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Common Vision, recently orchestrated a momentous workshop at the MA Center in Castro Valley with international environmental organization GreenFriends. Geoff Lawton, considered by many to be the world’s best Permaculture Designer and Teacher, flew from Australia to teach this 3-day course titled “Permaculture and Reforestation: Harvesting Rainwater, Growing Food Forests, and Planting Ecosystems.” Over fifty course participants, including MA Center Residents and environmentalist from across California and Oregon, learned from Geoff how to harvest thousands of gallons of water in the landscape, design a resilient ecosystem, generate soil fertility, and produce food and timber in abundance.
The MA Center has almost 400 acres under its stewardship. Over 150 of these acres are treeless with a clay soil that has been compacted from at least a half century of intensive and insensitive cattle grazing practices. The compacted clay coupled with the lack of trees makes the ground very susceptible to slumps and slides in the rainy season. Yet, by the end of the summer the hillsides are crusted over with a think shell of dry, hardened clay. Deer, pigs, gophers, and voles graze and burrow for any food sources remaining at the end of the harsh, dry summer.
During the 3-day workshop, Geoff made clear that in order to grow trees on these hillsides we need to “fast-track” an ecological regeneration. While nature may take hundreds or thousands of year’s to recovery in this area, human beings can support the successive unfolding ecological processes and see recovery in less than a decade. First step, says Geoff, is water design. Without water there is no life. Before the cutting of trees and soil compaction by the cattle, this land was a living sponge that soaked rainfall into the ground. Currently the majority of rainfall tends runs fast along the surface into the valley and out to sea.
To help soak water into the landscape, Geoff led the group on an exercise to site, survey, and dig a massive ditch on contour (level no slope up or down) to catch rainwater running down the slopes, slow it down, spread it out, and soak it into the hillside. With the help of Rusty Davis and his excavator, the course dug over 500ft of this on-contour trench, known in permaculture as a swale. With each rain, even if it be moderate, the swale will sink over 10,000 gallons of water into the soil. This water slowly travels under the soil, and remains available throughout the summer for trees to drink and grow.
The MA Center is becoming a model of sustainable design for ecological regeneration and reforesting Bay Area hillsides. We are learning that through knowledge of how ecosystems evolve and a willingness to support nature’s processes, human beings can truly be a positive force in the environment. Common Vision looks forward to supporting the GreenFriends planting trees with diverse people from across the Bay Area and to inspire the larger community into compassionate action for Mother Nature.