Food Forests

on January 21, 2011

I’ve been thinking over my previous entry, in which I suggested that the imposition of group identity towards the end of the ice age resulted in a devastating loss of individual potential. That may be true, but it’s still only half the story — because at the same time as the social outlook was contracting, the scientific outlook was expanding wildly, culminating in the domestication of plants and animals.

In terms of the theory of historical visions that I’ve been laying out, this kind of seesaw effect is typical of the final stages of any dominant partnership. By 20,000 years ago, the ancient transformative-and-kinship partnership was nearing the end of its useful lifespan, and the kinship vision in particular was showing the strain. Where it had once been inclusive — a means of extending people’s sense of relatedness beyond the immediate family — it had become exclusive and xenophobic. Where it had previously made possible new forms of thought and behavior, it had been turned into a means of social control.

The kinship vision at that point might be compared to the democracy vision in the 1950’s, when it had lost much of its earlier idealism and had been reduced to serving as an ideological basis for the Cold War and a means of keeping a lid on political discontent. What was freshest and most exciting in those years came out of the science vision, which was enjoying its last burst of creativity as it helped usher into being the brave new world of television, computers, and space travel.

In much the same way, the transformative vision went through a final phase of visionary potential at the end of the ice age. By then, it had grown far beyond its original geeky focus on throwing rocks in the fire to see what would happen and had become capable of imagining a complete transformation of the natural world.

And just as that final flare-up of the science vision was most intensely realized in the United States, the climax of the transformative vision was strongest in Southeast Asia, where agriculture began.

When we in the West think of agriculture, we tend to visualize a highly formal style of grain-based farming — field upon field of wheat or corn or rice, growing in regular rows and closely monitored from planting to harvest. But that is only one type of agriculture, and not necessarily the most advantageous.

A second style, generally known as gardening, is more suitable to tropical forests, where there is no winter and crops do not have to be replanted every spring. Instead of drawing a sharp distinction between plowed fields and wilderness, this looser and more adaptive style of agriculture aims at reshaping the entire environment and harvesting from it as needed.

This style of jungle gardening is so subtle in its effects and so ancient in its application that its intentionality has not always been apparent. It has recently caught the attention of Western environmentalists, however, and some of its true potential is displayed in an extraordinary video, which I have embedded below.

The video records a visit to Vietnam by permaculture expert Geoff Lawton, during which he is taken to see a two-acre “food forest” maintained by an elderly couple. At first glance, this forest appears wild and untamed, but it turns out that every last inch of it is filled with vegetables, fruit trees growing beneath towering palms, herbs and spices, and medicinal plants — not to mention beehives in hollow logs, chickens, a small cow, and even a few penned-in deer.

“Just about every plant and every tree in the system had a use and a story,” Lawton marvels. He adds, “The knowledge was just encyclopedic. … They put in very little work for the amount of return they get.”

The plot’s owner told Lawton that it had been in his family for 28 generations — which is to say, perhaps 700 or 800 years — but it is clear that this style of gardening in Southeast Asia must go back at least ten or twenty times that far.

And it is not limited to the Far East. The remains of an even more extraordinary food forest system have been recognized over the last few years in the Amazon jungle. This too is a region whose people have routinely been dismissed as “savages,” but it is now known to have supported a complex culture prior to the arrival of the Europeans.

A reporter from National Public Radio recently toured a jungle area with University of Florida archaeologist Augusto Oyuela, who told him, “All this forest has been selected by the humans through hundreds of years of use.”

“There are monkeys, bright-colored birds, and a forest so thick it’s hard to make headway — wild, as if it’s been like this forever,” Juan Forero explains. “Except that here, scientists say it wasn’t. Instead, says Oyuela, a thriving and advanced Indian civilization once ruled here. He says the proof is under his feet and all around: from poor soils that were enriched, to orchards of semi-domesticated fruit trees.”

FORERO: Wearing gloves, netting and long sleeves to ward off mosquitoes, Oyuela pushes into the forest and explains the evidence. The biggest clue is perhaps the soil, which here — as elsewhere across Amazonia — was too poor to sustain a civilization. So the Indians simply altered it.

Dr. OYUELA: What you have here is a high content of charcoal, phosphorus and calcium.

FORERO: Adding those elements, Oyuela explains, created soil as nutrient-rich as the American Midwest. And then there are the trees.

Dr. OYUELA: This is a landscape that every tree, or most of the trees that you see today, has been selected by the history, by the use of the past.

FORERO: He means the semi-domesticated clusters of palms, descendants of fruit tree orchards managed by Indians centuries ago. Today, of course, the great civilization that Oyuela says thrived here is gone, the Omaguas that Spanish explorers said they’d encountered. But their descendants remain.

The impression of great antiquity that these food forests convey — along with their amazing similarity on both sides of the Pacific — raises the question of just how old this way of life really is. Although the DNA evidence makes it clear that full-fledged domestication of plants and animals began only at the very end of the ice age, the practice of tending and cultivating wild plants is likely to be far older.

I would suspect, in fact, that it goes back to the period between about 35,000 and 28,000 years ago, when the human population first began to expand dramatically.

There is no definite consensus on what caused the increase, but various things I’ve read suggest that the turning-point might have involved the ability to guarantee a more secure food supply. The crucial limiting factor for hunter-gatherers is not how much food they can obtain on average, but how little they have to make do with during the lean times. Recurring periods of scarcity sharply reduce the number of children who survive to adulthood, so any increase in food security will almost automatically lead to population growth.

In Paleolithic Europe, increased food security appears to have come about through a number of highly specialized technological innovations, such as fish traps and bird snares, which made it possible for hunters to draw upon previously unavailable resources. But in Southeast Asia, the same outcome was achieved through the first steps towards gardening.

This transition then gave rise to a momentous change in attitude — one which depended not on “hard” technology, as in Europe, but on a new relationship of people to the world around them.

Hunters are opportunists, who take whatever comes their way and are grateful for it. Dedicated farmers sow and reap and earn their bread by the sweat of their brow. But the outlook of gardeners is radically different from either.

Gardeners do not launch commando raids on nature, and neither do they attempt to whip it into shape. Instead they engage with nature in a mutually-supportive relationship. They clear away weeds that would compete with more useful plants, dig ditches to bring needed water, and encourage the proliferation of superior varieties. They may also take an active role in maintaining herds of wild animals.

And as they do these things, they become both the guardians and the makers of their environment — not simply nurturing it but slowly modifying it to their desires. They no longer live in wild nature but inhabit a world which is both natural and domesticated at the same time.

This was an enormously effective approach, but it may in part have become the victim of its own success. Creating a food forest requires a multi-generational commitment of energy and expertise, which means that gardeners cannot readily pack up and move along the way farmers can. They have to stay put no matter what and defend their territory against all comers — which may explain why the kinship vision in these gardening societies often took such a hostile and xenophobic turn, especially once the population had increased to the point of over-crowding.

But even if the system created by the transformative-and-kinship partnership eventually proved to be a dead end, much the same might be said of our own world, in which the greatest triumphs of science-and-democracy have now turned toxic and destructive.

Ultimately, every experiment in being human is doomed to fail — but each one makes a lasting contribution to our inventory of available strategies. And as we reach the end of our dubious reliance on technology and the free market, both permaculture experts and guerrilla gardeners are looking eagerly for clues from the gardeners of the ancient world.


A listing of all my posts on deep prehistory can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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One Response to “Food Forests”

  1. allynh says:

    This is a devastating DVD showing the breakdown of that “Food Forest”. The Americas went from 100 million people before Columbus set foot on land to just three million survivors.

    National Geographic: America Before Columbus (2009)

    History books traditionally depict the pre-Columbus Americas as a pristine wilderness where small native villages lived in harmony with nature. But scientific evidence tells a very different story: When Columbus stepped ashore in 1492, millions of people were already living there. America wasn’t exactly a “New World,” but a very old one whose inhabitants had built a vast infrastructure of cities, orchards, canals and causeways. But after Columbus set foot in the Americas, an endless wave of explorers, conquistadors and settlers arrived, and with each of their ships came a Noah’s Ark of plants, animals—and disease. In the first 100 years of contact, entire civilizations were wiped out and the landscape was changed forever.[/quote]

    Then there is the book:

    1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

    Then there is the BBC series:

    Wild China – In The Heart Of The Dragon

    The hillside covered in rice paddies is another example. Every rice field is filled with fish, eel, etc… It’s not just rice, it is permaculture. Each time I see that hillside it is deeply scary.

    The stuff by Geoff Lawton was exactly what I was looking for. Thanks…

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