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Monday, 20 August 2012

Close to the Edge

 "A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace,
And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace,
And achieve it all with music that came quickly from afar,
Then taste the fruit of man recorded losing all against the hour.
And assessing points to nowhere, leading ev'ry single one.
A dewdrop can exalt us like the music of the sun,
And take away the plain in which we move,
And choose the course you're running."

Todays post starts a little unusually with some 1970's prog rock, I picked a short version of Close to the Edge by Yes, I'll explain the relevance in a minute...

I'm talking about permaculture again and wild food foraging.  What's that got to do with THE EDGE I hear you ask.  Having traveled a little to other parts of Italy recently in the name of permaculture, a friend coined the new term 'permaculturing around', I realised that I am in a very privileged position in living in an area with an enormous variety of edible plants.  I find some 150 different species of edible and/or medicinal wild plants during the course of a year within an hour's walk from my home.  I had always put that down to the favourable climate of Italy in general compared to the more northern climes where I grew up, but it turns out that we live on a special place within Italy and I started wondering why.

One of the main objectives of permaculture is that we observe nature, see how ecology works and then apply those principles to our designs, because nature does not need any outside intervention and is therefore self-sustaining.  Wild food foraging is a great exercise in observation.  You start to look around you much more and seeing things you normally miss.  Soon you start realising that certain plants prefer certain conditions such as micro-climates, soil conditions, the way they often associate with other plants and how those plants can in fact be an indicator of existing conditions.  One of the main observation you start making is that you find the greatest biodiversity on 'edges'.

It makes perfect sense of course once you start thinking about it:

If you go into the middle of a forest there is only little light available so you won't find many ground covering plants, whilst in the middle of an open field you will find that certain herbs and grasses will quickly dominate the scene.  However if you look at where the two meet you will find the greatest biodiversity, not only of plants, but also of animals.  There is more light available then in the woods, also the forest acts as a windbreak, catching seeds and organic material on the edge and animals normally at home in either of the two environments will occasionally come to the edge where they can feast on the greater diversity of the plants.  In addition a number of species evolve that specialise in colonising the edges of different biotopes, meaning that on the edge there is a greater variety of life than the combined sum of the two.  This is known as the 'edge effect'.

There are many more examples for the edge effect.  Where water meets land, land animals come to drink, fish catch flies, predators eat both and frogs are happy inbetween.  There are aquatic, semi-aquatic and land plants meeting at the same place and all the animals that go with them.  This happens next to lakes:


...and of course by the sea.  Then we have have mountains meeting valleys:

or the edge of a path.  Water runs off the path giving an opportunity for many plants to flourish on the side of the path.  Sometimes the seeds hitch a ride with whoever goes along the path:

Or you may even have several edges meeting at the same time, such as wood, land and water.

Any birdwatcher worth their salt knows that the greatest variety of birds are found in river estuaries, where the river meets the sea.  There are seasonal 'edges': spring and autumn edge around the poorer seasons of summer and winter.  In short edges is where things tend to happen in nature.

Now coming back to where I live.  Within a radius of about 25km as the fly crows... the cry fl...flow cries... around here we have two major mountain ranges of up to 2,000m altitude, the Appenines and the Apuan Alps, we have the Ligurian Sea and the sheltered Gulf of La Spezia, 2 river valleys meeting just below us, the Vara and the Magra, which combine to exit into the Mediterranean and we have extensive woodlands all around us.

If you imagine flying towards us, as you come in from the sea, which is in a general southerly direction of us, you follow up the wide river delta and the hill we live on is the first one you encounter, rising up to 300m.  Should you fly further upriver along either river, you will find the valleys narrowing directly afterwards, giving rise to a much more continental climate within only a few kilometres.  Uphill from us, you'd be flying above a complete cover of chestnut and oak woods.

So we get all the species of all those different biotopes as well as the edge species, cormorants and eagles, saltwater fish and freshwater fish, woodland edge species and plants that like growing in the open, migrating birds such as bee-eaters and passing flamingos and all that goes with it.  And of course aforementioned wild plants.

And that's the reason I live at such a privilegded place.  Also the farmers around us are mostly small-scalle subsistence farmers growing crops mostly for own consumption.  That means few chemicals are used, there are many edges between relatively small plots of land, vegetables are interplanted within vineyards and olive groves, little machinery is used and a lot of natural ground cover plants are allowed to flourish amongst the cultivated fields.  Sometimes cultivated crops are allowed to go to seed and sow themselves out, becoming part of the general flora.  Examples are alfalfa, which is sown as nitrogen fixing cover crop like this one on the edge of a wall:

this Jerusalem artichoke, which has long seized to be a cultivated crop in Italy since the introduction of the potato in Italy:

or this sow thistle just on the edge of a pavement in downtown Milan, surviving on the little dirt which accumulates by the side in a little crack away from the pounding feet of pedestrians:

"Down at the edge, round by the corner,
Not right away, not right away.
Close to the edge, down by a river,
Not right away, not right away."
 If, incidentally you are wondering what that Yes song is all about, apparently it was inspired by Herman Hesse's novel Siddharta, a story telling the life of a young Brahmin in India during the time of the Buddha.  He spends his whole life trying to find himself and the meaning of life until he finally settles down as a ferryman by the edge of a river, where he finds peace and wisdom by observing the ever-flowing, ever-changing yet un-changing river.

 "Crossed the line around the changes of the summer,
Reaching out to call the color of the sky.
Passed around a moment clothed in mornings faster than we see.
Getting over all the time I had to worry,
Leaving all the changes far from far behind.
We relieve the tension only to find out the master's name."

It's all a bit cryptic, but good song anyway...

So how can we utilise the EDGE effect for ourselves.  First of all when going out foraging look for edges, that's where you are most likely to find a great variety of plants.  Keep your eyes peeled next time you are out on a walk.  Secondly when designing a garden create edges.  I designed my pond with as much edge as possible, not just one simple round or oval, but with a wiggly outline, narrow bits and wider bits.  The more edge, the more biodiversity.  Instead of planting your veg in straight lines, try wavy lines.  That way you can also fit more plants into the same area.  Plan vertical as well as horizontal to maximise the space and create edges.  Hedges aren't called that for nothing, they make excellent edges which encourages wildlife and biodiversity which will benefit your garden.

The edge effect also works within human society.  On the edges between different social groups, various sciences, age groups mingling etc is where we can learn most.  Look over the edge of your own horizon to open it up.  Where philosophers meet physists new knowledge arises, when the young listen to the old and vice versa we learn from each other.  And aren't those people who live on the edge of society, those who don't follow every trend like sheep, the ones who will ulitimately change the way we behave, think and live?  I certainly hope so.  

On that philosphical note, let's all move away from the comfortable centre and become 'cutting edge' and there's hope for the human race yet.


LindyLouMac in Italy said...

It seems you picked the right place to set up home in terms of self sufficiency then.

Lo Jardinier said...

I agree = I've noticed so much more since blogging about flowers, and have noticed the 'edge'effect, especially where there are several: edge of vineyard, road, mountian/plain all in one place. And society needs its margins too.
Hadn't thought about the gardening implications - a stimulating post.