There is nothing more important than a relationship.
In your mind visualize a forest, close your eyes and look around you, look at the forest. What do you see?
Of course there are trees in your forest. Moss, fungi, lichens and ferns blanket stones and fallen timber on your forest floor. The earth is covered with an array of low growing herbs. Song birds flutter from branch to branch nabbing insects and berries while adorning the landscape in music. Water springs from high places and collects in low places, forming rivulets, creeks, and eventually streams. There is also leaf litter in your forest too I assume, softly yielding to your feet, like a sponge as you stroll. And above all, literally, there is the sun, whose presence is subtly felt as gentle dapples, like a shower of light here in the forest.
But a most apparent thing here in the forest may have slipped past your senses. Something that most of us overlook, or simply take for granted. It is all around you, it is everything you do and without it we are nothing. What I am talking about now is relation.
There is nothing more important than relationships. Just think about life in right relation. You have healthy communication with your friends, family and neighbors, and feel good as a result. In right relation we are relaxed, content, and life just works, almost effortlessly. The systems in our bodies, when in right relation, grant us with vigor. When our lungs do their job, and are in right relation with our heart, then our muscles can work, so we can do things like walk through the forest, and there we can use our eyes and our ears and so on. Our bodies, our families, towns, nations and planet are a web of relations. That’s reality, that’s just how it works.
When we engage in wrong relations we get sick. In our bodies, if a system or even a single cell stops doing its job and fails to engage in healthy relations cancer may arise. When two people’s communication fails, a fight may arise. When nations have unhealthy relationships then war arises. When a species is in jeopardy or goes extinct, entire ecosystems suffer from no longer having relation to that species.
A forest garden, like all other manifestations, is simply a body of relationships. Our job as forest gardeners, and ultimately our job as human beings, is to set forth as many healthy relationships as possible. Let me cite some elementary examples of good forest relationships to bring my point down to ground level; I don’t want to get too ethereal and esoteric here, remember this is just gardening and anyone can do it! When a bee takes nectar from a flower, there is a relationship and it is a good one. This is an archaic relationship that needs no tinkering, and obviously for most, no explanation. The flower gets pollinated and the bee gets food. It is so simple that it is overlooked, we have almost come to see bees and flowers as one, and so, pay little mind to the relationship so heavily ingrained between the two. Perhaps the bee pollinated a blueberry bush blossom, well now there will be a blueberry as a result. The berry may be eaten by a bird, and so now we have yet another relationship. The bird, after eating the berry, will fly away. She will fly somewhere the blueberry could not have on its own (blueberries don’t have wings, ya know). Our bird friend will deposit the blueberry seeds, via droppings, in a place where blueberries may not currently grow; in this she has helped the propagation of her food source and aids in the continuation of the blueberry species. The bird stops to take a drink in a near stream; a stream that is a relationship between water and mountain. Water falls from the sky, collects on the earth, and is shed from slopes to form rivulets, creeks, streams, rivers and eventually our oceans. Our watersheds are a macro-relationship between earth and water. The water quenches the blueberry we visited earlier. Its leaves transpire moisture, increasing regional humidity leading to rain showers and we have come full circle. The blueberry, the bee, the bird and the stream are a network of relations who comprise one body: the forest. These are good relationships. These creatures don’t work, they just live. The forest is perfect. It requires no maintenance, no inputs. A healthy forest stands in complete harmony, and needs nothing but itself.
Let’s now look at a landscape riddled with unhealthy relationships. I’m from Nebraska, the “cornhusker state”, breadbasket of the world, so I would now like to take us to a genetically modified cornfield in the Midwest. Let’s look around us, what do we see? Corn! And over there, some more corn. Oh and let’s not forget about the corn, too. And last but not least, corn, miles and miles and miles of corn, enough corn to fill a train; ten trains; hell, a thousand trains! Let’s try to identify some relationships here, shall we………uh………..ummmm…..I’m looking…….still looking…..looking around……ah, aha, look over there, something other than corn! It’s a tractor, yeah, a real big one too! There is a relationship here. The corn and the tractor have a relationship.
The tractor is applying herbicide to maintain a pure corn monoculture. The herbicide is not harming the corn, so this must be an herbicide resistant GMO (genetically modified organism) corn. I assume this must be the same tractor that tilled the field in the spring and subsequently planted this corn landscape. The nutrients in this corn field are certainly applied by this same machine, and the tractor will harvest the corn in late summer.
There is some serious codependency going on in this field. This landscape cannot exist without the perpetual fossil fuel inputs (fertilizer, pesticides and so on) granted to it, via tractor. Monocultures, like this, are a lot of work. When you want to grow a field of just one thing, you assume nearly all that is needed for that landscape’s success. The work that was once done by birds and bees is now in your hands. If you want a corn field, you better get to work, and keep working, year in and year out. We have a landscape whose existence depends almost exclusively on one relationship: the corn , and the farmer who assumes all the work. Yikes, I’m hightailing it back to the forest!
But, we need food, right? We need agriculture! We are between a rock and a hard place. Our population is too big to return to a hunter gatherer society, and while agriculture can feed us (for now) it is riddled with bad relationships, placing too much burden on us humans, and the land. Forest gardening might be one way out!
Forest gardeners look to old growth forests as role models for how a healthy landscape should function. The goal here is to develop a system that acts more like an ecosystem, and less like the monoculture corn factory model we just glanced at.
Forest gardeners attempt to bend ecological principles in the direction of agriculture. The goal here is not the mere increase of yield, but first and foremost, the decrease of inputs. Again, forests require no inputs, yet yield consistently, year in and year out. Forest gardens strive to do the same.
But, Forest gardens aren’t perfect (yet). They require a massive initial labor impute, which often requires fossil fuels. Forest gardens more often than not require an initial input of elements like phosphorus and calcium, which also require fossil fuels and mining. Forest gardens, in our bioregion, also require tremendous amounts of information to be properly designed, and unfortunately, much of that information is currently difficult to attain, or completely unavailable! The forest gardener uses a perfect old growth forest as a teacher rather than an unattainable target. A forest garden isn’t perfect, but it has a lot healthier relationships than an annual monoculture field.
We’ve been developing a forest garden on a steep acre of land. The site faces south west, has horrendous soil, is exposed to cold western winter winds and feels like an incinerator in the summer. The topsoil was washed from our hillside decades ago; through clear cutting, grazing, tobacco production and certainly, growing corn. We are rekindling healthy relationships on this hillside among the people who garden here, among the plants and the fungi, the slope and the water, and anything else we can see, hear, smell, touch and taste.
Much of the work I’ve done with our site thus far has been research. This research consists of how a forest should function in our bioregion; what is the tendency of the land in other words, and which organisms might comprise such an ecosystem. I am essentially researching my way out of work. That is, we’re designing a system that cares for itself, like the forest, so we won’t have to bear the burden of maintaining the garden. The goal here is to maximize healthy relationships. We want to move away from the codependency model we reviewed earlier, and towards a system that breeds symbiosis; symbiosis in our gardens, symbiosis in our economy, symbiosis in our government. If there was a “symbiosis party”, I would be the first to register.
Since our site is so steep, infertile and dry, the first and foremost relationship we are tuning up is between slope and rain. We want our hillside to take on water just as a forest does. This means slowing the movement of water across the hillside. When I first acquired the property, ten years ago, there was nothing to stop the flow of water across the landscape; the hard red clay was so tightly packed it could hardly drink a drop in a thunderstorm. Water was completely unimpeded from forming small streams and cascading off the hillside. It was commonplace to get a 2’’summer deluge, only to dig into the clay moments later to reveal bone dry dust. Water could not permeate this landscape.
Healthy forests have a coarse, lumpy texture. Ancient trees fall during storms, heaving up tons of soil with their root mass, forming pits and mounds that sequester rainfall. Timber lying across the forest floor ads texture, further slowing the movement of water across the landscape, and leaf litter covers everything, acting like a sponge for precipitation. So how did we mimic this.
We dug swales, big swales! Swales are ditches that run along hillsides, on contour, that fill up with water during storms. Swales mimic the pit and mound phenomena of old growth forests. Water filling the swales can return to the soil gradually, raising the water table. We also dug a couple small ponds. We installed cross drains on our eroding dirt road to fill the ponds, saving the road and creating more niche. The rain was eroding this heavily tampered landscape. We corrected the poor relation between slope and rain. We looked to the forest for answers. We are still digging swales , and will be for a couple more years. The goal is to keep every drop of rain that falls on our garden, in our garden.
A second critical relationship we are addressing is between soil and life. Good soil is comprised of living things and living things are ultimately comprised of soil. Our soil is so poor that until recently not many things have wanted to live on our site. The soil in our forest garden is exclusively red clay with a low cat ion exchange capacity (that is, it’s not very good at holding minerals or water); a far cry from the black soil we see in the forest. It is carbon that makes forest soil so dark. During photosynthesis, plants sequester carbon from the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. The Co2, now in a solid state, carbon, is used to form plant biomass. Leaves, branches, roots, all plant parts contain carbon. When plants die, or loose leaves, they deliver carbon to the soil as they decompose. The carbon acts like a sponge in the soil, holding onto water and minerals essential to all life. So the more life you have growing from the soil, the more opportunity there is to build good soil. This is why good farmers grow cover crops in their fields. The crops are grown simply to be turned into the earth and improve soil quality.
But as forest gardeners, we look to perennial species for soil improvement. The swales on our hillside have quenched the soil to the point where it will support perennial weedy species quite well. Scotch broom, vetch, white clover, paulownia, elderberry, cardoon, red fescue, yarrow and comfrey are some of the best weedy pioneer plants we are using. These are just like the cover crops farmers use, but instead of turning them into the soil, we simply chop them to make little compost piles throughout the garden. These are all perennial plants, so once they’re established they stick around for the long haul, working year in and year out.
We have seen major soil improvements in the most developed portions of our forest garden. The carbon content is rising, and soil is changing from red, to brown. The earth is becoming more porous from the gentle tilling of bugs and plant roots. The soil stays covered year round protecting it from drying and eroding. Most of our weedy cover crop species have deep roots that pull up minerals from deep in the subsoil. These minerals accumulate in the developing top soil and feed the forest garden as it matures.
Once our entire site has been swaled and our soil building plants establish I will invest more time honing the more subtle relationships; those found between kingdoms of life, like the bee and flower. Again, It is our goal to establish as many symbiotic relationships in the garden as possible. This will pass the workload onto the garden itself; which like the forest, really doesn’t know work at all, it just lives and grows. This will allow the site to provide us food with minimal input on our part. Then we can return to a more healthy relationship with the land; one in which we are simply foragers in the ecosystem instead of overworked dictators.
A symbiotic world, this is what I dream of. I want to see every relationship, a healthy relationship. I want the entire planet in perfect relation, balanced. An impossible goal you say? Perhaps it is, perhaps not. Either way, I’ll be in my garden, perfecting one relationship at a time. The beautiful world we thirst for starts with us. I’m starting in my garden.