I think it’s going to take awhile to move this home to a state of permaculture, and I’m alright with that. The owners and those of us who are dedicated to helping them will be putting ‘small and slow solutions’ in place for years to come, moving towards a state of self-sustainability, and that seems like a good, measured dance, like a big pow-wow drum singing out the heartbeat of the earth.
This is an unusual site and family, with some extremely positive aspects and several challenging aspects.
On the positive side, the family is small, hardy, and extremely self-reliant. I doubt that they could reduce their consumptive behavior any more than they already have. Both Oglala Lakota, Alison and Walter know what ‘perseverance’ means. They worked beside me constructing a small house of cob and recycled pallets last summer, in spite of health issues and the fact that they’re at least twice my age. They’re very determined folk with an unquenchable sense of humor, and since they already live so far outside of mainstream society they’re eager to embrace alternative energy sources and try new things.
(The one sticking point is the composting toilet. They’re old-school ‘outhouse’ types, and I doubt I’ll shift them from that stance.)
Another positive note is that they do have a house now, albeit unfinished, from which to base their creative efforts. Up until this point they’ve been alternating between a 10’ x 5’ camping trailer (their winter quarters) and nylon tent (the summer house). The house gives them a few more options.
The biggest plus is that the family now has access to clean water, piped into the rez from the Missouri River via the Mni Wiconi water line. Up until this point the family has had to make do with a small, plastic water tank filled weekly by the tribe with potable water. A well is inadvisable since the groundwater is contaminated with arsenic and radioactive alpha emitters from historical uranium mining.
On the challenging side, the site is essentially a flat rectangle of prairie with little change in elevation, no pond or stream features, and not a single tree. Although the edges of the space will be developed as Zone 5 to contain native plants and herbs, there is nothing even remotely resembling a Zone 5 (wild) area, so those levels of renewable resources (forage, wild food, timber) are not currently available.
Since there are no trees at all, it goes without saying that there are no fruit or nut trees, and that it will be several years before the family can hope to subsist on fruit from their own young orchard. In spite of my best research, I’m also uncertain as to whether many of the varieties we’ve chosen will prove to be hardy, living in the extremes of South Dakota where winters can reach -50◦F and summers can top out in three digits under an unrelenting sun. I intend to incorporate mychorrhizal fungi root dip gel to pre-treat the fruit trees and berry bushes and reintroduce this symbiotic relationship to the ecosystem. Hopefully this will give the plantings a bit of a ‘leg up.’
There is a pack of dogs that share the space, along with a scattering of cats who earn their keep killing snakes near the home and keeping the rodent population down. The dogs aren’t pets so much as they are guardians; when you summer in a nylon tent and there’s an active cougar population and active coyote packs in the neighborhood, a pack of dogs loyal to you and your family is a handy bond to have forged.
There are also several aspects of the physical site and house structure which we were handed by the builder who constructed the cob house over which we have no control.
The first of these is that the builder installed seven large windows on the north face of the house—the side facing the prevailing wind that howls down out of North Dakota, looking for trouble. He installed these windows in spite of everything he was told by the locals, who knew the environment better (he was from Texas, where the cold : hot ratio is the polar opposite of South Dakota)—so one of the first things I feel I need to do is shelter that side of the house as much as possible with an evergreen windbreak. We’ll also be trying to determine whether we can install interior or exterior shutters on those north-facing windows, but that project may be outside of this season’s scope.
The second thing that the builder did was dig a large hole in the southeast quadrant of the yard. Other than the fact than he had access to a Cat and a full tank of gas, no one knows why he felt the need to dig this hole, or why he chose to place it there. But having been handed a lemon, we’ve decided to make lemonade. We’re going to take advantage of the excavation and create a root cellar/storm shelter for the family. Living in tornado alley, it’s probably not a bad idea to have this kind of bolt-hole available.
There isn’t anything that can be added to this site that doesn’t serve more than one purpose; every blade of grass provides oxygen and helps reduce wind erosion. But every living thing that also bears flowers helps add a moment of joy in lives that tend towards bleak and hopeless. That the roses will also grow hips rich in Vitamin C—in a land where fresh citrus fruit is a treat—is just the icing on the cake.
One of the homeowners suffers from arthritis so severe that sometimes a cane is required just to walk. In studies in Denmark, the anti-inflammatory properties of rose hips have been proven useful in the treatment knee or hip arthritis. Patients who rose hip powder on a daily basis experienced significantly less joint stiffness and pain, and an improved general well-being and mood after just a few months of treatment.
If just this one change can be introduced into the owner’s diet, and if even a marginal improvement in lifestyle is the result, think of what a blessing that would be. And in a land with levels of cancer and cardiovascular disease two or three times above the national average, rose hips also contain carotenoid pigments, plant sterols, tocotrienols and a very high level of anthocyanins, catechins and other polyphenolics, known phytochemicals to protect against cancer and cardiovascular disease. They also contain up to 5 % by weight of pectin, a soluble fiber that also protects against cardiovascular disease.
And that’s just the berry of one plant. Every item of fresh food we can add to their diet can help shift their physical condition. And the pride of having produced it themselves, and to have grown enough to share with their families, adds to the psychological benefit.
The ‘Zone’ designation for land use is a little askew in the way this family lives because they aren’t house-dwellers in the traditional sense. If the weather is fine you are much more likely to find them sitting outside visiting with their family than indoors; and given a choice between the shade of a tree or the shade of a roof, they will most likely choose the tree. So although the orchard / garden planting area appears to be in Zone 2, it will likely be a very ‘lived in’ space.
Since the site is essentially flat, we will be creating ‘wells’ around each tree to capture as much rainfall as possible, and linking the trees with irrigation wells whenever possible. South Dakota’s soil is a thin crust of silt, so we’ll be adding as much peat, compost and composted cow manure as we can get our hands on (the neighbor owns a small herd of cows) as well as establishing compost bins for the family to start growing their own black gold.
Eight dogs (one of them half-wolf), several grandchildren, and an old trampoline that doubles as a shade structure. The open space is necessary. Besides—it’s a prairie.
The family currently does not have electricity, nor do they have reliable phone service, a computer of any sort, or internet access. This makes it difficult for them to research answers to questions about the new aspects of their environment. In light of this, I’ve contacted a large apiary club outside of Rapid City and hope to introduce them to the family and establish a sense of mentorship between the local experts and the neophyte beekeepers.
3 Year Plan
Since we are functioning within a strict budget and having to plan on donations and grants to make this possible, I’ve created a three-year plan with the plantings that will take the longest to mature going in first.
- (1) Beehive and an introduction to the Rapid City Apiary Club.
- (1) Root Cellar
- (2) Rainwater Cisterns
- Peach: Finger Lakes. (dwarf) We’ll see if it lives; three growers have assured me that it will.
- Apples: Wealthy and Freedom (semi-dwarf)
- Crabapple: Whitney
- Pears: Beurre Bosc and Max Red Bartlett
- Cherry: White Gold (Standard), Lapins, North Star (dwarfs)
- Blueberries: Northblue and North Country
- Jostaberries (2)
- Raspberries: Heritage, Bristol, Latham and Allen
- Strawberry AC Wendy (25 plants)
- (6-9) Red Cedar Trees as windbreak (sacred herb to the Lakota)
Green Ash (summer shade for setting sun)
Native Grasses or grass seed, including Sweetgrass (sacred herb to the Lakota)
- If budget permits, Korean Dwarf Lilac “Miss Kim” near the house
(Alison has spoken longingly of the fragrance)
Broadcast planting of lettuce, spinach, chard, kale between the fruit trees will serve as a green cover mulch and be harvested and re-sown throughout the season. Cucumber and melon vines will take over this task mid-season; cool-weather seeds will be re-sown come September
- Install (2) rainwater cisterns.
- Add 1 or 2 beehives, depending on homeowner’s proficiency.
- Construct overhead arbor for grape vines
- Concord, Fredonia and Canadice grape vines (juice and fresh eating; raisins)
- Black Walnut (Juglans nigra), (native); White Walnut (Juglans cinerea)
- Apricot Sungold
- Elderberries (native berry plants) for Elderberry juice, jellies and pies
Expand herbs to include more medicinal herbs and flowering plants, including:
-Rugosa, Dog Rose, Sweet Briar and Meidiland roses (flowers, insect attraction, and rose hips for tea/jelly)
Expand to include perennial food plants, such as Jerusalem Artichoke (hardy even in NORTH Dakota!), rhubarb, asparagus, sorrel, lovage, lemon balm.
- Install windmill and battery / generator system
- Dog houses for the pack.
- Privacy screen of lilacs along the road. Alison’s dream is to look up and see a bank of flowering lilacs instead of Route 18, and that, in itself, is reason enough to put them in. The bushes will also attract beneficial insects.