A Walk in the Woods: Observe & Interact

After finishing the last test of the semester on Monday, I decided to go for a nice long run to unwind. The air was crisp but not too cold, the wind was fairly calm, and the recent warm rain left everything smelling fresh and teaming with life; the perfect day for a walk in the woods.

As I got up the mountain, I took me usual turn off Upper Sayer Park Road and up towards The Sculpture Garden. If you are unfamiliar with The Sculpture Garden, I recommend you go check it out. Along the side of the path towards the Garden there were many logs of fallen and felled trees marking the path. These logs form important edges within the forest system and help manage foot traffic to prevent trampling of young or small plants and fungi. The path is such an important part of any system because it is what gives access to the rest of the space. Mandala-style paths can be used to efficiently access growing space while minimizing path space and maximizing accessibility. If growing space is not accessible by a path, it becomes much more difficult to utilize. For example, a berry bush surrounded entirely be herbaceous plants becomes a very difficult plant to harvest. That’s not to say that every square foot must be accessible to humans, for example: a flowering bush or meadow space whose primary purpose is to attract beneficial insects and rebuild soil need not be accessible to us humans, as long as the bees and butterflies can get to it! More on paths in the Designing a Forest Garden page.

In addition to visibly outlining the edges of the path, these logs serve as a substrate for a miraculous community of fungi! Here we see scores of Trametes versicolour growing on the logs, but others including oysters, chicken of the woods, and miatake can and do also grow in these conditions. These mushrooms have edible and medicinal value, and some can even be used to make things like paper!

A large flush of turkey tail mushrooms (Trametes versicolor) growing on a log in mid December.

A small flush of Enoki mushrooms (Flammulina velutipes) growing on a fallen tulip poplar log in mid December.

Having these fungi-inoculated logs along the path makes clear the concepts of a Forest Garden. Up above we have nuts like hickories, walnuts, oaks, and chestnuts, interspersed with locusts for nitrogen fixation and building material. Beneath the canopy lie shrubby nuts and berries like filberts, elderberries, raspberries, barberries, and more. Along the ground lie herbaceous vegetables like onion grass, nettle, garlic mustard, and more.

The spores of the fungi mentioned above are abundant in the woods, and will happily move in to the wood of a recently fallen tree without the slightest bit of effort on our part (perhaps they even got there before and contributed to its fall). However, it is certainly the case that we tend to like some fungi more than others, and we tend to have more uses for some fungi than others. That’s not to say we can’t find a use for other fungi — certainly indigenous cultures knew of many more uses for these fungi than I — and it’s not to say that we should eradicate any fungi that we cannot find an immediate use for (diversity is important, and the role of recycling nutrients and remediating soils is certainly useful!), but rather that it may be desirable to select for more of certain fungi over others.

Selecting for certain fungi can be as involved as sterilizing the logs in a pressurized steam chamber and pounding in wooden dowels that have been colonized by a particular fungi, or it can be as simple as throwing the scraps of a previously harvested mushroom into the pile of logs and letting them do their thing, or it can be anywhere in between! Of course, the more energy and effort put into selecting a particular species, the more that species will tend to present itself in the community, up to a certain point. The question then becomes how much effort are we willing to spend, and at what point is the effect not worth the effort. It is also important to not that while intensive cultivation of a single or a small number of species might be lucrative in the short run, in the long run pest and disease tend to become much more significant in communities that lack diversity, leading to reduced yields in the long run. So if you do chose to cultivate more intensively, make sure to leave room for the “wild” fungi to keep things in balanced. And be sure to observe & interact with any fungi that do happen to make themselves present; you never know what they might be capable of!

One group of fungi that have lots potential, but that I am not yet familiar enough with are the bracket fungi or the conches. These tough mushrooms grow parallel to the ground on logs and standing trees, and many are known to have strong medicinal properties, though certainly more research is needed, as there are many different types that lack conclusive research. This is also a case where indigenous knowledge would be extremely valuable. Many cultures have used these fungi for medicinal and spiritual purposes for tens of thousands of years, but that knowledge has been nearly lost by the genocide of those people and the violent suppression of their way of life.

Top (left) and bottom (right) side of a bracket fungi, likely a Ganoderma species.

Another bracket fungi (unidentified) with SSPP drawn into the underside pore surface.

Having finally made it through the path to the clearing that is The Sculpture Garden, I was taken back by the potential I saw in this space as another campus for the Southside Permaculture Park. Not as a space owned and operated by the Summit St Campus or by the team of students and volunteers that help maintain it, but as an autonomous space connected to the Summit St Campus by the exchange of plants, materials, and ideas that occur between them, in which regenerative practices transform the space into a more hospitable environment in such a way as to reinforce the conditions necessary for it’s existence.

The first thing I noticed, and this is something that I have seen having visited this spot throughout every season for multiple years, is that it is already full of food! Spearmint, henbit, chickweed, nettle, onion grass, garlic mustard, wineberries, barberries; all perfectly capable of nourishing people, if only we knew enough to utilize them. All these plants have unique flavors that can satisfy our lust for spice. The lack of diversity in conventional agriculture and the depleted conditions in which they grow has made our food so bland, which leaves us searching for exotic spices and flavors to break the monotony. But that diversity in flavor can be found right here in the range of wild plants that already grow without the slightest effort on our part!

The next thing I noticed was that there was already a ring of posts dug into the ground, and they were bound together around the top with a steel cable. Some fence could be brought in or scavenged from the woods, or various branches and vines could be weaved into the existing skeleton of the fence to create a barrier that prevents the deer from coming in.

And we do have evidence that the deer frequent this space, helping to recycle nutrients and restore fertility to the soil.

With the space blocked off from deer traffic, a tree guild could be planted there. A hickory, walnut, or chestnut tree, together with a filbert and a coppiced locust for nitrogen (the locust form much of the surrounding woods and would be easy to introduce to this guild). Raspberries can be transplanted in from elsewhere in the woods or brought in from the nursery at the Summit St Campus and woven into the fence to provide long-term protection and further yields. Other small perennials like sorrel, anise hyssop, and turkish rocket could be planted around the trees and shrubs, and annuals like squashes and beans could occupy much of the remaining spaces (but remember to leave a path!). Plants like carrots, radishes, beets, and lettuces could be planted, and some left to seed to build a wild salad meadow. After a few years when the plants are thoroughly established and can withstand a little deer browse, the fence can be moved to another location to help build another guild with help from the seeds and cuttings from the first.

It is worth mentioning that much of the space on the ground is covered with grass, and that this grass grows very long and then falls over on itself. Bringing animals like goats or rabbits could help break down this fibrous material into fertile manure. Practices of rotational grazing can actually build up soil, and keeping the grass clear with animals can be a great way to stack function while the field develops into a forest (assuming the animals don’t eat the young trees!). Keeping the grass trimmed with animals can also help reduce the population of ticks that carry Lyme’s disease.

The space is also full of beautiful sculptures, most of which have been fashioned out of “trash”, and the space would make an excellent venue for social gatherings like picnics or live concerts.

There is so much potential for this space, but we don’t have all the ideas and we don’t have all the time in the world, so we’d love to have your input and support. Feel free to contact us if you have any ideas or want to get involved somehow, but don’t feel like you have to come to us for approval. If you know you’re doing a good thing, just go ahead and do it! Certainly we all want to be in communication so we can coordinate our efforts and avoid undermining each other, we are all working towards the same goals after all, but spaces like these and permaculture are inherently anti-authoritarian, and we want to try to practice that as best we can (it’s certainly hard to do that in the context of our current society).

 

Having moved past the clearing of The Sculpture Garden and onto the trails, I started collecting plants and mushrooms for an Immune-Boosting Foraged Winter Soup. You can check that one out in the Recipes section.

 

Along the trials I noticed an incredible abundance of industrially-produced materials. A dozen or so glass bottles without even a crack; a more-or-less fully intact shopping cart; half a dozen chairs; a tarp; steel sheets and poles; the list goes on, as I’m sure you have experienced as well.

All of these materials, cast out as “waste” by the industrial economy, can be repurposed for a wide variety of practical uses. The bottles can be used to catch and store water from the rain or streams, and they can be used to boil that water as well to ensure there are no pathogens in it. The shopping cart can be used as a basket to store items, as a cage to protect young plants, or as a trap for catching small game like rabbits. The steel sheets can be turned into roofs and the poles into supports. A little creativity goes a long way here, but the point is this: we have already produced enough “stuff” to keep us going well into the future; we don’t need to manufacture more, we just need to figure out how to effectively use what we have.

We have produce enough stuff that we could shut down the industrial economy tomorrow if we wanted to, and we would still have enough, we just have to scavenge it from dumps and woods and get creative with ways to repurpose it. We don’t have to go on destroying the ecosystems with drilling and mining and industrial manufacturing; everything we need is here. All it takes is all the miners and factory workers to get together and say “Ya know what? We’re not coming in to work tomorrow. Or the next day. Or ever again.” And just like that, we stop destroying the world. Obviously people still need certain things to survive — food, shelter, medical care — but if those things can be provided by the environment, and by the community that exists around them, then we don’t need “jobs”. We don’t need “money”. We don’t need this wretched society, because we have built a better one.

Certainly we need a little time to transition (but no more than 10 years), there are not enough wild hickory nuts or oyster mushrooms to feed us all right now, but with a little effort now we can create incredibly productive communities of people and all other species that provide us with everything from food to medicine to materials to emotional support and spiritual satisfaction. And what better use of one’s time than to build such a bountiful and regenerative system. What could possibly generate more value – REAL value, use value, regenerative value; not fetishized capitalist exchange value – than planting a tree?

The capitalist says “money doesn’t grow on trees.”

The permaculturist responds “but value does.”

 

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