[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

A Language For Gardeners


Lawrence F. London, Jr.
Title: A Language For Gardeners

Permaculture: A Language for Gardeners
by Peter Bane

The Hawaiian people have a phrase in their language which expresses deep understanding of their place on the earth, "ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono." It translates into English as, "the life of the land is preserved in righteousness." This feeling of deep gardening is the sensibility we must invoke to describe Permaculture or "permanent culture."

Permaculture is a nation without borders and with no government. It can be found on every inhabited continent among peoples as diverse as Tswana herders in Southern Africa, apartment dwellers in London and Sydney, desert ranchers in Arizona, jungle settlers in Colombia, communitarians in northern Germany, and subsistence villagers in Nepal. More than a form of organic gardening, permaculture is a whole system of design for the creation of sustainable human habitats. It is about culture; the use of tools in our adaptation to the world around us, and what that means in the post-industrial era.

Traditional peoples around the earth have known the limits and the languages of their places. But along with biological diversity, these unique human adaptations are being rapidly lost at the frontier of economic globalization. Human beings everywhere on earth are becoming increasingly dependent upon and subject to centralized systems of production and control. The consequences of this colonizing process are pollution, desertification, poverty, famine, tyranny, and genocide. To move beyond the destructiveness of our present culture, which is based on continuing war and industrial capitalism, we must recover and propagate knowledge and ecological linkages that sustain living systems: air, water, and soil. We must reclaim the lands we inhabit as we learn again to feed, clothe, house, heal, and educate ourselves and our children.

Permaculture is an ethical approach to land use and economics based on:
- Care for the Earth, its air, water, forests, soils, plants, and animals;
- Care for people, who need not only the things of the earth, but each other; and
- Care for Community, through limiting our own consumption and population, and the distribution of that which is surplus to our own needs.

In the words of Australian ecologist Bill Mollison, co-author (with David Holmgren) of the permaculture concept, "Permaculture is the design of sustainable human habitats. It is the design of cultivated ecosystems where we work with, not against nature. It uses the naturally inherent qualities of plants and animals, including humans, combined with the natural characteristics of landscape to create sustainable, low-maintenance, and productive agricultures for both city and country using the smallest practical area." Permaculture empowers us to recreate living systems out of the devastation of modern life.

How do we do it?

By observing patterns in nature and in traditional farming and building systems we derive the principles which guide permaculture design. To these principles we add the insights of modern science, concoct a set of stories which convey these essential understandings and begin repeating them to our friends. You do the same. The effect is inspiring and contagious.

Because everything is connected to everything else and everything must go somewhere, you cannot just do one thing and there is no free lunch. Remember that everything gardens and "Nature knows best." With that introduction to ecology, you are now ready to learn permaculture.

A rough dozen principles can help us to design sustainable systems:

1. Relative beneficial location. Put elements of the system near other things with which they can have beneficial relationships. Link rain barrels to roofs, and kitchens to gardens by bringing them close together. If carrots love tomatoes, plant them together; let the beans climb on (and fertilize) the corn.

2. Multi-functional elements. Make sure that everything in the system has at least three functions. In this way space and cost is saved while yields are increased.

3. Redundancy. Make sure every important function (like water, warmth, food, and income) is supported by multiple elements.

4. Energy-efficient planning. Place elements in zones of decreasing access and intensity of use radiating outward from the center of activity (the home). Analyze outside influences (sun, wind, weather, pollution, wildlife, views) on a site by sectors, and let that guide your placement of elements also. Take account of gravity by allowing elements to flow through the landscape from high elevation to low.

5. Biological resources. Choose elements which are self-propagating, self-healing, and which can be disposed of without toxic residues. Living systems build real wealth. Prefer wood to steel, bamboo to aluminum, worms to rototillers, legumes to chemical fertilizer, trees to air-conditioners, and chickens to bug spray.

6. Energy cycling and recycling. Energy flows and materials cycle in ecosystems. Keep nutrients, water, heat, genetic material, money, and other valuable resources in close circulation. Harvest your own garden seed and begin to adapt plants for the microclimate of your back yard. Water coming in as rain can be collected, rather than drained away. If filtered, drunk or washed with, it then flows out as greywater and urine from the household. Instead of dumping it into sewers or septic tanks where it can pollute, clean it on site with plants, harvest mulch material from the artifical wetland, use the cleaned water for fish habitat, and then irrigate crops with the pondwater.

7. Revalue appropriate traditional technology. Plants were our first medicines; they are still our best health insurance. Grow herbs in your garden and learn to use them in tinctures, teas, poultices, and salves. The corn straw broom is still superior to any plastic whatyamacallit ever made. Masonry stoves are the best way to use wood for heating. Unglazed clay pots (called ollas in Spanish) sunk into the ground and filled with water are the most efficient way to irrigate gardens in drylands. Mud (earth) is a healthy, low-cost building material available almost everywhere.

8. Stack yields in both time and space. All ecosystems evolve toward greater complexity over time. Lawnmowers waste energy and cause pollution trying to prevent this from happening. Go with the flow instead. Plant perennial crops with different maturities and different heights all at once. The forest yields at crown, mid-level, near the ground, and under the ground. The 7-layered, 4-dimensional polyculture garden can do the same. Annual vegetables succeed to berries to tree fruits and nuts as the garden matures.

9. Maximize edge in cultivated systems. Use all the in-between spaces. Edge is where the action is; where nutrients accumulate and life grows fat. Our internal organs are small in size but have huge surface areas for exchange of gasses and fluids. Gardens can be designed on the same principles. They can remain compact but gain enormous capacity.

10. Observe and replicate natural patterns. In permaculture, observation is vitally important. If forests are the dominant ecosystem in your area, it's because they are the most thermodynamically efficient response to that kind of climate. Streams meander, birds flock, cattle herds graze heavily in one area then move on, not to return for many months. Model nature, it's been around longer than humans.

11. Increase diversity. Natural systems become richer by increasing the number of species and interactions between them in a given area, not by adding more of the same. Adding diverse elements into your system is a way to increase the sum of yields, while enhancing stability.

12. Scale. Start at your back door and work outward on a controlled front. Get your own life and your back yard in good shape before you go anywhere else. A small, intensively cultivated system will have surplus form which to expand or create other systems. A large, spread-out system is an energy sink, always requiring more energy to maintain than it produces.

Working on the edge. Permaculture has five principal strategies which give it an "edge" over both traditional and scientific agricultures. These are:

1. The use of recombinant ecologies and worldwide species resources to achieve nutritionally and energetically superior niches for humans in small areas.
2. Modelling the best of nature for highest energy yields, eg. aquaculture and agroforestry model the most productive ecosystems: marshlands and forests.
3. Managing time by pushing succession: stacking space and time. We consciously acknowledge and participate in the evolution of living systems.
4. Recognizing the information content of systems. Gardening is a highly interactive or cybernetic practice which places humans in the landscape and ensures continual re-adjustment. It consistently outyields any other form of agriculture.
5. Use of the historical opportunity of cheap energy. Permaculture seeks to establish sustainable systems by using the temporarily available supply of fossil fuel and machine technology to micro-engineer landscapes for long-term natural productivity. This transformation of embedded energy in the form of industrially derived knowledge, tools, and infrastructure into ecological, humanly productive systems which can endure indefinitely into the future is the paramount challenge of our age.

In addition, permaculture spreads itself. It is inspiring and empowering, and it promotes cooperation, furthering and fostering environments in which it can thrive.

Origins and disseminations
In the early 70s, after a decade in "the bush" working as a field biologist, Bill Mollison, then a lecturer at the University of Tasmania, in conversation with his student David Holmgren, gave shape to the permaculture ideas which were first published in 1978 as Permaculture I. From about 1979, Bill began teaching in Australia and soon after in America and Europe as well. From this beginning, Permaculture has spread to more than 60 countries. Over 10,000 individuals have been trained in its practices.

Education is built into permaculture as part of its internally sustainable logic. Knowledge of permaculture design is transferred primarily by short courses (10-15 days). Initially Bill Mollison and a small cadre of teachers carried the system to different regions. Now their second-, third-, fourth-, and even fifth-generation students are teaching their peers in many languages and most parts of the world.

Though most of the concepts in permaculture design are not new or unique to it, their assembly into a coherent system is. Permaculture is not traditional knowledge, though it borrows from traditional systems; it is not science, though it applies scientific learning; permaculture is not a belief system, though it is based on ethical action. Permaculture is the edge between all these different approaches. It is interdisciplinary and so you will still have a hard time finding it in the university, where departments strictly separate branches of knowledge. Permaculture exists at the edge between agriculture, architecture, and forestry. It is not a thing, but a way of seeing all things.

How can I learn more?
The ideas in permaculture are universal, but every application is local. And since humans learn best by example and by positive reinforcement, the best way to learn to apply permaculture is to seek out those in your area who are already doing it and work with them to spread the knowledge.

Design courses are offered by qualified instructors in most regions of the U.S., Canada, and overseas. Most events are scheduled for the warmer seasons of the year, but may be offered in southern venues during winter. Costs vary depending upon facilities and accommodations, but range from $50-$80/day in the U.S.

Permaculture networks have grown with the support of a handful of journals. Those listed below are the most prominent internationally.

The Permaculture Activist, P.O. Box 1209, Black Mountain, NC 28711. Bi-monthly, $19/year. Since 1985 the source for North American permaculture events, featuring report for grassroots groups and designers working "on the ground." Each issue presents a theme. Recent topics include Forest Farming & Gardening, Animals & Aquaculture, Cities & Their Regions, Useful Plants, and Village Design (current issue). Also publishes a catalog of permaculture books and videos.

Permaculture International Journal, PO Box 6039, South Lismore, NSW 2480, Australia. Quarterly, US$24/year (in N. America order from Permaculture Activist, in Britain from Permanent Publications), elsewhere US$33. The flagship journal of the Permaculture movement, now in its 20th year. Extensive reports from Australia and regular worldwide coverage. Periodically publishes a global directory.

Permaculture Magazine (U.K.), Permanent Publications, Hyden House, Little Hyden Lane, Clanfield, Hampshire, PO8 0RU. Quarterly, US$20/year (in N. America order from Permaculture Activist, in Australia from PIJ), elsewhere from publisher (U.K. £10/yr, Europe £12/yr, rest of world £16/yr). High-quality production values, superior coverage of Europe, cool climates, and urban applications. Occasional articles on Africa. Directory of events in Britain.

The Permaculture Edge, Permaculture Assn. of Western Australia, PO Box 430 Subiaco WA 6008 Australia. Irregular, US$20/4 issues (in N. America order from Permaculture Activist, in Britain from Permanent Publications), elsewhere from publisher AUD$26 airmail. A spare and thoughtful publication emphasizing development issues, the unexpected, and the Indian Ocean littoral.

Permaculture Drylands Journal, Permaculture Drylands Institute, PO Box 156, Santa Fe, NM 87504-0156. 3/year, US$25 includes support of the institute’s teaching work. An attractive journal covering the arid parts of the U.S. and Mexico with occasional articles on similar regions overseas.

Rhizomes, 592 Avenue Dolez, B-1130 Bruxelles, Belgium. A Francophone journal edited by Kali de Keyser for readers in Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Iberia.

The Villager, Box 319, Irene 1675, Gauteng, South Africa. Handbook-sized journal of the Permaculture Assn. of South Africa. A valuable source of information on the rapidly growing movement in this cauldron of social change.

Groundcover, Zimbabwe Institute of Permaculture, PO Box 8515, Causeway, Harare, Zimbabwe. Newsletter of Z.I.P., the senior permaculture institute in Africa. English-language news of the region.

Other resources
For information about permaculture demonstration sites which may be visited in North America, contact The Permaculture Pilgrim's Guide, c/o Chuck Marsh, 55 Grove St., #15, Asheville NC 28801.

Permanent Publications (see address above) has available "The Permaculture Plot," a guide to sites in the British Isles. £5.50 U.K., £6.50 Europe, £7.00 rest of world, airmail.

The standard Introduction to Permaculture, 2nd ed., 1994. Bill Mollison & Reny Mia Slay. Tagari Press, Tyalgum, NSW, Australia, is distributed to North America by Permaculture Resources, PO Box 65, Califon, NJ 07830. Available by mail order from The Permaculture Activist (address above), and in Australia from PIJ, in Britain from Permanent Publications. This is the best single-volume introduction to the subject.

The Permaculture Designers Manual, 1990. Bill Mollison with Andrew Jeeves. The complete reference to permaculture applications in all climates and ecosystems.

The Best of Permaculture, Max O. Lindegger, ed. 1986. A collection of insightful essays drawn from the worldwide permaculture literature on cutting edge subjects such as building biology, urban forestry, land restoration, health, nutrition, and energy.

The Global Gardener, video, 1991. Featuring Bill Mollison in a global review of permaculture's accomplishment around the world. Originally aired by Australian Broadcasting Corporation, this brought Mollison national acclaim.

Some Internet Resources

Permaculture Intl. Journal, pcjournl@nor.com.au
WWW: http://www.nor.com.au/environment/perma
Global Ecovillage Network, ecovillage@thefarm.org
WWW: http://www.thefarm.org
The Permaculture Edge, paustin@cowan.edu.au
Permaculture Magazine, permaculture@gn.apc.org
WWW: http://www.uea.ac.uk/~e415/home.html
Permaculture Activist, permaheart@aol.com

Peter Bane publishes The Permaculture Activist, and lives in the Earthaven Village community. He has taught permaculture for six years and is a member of the faculty of the Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm.