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In Consideration of Where I Come From and a Look at Spirals of Erosion

“Anything that we value, but that is being progressively lost; from soil to silence, from biodiversity to darkness, from trees to a sense of purpose, can be studied to help us identify the root causes of these problems.”  Aryana, Permaculture Design

This is what I aim for as a permaculture designer—studying the root causes before I step into action—and/or—-putting the brakes on during the process to do even more study and consideration.  Another step in permaculture design that travels hand-in-hand with observation rather than interpretation, is evaluating why any given thing doesn’t work and where we can make different choices.  An illustration in Permaculture Design, depicts a reinforcing feedback loop focusing on people and their food supply.  This shows a feedback loop which spirals out of control, from growing human population to need for more food, to creating more sunny land, to cutting trees, to loss of biomass and fertility along with less productive land and lower productivity; then spiraling into traveling further for more biomass, taking more time, not being able to support ourselves….whew!

Hand-print Series: Seeds © `penny O’Krebiehl 2013

Looking at the illustration in the design book doesn’t freak me out, but it does anchor me in the pondering place of knowing that I’m a seed-tree-plant based garden-farmer with a concern and question I have about one of my family’s favorite foods which is: “Where will I get my bacon from?”.
“Our aim in in permaculture is to turn spirals of erosion into spirals of abundance and productivity….” Looby Macnamara, People and Permaculture.

Instead of panicking or skimming over this feedback loop which resonates with my food supply concerns, as well as my livelihood as a market-garden-farmer, I spiral into a place of looking at my history of where my food comes from, my own roots—which influenced my behavior about what I eat and how grow it, and where I get what I can’t grow.  Even though I may have to give up pork, someday, I live and work and plan to stay put in a small urban setting here in North West Michigan, and I have great fondness for where I grew up in a small, farming community near Lansing, Michigan.

My dad, John Krebiehl in his mighty pumpkin patch back along the edge of our property and a nearby swampy area.


My original, home-place in Laingsburg was about 10 miles out of town, near the Looking Glass River, a branch of the Grand River flowing just a mile or two south of our rural ten acres.  It was a beautifully rich, wooded area  with only about four homes on our dirt road. No pig farmers, but a chicken farmer lived right down the road, and my friend Debbie Hurst and her family had milk cows a mile or so away.  My parents mostly relied on the industrial food chain to feed our family of eighth, and my Dad a blue-collar Oldsmobile worker, did his best to supplement us with an annual veggie garden, and an assortment of well-tended and blessed, fruit-bearing trees.

Along with my Dad’s influence and pride in the little time he had to spend gardening, my first garden-farming skills were learned through my adventuring and foraging in the fields and woods, as well as my involvement with 4-H in the summer. At the edge of our 10 acre field, I discovered a group of hazelnut bushes and up and down the road there were several old hickory nut trees.  My brother raised chickens, rabbits and pigeons off and on, and both he and my dad hunted for squirrel, pheasant and deer in the fall.  But mostly for food, my parents did the best they could to keep up with our growing family and shopped at an industrial food chain store in Lansing, and a little family owned business Mahoney’s Market in Laingsburg.  It wasn’t until after I left home, at 18, that through harvesting what I tended in a community garden plot in Lansing, that I began to learn to preserve and can food from my garden.

In this past year, I’ve gone way back further still, in regards to my early influences of living rurally and my connections to a portion of land.  I recently did a bit of research and came across information that in the late 1700‘s through the 1800‘s my home-place was a thru-way for travelers, along the abundant lake and river systems, a source of fresh fish and other food sources.  Within a few short miles along the Looking Glass River, was also a favored camping site for the Sagninaw Chippewa people of the the Ojibwa nation. Just a few miles east of my home Chief John Okemos was born in Shiawassee County and just west of my home, is his burial site.  Through the widened lens of system thinking, I take a long look backwards at how the land and the people interconnect and intersect, and this definitely and positively influences my choices in the present day, mostly giving me hope and a reality check.

Even though this is a bit of a twisty-turny side trip, it leads me back to looking at where my food comes from and our hand-to-mouth food-system existence on the planet.  I’m thankful for my upbringing and the space/place I had to wander and explore.  I’m incredibly grateful for my parental units growing, and finding/buying the food they did to nourish our family.  The land and the place where my initial observations and patterns of food systems occurred have influenced me as a human-designer.  And now, taking a deeper look/revisit to my roots, allows me to ground my decisions to begin the design process again.  And without judgement or interpretation, take a look at the deep-deep root of the industrial-age-problem I’ve been born into. Of how I’ve “become the food that I eat”. Observing and letting go of what didn’t work, what isn’t replenishing and providing in a necessary way of ecological choice-making.  I can be a garden-farmer and wandering food gatherer as both my Dad and ways Chief Okemos may have practiced.  I do not have to support the industrial food-system any longer, a system that I know is not working.  And I can continue to realistically plan steps to help my family and neighbors do this as well.

“At a time when the world is more messy, more crowded, more interconnected, more inter-dependent, and more rapidly changing than ever before, the more ways of seeing, the better.  The systems-thinking lens allows us to reclaim our intuition about whole systems and

  • hone our abilities to understand parts,
  • see interconnections
  • ask “what if” questions about possible future behaviors, and
  • be creative and courageous about system-redesign

Then we can use our insights to make a difference in ourselves and our world. “  
Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems

I find a great deal of passion-creativity and solace in being able to back-paddle through these complexities I’ve encountered in the holon of food system upon food systems in my life so far.  It’s like a treasure map of discovery.  And as Donella Meadows points out above, by taking time to consider system thinking  I can use these “insights to make a difference in ourselves and our world.”

This understanding leads me back to my current work and a place of designing a combination of a rural-urban food system with my personal design project through the O’k CSA and Market Garden and LLOOF program here in Traverse City.  It also sets a connective tone for my work this weekend at the Northern Michigan Small Farm Conference, as I do my graphic-recording/note-taking with other folks working towards integrated, whole-system design on their small farms.

About to be fried, a lovely gift of cured bacon from Bakers’ Green Acres.

P.S.  Currently my bacon, pictured here, comes from Baker’s Green Acres, which means I can thankfully stick to urban garden-farming with perennial and annual veggie, fruit and herb/flower growing, including the Baker’s farm in my families’ food system.

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Brokenness and Merit, Food and Cars: The Beautiful Attraction of it All

Spirit of Hope Church, Spirit Farm, 1519 MLK Jr. Blvd.—“A tire labyrinth because there are lot’s of tires laying around…”so says, farmer Kate.

During a lovely weekend in Spring 2012, I traveled away from my Northern Michigan home-place by Grand Traverse Bay to Detroit to be with gardeners, farmers and folks educating themselves about basic human needs.  The theme or reason for me to travel to Detroit was meeting folks who are growing food….or “Greening” Detroit.  Community gardening and food growing in Detroit is something that has been going on for awhile, and it was quite delightful to visit city-farms in full swing and spring-bloom.  I met longtime garden-farming residents and folks of all ages that are re-crafting their lives and livelihoods around setting up gardens, farms and going to market to feed themselves and their families and others.

Stephanie Rock, intern @ Brother Nature Farm

When I visit Detroit, I do see the vastness of human-made and industrial waste–but I also see and feel beautiful possibility in this place. I recognize in myself an interest and attraction to the “Re’s”, as in need of repair, reconnection, rekindling…..It may be connected to my practice and skills as an artist and designer.  Someone who spends a lot of time in the fascinating land of “aha” moments of seeing all the bits and pieces of a whole, and beginning to understand the immense ways that life composts what needs to be composted, while re-generating itself and putting out, giving what needs to be given.

Jason Dudycha and I sitting on his new-old homeplace in Hamtramak. Jason left the Tc area, returning to Detroit this summer to take a job as a garden program manager for the Growtown organization.

During my garden touring and farmer friend connections I was able to visit the DIA  with my friends and my daughter, and spend time with the Detroit Industry mural.  The mural pictured in part below, created by Diego Rivera,  connects the car-making industry and factories—filled with bits and pieces of human and car-parts—with the hands and bodies that gather them, fit them, build them—and with the food that fuels the workers.  I believe these frescoes, painted in 1932-1933, in addition to “representing the idea that all actions and ideas are one” are also a fore-telling of three very important areas we are present day dealing with regarding energy, economy and the environment. A story recorded on a wall.

The Detroit Industry Murals are a series of frescoes by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, consisting of twenty-seven panels depicting industry at the Ford Motor Company. This panel depicts laborers working at Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant.

I love the panel below, as it moves from dim and grim gray colors, changing over from factory-working-men and machine to colorful, sensual images of food and women giving birth. The caption on the mural wall with part of this image is “infant in the bulb of a plant”.

I believe this is the atrium panel to the North, when you walk into this space….a description on one portion reads “infant in the bulb of the plant”…
Photograph (of a photograph) of Diego Rivera working on the Detroit Industry mural.

Art and my experiences with it, have always fueled and nourished me, helped me to understand the world all around.  And now, after dozens of trips to Detroit, and viewing of this 27 panel mural, I ask myself questions about the present day—which I believe can honestly be applied in any place, any hometown across this country.  Detroit has always been news worthy on many levels of awesomeness, and does grab a lot of media attention, but it really is a “home” town too. It’s grabbed mine since my country life childhood, with a few trips to visit my 90 + year old Uncle Lon, another artist and gardener living in the Detroit suburbs; listening to the Tigers; and, especially when I walk into the atrium of the Detroit Institute of Arts and get a whiff or glimpse of Rivera’s vision of Detroit’s “industry”.

My dad, John Krebiehl, retired millwright from the Oldsmobile plant in Lansing (taken in 2010).

I’m a life-long resident of Michigan and come from a family of blue-collar Oldsmobile workers and farmers.  The questions I ask myself and others are definitely influenced from my life experience of connecting cars and food, my up-bringing in a little farming community In Laingsburg.  They are also coming from a place of seeing friends and family, like Jason and Stephanie that are a present day part of the greening of Detroit. My questions also come from the basic four areas in realizing or choosing to call a place home and what we need: food, water, shelter and community:   What kind of story is this gathering of people, living/working in Detroit telling in it’s brokenness? What merit does this broken, human-made car-industry-city in South East Michigan hold for all of us Reconnoiters in our home-places?  Are you attracted to places like Detroit…or a believer in the merit of brokenness, and why?

Seems to me like there is significant merit to “being with the broke”.  In the words of one of my young artist friends, “We are mere mortals after all.” and we “are all compost”.  As a parental unit of two twenty-somethings trying to find their way as a part of the working class wanting to have food on their tables, these questions are burning through my consciousness every day, regardless of where I’m at.

Harvesting carrots and broccoli from one of my Tc Neighborhood gardens, Nov. 2012.

Especially right now, as some of us may only feel crumbling on the edges or in far-away places or in news stories, while others of us feel it up close, personal and an everyday experience.  My life-long love of bits and pieces and connecting this to that gives me a fairly positive outlook in our human ability to deal with difficulty as our industrial way of being comes to a close.  Like rolling up my sleeves with the folks pictured below and planting three neighborhood gardens in Traverse City.

A Summer 2012 photo of three new Tc neighborhood gardens going in, supporting a Friday Market and eight family shares in the O’k CSA.

From Detroit to Traverse City, with massive changes in the car industry that supported my family in the past, to the places and people I’ve encountered recently, perceived as broken or otherwise, all point to the re-beginning of a new way to be. Re-using stuff to build what we need to grow our own food, makes sense and has merit to many of us, and may even involve making art out of car-parts.

In my Tc neighborhood and next door to my apartment, the Hobbit Greenhouse has been winterized and cobbled together with a straw foundation with plans for winter greens growing contentedly inside.


Car hood panel in the outdoor “garden” known as the Heidelberg Project in Detroit.