Why does anyone get into permaculture? I could list many reasons, starting with three – to provide long-term food in a way that restores the land rather than depleting it; to work with, rather than against, natural processes (thus reducing the workload greatly); to create a self-sustaining mini-ecosystem that supports many forms of life, not just human…
For me, it was all of these, coupled with the urgent awareness that Mama Gaia needs help NOW – and that permaculture was one way in which I could help to restore the planet starting with my own backyard.
Five years out, I feel I’m barely beginning. I’ve moved from a long, in-depth observation of my property (and a large number of Band-Aid cures for surface issues!) to a walloping realization: there are some very deep issues to be addressed here. And they all revolve around water…and a bigger understanding of my property as part of a larger watershed.
As the saying goes – we all live downstream. And we all live upstream. The water that enters our property comes from somewhere, and it goes somewhere…here in Baltimore, it winds up in the Bay. Our plants need it to be easily available and as clean as possible while it’s passing through our property – if only so that the fruits, leaves, and roots they produce can keep us healthy!
But of course the question is bigger than that. Unlike California and other Western states, drought is not an issue that has faced Maryland lately. And pray God/dess, it won’t face us in the near future, thanks to the determined activists who convinced our General Assembly to keep fracking out of the state (fracking, or hydraulic fracturing to obtain natural gas, uses an average of 2-8 million gallons of water per well…water that cannot be returned to the earth’s natural cycle).
But that’s not to say that things can’t change. While Earth is called the “watery planet,” our supply of water is actually small and fragile. The U.S. Geological Survey published a brilliant graphic (enhanced here by Infinity Imagined) illustrating how much water, and how much fresh water, is available to us on this Earth:
- “The largest sphere represents all of Earth’s water…It would have a volume of about 332,500,000 cubic miles (mi3) (1,386,000,000 cubic kilometers (km3)). The sphere includes all the water in the oceans, ice caps, lakes, and rivers, as well as groundwater, atmospheric water,” and in the bodies of humans, animals, and plants.
- “The blue sphere over Kentucky represents the world’s liquid fresh water (groundwater, lakes, swamp water, and rivers)….about 2,551,100 mi3 (10,633,450 km3), of which 99 percent is groundwater, much of which is not accessible to humans.”
- “…the tiny, [barely visible] bubble over Atlanta, Georgia…represents [accessible] fresh water in all the lakes and rivers on the planet, and most of the water people and life of earth need every day comes from these surface-water sources. The volume of this sphere is about 22,339 mi3 (93,113 km3)…”
And those small bubbles are rapidly getting smaller. On this continent alone, we all know about the catastrophic drought in California. And it’s spreading… Washington and Oregon, once famed as the rainiest states in the nation, are now facing record-breaking drought due to reduced snowpack in the Cascade Mountains. Worldwide, NASA data shows that the Earth’s other dependable, long-term source of water – aquifers – isn’t in much better shape: more than half of our 37 largest aquifers are being depleted. That’s not even mentioning the disastrous ways in which freshwater sources are being polluted…
So where most people want to shunt runoff away from their property and into the local stormwater system, my gut tells me that water is something to be welcomed, harvested, and treated with great care. And in fact, that’s one of the principles that permaculture offers: to catch and hold energy and materials. These can include sunlight, wind, leaf-litter, and – of course – water.
So, cherish the water. Save it, use it for all it’s worth. But – partner? Isn’t that going a little far?
Not exactly. In contemplating ways to catch and hold, heal and release the water entering my property, directing it to support its surrounding ecosystem while accommodating my own built habitat – the house – I’ve experienced a feeling of partnership with the water, both as a resource for the use of humans, plants and animals, and as a force of nature in its own right.
Like most developed neighborhoods, ours was plunked down with little to no consideration for the (already compromised) ecosystem and watershed in which it was being placed. I’m just now discovering that the underground stream that surfaces briefly in my backyard and floods my basement before disappearing again is the same one that floods out the economically-challenged neighborhood in the valley a quarter mile away…then disappears yet again. We’re still tracing its elusive course.
That stream is teaching me to look at the relationship between water and my property is to look at that greater whole, and to seek ways in which I, and my community, might partner together with the water that’s our common resource and challenge.