Friday, 31 October 2008

Two-Step To Rhizomes

Two-Step To Rhizomes

I remember stumbling across Jeff Vail's Rhizome a year or two ago, giving the information a cursory examination and then wandering off onto other things.

The last few weeks, for whatever reason, have seen me involved in a few different discussions as to how we approach the future, what plan is best for dealing with the multiple crises we face as a society.

So it was with some joy that I re-discovered Rhizome. This time around I spent a lot more time reading up on the various ideas that go together to make it a whole, and the more I read, the more I liked. It fit well with a lot of my preconceived ideas (and ideals!).

The fundamentals (as I understand & interpret them) are that the countryside is dotted with hamlets, each of 10 - 40 people from a family group. Each group supplies itself a certain base level of self-sufficiency. It is able to care for itself. This is handled via combinations and permutations of permaculture, forest gardening & biointensive methods of production. Surrounding each hamlet's productive area is an area of "managed wilderness", akin to permaculture's zone 5, though this area is a buffer for bad times. When crops fail, the inhabitants turn to this region and apply hunter/gathering to the natural bounty to feed themselves. Each hamlet also supplies one or more specialty items, which are used in trade with other hamlets at gatherings that are arranged to occur loosely throughout the network.

In addition to the resilience arising out of the level of self-sufficiency for each node, it offers resilience on the network level as each hamlet depends and is depended upon by it's neighbours for both specialty items and to maintain the freedom that such a non-hierarchical structure brings.

This summary necessarily hastens over a lot of the realities, and many of them are discussed in detail on Mr Vail's blog, so that should be your first port of call if you wish to know more. Start with What is Rhizome?

In re-discovering this plan for the future, I was hit with something of a revelation. The seed, and often seedling, of Rhizome already exists in many parts of the world. Households such as our own, and others far more advanced than ours, form the basis of the future network of hamlets.

We're not yet hamlets, but we have a measure of self-sufficiency somewhere above the negative value assignable to most of the western population. We produce some specialty goods that we trade with others upon occasion. Even a pot of jam in exchange for a jar of olives is an exchange that is occurring along the lifelines that will one day connect together the hamlets of Rhizome. They are an existing and active economy outside of that reliant on the hierarchical structures of modern society.

I'm aware, via my time at Aussies Living Simply, that there are other regions with active communities linked together in this way. They might not be direct neighbours, but they are operating within a network that meets many of the other criteria put forward as a part of the Rhizome idea. Aussies Living Simply and similar sites are, as well as bringing together neighbours, in effect creating the wider network connections beyond the immediate geographically local ones. This connecting is as fragile as the internet and so will one day need to be replaced with the robust solutions Mr Vail proposes, but it is a good start.

The question that naturally arises is, where to from here?

That Rhizome could be implemented in an across the board, one-off change of policy & practice is obviously (very!) highly improbable. That it might be a natural continuation of the growth of that which already exists is much more highly probable. If we simple living types keep doing what we are doing, and keep bringing others into the fold from time to time, those decentralised networks will naturally expand. Regardless of whether we are in the city or the country, it's that measure of self-reliance, and the network of like-minded people, that really matters. Obviously there are certain implementation problems when based in the city, but they should not prove insurmountable.

Without counting "doing what we are already doing", I can see two fairly obvious steps to facilitating the growth of Rhizome out of the current system:

1. Be prepared with excess foundation.

In the same way that you have frames of foundation ready for when you receive a new swarm of bees, so you should have many of the elements of a self-sufficient garden & forest waiting to be applied to new land. Put aside a small (or big!) corner of your land for a nursery and always have plants growing within it. Cuttings of your favourite useful herbs, some tree, herb and vegetable seedlings, and if you're keen even some grafted fruit trees.

Try to give some away every year as advertising, or even sell them as a sideline, so you don't end up with a whole heap of old stock. When ever you meet a potential new "rhizome node" (yes, they are people too, I imagine) load them up, even if they need to come back with the trailer. Help them out with planning out their gardens if they desire it, but otherwise be there to offer them assistance, advice and support. Supply the additional nutrients and energy that will help this seedling grow into a mature tree. It is of ultimate and infinite benefit to both parties.

2. Develop as many specialist skills as you comfortably can.

It falls upon those of us at (or in my case, within distant sight of!) the forefront of this new social model to prepare for teaching others. We need to learn more than just one or two skills, we need to be comfortable with as many such skills as possible, and have whatever resources, tools and books are needed to back up and expand upon the basics of those crafts. To go one further (and perhaps easier than learning them all), stock up on references for a myriad other skills that we just don't have time to tackle, having them ready for others when there are more to share the joy. Many of us on this path are inclined to do this anyway, so this is perhaps just one more useful argument to justify innumerable hobbies and a bulging bookshelf!

This is not because I believe a single person, or even family, can accomplish everything that needs to be done. It's because someone has to be prepared to help others learn these skills in the future, and there just aren't enough of us to go around at the moment. As the tenuous Just-In-Time by-the-skin-of-our-teeth society we live in starts to fail us, we will have more and more willing students. Without our preparations there may not be the knowledge and resources for them to even consider getting started, and the road to their (and by relation our) success will be so much longer. Our planning and preparation may spell the difference between an excessively frugal, grubby future and one of leisurely, agrarian indulgence. It may be the difference between water and beer, milk and cheese, wooden and metal spoons, bark shanties or stone homes.

We will see, if things continue as they are, a time when both grandparents and children remain in (or return to) the home for longer periods of their lives, when households naturally swell up beyond the nuclear size. Siblings may migrate out of cities to bunk with country family members, bumping the household up to the status of a hamlet. The natural decline of our civilisation will drive this aspect on it's own. In the same way the growth of new hamlets will occur as new families move out into the country, and the spaces left in the cities are filled by remaining neighbours spreading out their hamlet estates.

Our job, as the ones already on the path, is to be prepared to welcome and assist newcomers, get them a few steps along the path to the stage of self-sufficiency so they can as quickly as possible become productive, self-reliant members of the network, providing benefits to the new society as a whole.

Monday, 27 October 2008

What's Happening

It's been a busy couple of weeks here at the farmlet. We've finished off a few more jobs around the place, and also completed our enclosed area out at Lyndhurst. We've even started to fill it up with some of our resource pile, though it's going to be a relatively slow process.

On the sale front I've put together a website with a partly interactive map of the place listing all of the fruit trees on the block, and a photo gallery that currently covers only the outside of the place. Pictures of the inside are dependent on keeping ahead of the kids messing the place up ;-)

The vegetable garden is coming along nicely now. We've had a couple of light frosts, but I'm covering all of the plants up with a couple of plant pots inverted over them (with a bit of lawn clippings in the top to cover the holes) and this has been keeping me out of trouble. Hopefully we'll see an end to the frost soon. The beans and zucchini are rocketing along, tomatoes and cucumbers are a bit slower, still suffering a touch of transplant shock and the cold nights we've had lately. The first bed of sweetcorn seed is in but, again due to the cold, has yet to show itself through the mulch.

Now that we're essentially reaching an end to the works required here we've started to sketch out some plans for the new place. We're thinking that if we install a water tank, and pipe and pump to get some water up from the creek then we should be set to put some trees and things in this Autumn. We will need to fence off a house block, and figure some way of keeping the pasture down, but doing so will mean that no matter when we finally get the house underway we've still gotten a head start on getting the fruit trees up and running. That's one of the hardest parts of leaving this place. The older trees are now loaded with fruit, yet we're walking away from that to be set back by three years. At least with a plan like this we might only be three years behind rather than five or six if we leave it until the house is finished.