Artwork by Casey Cripe
I recently, finally, got down to doing an exercise I had meant to do for months– examining one of our local native ecosystems in detail and trying to imagine how it might translate into a human supporting agriculture on our property.
I chose to focus on a forest edge, since that is most what our yard resembles. I sketched out a typical grouping, and listed each element’s inputs and outputs to get an idea of their roles. This requires a pretty intimate knowledge of the local ecosystem, which I am lucky to have. In fact, the reason I hadn’t done the exercise yet in a formal way was that it had felt kind of silly and redundant. Like, I already know it, so why write it out? But like every other silly little exercise I’ve made myself do, it turned out to be so interesting and revelatory!
One thing that bugs me about guilds is that they do not include animals. I guess the idea is to focus on the plants’ relationships, but since animals are so integral to the cycles, it seems weird to me to leave them out. So, I included animals in my native ecosystem sketch.
I’m going to show you my sketch, just so that you can be inspired to try this regardless of artistic skill!!!
Now, since my chicken scratching is mostly illegible, here it is in list format. Note that this is an extreme simplification of an extensive ecosystem. I’m looking more at groupings and roles than specific species.
The main element is an evergreen tree, either spruce or hemlock (or many trees together– actually they don’t grow solitary here, which is an essential thing. With very shallow root systems and high winds, they must grow in groups. Naturally this area has nearly continuous forest cover, with openings and edges as occasional exceptions. But anyway, you get the idea.)
Underneath the evergreen (spruce or hemlock) are:
-blueberry bushes and a couple of other bushes which produce small seeds
-lots of ferns
-a complete ground cover of thick moss
-lots of funguses and lichens
Basic animals include:
Having listed the eagles and bear, I really couldn’t leave out salmon– which are so essential to our ecosystem. Bear travel quite large ranges, so are part of ecosystems which are not necessarily anywhere near salmon streams.
Then I listed out each element’s inputs and outputs. Most interesting about this was realizing how little I do know. Like– moss. What is that stuff for? What does it do? Holds a hell of a lot of water, and builds soil, a living mulch. That’s all I could come up with, nothing obvious eats it. Ferns too– what do they do besides providing mulch and building soil?
The berries obviously feed lots of animals who in turn distribute and sow their seeds. The evergreen trees have a fairly obvious and tight relationship with the squirrels, who likewise distribute and sow the trees seeds (as well as mushroom spores). Salmon feed bears and eagles, who leave lots of half-eaten salmon carcasses scattered throughout the woods to build more soil. Fungus underly everything and are almost exclusive decomposers in our very cold soils.
Next, I wanted to figure out how to mimic this natural system to create my food producing guild. To help me think it through, I listed out the roles elements play before thinking of the specific elements I might use. The guild resulting from this is fairly straightforward. With evergreen trees at the center, lots of berries and mushrooms underneath. Cleared areas for annual gardens and lawn providing an “edge” habitat and solar access for the berries. The animal element was a bit more of a stretch. I hope that chickens and ducks can fill the role of small songbirds, and the squirrels can stay. The most interesting part was when I got to the bear. What takes the place of bear? I wondered. What eats the berries and salmon and throws the bones up around the trees? What large omnivorous predator can take the place of– !! Of course! Humans! The whole reason for this– the true central element of a home permaculture system.
Once I started thinking about it, I realized how much humans and bears are alike. Bears eat mostly greens in the spring, then fatten up on berries and fish in the summer and fall. They happily scavenge anything else edible in between. They clomp around and scare everybody else away. Somehow it makes me inordinately happy to think that we are the bears in our little made up ecosystem. Makes me feel more like I fit here.
I highly recommend this exercise. Even if you feel like you don’t know much about the native ecosystem in your area, start writing and you might be surprised.
More guild reading:
The Treeyo Permaculture Online Reader has a nice introduction to guilds.
Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemmenway has two chapters on guilds and offers a wonderful, thorough discussion of the subject.
MidWest Permaculture offers a nice booklet of guilds which work well in their area.
If you really want to dive deep, The Apios Institute is a growing resource of people’s actual experiences with plants for forest gardens and polycultures. (You do have to pay a membership fee to access most of the information, and since I have not done so, I can’t vouch for whether it’s worth the money. However, it is run by Eric Toensmeier, who co-wrote the two volume, highly respected Edible forest Gardens, so it’s probably pretty great.)