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Ancient Origins of Agroforestry, Polycultures, and Permaculture as we Know it

The design philosophy of Permaculture as we know it today was founded by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, but the methods used are by no means novel or even innovative practices.

Ironically, permaculture’s methods are cutting edge in comparison to the dull spade of today’s large scale monoculture–but, the roots extend far beyond what either blade can reach.

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Indeed, as Sepp Holzer demonstrated himself, anyone who observes nature for long enough, and adjusts their methods to ensure the best outcome as far as ecosystem health, abundance of harvest, etc will come to similar conclusions.

Without knowing it, Holzer developed and implemented techniques that unintentionally fell under the qualifications of permaculture and polyculture. He was even contacted and asked if he would like to define his methods as such, so universally compatible were they with the emerging set of permaculture philosophies. His book, Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture, A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening, details his observations and methods in depth.

Ancient Origins of Agroforestry and Polycultures

But as stated before, this synchronicity doesn’t hearken to the collective innovation of these modern times. I’ve been doing some research, and the knowledge is actually quite ancient–just ask indigenous peoples from around the world, who have traditionally practiced techniques of agroforestry and other polycultural land management practices for many generations.

Humans around the world, particularly indigenous cultures, have practiced permaculture methods for tens of thousands of years. Today’s permaculture as a movement is certainly neatly packaged and understandable for contemporary urban audiences. However, diverse indigenous cultures hold within their oral traditions tomes of place-based polycultural knowledge, attained over observation, trial and error over the course of at least tens of thousands of years. Additionally, the indigenous cultural ethic of community and planetary stewardship is responsible for the permaculture methods we seek to proliferate today.

Foundations of Permaculture as we Know It

I’m currently reading “Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources,” a thorough and intensive anthropology text by ethnobotonist and University of California lecturer M. Kat Anderson. This book, 12 years in the writing, consults numerous elders, farmers and knowledge holders from Native American groups in California, as well as ethnobotanists, mycologists, professors and more who are the elders of Western society. Anderson’s observations are strikingly in line with the permaculture ethic as we see it emerging today.

How Oral Histories are “Living Seed Banks” for Generationally Inherited Knowledge

The Native American farmers Anderson consulted learned their techniques from their grandparents, who learned from their parents and grandparents, and so on. Unable to be lumped solely into the stereotype of hunter gatherers, some of the First Peoples of California cultivated the land intensively while ensuring a thriving polyculture of endemic species (those which evolved alongside other species in that environment) remained intact. The value of elders and generational knowledge keepers cannot be stressed enough here.

The elders continually stressed that the land becomes healthy when people work with it; as in, our utilization of plants fosters respect for and connection with them as well as spreading their seed in the process. Just like many species of animals are integral to the proliferation of plant species year after year, a symbiotic relationship between indigenous cultures of humans and the polycultures they steward is re-emerging in the human psyche.

Heirloom Varieties and Guiding the Evolution of Species and Systems

Of course, the practical logic of letting some crops go to seed applies whenever a gardener wishes to do a little less (okay, considerably less) work and enable a species to gain generational knowledge of its soil conditions and environment–this is one way we can create hardy, resilient heirlooms.

Zaytuna Farm Seed Bank, Photo Courtesy of Ingrid Pullen
Zaytuna Farm Seed Bank, Photo Courtesy of Ingrid Pullen

Humans have been guiding the evolution of other species for who knows how long–dog breeds, wheat, and virtually everything you see in the grocery store are a testament to this. In indigenous permaculture, this method of adaptation has spanned for thousands of years (at least 12,000 by Pacific Northwestern evidence), making these traditional crops sometimes entirely dependent on their partnership with humans for survival.

Acknowledgement and Respect

It is indeed interesting that as the elders of indigenous tribes worldwide work diligently to keep this knowledge alive and to revitalize their cultures (which are inseparable from the land and rooted in land stewardship), those born without this basis in the land begin searching again. Communities and individuals, finding their lives devoid of connection to the food they eat, begin once again to observe and interact meaningfully with nature.

Keeping that in mind, it’s important to remember where these wisdoms and practices originated and acknowledge the peoples who pioneered them. It’s important not to make blanket statements, which can conceal and dismiss diversity by perpetuating stereotypes. Keep in mind that the following blanket statement does not apply universally and diversity develops readily in distinct place-based cultures.

Wherever they fall on the spectrum between nomadic hunter gatherer and fully sedentary agriculturist, matrilineal indigenous cultures are often based on these very premises and stewardship of the land, in a permaculture-minded way is inseparable from every facet of their societies; to ignore this would be to appropriate the knowledge and erase their identity. While this is not always the case, it deserves recognition so that we can remember indigenous folk are alive and well today.

Planting the Seeds for Tomorrow

Permaculturists are planting the seeds for the vital systems of tomorrow; we are change makers and trail blazers. For this reason, we must be conscious of the risks of appropriation and respectful of indigenous communities.

Permaculture’s time is now, and the knowledge is as present as are the “weeds” in your neighborhood–if you know where to look, and how to listen, you’ll find an abundance of wisdom by nurturing a symbiotic relationship with other beings. But, as all crops wither and die, the seeds must be spread again–we cannot let this ancient knowledge disappear from us; it is our task to spread that seed.

However, it is critically important to give space to traditional knowledge keepers who wish to spread the seeds of that knowledge themselves.

As we go forward with this splendid task, I invite you to remember that have a responsibility to the indigenous members of our human family to stand in unison as allies. In order to do so, we must extend a hand–one that both acknowledges and offers respect, one that is eager to learn yet humble. Through this, we may find unison, and by standing united, we may find peace. Through peace, we may initiate true, effective, lasting change. What more could a permaculturist ask for?

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