If you are like me, the seeds from last year are under evaluation and new orders are on their way. I also find it useful to have a paper planner for mapping out goals and plans for the garden harvest for the coming seas on. I love these questions and prompts for guiding my thinking. Join my (very) occasional newsletter and download your calendar for 2024.
There are hundreds of definitions of permaculture. Here's the one I use: Permaculture is an ethical system of design that integrates humans with the natural world.
Let's break that down.
Permaculture = "permanent agriculture" and "permanent culture"
Ethical = Care of the Earth (primary); Care of People; Care of the Future
System = working with an awareness of the interconnectedness of elements of any system we focus on.
of Design = We are co-creating with the Earth and with other people in a way that is intentional and careful
Integrates Humans with the Natural World = we developed a civilization/society that has disconnected us from the Earth we depend upon. (This one if full of tricky implications if you think about it.) Further, we tend to be deeply disconnected from each other.
We can do better, and we can keep improving.
I begin almost all of my permaculture design courses with the question:
What is going on in the world? What's the news?
It doesn't take long for the board to fill with "events" that, when we look at them, are systematically connected. Just as the problems are interconnected, so are the solutions.
It is time to reintegrate our way of life so that we can heal the Earth, heal ourselves, and tend to the best possible future. We can return to a life which is deeply connected--one that allows us to express the best of the human journey on the planet. What can that look like?
Growing more of our own food in order to have more nutrition, fewer costs, more food security, and a sense of accomplishment and connection. People mostly think of permaculture in relation to horticultural and agricultural techniques.
Increasing the efficiency of our home -- providing for more of its energy, water, and material needs in order to cut costs, increase resilience, and be more productive.
Participating in community-wide initiatives in a way that brings people together. Maybe you love time banks, or food pantries, or developing new products for your area that support the regional economy.
Developing a neighborhood community or an eco village. Permaculture can thrive in these environments.
Learning the plants, birds, insects, and mammals of your area so that you can help to tend and repair the landscape you all share.
Most of all, this is about limiting our impact on the Earth and tipping the balance toward a way of life that will allow future generations to thrive. We can imagine, design, and enact that right now.
In this series of introduction to permaculture articles, I wanted to layout the basics. So here we are looking at the origin of permaculture. In the last one, I shared my definition of permaculture. There, I said it is "an ethical system of design that integrates humans with the natural world." There are hundreds of definitions of permaculture, and that makes it stronger.
Still, the system of design I refer to had a point of origin. Two brilliant and colorful characters, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren met when both were involved in university in Tasmania in 1972. Their months-long conversation critiquing industrial agriculture and the Green Revolution led them to the ideal of "permanent agriculture."
Their synthesis of observed indigenous wisdom and practice, systems thinking, and the new understandings of ecological science led to not only an understanding of the damage industrial agricultural systems were wreaking in a globalizing world, but the impact on culture and a process for undoing the damage. This design process is grounded in the three ethics (Care of the Earth, Care of People, and Care of the Future). The process also guides us to mimic the natural patterns found in any particular place. All culture begins in nature.
In practical terms, this means permaculture relies heavily on restoring perennial plant systems using new combinations of productive, high-yielding species. Tending landscapes using these strategies reinvigorates the systems indigenous humans created and tended around the world throughout our history as a species.
And, there was precedent in academic and scientific circles as well. J. Russell Smith had published a book on Tree Crops (1929) in the horticultural ferment of the 1920's, and Masanobu Fukuoka's One Straw Revolution (1975) was spreading about the same time that Permaculture One (1978) was published.
What came before permaculture?
As I mentioned, indigenous humans around the planet and throughout time created systems of tending the landscape. Some were more successful than others (three previous civilizations failed in China according to the archeological data). In fact, I've come to believe that any human dependent on the land they have access to and with enough resourcefulness time to experiment will come up with many of the strategies and techniques utilized in permaculture design. For example, weir systems harvesting from the tides are very similar between the Haida of the Pacific Northwest and those found on ancient British coasts.
From a more recent experience, my own grandfather developed gardens and systems in his many garden farms in the 1970s-90s. Despite his poverty and lack of education, he developed massive gardens at multiple sites that incorporated trees, shrubs, annual crops, hoop houses, poultry and rabbits. His plantings were on contour and used the light and microclimates to advantage. He used deep mulch to control weeds and keep pathways clear. He heated his home with scrap wood from the local sawmill, canned a massive amount of food. There was cold storage on a north-facing porch. Water was tucked away in gallon jugs, in case the well went dry. We foraged for nuts, mushrooms, wild medicines, and berries regularly.
There is a lot, looking back, that came from trial and error. His awareness of what was happening in his gardens (all five of them stretched over the county) was amazing. Frequently he would pause to show me some plant he'd imported and grown for the first time.
I am fairly certain he never heard of permaculture. A deeply conservative man, he likely wouldn't have been a Mother Earth News reader either. 🙂 That didn't stop him from being connected to the Earth and the cycles of creation and tending implied in permaculture.
Personally, I believe we all need to re-develop our relationship to the Earth (hence Touch the Earth), and to live in relationship to that Earth in a way that is mutually healing. In my journeys, I've connected with many others who share this perspective.
How did it spread?
Permaculture spread initially through publications. There was Permaculture One, then Permaculture Two, then The Designers Manual, then came the Introduction to Permaculture. By this point, Mollison had gone around the world planting the system among likely candidates.
The first international permaculture convergence (IPC) happened in the early 1980s. The IPC agreed to a standard curriculum for a permaculture design course by the mid-1980s. This meant permaculture people around the planet had a common foundation for sharing ideas. From there, permaculture courses and institutes have grown to bring an understanding and practice to hundreds of thousands of people.
In North America the first courses were in 1982 and 1983. Mollison essentially said, if you've taken the course go teach. Amazing projects came out of those initial courses. Slowly into the 1990's more teachers and teaching teams formed. By the time I took my own course in 2005, permaculture was still largely unheard of. North American permaculture has been weedy and wild. Still, more people are at least familiar with the term and have a sense of what permaculture is. More education is needed--and a lot more implementation.
From my perspective, the permaculture design course is an onramp for people from mainstream society to a better future. It's just the beginning of a cultural shift. There are other doorways to that shift, but permaculture design has a lot of tools in the toolbox. There is a great deal of potential for building bridges between people who experience the world in radically different ways, but find a common vision of where they want to go.
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.
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?
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.
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.