Earth Care

What if?

It is late January. While walking around a consulting client’s property yesterday, I saw the early bulbs just beginning to peek up above the soil. In my own garden, spring herbs are already beginning to conservatively creep across the ground in the warmer, protected spots. Spring seeding is beginning to happen, and I know that the buds on the trees are beginning to change in the warmer periods. 

snow drops

Nature doesn’t have an on/off switch like our mechanical systems. There is resilience built in to the constant use of energy. Just so, I believe that most people have in the back of their minds and the depths of their heart a desire and a commitment to a beautiful, healthy, just world. The rush and stress are there—but beneath them is the courage and imagination to see a better world. 

At the Global Earth Repair Conference in Port Townsend, Washington last May, Precious Phiri gave a powerful keynote. Behind her, on a large screen was a hand-drawn image of an adult sharing with a child—and noting that in 2019, the world woke up and it all changed for the better. The sign said, “And then in 2019 everyone came together and fixed the climate even though it was hard. That was our finest hour.”  Until that moment, I was sensitive to the collective grief and worry and persistence of the 500 people gathered. That simple drawing raised the question: how did the world get better? How did we come together and heal the Earth? Each other? 


Seven months later, with Rob Hopkins’ book From What Is…to What If? in front of me, I recognize the same question and the same feeling of possibility. What if? 

What if?

I am exploring this question for myself…and I am very curious to hear what you are imagining, too. I look forward to the changes possible in the year ahead.

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Future Care, People Care

Facing the Day

[Note: This blog first appeared as the initial section of my editorial for Permaculture Design magazine’s November 2019 issue. In that issue, several authors spoke to this moment in time, the need for Earth Care, and the connection to People Care–two core permaculture design ethics. Readers appreciated the editorial, and so I thought I would share the beginning here.]

The times we live in are both a challenge and an opportunity. Both are presented with increasing urgency. As the year winds down, I have been evaluating and clarifying to which challenges and opportunities I can effectively contribute. Do I put effort into teaching and facilitating? Designing? Collaborative projects? The local community? Regional networks? More? Each of us has different skills and capacities cultivated through our own personal visions of a better world. From where I stand, our task is to align ourselves with each other in work which allows us to contribute fully and which improves the lives of others (human and non-human). That is not the message of mainstream, corporate-driven society. 

When I was a young activist, I noted that if we did not do something our grandchildren would suffer. When I had my first child in 2001, I recognized that if we didn’t do something, my child would suffer. When my second child was born, seven years later, I recognized that we are all suffering. My anger at older generations for creating and enjoying systems and privileges I would never realize abated. 

We live in a world desperately challenged by the systems which have held power and sway for decades. The pain and suffering of millions, the extinction of our species, and the degradation of our lands demand retrofits to not only our over-consumptive households, but to our communities and regional economies. This urgency is spurred on by fear of a chaotic future and the grief we might feel when we recognize the trajectory we are on. 

Those of us who are aware hold grief in one hand and hope in the other. It is not hope for our civilization based on extraction and power over, but hope for lives well-lived in service to each other, based on power with each other and the work of setting to right much of what has been out of balance. Resting in that vision, we have every reason to take urgent action to start where we are and do what we can. We are not waiting for those mired in old paradigms and willful denial. Nor, I think, are we perpetuating negativity. Our work is founded in something more life-affirming.

Frances Weller on grief
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Something Else

Why invest in a PDC?

This post is likely to change over time…just as our understanding of how permaculture fits in the world changes over time. 

It is often said there are as many definitions of permaculture as there are practitioners. One of the permaculture elders documented dozens of definitions many years ago. Just the same, everyone comes to study permaculture for different reasons.

2008 Ohio PDC

Here are some of the things Rhonda has seen and recognized after teaching the design course for more than fifteen years:

Permaculture designers and educators have curated some of the best strategies, tools, and techniques to support anyone in the work of Earth Repair. Because permaculture designers work from an integrated, systems approach, the capacity to come up with elegant, efficient solutions have been noted by leaders in Earth Repair projects (including the Ecosystem Restoration Camps). By extension, permaculture projects can build resilience into communities and regions. This might be an extension of #4 if we agree that earth repair is a global need. At the same time, there have been incredible inspirations and connections on a community-level through permaculture-inspired movements like Transition Towns, and similar efforts. 

Permaculture helps people do their own work. Whether you are looking to start a farm, want to improve your veggies, or start a neighborhood project…permaculture design helps people make significant progress in their goals for living a more resilient life. Most students conclude it is one of the best investments of their time and energy, and that they wish they’d taken the course earlier in their lives. (We’re working on how to work with children more, too!) Some of my best design clients also either took the course first, or after the design was in the implementation phase. The PDC is just the beginning.

Studying layers and systems in Belize, 2018.
Studying layers and systems in Belize, 2018.

Others who are passionate about solving problems and leaving the world a better place. The sense of community and the connection to others exploring the same territory is always valuable. The network of practitioners continues to grow around the world, and they can inspire each other to keep going and keep improving. (That’s part of the reason Rhonda loves editing Permaculture Design so much.)

Permaculture opens doors to the connections between many disciplines in a practical way. With permaculture, I found that I have license to dive into everything from policy to architecture to biology to physics to archeology and so much more. It can be overwhelming to adult learners to defy our society’s push toward specialization, but part of permaculture’s powerful paradigm shifts are facilitated by emphasizing the connections and perspectives gained by doing so. It also gave me space to talk about familial history, skills, and understanding in a way that honors the success and challenges of those who came before me while working to make life for those who come after a bit better.

Food. Water. Shelter. Energy. Mainstream society’s means of providing these basic needs to date have been incredibly damaging to the earth and to people. Our health, economic, and governance systems balance on the precipice of collapse because of this. Beyond this, people have real needs for belonging, participation, autonomy, and creativity which are ignored within the fast-paced, crushing nature of society. Permaculture seeks to meet the real needs (not all of the wants) in a way which brings us together.

bee and coneflower

The PDC facilitates understanding of the shifting dynamics of the world around us. When we pull one thread, sometimes unexpected things happen. When we build soil, plant trees, establish pollinator gardens, invite the neighbors to tea, or stop flying or driving as much there are also (hopefully) positive consequences. Permaculture can help us see these threads and learn to act in increasingly positive cycles. 

Permaculture design complements other communities of learners and practitioners. Because permaculture design process incorporates analysis and strategies from many different sources, it is also allied with many different practices, groups, and disciplines. Nature Connection people, agroecology, agroforestry, Holistic Management, ecovillages, vegan and vegetarianism, sociocratic governance systems, and many other movements blend well with permaculture. What I find especially helpful to recognize, is that as long as the ethics are observed, permaculture is a design process–a problem-solving approach, which can unite people across many differences in action towards common aims. I find that hopeful. 

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People Care


In 2016 I joined up with William Faith (Chicago) and Milton Dixon (Ann Arbor), to form the Great Lakes Permaculture Design Collaborative. Since that time, we’ve run a few very successful permaculture design courses, an advanced design course, various workshops, and supported our advanced design course students in developing a children’s garden and food forest in Hillside, IL. We’ve spent a lot of time weaving together permaculture people in the Chicago-area and pushing innovative approaches in our PDC.

In support of our workshops (listed on the education page), we’ve begun doing occassional videos and offering more information at our website.

If you spend time with us, you’ll see that our team is enriched by diversity of views, experiences, and approaches to permaculture. It’s a rich, inclusive, and inspiring collaboration which continues to show the healthy effects of emergent design. We hope you’ll join us!

Our next workshop is on Urban Permaculture in Chicago on March 30, followed by a workshop on Social Permaculture April 27.

glpdc course announcement
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yellow daylily
Future Care

Vital Connection

I’ve decided to link my occasional writings with this business website and would love for you to peruse the archive here at Vital Connection. I’ll be adding more about the projects I have underway and insights here on Sheltering Hills Design.

monarch on child hand

Contact me to let me know how it resonates with you–and enjoy.

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