I presented this concept at City of Marion’s ‘Common Thread‘ sustainability series earlier this month. Today I’ll introduce you to Part One.
This is my Mum. Her name is Sally. You might have met her around the traps. She’s usually surrounded by a mobile forest of edible plants. But she is really a wolf in sheep’s clothing…
You know how in healthy, natural ecosystems, every organism is somehow connected to everything else.
And at the top of every ecosystem there is an apex predator – a species that dominates that ecosystem, that eats what it likes and doesn’t get eaten by anybody else…
The apex predator largely dictates how vast quantities of energy and material are shifted, and, through its massive redistribution of resources, changes life for every other life form around it. Here are some examples:
These predators have an incredible impact on their ecosystem – but not necessarily a negative impact. For example, bears return nutrients from sea to forests by eating salmon there; wolves keep grazing animal populations in check, thus increasing growth of young trees that renew the forest. In fact they are vital to its proper functioning, and if they are removed, as has happened all over the world through human intervention (hunting), things get out of balance.
Sally is the apex predator in her garden.
In the three years that she has dominated this habitat, a lawn monoculture has been transformed into a food forest, with vastly increased biodiversity. Without her, that ecosystem simply wouldn’t be there.
The apex predator reaps fruit, vegetables, eggs, flowers, shade, exercise, entertainment and an income stream (much of which is then donated to charities, e.g. cyclone and bushfire relief, education in developing countries…) from this enriched ecosystem.
Many, many other species also benefit, some of which she has introduced (i.e. fruit trees and vines, herbs, vegetables, flowers, chickens, compost worms) and others which have been attracted to set up home there (e.g. magpies, wattlebirds, dragonflies, predatory wasps, ladybirds, lizards…)
Now let’s see how Sally’s suburban food forest functions as an ecosystem (over-simplified!):
- Mum collects food scraps from her kitchen and from other sources in the local community, feeds them to worms, compost and chooks.
- Chook manure, compost and worm castings feed plants.
- Plants feed pest insects which in turn feed predator insects and birds, which fertilise and pollinate the garden.
- Plants provide Mum’s food and go to other homes amongst her family and local community.
- In exchange people give Mum garden resources (pots, cuttings, grafting material, seeds, fruit etc.) or cash. These resources then get turned into more plants, jam, overseas aid, food for the family, and more and more and more plants.
The diversity, complexity, resilience and productivity of this system keeps increasing as long as the apex predator is in place. Remove Sally and you might see the return of the monoculture (lawn), or alternatively its replacement with more bricks and paving as urban density increases.
Here in the suburbs I think we often feel disconnected from nature. While we are kind of comfortable in our houses and our outdoor living rooms and pools and lawns and floral borders, there is some wilder part of us that is dying. That’s why we seek to go on holidays to wild places and why we feel so healthy there. And then we come back home and we blame work and routine and responsibilities and pollution and GM foods in the marketplace (and whatever else) for making us feel tired and sick and dis-Spirited. We get de-Natured (“dehumanised, deprived of natural qualities”).
And yet we have the opportunity to embrace the wild part of us and nurture it and form a relationship between the wild in us and the wild in our local environment. You might say there’s not much wild nature left in our suburban environment. But hey, WE are the apex predators and we determine what constitutes our environment. It’s up to us to reintroduce nature in all its diversity and complexity, and our own health and happiness (as well as the health of our broader environment) actually depends upon us doing this.
There’s no one ‘right way’ to create a garden ecosystem – it depends on individual needs and tastes, and what kind of relationship we want to cultivate with our natural surroundings. My tendency is towards gardens with comfortable access, conveniently sized fruit trees and inviting sitting places, while my Mum’s style is one where the plant and animal inhabitants come first and she accommodates herself to them – they literally reach out and stroke her, and she engages all her senses in responding to them. Many of my design clients have styles that differ from mine – but, as apex predators, we can each create the kind of ecosystem that serves our particular needs, while also fostering tremendous biodiversity and making a healthier environment.
Permaculture offers us some very useful guidelines in approaching this task. It’s a holistic, systems-based approach that puts us at the centre where all our decisions are guided by social and environmental ethics and sound design principles. Instead of trying to tiptoe around what’s left of the natural environment and reduce our impact from a place external to it – or worse still, giving in to the dominant culture of consumerism – permaculture enables us to rehabilitate our landscape while benefiting from it. It seems to me that accepting our inevitable place as the apex predators, and reconnecting with our own wild nature, can offer us a new level of freedom to apply permaculture ethics and principles in whatever land we have (or have access to).
In the next post I will explore the how-to of being an apex predator:
- How do we find our wild side and activate it?
- How do we translate permaculture principles into action?
- How are we involved in the relationships between other organisms in our ecosystems?