Defining Permaculture Away from the Garden

I’ve recently been interacting with a lot of people who are new to, but completely interested in, Permaculture, and in general, they think of it as a type of gardening. Most often, the explanation I hear of what newbies think Permaculture is revolves around using raised beds. And, honestly, I can remember once feeling much the same. It seems it’s the question so many of us —permies— are forever trying to answer and so many newcomers are trying to understand: What is Permaculture?

I must say that my initial attraction to permaculture was most definitely the kinder, more natural manner of gardening, but it soon grew into much deeper of a kinship. And, while I still strive to one day have a food surplus on my own property, and I do love putting in a swale or stack up a long hugelkultur, I’ve come to think that that more profound take on permaculture, the one that isn’t physical gardening, but rather completely cerebral is every bit as important, and actually more so, for us to talk about when people want to know what Permaculture is.

“Permaculture really starts with an ethic.”

The Global Gardener: In the Tropics

I have a few well-worn videos of Bill Mollison, a four-part series, called The Global Gardener, and in fits of laughter and failing attempts at an Australian accents, my wife and I have repeated and repeated his opening line:

“Permaculture really starts with an ethic.”

Despite our silliness, however, this ethic — or, actually, the basic three — has become one of the simplest, most succinct means by which to explain our take on living a fruitful, happy life, the Permaculture existence.

If Bill didn’t start explaining Permaculture by talking about gardens, then perhaps we should take heed in doing so ourselves. After all, isn’t the point of Permaculture to live sustainably, in harmony with nature, ourselves included, and the point of making those beautiful gardens just a means of doing so? Despite what people expect—all those raised beds, we would be selling the practice of Permaculture as whole short by trying to define it with how to make quality garden.

Permaculture really starts with an ethic.

Earth Care: We strive to take care of the earth, all of the systems in it, including plants, animals, waterways, the atmosphere, and all of those other micro and macroscopic things that make the planet function as an environment in which we can thrive.

People Care

: And, we do this so that human existence can continue, and in doing so, we care equally for our brothers and sisters on the planet.

Fair Share: The most logical way of going about all of this is to share in our surpluses rather than solely capitalized on them. That means free food for people who need food. That means sacrificing and/or rethinking the occasional comfort for the sake of a healthy environment.

To leave this out seems a tragic misinterpretation of why we are making these awesome gardens. The whole point is to make the world a better, cleaner place to live; to stop starvation with real, long-term solutions; and to once again return to a food system in which we care for the land and work with it rather than make it the enemy.

Observation and Design

From the viewpoint of these ethics, we can readily identify a plethora of problems with how we currently exist on the planet. We have serious waste management issues, dwindling resources upon which we completely rely, an impending (or some would say present) energy crisis, a food system that is killing us with chemicals, and so much more worthy moaning about. These are the things that originally inspired the coining and creation of permaculture. In permaculture, we observe the problems we face and, from these observations, of the problems themselves, seek solutions.

It was in observing nature, the amazing success of the planet to regulate and maintain itself, that the first solutions to these issues were found. Our food system, with its destructive clearing and chemicals, its frivolous use of water and limited resources, seemed the exact antithesis of a sustainable way of living. Meanwhile, the forests of the planet grew thick, full of food, populated with animals, without the fertilizers or sprinkler systems, and all without wasting anything or creating any detrimental (but rather beneficial) outcomes for the planet.

Permaculture, without a doubt, is integrally tied to growing food for this very reason. Food production as it currently stands is destructive, so observations of what a successful (and edible) ecosystem looks like have led us to design comparatively curious gardens. We seek to utilize nature’s guidance in order to build better food systems, to create a positive impact on the environment as opposed to clear-cutting plants and killing local animal populations in order to feed ourselves with unhealthy commercial crops. That’s how gardens fit into the mix of what permaculture is, but do not define it.

We observe what’s beneficial and what’s harmful, and we design with sound ethics, with both efficiency and self-sufficiency in mind. It’s not just making a garden. It’s not just using this technique or that one. It’s designing so that our needs are met—food, warmth, shelter, water, electricity…everything—without damaging, and ideally elevating, the health of the environment around us.

Life and Liberty

Atamai Village: Permaculture Community

Rather than spending lives grinding away or cordoned off behind a computer terminal, rather that toiling the soil with a plow and battling the weeds, rather than striving for more and more individual power and money, for me, Permaculture has taught me to think differently, to move as much as possible, in circles outside this overlord system of finance and credit that has corrupted the world, at least “our” world. Life and liberty comes from being able to sleep well, with a full belly, and a heart of happiness.

In Permaculture, I find so many paths to inspiration. Designs always strive to find the flow of what’s there and utilize things as they are, such as a roof catching rainwater or the sun providing passive heat in a house. The idea is not to beat what is, waging war with machines and chemicals and destructive tools. Techniques, like sharing surpluses and minimizing waste through cyclical systems, look to care for others and our planet. The thought is not to horde while those around us suffer or to create problems—landfills, chemical runoff, and air pollution—at the expense of others. Instead, we strive to find solutions in the problems, to fix what is wrong at the root rather than further hiding those results of what we are doing.

Gardens are great because they show all of these things in a compact space, designing swales to maximize our crop output without wasting water and constantly laboring over the land, using techniques like mulching and positional composting to keep the soil healthy and fertile, working with the environment to companion plant and enhance the landscape and provide habitats for various wild and domestic animals, all of which benefit a man-made, nature-replicated eco-system. This is all permaculture, but it isn’t permaculture all encompassed.

The reason all of this happens, the reason Permaculture is so often closely linked with gardening, is that the way we get our food provides many of the answers to the issues we now face. And, while a Permaculture garden is undoubtedly the best garden, it’s very important to remember that those gardens are not everything. The way we live outside of them is just as valiant an effort to undertake. It may even be more important.

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