The permaculture chapter: principle 11 – use edges and value the marginal

See HERE for the provisional contents page of the study,

which gives you a proper chronology of sections.

Note: the content below is all in first draft format. It will change considerably during the time it takes for the study to be completed (especially by way of more academic support, generally). I post now ‘for interest’s sake’.

  1. Use edges and value the marginal

In permaculture, edges are generally the places where two ecosystems meet; this is the definition provided by the Permaculture Association[1], which elaborates on this principle as follows:

The place where two eco-systems or habitats meet (e.g. woodland and meadow) is generally more productive and richer in the variety of species[2] present than either habitat on its own. In ecology this is called ‘ecotone’. This is central to the idea of using edges as a design method. The logic is simple. If the most productive bit of woodland is the edge, then design it to have a bigger edge.

This logic is indeed simple, because the edge between two ecosystems is where species from one ecosystem encounter species from the other. The permaculture designer, in planning for ‘more edge’ in a given system, works to increase ‘overlap’ between ecosystems, thereby creating more biodiversity simply because more than one ecosystem is required for such overlap to occur – the more ecosystems that meet (i.e. more edges), the better. As has been detailed in Chapter 1 and frequently commented on thereafter in this study, industrial agriculture does exactly the opposite, i.e. it transforms biodiverse areas into what Mollison has in the chapter referred to as ‘agricultural wastelands’ of monocrops. This permaculture principle is therefore another method of righting the wrongs of Promethean agriculture.

In permaculture, prioritising edges may also mean a focus on less obvious cooperative relationships between species, and the corollary is that cooperative relationships make for healthy communities. These ideas are evidenced in the following from Mollison (1988: 3); he begins his observations with the now familiar Orphic quality in permaculture of having a strong ‘earthcare ethic’:

Having developed an earthcare ethic by assessing our best course for survival, we then turn to our relationship with others. Here, we observe a general rule of nature: that cooperative and associations of self-supporting species (like mycorrhiza on tree roots) make healthy communities. Such lessons lead us to a sensible resolve to cooperate and take support roles in society, to foster an interdependence which values the individual’s contributions rather than forms of opposition or competition.”

The relevance of the above observations to the principle of edges is this: one can consider the space between tree roots and soils as edges, spaces ‘occupied’ by mycorrhiza that carry out important functions for the well-being of the plant, e.g. in assisting in nutrient exchange[3]. The awareness of edges in this instance will directly impact upon the kind of actions that human beings undertake, for example, they will likely not dig into soils unless they absolutely have to because they know that disturbing soils damages mycorrhiza and other important microbacteria that work to create beneficial conditions for plants. Accordingly, permaculture is well known for its favouring of the ‘no-dig’ approach: as the name implies, soils are not dug into as a matter of priority; instead, areas are ‘lasagne mulched’, which involves piling layers of alternating types of organic matter onto a given area that will later be planted in. It will take several months before these kinds of raised garden/agricultural beds are ready to plant crops in, but the added benefits of the method justify the wait: increased microbiological activity, long term fertility, increased moisture retention, raised and beds that can withstand seasonal flooding.

Regarding the aspect of this principle that focuses on ‘valuing the marginal’, the Permaculture Association (Ibid) points out that marginal “could be ideas, views, unusual plants, wild animals or people at the ‘edge’ of society. Permaculture itself has been seen as marginal for many years”. Just as mycorrhiza and microbacteria can be considered and respected for cooperative advantages in a system, so too can ideas, views, unusual plants, wild animals and people at the edge of society be incorporated into a given system for cooperative advantages. This of course requires a very different kind of system to the one that in this study has been identified as characteristically Promethean and which has been called ACID. Permaculture can be used to help construct such an alternative system.

The author of this study has put this permaculture principle into practice by piling organic matter (tree branches, leaves, occasional layers of horse manure) on the perimeter of the homestead area. This process was discussed in an earlier permaculture principle. These ‘woodpile walls’ that are the edges, the margins, of the homestead serve the important function of keeping dogs out of the area, of providing much-needed windbreaks for the gardens, of storing fertility for long term break-down and slow seepage of nutrients into surrounding areas, and of providing a habitat for all forms of life. And throughout the homestead one finds various non-linear rows of trees and garden beds and wood-stumps, the presence of which creates more useful margins where microclimates meet.

Regarding the relevance of this permaculture principle to the ‘Orphic offerings’ explored in Chapter 5: all of them can be said to currently exist on the periphery of mainstream discourse. None of the topics discussed in Chapter 5 fit as ‘components’ of ACID because their powerful Orphic character opposes them to the dominant Promethean character of ACID. Yet just as the use of edges and valuing of the marginal add important features to a physical system, each area of focus in Chapter 5 can add an important dynamic into a consideration or analysis of a relevant topic given a theoretical approach to the topic. Theory often underlies practice, so it follows that incorporation of ‘marginalised’ Orphic ideas into a line of thought can transform action that may have previously been dominantly Promethean. Good examples of this are two of the movements encountered in Chapter 5, the first being the ‘unnamed movement’ of Blessed Unrest consisting of between one and two million organisations, and the Occupy Movement: both of these movements are/were constituted by ‘margins’ of people who act as buffers – edges – between the entities that cause socio-political, economic and ecological injustice, and the entities that are the victims of such injustice.

[1] accessed 29 February 2016

[2] This is a reiteration of Mollison’s following comment (1988: ???): “Animals are found in greater numbers on edges, for example, and a fire mosaic landscape is rich in species”.

[3] Mycorrhiza “networks can affect the physiology and ecology of plants by facilitating interplant nutrient exchange, acting as inoculum reservoirs for seedlings and altering plant competitive abilities.” accessed 1 March 2016