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He's not always easy on people. He's mostly given up on consulting for those who don't know him and who might be offended when he shows up at their houses and give them his speech. "I call the speech the 'crushing your dreams speech,'" he explains. "You go to somebody's house and they've got their garden and they want me to say their garden is awesome. Or they're raising chickens and they want me to say, 'Wow, you're doing such a great job.' That's what they want. If you ask me to come by, I'm going to tell you how you're doing it all wrong. And I'll tell you why. And when I leave, you'll know I'm right. But what it means is you'll have to undo all the work you've done over the last five years, and that's just hard for people. They're going to feel like puking."
A road trip with Paul Wheaton is anything but boring. On a recent Sunday, he packs four of us plus himself into his little green RAV4 and we head to Dayton, on the west side of the Flathead near Big Arm, to see one of the biggest permaculture experiments in the United States. On the drive to the property, there's no 20 Questions or other road-trip games among the group of permaculture enthusiasts, no small talk about the weather or about summer plans. The group talks instead about something called "bone sauce." The way Wheaton describes it, you start with a cast iron kettle and bury it in the ground a little and put a cup of water in the bottom. Then you fill another kettle with bones, put a screen over it and put the bone kettle upside down on the first kettle. You pack clay around the edges to make a good seal. You pile up some dirt and build a blazing fire over the whole thing. "Keep the fire going for an hour or two and then let it sit for a day," Wheaton says. "Then collect the nasty gunk from the bottom. Apparently, this smells awful. Smear a little of this around the trunk of any tree."
It sounds like something straight from the gruesome cauldron of the Macbeth witches, but it turns out it's down to earth: The natural mixture deters animals from eating your fruit trees.
Wheaton got that recipe from Sepp Holzer, the Austrian farmer who's one of the biggest names in permaculture. Holzer's 45-hectare spread of forest gardens and ponds is said to be the best model of permaculture in the world. He's created pondshe has 70 now—that reflect sunlight and provide heat. He's created micro-climates with rock outcrops that actually change the climate from one area of the property to the next so that even in Ramingstein, a place with a latitude and altitude similar to Montana's, he can grow oranges and other tropical foods.
Holzer grew up working his parents' land. "His childhood was a bit Mozart-eque," says Wheaton. "At the age of 7, he was doing a lot of agriculture and gardening that was very different from the norm. He was given the crappiest soil on the steepest slopes and he worked among lots and lots of rocks."
Holzer gets some criticism because he has so much land to work with, and so people say, "Well, of course he's doing something great. He got the land for free and other people have to go out and buy land." But Wheaton says that when Holzer inherited his parents' land, it was mortgaged beyond its value. "That's one of the reasons his dad was forced to give it to Sepp, because he had gambling debts. Sepp considered walking away and starting over. But he didn't. Sepp started pretty much where we all had to start."
Holzer has been called a rebel farmer because he's been fined and threatened with prison for practices such as not pruning his fruit trees.
"He told us how he first went to school for agriculture and learned all these techniques and then he applied these techniques and everything died up there," says Katharina Hirsch, who owns the Dayton permaculture site we were going to visit, Place of Gathering. "He went through a real crisis. He was like every other kid—growing up trying to learn, trying to be good, trying to make it. And then, throughout that experience, he had to make a decision of whom he was going to believe: himself and his experience or what is being taught at the university. He's a fierce believer that the main important thing is to observe and listen."
Because so many people pay to come to Holzer's land and drink the water (it's like a pilgrimage to a fountain of youth), he makes a lot of money. The fines he accrues from breaking land laws are a drop in the bucket compared to his wealth.
Holzer recently visited Place of Gathering, a 90-some-acre plot. Hirsch invited him there, in May, to put on a permaculture seminar and help get the Dayton permaculture experiment off the ground. Hirsch, who works in the healing arts, was intrigued by Holzer's spiritual outlook when it comes to water.
Holzer considers water dead or alive. Hirsch had noticed how stagnant her land was and knew—like her patients who need to get their energy flowing again—that the ecosystem needed to be revived. "There was an energy block," she says. "But I have nothing to substantiate this other than a feeling."
The first day, Holzer came and looked at the land. The second and third days, he led the seminar for 90-some people. He spent the next few days planting seeds and helping to design a food jungle. It wasn't drama free—like Wheaton, Holzer has a strong personality. At one point he zealously broke apart a supermarket fruit tree that had been packed in sawdust, yelling in frustration that the tree was so dead it might as well be used for kindling. In the end, though, he built the foundation for a massive permaculture project.
One thing neither Holzer nor Wheaton are afraid to talk about is money. Permaculture attracts people who dismiss making money as a focus. But Holzer has a farm in Austria that has so many people willing to pay to see the place and drink the water and meet with him that he pays the equivalent of a quarter million dollars in taxes.
During Holzer's seminar, Wheaton asked if a student of Holzer's could earn half a million dollars a year on these 94 Dayton acres. Holzer said, "At least."
Walking through Place of Gathering now, just a few months after it's been planted with seeds, is a strange, Candy Land-like experience, except the candy is all manner of vegetables and fruits and medicinal plants. Though they haven't quite popped up yet, there's a forest of mycelium—oyster mushrooms and other earthy fungi growing in lasagna layers of mulch. Next comes a little orchard of new fruit trees, only the variety and staggering of the trees makes it less like an orchard.
"In permaculture, there are food forests, not orchards, because orchards are a mono crop," says Wheaton. "In Sepp's book, he writes about how he'd go around visiting farmers and give them advice and the people who are the most painful to talk to are the people who have an existing, standing orchard, because basically, in order to convert to permaculture, you're going to have to take out 90 percent of the trees in order to de-mono crop it. With food forests, you're going to have diversity of species and you'll not have more than 10 percent of any one thing."
Michael Billington, who worked with Holzer on Place of Gathering and has taken the reins since Holzer's departure, got his training through the University of Montana. Billington was in the Wilderness and Civilization Program, which helped him start thinking about the intersection between civilization and the wild, which led him to permaculture. He's not a farmer so much as a conductor—he'll keep an eye on how everything falls into place, making some tweaks here and there but keeping the wild chaos alive and well.
"There will be a high degree of variance between the height and width of everything," Billington says of the food forest. "I didn't put so much of an emphasis on a path with this one. I wanted it to feel more like a forest that you kind of have to tromp through." If all goes well, it will be a forest of cherries, apples, Asian pears, elderberries, golden currants, red currants, gumis and honeyberries.
The rings around each tree look like volcanoes of soil and are trimmed with gravel to provide mineral content. Beneath the trees grows a meadow of edibles. "We have a mixture of mustards and clovers; strawberries will form a mat around the base of the trees and tons of other different things," Billington explains. "The emphasis is breaking up the soil, and the mustards' fibrous roots are good for that."
The most prominent parts of Place of Gathering's landscape are the hugelkultur beds—mounds of soil and organic matter 6 feet high that snake along the ground. There's something reminiscent of crop circles here; the earthwork designs seem both beautiful and otherworldly. The beds look more like a wild hillside than anything resembling a food garden. There are no carefully cultivated rows. No metal hoops to prop up tomato plants or peas. Nothing, really, that feels too much like human touch. It's a stunning sight, but even more stunning when you realize the diversity of design here.
Billington points out all the new growth. There's raspberry and comfrey, horseradish, hisop, white clover, mustard, radishes, turnips, rutabagas, peas, kale, onion, dill, carrots, lupine, currants and hosta berries, and then a bunch of natives: wild rose, columbine, willows, dog bane, angelica. On the tops of the beds, reaching toward the sky, are sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes.
Another part of permaculture is observing the way in which wildlife is mutually beneficial to the process. "The bugs cruising throughout here—the sheer amount—is unbelievable, because there's so much habitat," Billington says. "And the mice are starting to move in here as a result of the bugs, starting to burrow in here. And then the amount of raptors that are coming here because of the increase in mice is evident."
Most hugelbeds use a rotting-wood process to irrigate. You place wet wood inside the beds, and as the wood slowly rots, it produces moisture for the plants. Ideally, the wood will take 50-some years to completely turn to soil. The beds Holzer helped Place of Gathering build are using mostly pond organic material to stay moist. But they've also planted potatoes, some of which will be harvested while others will rot and produce more moist organic material for the hugelbeds. That still doesn't guarantee the perfect amount of moisture, however. While cutting out irrigation is the plan, Hirsch and Billington are going to water some for the first year or so. The project is so big that losing it in its beginning stages would be devastating. They can't risk it.