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"This mighty garden" and its "methods of culture"
July 7, 2008 9:32 AM   Subscribe

I first encountered the concept of forest gardening in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915) [relevant part pages 79-80]; the fictional race of women in her book have completely remade the forests to contain only beneficial and food-bearing plants, which live harmoniously together and replenish the soil naturally. This is actually being done, less than a hundred years later. More; similar, similar.
posted by fiercecupcake (25 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
And mighty props to jammy for cluing me in to the realization of my teenage utopian-fiction-reading dream. :]
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:35 AM on July 7, 2008


I have dreamed of this day for *years* after reading that book!

Yay, fiercecupcake & jammy, for giving me a bright spot to focus on this morning :D
posted by batmonkey at 9:44 AM on July 7, 2008


Native peoples have been doing it for 100s of thousands of years. The western concept of "wilderness" was a blank check to conquer and tame nature and the people who lived in harmony with it.
posted by stbalbach at 9:47 AM on July 7, 2008


I had never seen, had scarcely imagined, human beings undertaking such a work as the deliberate replanting of an entire forest area with different kinds of trees. ... Now every tree bore fruit -- edible fruit, that is.

Maybe I'm being patriarchal, but isn't this just an orchard, albeit with more than one crop?
posted by DU at 9:49 AM on July 7, 2008


Sure, it's been done before, but we've lost the thread in our practices and it's great to see it being applied by new practitioners.

When I first read the book, I talked about it afterward with my Grandma, who was an experienced herbalist and conservation activist. We had a great discussion of traditional forest husbandry from Pagan Europe to Native American practices, with a side trip into Asian herbal gardens.

It was such a wonderful image of operating in harmony with nature. She had to spend considerable time convincing me of the few negatives (over-management, under-supplying for non-human creatures, co-opting habitats) in order to make sure I had a balanced view. But I was still pretty chuffed about the whole idea that it has stayed in my head for around 30 years. That's some ideological staying power! :]
posted by batmonkey at 10:17 AM on July 7, 2008


Maybe I'm being patriarchal, but isn't this just an orchard, albeit with more than one crop?

Um. Exactly.
posted by nax at 10:23 AM on July 7, 2008


I've had that Mother Earth article forwarded to me a number of times, and I have to say that it really bothers me that the author advocates planting non-native species such as wineberry in woodlands (maybe his own woodlands are not native, but that is not made clear in the article). Black locust and acacia trees are suggested as layers in the forest garden; both are highly invasive in many parts of the country. Here in California, the nitrogen fixing properties of invasive acacia are changing the soil chemistry to such a degree that native species (many of which are specialists of low nutrition soils) are no longer competitive, allowing invasives to proliferate. It's also not clear if he is planting the native "wild leek" or invasive exotic "wild leek"- I'm assuming the former, but how is the average reader supposed to know or even understand the difference?
posted by oneirodynia at 10:35 AM on July 7, 2008


Yeah, but... Charlotte Perkins Gilman and a fictional race of women!
posted by pracowity at 10:38 AM on July 7, 2008


?

I guess I'm not getting the negative tact, but I rarely do, so that's no surprise.

The OP said they'd first heard of it in the book, not that the book invented it.

oneirodynia: good point, and one that should be addressed in a follow-up to that article. Invasive species are literally a blight on the practice of wildcrafting. I wonder if a few people wrote in if they would consider soliciting/providing that follow-up?
posted by batmonkey at 10:49 AM on July 7, 2008


The main problem with this is that it takes a long time for trees to grow. A year ago I talked to a guy at a forestry trade show who was selling chestnut seedlings. Chestnuts were once an important tree crop in America until they were pretty much wiped out by disease. Now they've developed resistant varieties, but it takes quite a lot of prodding to get farmers to invest in trees that take years and years to produce nuts when there is currently not much of a market in the U.S. for chestnuts.

Another is what oneirodynia mentioned...a tendency to not adapt to native crops. Almonds are nice and everything, but what about looking back to what the Native Americans used and planting oft-ignored native plants like paw paws or wild grapes.
posted by melissam at 10:59 AM on July 7, 2008


The OP said they'd first heard of it in the book, not that the book invented it.

But in the book itself, it is presented as something "I had never seen, had scarcely imagined". You'd never seen or imagined farming?

I mean, it is a cool thing. I'm just not seeing why even in fiction in 1915 this would have shaken anyone to their, ahem, roots.
posted by DU at 11:08 AM on July 7, 2008


Female. 1915. Fiction.

We can't assume to know what her exposure was nor if that even had any bearing on the experience of the character.

In fact, most explorations of topics many would consider fanciful, idealistic nonsense in times that have lost track of such "obvious" practices in utopian fiction are handled as if the characters have never encountered anything of its like.

R. Buckminster Fuller comes to mind most strongly.
posted by batmonkey at 11:17 AM on July 7, 2008


There was an article in Mother Earth News about two months ago on this very thing. If I recall, there was a nice bibliography attached to the article.
posted by eclectist at 11:24 AM on July 7, 2008


I'm not trying to babysit the thread, but the way this differs from orchards is that you are not planting one species, but multiple species that benefit each other. In addition, it's not supposed to be highly intensive farming of species that require a lot of outside chemical intervention (fertilizer, pesticide, et al.), but a number of levels of natural controls -- through selection for shade/sun, beneficial insects, encouraging birds/bees/fungus, etc.

It's not an orchard as much as a re-imagined, anthropocentric forest. Biodiversity is the key here.
posted by fiercecupcake at 11:42 AM on July 7, 2008


Native peoples have been doing it for 100s of thousands of years. The western concept of "wilderness" was a blank check to conquer and tame nature and the people who lived in harmony with it.

I'm guessing Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump would have been the Drum solo part of this supposed "harmony".
posted by srboisvert at 12:02 PM on July 7, 2008


Related, check out Wes Jackson and The Land Institute. They've been developing a perennial prairie. The idea would be to mow, rather than plow and replant. It's another take on perma-culture. He's one of the great ones. I second fiercecupcake. Biodiversity is a really big deal.
Permaculture is a great home landscaping system as well. There's nothing like a landscape that is both beautiful and edible.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 12:09 PM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


You know Western Civilization used to be "Native Peoples," too. It's not like one day we woke up and went "Hey... let's fuck up the ecosystem!"

But any way this is pretty cool and I wish them much luck.
posted by tkchrist at 12:16 PM on July 7, 2008


It's not like one day we woke up and went "Hey... let's fuck up the ecosystem!"

Have you heard of the industrial revolution?
posted by ssg at 12:42 PM on July 7, 2008


I'm guessing Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump would have been the Drum solo part of this supposed "harmony".

Well, yeah, actually, it was sustainable at the time. Did you know the Great Plains, prior to humans, was mostly forest? It was humans who "encouraged" it to become grassland so they could reliably harvest food from grass (in the form of buffalo). Same thing in Africa and Australia with controlled burns to keep forests from taking over and grasslands open for large grazing animals. Early humans sculpted and created eco-systems that would benefit them - just as we do today, but in different non-sustainable ways.
posted by stbalbach at 12:46 PM on July 7, 2008


It's not an orchard as much as a re-imagined, anthropocentric forest. Biodiversity is the key here.

I'm not trying to knock every single article here; lots of good ideas are included, though these ideas are not really anything new. The link from actually is good, with a strong push toward taking the time to research before planting. However, there are also a number of ideas in some of the other links that I think are actually harmful, the blithe thoughtlessness regarding invasive exotics is just one.

Re-imagining a forest by "substituting useful species with similar niches in the place of less useful species" is a very anthropocentric view of natural ecosystems. In natural systems, every plant is useful. Plants and animals don't grow all together solely because they like the same conditions; these species have evolved a strong interdependence over eons that we are just beginning to understand. A very basic example are the larvae of butterflies that feed on a succession of plant materials as they mature; substitute one of these species for another, or introduce a variable that prevents one of these species from growing (an exotic that displaces it, different soil chemistry via different plant-soil interactions, more water, carboniferous mulches, &c.), and you may lose an entire other species. There are complex chemical interactions that take place in the root zone that I don't know nearly enough about to explain, specific mycorrhizae that work with specific hosts... the list is extensive. Without fully understanding the role of the native hazelnut in California riparian forests, it seems extremely irresponsible to substitute a
Turkish hazelnut. Non native earthworms are destabilizing native forests, yet for years gardeners believed earthworms could do no harm. Declaring a plant "useless" and replacing it with something else because it does not make something "useful" for humans, or even just on particular human, is a giant red flag of a blind spot, especially coming from a practice that is supposed to emulate natural systems.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:24 PM on July 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


This is the 'Garden at the other end of History.'

But as we have seen these last 9,000 years or so, cultures that do this cannot stand against weapons and violence-based cultures which cut down their forests and use the charcoal to smelt metals, make weapons, and conquer the gardeners, and then repeat that world-view without end, amen.

Seemingly without end, that is; fuel for those fires runs low, and should they ever go out will prove almost impossible to restart because the remaining unexploited fuel will be inaccessible to anything but high technology (oil offshore or miles deep, and coal; concentrated ores played out) and the meek will indeed inherit what's left of the Earth.

And Herstory can resume.
posted by jamjam at 2:25 PM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Let's be careful not to turn this discussion into the typical all-or-nothing sentiment that characterizes public discourse these days. If you're a democrat, you feel this way about these issues and this way only. There are only two positions on the war-- immediate unconditional pull out, or ramp-em-up permanent state of warfare. Muslims are bad or Muslims are saints (substitute your religion of choice). (Little bit of a derail, but stay with me)

The point is, that philosophies run on a spectrum from the purity of the Buddha down to I'll make this one tiny change in what I do. This idea of forest gardening is the same. No one is saying, well now all traditional orchards are bad, if you're not forest gardening you're hastening the apocalypse. It's another way of bending our thought-- forests can be both sustained and "useful," farming can be both productive and sustaining. Compromises can be reached.

We need to stop throwing away every fringe idea (and this one isn't even all that fringy) out of the fallacy that their is no such thing as nuance or degree. We don't all have to start walking to our unairconditioned jobs that are just 2 blocks away, but maybe we can work with politicians to connect our edge cities with the jobs through accessible public transit. We don't need to fight every hawk in Congress unless we get our way now and unconditionally on how to get out of Iraq. We don't need to force all-or-nothing abortion laws on people morally outraged by whichever all-or-nothing position you are in favor of. And we don't all need to turn our expanses of grass into forest gardens. But maybe ideas like this one are a safe and productive way to start considering how our individual actions (and non-actions) influence the body politic, and the world.
posted by nax at 2:38 PM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Early humans sculpted and created eco-systems that would benefit them - just as we do today, but in different non-sustainable ways.

True. Kind of.

We have to dispense with this over romanticization of "native" peoples. Their practices were only sustainable for one reason: Low populations. "Sustainable" means they starved, died during child birth, or had disease take down their populations to a degree that their limited technologies couldn't fight off "natural" population checks. Our technology, for good AND ill, can protect us from many of natures slings and arrows. And you know. Over all this is a good thing.But i'd rather not return too much to prehistorical versions of sustainability. I think we can find new ways to do it and reduce our impact and populations that don't have to include massive famines and death.

Have you heard of the industrial revolution?

There are plenty of examples where animal populations were made extinct and ecosystems sustained long term damage by native peoples PRIOR to the industrial revolution. And those peoples either picked up and went somewhere else.... or they died the fuck out.

And the industrial revolution did not happen over night, either.
posted by tkchrist at 5:23 PM on July 7, 2008


There are plenty of examples where animal populations were made extinct and ecosystems sustained long term damage by native peoples PRIOR to the industrial revolution.

Sure, but none of those examples was even remotely close in scale to the damage done since the industrial revolution. We can't ignore the fact that the benefits come with some pretty significant downsides.
posted by ssg at 5:36 PM on July 7, 2008


We can't ignore the fact that the benefits come with some pretty significant downsides.

I don't think anybody here is ignoring that.
posted by tkchrist at 5:45 PM on July 7, 2008


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