Waste Not (front of Compost Toilet)
Our oak that recently passed
Our oak that recently passed

Last year, we lost a good friend and foundational member of our homestead–an ancient white oak with a giant burl. She overlooked the stream and I used to sit on a rock near her to meditate.  When she fell, she took out part of the hillside with her along with a number of smaller maples.  Since that time we have observed how things have changed–the adaptation of the stream to a slightly different flow pattern, the mushrooms that have come in to colonize her and break her down, the wildlife patterns, and the other trees that are now pushing up through the opened gap in the canopy.  We’ve also come to use some of the resources she created–the fallen maples turned into the wood for our earth oven shelter, for example.  In other words, this beautiful oak’s passing allowed a new phase of the cycle of life.  Nothing from this giant’s passing will be wasted–the ecosystem will help transition this oak to resources to be used by all.

The story of our ancient oak demonstrates a key permaculture principle, often cited in two different ways “waste is a resource” or “produce no waste.”  These two statements are two takes on the same permaculture principle, looking to nature’s wisdom to find ways of eliminating waste and/or making waste a resource to use in your designs.

In the last few weeks, we have explored connections between the “outer” practices of permaculture design and the “inner” spiritual philosophy of animism.  What these posts have revealed is that there are rich connections to be made between the two practices–allowing a deeper interconnection between yourself, the world of nature, and the world of spirit.  To see earlier posts in this series, you can visit: introduction to animism, biocentrism as a core part of nature spirituality, animistic permaculture ethics, and connecting to the genius loci of the land.  In today’s post, we’ll tackle another core principle that helps us understand animistic permaculture practice: examining our relationship to waste.

Produce No Waste / Waste is a Resource

In permaculture, re-examining waste streams and how we can create cyclical uses of resources is a major part of the work, particularly as we live in a culture that–by design–works to create copious amounts of waste. A waste stream found in typical modern culture flows in a line–it is extracted, processed, sold/used, and then discarded. Our entire global economy is based on the idea that stuff is extracted and cycles very quickly through to be discarded. This creates the cash flows that allow the engines of “progress” to churn. The original Story of Stuff Movie really puts this whole idea of waste into perspective and shows the incredible problems with it–I highly recommend you check it out if you haven’t already.  In a nutshell, these waste streams destroy ecosystems and habitats, produce enormous amounts of pollution, decrease the quality of life for everyone on this planet, and ultimately threaten all life on this planet.

Beautiful finished compost--a resource!
Beautiful finished compost–a resource!

Permaculture design tackles this waste problem head-on by looking to nature for guidance. As my opening story of the fallen oak tree shared, in a healthy ecosystem, there is no waste.  A healthy ecosystem has ways of recycling, cycling, and repurposing every single drop of water, nutrient, and organic matter so that they continue to cycle through.  If a deer passes in the forest, carrion eaters will come (worms, turkey vultures, opossum, foxes, coyote, etc) and start to immediately break down the body. As time passes, all of what was the deer is returned to the land or ends up in someone’s belly. With plant matter it is no different–as soon as a tree falls, the mycelial spores, bugs, borers, and other decomposition specialists come in and eventually turn that tree back into rich soil. And maybe an enterprising human is there to harvest some wood for shelter or heat These systems are part of the healthy life cycle of a forest–nothing is wasted.  Traditional human cultures were not separate from these cycles of life but were fully integrated into them.

Permaculture practitioners look to these natural cyclical cycles to turn waste streams into resources and to move from the line into the circle. This is a major practice and one that can be very challenging living in a culture that produces waste–but is so worth doing.  For example, at our homestead, we have a fairly robust composting system.  Our system where any food scraps go into our chicken coop (this would include any food at all that is salvageable, including scraps from canning, soup bones, everything).  The chickens are amazing scavengers and will eat about anything. What isn’t turned into eggs by our birds gets broken down through their pecking and scratching action. In the winter, we continue to feed the chickens any food scraps we can get our hands on.  As the snows and ice fall, the birds don’t like to walk in it, so we layer fall leaves and straw into the coop. These layers build up, and in the spring, we muck the whole thing out and pile it up.  In one year’s time, the compost pile is ready to use in our gardens.  In this case, we cycle many things that could be seen as waste: food scraps, fall leaves, and chicken poop–are all turned into nutrient-rich compost for use in our gardens.  Other examples of waste into resources is humanure, ecobricks, and general repurposing. But the other philosophy here is working not to produce waste to begin with–so examining what comes into our home, such as one-use plastics, and working to eliminate them.

Thus, the produce no waste principle examines both ends of a waste stream–what comes in, how it is used/extended, and what goes out.

Sounds great, right?  Now let’s apply the lens of animism to this whole principle.

Re-thinking Waste and Honoring the Spirit of all Things

So, if the environmental reasons for reducing and eliminating waste streams in your life aren’t enough to convince you to rethink waste, the animistic side adds an entirely different dimension.  As a reminder, the fundamental perspective in animism is that things have spirit–that includes both things that are natural (birds, rivers, mountains, stones) as well as things that come from nature, including human-made things (plastic bottles, computers, cars, etc). If all things in the world have spirit, then it is important to recognize and honor the spirits present in all things. That plastic straw from the local restaurant? Spirit. The one-use plastic bag your grapes came in? Spirit.  That box that your package came in? Spirit.

A depiction of a nature spirit

If all things have spirit and we want to honor all spirits and the land that has offered up resources, then figuring out how to do this in a meaningful way is critical. When you start thinking this way, it really changes everything for you–you recognize that all of these so called “disposable” things not only came from nature (meaning, almost certainly, that life of some form was given to make them) but that they themselves inherently deserve respect and dignity as spiritual entities.  Is it appropriate to send them to the landfill, to discard them as though they were meaningless? I’m not so sure you can any longer. Meditate on that a while–and then figure out what you are going to do with it.

Further, waste is as much about a mindset as it is an embodied practice–when we label something trash or waste, that changes our relationship with it. It is no longer important to us, just something to throw away or discard. By recognizing all waste streams as resources, we honor the land that offered the resources, and we are able to continue to keep these things in a cycle in our lives. If we recognize waste as having spirit, it means we are more likely to figure out how to get more use out of it.

There are deep and profound implications to all of this.  I’ll also say that you can really get overwhelmed with this line of thinking, so I also suggest taking small steps here us vert productive.  Recognizing everything has spirit and waste is a resource allows you to shift your behavior and actions.  But there’s also so much waste, and often in places we don’t necessarily have the ability to intervene in (e.g. family, workplace, community) that we have to recognize that we can do the best we can do.

Outer and Inner Practices

Examining Ways to Cycle Waste Streams:  So on the outer level, finding ways to eliminate and/or reduce waste and cycle waste streams is a big part of this work.  You honor the spirit of all things when you cycle them and not throw them away.  Obviously, each of our own lives is different and what we have access to is different.  But here are some suggestions that you can consider:

  • Examining purchases and shifting to less waste-driven options. For things you must buy, look to buy the things that are the least waste-intensive. The good news is that there are a whole range of plastic-free options these days, particularly in the area of toilet paper, home cleaning supplies, and food–staples that everyone uses.  By shifting to more waste-free options, this allows you to generate less waste that is problemeatic.
  • Composting: for those in urban environments, there are often options to join compost co-ops.  Suburban environments may allow for small tumblers or other systems, while those in rural settings can establish piles, use animals to assist, etc.  Vermicompost is an excellent alternative for those in urban or suburban environments; see my post on this practice here.
  • Ecobricks and zero waste: Ecobricks are a fabulous way to take personal responsibility for plastic and allow you to address non-recyclable plastic like films, etc, that are almost unavoidable in modern life. You can save them for your own projects or donate them to existing projects (visit the ecobrick site for more information)
  • Sheet mulching: a great way to use up cardboard and paper, leaves, other yard “waste”, and build healthy garden beds.  You can sheet mulch anytime, and if you are getting too many weeds, sheet mulch again to ensure a weed-free planting area.
  • Mending and fixing: finding ways of mending and repairing things that could otherwise be thrown away (like holey wool socks) can help you honor the spirit in things and make things last longer.  Skills like mending, darning, and small item repair are invaluable–and allow you to connect with the spirit.
  • Others’ waste: You can also find ways of repurposing and using what others consider waste.  Dumpster diving, gathering up fall leaves put on the curb, buying used and second hand, are all great options here.

These are just some of many options to think about how to eliminate the waste stream line, make things last longer, and honor those things that are already present in our lives.

The earth oven with repurposed wood
The earth oven with repurposed wood

Building Resource Systems into your design:  A second thing here to do is to look at the unavoidable waste streams that you currently produce and find ways of turning those waste streams into resources.  There are so many options here, and it requires your creativity and ingenuity to figure out ways of cycling waste. Consider what waste streams you may have access to, which you can intervene in, and which you can transform.  There are so many options here–you can look at waste streams from work, from your own life, from organizations you belong to, and find ways of channeling those into resources

For my own permaculture practice here at the Druid’s Garden homstead, we work hard to create systems that use all of the resources that we produce.  I shared our chicken compost system above as one such example.  Another example is the duck swale system.  We live on a big hill, with our garden being downhill.  When we wanted to get ducks, we knew we would be emptying water every day, which could be a waste stream–we put the ducks above the garden and dug a swale–so each time the duck waters are changed, the water goes into the garden (where we grow celery, watercress, and other water-loving veggies).  It works beautifully and our celery is some of the largest I’ve ever seen!  More on that here.

Acknowledging the Spirit of Things in Use: On the inner side, we can work to acknowledge and honor the spirit of things. Another part of this is simply to acknowledge the spirit present in the resources you are using.  This past week, I was finishing the shelter on my earth oven–and I took time to acknowledge and honor the new materials I was using–two sheets of metal roofing and the screws, as well as our impact driver.  I thanked each of the pieces of sheet metal and thanked each of the screws as I drove them into the metal.  I was nervous about finishing this project by myself, but I felt like in acknowledging each screw, they were on my side and helped me accomplish the goal. When I was done building the structure, I thanked the entire structure, and once again, honored the wood that I had harvested when the tree fell.  These small things made a huge difference–I had the help of these materials as I worked to build the shelter.  They went from inanimate objects that were means to an end and moved into a relationship with me–and I can continue to acknowledge them as I use the oven and have gratitude for the shelter.

Ceremony to Honor the Spirit of things that will go to the landfill: There are times when no amount of repurposing will save something that is broken and beyond repair.  Or, things are out of your control but you are also involved in a situation where something will be taken down/destroyed, etc.  If this is the case and something must go to the landfill, I like to do a small ceremony to acknowledge the spirit and thank them for their influence in my life.  This is a nice way of simply saying “I see you, I acknowledge you, and thank you.”  For example, at work, we literally had to move into a new building, and the old building will be torn down. While I know that much of the valuable stuff (doors, metal, etc) will be stripped from the building, I also recognize that there’s a lot of that building that will end up in the landfill.  During my last visit to the building a few weeks ago, I sat on the floor in our old space and simply thanked the building–I thanked the materials, stone, wood, and synthetic, that made our space what it was.  I acknowledged the spirit and wished them well as they transitioned to their next existence and eventually went back to the land.  It was very informal (particularly because I was at work) but it allowed me to acknowledge the spirits present and thank them.  This simple gesture

Conclusion

I’ve really only scratched the surface of the kinds of ways that you can consider waste as a resource and begin working towards an animistic view of permauclture. I would love to hear some stories and further ideas based on what is presented here–what have you found with regards to animism and waste? What works well for you?

6 Comments

  1. Beautiful compost; we do the same. A valuable post, thank you. I want to add that dying trees are also their own habitats for wood beetles and others who actually depend on dead wood for survival. We leave stumps when safe, and trees when we can, and watch nature’s clean up crews do their work.

    1. Hi Caroline, thanks for the comment! I agree–we try to leave standing or fallen dead trees as much as possible as well. It is amazing to see how in a few short years, the trees are covered with mushrooms, holes for homes, insects, and more!

  2. Love a good compost. Great article. Thanks for sharing! 🌱😁

    1. Thank you! 🙂

  3. Don’t forget lasagna gardening, also known as lasagna composting. You more than cardboard to create a more nutrient- rich mulch for your soil.

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