How Permaculture Can Make America Great Again

Permaculture is a system of agricultural and social design principles centered around simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems.

Words by Andrew Millison

When and how was America great, and how do we get there again? Trump has given us no specific time period for his slogan, so this article will look at what was great in America from the Permaculture perspective of land use, biodiversity, and community self-reliance. It’s hard to find one moment in time when everything about America was great, so let us look at some chapters of US history that were particularly terrific. We’ll define greatness from our perspective, so we will have a roadmap towards achieving lasting greatness for the foreseeable future!

One thing that made America great were hedgerows. That’s right, I’m talking about a hedge of trees and shrubs bordering a road or fence line. Fields of crops used to be bordered with hedges of native trees, fruit trees, berry bushes, and flowering shrubs. They provided firewood, lumber, food, habitat for wildlife and pollinators, wind protection for crops, barriers from wind and soil erosion, and they were picturesque and defined the boundaries of the American landscape.

Hedgerows across the British farm-scape Copyright Edmund Shaw

Then, in the early 1970’s, Earl Butz became the Secretary of Agriculture and oversaw the demise of the small family farm. He famously told farming families to “get big or get out,” and urged everyone to plant “fencerow to fencerow.” Small farms were consolidated into big ones and most farmers moved to cities and towns. In 1935, the number of family farms peaked at 6.8 million. That fell to around 2.1 million by the early ‘70’s. The hedgerows were ripped out and plowed under to make way for the vast monoculture landscapes we now have over much of this nation.

Before Butz there were more folks farming, spread out across the landscapes with small diverse operations surrounded by beautiful hedgerows. Now we have fewer large landowners farming vast tracts of treeless land. Hedgerows represented freedom to grow food and support a family from the land. The average farm size went from 155 acres in 1935 to 430 acres in 2012. Smaller farms meant more people lived agrarian lifestyles, intimate with their ecology and landscape, with more diverse and intensive forms of production. Hedgerows supported biodiversity, healthy soils, and diverse farm products. Let’s make hedgerows great again!

Going back a bit further in time, we have another tremendous episode in American history that took place around 1860’s-1880’s, when John Wesley Powell (of Lake Powell) was sent by President Ulysses S. Grant to survey the arid West and report back his findings.

Powell rafted down the Grand Canyon, hiked over mountains and through high deserts, and came back urging the President not to divide the arid West into square 160 acre farm plots like out East, because there was simply not enough water for irrigation. Instead, he suggested creating political and ownership boundaries based on watershed basins, which are the waterways that flow through the landscape and the drainage basins that supply that water through rainfall and snow.

A watershed contained within the red line. Photo: Missouri Department of Conservation

Powell called this concept “Watershed Democracy,” and it was the single greatest idea in American land-use history. A watershed would be managed by its occupants with forests on the upper slopes, rangeland and savannah on the mid slopes, and arable irrigated farms on the bottom land around creeks and rivers. Communities would manage the land well, because if they deforested the upper slopes of their watershed, they would get erosion and flooding in the farmland because of their barren upper slopes.

Powell’s Map of proposed states based on watershed basins of major rivers

Powell recognized that creeks and springs dry up or become intermittent when we deforest the upper watershed and disrupt the hydrologic cycle. So, each community would need to be good stewards of the land, because if they wrecked their soils and water supply, there was no one to blame but themselves. This avoids conflict between foresters and farmers, because the property and political boundaries reflect the natural relationship between mountain slopes and fertile bottomland. This was a huge idea with tremendous implications for the health of the land, productivity of farms, and strength of community resilience and self determination: A Watershed Democracy will make America great again!

A beaver surveys his work.Photo by Cheryl Reynolds, Courtesy of Worth A Dam

The third period of greatness we shall look at represents a time when water resources were so much more abundant than they are in modern times. This has to do with the presence of our friend the beaver, and his near extinction by 1850 from the whole country through fur trapping. The watersheds used to be filled by millions of beaver, who made their small dams and pooled the water, slowing its flow through the watersheds and soaking water into streams and water tables. In the arid West streams were forested and vibrant, in contrast to the denuded remnants dotting today’s landscapes. Springs were abundant, with wetlands and lush green valleys where we now have deserts and eroded stream channels.

The beaver were a keystone species, and by removing them we removed the huge capacity of the land to support the thriving farmers and healthy ecosystems, setting the stage for the great dust bowl. When trees no longer sheltered the land from strong winds, plowed soils could blow away easily. The importance of beavers ecological role can not be understated in their securing the land against desertification and erosion by feeding water tables and streamside forests.

Beaver dams slow down water and allow for absorption.

In the days of the beaver, native people were managing the vast landscapes of this continent. In many places people used fire to control the vegetation and select for the types of ecosystems that provided food; forests with edible staple foods, clearings for annual plants like corn and beans and squash, and the edges between forest and meadow where hunting is best. In fact this entire continent was a managed ecosystem with the great Chestnut, Hickory and Beech forests of the East, Pecan forests of the South, Pinon Pine nut forests of the Great Basin, Saguaro Cactus forests of the Sonoran Desert, including the great Oak forests and Camas meadows of the West Coast.

Native people have a long term sustainable relationship with the natural systems of this continent. Think about how great it must have been to walk through vast forests of massive food bearing trees, abundant game, healthy flowing streams, and diverse regional cultures! Native Americans are land stewards and managed this continent like a giant garden of perpetual abundance. Now that is true greatness!

Native American tribal distribution

Then there’s the buffalo. Imagine the greatness of herds of millions of bison grazing across the Great Plains, feeding intensively, leaving their manure to fertilize the land, and then moving on to greener pastures. The buffalo were a big part of the system of fertility of the plains, and a tremendously abundant and sustainable food source to those who hunted them. Up through the mid 1800’s, buffalo roamed free in astounding numbers, making a great rumbling stampede that could go on for miles. That was an amazing time in American history, when the bison still ran abundant and free.

America certainly does have greatness to be restored. From hedgerows to watersheds to beaver and bison, this land already is great. Many of us are ready to get to work to make it so again! We can create communities of free people, living within watershed-defined districts, fed by family farms, restoring the great species that made this land rich and abundant, and manage the land like a giant food forest. I hear you President Trump and I am with you. Let us bring back the buffalo, redraw the borders and boundaries. Bring back family farms and Native American land management. Restore the watersheds. Let’s Make America Great Again!

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This article originally appeared in Permaculture Magazine:

How Permaculture Can Make America Great Again
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