New culture coming to Brandon: Permaculture

Swale digging contest in the Permaculture Olympics at the Northeastern Permaculture Convergence in 2008. (bert_m_b / Flickr)

Unexplored regions of the Great Canadian North are becoming increasingly available for mining and logging developments. A copper mine recently began operation in Grass River Provincial Park and, as other mines pop up all around the park, a logging road is being scheduled to divide it. Suburbia is sprawling onto agricultural land while agricultural lands sprawl into forested land. If such developments continue, even though Canada is one of the wealthiest nations in terms of untouched land, there will be little remaining in terms of natural sanctuaries. However, by utilizing the principles of permaculture and applying them to urban settings, avid environmentalist David Barnes may have a solution, beginning with the proposed Treesblood Permaculture Preserve, a site that could become the first permaculture preserve in Canada.

Located east of 17th Street East and south of Victoria Avenue, approximately 80 percent of the proposed area is fallow and degraded by industry, or, as Mr. Barnes explained to city council, “a lonely field of spurge and thistle.” Fortunately, along the riverbank there are some old-growth oaks, indigenous trees that are believed to have covered much of the valley hundreds of years ago. If the proposal is approved, oaks much like these will regain a small portion of their native land. The sprouts of these oaks are waiting patiently in Mr. Barnes’ greenhouse.

Mr. Barnes offers a simplified definition of permaculture in his proposal: the “design and practice of building a food forest.” Brandon University’s eminent botanist, Dr. Paton, met with some of the Californian proponents of permaculture during his sabbatical at UC Davis in 1987. As he explains, “permaculture allows for production of food, et cetera, in a permanent forest setting. This minimizes soil erosion and allows for perennial food crops to be grown. This was a practice used in South American forest settings.”

The city council meeting took place on March 18th and, according to Mayor Shari Decter Hirst, it saw the largest attendance of any previous council meeting. Mr. Barnes passionately reminded council of their duty to future generations: the greatest gift of all, nature. He then offered two main reasons for the protected space. The first is to conserve rare and threatened species as well as regenerate ecologically-diminished lands, wetlands, and habitats within city limits. The second is to endorse the use of permaculture as it provides healthy nutrition for both humans and nonhuman animals. He explained to the council that “the world faces enormous crises of starvation, wars, polluted lakes, and oceans. As many of you are aware, last year Lake Winnipeg won the atrocious award of most threatened lake in the world.” But it doesn’t have to be like this, he says: “By endorsing permaculture, we are saying that there is an alternative: a harmonious alternative that will serve to increase our environmental capital.”

Although Mr. Barnes holds a degree in biology and a certificate in permaculture, he doesn’t plan on developing the land entirely on his own. A fully-mature forest retains massive amounts of water and until Treesblood Forest reaches maturity the land will need to be modified. Swales and retention ponds will retain much of the excessive rainfall and moisture normally absorbed by trees. To ensure success, Mr. Barnes intends to invite local experts, biologists, and ecologists to map out the area and determine the best locations for these modifications.

The project will benefit the environmental science program at Brandon University by providing a nearby outdoor laboratory for research. Dr. Paton explains: “I and several of my colleagues in Biology support Mr. Barnes’ initiative wholeheartedly and for a number of important reasons. A great portion of the natural riparian forest in Manitoba has been lost to clearing for farming, et cetera. The key botanical elements, giant cottonwoods and basswood, have been removed in most regions for human use. Mr. Barnes proposes to restore these elements as part of his permaculture initiative. Mr. Barnes also intends to carry out research in the dedicated area, restoration of wetlands, dealing with cyanobacterial blooms, et cetera. There is a fair area covered with introduced bromegrass, which [using] controlled burns can result in the restoration of seeds in the seed bank.

“The riparian vegetation provides many valuable eco-services, [such as] water purification by nutrient retention – woody plants are the best components for this purpose since the nutrients are retained in the trees for a long time. The forested river valleys are regions of the highest biodiversity on the prairies, and when intact provide important corridors for migrating birds and animals. Mr Barnes proposes to attempt to restore that kind of diversity.”

If all goes as planned, Mr. Barnes is hopeful that much of the work will be conducted by dedicated volunteers, alleviating the strain on the wallets of the taxpayers, As for some of the material expenses, such as signage, temporary fencing, and digging equipment, Mr. Barnes seeks donations and government grants.

The city council was exceedingly pleased with the presentation and couldn’t help but vote in favour of Mr. Barnes. But the proposed Treesblood Permaculture Perserve is only the beginning of a full-fledged urban protected spaces network, which ought to be stretched to encompass all of the riverbank within city limits, including the frequently flooded and vulnerable Optimist Soccer Park. But until then, we will have to wait for the final motion on June 4th before the project moves forward. Following that date, there will be a series of public discussions, which will aim at achieving a better grasp of what plants the community wishes to grow in the area, and studies will be conducted for the purpose of becoming better acquainted with the land. Since June 4th is far too late in the season to begin planting, fundraisers will take place until 2014. Then, at last, the first seedlings will be sewn.

Parting ways at the end of the meeting, Mr. Barnes had a very special message to share, “students of Brandon University, wake up and smell the roses. Mother Nature wants to be your teacher.”

Republished from The Quill print edition, Volume 103, Issue 26, March 26, 2013.