Nature finds its balance
Learning from the past with veteran actor Carel Struycken
By Christopher Nyerges 08/06/2008
Carel Struycken has long been interested in the principles in permaculture, not only as it relates to growing fruits and vegetables but also in the perspective it casts on most human activities.
Struycken, who has lived in Pasadena for the past 25 years, is an actor who played Lurch in “The Addams Family,” as well as roles in “Star Trek,” “Men in Black,” “The Witches of Eastwick,” and others. He was born in Holland, grew up in the Caribbean and moved back to Holland at 15. We meet on the eve of his move to Catalina Island, to discuss his efforts at home food production and permaculture.
He shows me the Bible of permaculture, Bill Mollison’s “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual,” which details a way in which we can grow food and live with the land in accord with nature’s principles. (“Permaculture” is a coined term meaning “permanent agriculture.”)
“The whole idea of permaculture is to put in as little work as possible, and allow nature to find its balance,” says Strucken, who produced all the vegetables for a family of five for many years using these principles.
“I’m also a big fan of Fukuoka, author of ‘The One Straw Revolution.’ If I had the time, I’d love to go to Japan and work on his natural farm … and learn about his methods,” says Struycken.
Both Mollison and Fukuoka are advocates of natural farming, which means planting what is appropriate for the area, tilling as little as possible, letting all the leaves and old plants serve as fertilizer for the new plants, and using natural methods for bug control.
Using permaculture methods, Struycken grew lots of Asian greens, mostly those members of the mustard family that had the highest nutritional value. He grew herbs, tomatoes, yard-long beans, and 14 fruit trees.
He also experimented with raised beds because the soil in his garden area was so bad.
The smaller the plot, the harder it is to practice permaculture methods. Still, Struycken never raked up and discarded leaves.
All the kitchen scraps are recycled in many compost heaps, and he worked at cultivating the earthworms that naturally occurred in his yard so that they would do the tilling that farmers ordinarily do.
He purchased ladybugs years ago because they eat the “bad” insects, and he found that they like the fennel plants. So the secret to keeping ladybugs around is to grow fennel, explained Struycken.
Although Struycken has tried to produce all of his needed fertilizer from his own back yard, he has found the need occasionally to bring in chicken and horse manure for his crops. “I stopped using the horse manure, though,” he says, “since I found that it produced too many weeds.”
He said that though there were many spiders and bugs in the garden, whatever bugs ate his lettuce got eaten by some other bug. This is one of the basic principles of permaculture — that nature, largely left alone, will find its own balance.
Struycken, who has been in the movie business for about 30 years, wants to do a series of documentaries showing sustainable communities throughout the world.
“The Amish are the most successful sustainable farmers and they are using early 18th- century technologies,” he says with a smile.
Struycken pauses to explain the difference between Paleolithic and Neolithic in order to make a point.
“Humanoids have been around for at least a million years,” he explains, “and modern humans have been here maybe 500,000 years. The Paleolithics were the hunter/gatherers, and the Neolithics were those who were settled in one place and who began agriculture,” says Struycken.
“When we settled, we had to make the effort to force ourselves into the new mindset, but our true nature is Paleolithic,” Struycken explains.
The Paleolithics lived in the here and now, they were more primitive by our standards, but they controlled their populations, had fewer taboos and laws, had fewer possessions and managed to live on what the forest provided. He cites the Bushmen of the South African Kalahari as an example.
“Now, when you had agricultural and cow-raising people who lived adjacent to the primitive people, the Bushmen would rarely die of hunger, though the agricultural people would. The agricultural people learned to rely on, and expect, much more. When cattle died, due to drought, for example, the agricultural people suffered far more than the Bushmen. The farmers also had to work a lot harder, usually seven days a week, whereas hunter/gatherers worked maybe three days a week.”
Struycken cites the Bushmen and many others to illustrate that one of our “problems” is that we are so advanced that we have lost our primal Paleolithic nature. Today, systems for gardening, farming, commerce, building, etc., are all essentially Neolithic and therefore unsustainable into the future, according to Struycken.
In this sense, Struycken believes that the details of our very survival can be gleaned by looking to the past at the details of sustainable societies. Struycken is optimistic, idealistic, and believes that the solution to our problems is to properly understand the living principles of (so-called) primitive peoples.
Christopher Nyerges is the author of "How to Survive Anywhere," editor of Wilderness Way magazine, and a proponent of self-reliance in the wilderness and urban environments. He can be contacted at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or www.ChristopherNyerges.com.