By Christopher Nyerges
Moviegoers know Carel Struycken as “Lurch” in the Addams Family movies or for his roles in Men in Black, Witches of Eastwick, Star Trek: The Next Generation and many other movies and television shows.
I know a different side of Struycken. He is a proponent of simpler living and permaculture, a set of design principles to sustainably provide for food, shelter and other human needs in ways that are in sync with nature.
For Struycken, a permaculture lifestyle has involved growing his own food in the yards of the homes he has lived in over the decades, first in Pasadena and now in Altadena. It has also involved landscaping with recycled materials, composting kitchen scraps and capturing and reusing water, among other practices.
Struycken was born in Holland and raised in Curacao in the Caribbean. In a recent conversation, he said that he actually experienced a form of permaculture when he was growing up in Curacao, though he didn’t recognize it as such back then. Curacao is “almost a desert island,” he explained. But when he lived there it was dotted with swales — shallow depressions — that had been built over hundreds of years. The swales allowed rain to slowly sink into the land – a concept that today’s permaculture advocates are just learning about.
“The presence of these swales made me aware that humans can improve the landscape and their water situation without building large structures,” he said.
Once he moved to Pasadena in 1987, Struycken began trying to grow food for his family. That’s when he came upon ““Permaculture: A Designers Manual,” by Bill Mollison. Mollison coined that term permaculture — a combination of “permanent” and “agriculture” — and his book is considered the bible of permaculture.
“Mollison’s book gave me a systematic approach to gardening and it allowed me to see the connectedness of things and how little things add up,” said Struycken.
Using permaculture methods, Struycken has grown Asian greens, mostly those members of the mustard family that had the highest nutritional value. He has also grown herbs, tomatoes, yard-long beans, and many fruit trees.
He terraced his yard in Pasadena with discarded pieces of cement walkways, neatly stacked to form impressive and long-lasting walls. He experimented with raised beds because the soil in his garden area was so poor. He learned to improve the soil by allowing leaves to accumulate in a thick layer of mulch, recycling kitchen scraps in compost heaps and cultivating the earthworms in his yard so that they would do the tilling that farmers ordinarily do.
“I was always amazed that I never had to do anything to my lettuce and it was always perfect. The ecosystem took care of itself,” explained Struycken. Even the spiders and bugs that nibbled his lettuce got eaten by some other bug.
Struycken’s experience reflects one of the basic principles of permaculture – that nature, largely left alone, will find its own balance.
Struycken knows that the efforts of any one individual won’t solve big environmental problems. But he also knows that actions taken in support of nature are part of the solution.
Growing food in your yard won’t reverse climate change, he said, “but you’ll feel a lot better about it and you’ll be a lot healthier.” He also noted that others who see your actions might follow suit, multiplying the positive impact.
Christopher Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere” and other books, and a proponent of self-reliance, especially in the urban environment. He can be contacted at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com
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