Sean Maley reports from Green Phoenix Permaculture Design Course

I met Sean Maley from Green Phoenix Permaculture‘s NYC Chapter on my visit to Epworth Camp a few weeks ago, and invited him to do a little guest blogging about the Permaculture Design Course. (Doesn’t “guest blogging” sound like an appropriate way to reconnect with the urban whirlwind?) Sean is a resident of Upper Manhattan, and works with several community gardens in his neighborhood. Here’s his report:

I’m just returning to the cacophony, today. The full two week Geoff Lawton experience was intense. Some days went from 6:00AM to 11:00PM, but by the end, most were beginning to oversleep the 6:30AM compost turning (every other day).

Geoff and Nadia may not be back for quite some time, if ever. They have enormous amounts of work lined up, especially in the Mideast. He will be working directly with several ministers of agriculture in that part of the world to rethink their infrastructures, especially in Persian Gulf nations like Qatar, where he is presently. He also formally launched Permaculture Across Borders during his stay. Projects are lining up from Afghanistan to Nigeria; sort of a Robin Hood pattern while he sets up eco-resorts and food systems for energy wealthy nations and uses that money to set up Permaculture Education Centers in third world nations.

There will be no question in the near future that some influence happened during these two weeks. One of the students chairs the Mohonk Consultations charity (one of the Smileys) and others know Pete Seeger personally. It would appear that a new chapter in a haven for ecologically minded folks has begun. Many topics and concepts from these past two weeks come to mind.

Cadmium Poisoning from fertilizer use:

When Phosphate is mined, particularly in USA, there are various impurities including Cadmium, Arsenic, and Uranium. These impurities can’t be completely removed and build up in the soil over time. Eventually, these highly toxic materials will be found on your food and bio-accumulate in us.

More phosphate trouble when I went to check on what Geoff Lawton was telling us:

“Not a problem.” “Carbon is a sponge.” Soil can be repaired and made usable. The soils around Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Chernobyl were all thought to have been made unusable for centuries, but testing contradicts such an assumption. By building healthy soil, contaminants get locked up in the Carbon, thus becoming biologically neutralized.

Rain water catchment was discussed extensively, as were concerns of “acid rain” and coal power “mercury” contamination. The choice comes down to what one can trust: what neighbors may or may not have poured into the water supply (gasoline, paints, solvents, etc) and accumulated over decades or how rain water collection works. First, asphalt roof tops can’t be used. Assuming a non-toxic roof top construction, the water must be collected in a container that light can penetrate, so algae can grow. Toxins, such as from using plastic containers, will be “locked up” in the algae growth. The spigot must be located up and away from the bottom of the container to avoid the anaerobic accumulation at the bottom. Geoff compares this method as living (rain collection) verses dead (well) water. Since rain comes from natural evaporation, it is less likely to have contaminants than water from the ground. If acid rain is the issue, put some limestone into the collection tank. The Permaculture Design Manual contains the complete plans.

Geoff is also not particular about being a vegetarian. He notes that sheep and goats are much better at converting vegetation to protein than humans. He therefore concludes that the most efficient food system for people would include meat. In fact, he felt it so important that we all participated in a Halal (Geoff and Nadia are Muslim) slaughtering of three roosters. The roosters very clearly didn’t flinch until over thirty seconds after the spinal cord had been severed. Nadia taught several of us how to butcher them safely. That was our dinner for the night. The exercise has been shown successful helping troubled youth and teaching them about honoring nature.

Another major concept was how to identify the key point on a hill. The key point identifies the region above that contour line where water can be collected for an ecosystem and then stored and used below it. By building a swale along this line and looking for places to put “dams” (what we often refer to as a pond) on it, we can store water and evenly distribute it down hill. The size of the swale and height of the “spillway” depends on the 100 year, 24 hour rainfall amount for a given climate (about 10″ here). Often, several swale and pond lines can be found and one spillway feed the next swale. The mechanics for building these key-line swales and ponds was conveyed effectively by having us build them on a dirt pile and then pouring water at the top of the pile to check everyone’s designs. After fixing “freeboards”, “spillways”, and leveling the swales onto contour, we could see complex water catchments emerge and weather a very large deluge.

Much more was covered, from patterns seen in nature to “invisible” structures. The participants were amazing, as were the instructors. We all probably gained a few pounds from the great food, as well. As an experience, I highly recommend it. Any of the concepts can be read about, but learning from actual practitioners can’t be replaced (particularly learning from Geoff Lawton). In return for our very difficult two weeks, including some hard labor in a food forest, with the compost piles, roosters, and three different market farms, we have the authority to consult, teach, and certify for ourselves. As of the year 2000, Geoff now issues certificates from PRI (Permaculture Research Institute of Australia), which only registered teachers may issue. Although we can do our own form of certification as practiced from the early days, there is a difference. For a list of registered teachers, check this list (not appearing here doesn’t mean the teacher can’t “certify”, just they can’t issue the dated, signed and numbered PRI certificate; eight additional teachers in America are currently being reviewed).


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