Individuals learning permaculture always want to know what the next step is. The answer is there for us in the principles we all learned and/or teach in our courses: 1) Observe and Interact. There’s a reason it is first and we all need reminded of this at times. Notice that it isn’t just observe. It also isn’t only interact. The combination of these two is a profound subject that will forever guide the student of permaculture down their path toward their life’s work. Observe also implies a meditation of sorts. Meditate on it, be still, be present for it is only from this space that your “interact” will bear worth while fruit. Indeed, it is this sense of meditative observation that is all too frequently missing from our actions, hence our often passionate yet overall design-lacking action that ultimately creates both personal and global energy waste.
It is with this sense of multifaceted observation in mind that I departed for Germany, the Czech Republic and Austria. While the ultimate purpose was to visit Sepp Holzer’s Krameterhof I decided to take some time to visit my close knit spiritual family in Bavaria, Germany. Together for a weekend about 20 of us came from various countries including the
US, Scotland, Germany, Russia, South Africa, and England to recharge our spiritual batteries in community. Through support of our life vision of healing one another and the Earth we walked a path in the mountains known to us as the prophet’s way, a path of prayer and connection. There each of us found their heart space in a moment of divine realignment as we prayed. We shared music, healing, and a sacred Sabbath service on Friday evening where we meditated upon what it means to fully let your light shine forth and not merely covering it.
After this powerful time of recentering a dear friend and brother of mine, Jonas, and I departed for Austria via the Czech Republic. Jonas was doing some advanced studies at the University of Göttingen on the selection of tomato varieties and disease resistance. In light of this we visited several sites including farms and gardens. At every turn the beautiful Austrian countryside held my breath. One of these sites was the well-known Arche Noah. At Arche Noah they are organically preserving thousands of cultivars of seeds for genetic preservation. They have nearly 500 varieties of tomatoes alone! It was a beautiful sight to walk through their gardens and see an abundance of both familiar and completely unfamiliar plants. Especially wonderful was walking through several gardens and farms
throughout Austria and seeing hemp growing freely. It is acknowledged and used as a premier “Fasserpflanze”, or fiber plant with additional uses as windbreaks, erosion control and soil remediation. I even found a healthy bunch of Malabar Spinach (Basella alba) growing their high in the mountains. It is through the work of devoted people at places like Arche Noah (more info in English here) that our genetic seed diversity will survive the onslaught of monoculture and the influences of multinational chemical companies like Monsanto and Syngenta.
Sepp Holzer’s name has become so frequently used with permaculture that it is clear he is seen as one of the giants of the field, especially in Europe. The insight one gains into design possibilities from visiting such sights is profound. Hundreds, and even thousands, of years ago in present-day Austria and Switzerland they practiced high-altitude terraced subsistence farming systems in the Alps. One must always remember when viewing natural systems that the “geology dictates the ecology”. As the glaciers in the Alps receded around 10,000 years ago they forever changed the landscape. In their wake the glaciers left some atypical shapes amidst the more standard slopes: terraces. People eventually realized that these highly placed terraces had longer growing seasons and better access to sun than in the valley below. This form of agriculture and animal husbandry became the standard in the central European Alps and people began to mimic the natural terraces by building their own. Unfortunately, these beautiful systems were largely abandoned amidst the lure of monoculture and synthetic fertilizers. Enter Sepp Holzer.
The property now famous for European permaculture has been in Sepp Holzer’s family for over 100 years. As he began to farm it he realized the desire for stable water sources high up in the mountains. While farming and raising animals was previously practiced on these terraces building ponds was certainly not. At one point one pond turned to two and he and his wife realized they did not want to pass the diseases and undesirable attributes of pond one to pond two. It was solely from this perspective that they began to observe nature’s patterns and bring in a tremendous biodiversity of both plants and animals into their ponds. The water cleared up and the result were two bountiful ponds filled with food. To their surprise the land became more abundant and better hydrated. Fast forward 50 years and there are now more than 70 ponds on their 45 hectare (about 111 acre) property. Holzer has mastered microclimates high up on his mountain. The chain of ponds stabilizes the temperature optimizing growing condition. Additionally, most of the ponds have large boulders placed in them to absorb the solar radiation into the water.
The biodiversity on the property is amazing and nothing escaped them: there are both desirable edible cultivars and an abundance of so-called weeds. While there are certainly different agricultural/pastoral areas of the property, the ponds are constantly there linking it all together. As one pond fills it empties into the next. A process repeated down the entire slope of the mountain. On their journey through the property the ponds pass cows, chickens, orchards, herb spirals, fields of annual crop and even a wild boar system. Sepp noticed the ease at which the wild boars lived in the area so he began to cross them with more desirable breeds for human consumption. These boars live in a large enclosed area on the property. Once again it fell back on an observation and a desire to mimic nature’s patterns.
One of the more fascinating elements on the property was ironically the one that I wasn’t even aware of: cellars. Sepp, his wife Veronica, and now their son Josef who showed us around, have been experimenting with different types of cellars on the property for years. They vary in material from axed wood pieces and boulders to variations of what we would more commonly know as cob or earthen architecture. Though the temperature outside greatly fluctuates being in the mountains, the temperature in the cellars changes only about 10 degrees throughout the entire year. They accomplish this by building them into the side of the mountain and running pipes through the mountain behind them. The pipes through their journey in the Earth remove the humidity in the air and deposit the dry air inside the cellars.
While there were countless examples of beautiful systems all over the property, and I took so many pictures, one of the really great systems I saw that was highly productive for them was a cattle-chicken-orchard system, which sounds bizarre at first I know. On one of the terraces (see picture below) they have an orchard planted. The individual trees are all protected well-enough so that cows may come in and graze in order to clean up the area. As the cows are in there they manure the property in essence converting the green to a more readily useable soil enrichment. Once the cows are done round two is the chickens. They come in and rid the area of bugs and many pests. Each small pile of manure left behind is literally filled with thousands of bugs. Bugs become chickens which in turn becomes eggs and more manure. This all equates to an incredible healthy orchard system full of life and virtually free of pests. This system is constantly in motion up and down the property and it is truly the back bone of their production. Lastly below you can see a good example of IPM or integrated pest management in the form of their insect hotels which were scattered across the property. Wild bees are active for a longer portion of the year and therefore can pollinate throughout more of the year. By the time you attract several species you ensure that your plants are well-pollinated and that they are protected from insect larvae by the many species of wasps.
From beginning to end the property was inspiring. They are even experimenting currently with rice production. Interestingly, when I spoke with Josef about the traditional Chinampas system of Mexico (one of only 4 or 5 sustainable systems in the world) he had never even heard of them. It served as a beautiful reminder of the need to constantly be networking and learning from one another. It would be so very easy for them to build a few chinampas on their property. Just imagine a cultural and sustainable thread running from Mexico all the way to Austria! The Alpine terracing systems benefited by Holzer’s pond systems benefited yet again by traditional Mexican agriculture. This is the power of permaculture. This is how we can heal the world.