Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Communities and Guilds

This is the fourth article in an ongoing series that I've written in our town's alternative paper, the Madison County Crier. The series is intended to be an introduction to permaculture, often illustrated by examples taken from our homestead. When possible I've also made it a point to link in to the potential for a permacultural approach to town and community life as well as the prospects for easing our town's transition into this new future we have before us.

In my last article I discussed the importance of connections between the structures,organisms, and landscape in a design that captures energy flow such as rainwater formore efficient use. I also applied that kind of observation and design principle to ourtown to show that energy and resources which are currently thrown away or not capturedat all can be used to our immediate benefit.

This time around I thought we might explore another aspect of this thinking with adiscussion of building guilds on our site and community in our town. We’ll start with theidea of a guild. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary one definition of guildis “an association of people for mutual aid or the pursuit of a common goal” which appliesvery well if you think of our town or most towns. In the context of a permaculture site aguild is an assembly of plants which are, in a variety of ways, mutually beneficial. In sucha guild we might combine medicinal and cooking herbs, pollinator attracting flowers, a foodcrop, and soil building plants. Such a guild will not only be beneficial to the plants but also toour needs for food and medicine. Let’s have a look at an example which I’m using at my ownsite.

Unlike many gardens which are rows upon rows of annual vegetables and occasionallyplanted with a border of flowers, my site is modeled after the surrounding natural ecosystem. Ihave fruit trees planted in guild arrangements which include annual food crops layered into thesun facing sides of each group. Each guild is centered on a fruit tree such as apple, plum, peach,pear, or paw paw. Around the trees from the trunk to several feet out, are a mix of nasturtiums,chives, garlic chives, fava beans, bee balm, yarrow, and comfrey.

Just outside this ring which is formed by the drip line of the branches are a mix of gooseberries,red currant, and black currant fruit bushes. The south facing side is planted with sundemanding annuals such as squash. This guild requires little to no watering thanks to the thicklayer of cardboard and straw mulch.

In these fruit tree centered guilds plants, arranged to take best advantage of vertical spaceunder the trees perform a variety of functions and maximize the collection of sunlight. Theyattract a diversity of pollinating insects including predatory wasps that will aid in the controlof insects that can damage our plants. The fava beans will add nitrogen to the soil and thecomfrey provides fantastic, nutrient rich leaves that can be used as mulch material at thebase of the fruit trees or anywhere in the garden. Each circular guild connects to the next and,taken all together, form a larger “food forest.”

Villages, towns, and cities might also be viewed as a series of connecting and overlappingcommunities. As with our permaculture site, beneficial relationships between people ina town are the foundation of those communities. Just as any ecosystem’s health is based uponits diversity, our community’s health and stability are increased by the variety of personalities,characteristics, and skills our people. We all have something to offer which makes the wholework better and a part of the process of living in a community is developing connections andrelationships so that our offering fits in.

But something seems to have gone wrong in recent years and the health of our communitiesand the relationships that bind them together seems to be rapidly failing. After World War IIAmerica engaged in a steady and very rapid build out of suburbia, a living arrangement not basedon community relationships and local economics. In many towns and cities the familiar relationshipsof the local gave way to anonymous shopping experiences in sprawling malls and hugebig-box stores. As real community faded away the “Friends” on television were pushed into ourliving rooms to fill the void.

I’d like to propose that an important part of the solution to our many social and economic problems isthat we get back to the basics of family and community relationships. By becoming more aware of theserelationships and potential relationships we can nurture and expand them so that they are more usefulto us as individuals as well as the over-all community. Like the bees in my food forest, the people ofour town wake up everyday and get to the business of living. We have a variety of social and economicinstitutions and networks that we use to organize the work that we do, ranging from family to schools to small businesses to local and regional government. Building and maintaining a healthy community, like a garden, takes a great commitment and willingness to share our time and energy.

It is not an understatement to suggest that it is in the context of community that we can live our livesto their fullest potential. It is in our community that we might become better people by learning andteaching one another. Our relationships help define who we are and who we might become. The beautyof community is that, at its best, it is a place in which we co-create one another. It’s not difficult to come to the conclusion that it is the quality of our community and the relationships we have within it that largely determine the quality of life we will live.



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