Earth movers

Swales, raised beds, or water slowing earthworks in general seem synonymous with permaculture design. There’s hardly a system without them. But where in nature are there steel machines greedily tearing the earth to build such structures? Or when looking at a natural landscape, does it resemble our contrived catastrophes? This article by Toby Hemenway suggests a little known explanation.

The Wisdom of the Beaver

The fact is, there are such creatures, although they are flesh and bone, not steel. Further, the normal landscapes we call natural are actually far from it because the said creatures have been removed from the systems.

 Beavers build dams and flood water with ingenious aptitude, which Toby covers in depth. Just think how different the landscape would be if we had the 100 to 400 million beavers said to live in America before its colonization. 

They’re looking at the can of sour milk by the picture-taker’s feet. I’m looking at the the well tilled dirt under they’re feet that was just a few hours ago well rooted turf.

The best earth movers I have seen for sure are pigs, since, until lately, we have for several years kept pigs on our farm of the Gloucestershire Old Spot type. Being a heritage breed, they were allowed access to large outdoor pastures with some tree cover, making nests to have their piglets in with a surprising amount of success.

It was amazing to watch the mother in midsummer go about the field biting large mouthfuls of just past seeding grass to add to the strikingly bird-like nest made under a black willow tree.

After raising the piglets in this nest, it became a rich new forage spot because the grass seed sprouted up in the copious decay of nutrients. This mowing and subsequent grazing kept the field very lush compared to how cows pick out the good and leave the weeds to thrive.

Patrick (lying down) with Sage, one of his sows. Again, notice the tilled dirt.

Even more striking, our one boar, Patrick, dug massive “jacuzzi’s” as my Brother the pig caretaker calls them. Patrick made several different versions: the “silver” addition was rather shallow and dried up quickly in summer; the “gold” addition had a patio step to collect water to the lower wallowing spot, so it got more water; and the “platinum” addition was just huge, in depth and breadth, such that it never dried simply due to size.

A “jaquzzi” which has been abandoned for about two years.

The biggest surprise here is these held water because our ground is clay, and clay, when wet, can be smeared, becoming watertight; so our Boar’s wallowing holes became fairly legitimate ponds.

I do mean legitimate too. Once left for a while, these pools grew algae, cattails, hosted frogs, and any other water creatures that could get to them.

So I just wanted to add my observations of these lesser known “allogenic ecosystem engineers.”

Enjoy the article.


  1. I am very intrigued by this. I am a fan of pigs, and also a pork aficionado, and have wondered how they could be incorporated into smaller food production settings. Their capacity to plough is unparalleled, and no animal is better at turning household scraps of all kinds into meat. In Novella Carpenter’s “Farm City,” she describes raising pigs in the city and how neighbors complained about the stench. But the little outdoor operation where I buy my pigs for pork smells no worse than any other barnyard. What’s your opinion of the stench level, and how did you like living with pigs?


    1. Oh, they certainly have a smell. You don’t get that unless they’re 1 very wet, which for us might happen immediately after a downpour or when 2 they were in close quarters. You see pigs are quite neat. They build nice grass beds which they turn in cold weather; they build even more neat and clean nests for their babies; and they usually select a far off corner of their pen to leave their manure like rabbits.
      We of course had well over an acre devoted to the pens for our three brood sows and one boar though, their only ‘indoors’ being tarped wire panels. We moved the young piglets around in a pen as pictured above and moved them daily if not twice daily.
      In a small area you need at least enough cement for them to leave their manure, then have any soil higher up. This situation is very good for harvesting the manure for methane since they’re manure makes a lot of it.
      When we only lived on a third of an acre in suburbia, we raised pigs in a movable pen made of 4 wire panels. Since most of that was garden we couldn’t move them very much, so a smell did develop, and our neighbors (only the picky ones, most were fine) asked us to not raise them again.
      Besides the two points mentioned pigs are fine though. They’re really quite intelligent although selfish creatures.


  2. I’m afraid that my thoughts to raise a pig might result in a pet weighing hundreds of pounds. I don’t dare risk it, especially since I have a neighbor who complains about absolutely everything. My goat and chickens are well established and I am hoping to slip bees under the radar, but I don’t think that pigs slip under the radaršŸ˜‰.


  3. Picky neighbors will dream up a smell, so that sounds like a wise decision. And yes, it is surprising how large pigs can get. Few of them are ever able to live that long. One of our Sows weighed 800lbs hanging weight when she unfortunately was retired. With most animals hanging weight is assumed to be 1/3 less than live. This is easily as heavy as some cows –in fact a lot heavier. So picture that.


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