Laine MacTague | The urban ecology almanac

Laine-MacTague kickin backJanuary of 2015 was, to my knowledge, the first time an American robin found this little yard of sufficient interest to warrant a visit:

I know so little about what will change a bird’s mind. Is the robin slumming? Lost? Or perhaps he stopped in the avocado tree because while passing over, heading for lands better known to him, he noticed the thick, damp mulch under the “ditch orchard” – a single row of fruit trees on an 8’-wide strip of land, bordered on the south by a cinder block wall, and on the north by a v-shaped drainage ditch. The north side of the ditch forms a base for 12 vertical – and roughly 22 horizontal – feet of terraced, south-facing ground.

Bird activity comes in waves. I am sure Odin ordered things this way so there is time to make a fresh cup of tea now and then. O Beneficent Creator, thank you.

I am reminded that I have yet to plant a tea plant, or two, in this yard. In light of the considerable amount of calories I get from tea, this strikes me as a serious design implementation failure on my part.

On my way in to make tea, I prune mildewed leaves from a perennialized ruby red Swiss chard that I never planted. There are many around the yard. They more or less never stop producing tasty, notably salty leaves, but it can be challenging to tell the mildewed from the healthy when I am picking dinner salad after dark. So I prune as I walk by. It takes far less time to do than it does to write about it – basically none. And it saves me far more time later, separating leaves. I toss the less desirable ones to the well-contented chickens as I go in. Planning and design. Allen’s hummingbird, turkey vulture.

Tea, like chard, is a perennial experience. I am supposed to be talking about January. Here, one of the main things I do in January is make sure the Santa Ana winds don’t dry out and kill the burgeoning cover crops I sowed in the evening before the second rain of the season – which this year, was in December. With luck and the powder stays dry, the newer orchards on the terraces will have living, self-repairing mulch by late spring. Nitrogen-fixing mulch. Pollinator & predator insect-housing mulch.

Some sort of wren I fail to identify. Eurasian collared dove. Cessna Citation.

A large flock of gulf fritillaries.

The gulf fritillary is a smallish, orange-ish beast that produces ubiquitous gray- and maroon-striped caterpillars. They are passionate about the passionfruit vine I propagated from samples pulled from an overgrown fence on a roadside in Somis. I shower behind a trellis covered by it and eat the creepy blood red pulpy seeds found inside the soft, felty, peach-colored fruits. The fritillaries eat the nectar from the ornate flowers, and their caterpillars eat – well, the rest. There goes my shower screen. And then they become more fritillaries, which brighten the yard like any flappy, mobile, showy, orange flower might. The screen rejuvenates itself. I shower amidst passionflower, butterflies, and fruit, watering as I go. Planning and design.

Perhaps one of the ways in which the Mediterranean climate – at least this one, here in coastal southern California – is unique, is that in winter, things happen quickly. Winter is a bit like spring. Rain falls, and seeds that have lain quiescent in ground, either baked and dry, or inundated with chemical-laden municipal water, suddenly explode into burgeoning greenery – which then grows slowly, in the short and relatively cool days. Fruits ripen – bananas and tangerines were heavy this January – and the tender new plant shoots join them in attracting hungry animal life.

The snowbound might be amazed, too, at wintertime insect activity in this habitat. Which – along with the greenery and the fruit – intensify bird activity.

Mediterranean. Municipal. Habitat.

Month by month, I want to tell a year-long story about applying permaculture on land. The land in question is an urban tract, with an urban tract home on it, surrounded by wide paved roads with other urban tract homes along them. It is in close proximity to all manner of natural microhabitats: The Ralph’s mall is less than two miles away as the mourning dove flies – though they seldom go there. The Nancy Bush Memorial Park is less than a mile off; California towhees lurk in Nancy’s bushes. A scant league southwest lies CMA airport and all the rich variety that lies within its borders. Think red-tailed hawk, think killdeer. Weep for the absence of the American and pied avocets, and numerous diving & dabbling ducks, lost to that place when the wetlands were drained in the early ‘80s, presumably to protect human pilots from harm caused by impact with those other flyers who know of flight in ways we struggle to comprehend.

These are all natural environments. There is nothing else, for we and our built environments, like the beaver and its built environments, are a part of this world. Perhaps the prevalence of contrary belief is an unconscious social attempt to justify thoughtless treatment of our human-dominated environments; if they are not part of nature, if we are not part of nature, then can we not do with our “developed areas” as we will, without regard for how our choices affect “nature”?

Anna’s hummingbird. Black Phoebe.

There may be small portions of the planet that are not yet human-dominated, but little if any of it remains uninfluenced by humanity. During a permaculture design course I attended at Quail Springs, I heard that the mothers’ milk of the Greenland Inuit carried some of the highest levels of chemical tainting of mothers’ milk measured the world over. Urban and industrial activity on this planet has repercussions at its farthest reaches.

It is vital that we begin to think of where we live as habitat, and lavish the love and care upon it that we tend to reserve solely for the most beautiful & remote wildernesses.

We don’t need to exclude ourselves from either of these valuable habitats to save them – or ourselves. We need only make our presence regenerative. Permaculture, with its basis in Earth-supporting ethics, is an ideal design system for accomplishing that.

American goldfinch. Bushtit!

The urban environment may be the largely unrecognized low-hanging fruit: There are many, many people here, impacting the environment. Which means that there is the potential for many, many people here to impact the environment in a regenerative way. Our municipal systems have been designed with a dearth of thought and observation, many of them limping along in spite of glaring errors that a few simple changes in perspective can shed light upon, and for which permaculture design can likely provide solutions. I seek to rejuvenate, to revivify urban ecosystems. I am starting by applying permaculture design within my own backyard. (I’ve got my eye on the rest of the city.)

Which is why I sit in this backyard, several mornings a month, and watch. One of the basic principles of permaculture is the use of careful observation and thoughtful interaction. One of the things I observe is bird life. Yellow-rumped warbler. House wren.

Late in 2011 I had just started making small changes to this property. As a wildlife biologist, I was trained to observe as a means of data collection. I wanted to see how the changes I make on this small chunk of land – about a 10th of an acre – affect animal diversity. I started cataloging all the animal and plant life on the property, and recording, in particular, first sightings. In 2015, I still found myself adding almost one bird a month to the list. I added five more in 2016: Tennessee warbler, warbling vireo, hairy woodpecker, black-headed grosbeak, brown-headed cowbird. My 2011 list included 20 birds. The 2017 list numbers 73.

To help put that into perspective, San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge has about 225 species. It covers 30,000 acres; about 300,000 times the size of the land I am working on. Several refuges of similar and smaller sizes are visited by about 200 birds. The 2.6-square-mile Wapack NWR boasts 81 species. Sitting on my Aldo Leopold commemorative bench (did you know Aldo Leopold designed a bench?), in my roughly 87’ X 60’ backyard, I’ve spotted 73 bird species. Some are merely passing by, but the majority actually perch on plants that I planted. Eat bugs I want them to eat. Nest in the dragonfruit growing over the outdoor shower. Brighten my day.

It is clear that in 2011, I missed a few – perhaps several – of the bird species then visiting this area. It is equally clear that as this backyard habitat changes as a result of alterations I make in the process of engaging in continuous, permaculture-guided reciprocal interaction with it, more and more avian passers-by become short-term residents and even nesters. Something is working.

In 2010, Laine MacTague was applying his ecological/biological understanding (and personal values) to the process of landscaping investment homes. With the relief of a cross-country hiker discovering a footpath going his way, Laine encountered permaculture and completed his PDC at Quail Springs Permaculture in 2012. He also holds degrees in wildlife biology and literature and is published in both fields. The constants in his life are learning and teaching/facilitation. Currently in urbania, he is interested in a pattern language for Mediterranean urban home permaculture and is experimenting with methods of resource cycling, energy production, small animal management, water management, hardscape construction, and other aspects of sustainable urban living. The tenth-acre he lives on echoes his study, his work, his teaching; cherries and guava, prickly pear and bananas, white sage and chocolate mint. He is pleased to have had great success reintroducing native small animals into this home ecological system. His urban ditch orchard is pictured above.



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