Dreaming of a new Irish Landscape

When I left Ireland in 2008 I was still a boy. I’ve worked for most of the last 15 years in Guatemala, as a Permaculture designer, builder and farmer. My partners and I built Granja Tzikin, a diverse permaculture farm, in which we have integrated goats, chickens, food forests, native trees, bamboo and organic vegetable gardens. All of the food we produce is sold at our farm to table restaurant. A large part of the motivation for developing our project was to demonstrate that permaculture and ecological farming can be done, that it can be economically sustainable as well as environmentally beneficial. 

My team and I have designed and built a wide array of eco-communities, regenerative farms and homesteads. We run a permaculture school from our farm and work with groups from all over the region wishing to regenerate ecosystems and create positive change in a country that so desperately needs it. It has been a wild ride, full of adventure, ups, downs and lessons that I never could have imagined. 

This summer I came back to Ireland for the first time in 10 years with my Colombian wife and our 2-year-old son. It’s a strange thing to see my homeland with fresh eyes after all these years. Mythology and storytelling are passions of mine, my siblings run the wonderful company called Candlelit Tales, which they use to retell all of the great Irish myths. At one of their shows recently I listened again to the familiar story of Oisín. Oisín comes home after 100s of years of living with Niamh in Tir na Nog and is dismayed by the look of the land, the great forests have been replaced with pasture land, and the people appear small and weak. This story, among other things, is telling of what we lose when we lose touch with the wild places. Historically speaking it is talking about the transition from horticulture to agriculture. Both these words end in the word culture, this is because the way we interact with the land and feed ourselves produces shifts in the cultural landscape. Agriculturalists domesticate plants and animals, but they also domesticate themselves. 

Permaculture is a design system that attempts to mirror nature’s model and give us the tools to design farms, towns and cities that contain all the functionality of healthy, long lasting ecosystems. The core idea in the model is that by doing this, we can create cultures that can endure permanently. While this may sound like a lofty goal, I believe that it is truly within our grasp. Not only that, I believe that if we don’t get it together and at least try, then we are quite literally doomed. The climate is changing, forget the politics associated with this statement and walk outside, use your senses and turn off the tv. Most importantly educate yourself in the basics of ecology. 

I believe that the discourse around reducing emissions is way off the mark. Of course in the long term we must find greener, less destructive forms of energy, but in the meantime we must focus on drawing down all the carbon in the atmosphere. Our educational and consultancy platform is called CreaSol, it is inspired by Lugh Law Fada, ancient sun God of the old Irish people who understood that ultimately all life on this planet is made up of sunlight. Plants and trees combine sunlight, carbon and water to make up their bodies and make life on this planet possible. Climate change in Ireland means that we have more sunlight, more water and more carbon. The problems seem overwhelming, but the solutions are embarrassingly simple. 

A healthy ecosystem is a large storage of water, sunlight and carbon. All healthy ecosystems, from tropical mangroves, to temperate rainforests have certain features in common; first and foremost they all capture and store energy (sunlight, water and carbon) in massive quantities. Then through the maintenance and creation of diversity they cycle this energy endlessly through the system. The waste of one element becomes the food for another. Integration is the key. 

It’s not a case of capitalism vs the planet

In Guatemala, so many of the barriers to ecological regeneration are actually socio-economic by nature. People who live in poverty simply don’t care about ecology and can’t be expected to make long term decisions, when putting food on the table today trumps all else. Poverty in these areas has its roots all the way back to colonial times, when forests were cut down to grow crops like cotton, sugarcane and bananas to fuel expansion in the west. Valuable ecosystems were destroyed, but vibrant cultures were also converted into pools of slave labor. Guatemala, and much of the developing world is still suffering the effects. Chief amongst them is what Gabor Mate calls trans generational trauma, suffering and mistreatment inflicted on the Mayan population are now replicated in homes, alcoholism and domestic violence are rife, as is crime, fear and mistrust. And yet in spite of this, the revolution is happening, it mostly goes unnoticed and undocumented, lost in all the noise and negativity, but all over the continent I live in, groups of people are bravely going back to the rural areas, regenerating the landscape and attempting to reintegrate with local communities. If we can do it there, with all the challenges, why can’t we do it here?

One big problem I see is a discourse in the media, which disempowers people. It’s true that capitalism has its dark side, but it also, unlike any other system we know of, it creates wealth and encourages creativity. We must take the positive aspects of capitalism, and move beyond the negative ones. This is called evolution, all evolution is characterized by a tendency to integrate and transcend. A molecule integrates all of the atoms, which make it up, and transcends them, by creating something new. If we are to solve the problems we are faced with, we must focus on creating new systems, which follow this principle. 

Understand how evolution works so you can help it.

Just as molecules integrate atoms to create something new, we must integrate our dark sides and realize that our capacity to harm and destruction is matched by our capacity to love and create. Furthermore we must realize that we are part of nature. The old model of big overcrowded cities, surrounded by extensive farmlands must come to an end. Monocultures of all types need to go, and be replaced by diverse integrated landscapes, which meet our needs while following the basic laws of ecology. Monocultures, the planting of a single species are harmful, because they are segregated as opposed to integrated. An integrated ecosystem is one in which the output of one element becomes the food for another. Most people understand this when it comes to the difference between say a native forest and a plantation of spruce or 200 hundred acres of grass and cattle. What most people are failing to understand is that we must now focus on the integration of human beings back into natural systems. 

What if problems like rural depopulation, the housing crisis, climate change and food production could all be solved by a new approach, one in which farmland is diversified, to include – native woodlands, crop production, multiple animals and most importantly vibrant communities of ecologically literate people, who wish to live in symbiosis with the land that sustains them. If we learn how to read the landscapes, we start to see familiar patterns across Ireland. Rolling hills, of mostly pastureland, used to graze cattle, dairy cows or sheep. This is a good start, grass is perennial, it protects soil, prevents runoff and is capturing carbon call year. But we could do so much better. 

When attempting to do anything well, its best to focus on correctly following basic principles. When doing regenerative design, we simply follow the principles that all healthy ecosystems have in common. 

Principle one – Healthy ecosystems don’t loose water, all regenerative design starts here. By analyzing the topography of land, we could hugely improve things. Digging swales (ditches dug on contour) and planting belts of native trees and berries below them would prevent erosion and reduce flooding in towns and cities downstream. Water capture can be compounded by creating wetlands and forests in low lying areas, ideally these ecosystems can be connected to one another by the aforementioned belts of trees, thus creating ecological corridors across miles of our landscape. 

Principle 2 – Healthy ecosystems capture and store energy in large amounts. 

The application of slurry, smells bad and is upsetting to the senses. Joel Saletin said, ‘if it looks bad and smells bad it’s bad farming’. The bad smell is ammonia or nitrogen escaping into the atmosphere. Slurry contains huge amounts of nitrogen, an important energetic input for all farms, but, nitrogen is fast, it wants to escape, and when we apply it in liquid or chemical form it runs off into our rivers and lakes and escapes into the atmosphere. By using biodigestores, or placing dry bedding under our animals (which can be composted), we can store massive amounts of energy and carbon on the land, thereby increasing its fertility and the microbial life in our soils. 

Principle 3 – Diversity creates resilience and stability in nature.

Herbivores follow omnivores; around all continents of the world a similar relationship between grazing animals, grasslands, predators and omnivores can be observed. Grazing animals move regularly and stay in large groups to avoid being picked off by wolves or lions. Omnivores like birds and pigs follow them, eating the bugs living in the their manure. This alleviates soil compaction, reduces ticks and other illnesses for the herbivores and brings extra fertility to the grasslands. Diversity combined with energy capture means ecosystems can increase in their life supporting capacity every year. By introducing ‘follow the leader’ grazing systems, we can greatly improve access to high quality food while also storing tones of extra carbon in our soils. 

Principle 4 – There is no waste in nature

Having mixtures of animals like cows, goats, pigs and chickens sharing our pasture creates a further opportunity, the creation of large amounts of high quality compost. Composting is easy, especially if efficient systems are designed from the start. All the excess manures could be composted and used to fuel small, intensely managed gardens, where enough vegetables and fruits could be produced in areas no bigger than a few acres to feed entire communities. 

Principle 5 – Humans are part of nature and when we are properly educated, we can be an extremely positive force for the planet. 

The key to reintegrating ourselves with nature and to becoming positive net contributors to the environment is to interact. We want more people in the countryside, not less. We live in a unique time. More and more people can do their jobs with only occasional visits to the city. Right now people are being put off making the move because they fear living in isolation and because zoning laws basically rule most of the land to be undevelopable. 

Back to Oisín, I think I know a little how he might have felt, yearning to see a different landscape. But while Oisín dreamed of the past, I dream of the future. I believe that we must integrate all that has come before us and create something new. We don’t just need trees on the landscape to capture carbon and slow down water, we need wild places and connection with nature. Wild places have medicine, some of it can be foraged, and some of it can be found in the silence and majesty of nature. We need to keep alive the long living cultures and connection to places that make it special to be Irish. But we also need healthy vibrant economies. Digital nomads vastly populate the area I live in. People who do their jobs or run their businesses while living by a lake in Guatemala. Why not encourage people to pull away from the offices and to live the good life in the Irish countryside? Why not give farmers the chance to get off subsidies and into making real money by developing diverse farms, which provide excess yields to local markets. These farms can become profitable and central to the cultural and ecological evolution many of us are yearning for.   

To find out more, visit CreaSolPermaculture or GranjaTzikin

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