mere hours after major environmental disaster struck, and just four short months after a record-breaking heatwave killed almost 600 Vancouverites, consumers have started hoarding again — hoarding the milk, cheese, beef, poultry, eggs and other things that this climate emergency will throw into short supply. Back on the path; back in the negative feedback loop.
If the pandemic taught us anything at all, it was to pause. As a species we paused long enough to witness the planet begin to heal itself. Did we learn nothing from that lesson? Nature thinks not, hence the wildfires and flash floods, and dead cows floating in fields. What does she have to do next to make us look up, to stop politicizing, competing, warring, and consuming?
I am hopeful. Climate scientists believe that we aren’t powerless, that we can collectively and individually grind global warming to a halt and adjust to a climate-changed future. We cannot undo what we have done, but we can stop behaving badly and start behaving well. We can give more than we take, we can plant trees, grow food, share with our neighbours, and patch the work-worn holes in our jeans.
My family has fared well by comparison to thousands of neighbours. Our front yard urban permaculture gardens suffered setbacks but rewards us nonetheless. We don’t have to hoard, rather we can lean on our home-preserved pantry items, and feast on the home-grown winter squash, potatoes and beets that overwinter in the garage.
The back-to-back atmospheric rivers that brought torrential rain, floods and mudslides to the region are testing the warranty of our new roof. The light fixtures in the hall started filling with water. Inconvenient and potentially expensive yes, but hardly disastrous.
I take no joy in saying out loud “I could see it coming”, but I could. Twice a year, for 20 years, our family has driven through the Fraser Valley en-route to the beautiful Kootenays where we would play in the lakes or in the snow, depending on the season. Each and every year, I could see the changes that global warming were making to the landscape. We talked about the changes as a family, and about what those changes might mean for our future.
Change was evident in the forests, the streams and rivers, the temperature and quality of wind, the size and diversity of animal populations, the nature of recreation, and in the temperament of people and economies.
Pockets of managed forests were incrementally dying and drying up, succumbing to pine beetles and other opportunistic pests and maladies enabled by a changing climate.
Dead trees, too many to selectively harvest, plus a thick layer of tinder-dry conifer cones, pine needles and deadfall across the forest floor, comprised a smouldering incendiary bomb just waiting to ignite. And ignite it did. Year after year, the wildfires grew worse. Year after year the forests were laid bare by fire, stripped of their absorbent base layer of litter and duff, and subsequently their ability to capture and retain rainwater.
I cannot understand how we were able to carry on as if we were wearing blinders. How could we keep deforesting (through activity and inactivity) and building, and fortifying the tinderbox when we were being shown how the story could end? Why were we overbuilding in extreme-risk fire zones and on flood plains?
During these past few years, as climate change intensified periods of summer drought and drastically increased temperatures, hundreds of wildfires raged out of control straight through to fall, creating a perfect storm for early winter surface runoff and flash flooding to pile on top of atmospheric rivers of rain and more rain.
With the floods come contaminants, heavy metals and ash, all mired in a raging torrent that uproots trees, strips fertile soil from farmland, triggers mudslides, takes out roads and bridges, and destroys homesteads, livelihoods, and entire ecosystems.
The infrastructure gatekeepers — the dams, levies, dykes, and pump houses built on the margins of waterways — break under the awesome and unforgiving force of nature, and she reclaims her own. She wins. To Dr. Suzuki's point, she always does.
Can this single disaster be tied directly to climate change? I can't imagine how one could prove it. Can it be attributed to climate change? Absolutely. Planetary devastation and voluntary and involuntary destruction of nature has been incremental, rather like the accumulation of chronic disease caused by a lifetime of over-eating, smoking, and street drug use. We can't blame just one thing, but we can acknowledge everything.
Someone told me once that the definition of insanity was the making of the same mistake over and over in expectation of a different outcome. Let’s stop the madness then, and stop making mistakes.
We can thrive and be happy in a world that respects nature — one built on the foundations of permaculture and urban permaculture; of restorative and regenerative farming and forestry. By respecting nature’s logic; by deferring to nature and natural systems, we can live non-destructive and entirely beautiful, happy and healthy lives without burning down our own houses. This doesn't mean that we must live in yurts or in communes, but it does require a willingness to change, and to expand our world view.
We can start today by practicing ‘observation’, the first of 12 permaculture principles. Observe our real and imagined needs, observe our environmental impacts good and bad, observe alternative beneficial practices and methods available to us, implement change, observe the impacts of implementing change, adjust practices, observe impacts, repeat.
If we all did just that at micro, mid and macro levels, we would make a giant green dent in the universe. We could in fact change the world.
What does any of this have to do with growing food and food security? Everything. Nature is perfect. She provided us originally, with everything we needed to feed and care for ourselves, to care for the planet, and care for all living things on it. The three ethics of permaculture speak to this, namely: Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share. Simple stuff. Easy to understand.
Based on these overarching ethics and the philosophy they inspire, the environmentalist founders of so-called permaculture developed 12 guiding principles. These principles were developed initially for homesteaders of acreage, but can in fact be ‘de-complicated’ and interpreted for application in cities and suburbs.
As an urban permaculture designer and writer, I believe that the path forward must be forged anew, that we must expect and affect change, but we must do so realistically, respecting both the limitations and possibilities of human nature and contemporary society.
I believe that we can use permaculture ethics and principles as guideposts to help us grind climate change to a halt, and design our urban lives and landscapes thoughtfully. I believe that we can do well, while at the same time doing no harm.
Planning food gardens of any size, in any location successfully, starts with observation of all things native or ‘place’; native weather, soil, agricultural traditions, indigenous knowledge, geography, and land use.
Step two is to design one’s site, be it a residential lot, a balcony, or a rooftop garden, into zones. The smallest of sites has unique environments contained within it, and it is easy than you think, to train ourselves how to see them, and also to use them to best advantage.
The goal of observation and research is to build a gardening toolkit of knowledge and information about soils, plant and fungi varieties, planting and harvesting practices, weather and water management, and wildlife/pest management that has history in or near the area in which you live.
By learning and adopting these sympathetic, integrated systems, we can reduce both our labour and non-organic inputs, which should in turn reduce negative environmental impacts while at the same time increasing yields. We can remain confident that working with nature (native natural systems) will yield better results, than working against her.
University extension programs, state and provincial agricultural offices, public libraries, on-line permaculture resources, organic gardening clubs, and indigenous writings are all great places to start learning.
Two great reads for urban permaculturists are ‘Garden Farming for Town and Country, the Permaculture Handbook’ by Peter Bane, and ‘The Edible Ecosystem Solution’ by Zach Loeks. Subscribing to online newsletters and social media pages written by other city gardeners is another great way to learn quickly and avoid pitfalls. A quick search using hashtags like #urbanpermaculture #apartmentgardening #rooftopgardening #patiogardening will introduce you to other like-minded individuals, eager to share information.
Consider the following:
A raised vegetable bed traditionally located in permaculture zone one (see above), may be re-imagined by urban permaculturists as a potted tomato plant situated on a sunny apartment windowsill, fed by municipal compost tea and resident worm castings.
A foraging and wild-food gathering area on the meadowed edge of a forest might be labeled zone four (see above) by permaculturists, whereas a city dweller might find these same resources along the margins of a city park.
Urban permaculture is fluid, and moves with us. It is a way of thinking and assessing, and of making decisions. It informs our view of the world and our relationships to nature and to each other. My intention with my writing and my teaching, is to illustrate and discuss traditional permaculture principles and ethics, and give examples of how we might interpret them in small and medium-size urban and suburban spaces, in layers, working toward the creation of whole systems that mimic those found in nature.
I guarantee, that once you start observing nature, mimicking nature, and anticipating nature in your gardens, your food systems, and in your life, you will become your own permaculture life designer, and you will become part of change for the better.
The planet has sustained life in a complex, self-regulating way for millions of years, and it is only our commercial-scale disruption and industrial degradation of this natural balance that has wreaked havoc on natural ecosystems, sending the planet tumbling into world-on-fire chaos.
I believe however, that the tens of millions of us who live in urban and suburban environments, if duly inspired and informed, can make a serious dent in the universe, and reverse the trajectory of catastrophic climate change. We can do this one well-intentional initiative at a time — one windowsill tomato plant, one balcony garden, one mushroom grow bag, one front yard urban farm, one homegrown zucchini passed over the fence.
We witnessed, during the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown, how quickly the planet began to heal herself when people were forced to reduce their environmental footprints. Granted, much of that reduction was industrial, but nonetheless the healing proved that we have options; that continued extinction of species (including ours perhaps) and habitats is not inevitable if we take action now. Millions of small steps equal one damn giant leap.
Let’s all just do our best to heal the planet and ourselves, and deliver sustainable food security to every living person, especially the children who inherit the mess we’ve made. Let’s start at home, then share what we know.
I leave you now with further inspiration to explore
My Favourite Natural Resources
David Suzuki is a kind and thoughtful force of nature. It has been my privilege to spend time talking with him and with others in his David Suzuki Foundation, about the many small ways that individuals can support natural ecosystems, reduce environmental impacts, build food security locally, and influence change. He is best-known as host and narrator of the popular and long-running CBC Television science program called ‘The Nature of Things’, seen in over 40 countries.
He is well-known for his honest criticism of governments and institutions for their lack of action to protect the environment, and for that reason he is considered a ‘polarizing’ figure. Bring it on, I say. I respect people who walk the talk, stand up to bullies, and take the time to advocate for nature, for the vulnerable, and for the environment.
To learn more visit davidsuzuki.org
James Lovelock is a British independent scientist, environmentalist and futurist, best-known for proposing the Gaia hypothesis, which postulates that the planet functions as a self-regulating system. His theory, based on science, proposes that living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet.
Though Lovelock named the idea after Gaia, the primordial goddess who personified the Earth in Greek mythology, he is anything but a so-called hippy greenster. His trademark humour and quirky English country mannerisms afford him instant credibility in my book.
Lovelocks controversial book titled ‘The Revenge of Gaia, Why the Earth is Fighting Back - and How We Can Still Save Humanity’ is well worth reading. Fair warning though, it will change you forever.
To learn more visit jameslovelock.org
Sir David Attenborough is a British broadcaster, natural historian and author credited with having seen more of the natural world than any other in history. He is best known for writing and presenting, in conjunction with the BBC Natural History Unit, the nine natural history documentary series forming the Life collection, a comprehensive survey of animal and plant life on Earth.
In a heartfelt attempt to open the eyes of the world to the climate crisis. Attenborough wrote and narrated the epic documentary ‘David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet’. *During his lifetime, Sir David Attenborough saw first-hand the monumental scale of environmental change caused by human actions. Now for the first time, he reflects on the devastating changes he’s witnessed and reveals how together we can address the biggest challenges facing life on our planet.
His soothing, calm and steady voice was a ubiquitous presence in our home as we nourished our children with series after series of his naturalist works. What a gift this man has been to the world.
To learn more about Sir David Attenborough, and also how to put nature at the heart of your decision making, visit attenboroughfilm.com*
Until next week, happy gardening (or garden clean up).