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Wednesday, January 23, 2013


Last week I said I would post on Permaculture, so here it is. As I read about ecofeminism, Permaculture seems like a strange, slightly more masculine cousin. Adorning the cover of Bill Mollisons’ Permaculture Design Manual is an ancient esoteric symbol of wisdom and fertility. A writhing, rainbow snake twists back on itself, eating its’ own tail, and creating a giant egg. The first sentence reads:

“The Great Oval of a design represents the egg of life; that quantity of life which cannot be created or destroyed; but from within which all things that live are expressed. Within the egg is coiled a rainbow snake, the earth shaper of Australian and American Aboriginal peoples.”

Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, two Australian ecologists, thought up their interdisciplinary earth-science in the mid 1970’s after what Mollison calls “the ferment of the late 1960’s”. The prime directive of Permaculture reads: “The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children. Make it Now.” That statement holds just the kind of urgency and tough love that I appreciate from activists involved in Permaculture. 

Bill Mollison gives his own opinion on the global situation in the introduction:

“The sad reality is that we are in danger of perishing from our own stupidity and lack of personal responsibility to life. If we become extinct because of factors beyond our control, at least we can die with pride, but to create a mess in which we perish by our own inaction makes nonsense of our claims to consciousness or morality.”

Robert Harts Temperate Forest Garden
Not just philosophers, Mollison, Holmgren and the slew of permaculturists who have followed their footsteps teach practical, do-able techniques to gardening and farming at every level, which increase production and decrease energy input. They use the forest as a model for creating the farm or garden and through the practicalities learned in Nature, design food forests that are productive with virtually no human input.

This is, to me, contrary to what Michael Pollan seemed to be saying in Second Nature, where his struggle, and that of Thoreau’s as well, was 'why is Nature intent on destroying my garden?' Permaculture has built gardens that Nature is not intent on destroying. In fact, through using the principles and techniques of Permaculture, a person can team up with Nature and farm with her. Humans don't have to deny their natural terra-forming instincts when they design within Nature's sustainable model.

The lessons involve learning about the complex ecological roles and relationships of plants, animals and other elements of a forest. They include techniques on how to trap and re-use resources such as water, sunlight and heat. They also involve an overall design aspect such that features of the farm are placed in zones to reduce the work load of the farmer. The largest overall permaculture system, the food forest, involves designing a farm to mimic the natural layers of a forest such as canopy, understory, herbaceous, bush, climbers, ground cover, fungi, and roots (is different depending on system) with plants that we like, or that give us products as humans. Here is a video of one of my favorite Permaculture instructors, Geoff Lawton, showing you seven food forests in seven minutes. 

Mollison is an educator but he’s not fanatic about education as an institution, and in fact has gone through efforts to keep Permaculture out of public educational institutions. His reason for this is that he doesn’t want to see it intellectualized to the point of becoming unattainable or changed. They have done this through limiting the education to specific design courses and institutions through which a student receives a certificate in Permaculture design. It’s not exclusive or expensive; permaculture instructors have dedicated and still dedicate a major portion of their work to impoverished and disadvantaged nations. As Mollison says in his video series Global Gardener,

“Once you set up your own home so you can leave it for two or three months and it just gets better. So that you are free to travel, then you can go and teach other people. And that’s why we go to places like India and Africa. The houses there are not surrounded by what they need…they are surrounded by croplands and wastelands.”

At Evergreen just this year (2013), we got our first Permaculture instructor. She teaches students outside of class-time as an extra-curricular activity. We also have a Permaculture experimental garden at the organic farm. Yet, during my time studying sustainable agriculture at Evergreen, the word Permaculture came up only once in class. Despite the students showing a ravaging interest in it, the extent to which our instructor would mention it was limited to announcing weekend dates for the sessions. I wonder if this is a legal issue, or if my instructor was among the criticizers of Permacultures rather ‘rough around the edges’ and anti-academic founder.

Mollisons’ bluntness and comedy surrounding life, politics, sex ect. Can be jarring, but are refreshing after studying so many activists who take life so seriously. Some of the things I learned in my Permaculture course were extremely innovative, scientific and complex, and other things were practicalities that made me smack my forehead and think why didn’t I see this before, my grandfather would not be proud! Overall, I don’t think an agricultural education is complete without a Permaculture course, or at least a good read of the book: Permaculture: A Designers Manual by Bill Mollison. On the plus side, it’s entertaining. 

There are plenty of videos made by Bill Mollison, David Holmgren, Jeff Lawton and many other great Permaculture teachers, here are a couple to illustrate a quick overview of what an interdisciplinary earth-science is.

 Here is one of my favorite Youtube videos. This is Bill Mollison talking with Anne Schwartz, the current president of Washington Tilth Association; a coalition of Washington organic farmers who "support and promote biologically sound and socially equitable agriculture." Note: the video is about 20 years old, Cascadian Farm is no longer the small co-op it once was; it is now a subsidiary of General Mills. If you want to read more about Cascadian, read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Then he visits Robert Hart, a famous temperate horticulturist who literally wrote the book on temperate climate food forests.

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