Fundamental Land Design Basics

Writing and Images by Nick Lake
February / March 2016

Ecosystem resilience becomes the goal in an economy that is forced to transition because of natural disaster. When designing for the worst, we aren’t being pessimistic; we are simply being realistic and holistic. What are the extremes of the planet? If climate is changing, and tectonics will adjust, then almost all options of climate are fair possibilities at any given time in any given place. We as a species of humanoid mammals are now faced with making decisions that will impact generations of future earth dwelling organisms. One of our holistic goals must be to create long lasting systems that our great grandchildren will look back on and say, “I am so glad they did this great work back then.” But what work can we do that will create this response?

Terraforming :: Planetary reconstruction to establish habitable conditions.

Eden is not far away. The organisms that will thrive on the earth of tomorrow are already here. We simply need to create conditions that will accommodate their needs. If we reflect upon the fundamental requirements for life, our starting point becomes clear rather quickly.

Water :: Water is the key to all life. Water is the miracle agent that holds the resonance of life intact. Water is the fundamental medium of thriving organisms. If we must go further into the physics of reality to find a fundamental constituent of wholeness, we stumble upon gravity.

Water and Gravity :: Local conditions are always variable, but water and gravity are keys to a fundamental pattern. Land design will always depend upon the context of the place, but of all existing conditions to consider, water and gravity will determine the primary design features of a landscape built for life. Water is the tool that will demonstrate gravity. Water will find its own level. Water will flow down until it is held up. If water is held up on the mountain in various forms of catchment basins, it will flow in to the soil rather than down over the surface of the soil. Soil is the safest, most long term, and most life-beneficial place to store water. If we are able to strategically “defy gravity” by holding water up high, we will find new places to store water in the land. If we observe the full cycle of water, we will see it is the magician of anti-gravity already.

Sea level is our definition of ground level zero, a boundary condition of gravity as defined on earth. As it turns out, the surface of the sea is quite a vibrant ecosystem with some amazing capabilities. Paraphrasing from Stephen Harrod Buhner from his book Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm, in a section called “Clouds, Rain, and Bioprecipitation” (p.145), water has been able to nurture life on the surface of the ocean (surface plankton: microalgae, and the bacteria that live on them), and these organisms can raise the temperature of the air and water at the surface of the ocean by alchemizing the energy of the sun and releasing a warm gas of dimethyl sulphide (DMS). This extra heat results in thermal updrafts, which can build in concentration to the point that a density gradient is formed, and wind is created. This wind will create waves, and as the waves crash and splash, white caps and sea foam will form. Tiny water droplets filled with these microalgae and bacteria organisms are caught in their own thermal updraft columns and are lifted into the upper atmosphere to form clouds. Anti-gravity magick? Buhner quotes Myra Hird, who quotes Lynn Margulis commenting “the biosphere as superorganism arises as an emergent property of complex symbiotic durations” (Hird, Indifferent Globality, 60). It is the complex collaborative achievement between water, bacteria, and sun (and the rest of the complex biosphere of Gaia as a whole) that results in this levitation. The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.

Once in the high atmosphere, the bacteria and other microorganisms enable the formation of ice upon these micro biome nuclei from the sea (ice-nucleating agents), acquiring more and more moisture until a density threshold is reached. Gravity then asserts its power, and the water begins to fall as ice, then as rain. Bioprecipitation - a microbial inoculation from ocean to land (fungal spores can also find their way into the clouds and be carried great distances before raining down on their new territory). (Buhner, Plant Intelligence and the

Imaginal Realm, Bear & Co., 2014).

Gravity gives context to our idea of “level.” If a table is not level, a round ball placed on the table will roll off. In the same way, if land is not level, an abundance of water will roll down and off the land, back to sea level. Because water is our “universal solvent,” it dissolves the land as it flows, and carries soil nutrients away from farms and into waterways and the ocean, lost to the land. I live on the West Coast of the United States, where it is said we are in a drought. This context could be looked at differently, and has been by many who are saying that rather than a drought problem, we have a problem with water runoff. Drains, gutters, impermeable surfaces, and dry hydrophobic soil conditions are draining the water that falls on the land away, straight back to sea level. Thermal energy (from the thermal columns), potential energy (of the ice crystals suspended in the clouds), and kinetic energy (of the falling and draining water) are all lost in ignorance when we let this miraculous process go to waste. And worse, when the water runs away it takes the minerals it was meant to unlock for organisms living on the land with it.

We must not underestimate the agency of water. Its properties are still mysterious to our science. It has found a way to bring itself high into the air, until our other mysterious force gravity takes its hold once again. It is only natural that, as the human consciousness grows, we will recognize the need to support these desires of water to spread its territory to the dry realms of the land. Storing water high upon the mountains and slowing its flow down from there is among the highest forms of biotechnological solutions for supporting life the earth has yet devised. Slow it, Spread it, Sink it: a famous phrase of the permaculture movement that we must all take to heart and to hand.

Solutions: The way to solve the issue of runoff is to consider how we can combat gravity in order to support water’s mission to get high and saturate the land. We must safely and smartly capture water on our landscapes and store it in the soil, while preserving the integrity of our built infrastructure. These are not mutually exclusive options. There are many design systems we can incorporate into our landscapes that perform these functions. These include use of:

  • Terraces
  • Swales and berms
  • Ponds
  • Rain gardens
  • Mulch
  • Soil biology
  • Storage tanks
  • Thick vegetation
  • Soil carbon
  • Well structured wetlands
  • Permeable surfaces
  • Contour gardening
  • Check dams
  • Beaver dams
  • Keyline design
  • Trees (roots, shade, humidity regulation, land stabilization)
  • Dynamic and holistic planned grazing of mega fauna
  • Lots of little holes in the landscape

All of these are design elements that also support the production of food. The solutions for every land site will be different, depending on the context of the site: climate, slope, infrastructure, soil type, current land use, location in the context of the larger watershed... The goal is for zero runoff. Where the rain falls, let it stay. This is local management, and we need these developments to be functionally applied to our local systems on a broad scale, now. I invite you into participation with the local watershed. May the water be with you. Blessings.