A love letter to permaculture

When I discovered permaculture* it was a major “ah ha!” moment for me. So that’s what I’d been doing all this time?! I had already intuitively developed a different and less controlling way of doing things as a self-educated young farmer with small children, but still I often felt insecure when I failed to “manage” the landscapes I tended. I worried that outside eyes would see this as a failing, and sometimes I was right. Most people were kind and encouraging and interested, but I did have my critics. The most memorable one was back during our urban farming days when we were experimenting with growing vegetables in straw bales. Most of our neighbors were drawn to it- we had great conversations in those days- but others were annoyed that we couldn’t just keep a nice lawn. One woman in particular yelled to my partner from across the street. He thought he heard “Looks incredible!” But when he looked up from his task and issued an enthusiastic “Thank you!” the woman promptly corrected him, saying “NO! It looks TERRIBLE! I hate it!” He shrugged and said something along the lines of “Well, it’s not for everyone…” Shortly afterwards we received a notice from the city asking us to remove the project, and that was that.

Our urban farm in full-force, summer 2011.

Those were great exercises for me, though, since they got me confronting my insecurities and challenged me to break down those norms even more than I already had. I started questioning what really was beautiful or functional or life-affirming versus what I started to call the “aesthetic of control”. I didn’t want to piss off my neighbors or create an “ugly” landscape, but who dictated what that meant? From what I could tell, so much of what was deemed appropriate or beautiful was disconnected from utility, required the regular implementation of gas guzzling machinery or other high-energy/manufactured inputs, and was often directly (and yet also mindlessly) at war with wildlife. These were fairly fragile systems, too, requiring regular labor to be maintained. Ultimately, I felt that what was really being measured was how well we all performed the practice of subjugation.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not condemning anyone’s flower beds or lawns- and absolutely the practice of growing vegetables/farming requires a similar measure of force in the world. I understand there’s a lot of nuance, but I really wanted to shine a light on the unspoken reasons around why we can’t just let the undomesticated elements and voices speak a little- to allow them to cross the threshold into human territory. What is truly at stake here? When are we celebrating life and working to meet needs and when are we scanning for dissent?

Decorating and tapping the city maple trees, 2013. We later learned that we shouldn’t cover the bark of the trees like that, it’s not good for them. But we managed to get a good amount of maple syrup from our 3 Norway maples.

For myself, the most joyful moments I experienced during those early years were always when I felt I had permission to be a participant rather than a dictator. “Permaculture” was the thing that finally gave me that full permission, and my work shifted from that point on. From my perspective, permaculture believed that human creativity could be healing. It believed that we could work *with* the natural world. It didn’t see the world through the lens of an endless battle for survival. It rejected a human-centric way of doing things, but it also believed that we could get our needs met through holistic practices. Concepts like “abundance” were thrown around freely, smashing my unambitious aims of mere sustainability. Permaculture believed in the possibility of reconciliation.

It was everything I wanted to be true. What young environmentalist farmer wants to work from a platform of self-hatred, believing that humans must be relegated to these disconnected and depleted pockets of civilization in order to care for the world? I wanted to see what life really desired and whether or not we humans could still fit into that world. Ideas around conservation were lovely and all, but I wanted to belong.

I remember another story, also involving my partner, where he was excitedly leading me through the woods of his childhood. It was a vast and wild landscape to him as a child, but both of us experienced some pangs of grief realizing how limited this preserved space was- like so many, sandwiched between developments and busy roads. We reflected on how it was an undeniably good thing he even had that wild space to immerse himself in and connect to, as many children don’t even have a lawn to play in. In the middle of the walk he perked up and made a beeline for a tree. An old friend! As he touched the tree a strange voice cried out after him, telling him that he wasn’t to walk there. He quickly reassured her and said “No, it’s okay!! I grew up here and this tree is meaningful to me, I’m just saying hello.” She was stern and authoritative and explained that she was working with a conservation group, and that we were not to veer off the foot path. At this point I started to push back, and asked for her specific reasoning. The gist of it was this: if humans start moving through this fragile landscape, we will hurt it. Common folks don’t know how to interact with this place. Footpaths are for us, the rest of it is for fledgling native plants, animals, and people who “know what they are doing”.

It felt like I was seeing with new eyes. Here was a man who loved a tree, who just wanted to greet this place with the utmost respect. Here was a man issuing some gratitude to a place that taught him to love the natural world. And over there was a person who was using her “love of nature” in a different way. Her activity felt relevant to me, too, as she was busy hacking away at invasive species (a subject I’ll write more in depth about soon), one of the top volunteer opportunities in the environmentalist/conservation field. We cut our losses and decided to go on our way. I remember passing the huge piles of buckthorn she was making, as well as the trash bags filled with garlic mustard. As we continued our walk I was burning with protest. I considered myself an environmentalist, but something about this smelled familiar and I didn’t like it. At this point sweet Jeff was probably already used to my anarchistic tendencies. Anytime someone tried to give me a reason that was some version of “you wouldn’t understand” or “because I told you so”, I called foul and wouldn’t be able to let it go. I also felt like there was a whole extractive and complicated story at play here- one in which the boy who wanted to lay his hand on an old tree was “wrong” and the woman who was murdering plant after plant was “right”.

I thought then and I have thought many times since: If we can’t all simply decipher what love is, what hope do we have? If we can’t issue everyone the right to step forward into that love- of “nature”, of place, of their own humanity… what are we even doing? Do I believe that for people to care for the world we need the direction of those with advanced degrees? Mainstream environmentalism has ironically adopted a fairly abstract and colonialist mindset, and I suppose it’s no surprise that folks raised within this culture acclimate well to that approach, despite the heart of their intentions. And of course I don’t want to oversimplify the complex nature of our problems or to underestimate the important contribution of those with advanced degrees and a heart towards healing, but my criticism of those foundational assumptions still stand. What I ultimately hear is a resounding “You cannot be trusted.” There is obvious wisdom in that, for the moment. I mean, look at where we are. But what I see is that a large part of the why is because the means for being trustworthy continues to be stolen from us. Part of the why is because we continue to let a select few dictate for the masses. Part of the why is because we can’t freely touch a tree, can’t freely see these places as whole and belonging to all of us. Who could find their sense of responsibility there? Trust is earned, labored over, a process of being humbled in front of those you are in relationship with. It’s the practice of allowing those we love to tell us how to love them (or how we are not loving them), and then doing it. We are far too comfortable with our own subjugation, far too accepting of the abstraction of our needs. We’ve even been convinced that we are somehow “liberated” when we are not connected to the land. It makes sense to me that in order to live with these things, these deep contradictions, they also have to bleed out into our beliefs about how non-humans and whole places should be treated and thought about as well.

There are ways in which I also fail to adhere to some folks’ standards of what it means to practice permaculture, but despite my misfit status I personally uplift the idea as a shared approach amongst a colonized and traumatized people for working to unravel some of those toxic habits and beliefs. It’s a new checkpoint, a practice that is starting folks on an empowered path towards restoring the human relationship with earth- addressing the abstraction, nurturing our gift of creativity, and explicitly working at taking responsibility for our own needs (in other words, it is essentially taking on the problem of exploitation). It’s part of a belief system that says that if we want reconciliation we also have to work it. That’s the story I’ve chosen to align myself with. Can we live into the possibility of a “permanent culture”, or a culture that serves?

I believe we are touching on concepts that all of our indigenous ancestors were fluent in, ones we were meant to inherit but many of us did not. I believe they want us to listen and to speak that language with ease again. It’s scary to engage with this stuff, because it means we have to really look at where we are, take responsibility, and to become fluent in our grief. But this scary territory also brings me to new places of peace. One of my favorite teachers, Stephen Jenkinson, says “Grief is a way of loving that which has slipped from view… and if that’s true, then it must stand, love is a way of grieving that which has not yet done so… Grief is a way of loving, but love is a way of grieving, too.” With that, I’m brought back around to that memory of the little patch of woods with Jeff. We showed up to simply love them, and were hit with waves of grief as a result. These things exist together, by design. It’s a daunting and promising proposition, isn’t it?

Mostly, I’m so grateful to everyone who’s bravely starting to form words around this stuff, to propagate the magic of thinking and doing in a new (to us) way, and to also find ways of sharing it, however imperfectly. To me, it’s important to acknowledge that we are communal creatures, and anytime I hear an idea that resonates within my spirit I am struck by the galvanizing power of group witnessing- the power of belonging. Regardless of if we call it “permaculture” or anything else, we need to speak to these concepts together. We need the common words and actions to bring them into reality, to bring us into a shared home worth nurturing and defending.

*Permaculture: 

”The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.” / “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.” (Bill Mollison)

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