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"It was a project that was manageable by hand, and the only thing it cost us was our time," she says. And it got them thinking about other things they could do.
The area where the pool is had once been a stand of pines. They'd cut them down after the trees had been infested by pine bark beetles, and the loss created a new climate in that one area. "Once we cut those trees out and it stopped being a pine forest area where nothing grew, it really changed the climate," Miller says. "We didn't have that constant addition of pine needles to the soil, which also hinders growth. We lost our canopy. It's huge, it's open—and so we started planting the fruit trees." They put in Hollywood plums, pears and a cherry tree.
Their property is a bigger puzzle than most. It's not boxy like a yard and it's not flat. "It's a weird shape, so you have to just kind of stand on it and think and be creative," Miller says.
The area isn't really an example of permaculture. Rather, it's an example of the kind of thinking and light-bulb moments that lead to permaculture.
"We didn't really know enough at the time of what we were doing to do what Paul would consider permaculture," says Miller. "Of course, Paul Wheaton's eco-scale—I mean, as far as he's concerned, we're at 2 or 1, if not negative, because we're in a gravel pit and because there's high potential for contamination of the soil. ... And because we don't have soil to get started, we have to do so much work. So we definitely are looking into bringing in materials—which is not a permaculture thing to do."
After spending time with Wheaton and listening to his podcasts, the couple began to build their hugelkultur beds alongside their more conventional garden. The excess logs from the mill were perfect for construction of the beds. They brought in straw and manure to make their own compost. The three hugelkultur beds are solid. One of them is too wide and the others could have been built higher, says Miller. But they're full of life, like a green oasis amongst the rest of the gravelly land. They've planted a mixture of radishes, peas, tomatoes and potatoes. Other interesting volunteers have shown up, including Russian pigweed, which is a grain that can be used to brew gluten-free beer. Types of wheatgrass and barley are appearing, and with some of those, Miller hopes to transplant the grass and slowly let them create some diversity in areas now dominated by knapweed.
The biggest pride and joy for them might be the mullena plant thought of as a weed but which has medicinal properties. The giant plant grows easily on the sides of roads. "It's known to grow out of anything," says Miller. "You find it in disturbed soil, most roadsides, and I think Paul even found one growing out of asphalt. So it's not totally amazing that we can grow them, it's just pretty how huge they are—more than anything a sign of encouragement that it's growing here."
And these mullen are impressive at 7 feet tall, with a stalk another foot taller. It's known as cowboy toilet paper for its long, fuzzy leaves that can actually be used as toilet paper. The fuzzy factor keeps sun from eating away its moisture. You can also use the leaves in tea to help with respiratory problems and the flowers can be plucked and infused in olive oil with garlic and used as drops to soothe earaches.
Even beyond the hugelbeds, Miller and Larson are seeing signs of life that give them hope. Out of the gravel they've seen lamb's quarters, an edible weed.
"Most people come here and they're completely discouraged," says Miller. "The only thing growing here is weeds, very little grass. Well, there actually is life here. ... Anything that's growing here is a good success for us for now, which is not necessarily the permaculture way, but that's what helps get us closer to it."
Wheaton has taken the couple under his wing. And even though the process is slow, Miller says they've learned a great deal from him. "Paul's message is to get more and do less," Miller says. "And that means you've got to be really smart and you've got to set it up right. It's one thing for Paul to come here and tell us, 'This is what you need to do.' It's quite another for us to learn what we need to do."
Recently, John Trask, a permaculture enthusiast, moved onto their land in an RV with his dog, to help them out. Trask had gone to Holzer's seminar and then spent time with Wheaton. He quit his job at Lockheed Martin in Seattle and moved to Montana to get involved. That's the kind of big action Wheaton inspires.
"Paul has a personality and he is one in permaculture," Miller says. "He's the biggest resource for information. He also pretty much devoted his entire life to spreading the word about permaculture. And he does take the hard stance. Because somebody has to."
Give me the M
Wheaton has his dissenters. Recently, he made a statement on permies.com about the criticism he gets. Some of it is silly, like people saying he's fat. And some of it is in reaction to his hard-line take on permaculture, that he's arrogant. And maybe he is sometimes. But he's never uninterested in new ideas, if he thinks they're good. "The great thing about the internet is I'll post this stuff and then other authorities will share their stuff," he says. "And they'll be like, 'Okay, you're right about this, but I want to question this part of what you said."
The internet trolls he gets could be corporate instigators from the agri-business giant Monsanto, as he suspects. (In fact, on this point, Wheaton is paranoid enough that he won't give his age for this story or even specify the part of Missoula he lives in, because he's so fearful of big oil and big ag corporations trying to thwart permaculture.) But the trolls also could be the same garden-variety online provocateurs who plague many other kinds of sites. Whoever they are, Wheaton has no patience for them. Where other sites bend over backward to accommodate free speech in comments, Wheaton just calls them on their crap and boots them off. "And then they're gone," he says. "And now we get people coming by and they really know their shit."
As with all groups, there's in-fighting within the permaculture community. Some people say you shouldn't make money off of it. Wheaton disagrees. Native plant proponents don't always like the idea of permaculture embracing edibles that aren't native in an area, like Place of Gathering's pawpaw patch. There might be some permaculture people who say no to all lawns, just because lawns are generally a non-edible monoculture that require lots of water—the antithesis of permaculture. But Wheaton, as hardcore as he is, believes a lawn has its place. In his article on permies.com called "Organic Lawn Care for the Cheap and Lazy," he talks about how to have a lawn without all the bad parts. You plant a certain kind of grass, you have soil that's 18 inches deep and you mow high, so that the roots stay long in the soil and collect moisture better. "With just those things right there you can have a green lawn all summer long and not water it," he says.
That's just the bare minimum. What you can do, says Wheaton, is improve your lawn beyond what you'd imagined it could be. You can plant edible flowers and crocuses so that your lawn is blooming early in the season. If you plant low-growing chamomile, every time you mow it smells like green apples. Yarrow will make your lawn spongy and soft, perfect for rolling in. "So there's all kinds of fun things you can grow in your yard," he says.
For his next project, Wheaton is hoping to meet up with Holzer in Siberia. The project Holzer hopes to achieve is massive: They'd be dealing with 25,000 acres to which 10,000 families would be moving to occupy a 2.5 acre plot apiece. "The idea is that 2.5 acres should supply all of that family's food and they'll have zero money," Wheaton says. "This acreage is totally barren and useless; it's a wasteland right now. So it's like, okay, what if we have zero money and a handful of seeds?"
Meanwhile, with the help of John Trask, Wheaton is currently searching for 200 acres of land to make his own permaculture paradise. When I ask him what he's looking for, he very unjokingly mentions that he would love to have Mount Sentinel, where the M marks the slope. "Give me Mount Sentinel and I will turn it into a jungle," he says. "I think that'd be cool, but boy would that ever be a political nightmare."
So he's looking for something with a south-facing slope and a lot of trees, though his time is eaten up by all the people who keep stopping by his website and calling to ask him how they can make permaculture part of their lives.
"At some point these guys are going to learn I'm just some giant doofus in overalls and they'll stop listening to me," he says, smiling. "And then I can look for land."