On our farm in Cismont, we design much of our work by observing and mimicking nature. Winter is a great time to reexamine how we use energy and to create work that uses our finite resources more efficiently. By modeling our energy and resource use on natural systems, we can shift our ecological role from consumer towards producer.
We design the farm and our home to yield benefits on many levels. Our goal is to use energy more efficiently and more optimally for our lifestyle which requires time for play and family. For example, to minimize fossil fuel use, we heat the house with wood. Chopping wood is hard work, with visible and useful results. The physical rhythm opens a space for meditation and communication. It also warms us at least twice.
Splitting firewood is not just brute strength, but finesse in the placement of the force applied. Understanding the flow patterns of the wood structure informs each strike to find a path of least resistance. Other energy patterns here on the farm reflect this flow. Animal trails cut across the hills rather than straight up and down; weeds occupy bare soil more rapidly than mulched areas; fungus grows faster along the grain of wood than across it.
The point is, nature organizes along a path of least resistance. Or put another way, nature organizes to optimize the use of energy in the system. In permaculture, these observations inform the design of the farm and farm work. For example, my favorite berries—currants, gooseberries, strawberries and blueberries—are planted along the main garden paths, so when they are in season the furthest many of them travel is the length of an arm. We coppice the willows at waist height rather than at ground level for easy pruning.
Our perennial polycultures of useful plants are maturing and need less maintenance. Waste from mushroom production is used in the garden, and we have a crop of feral mushrooms in the mulched beds most of the year. Trips into town are planned so time and energy are kept to a minimum. The food we eat is mostly local, from our farm and from farmers we know.
By observing and understanding our ecological niche, we can mimic natural systems. And, by applying our intelligence and imagination to the resources we have available, we can work smarter rather than harder and consume less external energy.