A Note of Acknowledgment | February 9, 2023
I recently attended a lecture by Seth Penn, a District Representative of the Cherokee Tribe of Northeast Alabama. His lecture was titled "Indigenous Solutions to Sustainable Agriculture," where he reminded the audience that the methods he was discussing (permaculture, water harvesting, silviculture, silvopasture, agroforestry, and polyculture) are not new. Native Americans and other indigenous groups have been practicing them for thousands of years, prior to the invention of the specific concepts used now to reference these methods.
The following post is centered around the recent creation of the term "permaculture," and it must be acknowledged that Bill Mollison attributed most of what is considered permaculture science to Aboriginals in Tasmania, as well as other indigenous groups he learned from. Distilled to its essence, permaculture is understanding the circle of life. It was not discovered in the 70s. It was retaught, and it struck something within Western culture that was sorely needed.
Original Post | February 2, 2022
As we all have witnessed, especially during the past few years, the world changes in ways that are often beyond our control or foresight. To rediscover a sense of belonging and stability, we must find a path to cooperate with the world that does not stifle or misconstrue its dynamic nature — we must move, alter, adapt, and acknowledge our ability to construct and destroy within the environment that we are fundamentally connected to and wholly dependent upon.
"Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple." — Bill Mollison
brief history + definition
Relatively recently, the concept of permaculture has become more popularized as a means of reaching towards a symbiotic, or mutually beneficial, balance between humans and the earth. The term, permaculture, is an amalgamation of "permanent" and "agriculture," coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Australia during the late 1970s. According to an interview with Scott London, the conception of permaculture was in part spurred by Mollison withdrawing from society after reading a Club of Rome report which claimed that "the deterioration of the environment was inevitable due to population growth and overconsumption of resources," which Mollison read and reportedly thought, "People are so stupid and so destructive — we can do nothing for them." It is not often that we are privy to the internal, ethical (and perhaps, relatable) struggle of an environmental leader, but it was this struggle which fortified Mollison's resolve to return from his isolation and develop permaculture, which he defines to be:
"The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems, which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems."
Stemming from this, the three ethical principles which guide permaculture are: (1) care of the earth, (2) care of people, and (3) reinvesting the surplus that this care will create.
Often, permaculture is interpreted as a wild, unkempt version of farming that requires much land and labor. There are various issues with this perspective:
A rugged, wild-looking planting aesthetic may be true for some sites, but it is not true for all. These systems are designed according to a specific person/family/community's preferences and goals.
Permaculture is not simply farming or organic gardening; rather, it is a linking science — permaculture is a design approach that is composed of techniques from many disciplines and indigenous cultures. It includes organic gardening, but it also incorporates renewable energy, passive heating and cooling, stormwater capture and reuse, and more.
Permaculture can be employed for a home or apartment of any size. Related to gardening, anywhere you can imagine a plant growing, there is one that can, and it could be edible, medicinal, and/or ornamental. It might also operate as protection against large wildlife or harmful organisms, or provide habitat for pollinators.
Permaculture systems may require a fair amount of maintenance to become established, but once they are established, properly-designed systems are low maintenance and productive (of course, mistakes will be made and learned from along the way). However, you may find that you or those you love may find reasons to stay and explore.
It is powerful to grow something from nothing — it allows for self-reliance. This is why some describe permaculture as (peacefully) subversive. Yet, it is important to remember that permaculture is composed of simple, low-key practices that begin at a small scale. In this way, practicing permaculture is not overwhelming, and we can learn, adapt, and benefit from the ecological systems we design.
According to David Holmgren, there are 12 principles of permaculture (do not let them intimidate you):
Observe and interact
Catch and store energy
Obtain a yield
Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
Use and value renewable resources and services
Produce no waste
Design from patterns to details
Integrate rather than segregate
Use small and slow solutions
Use and value diversity
Use edges and value the marginal
Creatively use and respond to change
These principles are by no means laws, but they are important to remember as you start thinking and designing your own system.
The root of it all is altering your perspective to see the multifunctional possibilities for each component of your system, as well as understanding how it connects to other components. (For instance, consider the potential function of a fence as a trellis for vines, like grape or raspberry: the vines would provide food for humans, attract pollinators, and prevent wildlife from entering your garden.) Really, permaculture is the application of common sense and available resources. Another example could simply be planning an herb garden within your design to be as close to the kitchen as possible, as it would most likely be used daily.
a place to start
Before incorporating permaculture practices, take a moment to ask yourself (and those interested) a few important questions:
In your ideal world, what would you like to be able to provide?
What could you do to support your current lifestyle?
What could you do to support your community?
What are your collective skills? What can you reasonably maintain?
What space is available?
What are your site constraints (size, sunlight, topography, soil, drainage, climate, etc.)?
What is your budget?
What materials are available?
With some or all of those answers in mind, research practices that align with your capabilities, needs, and goals. Examples of practices to investigate include:
composting OR the "chop and drop" method
growing herbs/veggies in pots or window boxes
removing some lawn area and planting natives and perennials
providing a water source for birds/wildlife
installing a rain barrel
If you're interested enough to begin the process of designing a permaculture system, start small. A common method used to begin and grow your system is "chunking," where you develop small systems or arrangements and repeat them with variations.
For more information and how-to guides, see the resources below. Also, remember that those around you can be a great resource (perhaps you've seen your neighbor implementing/maintaining a practice you're interested in, or perhaps a nursery or garden center employee knows something...). After all, permaculture is about connection. So call your family or friends, consult your pets, talk to your plants, or reach out to us.
resources / recommendations
Beyond Prepping: How to Turn Your Yard Into a Food Forest w/ Jim Gale #385 (podcast)
How to Change the World with Permaculture: David Holmgren (video)
Permaculture: A Quiet Revolution — An Interview with Bill Mollison (article)
Permaculture Design Principles (article)
Permaculture Design Examples (article)
Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway (book)
Practical Permaculture by Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein (book)