Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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Multiple Sources in Permaculture (1999)

**Multiple Sources.** *(I don’t even remember what I wrote this for or where it appeared!)*

One of the principles of permaculture design is called ‘each important function is supported by many elements’ or put more simply ‘Multiple Sources’. In the light of the current situation with Foot and Mouth disease, it offers us some very relevant insights. The country has been brought to a near standstill by a disease which, according to the UK Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, the affected sheep, pigs and cows would shake off in two to three weeks if allowed to live. However, in our highly intensive agricultural system the resultant loss of milk yield makes the difference between a farm being viable or going bankrupt, and in a country where almost all of the agriculture is based on hoofed animals, principally cows, this makes the difference between Celtic Tiger and recession.

The principle of ‘multiple sources’ basically means that the more elements we can put in place to support an important function, then the more stable and secure the whole system will be if any one element fails. Woodlands for example get their water from a range of sources, from the ground, from the dew, from the rain, from mists, and they store water in the thick spongy humus rich soil, in the moss on the bark, in their leaves. They aren’t dependent on a hosepipe. We can apply this principle in many situations.

One example is in heating a house. We could design a house which is entirely dependent on oil central heating. Or we could design a house which draws as much fuel as possible from the sun, stores it in the house using thermal mass and good insulation, uses solar panels to heat hot water and a solid fuel stove as back-up. At a time when home heating oil costs twice what it did last year and the problems with fossil-fuel generated climate change are only too obvious this makes a lot of sense.

We could be dependent on the tasteless imported apples that fill our supermarket shelves or we could begin replanting orchards of traditional Irish varieties, creating beautiful diverse orchards, rediscovering a pride in the wide array of delicious tastes in Irish apple varieties. The Irish Seed Savers Association in County Clare are doing vital work in saving and revitalising old Irish apple varieties and now have around 38 varieties.

In our own gardens, ‘multiple sources’ is a very useful principle. Who says a salad is a few lettuce leaves, a slice of tomato and a slice of cucumber? There is a huge variety of delicious, easy to grow salads available to gardeners, from the gorgeous Lollo Rossa lettuce to the mustardy Texel Greens or the crisp and refreshing Mizuna, with its beautiful feathery leaves. In the tradition of what in the 187th century were called ‘sallets’, we can mix perennial herbs such as lemon balm, Good King Henry and sorrel with edible flowers such as borage, marigolds and nasturtiums, even the young leaves of trees such as lime, to create delicious salads brimming with health and diversity. If the slugs eat all your lettuce then its no longer such a problem!

In the summer month our gardens can use a lot of water. In many places this is becoming an ever bigger problem and the need to reduce our water consumption is becoming a big issue. If our only source of water for the garden is a hosepipe, then we will invariably use a lot of water. We can, however, diversify the ways in which we get water into the landscape, using ponds and swales to trap and store water moving through the landscape, increasing the water holding capacity of the soil by increasing its levels of organic matter, or by using mulches which increase water retention.

I hope the above examples give an idea of what ‘multiple sources’ means in practice. Its relevance can be seen in many spheres of life. If a town is completely dependent on one source of employment be it car manufacturing, steel, coal mining or, to return to the topical example I began with, cow-based agriculture, and that source of employment disappears, the results are devastating, as communities around the world will testify. Surely it is much more sensible as well as sustainable (in all of the word’s many meanings)to begin now to apply this concept in the design of anything, from the scale of our towns and surrounding areas down to our own backyards. As Edmund Burke said “never, no never, did Nature say one thing and Wisdom another