Podcast 249 – Review of Sepp Holzer’s visit Part 3

Summary prepared by Julia Winter

Paul and Bill are back, this time to talk about Sepp Holzer’s five days in Bozeman, Montana. Paul feels like he has a lot more to say on the “pond” topic in Bozeman, and some other things, too. He has a list.

At Bozeman, there was a big tent, with a rocket “mass” heater (lacking mass) in it. Everybody gathered under the tent, and Sepp “did his thing.” He talked, interpreters interpreted, there was a lot of interpretive dance. Questions were difficult, as per usual with Sepp. You have to give just part of your question, so it can be translated, and Sepp tends to bull in and expound, not actually letting you finish your question. Paul’s pretty sure it’s Sepp’s personality (and his culture – ed.) not just the circumstances of translation.

Richard was there, and he is awesome, and Paul really needs to get together with him on stuff. Richard has done great work with translation as well as with permaculture on his own land in Idaho.

On the first or second day, they decided to engage some of the trac hoes that they had. Paul thought that they weren’t big enough. He guessed the biggest was 20 tons, and he thinks that 30 tons is what you need. (They got some 30 ton excavators by the end.) Paul was looking forward to see what happens with the trac hoes, but it ended up being kind of a let down.

Paul notes that when he works on land he tends to be iterative: he plans on doing stuff this year and then adding to it/changing it next year, and the year after that. He is disposed towards a more organic process. Thus, Paul is disposed to start up at the higher elevations on the land. He’s also disposed to start in Zone 1/Zone 2 – start near the house. On this property, the highest point was nearest the house.

However, Sepp started digging holes on the lowest part of the property, near the road. Bill figures he was just checking out what was present, trying to find groundwater. Sepp was successful in that and hit water in one of the first holes that was dug. It was the one nearest the creek. Most of the holes dug were maybe 14 feet deep, but one of them was dug maybe 25 feet deep. To Paul it seemed like the deepest hole happened due to a lack of direction from Sepp to the guy digging, not from any grand plan or cool idea.

Bill recalls hearing that Sepp’s first thought regarding this property was that since there was a stream he’d be able to create a large, impressive meandering pond, covering up most of the property. (He said this after they’d moved on to Minnesota, while having a beer.) However, the necessary water rights permits had not been worked out, and that guy upstream apparently had the right to take all the water during the dry season, so what Sepp could do was constrained.

On the hole that got water, it ran until it was running clear, and the water level ended up about 10 feet down. Sepp put a perforated PVC pipe down, then a bunch of river rock, then gravel, then he filled it up again. Bill thought of it as a mini-session on “how to cap a water well” and pointed out that the water from that could be used for irrigation. Sepp was not necessarily allowed to use the water that he had found, so he decided to cap it rather than simply refill the hole. Paul was not interested in this process, so he sat it out. He allowed that it’s possible that the new well will continue to have water when the guy upstream diverts all the water and the stream dries up.

Paul was disappointed in that he didn’t have any big revelations watching Sepp work this time. Bill wonders why Sepp didn’t make at least a small pond around the spot where they hit water–it could have been an opportunity to demonstrate how to build a pond. Paul figures that Sepp was struggling in his mind with all of the laws and restrictions that he was unfamiliar with. Sepp kept referring to $10,000 a day (the fine that you could possibly get for messing up a waterway) and this was obviously weighing heavy on his mind. This is probably why the earthworks were less than mind-blowing at the Bozeman site.

Speaking of earthworks, Paul went back to Dayton, Montana (site of a workshop with Sepp in 2012) several times through last summer. One of the times he went back during the high summer, the guy upstream (who had the water rights) was taking ALL of the water from the creek. All of the water features dried up and all of the ponds, except for the big lake, became yucky mud pits. Unattractive. Bill notes this might be why Sepp is fond of really big lakes–they are less dependent on continually running water.

Pauls tells about going back to the Dayton site about 6 weeks after Sepp left. The dam for the lake had not been finished while Sepp was still present (and supervising). Paul noted that the top of the dam had been made flat, and this is not a good idea. You need to have a crown on top so that all of the rain runs off the dam and it doesn’t pool on it and then soak in, leading to a dam failure. A second problem Paul noted was that they had planted baby trees on the downhill side of the dam. Paul tried to tell them that these things were problematic, but they didn’t listen to him.

Paul expresses his dissatisfaction with the lake they made–he thinks that maybe 2/3 of the lake’s perimeter is dam. Bill says that as he saw it, Sepp was not all that pleased with the lake, either, because while 3/4 of it (in his memory) looks naturally placed, the final 1/4 of the perimeter is unnaturally shaped and looks really artificial. Bill wonders if they were just hurrying to finish the dam. Paul says yeah, he heard about that but his concerns are different. He’s worried the dam is going to break down. The dam is not wide enough to plant trees on the downhill side. The trees will send their roots toward the lake, and this will open up water channels, and this can lead to a dam failure. Paul thinks a more elongated lake, within a ravine, with less dam, would be better. Of course, the trac hoes were not big enough, even the bigger one they brought in response to Sepp’s request for a bigger excavator was not big enough.

Paul is now on record stating that planting trees on that dam was a mistake. Also, that leaving out the crown on the dam was a mistake.

Paul remembers trying to “mitigate” Sepp’s concerns about the possible fines, but he was unsuccessful. Paul figures he was trying to play it safe and not get his client into trouble.

Per Paul, the one new thing that he got from Sepp, that he hadn’t heard before, was about harvesting roof water. He allows that it might be in Sepp’s new book, which he hasn’t read because he wants to do the “chapter a day” podcast thing with it. Sepp said when you are catching water from a roof–that is drinking water for survival only. You should not be drinking rainwater on a regular basis. Bill thinks part of this is because rainwater is essentially distilled water and is missing the minerals that come from a spring or creek. Paul notes that Sepp has a lot to say about “living” water versus “dead” water.

On one of the days, the whole group went out to look at a 40 acre property with an expensive house. Paul thought it was funny that they weren’t allowed to shelter inside from the rain, not even in the empty garage. They were all asked to come up with design ideas. Paul recalled that there was a lot of discussion about how to avoid trouble with neighbors. People suggested huge 15 foot hugelkultur berms along the perimeter. When Sepp asked about obtaining water, a lot of people suggested rain catchment from the roof, because the house was massive. Paul finally suggested that they create an air well and he was hurt that Sepp didn’t take the suggestion seriously. Bill figures that Sepp didn’t think it would produce significant amounts of water. He recalls that the discussion was around how to get enough water for a pond or lake. Paul figures that a big pile of rocks could also serve the purpose of blocking the neighbors’ sight lines into the property.

Paul figures an air well would produce 5-10 gallons on a warm humid day. He has a small suspicion that Sepp might “invent” air wells in the future, but he wants y’all to know that he suggested it first. It sounds like he did not appreciate Sepp’s repeated references to “crazy” Paul with his “crazy” air well idea. To Paul’s eye, Sepp ran really hot and cold during this 5 day period. Sometimes he would be lecturing to Paul as if he were the only one present, sometimes it was nothing but what seemed like disdain.

Another day they went to an off-grid place with at least 100 acres–very pretty. Paul was checking out their cordwood construction, and it had very few cracks. Bill remembers that at least part of the house was made of strawbale, thinking that multiple alternative building techniques were used for the sake of demonstration. There were a lot of cool things happening at this property, with solar and wind and so forth. There was a piece of land near the buildings with a garden surrounded by a deer fence. Sepp’s advice was to put hugelkultur berms around it, to block the wind. The second piece was down in a valley. Sepp was thinking: lakes. He pointed out multiple places he would put lakes and where the dams would go and where the road would end up and such. Paul had no major disagreements with any of this.

Then they went to a sort of canyon area, with a lot of boulders in the canyon. It was lovely. Because of the steep walls, there isn’t going to be a lot of sun down there. Sepp apparently sensed that this was a “power spot.” He then said that he would put in a small dam and restore a swamp that used to be in that place. Paul thought that was plausible. Many of the trees were sick and Sepp advised thinning them out. Paul thought this made sense as well. Sepp then directly asked Paul what he would do in this place. Paul thought he would thin the trees, but not do anything else. Or at least he would do this spot last. Paul wanted to name the place, hang out in it, and then decide what to do. Take down some trees, maybe do a small hugelkultur (Sepp said “no hugelkultur here”) and put in a bench to have a lovely place for people to come and sit and ponder what would be the best thing to do in this space. Not much light, not much water and a lot of rocks. Paul answered Sepp “I think I would do things a little differently, but this is the Sepp show, not the Paul show, and I think I’ll stay quiet.” He figured the group needed to move on to their next appointment.

This peeved Sepp greatly, and that stressed Paul, because he was trying not to upset him. Bill says that he can’t really say whether Sepp was upset or not because he was at some distance. Paul says he figured nobody wanted to hear his thoughts–Bill disagreed with that. Bill thinks that it was a lovely spot and Sepp maybe just wanted to spend some more time there and hear some more from Paul.

And, with that, the podcast ends. There will be yet another discussion about Sepp’s visit to Montana in the spring of 2013, so stay tuned!

You can discuss this podcast on this thread at Permies.