Tag Archives: Milkwood

Getting it straight

water levelling

The two things which have stuck in my mind most since last week’s Permaculture class are: water levelling, and the role of “apertures” in landscape formation.

Sounds heavy, eh! And indeed, gravity does have a role to play in both!

Our practical exercise of the day was A Beginner’s Guide to Surveying. You’ve all seen those TAFE students out in the park with their Hi-Viz vests holding those funny looking devices on tripods? Yep, we got to play with that stuff! (but not the vests).

It was quite fun. There were laser levels, telescopic levels, and – my favourite – water levels.

The water levels (among the most ancient and low-tech of the levelling family) are based on the extraordinary (but perfectly logical) idea that water in a closed system always reaches a level. So if you have a long see-through hose filled with water, you can stretch it out as far as you like, and the top level of the water at both ends will be the same.

The same holds for a hose which is connected to a large water container – as in the demonstration Nick provided in class. He even coloured the water with blue dye to dramatise the effect. Here’s a few more photos of the process.

The main “learning outcome” from all of this watery-levelly business is that no matter how flat a piece of land might look and feel, it’s almost guaranteed that it slopes in one way or another! This comes as quite a surprise: the raw feel and instinct of experience versus the empirical evidence of measurement.

If you’re not careful with your existential stability, it can quite powerfully throw into question the relative up-ness and down-ness of our occupation of the planet. Take for example, this amazing sci-fi picture of a space station Torus thingummy. How would a water level operate, if its length was a significant proportion of this Torus’ curve?

Come to think of it, the Earth is curved! So how can anything be “level” (except relative to the human scale?)

Injecting Resin into an Ant Hill

chaos creativity

Last night at yoga, I bumped into Paul, one of the guys in the Sunday Permaculture class.

Paul: “I’m not really sure what I’m learning in that course.”

Me: “That’s a strange thing to say.”

Paul: “Yes, I suppose it is”.

But he’s right. I’m not really sure what I’m learning either.

That’s not to say I’m not learning. In fact – if by “learning” you mean the acquisition of new concepts, I’m brimming over with the pesky buggers. But what a strange breed of concepts these are! To what use can we put ’em?
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Trading Intangible Commodities

altruism maslow

The last time I flirted with permaculture (in late 2008), I got very excited about shit.

Having attended Milkwood’s intro to permaculture course, I raved to anyone who would listen, about the idea of recycling the energy which constitutes our own shit, to use it again and again – rather than flushing it away to a non-usable state out in the ocean somewhere.

However – besides an ongoing fascination with my compost heap (a way of recycling the energy in scrap foods and plant residues, but not shit) – my “human shit ambition” has been just sitting there, waiting for something to happen. I haven’t managed to crack how to use it within an urban context (not within the constraints of my rental tenancy situation anyway).
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Knowing Your Shit

permaculture flow chart

Last Saturday and Sunday, I was a student in the Milkwood Intro to Permaculture Course, run by the excellent Kirsten and Nick (aka Cicada). The above picture is of a flow chart a few of us knocked up during the course, as part of an exercise to hammer home how inter-connected everything is.

Since the course, I haven’t been able to stop talking shit. Literally. My girlfriend is bored shitless. Etc etc. What I mean is, the thing from the course which made the deepest impression on me, is the idea of shit as a resource.


The crazy thing is, that we take one of our most precious resources – our own shit – and we mix it with another of our most precious resources – clean drinking water, and we flush them both away into the ocean.

Shit as a precious resource? Yeah man, human shit. You can compost it and put it back in the garden to grow next year’s vegies.

Ignorantly, I had thought this was a sort of taboo in human societies. We dump chook poo, horse poo, cow poo etc (not really dog and cat poo though?) on our vegie gardens, and they really help things grow better. But up to now, I believed human poo was a bit too close to home – doesn’t that shit cause diseases?

Not so, according to Nick and Kirsten, who described the process of composting their own for one year, before putting it around their fruit trees.

The whole concept of permaculture (at least, the bit that made a strong impression on me) is about “energy cycling”. Energy tends to move from a useful to a non-useful state. If we harness the energy released from one process, and use it again, we can keep it cycling round a bit longer before it leaves us for good.

When you think about vegie gardens as a “sustainable” thing, you gotta consider “inputs” and “outputs”. (Or “imports” and “exports”, as Nick put it). Ideally, you want to keep both imports and exports to a minimum. The sun, luckily, and rain when it comes, are “free” imports!

So you might be harnessing the energy of the sun – the plants transform it through photosynthesis, and draw nutrients from the soil, the air, and water. But as soon as you eat those vegies, and subsequently shit down the loo, you are exporting a whole lot of valuable nutrients from your system, which could have been kept local and re-used next time around.

This thought has been haunting me all week, with grim regularity…

Now, this is all very well when you live out near Mudgee. But how could you harvest human poo (and wee) in the city? Especially when you’re living in a rental place, and the landlord won’t even install a double-flush, let alone a composting shitter?