As someone who sees permaculture as a human-scale solution to a global problem (or problems), I’m a bit saddened by the obsession with industrial scale solutions like swales and terraces that, at least at the scale they’re typically used, are inaccessible to the poor and rural folks who are unable to afford heavy machinery. Certainly using swales is an effective strategy for securing water, and I certainly see the value in getting the job done quickly in order to fast track the repair process. But I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that A) bringing heavy equipment onto a piece of land does more damage, even if short term, than I’d like to see, and B) this obsession with heavy machinery leaves of dearth of options for the individual or small group practicing human-scale permaculture with hand tools.
I am one such person. I’m a long term steward of a rather large piece of property which the landowner would like to see producing most of their food. At this scale, typically excavators would be used to dig swales and ponds all over the property. As someone who is poor and only has access to hand tools, implementing an effective design becomes quite the ordeal once the usual tools of the trade are taken off the table.
A while back I discovered the work of Craig Sponholtz and his mentor Bill Zeedyk, and for all of their wonderful innovations and accomplishments, I can’t fathom why they’re not talked about more in permaculture circles. Just by thoughtfully arranging rocks or brush they are able to completely rehydrate desert landscapes, no swales required. Zuni bowls, media lunas, and one rock dams are some of the low-tech solutions they incorporate into their work. The principles are pretty basic, and they’re the same ones used by nature to pacify erosive water flows, if over a longer time scale than is possible with careful design. All of their work revolves around placing simple obstacles in the path of the water—on contour—thus pacifying water flow, catching sediment, catching seeds, revegetating the uphill side of the structure, which then catches more sediment, seeds, etc.
Inspired directly by their work, this year I’m experimenting with planting and mulching on contour in key water catchment zones. Since the landowners had the property clear cut, one of the areas that I’m working in has struggled to revegetate—fast flowing water carries seeds away before they have a chance to germinate. By planting on contour I hope to pacify the water flow and catch topsoil before it flows further down the hill. On another section of the property, I’m taking advantage of one of our primary drainages to slow the flow of water and use it to irrigate tuber crops and hopefully obtain higher yields than in previous years. With the use of a scythe, this becomes like a Ruth Stout or Jim Kovaleski bed on contour with all of the water catching potential of Bill Zeedyk’s media lunas.
To illustrate how I’m using Bill’s principles you can check out this video:
I wish more people were talking about the work done by Bill and Craig, and I wish there was more discussion of zero-budget human-scale solutions in general. Why not test the limit of what’s possible as an individual with hand tools? When we start to feel the pain of peak oil, if we’ve not yet come up with alternatives to our reliance on fossil fuel-powered heavy machinery, what techniques are we going to use to create permaculture systems by and for humans using simple tools?
I also can't quite wrap my head around the use of heavy equipment. Even if it is just a "one time thing" at each location it is way more expensive than I could afford. I don't personally know anyone who owns such equipment so borrowing is out of the question and I suspect to hire one would cost some pretty big bucks just to get one here before it ever moves a spoon full of dirt. Also of course they run on fossil fuel, lots of it, so not exactly environmentally friendly. And just think of where they come from. Materials are mined and transported, a giant factory or several make the constituent parts, it's all transported some more. I suppose the same is true for my hoes and shovels but much less so and they are very old so the harm is already done. With fuel, upkeep, transportation and so on the harm from a big machine never ends.
I wouldn't do what I've seen examples of even if I could afford it. I would skip the middle man and just buy a nice little farm with an existing pond or creek and settle in.
Exactly my thinking. The landowner has hired an excavator operator several times since I've been out here, and it always just makes a huge mess of things. Now I have so much erosion I have to repair with hand tools that was caused by heavy equipment. Making things worse is a dumb thing to spend money on... but it is the American way. I'll never understand it.
I feel you on the accessibility issue, less so on the idea that heavy machinery makes things worse.
I use heavy machinery to facilitate everything I do on my land-cars, trains, freighters, planes...
The biggest machine I use everyday is the one I'm communicating to you over.
I guess I'm a fan of technology, but I certainly recognize there are drawbacks.
I don't know if big earth movers are needed for swales, but that usual prescription is enough that haven't pursued learning more abshoveling.
I actually like shoveling,and yet, the time it takes to dig by hand is one of the main reasons I've decided to add material on top of the land rather than moving soil around.
I've also found that adding things to my land is easier than moving earth, but that has meant dump trucks and minivans delivering woodchips and bagged leaves.
The additions have done wonders to slow and sink the water that falls on my small lot.
I've really wanted to use a small earth mover to grade parts of my land that I'm actually not going to grow on.
I would also love to use a vehicle mounted post hole auger to create some really deep narrow holes for water infiltration.
I would fill the lower part with wood, and the top with gravel.
I really like your video on gopher and moles, I will be watching the one you've posted in this thread as well.
Accessibility is definitely the biggest issue. And I see some value in using machinery to get things done faster if the circumstances call for it. But the emphasis really is on "heavy." Even if heavy equipment is delivering things like mulch, which I have gotten from my arborist neighbor, those vehicles are using established roads. Even when vehicles—which I occasionally use to move wood and mulch if a wheelbarrow or car won't suffice—are taken off road, most are light enough to cause negligible harm if they're used on dry or well-covered spoil. I'm talking about the BIG stuff that's meant exclusively for off road use, and for moving soil specifically. They have a tendency to form ruts if they're driven over the same spot repeatedly, or on soil that's wetter than it ought to be. This isn't the intentional digging, it's just the side effect of using the machinery in general. And because water pools and flows in these guys, they become a source of erosion if left unchecked. And repairing that every day damage with hand tools can be a pretty big project, considering how quickly the damage was caused.
Then there's the intentional damage caused equipment operators that don't have any background in permaculture and so just do things in the "normal way." Or enthusiastic landowners who have work don't without doing the requisite homework and observation. This is the kind of damage that's really the most problematic for me because there's almost no way to fix the problem without bringing in more heavy equipment. And if you've already spent a lot of money making a mistake, it can be difficult you have to shell more money to fix the problem.
I have examples of both types of damage out here. I have "streams" forming in places where ruts were created by excavators, including one that's forming a narrow but deep gully that's threatening to erode the driveway if I don't get it armored or vegetated. I also have a giant ditch that runs across the property, probably 3 or 4 feet deep, which I'm pretty sure was put in at the recommendation of the equipment operator for drainage. It isn't on contour so the water flows rather quickly through the ditch, causing erosion, dumping sediment into the pond, and making maybe a quarter of the property completely inaccessible by vehicle and difficult to access on foot. This is damage that was caused in an afternoon, but there's no practical way to make it better with hand tools and my limited time and energy.
If more equipment operators had a background in permaculture, many of these problems could be avoided, or at least managed. Compaction will still be an issue, but it could be designed seeing.
That still leaves the problem of access. At this point, that's mostly an issue for people of limited means, and we still need solutions for those folks. Plus there's the whole issue of what happens if and when fuel no longer is affordable/accessible, or if the technology otherwise doesn't adapt to the changing climate and resources.
It's hard to predict how much technology will adapt to our changing circumstances. It's hard to know how much will be sustainable long term. By putting my emphasis on the tools and techniques that can be made, maintained, and utilized by individuals and small groups using local resources, then what happens to technology is irrelevant. It can be used to augment things while it's available, but a strong foundation means it won't be a huge deal if the technology goes away. One of the things that keeps me up at night is good dependent we've become in the internet remembering how to do basic things. What happens if we lose access?
Hopefully some of this makes sense? I'm running on like 2 hours of sleep and rambling at this point.
The TLDR version is if we start with human-scale strategies as the foundation, and use technology with human-scale strategies in mind, then we can guarantee that what we're doing is sustainable for the long term, and not just for a few years, or a few lifetimes. The current silicone shortage is a perfect example of how the shortage of one resource impacts a wider range of industries than it every would have in our history because everything suddenly has a computer in it. That could be extended to fossil fuels, steel, lithium, etc. A third of Americans are in track to be priced out of water within the decade, and water is at the heart of every other industry. Even if things technically don't go away, they may not be affordable for the average person in the very near future.
The pyramids and the Great china Wall were built without heavy machinery. All the swales you can dig it by hand if you so wished. It only would take decades to finish.
The way I see heavy machinery is that it is a convenient way of speeding up a process that I could have done by hand, as long as I don't depend on heavy machinery to ever get things done. Let me repeat in other words: if it's something I cannot do by hand, and it requires heavy machinery, then it's not sustainable. The damages you talked about are mostly temporary.
About affordability, you have a point. But that's the same problem with small farms. Bigger farms have bigger budgets, and they can landscape the whole relevant land. Suppose that you own just the land where it makes more sense to have a pond, would you build just a pond knowing that you will be able to grow nothing?
I had a similar problem in our garden. It's irrigation would vastly improve if I could modify the way trees are planted in the neighboring land, but I can't.
Although I agree that the most effective ways to deal with landscaping are usually not affordable for most folk, be it cost, be it the need to access adjacent lands. It could be done if the administration was learned enough to order the territory in such a way that encourages this landscaping, the same it orders where houses and retails must be located, but it is not.
I do wish there was a ham radio version of the internet...
I now see the difference in scale you are talking about.
I am in an urban setting, our heavy machinery is sized to fit us, built and employed in a way that avoids disrupting existing infra structure or systems.
The only time I see the scale of creation/ destruction you are talking about is on a building site.
The changes wrought are indeed more than a man and a shovel can undo or even mitigate in any reasonable way.
the techniques you refence here remind ne of what the good folks at Edible Acers do with water on their land.
I think some of the biggest positive changes that could be made on a homestead would have to do with hydrology. The sooner you alter your hydrology to something that shapes the land in the way that you want it shaped, the sooner it will adapt into the new dynamism of the interconnected systems employed upon it.
For me, the greatest way to do this would be to employ appropriate technology. If I need to cut on-contour water-infiltrating ruts, narrow, deep micro-swales or trenches that I then fill with woodchips, I won't dig them by hand. I have done so in the past, and I don't want to spend a day to trench 25-75 feet, depending on depth, width, and what I'm digging through. I will probably use one of those laser level-finders to mark contour at regular intervals with stakes, and then rent or buy a trencher, like a ditch witch, but probably a small one. Likewise, I would bring woodchips in large quantities using large trucks if I could.
We are storytelling, tool-using apes, and we have a limited span of usefulness during our also limited lives here on earth. I think it appropriate to use tools to accelerate our building to accomplish more, as I think a properly planned and executed project that has a momentum of its own has a better chance of success than one that requires my constant and careful attentions, in the event that I am made unavailable for whatever reason. We are more than capable of observing, forecasting, and amending plans over time. I have no worry that the projects that I set up are going to succeed as thriving little nuclei of self-complicating inter-related ecosystems of their own, and part of the sustainability will be the water harvesting and control measures. The earlier those get done, along with any disruptive earth-moving, the sooner perennials go into the changed areas, and the sooner the flora and fauna from the microbiology right on up adapt to better conditions for survival, and the sooner the projects' life support systems get up to speed.
An assumption that I get from having read the thread is that nature's solutions are always preferred, are always sustainable. I feel this is fallacy, from a human perspective. Nature's solutions are perfect for nature. It may have no compunctions about something subjectively horrible happening to a well-meaning steward of the land.
I love one-rock dams, as well as rows of fallen limbs and logs anchored on-contour on hills to act as sediment traps. That is how to use hydrology to form terraces of a sort over time. But sometimes, that's not appropriate for the uses intended. Sometimes you want to dig a giant pond or a small lake, rip trenches and spillways and woodchip-filled swales for extra water capacity, and to hold it when it's dry, dredge and enlarge existing ponds, and move soil to form new forests atop your wofati-inspired dwellings and outbuildings. I don't want to do that by hand. I would never finish.
But with a season of disruption, I can put all the changes into place so that the hydrology can work for me. Shaping the land to the purposes we want it to serve saves us time and improves our chances of success, especially as it pertains to controlling erosion, ensuring everything gets what water it needs, and affording access.
As a sidebar, I love how nature works. I am cognizant, though, that nature doesn't really do much about erosion. If it has that agency on some level, I don't believe that it really cares, or has the ability to directly affect it. I don't see trees dropping their shed limbs on-contour to trap sediment eroding from uphill, except by accident. It wouldn't make sense to do that anyways, as a sediment trap will slow water and trap sediment, but would also trap and hold burning embers in the event of a forest fire.
To speak in the idiom, if the Earth Mother has agency and the ability to directly effect small changes, I have no reason to believe that what the Earth Mother and I see as beneficial or desired outcomes are the same.
I would be concerned with water harvesting and helping my tiny speck on the skin of the Earth Mother be as biodiverse, productive, and lush as possible for all living things, but primarily to feed me and mine, and as a showcase so I can help others create their own biodiverse nucleus of resilient and regenerative food and materials production.
The Earth Mother is likely concerned with her overpopulation by one type of her children at the expense of all others. They're too crafty by far, and have, for a while now, been able to resist the viral control measures she seeks to use to lessen their numbers. But they're also not very forethoughtful about the health impacts of some of their less environmentally friendly activities, which are introducing them to more and more viral control measures. And if those don't work, the other control measures, where ocean levels rise suddenly and drown billions of coast-dwelling people after a couple of glaciers finish their slow transition from land to sea, look to be on track to do their thing. These children of hers are crafty, but they haven't reached the level of sophistication where they could refreeze polar caps. Or they probably could, given their current level of technology, at least in part, but the political will is lacking, and they're too busy squabbling over resources instead of working together to get more from the giant rocks whizzing around the Earth Mother.
But I suppose it is just a matter of perspective. I, for instance, consider some of the larger hydroelectric projects, ones that displace people and cause methyl mercury contamination, anyways, to be too large, by-and-large (a saying which annoys me, as you can sail either by or large, but not at the same time), but at the same time, if there were a solar-powered pumped hydroelectric battery project that could be designed to be fail-safe, displaced no people, and perhaps replace a melted glacier high-up in a mountainous area that would otherwise be rendered an arid mountainous environment, with desertification below, I wouldn't have a problem with it. In fact, I would probably love it, if it were executed properly.
By my interpretation, the importance of human-scale in permaculture is mostly with the day-to-day operational requirements of people working within systems. They should be able to perform their tasks within the systems with minimal technological intervention. I like Occam's Razor technological solutions, which is how I refer to an approach to technology that starts at the simplest end and gets complex only as needed. If a counterweight allows me to swing paddock gates open by lifting a latch with a mechanism I can operate with a free foot, and I need to walk there anyways to lead the livestock, why would I consider an electric motor? Of course, if everything is tractored and moved by electric motors to a set pattern, I would need a gate that can be operated automatically.
To answer the OP's question, I think it's because the quiet, minimal-impact approach isn't flashy enough for some. I think for some others, there is actually an appeal to either the physical manipulation of landforms, or to the operation of large, powerful machinery, or both. Personally, I want two trout ponds on-property with a running raceway zig-zagging across the whole thing to provide regular fertigation, and a solar-powered pump to move water back up to the top pond, mostly because I have delusions of salmon-raising in a multi-trophic setup where, like some landlocked varieties in the northwest, they live their lives entirely in freshwater.
See? Big ideas. On-contour sediment traps aren't going to get me there, nor are hand-dug ponds and courses, at least not until I'm too old to be able to enjoy them. Give me a ditch witch, though, and all of that becomes more attainable.
So it really is about accessibility, but in my view, from different perspectives. Some have an abundance of time with respect to their goals. Others have less time, and so are willing to accelerate their progress by mechanical means.
I would definitely agree that the larger the changes you seek to make, the more careful you need to be, and the greater the impact of possible outcomes. But that's potential good and potential bad. And as we all know, the 62nd Rule of Acquisition clearly states, "The riskier the road, the greater the profit." In this case, profit for me entails greater biodiversity and resources yields for my systems, but also for wild systems at large, and the goal of said profit would be direct reinvestment.
I definitely agree, though, that everyone should be aware of water harvesting and control techniques other than swales, and all levels of technology appropriate to our individual goals.
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
-Robert A. Heinlein
Enjoyed your post/video.
It's very hard to gauge different needs in different terrains.
I am 100% with you on *not needing a backhoe to do agriculture. I get push-back from my neighbors for not using machinery to dig holes, ditches, whatever..
I'm in NE AZ, high desert with maybe 11" of rain per year.
Dug a couple smaller swalish things, which have definitely helped to loosen the soil.. I dug a 20' ditch in half an hour, and the neighbor still says, "You need a tractor.."
Umm, no.. You need a shovel ; )
Anyway, I thought Picasso fucked up contours.
I think swales/earthworks/ponds have the largest potential of any permaculture concept for serious mistakes. The variations in soil types and qualities are enormous. It takes significant experience and long term observation to sculpt the land in a way that you do not create more problems than you solve. I don't think someone can just "show up" and design successful water features.
I've been observing my property for 13 years. I know that if reasonably dry, it can absorb 4 inches of rain before any runs off. And when it does run off, it is clear. This is simply from keeping the soil covered. The one area that could possibly benefit from swales is currently wooded, and I'm not going to clear existing woodland to regrade. Any place high in our property is also upstream of our neighbors house. I am not going to impound water above my neighbor's house. Instead of swales, we opted for brush dams. My KIDS were able to construct dams in just a couple hours, with materials on hand, and zero equipment. Maintainace is just a couple hours a year disguised as "cleaning up".
One thing I would like to see is huge swales, 50+ feet wide and so gentle that you barely notice them. This would allow all the tractor/equipment lovers to continue to use their equipment as they have for decades with little disruption.
Large commercial farms are actually going the other way and using gps tech to smooth their land as much as possible. While this does not hold the water, it does spread and slow the water. I'd be interested to see how the ground water responds.
All very cool to think about and experiment worth. There is never a one size fits all solution!
Chris, I am going to steal that bit about Occam’s razor technology, if I may. It perfectly encapsulates my tech philosophy.
I am really tired of the negativity about swales. They are very useful elements that can be adapted to many situations, and provide numerous benefits. They are extremely good at letting water infiltrate to extreme depths. They can be installed on a micro scale or a macro scale. They are also not the answer to everything. Personally, though, swales are close to my heart. They remind me of the games my brothers and I used to play with water and dirt and twigs, on the driveway and in the sandbox. So far, I have dug all my swales by hand. If I ever need one bigger than about 2 feet deep and 30 feet long, I will probably get a couple helpers with pickaxes. A lot bigger, or a pond, and I either need to host a barbecue or hire an excavator. There is nothing wrong with using bigger tools for bigger jobs.
While the technology exists, it can be used for good or for bad. Why not use it to make all of our lives better?
Earthworks are the skeleton; the plants and animals flesh out the design.
Here’s good advice for practice: go into partnership with nature; she does more than half the work and asks none of the fee. – Martin H. Fischer
I have been doing things very similar to this on my property over the last few years. I didn't know others were also.
I started because of the need to divert water and it be free. I started by raking the fall leaves into piles that were on contour of any slope where I wanted to capture water. Anywhere that I can mow, I blow the clippings from the pasture pr wherever onto the contour leaf piles once or twice a season. If I can't mow I will throw a layer of clover hay full of seed onto the piles and let that work before being covered again. After 2 or 3 seasons I drop some topsoil/compost on top and plant it.
I'm a lumberjack and I'm okay, I sleep all night and work all day. Tiny lumberjack ad:
World Domination Gardening 3-DVD set. Gardening with an excavator. richsoil.com/wdg