1979: Forestry and permaculture

The Lost Stories are Bill Mollison's articles published in the print magazine originally named Permaculture, then International Permaculture Journal and finally the Permaculture International Journal that was published between 1978 and 2000.

All stories and other content ©Permaculture Australia unless otherwise noted.

Story by Bill Mollison. Edition: 1979, Summer.

Bill Mollison at the 1997 Australasian Permaculture Convergence in Nimbin, Australia. Photo: ©Russ Grayson 1997.

There are areas that fall unnoticed between the elevated plateaus of academic disciplines. Permaculture is one of these.

Forestry deals, for the main part, with tree crops. Modern forestry does include species for farm windbreak and woodlot but rarely involves planning the evolution of useful understorey and shrub species. Agriculture largely ignores the full development of perennial plant species on farm and leaves the forests to the foresters. Aquaculture forms a sub-section of zoology in most universities.

Farmers and 'new settlers' from the cities can therefore rarely obtain useful extension advice on multiuse plant and animal species. No discipline treats the plant system (except in passing reference) on anything but a product/yield basis, consequently all ignore the potential energy gain or savings from integrated dwelling/pasture/forest/pond design.

Permaculture was intended to fill some of these gaps. It has a wide following amongst the people now taking up marginal land on the outskirts of country towns and in areas where smallholders have abandoned uneconomical small-fruit and dairy farms in Australia.

Permaculture attempts an integrated land-use design centred on the buildings on-site, but the basic principles are equally applicable to forestry.

Fields of problems

There is no point in stressing the need for a great deal more stability in soil, water, landscape and climate for any country. The ills of clearfelling,  monoculture and subsecfuent salting, disease, erosion and climatic change are too well documented to need repetition.

Solutions are not quite so easy to come by. Once a landscape has been denuded of trees, allowed to develop rampant pioneer weed species and has lost topsail or accumulated salt, the reversal of these processes becomes extremely difficult. The problem is only exacerbated by commercial demands for a single product for a single use (eg. pine forests for timber).

Any benefits of stable landscape utilisation are thereby discarded, while relativety enormous energies are devoted to control: control of insect pests, 'weed' vegetation, fire, browsing species and quality of product.

Downstream pollution is the inevitable result. Deer, wallaby, orangutang, gorilla and tapir are as much elements of the forest as are the trees, but more often than not it is left to voluntary agencies to attempt to save these elements from 1080, fire and clearfelling. If we lose these elements, how do we replace them?

Forestry in its application concentrates on crown lands and large private company lands and is underapplied to cities and farms. Even on the broad scale provision seems to be for wood alone. Do we know the real, long term costs of forest cutting? I doubt it.

Does the forester study flood control, waste disposal, siltation, eutrophication, salting or loss of rainfall? Does he account for these factors in charging companies which manufacture inessential packing materials and daily newspapers, ie. the true cost to the country of their raw materials?

In Australia we need to go no further than the Murray valley system to see desertification at work. A light plane trip over the areas now becoming salt plain should be compuisory for every politician, forester and newspaper executive.

We can no longer pretend that our activities in headwater forests do not drastically affect downstream soils and inflict enormous economic losses. But we cannot ask farmers to reafforest for timber alone while their cattle and sheep are agisted elsewhere. What we can do is devise, from the many available species, a forage forest which is better than pasture and has an eventual timber yield. Such forests can also yield products other than forage.

As AB Lovins has aptly quipped, "The answer is technology but what was the question?"

Are we planning for waste and instability, nonsustainable soil health and 'economic' production, or are we planning for people, diversity, stability and a sustainable future? Few foresters can look one in the eye these days and say that their activities are, in the long term, beneficial to their country or to the soil. Most become witness to over-exploitation of forests for their timber use only.

The principles of sustainable yield

Permaculture is our attempt to set out the principles of the evolution of a sustainable yield system of multiuse species — to use not only the products of an integrated landscape but to direct other energies (wind, sun, fire) to serve man or the system.

We import into Australia some $18 million worth of nuts, dates and similar tree crop products. We lack jojoba and hunt whales, cannot provide for or advise on arid-land species and extend our deserts, and are tied in a palsied mode to other cultures and commercial interests in areas where we could well be self-sufficient.

What we are now proposing is a complex forest agriculture, as nicely balanced as species and site allow, giving a variety of crops over many years and maintaining or improving soil quality. No farmer need buy fence posts nor feed his stock on annually-grown concentrates if we could advise on the trees and shrubs which yield beans, foliage and seed for this latter purpose. Timber is a long-term by-product of such forests, as thinnings or mature trees.

The narrow, sterile, poorly planned windbreaks of farms are more likely to accelerate winds and increase ground draughts than to provide warm lambing shelter. The almost total lack of recorded data in the heating and cooling, shade and reflective properties of plants reflects our own lack of interest in anything but crop issues.

P. A. Yeomans, in his Keyline concept and his treatment of eroded soils, deserves more attention from reafforestation planners. But the teams employed by rural fires boards and forestry departments appear, to my eye, to be legalised vandals. They carve near vertical 'access roads' which erode gullies, fire distant plains on any excuse and release even more turpenes and CO2 into the overloaded atmosphere than any other industry or source, at least in Tasmania. On a world scale, approx. 4000 billion tons of CO2 are released annually by cutting and burning. Haiti, Brazil, Africa and Borneo are looted for their forest resources. Drought and erosion follow.

We need a new concern and spirit in the profession, a new sort of forest intended to persist, to function and to yield. Historians and archaeologists have recorded the alternatives and the plunder of native forests may be the greatest factor in ending a nation's history. To pretend otherwise is present cowardice and invites future disaster. It is long past time that foresters put their full weight behind extension of forests, preservation of native stands and the evolution of new strategies to stabilise soil and landscape.

There is no lack of arable land in India, just a lack of forests. Can we provide the materials and expertise to reverse the grain crop famines of third world countries? I doubt it. My hope lies not with the inert academic professionals trained to serve exploiting industry, but with the thousands of ordinary people who are taking the alternative road. They could certainly do with at least part-time assistance at this time.

As students, foresters could ask for more integrated courses dealing with perennial forests grown for their forage, leaf protein and essential yields, and only in the long term for timber. Global and historical views of the results of forest cutting are essential if we are to understand the consequences of deforestation.

Permaculture combines disciplines

Permaculture is one attempt to weld together disciplines that have with a consequent loss of effectiveness separated soil, water, wildlife products, architecture and forests into separate compartments and departments. While I have many criticisms of the work itself, I doubt that the underlying theme of integration of the essential elements can be challenged, nor can the idea of integrated design be seriously criticised.

The active use of browsing mammals in seed and fire control is just one factor that could be better studied in forestry. Provision of more species for firebreaks and of water and nest sites for wildlife which aid in pest control are others. Access and water planned on Keyline principles give great stability to landscape, and the conscious use of plantation to increase rainfall, reduce groundwater evaporation and stabilize dunes is needed.

I have no doubt that active participation by foresters and their professional associations in the problem areas outlined would have a greatly beneficial effect on present and future unemployment. We live in dangerous but stimufating times that call for all our concern in the provision of the essentials of life, fuel, food and the myriad products of the forest.

No nation could ask for a better resource than that provided by extensive mixed forestry.

One of the reasons why salting is occurring in irrigation areas and in the drylands of the Murray Valley is destruction of tree cover in the catchments. Evidence backing this conclusion has come from hydrologists and soil conservation officers. It puts at risk many thousands of Murray Valley farms and the livelihoods of large numbers of Murray Valley townspeople.

What is happening had its root cause in the need for fuel by the mining industry and the clearing of land for agriculture. Trees taken off the catchments, particularly in the Loddon, Campaspe and Goulburn Valleys have allowed extra water to flow into deep aquifers or underground streams. These, in turn, are rising inexorably toward the surface at a steady rate. Some are already breaking the surface after moving through salt layers. Others are expected to take up to 40 years before being seen.

How can the problem be tackled?

A small group based at Maryborough in Victoria believes that replanting of trees in the catchments is a big part of that answer. Their farm forestry approach includes a five year planting program of trees for:

  • cattle fodder
  • oils
  • pharmaceuticals
  • timber
  • shade and shelter.

Mr Terry White, one of the leaders of the small group, told Riverlander it included committed people who included officers from the Victorian Department of Agriculture, the Forestry Commission Victoria, local government, the Soil Conservation Authority of Victoria, CSIRO — plus well-known 'perma-culture' exponent, Mr Bill Mollison.

The group met recently in Maryborough and decided to begin to build a map of the entire area affected by salting caused by lack of trees. The drainage system would be overlayed with geological strata to pinpoint the key areas for urgent action.

Another part of the group's activity will be directed towards education of people about the problems of salinity in the Murray Valley. It will also offer help to governments and others in framing suitable policies.

The group is looking to attract members too. Anyone wishing to join or offer financial help should telephone Mr Terry White on (054) 612 940.

Editor's notes

The following terms were used interchangeably at the time this edition of Permaculture was published.

New settlers: a term that described the influx or mainly young people into rural areas, including farmland and intentional communities, during the 1970-1980s. New settlers was one of a number of popular terms describing the social movement around seeking alternative ways of living lightly on the Earth that included participants in the cities as well as rural areas, however it referred specifically to those moving into rural areas.

Alternative terms were:

  • the 'back to the land movement', a description used to encapsulate the social movement from city to rural area
  • 'alternatives', a term describing the participants that was also used for those interested in new systems such as renewable energy, organic food, the economics of EF Schumacher and the design work and ideas of Buckminster Fuller, whether in city or country.

Other terms in use at the time and sometimes applied to new settlers:

  • 'counterculture', a term used to describe the alternative social culture in city and country as well as the lifestyle movement of the late-sixties-seventies known as 'hippies'
  • 'hippies', a popular catch-all term applied to those seeking alternative ways of living, including the use of psychedelics and marajuana that developed its own styles of presentation, music and art.

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