When we talk to trees, do they listen?

I belatedly picked up on a discussion from last October about the acceptability of geomancy having a place in Permaculture. Geomancy is a method of divination that interprets markings on the ground, or how handfuls of earth land when someone tosses them (1). The discussion arose because of an article that was given space in Permaculture Magazine in which Alanna Moore thought geomancy an “ideal partner for permaculture design”. Alanna explained her respect for natural and ancient places:
“Before major upheavals, such as earthworks are begun, the respectful way is to give plenty of warning to the place about what is about to happen, well ahead of, and up to, the event. The same applies to tree cutting and branch lopping. Nature is intelligent, so talk to it!”

This was too much for Graham Strouts, on whose blog site the discussion was taking place (2), for he despaired that talking to trees had any rational basis, and that a “pre-rational animism” that believed in faeries, the power of crystals, and the ability to divine water, would be unlikely to add anything worthwhile to Permaculture. Commonly described as an earth science, Permaculture has an empirical basis, but it is not littered with formulae, constants or laws.

Other respondents were moved similarly, some considering cancelling their subscription to Permaculture Magazine. A more vehement response came from Eoin, who showed she held stronger convictions:
“The environmental movement has been plagued for too long by the ‘new age’ airy fairy movement. I think the timing for environmental issues to be acted on is getting too critical. Time to leave the bullshit behind”

For Graham, it came down to choices: for a belief in geomancy, instinct and emotional/sensory feelings have to be put above rational thought and enquiry. On the other hand, Graham felt that rational thought and enquiry should be the solid basis for Permaculture. He knew there would be doubters:
“Another objection to the scientific approach is that science cannot disprove things like geomancy”

He called for a consistency of argument - if you can promote geomancy on the shaky grounds that it cannot be “disproved” then it would be possible to just invent any belief that happens to suit you.

As the discussion expanded, it began to focus on the presumed rigor of scientific analysis – could for instance dowsing or crop circles have a scientific basis, when so far they had proved ineluctable without it? Could the same be said for Permaculture? Andy Wilson expressed doubts that have been raised before:
“One thing that troubles me here is that there seems to be a dearth of scientific evidence that Permaculture ‘works’. Or am I missing something?”

It was at this point that I remembered I had been this way before when I wrote about a coruscating book review by Greg Williams of Toby Hemneway’s “Gaia's Garden: A guide to homescale Permaculture”. Williams, in spite of having taken a Permaculture Design course with its originator, Bill Mollison, was very sceptical about the absence of data, testing and experiments on yields in Permacultural systems compared to say mainstream agriculture or other home garden production systems (Not seeing the woods for the trees, January 2002).

My observation then was that Williams was expressing an anthropocentric view that nature's yields should be based primarily on their success in serving humankind alone. His statement that successional wooded landscapes would eventually only produce food for deers and not humans showed a callous disregard for the multiple yields that are sought in Permaculture Design and which are supportive of all earth users.

I noted then that, often, early enthusiasts for Permaculture unfortunately played the game of using orthodox scalar attributes to describe Permacultural systems. One example of this that I should have given was the oft quoted belief that pigs could be reared on the abundant yields of the root of wild flag iris. I do not dispute that, but it is a hostage to fortune when it is not much more than an anecdotal observation, and even then prone to unnecessary embellishment.

Why did Thoreau carefully catalogue in his book, “Walden; or, life in the woods”, all his expenditure, and his yields, when he went off to the woods “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived"

Was this a process of self-discovery by living in semi-wilderness, or did he feel that as a solid representative of post-Enlightenment thinking that he had to convey his experience to others in terms that would be considered a proof? Since he noted that in wilderness lay human salvation, then surely that was the message, rather than the number of bushels of beans he was able to produce?

What I think Thoreau shows is the difference between a scientific approach and the scientific method. I declare an interest here because I was a research scientist, was thoroughly absorbed by biochemistry, but gave it up as it was not a fulfilling life. But I think I will always use a scientific approach in life, a spirit of rational inquiry, and which also helps me sift the innovative from the nonsense.

Perhaps we will always have difficulty applying the scientific method to Permaculture, the orthodox measurements, so that rigorous comparisons can be made. Permaculture is something that is about doing (or not doing) rather than proving. Moreover, Permaculture systems usually have a highly personal and location-specific element to them, and which seeks to take yields in many different ways. We should not fear evaluation, it’s just that we need to be able to define and decide on what basis the evaluation will take place - and then explain it carefully to sceptics. Would I be any happier saying that the yield of flag iris had gone up, when what I really wanted to say was that my wetland ecosystem was really buzzing?

That fuzziness could attract the counter-ire of the super rationalists, but I don’t yet think that Permaculture has been lost to the faeries when there are other super irrationalists around in greater need of challenge, since they claim a superiority. Here is David Aaronovitch writing a few years ago in the Independent (3):
“In the twentieth century, upper-class reactionaries and their followers provided the natural base for conservationist and environmentalist causes. They also patronised mystical cults such as theosophy and alternative healing systems such as homeopathy. One of the curiosities of the past 30 years is that many of these views have been taken up by middle-class activists, often disillusioned radicals, who have played a key role in giving them the mainstream popularity they have recently come to enjoy”

You may wonder whether there was a particular group of people that he was talking about. Students of 20th century history will know there was a link with the fascist tendency of the 1930's and the founders of the Soil Association. With all the bluster about how organic farming will save the world, it is a little challenged aspect that homeopathy for treatment of livestock in organic systems is enshrined in European legislation. Contrast this with the situation where the consultant brother of my ex-professor from undergraduate days, Michael Baum, was so incensed by the lack of proof of efficacy in humans, into leading a campaign to have homeopathy thrown out of the National Health Service. So if homeopathy is no good for people, why is it good for livestock? Oh well, at least that fits with the advocacy by the director of the Soil Association to the Agriculture Select Committee, 1st November 2000, of non-evidence based reasoning in determining organic standards.

Going back to my college days in the early seventies is instructive. I very much remember the disappointment amongst fellow students at the news that the nitrites used in curing bacon were proving to be carcinogenic. Come forward nearly 30 years and we find the then chair of the Soil Association, a pig farmer, arguing the case alongside Sainsbury’s for use of nitrites in curing organic bacon. When challenged on this one more example of commercial expediency, the Soil Association produced “proof” that nitrite was a natural compound found in all animals. Yes, I just walk around with an armful of it, although the curing effect does make my arm a little stiff.

Here’s another one for you. My final year project was on – here’s the science bit, but there is a point to it - the proposed proton pump in oxidative phosphorylation. Using sub-mitochondrial particles (SMP), I explored the effect of detergents that would collapse the proton gradient by making the SMP membrane permeable. To ensure that I was observing an oxidatively driven process, I had to use the chewing gum effect of oligomycin, a NATURAL compound, that plugged the holes where the F1-ATP’ase complex had sheared off. Another NATURAL compound I used with the SMPs was rotenone, an inhibitor of Complex II. Rotenone is the active ingredient in Derris dust, an allowable pesticide in organic systems, but which is known to cause central nervous system degeneration in humans exposed to it.

Is this any different to organo-phosphate (OP) pesticides, blamed by one member of the organic movement for causing BSE? OPs are chemically synthesised, and I used them in the laboratory as a marker for the serine hydroxyl groups at the active site of enzymes. I also knew from studies in the fifties that they would kill me if I wasn’t careful! But then rotenone could also kill me when it is isolated, purified and concentrated from the derris tree. It is as lethal as any chemically synthesized poison.

When I was a graduate student, a colleague in my lab was studying the potential endocrine effect of high fibre diets on carbohydrate metabolism - he fed mice guar gum. I can’t remember what he found out, but for some time, high fibre diets were considered to be capable of reducing the incidence of bowel cancers. But then someone went back to the early literature on fibre diets and found very little information to support that finding, and not much conclusive work since.

Does all science method indicate a startling revelation? Depends on how you look at it. The organic movement is always keen to jump on results that show their systems provide food with better nutritional value. Anti-oxidants, mineral content etc. etc. But it is often a short lived euphoria, because you have to ask yourself how significant it is, and whether it is solely due to an organic system. Would it be achieved in any other way? And, also, why should organic have all the niceness in the world – is there a law? This was brought home to me with the triumphant news that organic milk has higher omega 3 oils than milk from conventional farms. However, if you look at the detail of the study, it wasn’t being organic that made the difference, the factor was whether the cows were entirely grass-fed or were given a mixture of grass and concentrate.

Here is a the lesson from my statistics Prof., an ex-lecturer at the Royal Military College, who gave us examples based on the mean point of impact of artillery rounds, and the rarity of Russian cavalry officers dying after falling from their horses. He said beware of correlations that may not tell you anything. Thus the high degree of correlation between births in a town, with the tubes of toothpaste that were bought there, said nothing about the methods of contraception in the town. Or I could put it another way, based on the philosophy of Harry Baum, my biochemsitry professor, who often wondered at what point early man connected the act of coition with the birth of a baby nine months later. He was a firm believer in the principle of Occam’s Razor - something to do with a caterpillar sliding down a sharp edge! The simple answer was the best one to start with! Thus the amount of toothpaste might have been something to do with a fresher breath leading to more incidences of coition.

I’m not sure I want to go all the way with Harry Baum. He was the scientist par excellence, with a focus and a vision to reduce things down to answering simple questions. Natural systems are thankfully complex, and when we poke them, they are unlikely to react in simplistic ways. Except that conservation professionals, another target of my ire, have made a career out of this, not wishing to look for unintended consequences, just measuring their intended ones and claiming their success.

What are we to make of the high correlation between the amount of grazing of calcareous grassland and the numbers of various blue butterflies. What I think is that we have a degraded landscape, maintained in an unnatural condition by our concentrated use of livestock, and in which these butterflies grab an opportunity that would not be so available to them in a wilder landscape.

The correlation is but an example of the science method, of maximising numbers in an artificial landscape without any thought to the optimum that is more likely to exist in natural systems. Thus we have Professor Alan Gray of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Dorset, writing:
“First, it is important to examine the relationship between agriculture and the environment in the UK (and Northern Europe) where more than 75% of the land surface is farmed and where almost all of our valued wildlife habitats are anthropogenic and plagioclimactic……The intimate relationship between the way land is managed and the resulting spectrum of wild plants and animals will be illustrated, for pastoral systems, by work from the CEH Dorset lab on the reintroduction of the Large Blue butterfly (Maculinea arion) and the restoration of species-rich chalk grassland at Twyford Down in Hampshire”

I do believe that reason and rationality are a good starting point for Permaculture, and at least they enable us to differentiate between what is important and what is expedient i.e. the benefits of natural systems over wholly managed ones. While I find little personal connection with animism, I don’t embrace a religion either. But there is something at least spiritual in Permaculture that I have no problem with sitting well as an “ideal partner”. I leave it to Heather Coburn to explain, from her writings on Zone 0, where she says Permaculture starts with yourself (4):
“Permaculture is more than another approach to ecological design; it is a personal transformation. When you practice permaculture, a door opens in your brain and visions of a truly thriving, sustainable society come pouring through. When we reach the point at which we are willing to unlock that door, the first thing we need to do is find the key, and the best place to look is deep inside ourselves, in the hidden corners of our minds, where our most cherished ethics and intentions lie”

Mark Fisher 13 June 2008

(1) Geomancy, from Wikipedia  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geomancy
(2) No place for Woo-woo in Permaculture, Graham Strouts, October 2007, on Zone 5
(3) In Defence of Reason, David Aaronovitch, Independent, 26 June 2002
(4) Zone Zero: Permaculture Starts with Yourself, Heather Coburn, April 2004 on Food Not Lawns


www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk