Forest Gardening: the Basis of a Local Economy of Life, part 2

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Neoliberalism will destroy everything including itself, but that doesn’t mean the human species will become extinct. I write this, prematurely, to the survivors (& please, may our grandkids be among you).

In a few weeks, food prices will skyrocket. They’ve already started to. If there has ever been a time for us to grow a victory garden and to support our local farmers, this is it.

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I’ve co-hosted Grown in Westhampton for a few years now; we get together at the library every month to share stories about what’s growing in town, with the goal of making the entire town edible. We started the discussion after the crash of Wall Street in 2008, when we realized 1) that the entire nation is 3 missed meals away from total chaos, and 2) that while most of us don’t know much about growing stuff, there are folks who do like the Parsons at Mayvale Farm (who run the oldest dairy operation in Massachusetts), the Morses at Outlook Farm and the Tracys at Intervale Farm. Grown in Westhampton is a place where growing is celebrated, and where established growers share intelligence with amateurs. It is a sort of grange, the community-making basis of the permaculture that will survive the era of neoliberalism.

One major problem we have faced is that all of us are still stuck on the Titanic of neoliberalism, and that means that professional growers are still locked into a schema of producing for dollars, which means that some of them grow GMOs, and all of them have to be careful to grow things that are marketable. The market keeps them from establishing permacultural operations, in other words. Non-professional growers are stuck in the market, too, and don’t have the time or skills to establish permacultural homesteads.

When we began to imagine what a permaculture will be, we imagined we’d imitate the operations of our local farmers, mainly because they provide the best example of how and what to grow. However, even our best growers are unable to provide for themselves without importing resources, and none of them are able to grow everything that is needed to be totally self-sufficient. Permaculture means subsisting entirely on what is locally available, and we have no examples of this to imitate.

It was, therefore, a revelation to me when I visited the Mexican province of Oaxaca last month and learned about milpas, or forest gardening. Oaxaca is recognized by the UN for having one of humanity’s most diverse, nutritious, delicious and influential cuisines, and for resisting neoliberialism—esp. in its form of Monsanto, which has appropriated, genetically-modified and poisoned maize, which the ancestors of today’s Oaxacans developed. The cuisine of Oaxaca, and general quality of life, is so much better than ours that it was not difficult for my teenage daughters to understand this seeming paradox: though Oaxacans are poor by US standards, they are richer than us. Upon return, my wife went to Stop & Shop, and she cried, seeing how impoverished we are. As Michael Pollan explains in Food Inc: “When you go through the supermarket, what looks like this cornucopia of variety and choice is not. There is an illusion of diversity. There are only a few companies involved and there’re only a few crops involved.” In Oaxaca, (bio)diversity is not an illusion, and moreover it is a reality because Oaxacans resist neoliberalism: i.e., the corporate takeover of their sources of life.

In his fascinating history of ancient Mesoamerica entitled 1491, Amherst author Charles Mann defines what a milpa is:

A milpa is a field, usually but not always recently cleared, in which farmers plant a dozen crops at once including maize, avocados, multiple varieties of squash and bean, melon, tomatoes, chilis, sweet potato, jícama, amaranth, and mucana…. Milpa crops are nutritionally and environmentally complementary. Maize lacks the amino acids lysine and tryptophan, which the body needs to make proteins and niacin;…. Beans have both lysine and tryptophan…. Squashes, for their part, provide an array of vitamins; avocados, fats. The milpa, in the estimation of H. Garrison Wilkes, a maize researcher at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, “is one of the most successful human inventions ever created.”

I was astonished I had missed the milpas while I was in Oaxaca, for I didn’t read about them until I was on my way back to Hamp; yet, we’d flown from the mountains to the coast and I had seen them—humble subsistence farms 1/2 hidden by trees on the sides of ridges. Once I read about them I put some major puzzle pieces together. The first pieces I put together helped me understand why farmer’s markets were the key to the cuisine. The diversity of foods—6 different kinds of avocado, and flowers in enchiladas, and crickets in mole, for example—was an expression of milpa culture, where certain clans (Oaxaca has more than 10 different languages) have developed and grown variations of staple foods for centuries. There are many different kinds of maize in Oaxaca; in the USA there are much fewer, and all are contaminated by Monsanto genetic pollution. The Monsanto connection was the second puzzle I put together: Monsanto agriculture is the antipode of milpa-culture.

Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 10.26.08 AMThe milpa is not just a forest garden; it’s a generator of biocitizens:

The concept of milpa is a sociocultural construct rather than simply a system of agriculture. It involves complex interactions and relationships between farmers, as well as distinct personal relationships with both the crops and land. For example, it has been noted that “the making of milpa is the central, most sacred act, one which binds together the family, the community, the universe…[it] forms the core institution of Indian society in Mesoamerica and its religious and social importance often appear to exceed its nutritional and economic importance.”

I want this kind of economy, a local economy of life, to be the one that survives neoliberalism.

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What’s so wonderful is that, while most of us can’t be farmers, we can start our own milpas if we have a yard and/or some woods. Westhampton’s patron saint Sylvester Judd was growing a milpa, for example, when he planted Black Walnut trees around 1810 next to what is now the Blacksmith Museum; they still grow and provide nuts to those of us who know about them. I wrote about this a year or two ago; in fact, the series of “food weeds” I wrote about is aligned to milpa-culture.

A great introduction to forest gardening was co-written by Eric Toensmiller who lives in Holyoke, and here is a picture I’ve copied from it that shows you how simple it can be; basically all you have to do is kill your lawn and replace it with food and materials producing trees and plants:

forest garden copyThere are two places I would recommend visiting right now to source these trees and plants, and both have a good selection of native species (which generally grow like “weeds” which is great b/c they are thereby almost maintenance free). Try Nasami Farm in Whately and Tripple Brook Nursery in Southhampton.

I’ll be writing about forest gardening again, soon, if only because I’d like to help Nonotuck fulfill its destiny as an Oaxaca of the USA— a place where food grows everywhere, and we all live in the garden. Next post I think I’ll return to the practice of cultivating “food weeds.”

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