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Leon van Wyk
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Cyclone Yasi gave lessons and opportunities

Posted by Leon van Wyk over 7 years ago

Tropical cyclones (or hurricanes) present a great pulse of energy that is usually seen as entirely destructive... this post will try change that judgement just a little, by exploring a permaculture perspective

front yard start 2011

[Front yard February 1, 2011 - driveway just to the left of photo]

Creatively use and respond to change is the 12th design principle of permaculture.

This principle is very important for us to consider because it deals specifically with the only truly constant thing in nature; that is change. Whatever scale it occurs at - or could likely occur at - should be given at least some thought, everything from day/night length changing through the seasons; to monsoons not arriving (may involve the El Nino / La Nina Southern Oscillation); to growth rates of chooks, trees, forest and fish; to colonial invasion and expansion; to introduction of new laws; to economic recession and sudden unemployment; to climate change; to coastal erosion; to catastrophic fires or cyclones pulsing through a system.

 

These few examples serve to highlight the main qualitative difference between types of change:

- predictable cycles (regular magnitude and/or frequency)

- highly complex and variable cycles (hard to predict mag. or freq.)

- totally unpredictable changes that are non-cyclic

as well as the intensity of change:

- gradual evolution (physically, ecologically, socio-economically)

- intense pulses (catastrophies and revolutions)

 

This post must be brief, so i'll simply focus on some lessons I learned from my garden, community, local environment and permaculture thanks to cyclone Yasi; which was a category 5 cyclone back in February 2011 that crossed the north queensland coast about 300km north of my home on Magnetic Island. The first bit of wisdom in permaculture is to OBSERVE! There are tremendous opportunities for learning from observations during and after an intense pulse of energy such as a cyclone.

back yard start 2011

[Back yard February 1, 2011]

Garden

Wow! Did you ever realise that the good old permie strategy of 'chop n drop' is actually just immitating a cyclone on a mini scale? In the space of a few short hours the amazing energy of a cyclone demonstrates its absolute immensity; pruning leaves, branches and whole trees over tens of thousands of square kilometers. Spreading each bit of debris over the ground downwind of where it was living not so long ago. Water is also in plentiful supply so that leaves and papery bark is first saturated then shredded and sprayed against all surfaces, particularly evident on windows and walls that collect a layer of paper mache plaster if downwind of a paperbark tree or near a swamp. The moisture is heavily applied to all of the debris as it is mulched, which enables fungi and other decomposers to get to work recycling all that organic matter straight away - including your beds, couches and wardrobe if your house had a hair-cut.

naked hillsides

[Back yard February 3, 2011]

For my garden, which already had a lot of established trees (large and medium sized) around the perimeter as well as many shrubs like sweetleaf, cassava and pigeon pea, but also papayas, banana and arrowroot clumps, the difference between Feb 2nd and Feb 4th was dramatic! We could suddenly see twelve other houses from down in the middle of the garden, whereas before we could hardly spot our own house from the garden (or should I say young forest). One major lesson was that by pruning young trees like moringa and leggy shrubs like sweetleaf and cassava I could prevent them being uprooted by the strong winds and allow a rapid recovery with all the soil moisture and sunny weather not so long after the cyclone (whereas shrubs that were unpruned and uprooted needed to re-establish a root system before vigorous regrowth could occur). An extra benefit from this strategy was that our diet still contained abundant fresh nutritious greens (for over a week) from the sweetleaf and moringa prunings that were hung upside-down inside our shelter. Total defoliation of almost all trees revealed which few species have tough wind-resistant leaves and/or where the sheltered micro-climates were. Most of the fruit trees I had planted (about 30 different varieties) a year earlier were small enough to survive without too much damage, as they were sheltered and still short yet flexible. Although some of the faster growing species were tipped over slightly, but after minor pruning and propping them back up they were off with a flush of new growth.

decimation

[Back yard from ground level at dawn of February 3rd]

We did not keep domestic animals at this stage, so my direct observations of animals in cyclone aftermaths is limited. But the trees (particularly certain eucalypt species) suffered great stress from defoliation and subsequent grazing off of fresh regrowth by ravenous insects. In fact we lost two medium sized bloodwoods (but they had also suffered some root disturbance in previous months which may or may not have been connected to their death). I imagine the koalas and possums on the island would also be very hungry for a few long weeks at least. The rainbow lorikeets and cockatoos and I suppose just about every animal species that depended on leaves, seeds, fruits and flowers for food would be desperately hungry for a while. While carnivorous or parasitic organisms would be experiencing a glut - fast and furious natural selection in action.

[Our house from the neighbour's yard - early stages of big swale creation evident]

Community

General response to a natural disaster is that superficial differences are put aside and communities work as a more cohesive whole to help satisfy everybody's basic needs - including external communities offering aid to support those in dire situations. However this is often because a natural disaster by definition is generally a localised event with very short period of intense disturbance (volcanic eruption, bushfire, flood, earthquake, tsunami etc). So everyone's awareness is shaken simultaneously and this creates understanding of a common goal that needs to be addressed. The better prepared a community is for a certain threat, usually leads to a more resilient recovery if/when it occurs. Often the most vulnerable aspects of a community are the infrastructure networks that deliver essential services to maintain liveable conditions - such as water pipes, electrical/energy conduits, sewerage and transport (access to deliver aid and assist clean-up efforts).

porta-potty with potted nursery plants

[Potted plants to save nursery stock next to our porta-potty (temporary toilet)]

We were without electricity for over 3 days and tap water was super-chlorinated when pumping from the mainland resumed after about 4 days (magnetic island's few small reservoirs were all depleted within 1 day). Food storage and preparation was simple for us (family of 4) and we continued to eat gourmet quality food the entire week often flame grilled or roasted in the cast iron camp oven. Due to the cyclone being a few hundred km north, we received very strong tail winds but not quite the intensity of 290km/h gusts that occured near the eye. A quote from the wiki article about Yasi:

"According to residents in Tully, the town was "...a scene of mass devastation". An unknown number of homes were completely destroyed as intense winds, estimated at 209 km/h (130 mph), battered the area. Many other homes not destroyed sustained severe facade and or roof damage. As daybreak came, reports from the town stated that about 90% of the structures along the main avenue sustained extensive damage."

Innisfail's evacuation centre was threatened by rising waters during the peak of the event, but did escape without major issues. On Magnetic Island the flooding was not too severe and did not interupt transport significantly. But the Bruce highway on the mainland was cut in several places and a lot of traffic was stranded due to the high water. A 3m storm surge at Cardwell caused significant damage to infrastructure as well as trashing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of boats in the Hinchenbrook Marina. $2 billion in lost agricultural production (mostly sugarcane and banana) along with a $1 billion dollar loss in the tourism industry and up to half a billion dollars from all the infrastructure damage, made cyclone Yasi the most expensive cyclone in Australias history.

beachfront modification, Yasi style

[Little brother examining the foreshore modification... Yasi style]

Permaculture

Not only are we encouraged to observe, but the 1st design principle of permaculture is to Observe and Interact. The first thing I did at dawn of February 3rd was to check the garden, because it is zone 1 I couldn't leave the property without first making some initial observations. I was amazed by the devastation of biomass and for the first time could clearly see the hills at the back of Picnic Bay - as a shockingly naked forest of matchsticks amongst the granite boulders. Even though it was still very windy, the rain had eased up a little and I ventured out to scale a nearby hill that gave me a decent vantage point to survey the broad impact on my cosy little suburb. From there it was evident that many trees had come down, and the rest defoliated. The 150 or so roofs once mostly hidden by canopy were now plain to see, just as the rolling swell atop a huge tide was unashamedly obliterating the iconic picnic bay jetty.

Throughout the summer leading up to Yasi, my interactions with the garden had become increasingly stagnant. But this sudden pulse of energy catalysed my resolve to creatively use and respond to the changes it brought. The most obvious things to do included clearing paths and chopping up the fallen branches and brush, which naturally leads one to start mulching the gardens. Huge quantities of leaves and chunky organic matter were roughly chopped and layed on the ground. A 1.5m wide x 0.75m deep x 12m long swale ditch was dug by hand and filled with chunky woody debris. Within three days all our organic waste had been dealt with which lead me to start gleaning our neighbours' branches, palm fronds and logs. Additionally, we had a 10 cubic meter load of double-shredded and partially composted mulch delivered within a week and it only cost us $100 delivery included because the 'green waste' facility needed to get rid of it quick to make room for all the incoming material that needed to be processed. This was perfect top dressing to cover all those branches and accelerate their digestion by fungal mycelium (keeping the total surface area more moist and out of direct sunlight for relatively rapid decomposition).

sewage pipes installed not long before Yasi arrived

[Front yard at end of 2010 after sewerage pipes have been buried - Xanthosoma growing out of a mulch basin]

So at a time when most people and public parks were exporting there organic matter to the council-run facility, I was importing trendous volumes of it for very cheap. You might say I was making hay while the sun was shining, using that opportunity to incorporate a lot of organic matter into our deep decomposed granite soils at the foothills to the mountainous interior of the island. Because we are in the tropics and basically aiming to grow a food forest on this property it seems most appropriate to use this niche in time to fully leverage the fungal kingdoms special wood-eating ability to organically improve our soil quality.

cheap and abundant mulch

[Finally got our first load of cheap mulch - let the microbial parties multiply!]

Since then I have been keeping a close eye on the varying rates of decomposition in the different areas of the garden. Because each area was a small experiment in what materials of what size and to what depth were combined with different exposure to sun and canopy, densely planted with pioneer species or not. While my results are not quantified, I have gained a good practical understanding of the qualitative difference between these various decomposition strategies. Also comparing how much work exerted over how long it takes to aerobically compost materials or process them in a deep litter chicken system which was also set up after the cyclone. Ultimately it comes down to optimising how much time we have/need with how much energy can be consumed (at what price) and what quality of product (mulch, compost, mushrooms, biochar) or service ('cleaning up' a public park, soil rehabilitation, water detention and infiltration, diverse habitats for diverse food webs, etc) is needed.

observe, contemplate, interact. Be the change

[Observe. Contemplate. Interact. Be the change]

By interacting with changes and always observing and refining our techniques and strategies, we come to see how much positive potential there is in a changing system.

 

Img 0474 Img 0134 Img 0123 Img 0131 Img 0194 Img 0488 Img 0293 Img 0296 Img 0506 Img 0426 Img 0520 Img 0533 Img 0539 Img 0543 Img 0547

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Ute Bohnsack
Ute Bohnsack : A very observant and thoughtful piece of writing, Leon. Oh, to be able to grow bananas and papayas...
Posted over 7 years ago

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