Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Carel Struycken has long been interested in the principles in ermaculture not only as it relates to growing fruits and vegetables but also in the perspective he takes on most human activities.
Struycken, who has lived in Pasadena for the past 25 years, is an actor who played Lurch in the Addam’s Family, as well as roles in Star Trek, Men in Black, Witches of Eastwick, and others. He was born in Holland, and grew up in Curacao in the Caribbean, and moved back to Holland at age 15. We meet on the eve of move to Catalina Island, to discuss his efforts at home food production and permaculture.
He shows me the bible of permaculture, Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designers Manual which details a way in which we can grow food and live with the land in accord with nature’s principles. (“ermaculture” is a coined term meaning “permanent agriculture.”)
“The whole idea of permaculture is to put in as little work as possible, and allow nature to find its balance,” says Strucken, who produced all the vegetables for a family of 5 for many years using these principles.
“I’m also a big fan of Fukuoka, author of ‘The One Straw Revolution.’ If I had the time, I’d love to go to Japan and work on his natural farm, and work there and learn about his methods,” says Struycken.
Both Mollison and Fukuoka are advocates of natural farming, which means planting what is appropriate for the area, tilling as little as possible, letting all the leaves and old plants serve as fertilizer for the new plants, and using natural methods for bug control.
Using permaculture methods, Struycken grew lots of Asian greens, mostly those members of the mustard family that had the highest nutritional value. He grew herbs, tomatoes, yard-long beans, and 14 fruit trees.
His yard is terraced with cement rubble, pieces of old cement walkways that have been neatly stacked to form impressive and long-lasting walls using a material that is normally discarded. He also experimented with raised beds because the soil in his garden area was so bad.
The smaller the plot, the harder it is to practice permaculture methods. Still, Struycken never raked up and discarded leaves. Under his avocado tree, he allowed the leaves to accumulate into a thick layer of mulch. “The layer of avocado leaves is well over a foot thick, and when you look into the bottom of the pile, it is all naturally producing rich soil,” he explains.
All the kitchen scraps are recycled in many compost heaps, and he worked at cultivating the earthworms that naturally occurred in his yard so that they would do the tilling that farmers ordinarily do.
He purchased ladybugs years ago since they eat the “bad” insects, and he found that the ladybugs like the fennel plants. So the secret to keeping ladybugs around is to grow fennel, explained Struycken.
Permaculture does not involve raking away leaves or garden scraps, but using them for the next generation of fertilizer. Although Struycken has tried to produce all of his needed fertilizer from his own back yard, he has found the need to occasionally bring in chicken and horse manure for his crops. “I stopped using the horse manure, though,” he says, “since I found that it produced too many weeds.”
“I was always amazed that I never had to do anything to my lettuce, and it was always perfect. The ecosystem took care of itself,” explained Struycken. He said that though there were many spiders and bugs in the garden, whatever bugs that ate his lettuce got eaten by some other bug. This is one of the basic principles of permaculture – that nature, largely left alone, will find its own balance.
Struycken, who has been in the movie business for about 30 years, wants to do a series of documentaries where he shows sustainable communities throughout the world so that the principles can be preserved for others to learn from.
“The Amish are the most successful sustainable farmers and they are using early 18th Century technologies,” he says with a smile.
Struycken pauses to explain the difference between paleolithic and neolithic in order to make a point.
“Humanoids have been around for at least a million years,” he explains, “and modern humans have been here maybe 500,000 years. The paleolithics were the hunter/gatherers, and the neolithics were those who were settled in one place and who began agriculture,” says Struycken.
“When we settled, we had to make the effort to force ourselves into the new mindset, but our true nature is paleolithic,” Struycken explains. He then shares a few comparisons to make his point.
The paleolithics lived in the here and now, they were more primitive by our standards, but they controlled their populations, had fewer taboos and laws, had less possessions, and managed to live on what the forest provided. He cites the Bushmen of the Kalahari as an example.
“Now, when you had agricultural and cow-raising people who lived adjacent to the primitive people, the Bushmen would rarely die of hunger, though the agricultural people would die of hunger. This is because the agricultural people learned to rely on, and expect, much more. When cattle died, due to drought, for example, the agricultural people suffered far more than the Bushmen. The farmers also had to work a lot harder, usually 7 days a week, whereas hunter/gatherers worked maybe 3 days a week.”
Struycken cites the Bushmen and many others to illustrate that one of our “problems” is that we are so advanced that we have lost our primal paleolithic nature. Today, systems for gardening, farming, commerce, building, etc., are all essentially neolithic and therefore unsustainable into the future, according to Struycken.
In this sense, Struycken believes that the details of our very survival can be gleaned by looking to the past at the details of sustainable societies. Struycken is optimistic, idealistic, and believes that the solution to our problems is to properly understand the living principles of (so-called) primitive peoples.
Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere,” and a proponent of self-reliance in the wilderness and urban environments. He can be contacted at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or www.ChristopherNyerges.com