Vernal Restor(y)ation!

Kelly McMenimen writes about a permaculture school project turning a problem site into a beautiful frog  habitat – an inspiring  lesson in small and slow solutions.

I feel so good about this newly-regenerated vernal pond!  Many years ago there was a vernal pond behind the school where I work which provided wetland habitat for frogs and herons and all different species of wildlife.  Then the school built a gym.  When they excavated the site for the gym I guess they looked around for a good place to dump the dirt and someone said, “Hey, there’s a big depression behind the school.  Why don’t we dump it there?”  Result:  The contours of the land got unconsciously changed around.  The next spring, there was no more vernal pond, no place for the frogs and herons to do their thing, and a bunch of unhappy children and teachers.  Also, there was a new and very inconvenient “swamp” that began to form every spring right next to one of the buildings, because the water that used to be captured and sunk into the ground by the vernal pond had inadvertently been redirected there.

I was part of the team of community permaculturists who came up with a site design for the backyard area of the school and one of the things many of us were excited about was the prospect of restoring the vernal pond.  Permaculture asks us to deeply observe what is already happening before we begin to make inputs, so I spent a lot of time in the autumn roaming around the site, checking out the contours of the land, investigating the clues to flow patterns of different elements (wind, water, wildlife, etc.).  It does not rain here in the fall, but through observation I could clearly identify places where rainwater was regularly eroding straight down a hillside rather than flowing more gradually toward the vernal pond.  There was a path along the hill which had seemingly had a creek running along it at one point.  It was the obvious channel to open up to allow the runoff from from the hillside and the property above to flow to the pond area rather than straight down the hill or into the storm drain (it was doing both).  One day I and the school CFO/grounds manager, Bruce, took a walk up on the hillside to investigate, and he told me about the swamp that had formed next to the building the previous spring, during his first year working at the school.  He expressed his concerns about repeated build-up of water next to the building which was likely to mess with the foundation eventually.

“It will be easy enough to dig out the pond a bit and then to channel the water back toward the pond along this trail,” I said.  He didn’t have experience with such things, and he was the one who would be held responsible for the results of any changes, so he was more wary.  “We’ll have to get an engineer in here to tell us what’s the best thing to do.  That will have to wait a while, though.  It could cost a good bit of money.”

“Hmmmm.  I’m not sure that’s necessary,” I said.  Then I let it drop.

I felt frustrated by his comment about needing to bring in an engineer.  I was pretty sure, based upon my observations and my experience/education as a permaculturist, that the restoration of the vernal pond could be a pretty simple matter.  Were we really going to have to get bureaucrats involved?  That could take years.  And I felt that any state-hired engineers were almost sure to do more harm than good, unless they were also permaculturists.  Let’s just try it out with shovels and common sense and observation, I thought.  Least change for greatest effect is a permaculture principal that felt applicable.

And I was well aware that there were others for whom it would mean a lot to restore the pond sooner rather than later.   I work in one of the classrooms, the fourth and fifth grade.  The teacher, Marlo, had had the children in our class draw up visions of their own designs for the backyard area of the school.  Every one of their designs had had beautiful depictions of a vernal pond supporting many species.  In addition, we have a group of restless boys in there who haven’t had a lot of success stories—they needed some good work to do.

But after that conversation I began to doubt myself.  Maybe Bruce was right.  Maybe I could really mess something up if I started changing things around without the go-ahead of some official authority figure. Internalized oppression took over and made me doubt that I actually knew anything.  And anyway, even if my informed intuition about what to do was right, there was still no point in trying, I thought.  Bureaucracy always makes anything worth doing impossible to do, so why waste my energy trying?  Perhaps I should give up on my power to make a difference to this landscape, and just let the authority figures work it out their way.

But there was also in my head the memory of my inspiring teacher, Penny Livingston, telling stories of re-charging springs and restoring wetlands, stories of her ever-growing relationship with water and the empowerment it gives her to understand the ways of this element that can be either destructive or life-giving.  And there was the inspiring vision of Erik Ohlsen’s backyard in Sebastopol that he transformed from hard pan into a verdant little piece of heaven in less than three years, largely because he learned to work with the flows of water across his land. Along with these inspiring memories came a more hopeful voice in my head.   Wait for the rains.  When the rains come, you will know more. 

So I waited.  And waited.  We all waited.  The rains—where were the rains?  I started singing water songs with the children in our class–an African prayer for rain, English songs celebrating rain…  The first grade teacher started teaching rain songs in Spanish.  We made a rain mandala on the playground with the neighboring school program (that’s another sweet story).  I read about other schools and churches and tribal groups and communities around the country singing rain songs and doing rain dances together, finding a 1000 ways to pray for rain.

Finally the rains came.  Everything that had been holding its breath began to breathe again.

The challenge - to redirect the water and restore the landscape
The challenge – to redirect the water and restore the landscape

A few days into the rains, which were coming and going, it was band day at school.  The boys who were supposed to go to band practice forgot their instruments, so they couldn’t go.  The classroom teacher had another project that she was doing with the girls and all the boys were restless.  “Can we please go outside?” the boys were asking me.  It was raining off and on, but in a Waldorf-inspired school we don’t let that stop us.  “Let’s go!” I told the boys.  I led them out to the hillside so we could see what the water was doing.  Sure enough, it was running straight down the hillside, gouging a huge, erosive channel as it went, and pooling beside the building in an unwanted swamp.  It was just what the land and Bruce’s previous observations had indicated would happen.

All right, that’s it, I thought.  These boys need good work to do, and there is good work that needs to be done.  What harm can we do with shovels that couldn’t just as easily be undone?  I made an empowered decision. We were going to go for it.  Better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.

I led the boys to the shed, gave them each a shovel, and told them to follow me.  We went up on the hill and observed how the water was channeling down the hill.  “What do you suppose we need to do to get the water flowing over to where we want the pond to be?” I asked.  For the next two hours, six boys and I observed and thought and dug and experimented, opening and expanding a faint creek channel that had obviously either been there before or else had been trying to form.  When a group of the boys got tired, I sent them down the hill to start digging out the pond, so that it would hold the water when the water got to it.

The water would collect in holes and then spill over again down the hillside, and we kept digging a channel for it, finding out as we went how deep it needed to be and trying to respect the slight curves of the natural flow form that already partly existed.  By the end of the two hours, a couple of us had opened the entire channel and it was beginning to fill up the small vernal pond that the others were digging in the clay soil where the previous pond had stood.  In doing this, we also stopped the erosive chute of water that was tearing into the hillside and filling up the swamp.  Now the swamp was already receding.

It was a lesson in physics.  It was a lesson in the power of good, hard work that is directed toward a goal.  It was a lesson in determination.  It was a lesson in re-channeling energy that was flowing in a destructive way and directing it in a way that is of service to Earth, to life.   I don’t think those boys could ever have a more meaningful day of school.  And we were all elated. (I wish I had taken photos that day!)

I saw Bruce at the end of the day and it was perfect, because I was exuberant and completely certain now that I had done the right thing.  Bruce is a very reasonable man and he saw what we had done and how well it was already working and he was delighted.   I could almost hear his thought:  What could possibly go wrong with some boys with shovels, that we couldn’t easily fix?

Frog pond and landscape restored with good observation and people power
Frog pond and landscape restored with good observation and people power

Well, a lot could go right.  And it did.  See for yourself.  And I already heard a frog. Next we are going to plant some trees!

Guess we don’t have to hire that engineering firm after all.

That’s Permaculture working.

(Note:  I got sick shortly after this, and I didn’t go back to school for days.  The other teacher, Marlo, took all the kids out and added their labor to what I and the boys had initiated.   What you can see in the photos are the results of our combined efforts.)

Brigid Kelly McMenimen studied permaculture with Robyn Francis and Penny Livingstone-Stark at RDI, Bolinas California, USA.

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