It’s a two-fer blog! Here’s part one, Old Friends Season. Or you can skip to part two, Permaculture Made Manifest, which is possibly more interesting to you if you don’t care about excuses for not writing and stories of who I’ve been hanging out with.
From all corners and eras of my life, they started coming. One in July, and then a flurry in August, and more still to come: the old friends.
The reason you haven’t heard from me much is that I’ve been busy getting back up to speed with people I lost track of: giving them bike tours around the Cities, having them over for dinner, writing random messages. At the end of July my friend Will came over on his way (by plane and train) from New York to Portland to Israel, and I tried my best to give him a bit of the hospitality that he and his family gave me for a whole week when I visited them. Hospitality in this case turned out to heavily involve memorizing semi-nonsense; I taught him the whole gamut of the infamous One Duck series.
A few days later, riding home from work, I rode past someone who then stopped, turned, and tentatively shouted my name. It was Nicole, another college friend, who’d been teaching math at the University all this time, but we’d never known we were in the same city. We caught each other up with the rest of our lives so far, and got most of the way to figuring out when we could hang out in earnest rather than in passing on our bicycles.
It so happens that at the same time, I was in arrangements with Ethan, cofounder of EcoHouse back in college, to have him come over and tell me about his two and a half years in Burkina Faso in the Peace Corps and ride all over the Twin Cities with me. As we were finalizing that plan and he was a few days from getting to town, my EcoHouse roommate Hannah called up to let me know she was on her way into town too. Without much persuading, I got her to join in our 39-mile exhaustive bike tour of both cities, and so we saw all the sights and ate quail at the Hmong market and swam in Lake Harriet together, and Hannah even persuaded Brita, her best college friend and a friend of mine too, to come with us at the end.
Out of nowhere, Sean, the English guy I lived with in South Korea, sent me a message because he was trying to remember something I’d shown him back then. We decided we should chat. Also, Urmila, back briefly from Italy, texted that we should catch up before she left to Denmark (but we never managed it). I decided the hang-out with Nicole should be dinner, and so I invited over her as well as Svea, Eric, and Matt, who live across town but cross paths with me much too rarely, and we had Korean chicken together and got nerdy about math and had a rousing night together. Misty’s friend Frank came over to an event we held, and I talked with him about harvesting wild rice and learning traditional skills. Basically, it added up to all the people I used to hang out with a lot suddenly reappearing in the space of about a month, and the season hasn’t even ended yet, because I’m still going to chat with Sean, and maybe I’ll call up some of my old Cincinnati friends.
But as you can see, I’ve had my hands full. It’s a nice problem to have, when you’ve got too many friends to get stuff done.
For years, I’ve been quietly jabbering about how permaculture is great, permaculture is the best, and I know nothing about practical permaculture so I can’t say anything intelligent about how it could be in my future so I’ll just quietly jabber.
It’s one thing to understand the philosophies of permaculture. Basically, this: natural systems are capable of maintaining themselves forever without destroying things; human civilization is inherently destructive and has a limited lifespan; to create long-lasting societies that are good for people and good for the Earth, we should model human systems after natural systems. That’s fairly easy to explain (provided your audience doesn’t have too hard a time swallowing the premise that civilivation is inherently destructive and unsustainable). The complexities that come from it are also pretty logical, and when you hear them, they make sense in a way that nothing else does. The hard part is all the applications and practical stuff. You can read about cool stuff, like hugelkultur (piling huge mounds of wood and dirt up, which then decompose and generate bacterial heat that you can use to grow plants outside their usual season) and swales (big berms of land that slow water down as it tries to get downhill, keeping it where you can use it). But if you’re just reading about it, it’s hard to make it seem more vivid than words on a page.
This weekend, my housemate Currant and I went to a permaculture gathering, the first one either of us had been to: the Gathering of the Guilds, where several dozen people gather from across the Midwest to an oak grove campground a couple hours south of the Cities, and everyone shares what they know about permaculture—the stuff they’ve been working on with their own hands, the stuff they can explain to you from experience.
Currant and I both agree that it was the perfect next step for us to take. We came into the weekend knowing, basically, that permaculture sounded good and was something that we’d like to do, but with a deep anxiety that comes from not knowing how to do anything to act on that. And then all these people showed us things they’re doing—and we thought, “Hey, that’s something we could do! Even at our house!” Raising chickens? Absolutely. A chicken guru there taught two different workshops about how to get started and how to keep your chickens from freezing to death in a Minnesota winter, and another guy showed how to respectfully kill a chicken and butcher it. We’ll be building a chicken coop this winter. Growing hazelnuts? They’re the perfect American understory plant: abundant in healthy native ecosystems, bush-sized so as not to compete with canopy trees, and generous with a crop that’s delicious and healthy. We don’t have room for a hundred hazel bushes, but we can grow a bunch of seedlings outside in gallon pots, and when we have somewhere to plant them permanently, they’ll be nearly old enough to start bearing fruit, because we started ahead of time. Hugelkultur in the garden? Hey, maybe—and if we can get our cucumbers growing earlier, maybe we can have a bumper crop next year and pickle them to put them by.
We’re going to stop waiting to do permaculture, and start putting into practice everything we possibly can. Living on a small plot, especially in a city, is an easy excuse for putting off all our learning for later. But it takes time to learn each of these things—a few years to get good at raising chickens, a couple years to get the hang of how a hazel bush likes to grow—and if we buy land and start from zero knowledge, we’ll be lost and confused and soon poor and discouraged. We’re starting now. Buying land will just be another step. A big one, but not the first one.
And while we’re learning, we won’t be alone: at the Gathering there were at least half a dozen people who live within a few blocks of us, all of them good at some aspect or other of practical permaculture. Amy knows how to grow mushrooms, and helped us make oyster mushroom fruiting blocks so we can grow our own. Rob, the chicken guru, lives 3½ blocks from us and is going to help us figure out where a coop can go in our yard that’s already full of garden. Willie, Alayne, Curtis, Michael—they’re all nearly within shouting distance.
This is going to be awesome, and so you can see how awesome it is, I’m going to take pictures and tell stories and put them here. I won’t be the first person to keep an urban homestead blog (more like the hundred-thousandth, probably), but for a lot of you, I’ll be the first person you know who’s doing it, and hopefully it’ll be interesting to watch the cool stuff we’re doing. If nothing else, it’ll give this blog a little more direction than just an occasional “Hey, everyone! I’ve been hanging out with my friends and doing cool stuff with Misty! Okay, bye!” I’ve found something I’m excited about. I’m going to try to get you excited too. Here we go.