In April 2012 Lauren and I decided to leave our “normal” lives in London to explore permaculture.
Weary of the “bullshit economies” (to borrow US author J.H. Kunstler’s phrase) of a post-industrial, credit and debt system we wanted to extract ourselves in a bid to clear our minds and delve deeper into practical self sufficiency.
We also wanted to learn about new cultures and landscapes. We chose the Americas and plotted our course, with permaculture as the backbone of our travels. Two years on and 50 projects later we had travelled overland from southern Mexico to the tip of Argentina.
Year One: Central America
Oaxaca, southern Mexico, is painted a dusty golden hue by a fierce sun. At Tierra del Sol, Pablo, an ex-pilot (tall, white, Mexican) explained how solar panels, a seemingly obvious choice, would never be the first option in his energy schema. His reasoning: such a solution was not within reach of his immediate neighbours. He asked of himself what options exist that would be suitable and replicable. Design isn’t about addressing needs with capital, but recognising what’s appropriate in the context of place and culture.
At Maya Mountain Research Farm (MMRF) in Belize, we observed the regenerative power of nature. An exhausted piece of land, that was once an orange grove and cattle ranch, was now a mature forest providing multiple yields for humans and animals. Standing in stark contrast to the surrounding fields of corn, MMRF works with local communities exploring alternative farming practices.
Nicaragua, a proud, beautiful, battered country, bullied by the US, and one of the poorest in the western hemisphere, touched us deeply. On Ometepe Island, Project Bona Fide is an experimental research station. From its inception, food sovereignty and broad-scale cropping was its main focus. Here Permaculture was practised, not just preached. Facilitating the creative exchange between travellers and the wider community, Project Bona Fide took care of the edges as much as it did the core.
Costa Rica, a popular tourist destination, and the wealthiest of the central American countries faces similar issues as its neighbours (resource extraction, species extinction, poverty). Rancho Mastatal, a hub of sustainable and resilient life and learning, illustrated how a project can fuel the beginnings of economic investment and independence for an almost forgotten village on the edge of some of Costa Rica’s most precious wilderness.
Year Two: South America
Bigger, bolder, brasher. We arrived in South America after a frightening passage by sea, gripping, for two whole days and nights, the surface of our 20 foot catamaran.
Following the spine of the Andes from Colombia to Argentina, working, living, and breathing outdoors was an experience we would never know the full lesson of until we returned to the UK. Wide open skies, the mountains where gods reside, vast landscapes indifferent to the fate of the humans: all these vistas fed our dreams and inspired our desires.
In Ecuador, Rhiannon Community, overlooking the capital Quito, a green oasis is emerging in the barren high sierra. The croak of a frog, the scuttle of a lizard, the chirrup of garrulous birds – life was growing amidst the dusty, blowy plains of a muted grassy landscape. It was here that we read and meditated on Fukuoka’s words, connecting his thoughts to the work of Mollison and charting it in within the constellation of Permaculture.
A country of vast differences and diversity we entered the Amazon, in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park. For so long we had been studying and working with tropical plants and trees. Walking amongst the green hues shimmering with life was a homecoming of sorts. To breath in the place where so many vital plants used for medicines and much more originate was both humbling and awe-inspiring.
In Argentina we attended CIDEP, a permaculture school with a focus on natural building techniques equipping us with real skills; and in Chile we helped with the build of an Earthship.
“It’s been like doing our own PDC” quipped Lauren. Our understanding of water, for example. Traversing crater lakes, climbing peaks, gawping at glaciers, splashing through freshwater and swimming in seas, seeing water from source to sink was an education. Wisdom can’t be written on a piece of A4, its tenor is more felt.
Early on in our trip, on a park bench in Oaxaca City, Mexico, we put pen to paper sketching the outlines of our future lives. All the new ideas, connections, and lessons were jotted into our book.
Our travels were searching for an end of sorts, but at the end we learnt it only begins again, and everything we learnt we were only remembering.
Invited to stay on at a project to help with the logistics for their first residential PDC with Scott Pittman of the Permaculture Institute, we had the good fortune of attending some classes. Asking each of his students ‘What is Permaculture?’ one replied, “A re-remembering.” Highlighting the yearning for re-connecting with the mother ship, with bringing together old and new ways to steer our course through turbulent times, this definition resonated with us.
On the road we met young, idealistic travellers who told us, “Yeah, I’m gonna do permaculture, grow loads of stuff and sit in my hammock all day.” During our travels we learnt that permaculture is hard work. As Larry Santoyo, of EarthFlow Designs, says, “You don’t do permaculture, you use permaculture in what you do.”
Our trip wasn’t an exercise in gardening. It was a Copernican Revolution in how we saw the world. So much had to come unstuck in order to re-learn.
No PDC is ever going to give you that. It will get you on track and perhaps re-frame your perspective, but the challenge comes in the doing. This is what our travels afforded us, that no amount of wealth could buy. As teacher, storyteller and spiritual activist Stephen Jenkinson says, “Learning is expensive. You have to pay with what you cannot afford to lose.”
We stretched ourselves emotionally, physically, spiritually. We had seen so much. Food forests repairing damaged land, thriving communities rekindling local economies; death and destruction; that what you ‘need’ is very little; that no one permaculture is the same.
A broad canvas of cultures, climates, and people the Americas are bound by a shared history of colonialism and exploitation. We learnt that in many cases, a conscious, sustainable design (whether started by a foreign group or by locals) was often in dialogue with a “development” agenda. Projects underpinned by the three-legged stool of permaculture ethics, were, by very dint of practice, addressing an array of such complex issues. Connecting the bigger picture to the local context, in an appropriate way, in our experience, is paramount to permaculture being true to itself.
We knew our story was leading to something bigger. Under the silvery canopy of a moonlit Amazon in Peru we decided that our next step was to explore permaculture in practice back home in the UK.
About Phil Moore
Communicator, collaborator, connector, Phil is passionate about media. A former staffer at the Ecologist Magazine, he writes occassionally for Permaculture Magazine UK. A background in documentary film making Phil has worked for a number of organisations including ActionAid, The Environmental Law Foundation, The Environmental Justice Foundation and the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival in a variety of roles.
http://permaculturepeopleuk.tumblr.com | @permapeople