Food Forests, Functional Interconnection, and Self-Regulating Health
Good morning from New England. This is the Renewal Rundown. Each month, I share a few updates, ideas, and sources of inspiration on applying self-renewal to ourselves and the world around us.
It’s been a challenging month. I knew moving was hard but underestimated the toll it would take this time. Turns out uprooting your life with a 10-month-old is a different beast. At least she seems unfazed by the chaos.
One bright spot has been exploring our new property and the surrounding forest. Most mornings I take our daughter and dogs for a walk in the woods behind our house. As I walk onto the trail, my breath slows and my mind empties. The running list of to-dos fades away. I smell the pines, hear the rustle of leaves, and taste the crisp winter air. I feel grateful and settled, for at least a moment.
I reach my favorite part of the woods. An old stone wall emerges unexpectedly, surrounded by overgrowth. The trees seem to swallow it up. My mind wanders to someone building it hundreds of years ago. I picture what the landscape looked like then, cleared for pasture or production. I smile imagining the forest slowly reclaiming the land. Nature rebuilding a vibrant ecosystem.1
Visions of a Food Forest
I’ve been thinking a lot about ecology as I study the land around our house. My vision is to build a vibrant food forest, an edible garden that mimics a forest to become a self-sustaining ecosystem:
“Land health is the capacity for self-renewal in the soils, waters, plants, and animals that collectively comprise the land.” - Aldo Leopold2
To do this, we’ll add not only edible plants that regrow year after year but also plants that capture and recycle nutrients into the soil. We’ll combine fruit trees and berries with nitrogen-fixing shrubs and deep-rooted plants that gather nutrients from below to enhance the soil. We’ll add groundcover to minimize weeds, plants that produce mulch, and find ways to help retain water. Hopefully, all of this invites beneficial insects, birds, and animals to come and contribute to the diverse ecosystem. Eventually, we’ll incorporate chickens and perhaps other animals.
Since the goal is to minimize the need for external fertilizer and supplemental water, I’ll try to design the food forest so it can persist without outside inputs. Given the complexity of the task, we may never reach this ideal but its fun to strive toward it.
The Burden of Intervention
To learn as much as I can, I’m soaking up Edible Forest Gardens which provides a deep dive into the ecology and design of self-renewing gardens.
One concept they describe is “Shifting the burden to the intervenor”. Anytime we intervene with a self-regulating system, we're signing up to bear the burden of maintaining it. Even if we prevent visible repercussions, we often decrease the system's ability to regulate and sustain itself. Instead of a self-renewing system, we create dependency on ourselves to prevent decay. We sign up to take on greater responsibility and expend more effort to make it work.
The proposed antidote to the burden of intervention in Edible Forest Gardens is Functional Interconnection:
“Wild ecosystems contain webs of cooperation and interdependence that help generate the emergent system properties of stability, resilience, and harmony.
Such healthy systems create no waste and generate no pollution because the inherent by-products of every living thing become food for some other living thing.
They take no outside work to maintain because the networked system of elements regulates fluctuations in the ecosystem and its populations.
In this way, we design a food forest to be a networked ecosystem where the components meet the needs of each other. We shift the responsibility and work back to the garden itself. We build in the capacity for self-renewal.
I read about these ideas in the context of gardening but my mind immediately went to the world of human health. More and more, people are relying on extreme interventions with the body. As a type 1 diabetic, I have a deep appreciation for modern medicine. I would be dead without it.
Caution with Miracle Drugs
Yet, I’m wary as I see the uptick in men doing testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) at younger and younger ages. I shudder as I see the explosion of interest in GLP-1 drugs for cosmetic weight loss.3 In both cases, doctors openly acknowledge that they only work if you continue to use them. Worse, they further impair your body's natural ability to produce testosterone or regulate weight.
If you haven’t heard much about these “miracle drugs” you will soon. Celebrities are taking them to rapidly transform their bodies. Tech thought leaders are using and hyping them up. I’m not saying these drugs don’t have value or are never appropriate. I’m highlighting the consequences and unknowns of intervention in a system as complex as the human body.
We should first exhaust all avenues to restore our bodies' self-regulating and self-renewing capacities. Nail down the foundational pieces like exercise, sleep, and nutrition. Explore everything across the full spectrum of physical, psychological, and spiritual healing. My friend just published a great list of A Dozen Ways to Live Real Good. My bet is many people who experiment with these for six months would discover they don’t need a lifetime of pharmacological intervention.
Healing with Psychedelics
An area of healing that I’m fascinated by is psychedelic medicine. Yes, it too is a form of intervention. Much of the same caution applies. Yet there are also ways in which they seem to be capable of helping the body heal itself in certain contexts. I just had Dr. Tracy Townsend join On Renewal to share her perspective on psychedelic medicine. I was particularly fascinated by her ideas about how psychedelics can create conditions to support more holistic healing and a sense of wholeness. Check it out:
On The Horizon
One of the things I’m most excited about this spring is taking 's course, Bring Your Land to Life. It’s a six-week deep dive into ecological thinking, soil regeneration, rainwater capture, and landscape design. Perfect timing as I begin to map out the vision of the food forest.
If you’d like to join me, Kristen has kindly offered a 15% discount to readers and listeners of On Renewal. Mention me or this newsletter when you apply and she’ll send you the code. I’m not part of a referral program or receiving any compensation for this, just a big fan. For more on Kristen's philosophy check out this clip from our On Renewal episode on Life-Giving landscapes.
Also on the horizon is a pilot course on Intuitive Fitness. Starting in March, I’m going run a four to six week experience on embracing embodied exercise in your own life.4 In the meantime, I’ve been publishing more on these ideas through the Intuitive Fitness newsletter. You can subscribe here: