“Permaculture is more than sustainable — it’s regenerative,” said Eeo Stubblefield, looking out across her yard, which is gradually taking shape as a permaculture farm in a wooded region off Woodstock’s Wittenberg Road. After many years as a performance artist and anti-war activist, Eeo has taken on permaculture as both an art and a means of radically transforming the world.
“It’s an ethical design science,” she explained. “The three main principles are care of others, care of the land, and return of surplus food to the community.” By using strategies learned from nature to maximize the productivity of the land, large amounts of food are produced in a small area, without the harmful side effects of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Through an online course with Geoff Lawton, protegé of permaculture pioneer Bill Mollisan, Eeo has been certified as a permaculturist and plans to turn her land into an educational center and demonstration farm.
As part of the certification process, she made a permaculture design for her own property, with the help of her ex-husband, graphic artist Joe Stubblefield. Eeo showed me the map, with long, curving rows of swales, which are water channels that follow the contours of the land, alternating with raised plantings. “Water runs perpendicular to the contours,” she said. “You want to catch as much water as possible and convey it by gravity to the plants.” The raised beds ensure that water will soak into the roots, where it’s needed.
A goal of permaculture is to make the farm self-supporting, without a need to bring in materials from the outside, so a system-wide recycling process is used. When trees are cut down to admit more sunlight to gardens, the logs not usable as firewood are laid down along the contours as a base for plantings. Branches, twigs, brush, and leaves are piled on top of the wood, along with weeds removed from the gardens. These materials will break down into soil for growing plants right in place, with the slowly rotting wood at the bottom retaining water. “Our topsoil on this planet is eroding,” said Eeo. “We need to be building soil everywhere.”
Now in her fourth year of permaculture farming, she came to the practice as a result of her involvement in Occupy Wall Street, where she helped run the kitchen that fed people at the protest site, Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. The Occupy movement gave her hope for the first time since the war with Iraq. Deeply troubled by the killing of Iraqi citizens, she had created performance art in which women shrouded in black (myself among them) created grass dolls to symbolize dead Iraqi children and paraded through Woodstock in mourning.
Everywhere she went, Eeo tried to talk to people about the horrors and injustice of the war. “I lost friends and was no longer invited places,” she said. “With Occupy, everything that no one had wanted to talk about for ten years was finally being discussed. I was ecstatic that the young people were rising up. When the park got closed down, because I was in the kitchen, I got connected to Occupy Farms,” the concept of applying the movement’s principles of economic justice to food production.
At a meeting about food activism in Woodstock, she heard the word “permaculture” for the first time. Research convinced her that permaculture is a powerful process for dealing with society’s problems, from climate change to starvation to depletion of water resources. “Being a food activist is the most pertinent thing I can do right now,” said Eeo. “It addresses everything I’m upset about but in a positive way. People don’t stop me from talking about it. And it’s the greatest inheritance I can give my granddaughter — not just this land, but I’m trying to give her a better planet.”
Eeo’s creativity, which generally involved elements of nature, now finds its outlet in sculpting the land and making garden structures. When she has to cull trees, she weaves some of the branches into trellises for growing vines. “I had a rich, long, fulfilled life as an artist,” she mused. “It’s okay to switch occupations and be a farmer. It makes me happy, and I know I’m doing good.”
Synchronicites have confirmed that she is on the right path. Her vegetable garden was formerly a flower bed, which fell into neglect during the Iraq War. “I was so distraught,” she said, “I couldn’t go in there while we were bombing people.” The garden became overrun with an invasive ground cover that replaced all the plants except for the white roses. Eeo later learned that the anti-Nazi resistance movement in Germany during World War II was called The White Rose. Their slogan was “We will not be silent.”
The farm is a work-in-progress. Eeo’s design calls for a greenhouse to be built on the south side of her passive solar home, with a shade house to the north, for drying plants and protecting the house from winter winds. Meanwhile, plastic takeout food containers make excellent mini-greenhouses for the seedlings she has started indoors for later planting in the garden.
There is already a pond in the yard, but other ponds are planned, to create holding areas for rainwater as it makes its way along the contours to the plants, decreasing the need to raid the aquifer by using well water. Parts of the property are destined for orchards, renamed “food forests,” where instead of monocultured fruit trees, she will plant a carefully balanced mix of trees, shrubs, vines, and perennials to yield fruits, nuts, berries, root vegetables, and pollinators.
The plans incorporate handicapped accessibility. Eeo wants to welcome people with disabilities to enjoy the property, especially people in facilities who would find it healing to plant, harvest, and bring home food. “Putting your hands in the soil is also good for depression,” she noted.
Eeo is doing most of the work herself, but a few friends help out regularly. Woodstocker Judy Whitfield, who goes by at least once a week, said, “It’s wonderful. When Eeo had trees taken down, one of my jobs was stripping the leaves off the limbs. In permaculture, everything has three purposes. The leaves would go in the compost, we’d use the limbs as trellises for beans, and I guess the third purpose was to give Judy a job.”
Whitfield has helped with planting seeds and sifting rocks from the soil for the kitchen garden, where salad and herbs grow outside the kitchen door. “We get a lot of food, and we give a lot of food away,” she said. “We share seedlings, and we have parties. There’s a huge beech tree we sit under when it’s hot. We got together for the eclipse, had dinner out there and sat out until 2 a.m. with binoculars. Everything happens in the garden.”
To inquire about permaculture, call Eeo Stubblefield at 845-594-6470 or email firstname.lastname@example.org with “visit farm” in the subject line.