Living in an ecosystem: Eating what nature brings

1. What’s your must-have favorite food that cannot be grown or produced in your region?

2. What would you have for dinner tonight if you relied completely on your home garden?

Sharon Gibson (courtesy Facebook)
Sharon Gibson (courtesy Facebook)

Living in an Ecosystem: Eating What Nature Brings
By Steven Saint Thomas

Byron Bay is universally considered a must-see destination for travelers in Australia. The white beaches along Cape Byron – the most easterly point on the continent – are pristine and breathtaking.

In town, sidewalks are filled with surfers, hippies and tourists sauntering past cafes and trendy clothing shops, alternative health centers and organic food stores. Seems to be a prime place for permaculture to take root.

One of the pillars of Byron Permaculture is Sharon Gibson, who has created an urban permaculture center on a sleepy suburban street in Mullumbimby, a small town just west of Byron Bay.

Like a lot of homesteaders, Gibson has vegetable gardens, fruit trees and chickens. But as a permaculturist, she’s reluctant to run out to the local Woolworth’s supermarket for her daily bread.

Her goal is to be self-reliant and light on the carbon footprint.

“We eat what needs to be eaten,” Gibson says, flashing a shy smile and yanking a big taro out of her backyard garden. “We’ll have this for dinner.”

For human habitat to function as a part of an ecosystem, people need to eat what nature brings in any given season. Our 24/7 culture of eating whatever we want, whenever we want it, is predicated on cheap petroleum – a resource that is rapidly going away.

So Gibson cultivates what grows best in the subtropical Climate of Byron Bay – black sapote, choko, pigeon peas and zucchini. Rather than buy imported apples from the supermarket, she grows yacon, a South American tuber that tastes like apple.

After calculating her food footprint, Gibson moved from a long-standing vegetarian diet to eating home-raised chickens and ducks. Now she’s not importing tofu and other processed vegetarian items.

At the other end of town, Gibson has helped organize a section of the Mullumbimby Community Garden into a permaculture center. Fledgling designers in her Permaculture Design Certification classes use the “Permaculture Backyard” section for hands-on learning.

The Community Garden functions as a local food hub with a section for private plots, a children’s garden, “Food For All” beds where volunteers can work for veggies, outdoor kitchen, events pavilion, and seed and garden shop.

Gibson says she raises all the vegetables, fruits, legumes and poultry she and her family needs. Trips to the store are reserved for specialty items like soy sauce, chocolate and coffee.

“The tomatoes, artichokes, asparagus and greens need to be eaten, so that’s what we’ll base our lunch around,” she says, looking out at the garden irrigated completely by rainwater. “For dinner tonight, we’ve got taro, beans and whatever else is available. In a permaculture home garden, you’re looking at what needs to be eaten.”

1. Does your region or neighborhood have any restrictions on using rainwater or graywater? On raising animals in your yard?

2. What fruits, vegetables or animals are you currently raising on your property?

3. Do you know the carbon footprint of the foods you eat?

4. What governmental or nonprofit entity is most involved in establishing community gardens in your area?

1. What should you start cultivating to move a significant part of your food needs from the grocery store to your property?

2. How could eating more seasonably reduce your and your community’s carbon footprint?

3. What local food items could you substitute for foods that your community imports or that require lots of energy and water?

4. Is there an existing community garden in your area that could be expanded into an ecology or permaculture center? What would be a good step towards that transformation?

Local food relocalizes Hepburn

Maureen Corbett and friends from Relocalise Hepburn turn a vacant lot into a community garden.
Maureen Corbett and friends from Relocalise Hepburn turn a vacant lot into a community garden.

By Steven Saint Thomas

As in most small towns, people in Hepburn Springs know their neighbors and most everyone else in town. When a stranger walks into the Hepburn General Store, the grocer knows right away he’s a traveler lost on the Midland Highway or tourist visiting one of the area spas.

The stranger is not a local, but neither are the food items lining the shelves of the general store. The grocer has a small local section with some vegetables and free-range eggs, but most everything he sells is from Victoria or New South Wales or even New Zealand.

Likewise, farmers near Hepburn drive their produce two hours down to Melbourne to sell in the farmers market.

Hepburn residents Su Dennett and Maureen Corbett used to make the 2-hours trip too, to shop. Often they’d end up purchasing produce from their Hepburn neighbors. So they asked themselves, “Why not just sell in Hepburn and eliminate the drive?” A veggie box scheme (what Americans would call a CSA – “community-supported agriculture”) was born. Relocalise Hepburn was now a force to be reckoned with.

“We chose the word ‘re-localise’ on purpose,” says Maureen, who started the original group of two with fellow permaculturist Su. “Society used to be local. We used to supply most of our needs locally and we want to get back to that.”

Once upon a time, our society was local. When furniture, household appliances and even shoes needed mending, people went to repair shops to get them fixed. These items had been made out of metal or wood, and replacement parts could be ordered. The tinkers had names their customers knew without the aid of name badges.

There was a time when my hometown in southern California was bordered by thousands of acres of avocado orchards. I passed a turkey farm on my way to elementary school and a dairy on my way to high school.

Over the past 30 years, globalization was made possible by fossil fuels, kept affordable by massive government subsidies in the forms of tax breaks and Middle East wars to secure oil fields. To achieve all this, Americans had to borrow from the one country that had been making money hand over fist for the past 30 years – China.

For Maureen and Su, relocalization means self-reliance through community. If we know and trust our neighbors, we probably have enough shared resources to sustain our community without burning massive amounts of fossil fuel.

Food- and skill-sharing are central to Relocalise Hepburn. Members hold community celebrations with local food, classes in spinning and shoemaking, and find ways to help each other.

“Food is something everybody does,” Su says. “Most people are involved with buying and eating food – we’re involving people in every aspect from the growing to the eating.”

If you need tools, expertise or even a ride to that general store or farmers market, you can probably get it from a neighbor in Relocalise Hepburn. Make a call or go online to their Facebook site or blog site to make a connection.

A self-reliant, skill-sharing community will come in very handy when cheap fossil fuels are no longer available for the common man or woman.

Relocalise Hepburn is getting ready.

“If the hordes come from the city when the going gets tough, so be it,” Su says. “We’re in a very abundant space even though none of us has any money. We have luxury living that’s available to everyone.”