Tribute to Kestrel Maher

Founder of the Association for Sustainable Communities Inc. (2007)

Co Founder & Director of Bellbunya Eco-Community (2008-2016)

From deep gratitude we create through and with nature, a self-sustaining human, animal and wildlife sanctuary that shares nature’s abundance and softness and sacredly connects us.

From 2008 to 2016, I was living and working in a permaculture eco-village community near Noosa, Australia. My days were full of nature restoration projects, permaculture workshops, food forests and sustainable living.

When I fell in love with a Dutch man, and moved to Geffen, my heart longed for the sounds of wild nature. Bird songs, frogs, whispering leaves. It began with planting a few fruit trees. Stealing the autumn leaves piled on the sides of roads to enrich the ground. Building a labyrinth and medicine wheel to connect with the earth-song, the ley-lines. Listening.

Then I became captivated by Spring. The immense life-force springing forth from soil and branch, each day a surprise and a gift. Our food forest and nature restoration has grown organically from our passion, strongly founded with years of experience in nature restoration, water management and permaculture and with deep respect for nature and her intrinsic wisdom. It has been a winding path that lead me here.

I began my journey as a young lawyer, using this training and experience to begin a Rudolf Steiner School for my son in 1993. I managed the school for it’s start-up over seven years, to a thriving, financially successful school with waiting lists. This is where I developed my love for Biodynamics. I consulted with other schools and not-for-profits for several years, and from there decided to start an intentional community / eco-village as a solution for collapsing ecological, societal and financial systems – locally and around the globe. Living in this holistically sustaining community deepened my connection with the earth, with First Nations (indigenous) people and nature. For a decade I hosted, organised and participated in a plethora of courses, workshops and activities and experienced permaculture as a way of living.

Kestrel Maher (2022)

Green Heart Nature Farm

     Quadruple Bottom Line

Over the last 30 years abundant scientific evidence has been gathered that demonstrates the unsustainably of human lifestyles on this earth .A globally adopted definition for sustainable development was set by the Brundtland Commission at the United Nations (1987) as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In determining this, it has long been recognised that there are three bottom lines; namely ecological, social and economic sustainability that must be balanced and considered. Indigenous peoples throughout the world have had an understanding of the principles of sustainability, and have lived sustainable lifestyles, for millennia. Floyd Red Crow Westerman, a Hopi Indian elder described the sustainability relationship as one based on an understanding of spirit and the transience of human lifespans. He describes the problems of sustainability as humanity’s inability to live on earth in a spiritual way. He describes that if humanity is not spiritually connected to the earth and does understand the spiritual reality of how to live on earth, it is likely humanity will not survive.

Spirit + Social + Economic + Ecological

“Everything is spiritual. Everything has a spirit… Water is sacred. The Air is sacred. Our DNA is made of the same DNA as the tree. The tree breathes what we exhale. When the tree exhales, we need what the tree exhales. So we have a common destiny with the tree. We are all from the earth. And when the earth, the water, the atmosphere is corrupted, then it will create its own reaction.”

The recognition of spirit and the sacredness of our ecology and inter-connectedness with the earth and each other is the first bottom line of a quadruple bottom line principle of sustainability.

Orchard versus Food Forest

GEFFEN – No less than four thousand trees and shrubs. Geert-Jan van Nistelrooij and his Australian girlfriend Kestrel Maher are building a food forest in the outskirts of Geffen. “Nature can give us so much.”

Most fruit trees have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years as forest trees. Their purpose in fruiting is reproduction, so in a forest setting they would have produced a certain amount of fruit every year hoping their seed would be eaten and spread, and their family would in this way grow and evolve. Then there is a disturbance in the forest – perhaps a storm has brought down a big tree, and the fruit tree is flooded with sunshine. Now it has a great opportunity to grow its family around it, and so it produces more fruit to maximise the number of seeds falling around it. In a similar way, when the tree feels stressed or is about to die, it puts all its energy into its fruits so that it may be succeeded by its children. By means of grafting and careful selection, humanity has co-created varieties that are more productive (for example, cultivating nut trees with branches tending to split and duplicate before fruiting can double the amount of nuts produced) and with preferred tastes and qualities. Both orchards and food forests will (generally) use cultivars, but will choose different qualities.

An orchard will capitalise on both sun and stress to maximise fruit production. To ensure that the tree is always in stress, an orchard may choose to graft a productive variety onto a weak root-stock. The inherent weakness in the tree often requires that her branches be supported. The trees need to be pruned each year as long branches are too weak to support the amount of fruit. To keep the trees in peak stress, the roots are cut every few years to maintain production.

Insects play a vital role in the natural fruit cycle, firstly with pollinating but then equally important to evolve the natural system by attacking those plants and fruits that are weak to make room for the strong and healthy. This is the balance of syntropy and entropy in the continual dance of evolution. Commercial orchards designed to maximise stress for the trees attract natures’ cleaners; insects, bacteria and fungi. In a conventional orchard, these forces would be met with poisons. Poisons further offset the delicate balance of nature, leading to a loss of soil life and soil health. This in turn is offset with chemical or animal fertilisers. Even when the latter is used, it is often full of chemicals such as found in the animal feed, as well as antibiotics and de-wormers. The chemicals further degrade the natural soil life, rending the orchard viable only with constant inputs and attention.

inputs + attention ==> maximum production

Food forests are based in mimicry of nature. In terms of sunshine, it is closer to the orchard than the forest in that it is designed so that the fruit trees perceive their opportunity to reproduce. But this is where the conceptual style similarity ends. The aim of the food forest is strong, healthy trees arising from thriving living soil. The role of the food forest gardener is to accelerate nature to restore balance. The cultivar that is appropriate in the food forest is a strong, self-sufficient, productive tree. An ideal is minimal (or no) pruning of the majority of the productive trees, with blades for chainsaws/loppers kept sharp for “chop and drop” of support trees. The time and input is most at the beginning phase, in the development of an inter-relational design and in building a rich, living soil. When we encounter a problem, such as insects eating the fruit, the solution sought is systems-based, such as creating habitat for insect predators and building soil health to strengthen the tree. Bio fertilisers are often used to create a running start for self-sustaining fertiliser systems, such as using nitrogen-fixing plants and bio-accumulators around the tree. These support layers form a guild to feed our productive plant, build soil health and create pollinator/predator habitat. And, beautifully, many of the guild species are themselves productive, whether it be for herbs, salads, berries, flowers, teas or medicines.

Start-up inputs ==> low input systems ==> diverse nutrient rich products, biodiversity

Kestrel Maher (2022)

Soil as the Basis

ACT Award goes to food forest project. A team of student consultants help turn a former farm into a food forest. News report by Luuk Zegers (2021)

The winning ACT* project was commissioned by Kestrel Maher. Five years ago, Maher moved to the Netherlands to live with her husband on a farm in Geffen, Noord-Brabant. “In Australia, I was used to the wild. In the Netherlands, everything is very ordered and tamed. I missed the wilderness. We sold some of the farmland to the municipality to turn into a nature reserve, and they gave us a subsidy to plant a food forest with parts that only have native species.”

Maher has experience with nature restoration, permaculture and food forests. “However, all that experience is in Australia. I know nothing of Dutch native nature. Australia is a completely different set of ecosystems. I can help you restore a koala habitat, but when it comes to this climate and this soil, I knew nothing.” To plant a food forest here, good advice was necessary. A colleague of Maher’s heard what she and her husband wanted to do with the food forest and recommended the ACT program at Wageningen University. “That is exactly what we needed. I just gave them our story, that we wanted to have a food forest with native species, and they figured out exactly what we needed. They framed the questions themselves. And the funny thing was, because of the lockdown, they weren’t even allowed to visit the farm itself.”

Since half of the food forest is supposed to have only native species, the students compiled what Maher calls a ‘native species bible’. “They told me everything about the native species in a fantastic format. Which trees can handle wind; how big bushes and trees can become; how close one type of tree should be planted to other types of tree; what kind of soil is needed; which plants support each other; and much more. Last winter, we planted 2500 native trees and bushes, from chestnuts and wild apples to redcurrants and blackcurrants. A massive undertaking, and that bible was invaluable.”

The students also took the initiative to send a soil expert to the farm. “They wrote an entire section about soil improvements”, Maher says. “We received it, read it and made the suggested improvements. First, the soil was poor, acid sandy ground and you couldn’t find worms anywhere. Now, every time you put a shovel in the ground, you find a worm. Good soil is the basis of a good ecosystem. This helps us to create a food forest for both food production and wildlife conservation.”

In July, the ACT team was finally able to visit the farm together. “It was amazing to see the farm”, says one of the six team members, Raghav Sharma. “I might go again in the summer to help on the farm and camp there. Working for a client during your Master’s program prepares you for what is going to come after your studies. It is like a short two-month work experience. Due to Covid-19, the project was fully online, and we were all a bit sceptical about that to start with. Nonetheless our team’s chemistry was great. This project was an amazing experience.”

*ACT stands for Academic Consultancy Training: a course in which Master’s students work on a real-world project as consultants.

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