When I first started working/playing with my land in northern New South Wales, fresh from my first workshop in Permaculture with Bill Mollison and Tony (Gehan) Gilfedder, I knew nothing, but was armed at least with the enthusiasm of the vision inspired by Bill’s approach, and the shining example of Tony and Lena’s transformation of a wasted ex-banana plantation into the sheer abundance of a sub-tropical polyculture paradise.
One of the first things that struck me was the simplicity of creating a very complex ecosystem. As Bill has said: “The productivity of a human-designed ecosystem is theoretically almost unlimited.” The greatest limitation is the imagination and capacity of people to recognise and implement naturally occurring processes: observation, deduction, and application.
Here is one shining example, which dramatically illustrates the potential:
Indonesia: Serangan – Turtle Island – is a small island detached from the mother island of Bali by only a channel of water. When the main port harbour of Bali was deepened, the resulting material of sand and coral was added to the smaller island to form an effective breakwater against the fury of the Indian Ocean in stormy weather. The resulting 600+ hectares of land only very thinly regenerated in the first 20 years.
I was contacted to regenerate the barren wasteland of a few hundred hectares where virtually nothing had happened , apart from tufted low grasses sparsely scattered. The surface was like concrete, and although it seemed almost perfectly flat, I was convinced that vast amounts of water must run off every year on that impervious plain, to be lost in the ocean.
From my studies stimulated through Permaculture, I felt that there would be a fresh water lens under the surface. The island ‘peaked’ at barely 8 metres above sea level but a bore confirmed brackish sweet water at slightly over 6 metres depth.
We found brackish water (slightly salty) at 6.5 metres – just 1.5 metres above sea level
Having carefully patterned the area with a laser level, I had an excavator create rough (but perfectly horizontal) swales, overlapped to ensure that not a drop could be lost to the extent possible. After one evening of thunderstorms, this was the result:
After one thunderstorm event: soil and organic material deposited where there there seemed to be none.
Looking around, it’s easy to find vegetation that actually grows in such harsh conditions, even when it seems to be only sand and coral, as hard as concrete. There are always niches, such as small hollows in an almost flat landscape. In such places, seeds are deposited, wind-carried or rain-driven organic material collects; germination takes place with the species able to survive and grow, even in harsh conditions: a succession of regeneration begins.
Taking careful observation of all the species which grow in similar conditons, the selection of plants to use becomes obvious. Creating niches to encourage the growth accelerates the process rapidly. Groundcovers are vitally important, creating conditions of shade and lower temperatures to improve the conditions for the shrub and tree species, and providing new microclimates for a greater variety of species. Birds and insects and animals have food sources to encourage their arrival, and they bring more diversity and fertility as they feed and defecate.
The root action now opens up the soil further, so that more water is absorbed into the soil, carrying whatever dust and other organic material, creating soil quality which could not exist before. The whole desolate landscape begins to transform.
Wherever we plant one tree or shrub, we plant several companions, especially legumes and groundcover species, to add to the biomass and create an ‘oasis’ of abundance in the desert that surrounds. Now the action can really begin to explode.
Planting guilds – never solitary species
These guilds have ‘intelligence’; they ‘seek’ water, following it down as the top layers dry out, providing a fertile welcome for any other seeds, attracting wildlife which add to the fertily as well as depositing more seeds, greater diversity. These begin to join up with other ‘oases’. Regeneration gathers pace.
Now the environment has completely transformed
A forest begins from the desert
The need for planting rapidly decreases as the new species arrive to occupy ever-newer niches. A geometric growth succession takes place as soil multiplies, becomes more sponge-like, moisture is held, the temperature stabilises, atmosphere more humid and welcoming.
The water table has risen dramatically, by as much as three metres; roots have three metres less to seek a constant source of fresh water, and all the while, the increasing root matrix holds more water, more nutrients.
The whole ‘wasteland has become one vast network; a single organism. We should never plant single trees or shrubs. Group plantings become companions. Companions become oases. Oases join to become clusters, and the clusters unite to become a forest. Imagine this multiplied across the whole planet: the effect on the climate; the moderation of extremes; the storage water and nutrient; the availability of food, shelter, resources, activity, employment. Life quality for all beings.
This metamorphosis is in a monsoon tropical environment, with high humidity, hot and alternately very wet and very dry. Soil can be created, from nothing, at a very low energetic or financial cost. Biomass is the key to fertility creation and maintenance. The air we breathe is almost 80% nitrogen, one of the key building blocks for vegetal growth.
This transformation is very easily possible over a vast area of many millions of hectares of ‘wasteland’. Soil is not necessary, since it is biomass and niches for water and organic material to deposit and expand. We can very significantly accelerate the natural processes, simply by following the natural processes and examples which we find everywhere. Observation is the key, and sensitive deduction from the patterns which reveal themselves.
In more temperate climates, the dynamics are different: the soil quality is more important, soil creation slower, fertily creation is more important, through creating and providing composts, manures, fermentation processes to accelerate regeneration. However, the basic principles are same: Observe, deduce, respond, as active participants and accelerators of Nature’s abundance.