Exploring ideas for affordable, sustainable, enjoyable living.

Permaculture Principles and Home Economics, Part III

And we’re back, with permaculture principles #7-12!

7. Design from patterns to details.  We don’t have to constantly reinvent the wheel; nature and people are full of patterns that can be templates for things we want to build or do.  And our predecessors usually worked out the kinks, making it that much easier for us. Also, figuring out what you need to accomplish first helps keep you from getting distracted by picayune details. Accordingly, permaculture farms and gardens are laid out in ways that replicate the features of specific natural ecosystems, chosen as appropriate for local conditions.

8. Integrate rather than segregate.  I think this could just be the most important principle of all, because it overlaps so many others.  Every element in your home ecosystem, from the furniture to the people, should accomplish more than one purpose, and each should help the other elements accomplish their purposes as well.  What we are talking about here are mutually supportive relationships among all elements.  Such relationships–whether among the beams of a reciprocating roof, the members of a family, or a community of plants–mean that each individual part bears less weight, less responsibility.  When you observe nature’s patterns (as in Principle #7), you will see that the whole pattern is greater than the sum of its parts.  Each organism or structure fulfills multiple roles but also assists every other part.  Beautiful!

For example, chickens.  Chickens lay eggs, they can be eaten, their poop is fertilizer, and they eat garden pests and kitchen scraps, thus reducing waste and enhancing food production.  When they die, their remains can be composted to nourish more plants.  Plus, they can be sweet little birdy friends!  Though in that case you might not want to eat them. Anyway, unless you eat an enormous amount of eggs or have a huge family, two or three hens are all you need, and they can live in an urban backyard (depending on zoning laws, that is).

Chances are, many things in your home are already doing at least double duty.  But this principle also requires that we see our actions in terms of a larger context, so that our actions are conscious and meaningful.

9. Use small and slow solutions.  Big is harder to maintain; fast is likely to burn out.  As Joel Salatin describes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a hundred years ago a farmer could comfortably support a large family and a bunch of livestock on relatively few acres.  Now, that farmer’s great-grandchild can barely support a family of three or four even with more land and higher-yield crop varieties.  The desire for bigger fruits and higher yields (and of course, bigger profits for companies that sell fertilizer and seed, and now GMOs) led to decisions that seemed clever in the short-term but have proven to be unsustainable over time.  America now produces so much corn that we literally do not know what to do with it all, yet individual farmers keep growing more and more in an attempt to just break even.

The home economy too needs to be sustainable.  When first attempting to budget or grow vegetables, patience is necessary before we start to reap real rewards; but in the long run, small-scale systems are easier to maintain than big ones.  A simple example of this is cleaning–if I do a few little chores every day, keeping the house clean is manageable and not too awful. But when I let it build up, even though I mean to do a super-fantastic scrub-the-baseboards-with-a-toothbrush spring cleaning, I wear myself out before I’ve finished two rooms.

It is also worth remembering that our home ecosystem is part of an even larger system, and every choice we make about how to feed, clothe, or house our family affects people and animals we’ll never meet.  Make no mistake, small actions can still have huge effects.

10. Use and value diversity. Remember how I said that the availability of any resource will fluctuate?  This is why they say you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket.

I should have known this would all come back to chocolate.  I’ve been experimenting with different brownie recipes, and have realized that flexibility is key in choosing the right recipe.  Last week when I made brownies, I used up the last of my cocoa powder, and the local market doesn’t carry it.  But they do carry baker’s chocolate, so the next time I made brownies, I used only baker’s chocolate.  The recipe I was using called for unsweetened chocolate plus a lot of sugar, but I didn’t have enough sugar so I used some unsweetened and some semisweet chocolate.  My point here is that if you have the elements of your home ecosystem each fulfilling multiple roles, and a flexible recipe, you can always have brownies.

11. Use edges and value the marginal.  Anthropologically speaking, humans have always preferred living in ecotones (zones where two or more habitats meet).  These are the places with the greatest variety of resources (and as we just saw with Principle #10, variety is a good thing).  I love the proverb that permaculturalists use to sum up this principle:  “Don’t think you are on the right track just because it’s a well-beaten path.”  The best way forward may be the road less traveled.

There are other ways in which we can apply this principle.  For example, consider buying store generic brands or cereal in a bag instead of the big name brands.  These brands may be “marginal” in terms of their packaging and advertising, but in many cases they’re just as good and a whole lot cheaper. Alternatively, consider shopping at ethnic markets where you can sometimes find amazing bargains.  This week at our local Mexican grocery, tangerines were 3 lbs for 99 cents, and potatoes were 10 lbs for $2!

Another reflection of this principle is the adage that one should shop around the edges of the grocery store and stay away from the processed foods that tend to be stocked in the middle aisles.

My favorite application of this idea is making my own stuff.  I make most of my cleaning and personal grooming products myself. Some people I know say this is hippy weirdness. Even more think anything I make myself must be somehow unsanitary or sub-par at best. But when I think of (a) how much money I am saving and (b) how much more effective I find most of my DIY products to be, I just have to laugh at the naysayers.  I’m laughing all the way to the bank. (I will post some ideas and recipes for making your own stuff later.)

12. Creatively use and respond to change.  Quoth Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns:

“But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!”

(The poem is “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785.”) Changes are inevitable, but if you’ve been observing your situation as per Principle #1, you can see many changes coming and roll with them.  They can become opportunities as well as being challenges.

In concrete, mundane terms, one example of this is that in my attempts to save money, I discovered that having a budget wasn’t enough. In fact, by itself it really didn’t help at all. I started keeping a household account book and that helped immensely, but still wasn’t enough. Just last month I started keeping a monthly list of unforeseen expenses. One of the reasons I had so much difficulty sticking to my budget is that when unforeseen stuff came up (most recently, my car died and needs to be replaced) it would totally wreck my plan. Lest my budgeting gang agley as it has so many times before, I need to keep a record of this simply as a reminder to myself that I don’t have as much left in the bank as I normally would, but more importantly, to gain a concrete idea of how much I need to have saved in the emergency piggy bank from month to month.

Last but not least, this principle is about having a vision for the future. For my home, I am using these very permaculture principles to help forecast changes and guide my decisions long-term, so that my home economy isn’t just a matter of balancing a checkbook.  It actually becomes fun as well as being socially meaningful action.

If you’ve read along this far, I hope you’ve enjoyed it and found it useful!

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