“In fact your plant is a thing various and manifold, and it is difficult to describe in general terms” – Theophrastus, 300 BC
Whether in our gardens, by the side of a road, out in our fields, or in more untouched ecosystems, the graceful existence of plants uses all the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire of the sun. By transforming such simple inputs, they do things that humans cannot.
Our primary interactions with plants are now as a product we can pick up from the shop, a tree to be cut, or weed to be pulled. Yet plants are as much a part of ourselves as the sun on our skin, the rain in our hair, or the air that passes around our hearts. All flesh is as grass.
Our biosphere is not its individual living components, but rather the dynamic relationships between all those beings macro & microscopic that share this wet space rock with us. A healthy ecology is in a state of fair and mutual energy exchange in many directions all at once, which is what makes life possible at all. This balance is easily upset by human activities, especially contemporary conventional wisdom.
Permaculture is a series of practices which aims to improve the state of a given lot of land by observing nature, tacking onto its forces, and improving by degrees the state of things in a holistic way. Nature deals with how alot better than why, especially according to biology. There are many things which can be done immediately to improve land for plants, but only by longer term attention can the potential of an area be properly realised.
The advantages of a garden over an agricultural field are that the needs of plants can be more closely monitored and more diverse improvements can be offered to them. Is there more to a backyard lettuce than simply how much fresher it tastes? How are the herbs next to them helping? Does a strawberry have more “red” if it grows next to some red geraniums? Do they even share the same concept of red?
It’s become knowledge that trees communicate under the earth. What still isn’t widely understood is that plants do it too, a rule of thumb is that foods that taste good with each other also grow well together. It can be observed in a greenhouse that they attract the pests of each other away from each other. I have found that nasturtiums are brilliant as a sacrifical plant as well as providing for more colourful salads.
Living things of all kinds create guilds to strengthen each other’s survival, their cohabitation is not always competetive. The workings of plants are an everyday mystery that is so routine it scarcely crosses our minds, but there is such knowledge within them. It can be easy to overlook the experiences of an individual plant, its simplicity far removed from our own ever-unfurling tapestry of human chaos and uncertainty…
Compared to some other countries, our relationship to nature in Britain has been blunted most significantly by the enclosure of common land some 500 years ago. This has set the trend for centuries of urbanisation as cities grew larger through the Stewart and Victorian eras, a pattern repeated around the world. Without taking too great a leap of logic, the repercussions of this are still being felt here to this day. Half of our birds by biomass are simply there to be shot.
A millenia or so ago, our ancestors foraged what they needed from plants for food and also medicine. There remain vast libraries of venerable plant knowledge held in the many traditions of indigenous peoples where they survive worldwide. It is so vitally important that the rainforests and old growth forests are preserved.
We have very limited areas of mature woodland left in the UK. It is no longer possible to overcome the fragmentation of habitats caused by decades of asphalt and concrete – without many widlife bridges over motorways, at least. But we have our gardens – though it takes more consideration to develop them properly than most landlords or building companies will ever allow for. This makes taking charge of our own space more important than ever in being able to satisfy our own appetites for nature and sustenance.
Many wild animals have an ability to pick out plants for therapeutic benefits – not just as with catnip! In that plant, the active ingredient is intended to deter insects but it has an added psychokinetic effect on some cats of some sort, that can be quite entertaining to watch. To ensure survival, it is recommended to grow a catnip plant to a suitable size before planting it where an interested cat can access it!
The supermarket now provides many of our choices with its permanent summer, and also a tyranny of choice in that we may be a little confused sometimes about what to eat. If we grew more food at home we would probably value it more, and become fascinatingly invested with the development of the plants that become our fuel.
In order to feed ourselves at the scale of agriculture, certain organisms over others have been exploited over others. In principle this is not a bad thing because it feeds us all, but the rammifications of it are that a great deal of natural systems seen and unseen around us have been manipulated by the thought of material gain.
This is why pesticiedes are still used that accidentally kill to an enormous degree the population of bees which we are still interdependent on. Emergency use, as far as humans are concerned, also includes releasing raw sewage directly into the rivers whenever it rains…
Increasingly when it comes to animals, the convenience for the farmer is selectively bred into them, and with plants too but perhaps less visceral degree. Without this input, nature could return once more to the undistilled thought of life itself that we romanticise only through the medium of David Attenborough.
This deserves to have some incarnation at our doorsteps in our gardens, and fundamentally that is what drives this whole project. It also involves a greater awareness of the properties of the natural world than we are accustomed to, and that is why the involvement of a client in the products of the garden through passing on knowledge of it remains an integral part of my services.
If there is one creature that embodies the complexity of plants, it is of course bees. They have an instinctual encyclopedic knowledge of flowers, as their petals advertise visually and in ultraviolet how the creatures access their pollen as required by the flowers and also their nectar as required by the bees. A perfect mutual relationship between different organisms such as this is vanishingly rare, and why its balance is so easily upset. It is still so vital for all our food to work!
The bees to this day have knowledge now that we have long since lost. Flying out in the wild in search of food, they have no idea what particular plants they are going to find, but when they do find flowers, they are able to communicate where they are to others. This sustains the queen, and ultimately it is their sum total of foraging knowledge and passing it on that sustains them as one super-organism in an act of mutual care. It also provides us with mead!
Ants may be farmers of fungus too, but their niche is so small and fungus so large that incredibly significant numbers of ant colonies beyond the present amount would be required to even make a dent in the fungal supply. As larger mammals, our dent is bigger, our responsibility greater, and so our farmed animals are a greater proportion of biomass than has ever been cultivated before – and none of it very much sustainably.
We could hunt wild animals in the past, they had enough room. Before we had agriculture, we had a larger knowledge of the natural world. By our own path as a species, this knowledge was gradually lost beginning hundreds of generations ago, and in its place, the reliably-known agrarian patterns of croppable plants. By our own ingenuity, traits have been bred into them that have enhanced our experience of them. That, however, is a historical impact which for all intents and purposes makes them easier to put them all into a plastic bag.
The only teacher of older knowledge is found by practical experience from nurturing plants that you live with… An Arcane Ecology all of your own!
“Ecological awareness is the same thing as mystical experience”Alan Watts
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