Friday, September 16, 2011

Session One: Nature Awareness and Bio-mimicry - A Walk in the woods

September 16, 2011
Main Concepts:
Tools of a Permaculture Scientist
Nature as Classroom - Biomimicry
No such thing as "garbage" in Nature
Two Types of Plants - Annuals and Perennials
The importance of Soil
The Functions of Plants
Wild Edibles and Medicine
Introduction to Pokeweed - a research plant
Monocultures and Polycultures -(Human design vs. Nature design)
Nature loves Bio-diversity

Today was our first session together, and the first time for the Summer's Knoll class meeting Nate and learning about Permaculture. Chris had introduced the class to Bio-mimicry last week, so they were familiar with some of the main concepts. Permaculture scientists use bio-mimicry to design food, energy, water, building, transportation and waste systems. After brief introductions and some supplies prep, we headed off to County Farm Park, a 141 acre nature preserve and community garden site located in Ann Arbor.

Once we arrived, we took seats in the pavilion and began a formal introduction to the day's lesson. It was imperative to treat the students like scientists from the onset, and let them know we were embarking on a scientific research field trip. The students had notebooks, and we talked about how scientists take notes to keep track and organize the "big ideas" and important concepts. Nate had the class label the day's note taking as "Nature Notes".

The class preparing for our nature walk

Tools of a Permaculture Scientist
Next, Nate took a few minutes to introduce his Permaculture research equipment and tools. He showed the class his books on wild edible plants, tree identification, wilderness survival, and urban plants. Nate also had his shovel, hatchet and tree saw, safety goggles and gloves, head lamps, multi-tools, ropes, tarps, and various bags and containers for collecting specimens. He emphasized that in permaculture (and bio-mimicry), our most important tool is our eyes, with which we can observe Nature.

Nate's permaculture research field tools
Nature as Classroom
The group then spent some time talking about the many lessons to be learned from Nature. In permaculture and Bio-mimicry, we watch and observe nature for patterns and lessons, that we can then translate and implement into our own lives and designs. Observation is key. One main idea is that humans spend a lot of time, energy, and fossil fuels trying to make ourselves separate and different from Nature, in our homes, farms, and cities. Another main observation we can learn by watching Nature's cycles of growth and decomposition, is that there is no such thing as "garbage" in Nature. By this it is meant that Nature uses and recycles everything (especially waste products and "dead" things). Nothing is wasted. The idea of trash is a human concept, as Nature finds a place and a use for everything in her systems, so therefore, everything in Nature has value.

decomposing wood and organic matter, returning nutrients to the forest floor topsoil

Annuals and Perennials
Before leaving the pavilion for the woods, Nate had the class write down the two main types of plants we would be observing - Annuals and Perennials. Annuals are plants that exist for only one season, and then must be replanted or regrown from seed. Many of the vegetables we eat, like lettuce, carrots, and tomatoes are annuals. Perennials are plants that come back year after year, from one planting. Examples of perennials are fruit and nut trees, as well as many types of shrubs and bushes, like strawberry and raspberry. A major difference is also seen in the two plants root structures, with annuals having shallow and thin roots systems, while perennials are able to develop thick, complex and soil structuring roots systems. This allowed an opportunity for Nate to introduce and emphasize the importance of soil. He told the class that 95% of the food we eat comes from topsoil, and that the US is losing over 2 billion tons of topsoil every year, primarily through the way we grow our food (industrial agriculture).

Annual (left) vs. Perennial (right) root structures (Wes Jackson - land institute)

Observation and the Functions of Plants
As we began our walk in the woods, Nate again emphasized the importance of observation. The students were very engaged, pointing out their varying observations. Many of the students already have an excellent grasp of nature and natural systems, and this was a welcome surprise. After several minutes of walking, observing and conversing about what we were noticing, Nate stopped the group in front of a massive maple tree. He asked the class to start compiling a list of all the things that the tree provides. The class immediately began to rattle off functions of the tree - shelter and food for animals and insects, shade, wood for heating, wood for building, sap for syrup, leaves for composting and building soil (impressive!), and several more. Nate reiterated that all of these uses of the tree were important Functions, and that each plant has different functions to play and provide in Nature. In permaculture, we want to learn, support, and utilize as many of the natural functions that we can find in our environment and ecosystems.

Students identifying and compiling the functions of plants and trees

Wild Edibles and Medicine
After identifying about 15 functions of the maple tree, we marched on through the woods. From here, we began identifying and discussing wild edible and medicinal plants that were all around us. This is important because so many of us in our modern culture associate food with only coming from a grocery store or restaurant, and that is a tragedy. There is food and medicine all around us, if we have the eyes and minds for it. We identified wild grape, burdock, jewel weed, shepherds purse, common plantain and others. All of these plants have edible and medicinal uses and functions in our lives.

students picking wild edible grapes

Poke weed - A research plant
We were extremely fortunate to stumble upon some wild poke weed. This plant will be playing a crucial role in our future research and design sessions. Nate introduced the plant to the students and talked about its many functions. From inks and dyes, to edible greens, to cancer fighting medicines, poke weed is an amazing plant. Nate finished by telling the students that he is working on ways to use poke weed ink with solar panels, for maximizing electrical efficiency. He asked the students if they would like to help him in his work, and received a thunderous "YES!!".

Nate showing students poke berries from the poke weed plant

Monocultures and Polycultures
We emerged from the woods to a maintained grass meadow with tables. From here, Nate was able to visually introduce and demonstrate the differences between monocultures and polycultures. Monocultures are plant systems that utilize only 1 plant species (mono=1). Many of us have resource depleting and intensively maintained monocultures growing in our yards, in modern grass lawns. Monocultures of corn, soy, and wheat dominate American industrial agriculture. Unfortunately, monocultures are not found in nature, and are a human design for either production or aesthetic purposes.
This is important because it again illustrates that humans are the only species to design environments separate from and against natural systems. Nature uses polycultures (poly = many). When we go into a forest, there are hundreds, if not thousands of interdependent plants and animals cooperating in a productive ecosystem.
In permaculture, we design systems with bio-diverse polycultures, that maximize ecosystem health, efficiency, and resilience. Nate took this opportunity to demonstrate the differences between monocultures and polycultures with different soil samples from the polyculture woods, and the monoculture grass lawn. The students immediately recognized the difference between the two, noticing that the monoculture soil was light brown, full of clay, and compacted, while the polyculture soil was dark black, crumbly and contained much more organic matter.

Nate demonstrating monoculture vs. polyculture soil types

Nature Loves Biodiversity
We finished our field research by returning to the concept of Nature as classroom, and reviewing many of the lessons we had learned from observing the natural woods ecosystem. Nate closed the session by telling the students that we will be taking these lessons from the woods, and applying them to many areas of our lives, as permaculture scientists. He left the class with a reminder that Nature can provide for all of us, if we learn and work with her systems. The most important lesson from the day, which the students agreed on, was that Natural environments use many different types of plants and animals to maintain healthy ecosystems. Nature loves biodiversity!

Permaculture farm systems utilize bio-mimicry and biodiversity (

In our next session, we will dive into the soil food web, the principles and ethics of permaculture, and demonstrate how all of human existence depends on the top six inches of soil. To be continued!!!

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