Hopefully I’ve managed to make a pretty good case for primitivism. I’ve brought up the possibilities of mass peaceful protest to demand degrowth economics and land reform, philanthropy from sincere rich people, violent rebellion by radical environmentalists and the possibility that, if all else fails, economic collapse could force people to change even if nobody wants to. Currently, most protests just revolve around getting more equal shares of the plunder of empire, the super rich are mostly just wasting the wealth of the world on shit that makes no difference, environmentalists are just spending all their time worrying about how even the most innocuous actions could hurt something, and environmental collapse appears ahead in its race with economic collapse. It’s hard to be optimistic but I still see no point in the “Fuck it! We’re done for” view that the Guy McPherson types are spreading. No matter how bad things get, I’ll still be advocating for degrowth and these low-tech, self-sufficient communities. When all things are considered, I honestly don’t see how anything else can create a sustainable and just lifestyle for humanity. I really don’t.
I want to believe that we’re converging on some good solutions and working to make them happen but I’m still seeing each new generation of parents getting their kids even more hopelessly addicted to plastic crap than the last. I’m still seeing movie makers resorting to using expensive, high-tech and violent films for environmentalist propaganda. I’m still seeing ideas like roads made entirely out of solar panels being taken as a serious option for sustainable development. People are still arguing over the efficacy of high-tech medicine instead of asking if the process of creating it is ethical or sustainable in the first place. People are still trying to use cool inventions and interesting discoveries to justify our atrocities. “Look at all we’ve learned. Clearly civilization wasn’t a mistake.” Really?
There are some groups out there worth listening to. In my opinion, none of them have it totally right but, fortunately, we don’t need to select an entire package of solutions from any one group. We can select parts from many flawed ones if we want to. Deep Green Resistance remains one of my favorites. Some of their ideas bother me but I’m not going to reject everything they say simply because they aren’t perfect. Similarly, New Age spiritual pseudoscience annoys the shit out of me but I still recommend listening to Charles Eisenstein for his insights into economics. I consider the Zeitgeist movement’s solutions to be so delusional as to be dangerous but I find their criticisms of the current system to be some of the clearest and most persuasive. I consider the Transition Town movement to be too little too late but I appreciate the success they’ve had in making radical ideas more acceptable to the mainstream. Feminists and tree-hugger hippie types explain their ideas in ways that don’t resonate with those who most need to hear what they have to say but I recognize the importance in challenging the type of language the mainstream accepts as normal. And the list goes on.
There isn’t a single book or documentary listed in the resources pages that I’m in full agreement with. And this book wasn’t an attempt at writing the counter-culture bible or anything. Everyone has to listen to a wide range of voices and come to their own conclusions. My main goal with this was just to save people some of the time and frustration I’ve gone through listening to hundreds of people saying essentially the same thing, and wasting time with people who clearly know that what they’re saying is untrue. It’s been a real headache. Nobody should have to go through as much information as I have just to find out how simple the answers really are.
Lastly, having expressed such unpopular views, I definitely expect some criticism. One thing I expect to hear, and that I’d rather just address now, is that I’m a hypocrite for using a computer. I brought this up a little when discussing the transition spectrum but I have two responses to this. First, what has a more positive effect, my refusal to use a computer or my using a computer to try to spread information? I don’t want to still be using this thing 10 years from now but at the moment it seems like a necessary evil. If I just stop using it and go build a tipi in the woods, that would have no effect on anything. If the majority is to change their ways, people need to be reached and I feel like I have a better chance of reaching people who use computers on the internet than in a cave. It wouldn’t make sense for me to tell Richard Dawkins and Michio Kaku that they’re hypocrites for not driving flying cars. It isn’t any more possible to live primitively at the moment than it is to live futuristically because we’re all surrounded with the same infrastructure. It’s a matter of what we advocate and the direction we try to steer our current society, not how we’re living right now. I assure you, I am far from satisfied with my current living situation. Second, what difference does it make if I am a hypocrite? Does that make my arguments invalid? It’s like being a passenger in a car and the driver says, “Hey, we’re going to crash if we don’t turn and I’m not planning on turning. You should probably jump out before I speed up, which I am planning on doing.” Do you just ignore his warning because he ignores it himself? Please, judge this book based on the ideas, not on your assumptions about the person who wrote them.
Still, criticisms and other thoughts are welcome. You can email me directly at email@example.com or feel free to leave a comment at aproposalforprimitivism.blogspot.com. Thanks for reading.
Some Excessive thoughts, Tedious Math and Shameless Blueprinting
These are just some extra ideas that I was going to leave out of the book but decided are actually worth having in here someplace. Had these extra details been left in earlier chapters, I expect most readers would have struggled to get through them. I figure that by leaving this stuff to the end I’m at least letting readers decide if they think it’s worth looking at. This book was meant to focus mainly on general ideas, not specific measurements for building things or crop growing schedules or anything like that. However, since a major theme of this book is that we need clear visions of what primitive societies of the future can look like, rather than just vague philosophies about reconnection, love, and belonging to the planet, a little more detail seems like a good idea to me. I know a lot of radicals hate “blueprinting” and that they take offense to being told what they should do. These are just possibilities and suggestions, some extra considerations that I recommend people think about. Having overlooked a lot of them myself earlier, I know people tend to forget about these things. I also want to show further that my general goal laid out in this book is based more on math than romanticism.
I still don’t see too much point in getting much more specific about permaculture. The main things to remember are just planting on contour, mixing in perennials, spacing out the trees that you plan to let grow to mature size based on the diameter of their canopies, growing nitrogen-fixing species with each layer of crops, integrating livestock and using rotational mosaics to get a consistent supply of each crop every year. Whether you alternate rows of trees with rows of shrubs or just grow everything in the same rows, or you allow shrubs to get shaded out in the understory or leave enough space for the sun to keep them producing until the end of the cycle, or you plant trees on the berms of swales or a few feet below them, or cut down nitrogen-fixers before the fruit and nut trees or cut them all at the same time, it will work. People are going to come up with all sorts of variations and by comparing each other’s harvests and soils they’ll figure out what the best way to go is for wherever they live. When researching guilds I actually got pretty annoyed with how often I found myself writing down “can use pretty much anything.” For my region, walnuts and hickories are the only ones I found that really cause major problems for nearby plants, as I mentioned earlier in the book. Sugar maples and sycamores are also slightly allelopathic and pines tend to have negative effects on the soil if they’re the dominant species for very long. A lot of people recommend growing blueberries in the acidic soil near pines. Almost every other crop that humans grow prefers slightly acidic soil. Sugar maples, sycamores and walnuts can tolerate slightly alkaline soils, and walnuts and beech like low, relatively flat and moist areas to grow. Other than that, I really haven’t come across anything too noteworthy regarding guilds. I’d just start with a walnut guild then, for diversity’s sake, use whatever can’t be grown with walnuts in a chestnut guild, like starting with anything other than corn or sunflowers for the annuals, alders instead of black locusts, seaberries instead of goumis and Siberian pea shrubs, and apples or pears instead of pawpaws, mulberries and black cherries, etc. Then things like pine nuts, beech, oak and sugar maple can just be kept mostly in semi-wild boundary lines or along the edges of nearby forests. There isn’t much else to say about it. People just over complicate this shit so bad. Companion planting for vegetables can definitely boost production, as well as protect the soil and control pests, but those crops only make up something like 1% to 2% of cropland. This means that cutting the size of vegetable gardens in half would hardly make any difference at all. There really isn’t much point worrying about them so much.
One more thing worth mentioning about permaculture is that when you grow in layers, not all layers are going to be producing harvests at the same time. There will be some overlap where shrubs start producing while annuals or perennial herbs are the main crop or trees start producing while shrubs are the main crop, but the idea is that it shifts from annuals the first few years to perennial herbs for a few years, then shrubs for 5 to 10 years and almost entirely just tree crops the remaining time before cutting the trees and starting the cycle over again. Besides silvopasture, where animals will be under a layer of tree crops, for the most part there’s only one layer of staple crops being grown in any particular spot at any given time, at least in temperate regions. Annuals, perennial herbs, shrubs and trees will all be the dominant crops in different locations, not everywhere at once. So with my walnut guild as an example again, there wouldn’t be corn, beans and squash, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes and hazelnuts under mature walnuts, hickories and butternuts. Some pawpaws and elderberries would keep producing in the shade but everything else needs full sun. It’s important that people at least understand that much.
Having read probably over a dozen permaculture books, I still haven’t found any that describe girdling trees as an alternative to coppicing. From anthropology books though, I do know that a lot of indigenous groups used girdling, usually combined with slash and burn. I did mention this earlier but there are a few more points that should be made about it.
Coppicing vs Girdling
Coppicing tends to be preferred simply because it’s so much easier than planting new trees, as long as you have metal tools anyway. Since coppiced trees grow faster than those planted from seed, cycles can also be shorter, allowing for a higher percentage of land to be producing annuals than there would be with longer cycles (which generally allows people to produce more calories per acre), trees can be planted closer together, often spaced less than 20 feet apart, smaller tree trunks are easier to clear, there aren’t any dead trees left in the way, all the wood can be harvested and used for something, etc. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t benefits to girdling though. Longer cycles give the soil more time to recover, dead trees provide habitat for beneficial birds and other creatures, fallen wood that rots in place keeps beneficial fungi and micro-organisms around and further replenishes the soil, the extra shade from the snags can actually boost the production of the crops growing under them in hot and sunny regions, and tree bark is an important resource for any society that relies solely on Stone Age technology. Large trees that are spaced more like 50 to 100 feet apart and allowed to stand for more like 50 to a hundred years will provide a lot of useful bark for siding, roofing, tanning, mulch and carbon-rich organic material for composting toilets. Remember, food isn’t all that matters.
Chestnut, poplar, elm and birch are the main trees in my region with useful bark for siding and roofing material. Anything else would probably be just as good for mulch and for providing a sawdust substitute for composting toilets (not only will there not be sawmills, there won’t even be saws, so that’s worth thinking about). Using trees in the walnut family for that might spread juglone around though, which would be bad. That should probably be kept in mind. Pine cones are another source of easily broken up carbon that could substitute for sawdust. Pine trees are also renowned by survivalists for the edible cambium layer under their bark. I haven’t been able to find any reliable information on cambium production though. I’ve heard that a pound of the stuff can provide a few hundred calories but I can’t say how many pounds of cambium can be harvested from a tree. I assume that it’d make most sense to just strip all the bark off at the same time when the tree is cut down or girdled. So cambium would just be a slight bonus at the end of a pine tree’s life, not something I’d expect to double the calories that each pine nut tree produces or anything. It’s hard to imagine it providing more than a fraction of 1% of the calories that you’ll get from the nuts during its lifetime. Pines also produce resin and vitamin C-rich needles. I’m not sure how much vitamin C people really get out of pine needle tea considering that heat degrades it. Personally, I like to just eat pine needles sometimes. The young, bright green, fresh growth in early spring is actually pretty easy to chew up, and tastes surprisingly citrusy, about as good as chewing gum in my opinion. However, pine needles from certain species have been shown to cause abortions in livestock when they eat large quantities of them, so it’s probably something that pregnant women should avoid. Some pine species can also provide turpentine and rosin (the byproduct of turpentine production). Anyway, getting back on the subject of bark, tannins are another important resource. For tanning hides into leather, you can use bark from oak, fir, hemlock, alder, chestnut, birch and willow trees. There are other good sources of tannins, like sumac leaves, but tree bark is probably the best source of it.
Too many permaculture enthusiasts put their focus mainly on fruits, weird salad substitutes and flowers. The main priorities should be calories, protein, fat, building materials, firewood and clothing. Vitamins by comparison are easy. One dandelion can provide over 100% of your daily vitamin A requirement, and they’ll be growing all over the place even if you tried to stop them. The harvest from one mature fruit tree can easily provide enough for several people to eat one or two pieces of fruit every day for a year. Unless designing for a community of raging alcoholics, there really isn’t much reason for more than a single digit percentage of your trees and shrubs to be fruits.
Calories Per Acre Per Year For Staple Crops
Potatoes----------------5,272,000 (estimates are all over the place, some sources giving potatoes approximately as many calories per acre as corn and some giving corn approximately the same amount that I’ve listed for potatoes. They probably are pretty equally productive)
Cattail-------------------11,770,000 (estimate from 6,475 pounds of “flour”, meaning starch, and starch having 4 calories per gram)
Chestnut----------------473,600-805,120 (592 calories per pound x 800-1,360 pounds)
Hazelnut----------------2,278,400-3,189,760 (2,848 calories per pound x 800-1,120 pounds)
Walnut------------------1,900,800-4,276,800 (2,970 calories per pound x 640-1,440 pounds)
Hickory------------------Should be similar to walnut except only producing once every 2 years.
Butternut---------------Should be similar to walnut except only producing once every 2 years.
Heartnut----------------Should be similar to walnut except only producing once every 2 years.
Siberian Stone Pine---489,600 once every 2 to 3 years (3,060 calories per pound x 160 pounds)
Korean Nut Pine-------734,400 once every 2 years (3,060 calories per pound x 240 pounds)
So based on those numbers, how many people per acre can be fed from these crops, assuming a 2,000 calorie per day diet?
Hickory-----------------Should be similar to walnut except only producing once every 2 years.
Butternut--------------Should be similar to walnut except only producing once every 2 years.
Heartnut---------------Should be similar to walnut except only producing once every 2 years.
Siberian Stone Pine--0.67 once every 2 to 3 years
Korean Nut Pine------1.01 once every 2 years
It’s important to point out that the above numbers are all based on monocrops with inputs of fertilizers. For organic production that mixes in nitrogen-fixers I’d expect every one of these to be somewhere between a quarter and half of the estimates listed. These numbers are in no way meant to suggest that we can support 16 people per acre. The estimates for perennial crops are based on their maximum level of production, not averaging what’s produced every year of their lives. And plants like cattail can be kind of challenging to grow at the scale of corn and wheat fields.
Chinquapin and yellowhorn are a couple other perennial species that can be integrated into food forests of the northeastern U.S. but there isn’t much reliable info on them. Chinquapins are basically dwarf chestnuts, resembling more of a shrub than a tree, so I’d expect them to be about the same as far as calories per pound goes, just not likely to produce as many pounds per acre as chestnut trees. Yellowhorn is another small tree that produces nuts similar to chestnuts but with a flavor that’s supposedly reminiscent of macadamias, so we can’t assume that the calories per pound are going to be exactly the same for them. They’re supposed to produce about 800 pounds of nuts per acre when they reach optimum yielding age but how many calories that is per acre is a mystery at this point. And whether that’s every year or not, I can’t say either. There’s also Swiss Stone Pine, which is probably comparable to Siberian Stone Pine. Hardy almonds and northern pecans are in the “maybe” category for this region, most likely not doing well with our current climate but possibly doing better here a few decades from now if things warm up a little. Reliable info on oaks, beech and horse chestnuts is nonexistent as far as I can tell. Between the variability of masting years, how long it takes them to start producing and how undesirable they are as food sources, there just doesn’t seem to be much interest in them. One stat that I found claims mature oaks average 25-30 pounds of acorns per tree per year. That’s likely only around 10 pounds dry weight when processed though. Acorns provide 110 calories per 28.4 grams (1,760 calories per pound), so based on that I’d think that after a 30 year wait oak trees might feed an average of one third to one full person per acre per year (with every single tree being an oak), varying pretty wildly from practically nothing on bad years and enough to feed a couple people on really good years. Beech likely produces even less than oaks and that’s after a longer wait of more like 40 or 50 years.
Remember, other regions have better options than we do when it comes to perennial crops. In Spain, farmers have already been cultivating oaks for a long time and they’ve developed a variety that produces enough calories for 6-15 people per acre, and that’s also without needing to be leached of tannins before consumption. In Italy, Italian stone pine is capable of producing enough for over 20 people per acre on good years. Many other Mediterranean, subtropical and tropical tree crops produce comparably as well, such as bunya pine, macadamia, breadnut, breadfruit, Brazil nut and sago. I wouldn’t expect tree crops of the temperate zone to ever reach that level of productivity, or to ever produce yields of staple crops in their understories at the same time, but It is likely that as people of this region become more reliant on perennial crops we’ll develop improved varieties with higher and more consistent yields. Even as they are currently, and with the considerations about mixing in nitrogen-fixers and planning to grow more than needed, I still think one person per acre is pretty realistic in this region when you average the yields of all our available options.
There’s a lot of propaganda against animal agriculture but even a lot of the info meant to demonize it shows how productive it can be if you know what to look for. I’ve seen graphs that try to show how inefficient animals are compared to plant crops that separate beef, milk, eggs and chicken meat, as if they can’t exist on the same land. Eggs and chicken meat! Beef and milk! Separate! So ridiculous! Considering that chickens actually benefit cows by eating the insect larvae that grow in their manure, and that the animals can graze under a light canopy of nut and fruit trees, it can actually be very efficient. Looking at the graph I just mentioned, if I combined the four small bars from milk, eggs and the two types of meat, it actually suggests that grazing should be the most efficient. I’m not sure if it is (clearly I’m not going to base anything on a graph put together by such stupid people) but grazing’s productivity is certainly comparable to plants.
Earlier in this book, I mentioned that dairy cows average 6-8 gallons of milk per day and that calves usually only drink about 1-2 of those gallons. That leaves 4-7 gallons for us. One gallon of whole milk has 2,336 calories. Multiplied, that gives us 9,344-16,352 calories every day from a single cow. Breeds that are hardier and less freakishly fertile (more fit for the Stone Age) I estimated would likely average at least 1 gallon per day for most of the year after feeding their calves. 1 acre can support approximately 2 cows with rotational grazing in most areas, so that’s 4,672 calories per acre per day. Add eggs and that’s another couple thousand calories per acre per day, easy. So that’s already 3 people being fed per acre from grazing. Add meat and nuts and it could be double that. The nuts growing above the animals, even if planted at lower density than typical orchards so more sunlight can reach the grasses, could average enough calories to feed a couple people per acre if you used walnuts and cut the nitrogen-fixers earlier than the nut trees, or maybe half a person if you used chestnuts. Most meats, including fish, provide around 1,000 calories per pound. Every year, I’d expect at least 10% of cows and 20% of chickens to be culled (people could easily cull two to three times that), so something like 3 cows and 40 chickens per year for the 48 family community concept (10 acres of grazing land). Each cow would give 400 to 500 pounds of meat and each chicken 3 to 4 pounds, which equals 132,000 to 166,000 calories per acre, which is enough for 0.17 to 0.23 people. Clearly, using animals that produce milk, eggs and other non-meat products as well as meat makes grazing a lot more efficient. Remember though, these are with low, more humane, culling rates. Meat alone could probably provide enough for at least one person’s calories per acre with really high stocking and culling rates. It just wouldn’t be a very compassionate approach. I definitely wouldn’t be a fan of doing that. But all of these numbers added together, not even including the fish and water plants in the ponds, show that grazing production is easily comparable to the productivity of plant cultivation. How many of the plant crops listed in the chart above can feed 6 people per acre (after dividing by 2-4 to account for the difference in growing them sustainably, of course)? Even feeding 2 to 3 people per acre would be pretty good when you consider that, by mimicking a sustainable ecosystem, grazing can be done every single year without depleting the soil. When done right, it actually builds soil, essentially allowing us to produce food on “resting” land.
Cows followed by chickens is actually a pretty simple example of rotational grazing too. By adding other species, like sheep, goats, turkeys, guinea fowl, geese, ducks and pigs to the system it can be even more efficient since each species occupies a different niche, eating grasses, woody browse, insects, seeds, rotting fruit, etc. Besides the more complete “mowing” that you get from all these species working in tandem, cows and sheep also have different parasites that don’t effect each other. Sheep eat the cow parasites and cows eat the sheep parasites without getting infected with anything harmful to themselves, thereby reducing the populations of each other’s parasites and keeping each other healthier.
Hopefully all this shows pretty clearly that it wouldn’t be unrealistic to expect at least enough calories to be produced for a one person per acre population density in most areas. It’s probably a good idea to aim for producing about twice as much as you actually need, giving yourselves a good-sized margin of error for bad years. What people decide to do with the extra food is up to them to figure out. Whether they let themselves get fat or offer it to their gods or use it to placate the malicious demons of the nearby forest, they just need to keep in mind that they want to keep producing more than they need, not let their population size grow to match exactly the people per acre that can be fed. Waste isn’t always a sign of how little we respect nature. You have to actually imagine how these scenarios would play out long term.
Extra Thoughts on Circular Complexes
The circular complex idea that I used in the benevolent dictator chapter originally started with me trying to come up with a way of having no extra fences at all, using only houses as barriers. The first design I tried was a square track of courtyards going around one huge pond. I quickly came to the conclusion that the no fence thing was really just sort of a gimmick that looked more interesting than it really was. It wouldn’t have saved as much building material as I thought it would have and the giant pond, which I decided would have to be moat shaped with an island in the middle to stay full, I figured would be at risk of contamination since it was the only one. The circular complex that I used in this book (the ideal version) was sort of a compromise from that original idea. It would have 48 dwellings surrounding 10 acres of land and about 3 and a third acres of water since I drew it intending for the ponds to take up 25% of the space. That’s a 3 to 1 ratio of land to water, which is pretty small for a watershed. In that version, even if all the roofs sloped towards the center, adding about an acre to the watershed area, water would almost definitely need to be channeled in from the surrounding landscape somehow to keep the ponds full. I guess another option would be to make these ponds moat shaped with little islands at their centers too but I think it makes more sense to just use smaller ponds. The only drawback to smaller ponds is that they’re not as good at doubling as barriers, meaning that more fencing would be needed.
Below is a version showing what it could look like if only the enclosed land was used as the watershed, having something more like a 10 to 1 ratio. You could probably get away with using even smaller ponds too, giving yourself a 15 or 20 to 1 ratio if you had to. If you gave each paddock its own small pond instead of trying to use larger ponds as barriers to cut back on fencing, a 26 foot wide circular pond in each paddock would give you about a 20 to 1 ratio. In drier regions with sandier soil and less rain you’d definitely need to do something like that. I also divided the outside cropland into quadrants to show that not everyone needs to be working together on everything. It makes sense for them to all share the grazing commons equally but keeping as much work near their own homes and only having to agree with a fraction of the total group on how most chores are handled every day makes sense too. It’s a lot easier for a dozen families to get along than it is for 48 of them. Each house could even have its own rotational mosaic if need be, potentially separating the outside cropland into over 2,000 sections that are approximately a tenth of an acre each (about enough space for 1-4 full size trees) as opposed to the other extreme of 10 huge twenty acre sections. The sections shown in the image below are more like 2-3 acres each, so there’d be somewhere around 20 sections per quadrant as it’s shown. I know this is kind of a goofy layout but I just wanted to show that there doesn’t need to be so much water for this type of arrangement to work, even if you want the ponds to act partially as barriers.
With a total of 13 and a third acres enclosed, the grazing land would have a circumference of 2,701.58 feet and the inner wall of each dwelling would need to be 56.28 feet long (the outer walls would be a couple feet longer). For this 10 to 1 ratio version there’d be 11 acres enclosed, giving the grazing land a circumference of 2,453.83 feet and the inner walls of dwellings would each be 51.12 feet. I mentioned earlier that dwellings in this type of arrangement would have to be built strong enough to act as a reliable livestock barrier. What I didn’t mention is that only the inner wall would need to meet this requirement. For the outer wall, anything could be used. That means that skins, canvas, sod, thatch and tree bark are still options for most of the dwellings’ walls. In warm regions, or just during warmer seasons in temperate regions, the outer wall could even be left unconstructed, with people basically camping out in a giant pavilion, sort of like a Yanomamo village in reverse.
If we want the square footage of houses to be approximately 900 square feet then the dwellings would be 18 feet wide (that gives us a little over 920 square feet). That means each house would require 120.24 feet of walls (at least) if there are internal walls separating each family’s living space, or 102.24 feet if partitions are left out like a longhouse. For those who prefer round buildings, you could use 34.23 foot wide circles for the same square footage. But you’d need to add a 16.89 foot long wall between each house to enclose the grazing commons. That would mean that each house would require 124.43 feet of walls, so it’s comparable to the more rectangular house version. However, since half of each dwelling would cut into the grazing commons you’d also have about half of an acre less land enclosed. That’s not too big a deal, especially if scaled up since you’d lose a smaller proportion with a larger community, as we’ll discuss a little later.
For the paddock partitions, I recommended using rows of pollard trees and movable panels made from their trimmed branches. I didn’t go into any detail about how much extra work this would be every day for the inhabitants. If each house is basically responsible for one paddock, then once every 40 days the working age adults in that house would likely have to move somewhere between 208 and 416 feet of panels (2 to 4 sides of a quarter acre paddock), which would be about 26-52 eight foot long panels, carried a few hundred feet from the back paddock to the front paddock, assuming pollard trees are spaced 8 feet apart. A couple people could probably move at least 4 panels at a time if they work together, so that’s 5,200-10,400 feet (about one to two miles) of back and forth walking, which isn’t too bad. Most time would likely be spent untying the panels from the trees and retying them to the new ones. So maybe a 2-4 hour chore once every 40 days. It’d probably make more sense to have several of the closest houses to the paddock working together, maybe the same houses who work a quadrant of cropland together, which would mean something like a half hour chore every day for one week per month or something (only 2-4 panels per day per house involved, and only a few hundred extra feet of walking). Even without movable panels, chicken coops would have to be moved every day anyway. Eggs need to be collected and cows need to be milked. People wouldn’t exactly be going too far out of their way to do this.
If large livestock proves undeterred by basket-like wattle fence panels, simply leaving some sharp pointed sticks poking through the gaps between the branches of the panels will likely be annoying enough to dissuade them from trying to break through, even though they are physically strong enough to do so. As long as the panels do hold up for a decent length of time it’s probably easier than building permanent fences for every partition. It’s also likely less work to have more paddocks constructed at any one time than are actually being used. If the panels are relatively durable then the real workload is the number of panels moved every day, not the number of panels initially constructed, at least when building enough for a couple empty paddocks, not compared to building enough for all 40 paddocks at a time. As for the actual pollarding, each house would only have to trim 1 to 3 trees per year, or maybe one to two dozen once every 10 years at the same time if they want to do it that way.
Below is an image of what these fence rows would look like at different times. Number 1 shows the trees large enough to be trimmed and the paddock unconstructed, number 2 shows the trees freshly trimmed and the paddock constructed, and 3-7 just show various stages of regrowth.
When a pollard tree is knocked down in a storm or killed by some other complication then temporary posts can be used to protect a new sapling until it’s large enough to handle livestock and be used as a post itself.
If chickens are 3 days behind the cows, what most recommend for rotational grazing with multiple species, then you’d probably want 4-5 paddocks constructed at any given time, even though only 2 are used at a time. If you had 2 separate paddocks then you’d be moving more panels every day, as shown in the image below.
The unconnected paddocks might be even more work than shown if you want the new paddock for the cows constructed before opening up the one they’re currently in. The chickens’ paddock could be deconstructed before letting them out of their coops (assuming you do use lockable coops, which isn’t necessarily a given) so you’d probably have to move three of the fences from that paddock all the way to the new cows’ paddock, then bring three of the old cows’ paddock fences back to complete the new chickens’ paddock before letting them out.
You could have sheep in with the cows and some other birds in with the chickens, or sheep in the paddock behind the cows, then goats behind them and turkeys behind the chickens, and pigs in the last paddock or something. I’m just trying to keep this simple to show what I mean by building a couple extra paddocks to save work. Even if the chickens don’t need to be fenced in, considering that the only outside predators that can get in are hawks and eagles anyway, and that chickens will prefer to stay near their nests and the larvae-infested cow manure, it’s probably still easier to have at least one extra paddock behind the cows, as long as building panels isn’t more work than moving them every day. Since some paddocks are bordered by water and houses, the same number of panels won’t always be needed to construct each paddock, but the unused panels should still be moved with the others so that when they are needed they don’t have to be searched for. Like I said before though, the tying and untying of panels is going to be the most time consuming part of this. Moving some panels that aren’t tied to anything to begin with, or that don’t need to be tied back to a tree after they’re moved, isn’t much extra work.
Can Circular Complexes Enclose All Cropland?
If for some reason people wanted to build a complex enclosing all their crops, rather than just their grazing commons, there would need to be significant differences compared to the concept that I already described. Assuming that they’re sticking with the idea of using houses as a perimeter barrier because they want to have less fences to build and less reason to worry about predators, they’d need a lot more houses to enclose 1 acre per person. Even if using slightly longer houses, let’s say 60 feet, and assuming each one houses 4 people, you’d need 608 of these houses connected in a 2.2 mile wide circle. That’s 2,432 people, which is not exactly an ideal size for a primitivist community. Using 34 foot wide circular houses and building extra 26 foot long walls between them would be comparable in resource use too, just like with the smaller version. In this one the halves of the houses cutting into the cropland would only decrease the space by 0.26% (compared to the more significant 4.5% with the smaller one). And if you wanted to use circular dwellings without walls between them, just a ring of circular houses 34 feet wide built close enough to each other to act as a barrier, that would require around 1,900 of them and the community would be nearly 4 miles wide, which is definitely not practical. But these larger communities with several hundred houses could be subdivided into quadrants, eighths, maybe even sixteenths, so that it acts more like a network of communities than one huge one. Focusing on the 2.2 mile wide option, divided into eighths each community would basically occupy its own pizza slice-shaped territory of a little over 300 acres. That way groups of only 76 houses would need to work together, grazing something like 40 cows within a little over a mile of their homes, and all their land would most likely be designed as silvopasture rather than separating cropland and grazing land. This would allow all their land to be manured evenly without having to physically gather and move the manure themselves. I imagine annual crops would still be grown but that succession cycles would just go straight to grasses after 5 or 6 years of crops rather than growing perennial herbs and shrubs. It seems like it wouldn’t be much of a sacrifice to just replace most berries, hazelnuts and chinquapins with fruit trees, tree hazels (also called “trazels”) and chestnuts. Hedges are still a possibility, particularly along boundary lines to act as living fences. I’m not personally a fan of trying that because it just doesn’t seem reliable to me but I could be wrong.
The biggest challenges I see are just keeping the livestock away from the annuals and from young trees if girdling is used instead of coppicing or pollarding. Planted from seed, trees may need 10 years to grow strong enough to handle large livestock disturbances (compared to only a few years from coppice, or zero years from pollarding), which is longer than you’d want to grow annuals before switching to grass, even if interplanted with nitrogen-fixers. One option would be to just harvest hay for a few years before letting the animals back into that paddock/section. With only 40 cows on over 300 acres though, they actually might not cause enough damage to be worth worrying about so much. The density of animals is so much lower that even experimenting with totally free range livestock might be an option at this scale, maybe just leaving all sections that are growing annuals fenced off for the year, as well as the outer boundaries of their pizza slice-shaped territory. There would be 7-8 acres per cow so any damage they cause should be pretty widely diluted. Having some herding dogs around would probably be helpful with that type of setup.
Just like the version that separates cropland from grazing, using shorter cycles would allow a higher proportion of land to be devoted to annuals at any given time. Since the number of food forest sections would be tied to the number of paddocks in this scenario though, it’s worth pointing out that using short cycles would require that there be a few of them simultaneously. Using one long cycle, you’d need to use something like a 45 to 50 year rotation (you need 40 paddocks for grazing plus 5-10 that cows would be excluded from depending on whether coppicing/pollarding or girdling is used). With 10 year cycles you’d probably have 8 of them going on simultaneously, and therefore 80 paddocks/sections. 40 of them would be used for grazing (the last half of each cycle), which means 50 % is used for annuals and 50% for grazing at any given time. With the 50 year girdling cycle it’s 20% for annuals and 80% grazed. The 80 section version would require 8 sections coppiced/pollarded every year (about 30 acres total and between 1500 and 3300 trees depending on spacing, which is about 20 to 44 trees per house) and around 150 acres planted with annuals. The 50 paddock version would require 1 section (about 6 acres) girdled and prepared for planting, and 5 sections (about 30 acres total) planted with annuals, and likely another 5 sections of grasses harvested for hay. So there would be benefits and trade-offs with each approach. I recommended earlier in this book that people should consider planting a lot of trees that they plan to harvest as saplings for building materials and things too, which I’m not counting here. The above estimates are based on the largest trees people will be growing. I assume people would constantly be thinning out smaller trees.
Obviously you could also compromise between the 50 section and 80 section concepts that I just described, say by using 4 cycles coppiced every fifteen years, and 60 sections, which would be one third growing annuals and two thirds being grazed or something. The more sections there are the more pollard trees would be used as fence posts too, and those would all have to be maintained, and the larger the paddocks (the less sections there are) the more fence panels would have to be moved every day, so those factors should be taken into consideration as well. With everyone working together that’s probably only a difference of 1-2 panels per person per day though, and maybe a few hundred feet of extra walking distance. Not too big a deal but it’s always better to try to limit your workload as much as possible.
With a lot of sections and several different cycles of succession going on simultaneously, it might sound like it would be difficult to keep track of the schedule, especially for people who don’t have computers, or even notepads. I don’t think it would be too bad though. The sections with the oldest trees need to be cleared for planting. The annuals will likely rotate consistently from one crop to the next, like corn on the first year, then hemp on the second, then potatoes or something, so they’ll know which sections should be planted with grasses based on which crops were there. Since rows of pollard trees permanently demarcate paddock boundaries, simple signs put up to show each paddock’s number along the animals’ route can act as a reminder of where they should be moved next, etc. Once established, common sense should keep things running pretty smoothly.
It’s definitely not the most practical concept to build complexes that large. The only scenario in which it would really make sense to try enclosing all crops is if neighboring humans are at war with each other. The fear of deer browsing on your shrubs certainly wouldn’t justify it. Any deer herd large enough to pose any significant threat to crops would quickly be culled by hunters. Predators like bears, wolves and mountain lions are the only real threat that we need to totally wall off since they target livestock, and grazing can be done on less than 10% of your land. If other humans are the main threat though, I’d imagine things looking kind of medieval, the outer wall probably as fortified as possible, with the inhabitants using ladders to enter the complex instead of doors or something. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that.
When it comes to larger groups of people, numbering in the thousands, something like the circular arrangement I’ve described above makes a lot more sense to me than clustering everyone into an urban core. There are just too many sanitation and coordination issues, and too many people would have to agree on things for that community to be able to function without authority figures and specialists developing. Plus, people would lose their sense of personal accountability as well. Technically, 10,000 people can live sustainably in 50 acre settlements when surrounded by 10,000 acres of farmland. Mathematically they are still getting everything they need within walking distance (that’s approximately a 4 mile by 4 mile square). That density is probably about as urban as communities should be encouraged to experiment with. Anything larger is almost guaranteed to run into the types of problems that lead societies down the road to degraded land, subjugation, conflict with neighbors and, ultimately, to imperialism. Even with just 10,000 people living this way, the likelihood of this outcome is still pretty high. So even though the math suggests that it is technically a viable possibility, I can’t say I recommend that approach.
Designing Land Use Systems for Self-Sufficiency
When trying to produce the necessities of a local community you need to focus on planting proportionally to a balanced diet, rather than planting what will make the most profit or even the most calories. You also need to consider heating and cooking fuel, building materials, clothing and everything else people need. I can’t say exactly what this will look like in every region, especially considering the size of this book, but having put a lot of thought into my own region I can at least give you my own opinion on what that would look like here (upstate New York). This isn’t an attempt at creating an exact blueprint for others to follow so much as to show an example of one possibility (a subjective and hypothetical one) and to give you a list of considerations that may lead you to favor different possibilities. This will also give me the opportunity to discuss some of the differences between what I’ve described as “most areas” and areas that are a little more challenging. So that said, let me explain my own thought process in a little more detail.
First off, I live in a cold temperate region that tends to get so much rain in early spring as to cut a full month off my growing season. It’s an area greatly impacted by the meandering of the unstable jet stream that comes with a warming arctic, bringing colder air farther south and making our local weather more erratic. Throughout this book I’ve recommended aiming for approximately a one person per acre population density “in most areas.” Nicer areas, like tropical paradises near productive fishing locations, and high enough to protect from flooding, could likely support 2 people per acre pretty comfortably, maybe even more. In colder and drier areas that are considered just barely suitable for agriculture, it might take 3 or 4 acres to support a person. Areas not suitable for agriculture at all are hardly even worth counting. Not to say that those who live by hunting elands with poison arrows, herding reindeer or harpooning seals don’t matter, just that there’s going to be so few people living in those areas that they’ll probably make up less than 1% of the human population. Maybe they occupy enough land to lower the average population density when factored in but the vast majority of humanity will be living in densities between a few people per acre and a few acres per person. In upstate New York, I’d say that one person per acre is probably survivable but one person per acre and a half would be a better target, so we’ll start with that assumption. This is an area that naturally wants to be forest, so we’ll also assume most of our land should have trees at any given time.
One reason for the lower population density is that we need about as much land producing hay for winter feed as we need for pasture. I’d also feel safer giving each cow and calf pair a full acre of pasture (the estimate I used for most areas earlier was 2 milkable cows per acre). That’s a significant difference. Also, I’m of the opinion that most cropland should be planted with chestnuts and oaks. Originally I thought oaks should be left mainly in semi-wild zones with things like pine nuts, beech and sugar maples as more of a backup food source. However, when I put more thought into it I realized that if our main tree crops are chestnuts, hazelnuts and walnuts, and of the three it’s chestnuts that produce the most nutritionally fit staple crop for people to live on, and they’re way less productive than walnuts and hazelnuts, then almost all our land would be growing chestnuts if we wanted a relatively even mixture of nuts in our diets. We nearly lost chestnuts to blight once already, so the idea of a near monoculture of one tree species seems like a really horrible idea. Even with half the trees being nitrogen-fixers and maybe a few percent being fruit trees, as I’d like it to be, it just seems like way too much of one species. Acorns are pretty similar nutritionally and oaks have similar soil preferences so it just makes sense to replace half of those chestnuts with oak trees. That’s my reasoning anyway.
Since we’re trying to set up communities that can live with only Stone Age technology, I’d also like to use long 100 year cycles with the chestnut guild so we can harvest the bark as well. This will lower food yields even more since less land will be used for annual crops. If the first 5 years are used for annuals then a 100 year cycle will have 5% of the land growing annuals whereas a 15 year cycle would be a third of land devoted to annuals. That’s a big difference, probably cutting the calorie yield of that guild by at least half. Since we need to produce hay someplace, I think it makes sense to space out the tree rows in the chestnut guild enough to let grass grow there after the annuals. The ideal scenario would be to produce hay in the 6-25 year old sections and use the next 40 sections for silvopasture. If the trees grow larger and shade out more grass every year then the first 20 years will likely produce about as much grass as the next 40. That means you wouldn’t want the tree canopies to totally close until around year 80 or so, being about two thirds tree cover on year 65. Based on that estimate, tree rows would be at least 50 feet apart, maybe even closer to 80 feet (with American chestnuts. Smaller varieties would have to be planted closer together and continuously thinned until you want the trees to close canopy). This may not be ideal for maximizing productivity but in my opinion it’s the best way to go when all factors are considered. The best option will be a compromise between the most productive, most practical, most convenient, most conducive to human happiness, most humane to livestock, most resilient, most ecologically responsible, most hygienic and most many other things.
For the walnut guild, which will make up about 20% of cropland in this thought experiment, we’ll use a 50 year cycle. Say we’re trying to provide for 100 people with 150 acres, this would be 30 acres broken up into fifty 0.6 acre sections. The reason for using a shorter 50 year cycle is that we’re trying to limit the percentage of our calories coming from walnuts. We’ll do this further by spacing out the tree rows widely and planting 3 rows of hazelnuts between them, something like 10 or 15 feet apart. If you had to, you could even replace a lot of walnuts with butternuts, heartnuts or hickories, which produce on alternate years rather than every year, but producing more calories overall might be preferred to perfect diets. The two hazelnut rows closest to the tree rows could be Jerusalem artichokes or some other perennial herb but we’ll use hazels for all 3 just for simplicity’s sake. Those rows closest to the trees would shade out around year 20, the center hazels producing until at least year 40 I would think. My idea was to try to have the hazelnut and walnut rows each covering about half the land surface at year 25 or 30. With half the plants in each row being nitrogen-fixers, approximately, this would be the equivalent of 25% the productivity of a hazelnut monoculture plus 25% the productivity of a walnut monoculture. It may make sense to plant a different pattern than just nitrogen-fixer, nut, nitrogen-fixer, nut, etc. at the start to maximize production, removing a lot of young trees early on for building poles and things, but, again, let’s just keep things simple for this. From that point walnuts will make up a higher percentage every year, eventually producing 50% of the productivity of a walnut monoculture.
By drawing these out (I’ll spare you any more of my bad drawings) and estimating the percentage of land each crop would cover at any particular time, and by considering when each tree and shrub starts producing and when a monoculture of that crop can potentially reach it’s optimum level of productivity, we can estimate how much each crop will produce and what percentage of our calories would be coming from them. Even though this section is called “some excessive thoughts, tedious math and shameless blueprinting” I won’t waste your time with all the calculations, just the results I came up with. Anyone interested in these ideas should do their own calculations anyway. I just want to give people some ballpark figures so they can get a general idea of what this lifestyle could be like.
Since we’re aiming for a one person per 1.5 acre population density, with 150 acres we want to produce enough for at least 100 people. Based on my calculations, the chestnut guild would feed approximately 0.6 per acre and the walnut guild about 1.46 per acre. Doing the math, that’s enough calories for a little over 115 people (over 2,300 calories per day for each of the 100 inhabitants). It would be better if that number was a little higher, say enough for 150 people, so there’d be a little more of a buffer from bad weather and stupid mistakes. 2,000 calories per day is recommended but 1,500 is enough for most to survive on, especially when averaging all age groups. If production dropped by a third there’d still be enough calories for that, so it looks good enough to me. Closer to 2 acres per person would actually be safer if we can get away with it though. Either way, what are the proportions of those calories?
Based on the drawings that I made and considering how much land the crops are actually covering (basically, if rows cover x %, and half of the row is nitrogen-fixers, and at this age the crops produce this % of their optimum yield, then how many acres of full production is that equivalent to?) at any given time there’d be 9 acres of annual crops (both guilds added together), about 14.25 acres growing chestnuts, 12.47 acres of oaks, 43.2 acres of grass, 4.35 acres of hazelnuts and 6 acres of walnuts. For annuals I’m just estimating 3 people fed per acre, which is a pretty conservative estimate. With several different species and, again, with nitrogen-fixers mixed in, it just seems like a plausible average to me. For chestnuts I’m assuming one per acre, two-thirds of a person for oaks (on average), 2.5 for hazelnuts and 4 for walnuts. For every 2 acres of grass I’m estimating 1 adult cow. To be conservative again, we’ll assume that not all cows are producing milk. It may take heifers 2 or 3 years to produce their first calf, and we have to assume that there are some bulls around someplace, right? Two thirds of adult cows being milkable seems like a good estimate. So using that, we’ll say 14 cows averaging one gallon of milk per day. I should also point out that cows lactate about 10 months per year, and sheep less than that, but an average of 1 gallon per day is still a much lower estimate than most will give you. I just feel like if you’re using hardy breeds and only feeding them grass, you probably should expect lower milk production rates than modern dairy farms. With sheep following cows, most estimates I’ve seen say to expect about 10% of the milk and meat from sheep as you get from the cows (if using the same number of sheep as cows, as seems to be recommended). That’s 15.4 gallons of milk per day total. If culling one sixth of your adult cows every year, as well as 75% of 1 year olds, that’s about 57.5 calories of meat per person per day, which is over 400 calories of meat per week. I honestly don’t like using a husbandry system that culls so many young animals but despite most people assuming that dairy is more humane than meat, it’s basically the cause of the veal industry. Below, when I consider giving everyone a little more land to work with, I’ll describe an alternative that let’s all animals live a few years before being slaughtered. The example I’m using here is still much more humane than the modern veal industry, at least letting animals live outside and keeping calves with their mothers, but it does require most of the bovines’ lives to be cut very short, unfortunately. For chickens, we’ll say there’s 1 per person, even though you could probably get away with twice that. They’d provide about one egg per person per day, and at least a little meat once in a while.
The productivity from ponds is kind of hard to calculate. Ideally there would just be one relatively small pond in each section of the chestnut guild since that’s where the animals are grazing in this scenario, maybe 55’-60’ wide each, taking up less than 5% of the space. Most of their productivity would probably come from the cattails along their edges, which are probably the most productive crop for this region. They alone make up for the 5% loss to cropland, likely feeding 7 people. If the ponds had wavy shorelines to maximize their edge too, there could potentially be a lot more cattails without sacrificing anything else, but I didn’t factor that in. Fish and ducks wouldn’t be expected to produce too much around here, I don’t think. Sustainably harvested, you might get a few pounds of fish and one duck from each pond every year. Ducks might also lay around one egg per week on average, depending on the breed, so in total a little over 25 calories per person per day from all aquatic animals.
Below is a list of each food source in this scenario, the number of calories each person could get from it per day on average and what percentage that is of the total calories.
Annuals- 522 22.4%
Chestnuts- 285 12.2%
Acorns- 166 7.1%
Cow meat- 57.5 2.5%
Sheep meat- 5.8 0%
Chicken meat- 3.1 0%
Cow milk- 327 14%
Sheep milk- 32.7 1.4%
Chicken eggs- 70 3%
Hazelnuts- 217.5 9.3%
Walnuts- 480 20.6%
Cattail- 140 6%
Fish- 10 0%
Duck eggs- 10 0%
Duck meat- 5 0%
To further simplify, in this scenario everyone would get 28.4% of their calories from grains, seeds and tubers (counting cattails), 19.3% from “grain-like nuts”, 29.9% from “nutty nuts”, about 3.5% from meat (counting fish), 3.4% from eggs and 15.4% from milk. That seems like a good balance to me. Meat production is a little low by American standards but as I mentioned above, there is likely enough space for more animals. A lot of people will even say that it’s better for the land to have more animals on it. I’m just not totally confident in the higher estimates. Every region is different so it’s hard to say for sure. I would just recommend using a little more humility in areas like this one where the weather is so unpredictable. You could also use goats and pigs to intentionally devegetate your oldest sections, preparing them for planting the following year. Maybe they’d only cycle through 4 paddocks each year instead of 40, being moved just enough to keep their water clean. That would give at least a few more meals of meat per person per year. I personally just think it would be better as I described it above when all things are considered. Goats and pigs are notorious escape artists, requiring substantial fencing. If they were used to prepare each guild for planting then I imagine that you’d need every single paddock to be permanently fenced with big, solid walls. That’s a lot more building, a lot more maintenance, and for very little gain. The semi-wild areas I’m just totally leaving out of the discussion because a 50’ wide ring around a 150 acre territory would be something like 10 acres and with low-yielding plants that might only give enough calories for a couple extra people anyway. It’s just not really worth worrying about.
Could a circular complex in this climate achieve similar proportions? I think so. It would have to be significantly larger than the 48 family design that I talked about earlier since we’re giving cows twice the space of warmer regions, and grass would also be grown outside the walls for hay. Other than that, it just needs more cropland surrounding it to achieve 1.5 or 2 acres per person total. Playing around with the numbers, I found that 146 houses, each 60’ long, would give you about the same amount of grazing land and hay per person, assuming the enclosed land has a 10 to 1 ratio of grass to water and you gave everyone 2 acres instead of 1.5. This is also assuming the 4 people per house estimate that I’ve been using with all of these. If the enclosed silvopasture is planted with fodder trees, like honey locust, you may be able to get away with less houses, and if some buildings are used as animal shelters instead of human shelters as well then you might be able to get away with only 100 houses, which would make this a little more plausible. The biggest difference between this circular complex and what’s described above is that there’s less overall space being used for ponds since we’re assuming that they’re only mixed in with grazing land, and with the hay fields separate that means that a much lower percentage of land would be used for that in this scenario. You could just mix some more ponds in with your cropland though. Based on my calculations there’s also a significant drop in calories per acre, which is another reason why you’d want this to be closer to 2 acres per person. The main reason for that might just be that I didn’t count any nut trees in the silvopasture. If it was a full 2 acres per person though, you could also get away with the more humane approach to livestock management that I mentioned above, and that I’ll explain a little more below. With a system that tries to maximize dairy production and overall calories it’s only a small handful of cows that are given a relatively normal lifespan, sometimes over 10 years. Most of the rest of the animals however are slaughtered at only 1 year old. No matter how pleasant you make that year for them it still feels pretty wrong to me. So far nothing about this scenario suggests that maximum productivity per acre is our main goal so we might as well sacrifice a little more productivity for the sake of our animals.
By no means am I an expert on this subject but the management system that makes most sense to me is to give all the males about 3 years of life and all the females about 5 years. That may not seem like enough years to be considered the most humane approach but if you give them any more then it seems to me like you have to start culling calves in order to keep your herd at a stable size. In nature, most animals die early. If we try to prevent them from dying early then we can’t let them all live to old age. In my opinion, helping all the calves survive past their first year makes this the most humane method. If others come to the conclusion that it’s better to let some animals live longer than it is to let all the animals live at all then I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree. The way that I prefer yields about half as much milk per acre as the other one, maybe even less considering that it’s possible for more than two-thirds of adult cows to be milkable (with my approach it’s about one third). Surprisingly, the numbers suggest that the more humane approach actually yields significantly more meat, maybe an extra 10% or so, than what I consider to be the less humane approach. It probably yields more leather too. Overall, this seems like the best we can do here when all things are considered. The biggest drawback to this circular complex design is just the fact that it requires so many people in each community.
Can we find a compromise between ideal proportions and ideal scale? It’s worth trying. Smaller complexes will have less land enclosed per person, and therefore less milk and meat per person. Anything less than one serving of milk per person per day should probably be considered inadequate. Something like 50 houses should be large enough to achieve that, at least if using the less humane option for livestock management. That’s about the same size as the 48 house ideal of other regions but in a less productive region like this one it’s far from ideal. No matter what choices we make there are going to be some sacrifices. After reading all this, you may be wondering if the benefits of these complexes are really enough to justify all the extra hassle. Why is it such an important concept for primitivist communities of the future to be set up this way?
If we want to rewild our landscapes and we want people back on the land then we need to feel safe living near large carnivorous animals. Everywhere that people domesticated animals they demonized predators. Having a reliable barrier between domestic and wild animals just seems like the only realistic option for keeping livestock while protecting ecosystems without using modern technology. Therefore, I think circular complexes should be used just about everywhere that apex predators exist, and everywhere they can be reintroduced.
Consider what’s likely to happen if farmland transitioned mostly into small individual homesteads. I imagine the most likely scenario would be that the new inhabitants would inherit relatively even-aged nut orchards and clear a small section every year for annuals as they try to convert it into a diverse mosaic. Theoretically, large-scale farmers could plan out an incremental transition so that new arrivals would have perfect mosaics on their first day, but that’s not likely to happen. If farmland is transitioned at all, it’s going to be done the easiest way possible, probably all contoured and alley cropped at about the same time with no consideration for how practical the layouts are for small-scale production. Over time, new inhabitants can pretty easily tweak the arrangement of trees, planting new ones with their annual fields. If they want to establish a hundred year cycle, they could clear 5 % of their land on year 1, then just 1% per year each year after. That way they’re still producing enough annuals for themselves the first few years. It wouldn’t matter that 5 sections are the same age for the first cycle. A few decades down the road they won’t notice any difference. It will take a long time to become a perfect mosaic but the process isn’t that difficult. The only real challenge to that is the scale of the operation. Individual farms, likely being only 10 acres at most, aren’t really practical for 100 sections, and certainly not the 150 section concept I’ve been describing (with a 100 year chestnut guild and 50 year walnut guild). Sections should be big enough for at least a few mature trees. That could still be solved pretty easily by either using shorter cycles or by teaming up with a few neighbors. Bringing in livestock, however, could be a real challenge in that scenario. They could introduce chickens immediately, just letting them wander around under the tree cover. Several extra chickens per person could make up for the lack of ruminants. If there are any predators around at all though, what’s going to happen? Either the chickens get picked off one by one or the homesteaders systematically track down and kill every carnivore in the area. I would much rather that things not play out that way.
All of this thinking about livestock leads us back to another subject that I want to expand on a little bit. Any hardcore animal rights people who’ve made it this far might be shaking their heads right now, saying to themselves “haven’t all these extra considerations just shown how much more complicated it is to keep livestock? Why doesn’t this guy just promote veganism?”
The Drawbacks of Veganism
A lot of primitivists who try to warn others against adopting veganism focus on their opinions of what diet is healthiest for us. I’m personally not convinced that veganism is dangerous enough to condemn it for health reasons. It seems to me like having at least some meat in your diet is probably better for you but I’m not wasting my time with these subjective arguments. My main issues with vegans come from trying to imagine them living with only local resources and Stone Age technology. It seems possible in a lot of areas but not really ideal anywhere. Why?
- Some areas, particularly arid, semi-arid and very cold regions, aren’t appropriate for crop production, or at least aren’t productive enough to be worth the effort of trying to grow crops there. This means less land for humans to produce food if we all became herbivores.
- For cultivation to be truly sustainable, soil fertility has to be replenished after a few years of growing annuals by letting the land go through succession to become either a forest or grassland ecosystem. During this time, animals can be kept under tree canopies or graze on the grasses, which obviously adds productivity.
- If we have to mimic ecosystems with our farmland to be sustainable then there are going to be animals on our land even if we don’t raise livestock. Healthy ecosystems always include animals. Livestock is more reliable at filling the niche than wild animals and can technically be used only for that purpose rather than for producing food but it would require more land per person to make up for that sacrifice. It would also be less reward for the same amount of work. Wild animals and insects that come onto our land can be hunted or trapped. Not only do vegans miss out on this bonus but if they’re not hunted or trapped they will also damage the crops, which leads to even more land needed per person to make up for it. And if trapped and relocated instead of eaten, that’s also more work for less reward.
- Vegans will only have “humanure” and whatever they can find left by wild animals for fertilizer, so they’ll need longer fallow periods to restore fertility (technically “fallow” in the permaculture sense means growing nuts, fruits and maple syrup but needing a higher proportion of your land to be trees at any given time limits your available options, like coppicing on short rotations for example, which, although more difficult with stone cutting tools, is still an option).
- Water bodies are always better with fish in them to achieve maximum production and limit mosquito outbreaks. Even if not stocked with fish, water attracts frogs, turtles, snakes, beavers, ducks, and other animals, which would be of no use to vegans.
- Animals produce clothing and tools (bones) in addition to food. Hemp and flax are probably the only crops comparable in this regard, and for winter clothing they’re a lot more difficult to work with.
- Diversity is important for our resilience. Prohibiting any food or clothing sources decreases our available options, therefore making us less resilient.
- Animals can do a lot of the work of clearing unwanted vegetation from a piece of land, not just as draft animals that are forced to haul heavy loads and drag plows but simply by leaving them to eat everything and break up the soil surface with their hooves they can leave the land fertilized and ready for planting, which obviously saves a lot of work. They can also be used to control pests, such as ducks eating slugs (converting something we don’t want to eat ourselves into tasty eggs and meat).
*I'm not sure why the above list is showing up darker than everything else. If you're having trouble reading it then just highlight it with your mouse and you should be able to make it out. BlogSpot is just kind of a screwy website, I guess.
For most people, the idea of living in mud huts or growing their own food isn’t as intimidating as the idea of changing their daily bathing regimen. Without being able to buy soaps, shampoos, toothpastes, shaving creams and razors, how do we keep ourselves from rotting away? Won’t we all be ugly and smell and go extinct from not wanting to have sex with each other? It’ll certainly be a big adjustment for people. A lot of us aren’t just used to modern cleansers but have literally gotten our bodies addicted to them. Our skin has actually modified the amount of oil it produces and the rate at which it sheds to accommodate these daily assaults. Some will handle withdrawal better than others but, for the most part, once the withdrawal period is over our bodies will stabilize again. Although we won’t likely find perfect replacements to maintain today’s standard of near sterility, we do have plenty of ways to stay healthy without today’s full arsenal of antimicrobials. Over time our aesthetic will also likely shift as we come to accept people for being a little dirtier, smellier and hairier than we’re used to today.
Natural soaps can be made by mixing wood ash with animal fat, or vegetable oil, and some pleasantly aromatic plants. Hard woods are supposedly better for this than soft woods. You don’t really have to go through the whole process of extracting the lye from the ash though. That is technically the proper method but you don’t really need it to be pretty. You don’t even really need it to be soap necessarily. Wood ash mixed with a little water is enough to clean yourself. Having never made my own soap, I won’t attempt to give an exact formula for it. There are plenty of recipes floating around out there for anyone interested though.
Shaving probably won’t be done as often, or as thoroughly, as most are currently used to. Without metallurgy it just won’t be anywhere near as convenient. The best Stone Age alternatives to razors are flint knapped stone, especially obsidian, and shards of sea shells. Pumice stone can also be rubbed on the skin to remove hair. Depilatory creams can supposedly be produced with things like almond oil and some other types of plants. I’m sure that most regions of the world have sources of waxes and resins that can be used for ripping hair out. Worst case scenario, people can just resort to plucking, maybe even fire if it’s really that important to them.
Keeping teeth clean shouldn’t require anything too fancy. Chewing on one end of a small stick to separate the fibers can create a pretty good brush and charcoal can work well as a toothpaste. I’ve also heard of people using things like sea salt, pumice powder, sand and even ground up cuttlefish bones. Any sort of gentle abrasive should do the trick. Even just brushing dry without any sort of paste can be enough to prevent cavities.
Bathing will likely be a lot less relaxing than what we’re used to. Getting hot water definitely won’t be as easy as turning a knob. I’m sure people will put tons of work into trying to keep their hot showers for as long as they can with rocket heaters, or other wood heaters, solar heaters, or maybe just by heating water in pots on the stove and then transferring that water into elevated buckets that are rigged with shower heads or something. Eventually we’ll be bathing mostly with cold water though, probably outdoors and totally exposed as well. Using some sort of simple sauna before getting into cold water might make that a little more tolerable. I’m sure that, even if our generation never quite gets used to it, those who grow up knowing nothing else won’t mind the cold too much.
Toilet paper substitutes are another puzzle that we need to figure out. Newspapers, junk mail and Bill O’Reilly books will only be around for so long. For most of the year, leaves are probably the most practical option. The types I’ve heard recommended the most are sycamore, mullein, comfrey and catalpa. Catalpa is also a good tree to have around for building, particularly fence posts, being rot resistant like black locust but softer and easier to work with. It also might add a little more nitrogen to the soil than it uses itself, maybe about as much as honey locusts do, but this is still being debated. In the winter you can use snow like a wet wipe. In late fall and early spring people might need to get more creative. One thing I’ve heard of people using is the sides of thick sticks. I honestly don’t know of any more appealing alternatives when there’s no fresh leaves or snow around. Eating a lot of fiber would be a good idea, I guess. Not that I expect that to totally obviate the need to wipe but it should help at least.
For those who can’t imagine life without their morning caffeine buzz or weekend inebriation rituals, they’ll have to find ways of producing their own mind-altering substances if getting everything from nearby. Acquiring caffeine in the northeastern U.S. could be a challenge. The only two possibilities for this region that I’ve come across in my research are Sochi tea and Yaupon holly, and both of them are only in the “maybe” category, preferring significantly warmer conditions. If global warming continues to raise average temperatures in this part of the world (this is actually one of the few areas that may be getting colder for a while) then they’ll likely become easier to grow. We do have other tea substitutes, like New Jersey tea, which is also a good nitrogen-fixing shrub, wintergreen, bee balm, pine needles and dandelion root, but they’re all caffeine-free unfortunately.
Beer can be produced anywhere that barley and hops can grow. And actually, even hops aren’t really needed for it. Pretty much any fruit can be used to make alcohol as well. Making it with Stone Age technology will take some getting used to but it can be done. Native Americans used to brew a less alcoholic corn beer, called chicha, using only earthenware vessels.
Contrary to what many believe, cannabis doesn’t need a tropical or California-esque climate to grow. There are many strains bred for many regions. Around here it’s best to use early flowering Indica strains, like Early Misty and Holland’s Hope. Those who prefer the more energizing high of slower growing Sativa strains might just be shit out of luck when greenhouses and artificial growlights are no longer viable options. I’d like to see more growers experimenting with getting clothing fibers and seeds for food out of the same strains they use for resin, but that’s a bit of a challenge right now for obvious reasons. When you can grow thousands of plants it’s not as important to have such high THC levels as when you have to get all your buds from just a handful of plants. Hashish made from hundreds of relatively low THC plants can have an effect comparable to smoking the higher grade premium buds from these crazy mutant freak laboratory strains that the drug war has encouraged growers to create. Trying to develop more multipurpose strains would help limit the amount of land that we’re farming. I know a lot of hippies have been spreading this belief that hemp is good for the earth but it’s really just another example of being less bad than the status quo. It’s not a perennial nitrogen-fixer or anything. It’s an annual. The fact that it’s gentler on soil than GM corn and that it’s less dependent on fertilizers and pesticides doesn’t mean that we should cover the entire world with it. I have heard that producing hempcrete (a hemp-based substitute for concrete) is “carbon negative” but even that doesn’t mean that the more hemp we produce the healthier the planet is going to be when everything is accounted for. However, it is hard to imagine any place not being better off with some hemp growing nearby than without it.
Psychedelic mushrooms aren’t too common in the northeast. You may be able to find/introduce some psilocybe semilanceata, also known as “liberty caps”, or psilocybe cyanescens. Another option for local psychedelics is morning glories. Supposedly, the effect of ingesting 100 to 400 seeds (about 20 gams) of the “pearly gates” or “heavenly blue” varieties is similar to taking LSD, which is renowned as one of the best psychedelics anywhere, probably beaten only by ayahuasca and DMT. And I’ve heard that some types of daylilies can be used to get a slightly hallucinogenic effect but I don’t know enough about that to say any more about it.
For those addicted to sugar, we can’t grow sugar cane or stevia but we do have maple syrup, honey, sugar beets and sweet cicely. Sweet cicely looks dangerously similar to poison hemlock so anyone who decides to grow it should be aware of that. These substitutes won’t allow us to create perfect replacements for Hershey’s bars or Ring Dings with local ingredients but they are sweet. Some substitutes are about as good as the things they’re replacing, like staghorn sumac berries instead of lemons for “lemonade”, but no matter how well people prepare, they will have to adapt their tastes to the flavors of their bioregions to some extent.
Tobacco is not a drug that I’m a fan of but a lot of people are addicts and it can be grown here so I have to at least mention it. Laws around growing it may be a serious hindrance but fear of nicotine withdrawal shouldn’t automatically lead anyone to believe they need industrial civilization, at least not here.
One more that I want to mention, even though it doesn’t really fit with the other plants I’ve brought up, since it’s not used as a drug, is yew. In an earlier chapter I mentioned a couple times how annoyed I was that so many people choose yew trees for landscaping. Not only is it not edible, it’s poisonous! Ironically, this seemingly useless characteristic is what makes yews a little useful to have around. They can be used to make poison for darts and arrows. And in the past, their wood was renowned for making some of the best bows. I still can’t say that this justifies surrounding ourselves with yews but since they are around, it’s good to know what they can be used for.
Well, that pretty much covers it. There is more to consider when trying to get everything you need from your own local territory, like natural medicines and sources of salt. Most existing books on rewilding and wildcrafting already do a pretty good job with that though. It makes more sense for me to just recommend that people pick up a couple of those books than to try to summarize everything here myself. It’s not enough to just list plants and their possible uses. Proper preparation methods require significant explanations that really shouldn’t be glossed over. I will at least mention that without salt mines adequate amounts of sodium can be obtained from meat, animal blood, dairy, eggs, boiled down (or evaporated) salt water and even some plant sources, like carrots, celery and artichokes (not Jerusalem artichokes). It can also be extracted from the roots of Hickory trees, although it will look more like a black goo than the nice white table salt that we’re all so used to. The only medicines I would add to the lists in other books that I’ve seen are cannabis oil and cannabis juice, which I already mentioned earlier, and resveratrol from the roots of Japanese knotweed.
I was also tempted to make some detailed diagrams of the larger circular complexes and pizza slice-shaped subdivisions with their 50 to 80 paddocks and little red arrows showing the animals’ grazing route and all the ponds and everything else but it’s not really different enough from the other designs that I’d expect anybody to have trouble figuring it out themselves from the description. I had actually put a lot of thought into the problem of having annual plants mixed in with grazing paddocks, trying to come up with ways of skipping those paddocks so the animals wouldn’t destroy everything. It was kind of a waste of time though. First off, it wouldn’t be difficult to design a paddock system with lanes. Most graziers already do that. I was just trying to avoid using lanes because they require more fencing. Lanes do make things a lot easier though, even without growing annual crops in some paddocks, they could make replacing dead trees much less of a headache. With an ideal circular community the lanes could be a couple concentric rings and maybe another path connecting them together. Imagine a dartboard where the double and triple rings are lanes between paddocks, only instead of the boxes narrowing into sharp slivers as you move inward there would just be less boxes, so something like 24 paddocks on the outside, 12 in the middle and 6 in the center. The bullseye could be a pond that the inner 6 paddocks share and maybe instead of trying to have every other paddock directly connected to a pond you could just use the lanes to give your animals paths to water sources that they use for a week at a time. Maybe one or two paddocks in each ring could be used for fish ponds instead of grass or something. With the pizza slice-shaped subdivisions you could just use one triangular “ring” for a lane instead of two concentric circles. It really shouldn’t be too big a deal. Also, there are people who herd groups of hundreds of animals many miles without fences, single handedly, and in areas patrolled by the largest predators to still exist on this planet. Worrying about getting 30 to 40 cows into a paddock a few hundred feet away is kind of ridiculous, especially with so many people sharing the workload. They could literally keep each one on a leash, walking them like big dogs. Being concerned with such minor issues just shows how intimidating it can be to try a new lifestyle. I’m hoping these extra thoughts will clarify some ideas and help encourage people to try new things instead of just adding to the intimidation. I basically just wanted to show that there are a lot of options to choose from even though there are general guidelines we should all be following.