Tag Archives: Permaculture

Catfish in the dam

conventional fish farming energy flows

This week’s Permaculture course theme was Aquaculture. I’m sure, like me, other students were captivated by the possibilities of introducing fishy and watery elements into our design systems, and seeing what you can do with old bathtubs. We were also struck with great fear around the farming methods for Tasmanian salmon.

Often after class I think about how some of the things I’ve learned could be applied to my Dad’s piece of land: a 5 acre block in the Hunter Valley, half “bush” with a small dam, half house site with lawn.

Last night I dreamed I was visiting Dad. He and I were talking about his dam. I was telling him he had to throw a bale of lucerne hay into it as well as some reeds and other pond weed seeds, and put in some yabbies – to try to get it producing some food.

In my waking life, I’m always wary of how much Permaculture propaganda to dump on Dad – I don’t want to overwhelm him with too much “Nick Says This is What You Should Do”; and I’m conscious that Permaculture is still (mis)perceived as quite “herbal” to some old fashioned and highly rational folks.

In my dream, we were walking around his dam, with fishing rods. There were big fish in there, we could see them swimming under the water. We were stunned and delighted. Suddenly we noticed a huge fish embedded in the sand near the dam, slowly breathing, stranded on dry land. We leaned in close to look at it. Dad reached down to pick it up. It made a “meow” sound like a cat. From this we knew it was a catfish, although it looked more like a large barramundi. I warned him to be careful, as catfish have poisonous spines.

Dad laid the catfish on a chopping board and took out a very large sharp knife. He was about to cut into it, but first he decided to feed the catfish some small baitfish that he had there – like whitebait or something. The catfish was still alive and gobbled up the small bait. I felt quite squeamish about this: it felt cruel, like the last meal of a condemned man. I knew that the big fella was soon to be sliced up himself.

And indeed, that’s what Dad did next, sinking the knife into the fat flesh behind the gills. The catfish bled profusely, deep red bloody meat spilling onto the unvarnished wooden porch of his house in the Hunter Valley.

Getting it straight

water levelling

The two things which have stuck in my mind most since last week’s Permaculture class are: water levelling, and the role of “apertures” in landscape formation.

Sounds heavy, eh! And indeed, gravity does have a role to play in both!

Our practical exercise of the day was A Beginner’s Guide to Surveying. You’ve all seen those TAFE students out in the park with their Hi-Viz vests holding those funny looking devices on tripods? Yep, we got to play with that stuff! (but not the vests).

It was quite fun. There were laser levels, telescopic levels, and – my favourite – water levels.

The water levels (among the most ancient and low-tech of the levelling family) are based on the extraordinary (but perfectly logical) idea that water in a closed system always reaches a level. So if you have a long see-through hose filled with water, you can stretch it out as far as you like, and the top level of the water at both ends will be the same.

The same holds for a hose which is connected to a large water container – as in the demonstration Nick provided in class. He even coloured the water with blue dye to dramatise the effect. Here’s a few more photos of the process.

The main “learning outcome” from all of this watery-levelly business is that no matter how flat a piece of land might look and feel, it’s almost guaranteed that it slopes in one way or another! This comes as quite a surprise: the raw feel and instinct of experience versus the empirical evidence of measurement.

If you’re not careful with your existential stability, it can quite powerfully throw into question the relative up-ness and down-ness of our occupation of the planet. Take for example, this amazing sci-fi picture of a space station Torus thingummy. How would a water level operate, if its length was a significant proportion of this Torus’ curve?

Come to think of it, the Earth is curved! So how can anything be “level” (except relative to the human scale?)

Injecting Resin into an Ant Hill

chaos creativity

Last night at yoga, I bumped into Paul, one of the guys in the Sunday Permaculture class.

Paul: “I’m not really sure what I’m learning in that course.”

Me: “That’s a strange thing to say.”

Paul: “Yes, I suppose it is”.

But he’s right. I’m not really sure what I’m learning either.

That’s not to say I’m not learning. In fact – if by “learning” you mean the acquisition of new concepts, I’m brimming over with the pesky buggers. But what a strange breed of concepts these are! To what use can we put ’em?
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doing less greeting card

At the start of the Permaculture class, Nick asked us to write on a slip of paper what our aspirations were.

I wrote: “GET MORE BY DOING LESS”. (If Lisa reads this, I know she will laugh out loud.)

This year, Lizzie and I made a new years greeting card which said:

“wishing you (and ourselves) the joys of doing a bit less in 2010”.

But so far I’ve been a bit of a failure at this – being so busy that I have not enjoyed the time to stop and reflect and ask whether I’m carrying out my activities in the most intelligent way.
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Trading Intangible Commodities

altruism maslow

The last time I flirted with permaculture (in late 2008), I got very excited about shit.

Having attended Milkwood’s intro to permaculture course, I raved to anyone who would listen, about the idea of recycling the energy which constitutes our own shit, to use it again and again – rather than flushing it away to a non-usable state out in the ocean somewhere.

However – besides an ongoing fascination with my compost heap (a way of recycling the energy in scrap foods and plant residues, but not shit) – my “human shit ambition” has been just sitting there, waiting for something to happen. I haven’t managed to crack how to use it within an urban context (not within the constraints of my rental tenancy situation anyway).
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Knowing Your Shit

permaculture flow chart

Last Saturday and Sunday, I was a student in the Milkwood Intro to Permaculture Course, run by the excellent Kirsten and Nick (aka Cicada). The above picture is of a flow chart a few of us knocked up during the course, as part of an exercise to hammer home how inter-connected everything is.

Since the course, I haven’t been able to stop talking shit. Literally. My girlfriend is bored shitless. Etc etc. What I mean is, the thing from the course which made the deepest impression on me, is the idea of shit as a resource.


The crazy thing is, that we take one of our most precious resources – our own shit – and we mix it with another of our most precious resources – clean drinking water, and we flush them both away into the ocean.

Shit as a precious resource? Yeah man, human shit. You can compost it and put it back in the garden to grow next year’s vegies.

Ignorantly, I had thought this was a sort of taboo in human societies. We dump chook poo, horse poo, cow poo etc (not really dog and cat poo though?) on our vegie gardens, and they really help things grow better. But up to now, I believed human poo was a bit too close to home – doesn’t that shit cause diseases?

Not so, according to Nick and Kirsten, who described the process of composting their own for one year, before putting it around their fruit trees.

The whole concept of permaculture (at least, the bit that made a strong impression on me) is about “energy cycling”. Energy tends to move from a useful to a non-useful state. If we harness the energy released from one process, and use it again, we can keep it cycling round a bit longer before it leaves us for good.

When you think about vegie gardens as a “sustainable” thing, you gotta consider “inputs” and “outputs”. (Or “imports” and “exports”, as Nick put it). Ideally, you want to keep both imports and exports to a minimum. The sun, luckily, and rain when it comes, are “free” imports!

So you might be harnessing the energy of the sun – the plants transform it through photosynthesis, and draw nutrients from the soil, the air, and water. But as soon as you eat those vegies, and subsequently shit down the loo, you are exporting a whole lot of valuable nutrients from your system, which could have been kept local and re-used next time around.

This thought has been haunting me all week, with grim regularity…

Now, this is all very well when you live out near Mudgee. But how could you harvest human poo (and wee) in the city? Especially when you’re living in a rental place, and the landlord won’t even install a double-flush, let alone a composting shitter?

Thomas Street Permaculture

It's a bit late in the day to throw to this project, but there's a fascinating story of an experiment by tenants in Melbourne to turn their backyard into a permaculture environment over here:
Even the battle they've been having with their landlord is interesting, a great story.