Small Acts Bring Permaculture Out of the Backyard and into the Community

Devin Smith demonstrates the tree planting technique
Devin Smith demonstrates the tree planting technique

Written By

Bonnie North

Written on

August 17 , 2016

The Saxtons River in southern Vermont is barely 23 miles long. It rises to the east of Glebe Mountain in Windham and meanders through Grafton and its namesake, the village of Saxtons River, on its way to join the Connecticut River. It’s what many folks would think of as merely a good-size creek—a delightful watercourse that sparkles and spills over three locally beloved waterfalls.

But on August 28, 2011, when Tropical Storm Irene hit parts of Vermont with almost 10 inches of rain, the waters of the Saxtons River rose up in an uncontrollable torrent of historic proportions. The river tore through the village, destroying homes, ruining fields, tossing aside fences, wrecking bridges, and scouring and undercutting the banks of the river. According to the National Weather Service, the Saxtons River reached a record flood stage of 19.7 feet. Local measurements claimed it was even higher, reaching 21 feet in some spots.

At one particularly devastated area along Route 121, you can still see the driveways that once led to three homes. These homes were washed away during Irene, and the land was deemed unsuitable to rebuild on. In an effort to restore that particular part of the village, the home sites and their development rights were purchased through an arrangement between the Town of Rockingham (which includes Saxtons River Village), the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB), and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). An agreement was made that the land become publicly accessible and that the riparian buffers there be preserved or improved.

This past May, more than five-and-a-half years after Irene, a community-wide effort to meet the terms of the restoration agreement was finally coordinated, in part by a newly formed group called Small Acts Permaculture. Seeking to build bridges between permaculturists like himself and the scientific and policy-making communities, one of the founders of Small Acts Permaculture, Devin Smith, attended a meeting of the Rockingham Conservation Commission. At that meeting, possible grant funding for “watershed resilience projects” was discussed, and Devin soon became a member of the Conservation Commission. Working with the Saxtons River Watershed Collaborative and a number of other interested partners, including the Windham Regional Commission and the Windham County Natural Resources Conservation District, the commission pulled together funding for the riverside effort.

Small Acts worked hard to spark community awareness about the project and rounded up enthusiastic support for cooperatively rebuilding a healthy riparian buffer along the river to combat further erosion and destruction. Although permaculture is most commonly used on farms and homesteads, its principles are applicable to everything we do in life. The ethical basis of permaculture is to develop designs and implement systems that will remain healthy and sustainable for many generations to come. Much of this sustainability is achieved by imitating what we see occurring in nature. Establishing healthy riparian buffers is an integral part of any permaculture approach, which always places special emphasis on the importance of “edges.”

The edge effect is an ecological concept that recognizes there is greater diversity of life in the region where the edges of two adjacent ecosystems overlap, such as land/water. At this edge you can find species from both ecosystems, as well as unique species that aren’t found in either but are specially adapted to the conditions of the transition zone. As edges, healthy riparian forests are extremely fecund habitats with an astonishing amount of diversity that provides food and shelter to mammals, birds, amphibians, and fish. In our region, many of our farms, houses, and roadways have always been situated alongside our waterways, meaning that many of our originally healthy riparian forests have been displaced or seriously disturbed.

Planting day, May 6 this year, was perfect—sunny and seasonally pleasant. Eager citizens and students from local high schools got down and dirty on the reclaimed Saxtons River properties, settling more than 400 young seedlings into the soil and lugging bag after bag of good mulch to give the trees nutrients and protection while getting established. The Trees for Stream Program contributed to the purchase of the trees and additional support came from the High Meadows Fund and HB Energy Solutions, as well as ECO AmeriCorps, which sent a crew of volunteers to lend a strong hand on planting day.

By mid-summer, Devin Smith estimated that 80 to 90 percent of the trees planted were established and growing—a very good survival rate. The permaculture practice of heavy mulching surely helped the young seedlings survive a long dry spell at the beginning of the season. Interestingly, Conservation Commission member Peter Bergstrom notes that the rapid growth of knotweed—perhaps the most thoroughly despised invasive in our region—seemed to have offered much-needed shade for them as well. Maybe nature knows something we need to understand?

What we often call “invasive species” are in some cases simply opportunistic pioneers that spontaneously appear to naturally and slowly rebuild soils when a damaged ecosystem strives to recover. Devin Smith maintains that, “The often untold story is that in New England 80 percent of the land was cleared. We are not looking at the forest that was originally here. Ecology happens, no matter what—thank goodness it does! We need to learn to work with what is, as we try to become better stewards.”

Small Acts Permaculture’s plan for the Saxtons River project is to improve the health and resilience of the site while addressing a constellation of ecological issues. SAP is focused on bringing in even more edible native floodplain species, such as hackberry, blueberry, elderberries, and chokecherry. The group hopes to eventually enlist landowners adjacent to the site to participate in an effort to create connectivity and wildlife corridors along the river. A second planting being planned for next spring will expand the riparian area to at least 35 feet from the banks. Long-term goals are to make the site a place where there is immediate community engagement with the important issues of conservation and ecological restoration in our region—always with a focus on the three Basic Ethics of Permaculture: care of the earth, care of the people, and share of the wealth.
Small Acts Permaculture meetings are open to all.

They generally take place on the third Sunday of each month, downstairs in the Saxtons River Community Building (located at Christ’s Church) at 501 Main Street. You can also follow the progress of the Saxtons River riparian site at their Facebook page:
Small Acts Permaculture.

About the Author

Bonnie North

Bonnie North

Bonnie North came to Vermont from Maryland, where she published a local foods guide called Baltimore Eats. She was a founding member of the Chesapeake Sustainable Business Alliance and the leader of the Baltimore chapter of Slow Food, USA. As the former owner of Valley Provisions Market in Bellows Falls, she was one of the investing members and first business customers of the Windham Farm and Food network. Bonnie received her Permaculture Designer’s Certificate in 1996, studying with West Coast teachers Jude Hobbs, Rick Valley, and Tom Ward. She received a Permaculture Teacher’s Certificate from teacher Dave Jacke in 2010. She now lives in southern Vermont.

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