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Permaculture in Public Spaces

Lake County, California, is a rural area on the edge of the San Francisco Bay Area. Though it’s surrounded by extremely wealthy areas, Lake County is unique; it is one of the least densely populated counties in the state of California, with one of the highest rates of poverty and unemployment. The agricultural industries that once thrived in the area are mostly gone, and most people struggle to earn a livelihood.

Leave it to the permaculturalists to find opportunity in this seemingly barren edge! And there is indeed permaculture activity on the rise, in the most unlikely of places… the county government.

County Supervisor Denise Rushing completed her PDC in 2005 and was hooked, excited about the applicability of permacultural principles to the “invisible structures” that we all function within — like our local government.

"To me, the greatest gift of permaculture was seeing problems as opportunities and aligning myself and my actions with natural forces and energies to create greater abundance." A farmer and owner of an organic walnut orchard, Rushing joined the Board of Supervisors and has been working hard to integrate permaculture into her day job as a county supervisor, and create opportunities for Lake County residents to transform their community utilizing permaculture principles.

One such opportunity has evolved into the Clarks Island Sustainability Initiative. Clarks Island is a small island on Clear Lake that is owned by the local Redevelopment Agency. With the county’s support, the island is being transformed by volunteers into a center for the environment and sustainability, with the goals of promoting ecotourism — showcasing new ecological restoration techniques and working with the county to preserve and protect Clear Lake. Components include natural earth building, native plantings, and bioremediation of the lake, whose ecology has been destroyed by pollution and runoff from surrounding areas.

A unique element of the Island includes a demonstration area of "floating islands" made from recycled plastic bottles. A BioHaven Floating Island is made of 100 percent recycled PET plastic, derived from recycled drinking bottles and certified non-toxic. After the plastic undergoes a recycling and spinning process, it is then turned into a “matrix” of fibers composed of layers of a durable synthetic mesh. The matrix design resembles a pot-scrub or loofah, which is important as it serves as a water filtration design. By mimicking natural floating wetland systems, the manmade islands create a huge amount of edge to support diversity and aid in algae reduction and create wildlife habitat. Floating islands can remove pollutants from a waterway, provide critical riparian edge habitat (new land mass for use by all kinds of creatures, from microbes to humans), mine nutrient loads from any waterway and thus reduce algae blooms, sequester carbon and other greenhouse gases, and provide wave mitigation and erosion control while beautifying a waterscape with floating gardens.

The purpose of the floating islands near Clarks Island is to test their impact on nutrient uptake and algae remediation. To test their effectiveness and get baseline readings, the Habematolel Pomo, the Native American tribe local to the area, has offered to pay for the first year of testing.

To showcase the Island, dozens of community members pitched in to build an entryway and bench that demonstrate natural building techniques with local clay. Many hands make light work, and volunteers — ranging in age from 4 to 78 years — joined together to build the beautiful cob and adobe structures with the leadership of Bay Area natural builder Massey Burke. Rushing sees that the ripples are beginning to spread. The natural building project has won awards and gained attention from the University of San Francisco, whose architecture department is interested in working with Burke in Lake County to study the structural integrity of earthen building. "Small scale solutions offer key benefits in a time of change. Permaculture solutions can be developed and spread on a local scale, by local people empowered with tools and knowledge."

Within the next month, Rushing will be publishing a book entitled: Tending the Soul’s Garden: Permaculture as a Way Forward in Difficult Times. To spread the principles and practical skills of permaculture further within her community, Denise Rushing is hosting a Permaculture Design Certificate course at her orchard this spring to train local folks. Watch out Lake County, a herd of permies are about to be let loose!

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