Bringing back the Spirit of the Wolf

"I love symphs," says Mary Leontovich of the OSU Extension Service, then, with more emphasis: "They're our friends." Hers is not the only voice within the OSU system singing a contrary note into a discussion which typically considers symphs in terms, elementally, of a pathology. Pat Patterson, also with the Extension Service: "I wouldn't want to destroy them in the soil," she says. "They're only a problem where they're concentrated. Symphs are like pigs; typically very picky eaters. It's only when you force them into factory farms that they'll eat anything that comes their way. Nibbling and browsing is the normal pattern in nature. It's only man who clearcuts, or sets up the conditions for it." Perhaps the views of these two, both women and both gardeners, hint at the beginnings of a broader shift in perspective toward the symph that may yet hold the secret to embracing it as an ally, rather than an enemy. As Manusoba Fukuoka puts it: "The Great Way has no pests, no disease. Only faults when seen in parts."

Romantic as the notion might initially appear to veggie farmers losing their shirts to symph damage, widening the terms of the symph debate to include the potential for a fundamental shift in agricultural thinking, may yet allow us to embrace the symph as a friend. As permaculturist Toby Hemenway (see box) describes its: "When we think ecologically, the problem either evaporates as a misunderstanding, or reveals solutions inherent in the life cycle of the invader."

Carl Berg of Berg's Berries, farms land where symphs emerged as a big problem in the 70's. Faced with a 2 1/2 to 3 acre symph-heavy plot that consisently resisted all efforts to successfully plant it with strawberries, he simply turned the field over to peach trees. "I've had no problems with symphs there since."

Berg's choice makes a nod toward the work of the visionary permaculture community. Permaculture, by definition a whole systems approach to landscape stewardship, resists all easy attempts at capsule description. In essence, it stands on the premise that landscapes have an irresistible tendency to mature - so why not hop on board the successionary freight train and take advantage of nature's momentum? Permaculturally speaking, concentrated symph populations are a pointer to the successionary direction a landscape wishes to "free itself into."

not simply to rebuild the land but to be rebuilt by the land, by the work itself

Paradoxically then, in evolutionary terms, symph infestation can be seen as symptomatic of a drift into deeper health. Of course, whether or not we resist the terms of that call, or find a way to go with the flow, is up to us.

What makes the symph story a little unusual in the Fall of 2001, is that in temperate climates such as ours, the experience that can help us co-navigate a landscape into that flow, and keep ourselves as well as the symphs well fed, has really only very recently emerged into the light of day. While permaculturists have been decoding the language of natural systems and deciphering principles of natural design for some years now, Hemenway's text, the first book on permaculture written by an American, and published mere months ago, represents a seminal effort to synthesize the latest findings in this area of investigation. It collects and establishes a far-flung body of important but little known work, for the first time. Already hailed as a classic within the permie movement, it holds lessons that a wider constituency are now looking to.

Take the symph story, for example. Central to a permacultural understanding of the symph is an understanding of the genius of evolutionary time. How does this relate to agriculture? In a nutshell, conventional organic agriculture mimics immature ecosystems. Conventional farms are usually dominated by early succession plants - grasses, annual vegetables and flowers are pioneers. A typical farm field is aching, in nature's scheme, for a chaotic blitzkrieg from seedlings, shrubs and animal life forms. Viewed ecologically, the standard farm landscape just wants to grow up. Meanwhile, we expend an enormous amount of time, energy and material wrenching back the hand of the ecological clock, constantly uprooting plants, culling diversity, holding the land "back". Yet nature - and our irrigation and amendments ñ will inexorably advance the clock another tick, inundating us with her fertility. On the one hand we're stamping on the accelerator: on the other, we're slamming on the brake. "No system runs well under that kind of schizophrenic regime,"says Hemenway.

One, having become everything and everyone, becomes the all
Of course, the tension that exists between nature's successionary instincts and the demands of commercial agriculture isn't news to farmers. "Of course the aim in "modern" ag is sameness, so that a field can yield consistently one crop at a time," says Wali Via of Wintergreen Farm. "Lots much change for that paradigm to shift for the majority of USA's food production, but of course that's what's needed."

The permaculture community has been making efforts to explore the technes involved in letting go to this evolutionary leap. A key understanding is that moving in such a direction involves shifting as much of the labor as possible onto Nature's broad back. And the essence of this, the permies have discovered, involves promoting deeper biodiversity - for our purposes, biodiversity means having a semi-wild but well-designed palette of useful plants that will attract and sustain the helpful plants, insects, birds and other animals we need. Permaculture's art is in exploring designs that serve these functions synergistically - finding a combination that "clicks."

A defining feature of this strategy is the creation of ecologies that allow the farmer or gardener to relax, yup, that's right, by off-loading much of the work typically associated with raising food. Where possible, the work of managing fertility and irrigation, for example, is largely supplanted into the charge of the ecosystem itself.

Put another way, the work of managing a biodiverse "food forest"is so complex, the only way it can be done is by shedding the mantle of command and returning to nature many responsibilities we have long assumed. And what we're finding, is that it works, because in a many specied landscape, we are able to restore many of the torn threads that nurture nature's self-organizing, self-repairing and self-perpetuating energies. And, of course, it just so happens that "letting nature do it"also applies to dealing with pests, because in the midst of rich biodiversity the supporting thread of interconnections also acts as a natural web of checks and balances.

Elementally, ushering these dynamics into farmlands requires embracing the advantages of mature landscapes that emphasize perennials (see table). "We know that symphs love the roots of young plants, " says Dancing Tree Farms' Kris Dicus, who is new to farming cropland he knows has endured heavy symph damage for more than 30 years, "We know perennials are going to have a much stronger root system and that in many instances the roots will go deeper than the symphs go. We see perennials in the middle of symph patches doing fine. So we're adding perennials, trees and suchlike. But continuing to go with annuals, keeping in mind that we still need to plant enough for ourselves, the symphs and other critters who insist on sharing our own crops."

Differences between mature and immature ecosystems
Attribute Immature Ecosystem Mature Ecosystem
Amount of organic matter Low High
Source of nutrients Non-living (rocks, rainfall) Biological (plants, animals, humus)
Mineral cycles Open (many imports) Closed (recycling)
Loss of nutrients High Low
Role of decomposers, detritus Unimportant Important
Microclimates Few, harsh, shaped by non-living forces Many, mild, shaped by plants
Dominant plants Annuals Perennials
Percent of biomass that stays
from year to year
Low High
Number of different species Usually low High
Diversity of patterns (different layers
of plants, nutrient cycles, etc.)
Low High
Food chains Short, simple, linear Complex, web-like
Specialization into niches Few, wide Many, narrow
Symbiotic relationships Few Many
Average size of organisms Small Large
Life cycles Short, simple Long, complex
Breeding strategy Many seeds or young, given little support Few seeds or young, well supported
Stability (resistance to disturbance,
invasive plants)
Low High
Overall complexity and organization Low High
Adapted from Drury and Nisbet, J. Arnold Arboretum 54:336 (1973).

My soul turns into a tree Mark van Horn concurs: "I have had a similar thought, namely a very different agro-ecosystem. Two ideas are a flooded crop - for example, rice in our location - or perennials, which could be fruit trees, vines, and woody herbs, and suchlike."

Of course, it's a shift that flies in the face of accepted ag wisdom. As Elaine Ingham, President and Director of Research at Soil Foodweb Inc. in Corvallis puts it: "Just how do you get your tractor through a field with the occasional tree?" and Mark van Horn again: "The rice and perennials idea may be intriguing to you and I, but a veggie farmer probably doesn't consider these real options."

Still, the ag experts haven't come up with any solutions so far, and don't seem close, so for those in the grip of the symph, the work of those visionaries exploring a transition from high maintenance, predominantly-annual farmscapes into low-maintenance perennial-friendly food forest ecologies holds some of the best hope yet.

One area being explored by Jude Hobbs of Cascadia Forest Design is the use of hedgerows. Hobbs, based in Eugene and also a guiding force in the Pacific Northwest permie set, has emerged as one of the country's foremost authorities around the richly complex subject of hedgerow plantings.

In a nutshell, well-designed hedgerows provide one of the most potent technes for transforming biologically impoverished or imbalanced landscapes. The accompanying box illustrates a hedgerow planting recently commissioned at Wintergreen Farm. Simple as it may seem, her choices distill decades of Hobb's experience with plants in the PNW. Permaculture's co-originator, David Holmgren, calls these rampantly growing blends of natives and exotics "recombinant ecologies,"and believes they are a highly effective strategy of assembling available plants to restore health into landscapes, while simulatenously serving the interests of the two-leggeds who live around them. Although the hedgerow described was not designed with symphs in mind, it makes a sound candidate for planting into a symph patch (or locations, for example where cruciferae are suffering from persistent, long-term clubroot problems, etc.).

Ask of the Trees

Multi-Functional Hedgerow at Wintergreen Farm
(Approximate size: 23'x225' North/south direction)

8 x Aronia-Chokeberry
small shrub to 6'-
Uses: fresh, jams, juice, wine. Stable coloring agent. Great spring bloom and fall color.

3 x Eleagnus Multiflora Goumi
Size: 6' shrub
Uses: Edible and medicinal - treat intestinal and stomach illnesses, improves circulation and general health booster. Good eaten fresh, jams, compote or dried and ground mixed with sugar. Bird attractor.

8 x Hippohae rhamnoides Sea Berry
10' shrub
Uses: As a drink, fruit very high in Vitamin 'C', jams. Fixes Nitrogen. Medicinal: fruit has an oil content that is used on burns and skin diseases as well as for ulcers.

3 x Persimmon Diospyros virginiana
35'-40'- keep pruned to desired size
Uses: Eat fresh, excellent dried, jams wood used for golf clubs

20 x Sambucus caerulea Blue Elderberry
15' to 30'
Uses: jam, flowers are dipped in batter and deep fried. The berries have a high percent of yeast, as in grapes, and inoculates the juice with a natural fermenting agent.

3 x Carya illinoisensis Northern Pecans
Grafted trees - earliest ripening- nuts are smaller than southern pecans. Production is not reliable from year to year, but would be an asset to the farm.

6 x Castanea sp. Chestnuts

3 x Heartnut (Julglans ailantifolia)
Japanese walnut with thick shelled nuts that are easy to crack, sweet and mild. Fast growing. Needs summer moisture

Sources: Burnt Ridge Nursery, Doate Creek Nursery.

Of course, the combination of plants you may choose to introduce to your symphs may look nothing like Wintergreen's hedgerow guild. Your preferences and your land will largely determine that. But how do you begin setting about introducing deeper diversity into your landscape?

Vegetable growers have long experience creating plant communites, most notably with interplanting - combining varieties that work together to deter pests and aid each other in other ways. Companion planting takes the technique a step further, capitalizing on the mutual benefits plants can provide each other. But it's in the blending of the best qualities of interplanting and companion planting that permaculture really comes into its own - the creation of dynamic, self-organizing communities composed of several to many species, that synergistically support one another's strengths in a deep web of interrelationships. And although these communities are based on plants, their participants extend beyond the floral realm to include fauna as well as people.

The Spirit of the Wolf

Hemenway calls these communities "polycultures."In their more sophisticated forms, the plants themselves tune their environment to the best conditions for their growth - we can think of ecosystems as very intricate polycultures - with the interconnected elements far greater than the sum of stand-alone parts. But even at the smaller scale we can work at, plant "guilds"can demonstrate the characteristics of the systems in which they are nested - qualities such as succession, predator-prey relations, climate control, and so on. And as one might expect, these guilds also exhibit the same qualities that make these mini-ecosystems far more robust, more adaptive, and less prone to disaster than most human-designed systems.

The art of fashioning polycultures is essentially the art of attuning ourselves to billions of years of evolutionary wisdom. And when it works, boy does it work. "The early establishment phase can take a couple of years, but then look out! The whole place suddenly "pops"as if some critical mass has been reached,"says Hemenway. "Everyone who practices permaculture and ecological gardening for a few years has seen this amazing transformation."

Until now, this trick of the trade is what has fundamentally distinguished permies from their ag cousins - the focus on strategies that strengthen synergies to the point where, in a seeming instant, the landscape suddenly surges into vital action, exploding with living energy. How well agriculturists are able to fully embrace permie's technes as an integral part of their own practice, only time will tell, but perhaps Wali Via at Wintergreen Farm has an inkling of the potency of the potential communion when he says, "I've long said that the future of agiculture is in the hands of the gardeners."

The article on apple guilds in this issue of Tilth illustrates some of the principles involved in polyculture guild crafting, but Hemenways' text provides the only comprehensive introduction to this subject currently available - the techniques designed to accelerate the natural process of succession and to make the connections among organisms tight, many-layered, and efficient. It includes, for example, specific pointers to crafting mixed guilds of annuals, perennial veggies, and the longer-lived food forest perennials.

One final note. Although imposing arbitrary, large and untested communities on a landscape often results in unsuitable plantings, disconnected elements that don't work well together, and constant rescue efforts, evidence so far shows that where efforts are approached with a modicum of common sense and respect for nature's patterns and rhythms, the odds of fashioning smoothly functioning plant communities to make a landscape "click"are very good indeed. "We don't know exactly how the assembly of successful guilds and ecosystems works, but if we begin with a wide array of plant types, nature will usually sort out something that clicks,"says Hemenway. "It is almost as if living beings "want"to come together in coherent communities. Nature will often supply the missing pieces, click together the right connections, and link up the important cycles."The landscape "pops!"

The above written for Oregon Tilth. Words and art by n.