The green witch

A neighbor invited us to a pot-luck and presentation to be made at the home of a member of the local permaculture guild some blocks away in the neighborhood this evening. I am in awe of what I saw and heard.

This woman grows 80% of her food on her own urban lot, which seemed to be no bigger than 50×100′, which includes her house of course. For the remaining 20% of her diet, she barters useful things that she grows and processes on her lot. She has had no trash collection for five of the seven years she’s lived there: most everything gets used.

Toward the end of her talk, she told somebody matter-of-factly that she was a green witch. I had never heard of green witches. Ordinarily I might regard such a claim with skepticism if not quiet ridicule, but this time I feared she would turn me into a newt had no such thought: she’s the real deal, a living ark of discovery and forgotten knowledge, and by far the most hard-core environmentalist (for lack of a better term) I have ever encountered.

Unfortunately, I missed as much as a third of her talk because I had to tend my boisterous son out of earshot, so I’m sure I missed a lot of clarifying detail, and probably have some of the fragments below wrong. Corrections and additions welcome if you were there.

She started by introducing us to her rabbits Pro and Tien. These and their progeny are her meat. They live predominantly on her garden trimmings, but she supplements with bartered bagged feed. Their manure fertilizes. She “harvests” them herself, on site. Pressed for detail, perhaps with a little horror or bloodlust from an attendee, she explained forthrightly that she stuns them with a hammer. She said the process was sacred, undertaken with solemn infrequency, and that she eats little meat overall as a result. Here is a deeply thoughtful, very serious person was the opening message.

She proceeded to explain the many symbiotic relationships among the various plants burgeoning everywhere–nitrogen fixer here, insectary there–mostly standard stuff I’d read about in permaculture theory, but she has it dialed in to an exceptionally fine grain, everywhere. The yard looks half-wild, but there are few if any accidents. She calls it a food forest; she doesn’t till, and there are seldom more than a few plants of the same type in adjacency.

She grows flax for linen, and medicinal herbs, and bamboo for poles. She has some mulberry trees, and what do silkworms eat? Mulberry leaves. She spins and weaves the silk, and dyes it with the yellow and blue (=green) dye plants growing at her feet, used in medieval Europe. At this point the jaws in the audience were beginning to go slack. Martha Stewart is a lazy, spaced-out slob compared to this woman. She has a passive-solar greenhouse, made of recycled materials, full of drying allium and herbs that adjoins her living room on the south face, heating it in the winter. A fig tree hugs the chimney for its radiant warmth at this high latitude.

She speaks well, with calm force and clarity. The depth of her knowledge of the biological processes around her, and her degree of conscious, profitable participation in them, is astounding. She is the picture of health.

She knows just how much of her annual crops to let go to seed to have enough for future plantings, and she selects the most desirable specimens to be the seed producers. She knows how long various seeds keep. Her fruit varieties–peach, apple, pear, asian pear, kiwi, grape, mulberry, blackberry, linden, paw-paw, strawberry–are carefully selected to provide a steady stream of fruit. She stores apples through the winter, cans others, and makes blackberry and pear wines which we tasted. We also tasted her salad greens, figs, berries, and apples, mindful that we were raiding her food supply. We drank tea that grew, of course, on the lot. Not Camelia sinensis, but yes, she had a real tea plant in the yard too.

She collects her rainwater for regular irrigation, but also for infusion with various plants to provide specific nutrients to areas in need. She has, unsurprisingly, large compost heaps that don’t smell even on this hot evening, even though they contain…human manure. Not just some, but all that the house produces. Reduce, reuse, recycle, folks! By this time, nobody is shocked. Sunlight, gasses, water, and bartered goods enter her property, and useful goods and surplus food–not waste–leave it.

Next we go inside to inspect the honeypot. It’s in the basement. She asks us not to disturb the spiders. Don’t get the wrong idea: the house is clean, bright, and orderly, but there are a lot of spiders. I heard her say something about setting out water for them. The honeypot is a plastic bucket within a bucket, and there’s a bowl of something to throw in after. There is no odor.

There are canning shelves, and bales of dried herbs, and various implements of primary food preparation: manual mills, presses, grinders, everywhere. She also has a computer, a television, and similar emblems of participation in the modern world.

I don’t know if she drives. I don’t need to know to remain under the spell of her accomplishment, and be glad that she is my neighbor.

15 thoughts on “The green witch”

  • Jim

    Such a life has been a goal of mine for quite some time. We were pretty self sufficient in terms of food when I was a kid, but that was living in the sticks with plenty of space. Now I live on a 40×128′ lot, most of which is covered with a lawn that I hate. I have a garden for vegetables. I also grow rhubarb, strawberries, and currently have 5 fruit trees, four of which are now producing fruit in small quantities. My problem is that I have a hard time keeping it all going (weeding, watering, and so forth) while still going to work everyday and pursuing other interests, so it never reaches its full potential. I like things that grow even when I slack off, which is why I plan to get some more fruit trees. I also like the idea of eating what grows naturally. Dandelions, for example, have edible leaves when they are young, and edible flowers as they mature.

    I doubt my wife will ever go for defecating into a bucket in the basement. But I have reduced my trash load by about 50% by composting my organic matter and buying stuff with less packaging.

    Reply
  • Mauricio Babilonia
    Mauricio Babilonia July 19, 2005 at 4:09 am

    Wow Todd, great post. Very interesting.

    Every community should have the equivalent of a green witch. Agrarian would be another term you might use to describe her, since her method of living embodies the agrarian ideal. Instead of treating the earth like a warehouse to be plundered, she recognizes its limits and thinks about life processes and resource utilization from beginning to end. I strongly suggest reading the Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future of Culture, Community, and the Land (edited by Norman Wirzba) for more about the agrarian ideal. This book was my Red Pill.

    On the subject of composting human manure: I’ve so far surmised that it’s fine for the advanced composter, but not so much for the beginner. Human (and dog and cat) feces contain pathogens that have to be dealt with so that they don’t end up in your dinner. Fortunately I am not speaking from experience. I’m sure the green witch knows what she’s doing, but I’m planning to stick with the crapper until I have an opportunity to learn how to deal with it effectively. Human urine is fine, since it’s relatively free of pathogens and adds a significant amount of nitrogen to the compost (speaking from experience here).

    Compost won’t smell if it’s tended properly, regardless of what you put in. Things that would normally raise a terrible stench will smell like sweet earth in a properly balanced pile, and an imbalanced pile will reek.

    On the subject of whacking bunnies: My dad has recently been having problems with rabbits devouring the soybean plants in his garden. He built a live trap out of salvaged wood and hardware cloth.

    “Nice trap” I told him, “where did you get the plans?”

    “My dad used to make these when I was a kid. He caught a lot of rabbits with these.”

    “Oh. What did he do with the rabbits?”

    “Well, he’d whack ‘em on the head and they’d become part of our diet.”

    “Oh” I said.

    “Oh,” said my six-year-old daughter, “did they taste good?”

    She’s so practical.

    Reply
  • Todd

    Regarding the reduced trash load, Jim — that reminds me of a blog entry I’m working up to on how utility bicycling filters out a lot of waste almost automatically, with diapers as a detailed example. Now that my son is (98%) toilet trained, I want to document how cloth diapering has spared us from hauling a huge volume of poop packaging home on its way to a landfill, while more than paying for the most energy efficient washer around, even with its 170F sanitary cycle that handles the worst diapers in a single go.

    On humanure, yes the witch knows what she’s doing. She’s consulted with a physician who does the same thing. Her waste spends a year in a (naturally) hot pile before it continues on its way.

    Your daughter sounds like my son, who, upon being told that we were eating his favorite animal (sheep), asked with widening eyes “We’re eating the baby lambs?!” “Yes, we’re eating the baby lambs.” “YUMMY! I like baby lambs!”

    Reply
  • Paul Cooley

    Wow. I knew it could be done, and it is good to read about someone who is doing it. As far as we have progressed, beyond getting rid of the car, is actually to water the garden this year so that we have produce instead of dry, brown stalks of something I planted back in the spring. Now what do we do with all the Zucchini?

    I’m currently up against how to progress further without spending much money. We’ve looked at composting toilets, solar hot water, solar space heating, water harvesting systems, etc. Everything costs so much money, even if you’re just using trash cans with screen lids. (I need to make one for the trash can in the back yard, my three-year-old has lately delighted in floating dog food on top of the water when it’s full of water).

    Right now, the best I can think of to do is to pay the mortgage off as quickly as possible and then save for the improvements. I’d like to know how the green witch got started, how she prioritized, etc. My problem, is that I’ve never been able to do anything slowly; all or nothing works well for going carfree, but it seems to be money and time intensive for turning your home turf into a permaculture paradise.

    Reply
  • Me

    Such a curious thing…

    A simple life always costs more money. You want bark leaf toilet paper that’s safe for both your winky and your environment? It costs 2x’s as much as the pink-colored, heavily perfumed stuff that’ll leave your arse looking and feeling like Chernobyl.

    Is it the quality of the thing or that so few use it that the cost MUST always be so high?

    I want to light our home with lanterns… I go to Lehman’s and am I stunned that nearly everything for such a simple way of living costs so much more than a complicated, irresponsible one.

    It’s no wonder that so many bag on it all (if they even start in the first place) and just go back (if at all) to SUV’s, processed food and hangin’ with the Joneses.

    Wall Mart Living.

    -Me

    Reply
  • Todd

    Connie (that’s her name) explained that she moved in small steps, outward from the doors of her home. Seven years ago the lot was lawn with one pear tree on it. She removed a fence and used the wood to build raised beds. I saw at least 2 old clawfoot tubs as ponds/basins. The paths between the raised beds were lined with carpet she ripped out of the house. She gave time figures for the building of various structures with friend/barter labor from found/salvaged materials. The greenhouse, for instance, has collector stones made of urbanite (=big chunks of broken concrete). The rain barrels were commercial food drums. I’m sure some stuff cost, but I’m also sure she doesn’t surf solvemyproblem.com with her credit card at the ready for overnight relief.

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  • Martina

    Several of you mentioned that you have too much of this and too much of that… The Green Witch (I was on that tour, too) actually achieved a lot through bartering. So if you have too many zucchinies, perhaps your neighbor trades them against cherries. If you need building materials etc, asking first in your community, craig’s list or your church migth unearth them for free (We got our first composter like that!)
    For more economic living and making time (!) for all that planting, see http://www.stretcher.com/.

    Reply
  • Mauricio Babilonia
    Mauricio Babilonia July 20, 2005 at 2:27 pm

    Yes, Paul and “Me”, breaking the consumer and growth economy mindset is definitely a problem. For a long time, I struggled with how I would pay for the simple life. Really though, it’s just a testament to the success of Madison Avenue when we think about how we can solve a problem by buying our way out of it.
    For me, the first thing to go was the second car. I think I’ve convinced my wife to phase out the primary car within three years. If we go carfree, that would probably be half of our energy impact right there.
    Buying, salvaging or bartering things locally, especially food, is another major impact. for example, I could have bought a rain barrel online for $150, but with a little luck on the local Stuff exchange, I found a food-grade barrel locally and made my own for about $25 (the water smelled like cola for a long time, but the plants didn’t seem to mind.) Much of my other gardening stuff–fencing, tools, watering cans–comes from the trash or garage sales.
    The next step was to gradually reduce consumer purchases. I used to buy several CDs and DVDs per month, for example. Now? Zero. In fact, since I’ve started gardening and riding my bike extensively, I seldom watch TV anymore.
    It’s also amazing how debt disappears when you spend your disposable income on its maintenance.
    I’m not sure what’s next, but I doubt it will be a hybrid or solar panels. My emphasis right now is on a state of mind that seeks less stuff and focuses more on what what is really essential for life.
    I’m no green witch, but a guy can dream.

    Reply
  • Bill Manewal

    As an ex-hippie, back-to-the-land guy (1968) this piece is very inspiring. After reading what Connie produces, I kept going back to read the lot size. Astounding!

    My solution for composting human waste was to build an outhouse after reading a great pamphlet by the United Nations. One human produces, after decomposition, one cubic foot of solid waste per YEAR! I dug a posthole and kept a can of wood ashes beside the seat. One of the secrets to no odor is not to urinate in the toilet. A can of ashes after each use and there was NO odor even in the warmest weather and no flies. When full, we planted fruit trees and moved on.

    My best barter arrangement: I made beer (didn’t grow the barley and hops) and traded, after an arduous hike down and up a ravine to a neighbor, for goat’s milk.

    One of my buddies still lives on the land and has a fully organic winery run on solar panels. (Wild Hog Vineyards for a shameless plug!).

    Currently living in a townhouse in a city with no yard, but dreaming of moving into rural New Mexico within 3 years and starting over. Old hippies never captitulate completely.

    Richard Heinberg in his book Powerdown speaks of the need for lifeboat builders. Connie is certainly an outstanding example. Has she considered sharing her wisdom in a wider arena: book, website?

    Reply
  • Todd

    Bill, Connie teaches permaculture at Portland Community College, and was obviously sharing with us. I don’t know about any non-local activity.

    Reply
  • Alice

    Interesting story. However, I’m disturbed by the posts of people who obviously don’t think twice about killing and eating animals, especially the post about the baby lambs. Do you think the mothers and babies enjoy being separated? Do you think they enjoy being murdered so you can have lamb chops on your dinner plate? Is it funny that your kid doesn’t even flinch or associate the living animal with the dead flesh on his plate? So inhumane.

    Reply
  • Karen

    We composted our humanure for 5 years, but we never used it on food crops where the edible portion touched the ground, just to be doubly safe. The best how-to resource I know of is The Humanure Handbook, by Joseph Jenkins. His website is http://www.jenkinspublishing.com/humanure.html.

    Reply
  • Martina

    Hi Alice:
    While the comment of baby lambs sounds shocking, if you are a carnivore, you should at least make it clear to your children where the meat comes from. If you tell them that yes, they are eating a cute baby lamb, they hopefully start to understand that meat doesn’t grow on trees and that eating meat means killing another being. Hopefully Todd’s son will learn the same reverence for the meat he eats that the green witch has for her rabbits.

    Reply
  • Bruce Wilson

    There is a story in my family about how each year my grandfather would buy a calf. The kids would raise it (they had ten kids) and then sell it. One year grandpa , the story goes,k instead of selling it, had it butchered. Roast veal for dinner; when the kids realized that they were eating the calf they had raised over the past few months, they wouldn't eat any more. That was when my oldest aunt became a vegetarian; the other siblings aren't , but they won't eat veal.

    Humans are by nature omnivores. All the vegans and vegetarians I know take cocktails of artificial supplements. If God or nature or whatever meant us to be vegetarians, we would be able to get by as such without taking supplements.

    I don't hunt, myself--I've never fired a gun in my life, and I think i'm too old to start now--but I have friends who do, and who quite regularly supply me with venison, which is delicious.

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  • Stephanie

    This is a wonderful article! I am a bit late in finding this but I still wanted to leave a comment.

    I am soooo inspired by this woman. Hooray for her. We are really working on cutting back. We do the whole humanure, composting, hardly any trash, gardening thing also but we still have a long way to go.

    Reply
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