Saturday, May 16, 2015

learn from the cherry tree

William McDonough and Michael Braunart's book "Cradle to Cradle" is primarily about man's design methods for the artifacts we all use, but it is more deeply about our interface with the natural system we are immersed in. ( even though most of our fellow travelers visualize some sort of maginot line between us and the wider world).

 I recommend the book; it is an easy read, as it dives back and forth between big picture systems views and detailed examples to make the lesson stick. It's also the only book I own that is not made of paper, something the authors did to make a point about whole systems ( cradle to cradle) design.

As our young cherry trees bloomed this spring, it reminded me of one little "parable" from the book. The authors point out that the cherry tree, in order to survive as a species, really just needs to get one seed to to germinate and grow into a replacement that will in turn bear the next generation. But the process that has evolved ends up producing an abundance of fruit and seeds for the rest of the local ecosystem to feed on, with a net benefit for the system as a whole. The tree makes the pie bigger, instead of trying to get a bigger piece of the existing pie. ( mmm- cherry pie! can't wait) It's not really that simple, but what they are doing is trying to point out a possible alternate mindset, or design approach than what is common right now.

Is this benevolence on the  tree's part? Is this enlightened self interest? ( if trees can be enlightened) One could delve in to thermodynamics, energy flow analysis, game theory, maybe even spiritual or supernatural underpinnings of the universe, but for me, simply recognizing that this is how nature works, and has worked for millions of years means we should pay attention, and not think we as newcomers  have a better way.

Contrast the cherry tree with the industrial ag cornfield, where the monoculture field is entirely subjugated and dedicated to output for humans. We are taking all the pie, instead of trying to make the pie bigger and leaving some to share. This is only made possible, I should point out, by extreme use of nonrenewable fossil fuel inputs, which won't be available by the time the chestnut trees I'm planting now are at full height in 100 years or so.

While the book then goes on to apply the concept to designing a building, It's even more applicable to agriculture. I now try to think through what this farm should try to aim for and how we might emulate the cherry tree. Permaculture will be our overarching framework, but there are so many things to work out, so many choices, so many experiments that needs started, and the results take so long to fully be understood.

I've never taken a PDC ( permaculture design course) , and probably won't, but I find that as I walk around our land, I am constantly looking at the ground slopes, the water routes, the existing plants, the soil makeup, and try to visualize what might make things better ( value laden word there, I admit). We are after all, a keystone species, and it's time to act like it.
from a prior post:  the rogue keystone species


  1. Hi Steve,

    Good for you! I've never taken a PDC either - all of the information is available in books! The funny thing is that you'll set the place up and then years later with much experience under your belt, you'll realise that it could work slightly better in another configuration. How are those hazelnut trees going now that you are nearing summer?



  2. The hazels are all leafed out, looking pretty good. They were direct planted in a hayfield, so there is a lot of competition for sun and water. I have already mowed along the tree rows once, to keep the grass and alfalfa knocked down a bit, but it's already time for another pass.

    Once the trees are a bit larger, they can fend for themselves much better, it's just getting them past the first couple years that needs extra attention. The chestnuts that got planted in 2012 are not in as good shape, as 2012 was a drought year, and I had not yet moved here, so couldn't mow very often. We had some losses, and the ones that made it through are very slow at recovering. So it goes, just gotta roll with it. As I infill the chestnuts, I will now be able to tend them better, and even set up selective drip irrigation if we have another dry year. We aren't as dry here as your place, but timing and annual variability can still set you back.

    Annual average is 36" ( ~900 mm!) so we are spoiled in reality. That's why we can usually get away with direct planting trees with no watering setup. I still plan to harvest rain from our barn roof, and have most of my components rounded up. I'll use that water on the garden areas. I will post on it in the future, once I get the system set up.