Building Paths to Sustainability
A long time ago I set out to decide what could be accomplished by a person that would be of true benefit to the earth and its people. I don't share common beliefs about productivity, economic superiority, or first world ideals in general. Back when I was looking for a way to make a true impact on the world it dawned on me that almost all focus on what is external, is fruitless. I firmly came to believe that if you want to change the world you have to change yourself. That doesn't mean to ignore the external to the point that you don't impact your surroundings, but only that what is external, beyond what we can realistically touch is merely a diversion. There are always exceptions to most everything, and I am not arguing that a charity of a certain sort is not noble, but only that true impact comes from within. If we lack our own path then we can never harvest from the middle of the meadow.
As I pursued this line of thinking I was led down a path which made me realize that not only philosophically and spiritually did I need to improve myself before my ideals or work were of any consequence, but that I had basic necessities, which by the very nature of society in the first world, led to the undeniable destruction of third world peoples, third world environments, and the economically fragile locations the entire world over. These basic needs I had, which I have every right to fulfill, are currently destroying the entire planet. I don't take this sort of thing lightly, and therefore I decided that the most important thing a person could do, a person with any means whatsoever to do so, is to decrease their burden on the systems and people in place that currently provide what they do not have access to. Those without means to do so, likely already have a much smaller (negative) impact on the planet around them. Perhaps this is why Jesus said it is easier for a camel to get into the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven, or why Saint Francais bemoaned of himself as one of the most awful people alive. There is an important burden on the wise, educated, or well-to-do, that puts them at great spiritual, moral, or ethical risk.
Permaculture Paths and Methods to Sustainability
So I started on the pursuit to woodland farming; you can call it whatever you like, permaculture, silviculture, horticulture, gardening, farming, I can think of a lot more names, but essentially what it is, is farming in Accord with Nature. Woodland farming for myself has been a messy, chaotic process. You see I am not a left brained individual, I am a left handed person, which means I use my right brain predominantly. The right brain is known for supplying creativity and madness. I have always been firmly entrenched in art over order, in the ordering of chaos into a new branded form of chaos that I can call my own. When I do something big I plan a lot, but I almost always disregard the plan as a formula and merely work of mental images of what it was I wanted to accomplish. I consider how it was that I wanted to solve a coming problem as it presents itself, but the application is almost invariably slightly different from the conception because I follow no formula.
Working in this sort of haphazard fashion has always worked well for me, at least as well as I needed or wanted it to work. Many people may be appalled at the process, in fact from the people I know, none work in this fashion. It is not necessarily a better or worse way, but it is as I might say in Accord with my Nature at the least. I am exactly what I am and I make no reservations about it, I do not scheme to make you think I drew up one of those pretty little permaculture drawings you might find on the internet. Instead I made 5 or 6 maps over the months or years of my planning phases and they are all now either lost or missing because they were ugly or downright embarrassing, crumpled and left in random places. I use the planning process as a way to gather the future into a coherent dream map, and then when I arrive at that mass of reality before me, with a basic conception of what it is that I am doing, I navigate through it with hops and hazard.
To me it is the only way I can work, it is the only thing which my skill set will allow, unless I shut off my brain altogether and just dig. But do not believe for one second that because I am this way means that my ordered chaos is any worse than someone who starts from the beginning with an exact representation of what will be in the future. To myself, that idea is absurd. It is the exact sort of thing that I rebel against. This idea that one can tell prior to construction what the construction is exactly seems awfully odd to me.
If you notice, as you progress from indigenous bush shelter to detailed suspension bridges you will find that as you go the planning and preparation needs to be more and more exact. This is because when you look at this kind of gradation you are moving from the natural world to the world of human minds. Human minds naturally tend to start adopting their own rigid foundations, when they find that nature's rules are imposing limits to their natural orderliness, and this for sure is an amazing feat of the human, but it is not better or worse than the natural mind and natural world. On the flip side though, when the minds of men and women veer too far in a certain wrong direction they may suddenly realize that they are destroying the planet. Instead it is my belief that the human mind put to work with nature rather than apart from nature, all but prevents either humans or nature itself, from destroying the planet.
I proceeded for years down this line of thinking. I have been turning roughly 9 acres over to permaculture styled forest gardening. Which is to say the planting of useful plants, that can generally fend for themselves. I have learned a lot in this process, but I want to talk about paths. There is something infinite and ethereal about a path, we all seem to recognize we are on one, whether we know where it came from, goes, how it is being guided, or whether there is a point to it, is often a mystery. Whether real or symbolic paths intrigue us and pull us towards them. My paths are never straight lines. I plant along the natural lines of the forest edge. My paths wind serpentine like rivers.
Being of the scattered sort the paths I have built to my plants have been somewhat hidden, but the inevitable march of the forest began to challenge my ability to access my durable plants hiding beneath grape vines and purple loosestrife. Some plants only got weeded once a year and twice if they were lucky depending on how much time I had. This is the power and difficulty of working in Accord with Nature. When you work with nature you are not required to shoulder the load, but you risk becoming swamped by the forest. If you put the right plant in the right place, more or less it will survive, as long as you can find it to give it that slight advantage it may need to surpass its competitors. For the years I have been working, nearly non-stop, 15-50 hour weeks, I almost always used hand powered tools. Sickles, scythes, pruners of all sorts, machetes, axes, whatever sort, I love hand powered tools. But recently it became that the maintenance of my paths was severely cutting into the time I could improve my plantings, plant more food, enjoy my labor, and ultimately fix my burden upon the earth in a reasonable time frame.
Changing Tactics and Tools | Sun and Battery
So I went ahead and took the plunge for automating some of my path clearing. Up until now the only high powered machines I used were a 13 HP rotary spader I use to make swales and no-till the earth for planting (mostly potatoes) or building swales, and a chainsaw for cleanup, clearing, and harvesting. But these items were of no use for path maintenance. So while I don't have a lawn, for my situation, to successfully continue on my path towards regenerative living, I all but needed a lawn mower.
I have always had a loathing for lawn, and vicariously the lawn mower (person or machine) and never really considered using it. Luckily this time, when I was finally ready to relent, and free up my time from path building to something more useful, I had the thought to try an electric mower. The power loss is negligible, perhaps unnoticeable, although I do have to push it, and I should know seeing as I used it and a battery powered hedge trimmer to clear a meadow path in mid-summer; and besides I have never desired to make land management a sitting down procedure; the relative silence of electric equipment means that the electric mower is a tool I want to turn on, rather than like a gas tool which I can't wait to turn off.
Having already designed and installed a solar system I am now accomplishing a necessary function to proceed with my work using the power of the sun. It is quite a liberating feeling to be able to walk freely along my paths, without needing to constantly swing a machete and check myself for ticks, knowing that after the investment of parts I am now operating my machine without any impact on the environment at all, at least until parts replacement. I do not believe batteries are a godsend, or without impact to the environment, but the fact is that it is quite likely they are an improvement over gas or coal. I am not delusional, I know that a human powered device is the single most eco way to manage the environment, but we all must admit to the natural constraints of our society, and I do believe that it is at play here.
Sure I feel poorly about hurting a larger number plants, and hurting bugs, or perhaps the occasional frog or mouse that gets in the way of my mower, but there is no question in my mind that the ultimate result of such discord is a small but vital improvement of the planet. I do not believe there is anything really that is more important than the application of human knowledge to work with and improve the environment to better support humans. Without such work humans will destroy this planet, and while you still run the risk of overpopulating the planet due to abundance, there is a clear short term gain in designing some chaos, planting some food, fuel, fiber, and timber, and maintaining access to it, on the largest scale your land and time permits. I don't know of an action as accessible or useful to so many people, that could make such an enormous difference on the way that people run the planet.
The Ultimate Goal of Building the Path to Sustainability
Without properly maintaining your path you will have a hard time reaching your goal. Whether your goal is a chaotic mass of thorns or a neatly laid out, color coded map of your property, you need a way to use your available time and energy to a sufficient degree. The nobility of being a producer rather than a consumer may require that you engage in the consumptive model occasionally, it may require you harm something that you would rather not harm, but if you are wise, and have clearly visualized what it is that you are doing, you will come out on the other side with a beautiful path that saves the planet one you at a time.
© All photos are copyrighted Accord with Nature. The first picture and last 5 (below) are my paths. The 2nd 3rd 4th and 5th pictures are from my (webmaster, writer etc.) trip on the Appalachian Trailin 2004, and the picture directly above this is from Eastern Europe sometime around 2007.