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By Bob Budd
I was introduced to Permaculture about eight years ago, by way of a brochure describing a three week design course. Twenty one days was a big commitment, but it touched on a whole lot of things I was interested in, like gardening, livestock forage systems, energy efficient housing, etc. At that point in time I was also questioning what I was doing "for a living", and it seemed like a good place to look for new directions. In the end, I was the only person to put down a deposit, and the course was cancelled. I did manage to attend a three day workshop soon after though, and I have to admit that I haven't looked at the world the same way since. A few years later I eventually took a three week design course. Since then I have either hosted or helped teach three other courses. However, I still cringe a bit when asked to describe what Permaculture is - it's so darned holistic, it's easier to say what it isn't sometimes.
The word itself was coined by a Tasmanian, Bill Mollison, from the word Permanent Agriculture. Back in the 1970's he and another Aussie named David Holmgren came up with the concept. A strict definition might be: the design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. A tall order I'd say, but they did an amazing job of elaborating an intelligent way to live within a landscape. Most, or all of the principles they developed came from observation of natural systems and native cultures. I have yet to see any agriculture that meets the previous directive, and likely never will, but there is no doubt in my mind that the direction they set out in is correct.
As much as anything, Permaculture is a philosophy. One of my favorite concepts, is that of working with nature rather than against it; of protracted and thoughtful observation, rather than protracted and thoughtless action. Ln my vegetable growing, I still feel like I spend amount of considerable time battling against nature. However, I have become much more humble in the scale of these endeavours - sort of a question of "how little do I need to manage", as opposed to the more conventional "how much can I manage". I've been much more successful at incorporating the protracted and thoughtful observation part. I use it to justify flaking out in a patch of sweet corn on a hot day or watching my chicken act like chickens. It's hard to know where inspiration, ideas, or solutions will come from. The challenge seems to be in looking at systems and people in all their functions, not just as something that yields one thing. For example, we conventionally view chickens as a bird that eats food and produces eggs and manure. Yet that same chicken also scratches the soil, eats bugs and wormy fruit, spreads manure, grinds up stones, wakes me up, entertains me and causes me to curse, etc.
This is where the design part comes in - when you begin to observe the nature of a whole lot of things, and then try to put them together in a way that can sustain itself and produce a view for us too - sort of a functional diversity. You can have great diversity and skill have something that falls apart without a constant input of work or energy, or you can have a diversity that meshes and builds on itself. A zoo might be a good example of the former situation, and a forest of the latter.
To give you an insight into Mollison's irreverence for the conventional, one of his sayings goes something like. "If we lose our forests we lose nothing; if we lose the forest we lose everything." A favorite of mine and something I constantly remind myself of is, "Chronic neatness is a sign of frontal brain damage." When you start to look at how and why we design our landscapes, you begin to realize we are largely the result of several generations of head banging.
One of the most useful Permaculture concepts for me has been that of zonation. Your home and your family are Zone One.
The most distant parts of your landscape might be Zone Six. It's essential that you look after the needs of Zone One, before you start trying to re-arrange Zone Five. You also want to lay things out so that your immediate needs, and things that need the most management. are close at harry Things that you need only occasionally, or look after themselves, should move outward. This sounds like common sense, but how many times have you seen the vegetable garden placed at the far end of the backyard, so as not to disrupt a sea of green grass. I'm still constantly working through this zoning, and likely always will be. What the process has pointed out to me, is that I probably shouldn't spend a lot of time planting trees in Zone Six, if I haven't first addressed the fact my house might be a drafty energy guzzler sitting on a bare hill. So often our own energy gets focused too far afield. I've learned there is a multiplier effect in addressing conservation needs first. For example, burning one cord of wood per year instead of six, means I spend less time cutting, carrying and splitting wood; carrying ashes; sharpening chainsaws; earning money to purchase new chainsaws, earplugs, and back liniment; and more time sitting listening to the birds, or watching two hairy woodpeckers feed babies in standing deadwood I didn't need to cut down after all. All the while thinking of a better design for poultry forage.
This notion of conservation is a far cry from that which Ronald Reagan spoke of, "Conservation is sitting in the dark with a blanket." However, in today's society it is still thought of as economic heresy. This is probably why the Reaganites of the world took such a dim view of the word - if it doesn't make the wheels of industry whirl, people might find out that they can use less and live more.
My enthusiasm for Permaculture hasn't waned, but it has been tempered through the intervening years. I've come to see it more as a personal challenge to work with, rather than a concept to tell others about (you have Shelly to blame for this piece). I haven't seen it catch on as quickly as I thought it should, nor have I seen a lot of good working examples on the ground. I've concluded that it's not that Permaculture doesn't work, it's just that there are some pretty profound roadblocks to be overcome first.
The major one is that cheap yet non-renewable energy fuels our culture. This means you can expend 200 calories to harvest 1û0 calories and skill make money to pay the mortgage. While this situation makes "economic sense", it's often the case that expending 20 calories to harvest 40 on the same piece of land, might not.
Another difficulty is that it can take years of observation and familiarity with a place to put together polycultures that work. Native cultures had generations of place-specific knowledge to draw on, about plants, weather, soils, bugs etc. We land some place and start from scratch with every move. Permaculture advocates a move away from annually based production, to a greater reliance on perennials; tree mops often being the case. My planting of burr oak as part of a pig forage system may one day be terrifically productive, but it won't likely benefit me economically in my lifetime, or anyone else's - if the next owner turns the place into a golf course!
Given its long payback period, I'm sometimes hesitant to advocate something that is largely just a philosophical change in the immediate future. On the other hand, I sometimes think to myself what if my father had been planting those same oaks; what if non-renewable energy was priced as if it was nonrenewable; what if enough of us were working with Permaculture principles and living in one place long enough to share our successes and failures.
In the end, I have little doubt that sustainable living will look a lot like Permaculture. It's just a question of how long we can put off making the changes that our society will inevitably have to make.
I'd recommend a Permaculture course to anyone. There are good books on the subject, such as Mollison's "A Practical Guide To A Sustainable Future", and the Permaculture Activist - a quarterly magazine that covers North America (available from Permaculture Activist, P.O. Box 1209, Black Mountain, North Carolina, USA 28711). No amount of reading though can replace the experience of working with a diverse bunch of people on a design - something you can only get at a course.
Richard Griffith organizes many courses on Permaculture. An upcoming one, URBAN PERMACULTURE, will be held on August 25 to September 2. Teachers will be Cythia Edwards, and Monica Kuhn. Cost is $ 600.00. Phone Richard at 416-497-5746, or write him at 104 Bridlewood Blvd., Agincourt, On. MIT lR1 for more information.
Copyright © 1995 Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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