Resist the Resistance
Or: How Leaving A Human Footprint can actually be a good thing
“As the problems of the world get increasingly complex the solutions remain embarrassingly simple”.
—Bill Mollison (Found of Permaculture)
Costa is my younger brother. My only brother. When I think of him I picture an Ent, one of those walking, talking trees from The Lord of the Rings—tall and lean, with dirt-caked fingernails and strong, root-like hands and feet, sprouting thick sandy colored dreadlocks and a patchy beard. Imposing in height and scruffy in appearance, he is also the most patient, curious, selfless, and empathetic person I know. A true gentle giant; an old soul. And as long as I can remember he’s sought purpose and meaning in life beyond what mainstream American consumer culture has to offer—so much so that my dad and I used to worry he might easily fall prey to some kind of freaky cult out in the sticks.
But much to my relief Costa has harnessed his passionate seeking into a career as a filmmaker and certified permaculture consultant, and has spent the last decade participating in and documenting communities who uphold alternative, sustainable farming and food lifestyles—from woodland shiitake farms to chestnut orchards and urban rooftop gardens, Costa’s work proves that resistance to industrial farming is steadily growing.
Contrary to a lot of popular, non-thinking thinking, Costa says that the whole concept of not leaving a footprint is actually really counterproductive. “Doing Less Bad,” he says, “is dangerous and destructive and makes people feel like if they could just disappear the earth would be better off. ‘Lowering your impact’ is a terrible message and if we actually designed our homes, farms and cities to be human integrated and more biological we would see that having a big impact can be a great thing, because we are alive and apart of a much bigger ecosystem.”
Even though many aspects of permaculture are spreading, there is still so much untapped or forgotten food and farming knowledge out there that goes beyond the farmer’s market. Costa’s latest project, Woodlanders, a crowd-funded web series, aims to bring awareness to the vast global knowledge of forest livelihoods and economies that are mostly undervalued and undocumented. From woodcraft and nut tree cultures of ancient Europe, to mushroom and forest medicines of Asia, each episode documents a person or community who creates their own sustainable economy from forests while maintaining the land’s ecological health and complexity.
I caught up with my brother on his way to Stockholm
After three months of zooming around England in a sleeper van, where he screened his feature documentary Inhabit while filming five of the most recent episodes of Woodlanders. He sounded groggy from ten days of working a Buddhist food tent at Glastonbury Festival…
NB: So what happened? I kind of remember you were a little skater punk who listened to Blink-182, and then suddenly you were nineteen, planting a community Garden in an abandoned lot in New Brunswick, New Jersey. How did you get turned on to permaculture and how has it affected your outlook on food and farming?
CB: I was deep in the dooms day realms.
My obsession with 2012 and the imminent collapse of society led me into all sorts of internet wormholes which eventually landed me in the grow your own food homesteading direction. When I came across the permaculture movement it was first time I saw folks that actually had a vision for how epic the world could be.
Permaculture is a design science that begs the question, can we take all the design principles we find in the ecosystems and apply them to human systems? Seeing these principles in action in cities, farms, suburbs and gardens really blew my mind open to the possibility that humans aren’t bad—we’re just living in a badly designed society.
NB: How has western industrial farming affected/failed people, food, and the planet? Is there any fixing it? How could permaculture be integrated to solve some of our worst farming problems?
CB: Traditional farming today in the US is the most inefficient agriculture ever practiced in all of human history. It is an industrial model that uses synthetic fertilizers to “feed” the plants, toxic pesticides to soak millions of acres to fight off insects, and huge machinery to till the soil. Industrial farming today is putting in 10 Calories of energy for every 1 Calorie of food it creates. This is an extremely toxic and temporary system that has no future. Permaculture is a lens for discovering ways to have ecosystems that are also farms so we don’t have to go to war on our fields and spray toxic chemicals all over it. A great of example of this is in my documentary at Mark Shepard’s 100 acre agricultural forest in Wisconsin where he has designed an ecosystem where nut trees, fruit trees, pigs, sheep, cows, turkeys all live together in harmony and the animals control the pests, just like in nature, and the system can be managed like a farm while also being forest!
NB: Do you think permaculture techniques could ever produce food on a mass scale? And should that even be its aim?
CB: We need ecological intelligent food production on every scale.
We need it in the midwest where instead of millions of acres of corn soaked in chemicals we see millions of acres of food forests that are feeding the country while restoring the native habitats.
We need it in the cities where every square inch of rooftop is covered in vegetation that is capturing all the excess storm water and preventing flooding while simultaneously feeding people.
We need it in the suburbs where every backyard is small forest of perennial fruits and vegetables and neighbors trade with each other and create networks of local food/medicine.
NB: Why do you think some foods go out of style or become “unsexy,” and what are some ways to help bring them back into popularity? I'm thinking about the chestnut or the paw paw fruit specifically… how can we use “foodie” trends in urban restaurants, for instance, to help regional permaculture and sustainable-minded farms succeed?
CB: Paw Paws are in incredibly tropical tasting native fruit whose flavor is like a cross between banana, mango and custard. It was a a common fruit in the Northeast US for thousands of years and only has become unknown in the past 50 or so years. But it has one drawback that sets it apart from all our popular supermarket fruits—an extremely short shelf life. It cannot be tamed to sit in trucks and stored on shelves for weeks and months.
In these days of tasteless supermarket fruit, picked unripe across the world and shipped for weeks to slowly be gas ripened in trucks, the Paw paw is making a comeback and its short life of ripeness is something to be revered and cherished. If we can learn anything from the Paw Paw it's that seasonal eating makes us tune deeper into the seasonality of food and appreciate it when it's ripe, not year round. Seasonal eating! It’s the only way. Don’t strawberries in the winter.
NB: Talk a little bit about your journey into your interest in mushrooms specifically (not the magic kind…). Why were you drawn to them as a permaculture person? How do you farm them and what’s so great about that?
CB: All the mushrooms we buy and consume are grown in warehouses on blocks of sawdust. Like anything else grown in a synthetic environment with essentially a feeding tube it never gets any character, flavor and in the mushrooms case medicinal value. When mushrooms grow in the wild they are under great competitive and environmental stress and this is the reason they create powerful medicinal compounds and this is what makes them taste so good and makes them so good for our immune systems as well.
When I found out you can make a living growing mushrooms “wild simulated” in the forest on logs I quickly signed on as an apprentice and spent two summers in a row doing just that. The shiitakes we grew off logs in the woods were an entirely different beast than anything you find in a store. The firmness, flavor and deep colors of these outdoor grown mushrooms made every chef we brought them to go wide eyed in awe. It’s bringing culinary mushrooms back to their original selves as wild beings with wild flavors and a story of the place it grew. What I love about it the most is that it's just simplifying the process and bringing the mushrooms back to where they want to be—in the shade of the woods, soaked by dew and rain.
The more we integrate food back into the complex and rich ecosystems from which they come the more I think we bring can bring back a food culture that celebrates the taste and place from which it is interconnected.