Musings on Permaculture, Part I

Z and T posted separately this week, with entirely different topics.  Here is T’s post, and Z’s was posted just a bit earlier.

Permaculture on the brain this week.  If we’ve talked in the last couple of years, you’ve undoubtedly heard me mention it.  Permaculture has become my central frame of reference, like an operating system running in the background.  When I think about it, it shoots sparks all over my brain.  Discovering it ignited a new era in my relationship with nature.  But permaculture resists direct definition, and cannot be easily summed up in a pithy couple of sentences.  There are no recognizable or famous personalities attached to it.  The media doesn’t talk about it.  You won’t find any graduate degrees, as of yet, that utilize it as a central theme.  But I think it is an extremely useful way to think about building human communities and guiding human endeavors.  So over the next several posts, I am going to ruminate a bit on it and try to bring an understanding of permaculture into a little greater resolution.

Permaculture Flower

So the first part of the story really starts in 2006, in Albuquerque.  At some point, Suzanna and I bought John Seymour’s “The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It,” a now classic do-it-yourself (DIY) book steeped in traditional English folkways and handicrafts, from how to make beer to how to organize a homestead.  I would spend hours in our big blue comfy chair, studying the illustrations and descriptions, enthralled by his pictures of how to interact with a piece of land.  Having been a tag-along in a family that moved with some frequency, it had never occurred to me that I might want to come to know one piece of land intimately.  That a relationship with nature involving love for hiking, scrambling up things, and seeking places that are valuable precisely because they are scarce and rarely visited might not be the only way for me to connect with the outdoors.  I saw in this book simple, pastoral scenes that evoked a palpable longing in me for a world put together just so.  It’s funny, really, because now I understand better why, even in my late teens, I enjoyed Wendell Berry (The Unsettling of America and Nathan Coulter,) Barry Lopez, and other writers who evoke a strong sense of place in their writing.  Seymour’s book is really a collection of received wisdom from the world that was still made by hand, before the proliferation of fossil fuels.  It is written with clear love, nostalgia, and abundant optimism.

So inspired was I that I soon found myself contacting someone about the potential for interning or volunteering on a sustainable ranch/farm.  I wanted to get my hands on a piece of land, and someone else’s would do fine.  This person, Eric Chrisp, became a good friend, and helped hook me into biodiesel production, which I’ve subsequently been at for almost four years now.  Biodiesel–a product whose creation requires constant tweaking of pipes and pumps and that is made from the restaurant industry’s waste oil–rather perfectly fulfilled my desire to fix and repurpose things.  I think I had fancied, long before all of this, an Emersonian notion of self-reliance but I could never figure out a useful framework for it.  After all, his was an America where people still made the world durable with their (arguably) own hands and what they had around them.  Around this time, I started taking over aspects of our lives, like vehicle maintenance and vegetable gardening, which helped me start to challenge my own sense of helplessness–helplessness in the face of industrial agriculture, helplessness to the world of built-in obsolescence, and (in the case of our cars) helplessness to dealership greed.  As I learned to change brake pads and fluid (thanks Andrew!) and other basic DIY things, I felt an increased sense of accomplishment and enjoyment of working with tools and mechanical systems.  I started to feel some good old fashioned gumption, darn it.  Bringing vegetables to life is pretty great, too.

Our Albuquerque Vegetable Garden

Albuquerque Bounty

Working on–and caring for–your own things makes you think longer and harder about the origin of those things, and your relationship to them.  Caring about what goes into our cars is a wish for durability, for that object to last.  And once you start to really care about the quality, and consequences, of something you make or own, it is a foregone conclusion that you will point that frame of mind at other things, and then other things, until you are examining the possibility that perhaps you are not helpless at all.  Perhaps you have just been going through the motions.  Soon, you realize that so many things are tied together–things military, political, economic, and environmental.  Case in point: likely the worst ecological disaster in US history is afoot in the Gulf right now and I feel, totally, utterly powerless to do anything about it.  But I also know that I have played a part in an economic system whose logic requires unceasing extraction: more drilling, more coal, more uranium.  I am connected to that poison floating in our oceans.  So I look for a concrete response: what is a worldly response to this madness?  Permaculture offers a strategy–a design and patterns inherited from the natural world–that promotes the recalibration of our built world to better mimic how the earth’s systems actually function.

Again, this thing is elusive, so how to get at it?

I sometimes say that permaculture is just a word white middle class people came up with for how things were done before oil.  But this makes it sound like the province of luddites.  In reality, permaculture is being applied to all sorts of modern systems, not just farming, and its principles and ethics can be brought into nearly anything humans do.

Compost is a simple example.  Kitchen scraps can be input to a compost pile, then output to the garden, and input back into a kitchen, and so on.  A circle of inputs and outputs.  Maybe instead of just composting for your own garden, you teach kids how to run a business based on collecting food bank waste and turning it into compost. This could be used in community gardens that serve low income folks.  Now you’ve got kids and compost serving multiple functions–kids learning useful skills, staying out of trouble, serving others, and compost staying out our of landfills.  Ideally, there is no waste, just a circle of relationships that consume what was perceived as waste. With every cycle, value is added.

This starts to hint at permaculture’s promise.

The term itself comes from a marriage of “permanent,” “agriculture,” and “culture”.  It migrated from an early focus on sustainable food production to a much wider relationship to economic and social systems.  I spent two weeks on a ranch foundation, Wind River Ranch, near Las Vegas, NM doing a certification in permaculture design.  Blew my mind.

Anyhow, I’m just sketching out the beginnings of this.  H&M are very much practicing permaculture in their manner of farming food and animals, and also in the relationships they’ve cultivated in this mountain community.  Part II of this little series will start to look at permaculture principles and ethics, and illustrate how this farm/homestead is being managed to promote the sustainable continuation of nature’s processes, aka permaculture.

H&M's Garden, one month ago

The pasture and tractor

Check out Z’s post on blender butter, just a few hours before this one.

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