Our world today moves too quickly—the velocity of transactions, vehicles, information, all have hidden repercussions, principally the inability to take in feedback and adjust. This velocity results in new cycles that are instantaneous, financial systems that rapidly shuttle money from local economies to multi-national banks, and a pace of life that deteriorates our quality of life. The ability to observe systems and gather feedback is drastically enhanced by a lower velocity of action. The speed at which one chooses to move through the world affords different vantage points of observation.
On a practical level practiced observation allows us to tell real news from fake, contemplate our purchasing choices and their repercussions, and simply appreciate all that is good in our lives. As well in permaculture design, observation is our bedrock. As our first and most powerful tool, we must actively seek out our opportunities to watch, listen and feel our sorroundings.
I believe the bicycle provides an appropriate velocity to practice broad landscape observation. Bicycles are human powered, allow one to hop on and off at ease, can stop anywhere, and can go down nearly any path that a car or your feet can take you.
Over the months of July, August and September I had the opportunity to travel through eastern Canada (Quebec, Labrador and Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia) on bicycle with my partner Laura Killingbeck.
I spent much of the trip staring as the landscape slowly crept by, and trying to apply a permaculture lens; one of patterns, human interaction, and ecological interconnections. Below are a few takeaways.
The geology of the these provinces encouraged me to seek more information. Compared to the relatively consistent geology of Costa Rica, we were exposed to a kaleidoscope of formations and parent material. Giant iron ore and aluminum mines that drive the economy in Quebec. Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland and the Cape Bretons Highland National Park in Nova Scotia are protected because of their unique geology. Gros Morne was one of the most important locations in developing a scientific consensus around plate tectonic theory and is one of only four places on the planet where one can walk on a ridge of the earth’s mantle. We hiked to the top of a mountain made of Mica in Nova Scotia. And in the Bay of Fundy one can walk along the exposed ocean floor as the tide zooms out due to the unique geology and topography of the bay.
All of this leads one to consider the effects of this geology on the human development of the provinces. The parent material is directly tied to soil fertility, the physical resources that can be surface mined fuel much of the local economy, and the national parks and their geology make up another important economic sector.
As much as the modern world tries, it is impossible to disconnect ourselves from the ground beneath our feet. On the bicycle you literally feel this ground all day. This provides the opportunity to pay close attention to the subterranean world and ponder how it affects our day-to-day life today and how we might want it to be different in the future.
Collapse of Ecology
The Spanish, French, English, Dutch, and Moors have influenced these coastlines for the last few centuries. In particular the mid-1800s were a boon for the whaling industry. The stories of how packed these waters were with whales, seals, salmon, cod, and other marine life are hard to comprehend when you are on the stern of a boat straining for a glimpse of a dorsal fin as an amateur whale watcher.
In an incredibly short period of time the whales and seals were driven to the brink of extinction, followed a few decades later with the collapse of the cod stock from severe over fishing. It is trickier to observe the human impact on the ecology here because it has primarily occurred underwater. But from a sheer biomass perspective one might wager that the destruction of this sea life rivals the destruction of tropical forests that continues unabated today.
Of course the economy followed the ecology, a parable for our age. Much like geology, the hidden aspects of our life, whether soil life or ecological balances, are what we commonly ignore and destroy when we move too fast through the world.
Alongside the road in northern Newfoundland we began to see small isolated garden patches. Usually the ground was full of potatoes, with some scattered offerings of cabbage and turnips. The edges were rustically fenced with wood railings in a diverse and haphazard manner. Most interestingly the gardens were far from homes, sometimes miles from any obvious locale.
When the roads were first built in the 1960s and '70s they occasionally turned up beautiful black soil, the remnants of peat being broken down over millennia. People began claiming small parcels and started gardening. One Newfoundlander even described this as the “Queen’s land”, alluding to the islands’ provincial history with England and only recent merging with Canada.
This land is the commons and has been managed that way for decades. The commons refer to resources, in this case land, that were traditionally managed and sometimes owned by society at large. In Newfoundland the roadside commons are used for gardens as well as firewood processing and storage. These are not individually owned parcels. The commons are an alternative to private land ownership, a system of resource management that requires collaboration and temperance of resource use. This type of collectivist strategy is the antithesis of the unrestrained foreign pulses of a global commodities market that incentives large scale extraction of resources that ultimately leads to ecological collapse.
The climate at this latitude is harsh. A decidedly short growing season, massive shifts in day length, salt spray, and intense winds make this an often inhospitable place for plant growth. The peat bogs, pine barrens, and limestone barrens (in particular those edging the ocean), have found a unique way to create a life, as nature does, by leveraging microclimates to create an ecological niche.
A microclimate is any smaller shift in climate than the larger surrounding area. This can occur because of shade from a building, the cardinal aspect of a slope, moisture from changes in topography and bedrock, or wind protection from a grove of trees.
In the limestone barrens scattered mostly along the northwestern coast of Newfoundland, plants found practical niches in the fissures of the fragmented limestone rocks. Ancient conifers, often hundreds of years old, germinate in these cracks and slowly branch along them, barely exposing their growing tips. Along the pine barrens of the north shore of the Saint Lawrence, wild blueberries would find just enough protection under wind thrown conifers.
While cycling, exposed to the sun and wind for miles on end, one appreciates this strategy more and more with each passing mile. All these microclimates are where the velocity of wind decreases, sun exposure is minimized, and erosion decreases, while nutrient and moisture levels increase. This is nature patterning a model for us to imitate. This pattern recognition must then translate to pattern application; which in this case could be using microclimates to create a different hardiness zone for a new tree or to site your home in a way that reduces winter heating and summer cooling expenses.
As we got further north the farms and gardens slowly disappeared. The grocery stores thinned out and we entered into what would likely be considered a food desert. We found ourselves buying dusty cans of beans, and wondering, “What do people eat here?” One food staple is salt fish, another are foraged berries. Guess which ones we preferred?
We found berries and berry foragers everywhere we turned. Cloud berries, low bush blueberries, partridge-berries, wild blackberries, and cranberries were sprinkled throughout the landscape.
These nutrient dense bursts of flavor were a welcome addition in the often monotonous culinary landscape that occurs when you must physically carry all your possessions on your bicycle.
The opportunity to forage exists the world over. It is one of the great tools for practicing observation, as the feedback is quick and tasty, and a bicycle is just the right speed to see a small patch hidden in the shrubs.
I know very little about the maritime provinces; we were slow moving bystanders seeking a bit of adventure and time in nature. Two months spread over hundreds of miles leaves one with only broad strokes. Still, by putting our permaculture background to use, by observing and interacting, we were able to gain an understanding of how indigenous peoples, Viking castaways, European whalers, and British colonists all interacted and changed this place. This is a powerful way to start the process of creating a vision for how we want to change a place for the next many generations.
Through good, patient observation we can learn lessons, take in feedback, and apply this to our own attempts to create a permanent culture. To do this we need to slow down the velocity of our lives. For me that slowing down took the form of a cycling trip.