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I almost died, but permaculture (and the kindness of strangers) came through in the nick of time

 
pioneer
Posts: 595
Location: Oregon 8b
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I haven't been super active here the last couple of years. The pandemic was, to say the least, unhelpfully premature in relation to my overall permaculture strategy. I had just moved onto the final site that the landowner had chosen for this project. It had been clear cut and scraped back to subsoil, or the bit of topsoil that was left quickly washed down the hill during the first rains. I had freshly arrived at an already challenging situation and then the pandemic hit. I lost my job and my car and no longer had regular access to town or the relative upsides of capitalism, and four years later the state has still refused to pay the unemployment that I'm owed. And being in a rural area meant I didn't have access to food waste, and wood chips, and all of the other waste streams that suburban dwellers can often take advantage of to rapidly increase the tilth of their sites. I could barely grow weeds, and they were sparse and covered in thorns or poison. Anything I could have foraged was quickly overgrazed by the deer population that had exploded in the wake of the light release created by the logging and the temporary influx of tender annual vegetation. The deer bred like rabbits, the rabbits bred like rabbits, everything bred like rabbits. And then the inevitable happened. They overgrazed everything and starved to death. The local deer herd went from about 5 members, up to 20, and then came crashing back down to 3-5 members. It wasn't legal to hunt them, because the state thinks that allowing deer to starve to death is a better management strategy than actually allowing people to eat, and I didn't have a suitable firearm even if it had been permissible. They think they're smart enough to management wildlife, but then they take timber lobby money and allow the disaster that is clear cut logging, but never adjust their management strategies to suit. I mean, typical of government, but no less frustrating.

That was the start of my food insecurity problems. For the first three years, most of my food was eventually destroyed by wildlife who were starving in the wake up the logging, and three of the worst climate years I've experienced in 36 years of living here. 180 days without rainfall one year. Some of the coldest, wettest, longest, and most disease-ridden winters and springs I've ever experienced. And the hottest weather too, with temps nearing an unimaginable 120 degrees.

None of the friends who'd agreed to help with the project ever showed up. Not surprisingly, given the pandemic, but in retrospect, I think they all were more in love with the idea of permaculture than with actually doing the work. I don't think they ever were going to show up. But thanks, at least, to the friends I made here who gave support and sent seeds. It's only in retrospect that I really appreciate how much of a lifeboat that was. After 3 years of massive crop failures, most of my original seed supply would have been wiped out.

I rarely had access to town, so obviously medical was limited to "hopefully nothing terrible happens" and "if something does happen, hopefully I figure out how to deal with it given the resources I have." There were periods where I was subsisting almost exclusively on the rice I'd brought in at the very beginning. Some beans on occasion. I couldn't even get greens because the wildlife beat me to the few weeds that were edible. Eventually I started developing the early signs of all manner of old-timey diseases that are almost unheard of today, except in history books. Scurvy, goiter, pellagra, beriberi. To boot, we had both a Berkey and the main filter for the well fail, resulting in manganese poisoning. And black mold continued to haunt my respiratory system. All in combination with two bouts of covid, the loss of friends, and the general stresses one might assume are present during forced self-reliance in the context of a global pandemic. I had it all. Fatigue, confusion, pain, muscle weakness, brain fog, lack of focus, lack of balance, depression, anxiety, paranoia, and flirtations with psychosis. Which weren't helped by the insomnia induced by the manganese poisoning, which only let me sleep for about 3 hours a night for months on end. Not only had I not succeeded in achieving food self-sufficiency, but my mind and body were shutting down to a degree that I was increasingly certain that I could no longer achieve escape velocity.

I could have used help. I thought I needed help. But I had enough self-awareness to recognize my almost complete feralness and had to be mindful of when and how I interacted with people to avoid burning bridges in the depths of my insanity. At one point I marveled at how elegantly adaptive it is to go crazy in a resource poor environment. Cooperation only works when there's actually enough to go around. When there's not enough to go around, you better be ready to flip out and attack people that risk your food supply, otherwise you won't survive. This is what we see described in the fields of nutritional psychiatry and epigenetics and it's kind of beautiful. Not something I want to live through again, by any stretch, but a beautiful solution to a practical problem. And it has also led me to the hypothesis that poor diets in America are directly related to increases of violence and polarization. Not the only cause, but certainly a foundational one.

Last year, at the very beginning of the main planting season, the landowner gave me covid. Everything I'd planted earlier in the season diet because I couldn't take care of it. My main staples crops never got planted at all. I had no food of any nutritional consequence and had no way to make food happen. Every time the wildlife or environment didn't smack me down, the landowner inevitably found some way to destroy my work. Everything felt futile. Not just futile, but it felt like if I didn't end my life on my own terms, then I would just end up getting sicker and crazier and ultimately die a much more painful and horrifying death than one I had intentionally planned.

So I did. And I made three attempts.

After the third attempt I was struck by this all-encompassing knowing that I wasn't every going to go through with taking my life. And if I wasn't going to take my own life, and I refused to submit to a slow and painful death, I had to resolve to finding any way to avoid that fate.

I ruthlessly cut out everything I could. I stopped having any unnecessary or draining social interactions, and avoided the internet entirely, so that I could conserve my limited energy. I determined where on the site was the most protected spot to include a garden, based on my previous years of observations of local wildlife populations. I found a really low quality compost for $10 a yard, which was still better than the clay subsoil I was working with, and called in a favor with one of the nearest neighbors and pick up a load with their truck. That was a boost of organic matter that I desperately needed. I started brewing 20 gallons a week of comfrey/nettle/thistle tea for additional fertility and siphoning it off into an IBC I'd gotten for free the year before so I could start stockpiling the fertility I would need to get through the year. And weeds were thicker, and sparse thistles had started giving way to thick grasses, so I finally had a decent quantity of organic matter to utilize for mulch and dramatically improve the water situation. I went way lighter on the early spring crops, because even though it's really emotionally rewarding to start getting those earlier vegetables after a long winter, I knew that he math didn't check out. The real calories and nutrition were going to come from the stuff planted later in the season, and time and energy I wasted on early season crops would eat into the time, energy, and space I had to grow the really important stuff. Even in the worst years, I knew that a three sisters planting outperformed basically anything else I could grow, so corn, beans, and squash were prioritized over everything else. Sunchokes had performed poorly due to the drought the previous year, so I replanted every single tuber and was finally able to give then a heavy layer of mulch which has persisted through the season and massively increased yields this year. And from the original 10 or so rhizomes of achira that I'd received from a friend, literally only one small plant had survived. I dug it up and brought it in for the winter, meticulously babying it and dividing it as it filled its pot, and expanding from 1 plant to 16 by the time it was time to put them back in the ground, and then I put them in the wettest spot I had at the base of a downspout. Sunflowers were the last major crop, a good source of fats (and choline, IIRC, or maybe vitamin E.) I did obviously still plant some early season crops, and a smattering of other things, but only after the primary crops were a done deal. All of the prep work from the primary crops had to be done before flirting with anything else, and I had to abandon any non-essential crops if they started eating into the planting and management of the primary crops. They couldn't be trusted to produce, so while I still wanted to plant them and continue to develop a landrace that would hopefully perform well here, but until then they had to take a backseat.

I also adopted strategies, like the Hopi method of planting corn in clumps, which increased planting and management efficiency, minimized loss to pest damage, and decreased lodging in our high winds, and allowed me to select genetics for my landrace that were especially adapted to growing with competition, which would likely help against weeds in future generations, and just overall resilience.

I harvested somewhere in the neighborhood of 130 winter squash, between 50 and 100 pounds of flint corn, 50 pounds or so of sunflower seeds, 200ish pounds of achira, and I suspect about 200 pounds of sunchokes, they they're still sleeping in the ground until I want to variety and work through one of my other crops. I've also picked a smattering of other things. Probably at least a couple hundred pounds a zucchini, 100 or so pounds of tomatoes, a few pounds of amaranth, a smattering of greens, root crops, and native/invasive berries, and a sizeable crop of apples from a couple abandoned/seedling trees which I've found locally. Squirrels beat me to the native nuts, but they also did well this year.

I felt hopeful this year in a way that I hadn't previously. This were actually working like they hadn't before. Even the climate was relatively normal compared to the previous years. And because there was enough grass and things starting to fill in on the property, and because I situated the garden in a protected spot, I was able to peacefully coexist with the deer and other wildlife. Little garter snakes were perching 3 or 4 feet off of the ground in my bean vines to sun and hunt, protecting the garden from pests, as did the wasps, ladybugs, dragonflies, frogs, bats, and other predators that finally showed up this year. Hummingbirds would land on the fence and watch me work. For once, things were peaceful.

And the results speak for themselves. Between the staples I was able to harvest and the various fresh vegetables that are available in fits and spurts throughout the year, I finally had enough. Enough calories. Enough nutrition.

Obviously I'm painting in broad strokes here. There's so much more minutia I could touch on. But that's more or less how I almost died in my quest for food self-sufficiency. And hopefully gives you ideas about what to do, or not, if you also want to achieve food self-sufficiency with limited resources. If you assume that there will be a global catastrophe and that people won't show up like they say they will, you'll be on much better footing than if you expect to have a regular income and extra sets of hands that you may not. Not that I didn't learn a lot from doing it the hardest way possible, but please, save yourself the struggle.

If you want something more visual, or additional details, I just finished putting together this overview of the past year and change:



Thank you so much to the people here on Permies that really came through for me in my time of need. I have literally never met a warmer and more giving group of people on the internet, and I was able to linger here much longer than I was able to tolerate the vitriol and aggression elsewhere on the internet. It's make me realize how sad I am that the internet has largely transitioned away from forums and onto social media. Forums are definitely much more conducive to the kinds of interactions we ought to be having as humans. I really appreciate it.
 
master pollinator
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Location: Canadian Prairies - Zone 3b
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Hi Mathew! That is an amazing and inspiring story of hardship and resilience. Good Lord! I'm glad you shared it with us.

You have been through hell -- and to quote Winston Churchill, "When you're going through hell, keep going!"

I am glad you decided to keep going.

Covid was no joke either, despite how it has become political and polarized. I was knocked out for three weeks. I personally know people who came within inches of death. At the time it was deadly serious, and it cut us off from our normal helper communities of family, neighbours, churches, all the support groups who keep us grounded and centred ... we all know the list.

Welcome back from the brink! Please show us more of what you've built in these trying times!
 
pollinator
Posts: 1125
Location: Chicago
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Matthew, welcome back! It so good to hear from you again. Much sympathy for all your hardship, but glad you persevered and have come through this difficult personal journey with helpful lessons to share.
 
Mathew Trotter
pioneer
Posts: 595
Location: Oregon 8b
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Douglas Alpenstock wrote:Hi Mathew! That is an amazing and inspiring story of hardship and resilience. Good Lord! I'm glad you shared it with us.

You have been through hell -- and to quote Winston Churchill, "When you're going through hell, keep going!"

I am glad you decided to keep going.

Covid was no joke either, despite how it has become political and polarized. I was knocked out for three weeks. I personally know people who came within inches of death. At the time it was deadly serious, and it cut us off from our normal helper communities of family, neighbours, churches, all the support groups who keep us grounded and centred ... we all know the list.

Welcome back from the brink! Please show us more of what you've built in these trying times!



Thanks! "Keep going" is right. 😅

Definitely have a few other posts where I've posted pictures. And whatever's ended up on youtube.

But here's a picture that pretty well sums up the season.
garden5.jpeg
garden abundance on the brink of disaster
 
Mathew Trotter
pioneer
Posts: 595
Location: Oregon 8b
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Mk Neal wrote:Matthew, welcome back! It so good to hear from you again. Much sympathy for all your hardship, but glad you persevered and have come through this difficult personal journey with helpful lessons to share.



I'm glad I did too. And definitely lots of things I can teach others a lot easier than I learned them. And I think they're deeply valuable skills, even if I hope they're never as necessary for others as they have been for me.
 
pollinator
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Matthew, I was touched by your post.

Thank you so much for putting this up for all of us to read - when we come across it.

What a struggle you have had!

Would you please put up a link to your YouTube channel so I can visit?

Thank you, again, for your kindness towards us in sharing your hardship struggles as well as the simple joys. It helps me get through my own struggles in my endeavors with changing to a more permaculture gardening methods.

 
steward
Posts: 5615
Location: Isle of Skye, Scotland. Nearly 70 inches rain a year
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Kw Velasco wrote:Would you please put up a link to your YouTube channel so I can visit?


Follow Matthew's signature link, or if you watch his video link from the first post on youtube, that should take you to his channel. I believe his internet isn't always accessible for him.
 
pollinator
Posts: 262
Location: Wabash, Indiana, Zone 6a
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This was me until recently. How utterly silly I was. ;)

j

Mathew Trotter wrote:I think they all were more in love with the idea of permaculture than with actually doing the work.

 
No prison can hold Chairface Chippendale. And on a totally different topic ... my stuff:
permaculture bootcamp - learn permaculture through a little hard work
https://permies.com/wiki/bootcamp
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