Author Helen Schwencke shows us how to build complex eco-systems that support the wildlife and enrich our lives.
In our interview, Helen shares her delight in working with nature. Also, she explains why humanity needs to support little creatures. Her book, Inviting Nature to Dinner gives us handy tips on growing your favourite foods without poisoning our environment.
She recalls her childhood playing in nature and his positive experience has fuelled her to work as a scientist and create a rich little suburban garden full of butterflies.
Invite Nature Back Into the City
Helen says: “Back in the 1950s (and I’ve realized that this is where it actually starts).. I’m a very small child. I’m running around on a block of partly cleared land. And there’s all manner of little local native plant and native grasses and little creatures are flying off in all directions like little butterflies, little native bees, little grasshoppers, all different species. And I can just remember this sheer sense of joy and delight and I realize that nearly all my life has been about embracing that joy and delight. I lost it for a long time. But it’s really led me now in the work I’m doing to be sharing and caring about nature nature focus and nurtures us it improves our health and well-being
Helen’s work is about bringing back the delight of nature
Bring back our delight in nature
The easiest way to do it and the simplest way to do it is grow local native plants. The wildlife that they support directly is mostly little creatures. “And these are food for the birds and the frogs and the lizards and the microbats which can be supporting our crops”. But nearly every system of agriculture Helen see excludes wildlife. Because of our historical point of view of being settlers in our land that we don’t understand. Permaculture systems are enriched when they are designed to support wildlife.
Bathing in Nature
Helens “stuff” is about bathing in the nature that nurtures us in our own backyards. And bringing back that sense of aliveness. “We see the colors, the movement, the shapes and the textures of all the the creatures. The vast bulk of them do us no harm at all. In fact, they’re not even interested in our crops!”
Helen has a background as a biologist and ecologist by training. In about 1987 she became involved in butterfly gardening on an inner city Brisbane block. She has watched the transformations of over 75 different species of butterflies and other creatures going through their life cycles. Helen has seen increased complexity through her plantings of native plants. Especially native ground covers. Despite being surrounded by “green desolation” of the suburbs with pools, paving, grass and introduced plants.
Simplifying ecosystems kills natures complexity
“New creatures are actually finding that space”…Helen became more aware as she collected leaves to feed to caterpillars to photograph their life cycles. “And it’s helped me understand and realize what my early childhood experience meant.”
Helen has learned how vital the animals are. And many invertebrates don’t have a name yet. So, creatures without backbones are important. They have an amazing role to play in food webs.
She can see that humanity is busy eliminating invertebrates wherever we can. And simplifying ecosystems so they can’t exist.
The core of Helen’s work at earthling enterprises is to show these animals as allies rather than competitors. “We need to interplant for biodiversity. This starts to recreate something of the amazing complexity of natural ecosystems in Australia. We can only do a little bit. But, anything is better than what we’re doing now. “
We have unprecedented fires raging across Australia. So, we are pioneering new methods of disaster preparation and re-discovering the wisdom of the elders.
Our first priority is to redesign communities and their gardens for safer shelter for all living creatures. Secondly, design to retard embers, absorb the radiation and protect water supplies. Thirdly, find ways to quickly restore food, water and habitat. Ultimately, we create a better design.
If you are planning to build a new home, stop everything now. Above all, design it to be disaster-proof. Set it well into the landscape, have a safe bunker and angle the roofline so embers can fly over and not get trapped.
Re-design your garden to withstand drought, repel heat and store water. Naturally hydrated soils are more resilient to disasters such as drought, flood and fire.
Past catastrophes have taught us some methods of preparedness, but not everything. Last year was the hottest year on record for many countries. We are playing by new rules. This is not the new normal, this is a rude start to a big climate shift.
Recent wildfires have set new design rules. These wildfires didn’t come from one direction like a wave of flames. They behaved more like storm clouds: tilting trees, turning them into flame throwers hotter than 1200k. Moreover, fire tornadoes known as Pyrocumulonimbus, shot live embers more than 30km ahead.
Combination of Threats
Ember attack, strong winds, thick smoke, severe heat and deafening noise combine to limit responses during a catastrophic wildfire. Burning roads and fallen trees trap people as they try to leave. In past years, some people have saved their homes by staying to put out the embers after the fire has passed. The intensity of recent fires has shown this to be dangerous unless you have a fire-proof bunker that meets the standard. In addition to the bunker you need enough oxygen, water, masks, food and the nerve to stay.
In fact, you will need food and water for days. The power will be down and you will probably have wildlife to tend and feed on your limited supplies. Best of all, be ready to share your limited resources with that neighbour who rarely talked to you.
Pebbles, a family cat in Buchan Victoria, sheltered in the outdoor pizza oven. His whiskers burnt, but he survived.
Prepare Then Go
The traditional firebreak is not enough. At a minimum, we need to seal the building completely so no embers can get in. Firstly, the weakest points of a building are the roof and cavities underneath, especially under a wooden verandah. Secondly, shield the house from the intense radiation of the fire using either dense materials (big standing stones), rock walls or reflective shields (foil).
Fireproof materials include simple materials such as earth. Fire proof homes fit the landscape to hide from the fire.
Putting this knowledge together, we see a recurring theme: design with knowledge of the landscape.
There is design link between passive housing, earthship technology and permaculture design practice. Passive housing insulates the home completely. Earthships connect with the dependable underground earth temperature.
Smart design looks different. It is possible to have a safe home. Fire safe homes fit the landscape, and positioned for good natural insulation and winter warmth.
Re-Design or Retrofit Your Shelter
There are excellent designs by architects to reduce or deflect threats . These designs create homes with a smaller impact on the environment, and lower costs to build and use. Above all, they are durable and resilient.
But during extreme fire threats, many people think if we remove the forests, we remove the threat. The common reaction is to increase back-burning, pull out shrubs and clear land with machinery.
But the truth is, the forest is one of the most important
tools we have to fight heat, hold water in the landscape and fight climate
change. Getting rid of the garden is not going to help keep the temperature
down or maintain moisture. People who had only grass around their homes had it
burst into flames. A home surrounded only by rock may be more fire-proof but it
will also be extremely hot, devoid of wildlife. Jane Goodall warns about the
dangers of humanity being
divorced from nature.
Australian aboriginal people have specialised fire management techniques called cool burning where the fire extinguishes itself, and the grasses and trees are not structurally damaged. Not all the area is burned at once, it is burnt in small strips at a time. Even insects can escape the burn.
What Plant is Truly Fire-Retardant?
For years people have talked of ‘fire-retardant’ plants. But, anything that was once alive, will burn in extreme temperatures. As the fire intensity rises we need to re-design food gardens, add radiant heat blocks (these can be mud-brick or cobb walls). We also need more areas for wetlands. Surprisingly, wetlands and boggy soils sequester greater amounts of carbon than forests.
Can succulents and living ground covers help extinguish embers? Lets explore further how deciduous trees with low oil content absorb radiant heat at these unprecedented temperatures.
Involve Your Community
Members of your community doesn’t have to understand the likeliness of a catastrophe for you to help to prepare for them. Consultation builds better preparation. Help your community to find ways to prepare that are simple and effective. For some people, this means trailing ideas, for others it means facilitating conversation. For researchers, it means building the body of knowledge for survival.
Coordinate a working group to help prepare homes helps the elderly and less-abled. Prepare to act when others are busy elsewhere. Some preparatory works, when booked by a neighbourhood, cost less than for individual home call-outs. Furthermore, community consultation enables us to develop strategies for local adaptation
During a disaster, a resilient community is able to:
reduce the negative effects of hazards on people, ecosystems and property
Establish coping mechanisms in stages (safe zones, evacuation centers, temporary accommodation and long term recovery support
After a disaster, a resilient community is able to:
recover from the hazard with minimal disturbance to the health (including mental health) of the people and animals
rebuild a functioning community system, including power, water, food, fuel, health and education provisions
develop from experience
design with experts and in consultation with community
Design builds security for a community and the natural world that supports them.
One tiny change can be a fun way to reduce waste, provide food, and connect with nature. Small solutions may appear to be whimsical yet they are inherently robust when well-designed. These tiny designs have the capacity to give you the tools, skills and understanding to make a lasting change. Starting small and feeling successful is a critical step in building resilience.
Observe and Interact
One of the core principles of permaculture is to turn the ‘problem into the solution’. For us there are some persistent little challenges. One of the greatest challenges is the bird-life. We love being close to nature but we also want to grow some food for ourselves. Generations of wild-life enjoy easy pickings from our permaculture garden. With good design tools we out-smart them. We get to benefit from their manure and let them eat the foods that grow outside the cages.
Whimsical World of Waste-Not
Boundaries and constraints often give rise to creativity. For years, we have used re-purposed bird-cages to protect delicate plants. In the intensive-care corner of the garden we often made wicking pots to nurture young rare plants.
In a whimsical moment recently we wondered: what it look like if we bundled these powerful features?
So, we made some wicking beds inside the bird-cage. The tray is the water reservoir, the base holds our bio-char and compost which we mounded in the middle to increase surface area. (In a miniature way that Emile Hazelip used mounds to great effect.) Small gardens can be highly intensive. If you find a weed you have simply found a wasted space.
The cage acts two ways: as a support for young shoots and protection from wildlife . You can even use it as support for a cover if you wish to convert the whole thing into a tiny greenhouse. This concept of multiple-uses is another principle of permaculture.
New plants, like ginger, grow from selected green buds on fresh pieces at the grocery store. Set them to sprout in a warm place like a bathroom or kitchen window. The effort we spend in observing and caring for their development is well rewarded. We see the true value of the foods that we love.
Sprouts and Micro-greens are small but powerful
High levels of nutrition in a small space with little effort comes from sprouts and micro-greens. Within days, you have fresh food ready to eat raw or cooked. This food can be grown inside, even during winter. As long as they do not get too cold over night and are rinsed in luke-warm water each day, they supply nutritious fresh food.
Balconies all around the world connect people with the outside world. Imagine if these balconies grew some of their favourite foods, gave them more privacy and a mini sanctuary. What joy they would find in their tiny food forest.
If you want to learn more about Balcony design, tiny bird-house gardens, bio-char, wicking or Permaculture living you can join a workshop, sign up as a hybrid student (online and on-site) or enrol with us online. Drop us a line.