With the whole world talking green, that the word ecology breaks down into the Greek roots eco and ology, or “home science” may not be news to you. But humor me as I take a moment to question the outer potential of rainwater harvesting as part of an all-inclusive home-science strategy. Even if the scenarios explored here never happen I’ll ask you to let them stir your imagination, move you anyway. With that alone as MLK and JFK can attest, we’re already halfway free and halfway to the moon. The journey of a thousand miles begins right where we’re standing and its imagination that collects the compass, chooses the road, guides the first step and calls the muses in.
The cost of household water:
- At least in LA, has doubled in the last 12 years with no end in sight and has skyrocketed since 2002 when claims on the Colorado River began to exceed the river’s entire flow.
- Will likely increase as rainfall becomes more erratic with climate change and cities and their vendors trying to cover the risk.
- And is currently kept artificially low by government subsidies that may not last as the US dollar and political system face the road ahead. Consider that residents in Guatemala City would pay $1,700 for the water people in Washington DC pay $350 for.
So a multi-barrel system built on the ultra-cheap might buy you a few extra nights out over the long haul with more nights every year, but I’m guessing it’s not the nickels that have got you reading this far, and dimes don’t really inspire journeys to the moon.
The real question I suspect many of us would really love to answer is “What difference can DIY rainwater harvesting make,” and the answer involves a different set of numbers and the big D-word – it “depends.” That said, even dropping a $20 craigslist-score barrel under a downspout and using it to water an existing steroid-pumped lawn would mean importing a few hundred less gallons of water every year and cutting municipal infrastructure a tiny bit of slack.
But I for one love to play big too. So, hearkening back to my days working on the Los Angeles Integrated Regional Water Management Plan, I dared myself to take it all the way. I asked myself, “Could the city that inspired Chinatown meet its needs just from what falls on it from the sky?” Even if the answer comes back as a definitive no, we might learn big.
That’s what we call a thought experiment, and as with any experiment, there are rules to the game:
- For the moment we’d set aside considerations like social inertia, political drama, red-tape, building and social conventions, hours spent in traffic and busy, busy lives. To simplify the game, we’d just look at the goal as a design problem. Show hope of solving the design problem and it becomes worth looking at the much stickier, all-too-human rest of it.
- The teeming semi-desert Megacity of Angels would have to solve the problem through distributed DIY possibilities within the existing built environment. No gutting neighborhoods or $20-billion canals.
- We’d only look at households. Yes, agriculture uses most of the water and commercial properties use water too, but if we’re resourceful enough to become aquatically solvent in the household, we’d be one step closer to resourcefulness and solvency at work and on the farm.
- The City of Angels would have to become water solvent without sacrificing its material standard of living. No living like Third World refugees and no spin-the-bottle to see who gets to shower.
- For now, we’d just look at the yearly numbers. The seasonal timing of things makes a critical difference, but we’ll look at the low-res now to see if it’s worth going high-res later.
- And for now, we’ll just look at the average rainfall year. Even if we don’t cover the nut for low rainfall years, we’ve come a very long way and can perhaps begin to think bigger than the next bottleneck.
Next in the spirit of gaming, come the variables that establish the field of play:
The thought experiment begins in the flat Mid-Wilshire 90019 zip-code with an average yearly rainfall of 15 inches and zooms in on a hypothetical 7,500 square foot lot, say 100 feet wide and 75 feet deep. There’s a house on the lot with 1,000 square feet of rooftop and a family of four living inside.
Why these numbers? Well, the LA Department of Water and Power uses zip-code, lot size and family size to determine water prices. The Shortage Year Tier 1 allotment for our imaginary friends would be 26.35 Hundred Cubic Feet (HCF, 1 HCF = 748 gallons) per two months in Low Season (May to October) and 20.4 HCF for two months in High Season (November to April). This adds up to about 105,000 gallons per year and 287 gallons per day. In 2012, the family would have paid $3.70 per HCF for their allotment and $5.92 per HCF for anything more. If they’re an average American family, they fit squarely in Tier 1, using 73,000 gallons of their 105,000 and paying $361 for the water.
Knowing what those 73,000 gallons are used for then gives us the goods on solving the design problem…. In Permaculture parlance, we say “observe” and also “the problem is the solution” and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the two ideas go hand-in-hand. Below are national averages reported by the National Academies Water Information Center (click here). The outdoor use varies by region and season, but we’ll go low-res with the yearly national averages here.
Right away, rainwater harvesting wouldn’t cover the current total household use even if we could somehow catch and store everything that fell on the whole lot. With 15 inches of rain, the property only gets 70,000 gallons in an average year. We’re already 3,000 gallons shy.
A whole systems approach to the rescue then, and first goes the toilet. The toilet uses 10.9% or 7,972 gallons a year. Convert that to a composting toilet and get extra goodies like carbon-sinking black earth for the gardens, and if enough people converted, way less pressure on the decaying channelized streams-cum sewer lines like the LA River, filtration plants and the ever stressed water quality budget. Maybe enough pressure-release to de-pave the river, turn it into a park and turn the park into the backbone of a food forestry network with all the black earth we’ve got in 6 months, while ending algae plumes and itchy surfers off the Santa Monica Pier. The family’s yearly water score drops to about 65,000 gallons.
Paired with a conversion to eco-friendly household products in the shower, bath, kitchen and laundry, the next move is to run the used, grey water from faucets, shower, bath, laundry, dishwasher and the mysterious “other” through the garden. Now that water, all 18,000 gallons of it, 24.3% of the family’s total use gets used twice before leaving the property but counts only once for the new score for the year, 47,000 gallons. Outdoor use is down from 42,000 gallons to 24,000. Assuming the grey water system is well designed and doesn’t require a bank of levers to operate, there’s no loss in quality of life – and most of the worst household waste has been tamed before it hits the pipes. Any algae plumes still hanging off the coast are done for.
Then it’s down with the leaks. Nearly 6% of water lost through leaks? Some leaks are unavoidable. Pipes age, foundations move, kids happen and with all the proverbial leaks in life, busting out the plumber’s wrench for a weekend ends up low on the totem pole. But say the family goes for it and cuts the 6% to 3%. So much for 2,000 gallons lost per year. Average yearly use: 45,000 gallons.
Now with a much lower bar to hit, let’s see what sort of dent rainwater harvesting can make.
First we’ll look at two types of rainwater harvesting that we might distinguish as “hard” and “soft.” The hard variety refers to the tank, barrel or tub kind of rainwater harvesting, and we could say that the soft variety refers to that which can be theoretically started, if not always finished, with a shovel. The two varieties work best in tandem starting with a hard system that blends via an overflow or “spillway” into a soft system integrated throughout the whole property.
The imaginary property has a 1,000 square foot peaked roof. With a 220-gallon system on either side of the pitched roof and the right gutter arrangement, the whole roof can be collected from. With 15 inches a year we get the potential harvest of about 7,500 gallons with 440 gallons of rainwater able to be stored at once. In the ideal world, 15 little one-inch storms would fill the tanks during the wet season with enough time between to empty the tanks out completely every time for a steady flow. That’s unlikely of course, and that’s where integration with soft harvesting comes in.
Land contouring forms the essence of soft rainwater harvesting, and within well designed land contours, opportunities arise that we… and nature when we’re not around… can put to great use. The name of the game is to keep water on the property and keep it moving slowly, to think of the whole rainwater harvesting system, hard and soft, as a watershed, and doing so can inspire a whole host of possibilities.
It’s worth noting that standard American landscaping flows to a different drum: get water off the property as fast as possible. Hence we’ve all been trained to believe that gardening means running the sprinklers incessantly and still expecting parched soil by June, while the downspouts from the roof generally give the roof runoff a one-way concrete-lined ticket to the ocean. It may seem surprising that just flipping the landscape lens from convex to concave in key spots, that thinking in terms of bowls instead of hills can change everything until you actually see the results with your own eyes.
Since that perfect series of storms is unlikely, we’ll link the hard system’s overflow into a soft system on the property, essentially running its overflow into bowls, swales and other uses so we still get good and more gently distributed use of the 7,500 gallons the hard rainwater harvesting system nets us. Now with the hard rainwater harvesting and the grey water outputs we’re only taking 16,500 gallons from city mains for outdoor use – remember we started out demanding 42,000. Even taking the seasons into account, we’re doing well, since the grey water output isn’t going to change much month to month. Total demand from the city is now down to about 35,000 gallons, half the original 73,000.
At least in theory, the soft rainwater harvesting can take the numbers down a lot further. Bowls don’t accumulate just water. One year of leaves from deciduous trees can form mulch mats that hold water underneath and keep soil processes unfolding for months, even in the hottest weather. Add a 6 inch layer of straw and the ground’s wet all summer. Gardens flourish in the dips and perennial water sinks develop virtuous hydration cycles with increasing mulch, fungal mats, plant diversity, birds and happiness all around. Shape the concrete driveways and patios to direct water into the bowls or replace these hardscapes with permeable inlays and we could argue for hard and soft systems keeping 80% of rainfall in productive use on the property for much of the year. That’s 56,000 gallons of water. On a relatively flat lot sculpted for soft rainwater harvesting and productive soils, we’ve got a 14,000 gallon outdoor surplus for the year.
We’re still pulling 18,000 gallons from the city main for potable indoor uses and the occasional car wash, so I’m not calling the game won just yet, and for many of us, this would be a great stopping point. Extrapolated over the whole city, the low-res joyride has cut water imports and bills by three quarters with no loss of quality of life, a good part of the difference made with hard and soft rainwater harvesting in tandem. Even if in real life we got only a third of that result, we might still win the consolation prize – whitewater rafting for everyone down the Colorado River like in days of old.
And for those of you who might want to finish the job and take the score down to zero, I say Power to the Makers! and the answers are out there. Clay cisterns were such the rage in Biblical Jerusalem that they were a favorite metaphor in parables and Jeremiah even did a jail sentence in one. Here too is a pic of the adobe Earthship that shared our space at Grassroots United in Haiti. The entire roof is a rainwater harvesting system and the water harvested gets used for 3-5 purposes before leaving the surrounding grounds.
With all due respect to Chinatown, I for one will risk my hat over yonder barrel and say that at least as a pure design problem, zero’s a winnable game. Just figure it’s 1962 and I’m asking, can we get to the moon? Only this time, we’ve got the hive mind of the internet too and I’d love to hear all your bright ideas for making up the difference.
Vertecology 2.0 you might say! Or 1.9999, as the site is now live running WordPress.org as visioned more than a year ago… and the real work begins to make this site and Vertecology itself a wider and more robust resource. Thank you all for your patience!
Okay so it’s official. In between rocking out the Hanging Gardens and the rest of the goodies, Vertecology LLC has gone to the bees. Specifically, mason bees, little critters that are about 100 times as effective as honey-bees at pollination and without the sting or the susceptibility to the dread Colony Collapse Disorder. In layman’s terms this means that mason bees, 140 species of which are native to North America (there are about 300 species worldwide, mainly in the Northern Hemsiphere) are so easy to “keep” that even kids can do it and don’t need special training or clothes, and it also means that the fruit apocalypse predicted by doomsayers with the attendant collapse of the bees doesn’t have to happen.
In fact honeybee populations are in trouble, but if enough of us get mason bees augmenting them in the garden, we can still enjoy peaches, plums, apples and apricots and lots of other stuff for a million seasons to come. And when the honeybees do make a comeback, which they certainly will as queens adapt to the new ecological reality, their sharing of the turf with the native, solitary mason bees will not hurt anyone, in fact, will allow for an even more robust ecology.
The idea of offering a number of habitat designs came with a fun and lively bug in my ear by the name of Laura “Bee” Ferguson, principal of Bee Haven International, and we’re both working closely with Pacific Domes International of Ashland, Oregon. While I haven’t got the much hoped for day job with the folks at Pacific just yet we are now excited to be working together on this venture.
In anticipation of the page launch I put up a number of the habitats for sale at the first annual Autumn Ashland Maker’s Market put on by the Southern Oregon Crafters’ Collective, sold a few and got a lot of interest.
So now it’s time to let the secret out, the page is up… click here or just go to the “Mason Bee Habitat” link at the top of this site. There’s a much richer bit of info up there, and it’s going to fill in more in the coming days and weeks, as will the product and build-it-yourself options. On a business front this is exciting too, as it creates an additional layer of very affordable, participatory, permaculture-oriented Vertecology products that will move very quickly and provides the opportunity to prototype and test out business models formerly reserved only for the big installs a lot more easily. Here in fact is the current business plan & financials, if you’re so inclined, thanks to SCORE on this one.
If you’ve got a garden in the zones where mason bees thrive (check the spread on the Mason Bee Page) or know someone who does, make a purchase if you can either from the sidebar on the right side of the Mason Bee page or directly from the Etsy shop… it will support Vertecology, the ecology at large and bring you a lot more yummy fruits and veggies next spring. And do keep checking back as I’m about to get crazy on the design side of things.
Thanks again and enjoy!
A few weeks ago I was out at the Ashland Food Coop doing the political campaign work I’ve been doing to make ends meet while continuing work on Vertecology’s evil plan to take over the world with edible vines and up walked Janet Marley of Bahkti Fest fame. The net result of our conversation can be seen in the photos below…
Oregon’s got a set of Hanging Gardens, a lovely pair that made an appearance at the first annual and very successful PranaFest at Ashland’s Jackson Wellsprings a couple of weeks ago. While a few hundred of us did our yoga poses under the guidance of a dozen or so of some of the best yoga instructors around, these twins struck a pose on stage and got star treatment all around. Thanks again to Janet for producing this great event, festival producers are like rock stars in my world; thanks to all the rest who made it happen behind the scenes and thanks to the thousand people who came out to play.
And stay tuned… there is method to my madness and Vertecology is going to the bees! That will make sense in a very short while, I promise!
At the risk of being called a nerd (and I screwed the pooch on that one 25 years ago) here’s some sideways sharing that comes as the result of the proposal I’m making on Vertecology LLC’s (yes, it’s an LLC!) first large scale permaculture design for an eight acre community to be, just south of Ashland Oregon.
In the act of preparing the bid for the client, which ostensibly would price out a site plan and a relatively fixed final landscape design which would then be carved into an unwilling earth, not because the client demands it but because we don’t even have the language or the software for doing otherwise, I realized said Standard Way of Going About It that I learned in Architecture School is entirely insufficient.
Permaculture after all is about working with living systems, adapting flows midstream, integrating far more than the topography of dirt and the arrangement of neat rows of pretty flowers and pretty houses. We are guiding living systems with an intelligence all their own and being guided in kind by endless feedback loops that yield vision as much as they yield blackberries and soils and unpredictable opportunities and muscles as you roll that wheelbarrow out one more time. Yes, sometimes this tree just gets moved over there. But sometimes you introduce chickens to control the flies. Sometimes you replace the septic with composting toilets and the resultant soil changes the pH where you drop it, sometimes the recommendations are tiny but with huge impacts, and at the end of the day, discovering an opportunity here and taking advantage of it changes the balance over there.
How can a simple, complicated as $!*& CAD drawing, which I can do quite easily and well with my years of training reflect all of that, reflect human, plant, animal, mechanical and invisible factors? CAD is after all, as static as it is precise and it makes our heads more static as we layer our drawings with ever deeper precision and detail. How can CAD bend to reflect seasons and systems theory, succession of evolution and changes that come about on the land as we interlope and guide our systems to optimum? How can we describe the relevant opportunities on the land without involving and locking ourselves into a thousand layers and a thousand hours of ever expanding irrelevant detail? How can CAD describe a river, an unfolding?
Thus in the process I have come to realize that a wider view must be taken. CAD is a part of the solution, but so is an elegant and interactive display where client and designer alike can track ideas, visions and observations. So are books, whiteboards, a growing capacity in the client to read the land, mission statements and meditation in the various microclimates of the place. Perhaps the site map can begin and end with construction paper and crayons… Observing, visioning and implementing blend and blur and cycle back into one another with ever increasing resolution and clarity and ecosystems and income systems take and change shape. Ah, The Brain shall live in the Barn and work while I’m away.
Here’s version 1.0 of the design process diagram… one that may just live on Vertecology for quite some time.
Hello once again beautiful world.
It is as always an end, and a new beginning. As I mentioned in the last post I am dealing what seem to be growing pains. I’ll paint a metaphor appropriate to my residence for the next two months: a seven acre parcel of gambel oak forest and grassland in the countryside a couple miles north of Central Point, Oregon.
There is a permaculture principle that goes something like “Accelerate the natural evolutionary succession of the ecosystem you are building.”
The essence of the idea is to use your own as well as general observations of the succession of species mixtures that naturally occurs in the wild to fast-track your ecosystem to its climax and maximum diversity and yield.
In natural succession, one species mixture creates the conditions necessary for the next. For example, pioneer plants like grasses may arrive by wind in barren and damaged lands, fix nitrogen, loosen compacted soils, reduce salts or stabilize steep slopes and thus create a more favorable environment for low shrubs.
These in turn create in turn a more favorable environment for small trees, all the while attracting animals, insects and birds and the seeds and pollen they bring from other places. The small trees will hold moisture, contribute to the formation of clouds, keep the soil moist under all the leaves they drop and make it ripe for mycelial networks that will in time drive the emergent forest to new heights and new heights of fertility.
While on the land here, I am largely working the day job that brought me here, working on building the “infrastructure” that will enable Vertecology to function as a “real business” that embraces both the permaculture principles and the tactics necessary for function in and eventually transformation of the current economic system, and of course getting a bit of exploration in too.
While that isn’t leaving much time, it is leaving me enough time to do some observation on the land, and even the hour or so I am able to devote daily is proving incredibly fruitful. I am able to glean much already about the history and possible futures of this beautiful landscape, and spot opportunities to accelerate the ecosystem to its climax.
Here are a couple of videos.
And strictly for the hardcore, an online mind-map of my observations of the land and its opportunities for ecological acceleration:
The notion of succession of evolution can be applied just as easily in the business and spiritual realms, and in such places it hints at the very zen notion of “letting go,” so easy once its done and so hard until it’s been done. As a twentysomething soaring visionary, the idea of letting go to me was synonymous with killing, destroying, leaving something I loved by the side of the road. And so I held on until I pretty much destroyed whatever it was I was holding on to.
Now with a little more wisdom under my belt and a growing ability to trust the intelligence of life/universe/unfolding whatever you call it, I’m just beginning to entertain the radical idea that letting go is actually more of a move in a dance that you repeat and repeat. When you pick your foot up off the floor you are in a way letting go. And letting go, and letting go, and letting go, and at some point you realize you’re delivering a staggering performance, telling a story, building a legacy and have only an instant to notice before its time to move again.
In ecosystem building, it could be said that holding on is the equivalent of mowing the lawn week after week, making sure that grass stays perfectly green with no patches and nary a dandelion, making sure the sprinklers work through the summer no matter how hot it is, and yelling at the neighbors to make sure their dogs don’t poop on the lawn. Yes, you have a beautiful lawn, dear sir, but it is ecologically dead, dead to opportunity and a drain on all around it including you.
And by contrast, it could be said that letting go is letting the weeds, shrubs and mushrooms in. Even dog poop is a nutrient reservoir. You let the grass go so everything else can come in. And you may find that at the end of it, on the floor of your towering forest, you still have some patches of very fertile grass that ask nothing of you at all and play a vital role.
Such it is with the towering forest Vertecology wishes to become in days to come. I pioneered the realm with this blog, telling of some early projects and explorations; if the blog is the pioneer species, then what are the shrubs and the trees? A year ago, I had only ideas. Now…
- The patent pending Hanging Gardens and the fundraise to complete the prototyping process , develop market ready product and finance further experiments and initiatives.
- Water Harvesting Systems and educational media about how to build them.
- Maximizing the opportunity that two months on the Central Point Land offers to make myself a far more capable permaculturist, designer, consultant, writer and educator
- Further development of festival concept structures which began with the Geo and integration of these into the greater permaculture driven vision
- Other educational media around economics and permaculture
- And more ambitious initiatives to come
With some of this coming to fruition and demanding time to develop further, and with more of it now becoming feasible with greater financial, spiritual and social capital coming into my realm and greater experience and skill in my hands, I am seeing that focus of Vertecology itself crying to change. It’s not about the grass anymore; it’s now about the shrubs and trees. I’m not shutting down the blog, but I am seeing that its role is destabilizing as an ecosystem emerges around it.
For a time the blog may become a little more erratic. For now I don’t know exactly if that means more or less blogging, or a new form taken; I’m just giving myself permission to be erratic and unpredictable so that a new rhythm can take shape. I would have in the past called this a death and would have been deathly afraid. Now I am seeing that it is only the natural succession of evolution. It is in fact, a birth.
I have thus far been trying to update the blog weekly, and have been struggling to do that the last couple of months, and couldn’t let myself see why as the last of my fear has held on. Now it is clear and in fact has been clear for some time. It is because for now, in this stage of the emergence of Vertecology, I need the time and energy to build the rest of the ecosystem.
It’s time to begin upgrading the web site, creating videos for the upcoming fundraise, finalizing prototype designs for the Hanging Gardens, and half a million other tasks, hiring out when I can’t do them myself and doing the research regarding even how to that in a way that will best serve the vision.
And of course I will keep you all posted in whatever form is most appropriate. Here’s to the next stage of evolution!
Hello beautiful world,
Wow it’s been quiet on the blog scene for a bit… I’ve been gearing up with Vertecology for some time, laying the foundation for what looks to be an expansion. There’s talk of a Kickstarter fundraise, hints from peeps around town that orders for Hanging Gardens may be on the wings, some money for R&D to come from other work I will be doing in Oregon over May and June, an ad for a marketing intern soon to go live. And yet in the process of gearing up, of expansion, sometimes there is quiet gestation.
I’ve been thinking about this blog entry in some dark room of my mind for some time. What to say? Well, am I going to bring out the horns and declare with 10 white horses coming down the cobbled path that (wah, wah, wah!) I have a provisional patent on the Hanging Garden? Yes that is true as of about 48 hours ago, and I am thankful to all those who believed in me and helped me with emotional and even a bit of financial support to get the vision of what Vertecology can be to this milestone.
But there is a deeper story, and to that I wish to speak. Because in the permaculture sensibility, its not about the straight line to the destination, but about the system, the garden, that was built over time that allows the destination to be at last grasped and quietly reached and owned, that allows the bounty found at the destination to be both harvested and sustained.
That is the deeper story. I’ve been a bit quiet on the blogging front because even though I’ve been spending long hours at work on building Vertecology, R&D, developing proposals, as well as on building my financial resources by other means for the long road ahead and putting a little time on some very interesting projects by other people in this field, I’ve also been looking closely at the spiritual underpinnings to why I started this venture at all.
Knowing this is not my first attempt at entrepreneurship, and knowing that I have always in the past gotten results I didn’t expect with no idea why with all my dogged effort, I have learned at my wise young age that the quality of the fruit and flowers in your garden are just a reflection of the quality of the soil.
So it’s not about the flowers as much as it is about the soil. I care too much about this garden… about what Vertecology can become and what I can offer through it to ignore the soil this time, and though the payoff is making itself known slowly and steadily, I am beginning to recognize what it means with a faith I have never experienced before.
The slow building of soil is why I’ve gotten to the point of having something to patent at all. Building soil can’t be rushed, it can’t be forced. Try and force it and you get half the Midwest ripe for the next dust bowl. Let it run at its proper pace and you may get a bit impatient yes, but you also have a shot at a million years of bounty so vast it’s impossible to keep secret.
Confronting the need to build at the soil’s pace and not at that of my frantic and ever twirling mind has not been easy. My ever twirling mind fantasizes that Vertecology will “explode” at the first signpost and has promised to remain the irrational taskmaster it has been in the past. I’ve been down that road before and it wasn’t pretty, for me or for what I was trying to create. But attending to the spiritual soil of late has meant that the taskmaster has begun to let go his whip, and to let be. To allow things to grow at their proper pace and grow well. As a result of my inner work of late I no longer have to justify my existence to anyone, and that is the kind of soil to begin expansion with.
And once I noticed that it was never really about “exploding” I began to recognize that I have already, despite myself, been attempting to execute a real business plan with a little higher resolution than simply exploding. Though it has yet to be written on paper, just knowing that that business plan is being spoken by that quiet voice that comes when you are very still has given me enough pause to stop and listen, and on more and more frequent occasion, to act upon its recommendations.
I don’t “need” Vertecology to be anything. And in the silence, I begin to hear the music of its promise, calling me to joyous action, day by day. I begin to see the real road and how to drive upon it, when to floor it, and when to brake. It’s not that I’m stopping; it’s that for what seems like the first time, I am starting.
So in anticipation and yet in keeping with the true timing of things, I will leave you all with this: part of the business plan behind Vertecology, part of the functioning ecosystem it will become is a continuum of raw ideas being prototyped to fruition. I am truly happiest when I am creating with reckless abandon, without a care in the world and sharing the creating through my writing and media. Sort of like a 10 year old… “look ma, what I just made!” Except I’m now 38, have an idea of what it means to be a “crewman on Spaceship Earth” and know my way around design science, the permaculture principles, CNC milling machines, timelapse photography, dramatic prose, videography, social networking and some of the baddest creative software around. I know I’m in the flow when I’m so excited I just cut my finger and don’t care, “First blood!” and just keep on going.
The rest of it is support. So for now I have to play the entrepreneur, to handle the numbers, to make the calls, work out the marketing strategy, meet with potential investors, get the site organized for taking orders. But that’s all just the support, a setup so that ideally, I can keep creating, prototyping and testing ideas, enjoying the enjoying of those who just got served, make a lasting difference for the planet and feed myself in the process.
And so yesterday, in the midst of preparing for Oregon, writing a posting for a student intern, looking at the finances and getting the provisional patent filed, I rolled out to the Westside and met up with Norma Bonilla at the Venice Community Garden to harvest some bamboo poles. And I realized as I broke out the Japanese pull-saw, what I was actually building.
I realized halfway through harvesting, what I’m building with these poles and why against all logic and with all the sobriety and sanity of an Old Testament prophet I’ll be packing them all the way to Oregon.
Long before ever dreaming up the word Vertecology and doing the dot-com search, long before SCI-Arc was an intriguing name I heard on the lips of an old girlfriend years ago, I read somewhere about the floating islands built by the Aztecs which became the ground upon which Tenochtitlan and later Mexico City were built. The vision has stayed with me, and as I learned about permaculture, I realized that such madness might be worth pursuing. Realized that one could build floating islands on bamboo skeletons and local materials to reclaim wetlands from sea level rise and build edible coastlines, geometric wildlands and engines of turbocharged biodiversity and oxygen production. The process would be entirely organic (except maybe a few well placed LEDs, hint, hint), naturally paced and the artistry of it all could be truly stunning. And the bamboo for the skeletons of course could be grown right there on site, harvested, over and over and over, forever while it makes great shade for birds and cleans the tidal waters too.
In that twirling mind, it all seemed so far away, but as I harvested the bamboo, which will probably have grown back by the time I get back from Oregon, I realized a test could set up in a matter of days, in fact, in about 3 hours, I had a lot to show.
Then I went back to the pad and started prepping to write the budget for the Hanging Garden Kickstarter fundraise, but with a new twinkle in my eye. This is going to explode! Shhhh… don’t tell anyone.
Thank you for walking with me, in patience. Let us build together.
About a year ago this month, just before I headed off to Haiti, friend and fellow designer/builder Robert Redecker of Earthworks Natural Building Group invited me to do a few renderings to help flush out a circular cob and superadobe bench concept to be installed between three big shade trees at what was to become the Emerson Avenue Community Garden at Orville Wright Middle School in Westchester. At the time the “garden” was just a stretch of patchy lawn sandwiched between a soccer field and a few grand ideas. The 26-foot diameter seating area was going to become a teaching hub within the garden, a place where the school kids could gather around and learn about permaculture from a potential litany of travelers and luminaries in the know.
I punched out the renderings you see above, then got caught up with the journey to Haiti, then with dropping the Geo at clubs and the water harvesting system at Sugar and the Hanging Garden, and well… you get the idea. Then Robert called me about two weeks ago: “They’re starting the project this weekend and want our guidance.” So with camera and shovel in hand as Saturday morning dawned, I made my way out there for the groundbreaking, got introduced to something like 40 volunteers and found that a good part of the lawn had become, indeed, a community garden. We got busy on the building fast, and here’s a time lapse to tell the tale.
As you can probably tell, we just got to laying out the urbanite floor and setting up the trench for the foundation pour and there’s still more work to be done. Two more workdays are scheduled April 15 and May 5 and more volunteers certainly welcome. (Here or here for more details).
Robert himself has become a devotee of cob and superadobe building, both methods of building using almost entirely earth from the locale where the build takes place, meaning cheap, sculptable and simple construction that’s labor intensive but beautiful, deeply soothing, health- and ecology-enhancing and virtually indestructible when built by competent hands. Check out The Hand-Sculpted House: A Practical and Philosophical Guide to Building a Cob Cottage by Ianto Evans and Earthbag Building: The Tools, Tricks and Techniques by Nader Khaili if you’re interested in learning more; these two books are sort of the earth-building “bibles” and are full of methods, design philosophy and examples of some pretty amazing projects around the world.
And I must add that once lots of people get to work on grand ideas, they have a way of happening. Patchy lawns become hubs and hubs spawn more hubs. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s something afoot with gardens in the schools and it’s only a matter of time before their unused spaces become bona fide food forests cum education and activation centers. Then the food forests start to expand, partly because of people, but also because of birds and pollen and bees and it’s exciting to be here at the beginning of the evil plan for world liberation. Enjoy!
Greetings again, beautiful world! I have a confession to make, but no worries, it turns out better than I imagined in the end. For all this talk about permaculture, I must confess I’ve felt more comfortable until now with the “Design :: Build” part of the Vertecology equation. The “Permaculture” part of course is all about a design science that applies just as well outside the context of gardening as within it and I have certainly been putting that to work.
But at the end of the day I wondered how much of a permaculturist I could be if I (supposedly) had a brown thumb. As if there was a body of proprietary knowledge needed for planting and growing stuff. As if human beings didn’t have generations and in fact thousands, if not a couple of million years working closely with the natural world; as if the beings of other species… that is plants, animals, fungi, don’t want to grow just like we do, and don’t do so to the best of their abilities on their own using the resources available to them.
So much for the myth of the brown thumb. The truth is that until I got that permaculture was pretty much the answer to our global yearning for a culture of abundance and a future worth fighting for, I didn’t see much reason to try to grow anything.
Now with the onset of Spring, many of the little Echinacea Purpea and a few of the Yarrow seeds I popped into the Hanging Garden at the Sugar Shack have grown into robust little plants on all five levels, and some of the little guys are even flowering. That with only sporadic watering of these drought-tolerant species and a soil mixture taken on faith from my friend and partner in permaculture crime, Norma Bonilla.
While I’ve been posting about the Hanging Garden for a while now, I couldn’t really say the ”1.0″ version was complete until seeds had successfully taken root. After all, as a work of art, my vision of it was never just the hanging boxes themselves. That was just the foundation. Even though I will soon be manufacturing the structure, each installation will be unique based on what comes to inhabit it.
So now with this success, it’s on to fine tuning. Here are my thoughts on an even better soil mix considering aeration and improved drainage within the planter-box; as you can see from the diagram below, I’m thinking now of a gravel layer with a breathable sheet of fabric for future installations. Of course this will vary also with the sorts of plantings you want to do and I welcome suggestions. I’m also thinking a larger version of the Hanging Garden in the months to come for larger plantings.
And thus humbly begins a new leg of the adventure. Growing a garden is an act of patience, and as I’m learning in my endless unfolding, so is growing a business, or anything of value. You can’t plant the seeds and then cut the first shoot and expect a grand forest to envelop your digs. Perhaps that is even a great lesson for our entire quarterly earnings and test-scores culture, and one that when we have learned, we will begin to see our world self-heal largely with little more than a bit of multi-dimensional thinking, guiding and letting ourselves be guided. Just sayin,’ but that’s a rant for another day.
Now it’s only great to see nature at work, and to know that this experiment is blossoming and promising fertile weeks, months and years to come. Thanks for tuning in!
Hello all! Once again I can’t say much because the pics speak for themselves. I just did a one day install at the home of Chris Toussaint, LA Westside permaculturist and filmmaker, said install consisting of a vinyl downspouts leading inexorably and leak-free(!) to a rain harvesting barrel provided by Sustainable Works in the City of Santa Monica… my second rainwater harvesting system. I got to see firsthand the lessons I learned from the Sugar Shack install working beautifully here, and I must say I left the work site ready to celebrate, pumping the tunes loud and hard in the hump-day traffic toward home.
As you can see in the little photo-diagram below, in the initial consultation we discussed a number of actions for optimizing passive water use on the property. Wednesday afternoon, the downspout went up beautifully; the rest may come later.
The celebratory mood came not only from the seamless installation, or from the fact that I have gained more wisdom to offer in the upcoming e-book, or from the new information we will gain from this install as it functions in months and years to come. It came also in the recognition that this little 55-gallon system is another tiny but definitive step in the direction of freedom for all of us; after all, if everyone in LA put up a little system like this, it might be enough to give our aqueducts and maybe the Sacramento Delta or the Colorado River enough time off to regenerate the abundance they can provide for all of us.
Thank you Chris for creating the opportunity and caring for people and planet. And thank you all for listening. I hope I’ve inspired you.
Toward a culture of abundance, ho!