The Lay of the Land

When I worked in Public Health, my job requirements included leadership of community coalitions: the planning of broad interventions with minimally-interested individuals and laughably limited resources. Ultimately, we planned to plan, and planned some more; drawing meticulous distinctions between objectives, goals and strategies, while lacking capital, labor, and belief in any meaningful collective potential. At the end of the meetings we went our separate ways, reconvening each month with only our guilt at having accomplished very little in the time that had passed. I have a world of respect for Public Health Professionals and Community Coalitions, but the structural stagnation is too great. I had to move along; thankfully finding my way to a group with the passion, resources and skill to carry out projects of real impact.

On Thursday night, a small group of Sand Risers met at the Idea Center, to open discussions about the landscape and functional design of our 35 acres. Having read a couple of permaculture books myself, I’ve developed a great interest in land design, but the opportunity to make real decisions on a sizable portion of land had paralyzed me into mental stagnation. Enter the Grandmaster. God bless him, Oren was at the ready with a Google Earth overhead view of the land, to which we started marking off sections, in consideration of the meat and bones of our operation.

Land 2.jpg

“Okay, so let’s start in Zone 1,” Oren directed, circling his mouse around the area in direct vicinity of the buildings. A concept of Permaculture Design is that the land is structured into zones- starting closest to the living area and working out in circles, planning the most energy-intensive components of the design in close vicinity to the living space. So we started there, around our ancient barn and outbuildings, with very practical considerations. Where will the driveway turnaround be? Where will we park? Where are we planning on washing and packing produce, and where will our cooler be? Anyone who has farmed for any period of time knows that steps add up over the course of a season, and we discussed how to most efficiently direct harvest and packing activities. We discussed where we will eat lunch, and whether we will maintain a lawn area for events, activities and games in the summer.

Starting with these concrete functional considerations eased my mind a bit, and we expanded throughout the land, laying out the locations of vegetable beds and hoophouses, and designating spaces and edges for various activities. Most of our conversation was based around the natural lay of the land: proximity to the road, presence or absence of trees and rocks, sun exposure and natural slopes. How can we most effectively manage this glorious chunk of earth, maximizing the economical and ecological capacity of the space, for present and future?

We continued to work to more theoretical grandiosity, discussing the purchase and planting of hundreds of hardwood trees, and the incorporation of walipinis. A walipini, I learned, is an in-ground greenhouse, invented in Bolivia, which uses natural slopes and the insulation of the earth to maintain a warm, moist environment for extended-season growing. Oren talked through the concept, bringing up some awesome walipini pictures on the white wall. Polly excitedly hijacked the computer, hopping on Facebook to show us a walipini that one of her friends, Ali Swan, had built. There we were, a handful of strangers, scrolling through a random person’s life in search of a walipini. Pictures rolled and pictures rolled: Ali Swan’s wedding; Ali Swan and her presumable significant other, looking thrilled on a presumable vacation; a tiny baby I could only assume to be Ali Swan’s. I averted my eyes uncomfortably, when Oren came through with a timely interjection. “Their walipini is just like the ones I just showed you. Pulling up their walipini… it’s just another walipini.”

“Yeah,” Polly agreed. “This is getting a little creepy.”

We moved on, thank goodness. That said, there’s something infinitely refreshing about a conversational space inundated with the word walipini, and by this point we were exploring some incredible concepts. Nitrogen-fixing Black Locust trees along the road, intermingled with elderberries underneath, to provide a natural barrier, along with food and lumber within only a handful of years. Sugar maples around the border and apple orchards, to Polly’s preference, everywhere. Secluded sauna in the back corner, bordered on three sides by trees. Wildflowers and herbs planted to flower year-round, as sustenance for our bees and other natural pollinators. Berries and berries; comfrey and sumac; roses and rhubarb. The potential, it seems, is endless.


The meeting was awesome and inspiring. At the end, we broke it down to resources. What do we want to prioritize in year one, given the natural limitations of our finances and labor availability? What are necessities; what demands the most income, and what provides income? By this time, our map was full of sections, and our hearts full of excitement. Of course, within the next month or two, all of these grandiose visions will translate into work. Buying 300 trees requires the planting of 300 trees, and protecting them, to the necessary extent. Our apiary will require care; the cooler needs constructing, and our buildings need retrofitting. At the end, my Public Health side surfaced, and I suggested the formation of a five-year plan. “Five year plans are great,” agreed Oren, “but much of what we do will be based on our observations this year, and we can probably make decisions more effectively once we’ve spent some time on the land.” Ultimately, we’re moving towards the establishment of a real, deep relationship with the land we’ve purchased, and a connection available only through time, thought, and work.