33 Books That Have Enriched My Permaculture Life
There was a time, some years ago, in which I aspired to be a fiction writer, and in those years, I found inspiration in the words of authors who wrote fiction (Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins are two that feel prominent). From there, I entered the world of travel writing, and I studied the works of people (Pico Iyer, Paul Theroux, Tim Cahill, Bill Bryson) prominent in that field. I was getting familiar with the greats to better understand how to write like them.
Now, I write and, thus, read a lot about permaculture: gardening, greenness, self-sufficiency, renewable energy, natural building, design, and the like. Unlike with fiction and travel, I’m no longer reading so much to develop my writing chops (not to say some of the following writers aren’t great) as I am to better understand my subject. But, much of what we know—in the beginning years—as individuals practicing permaculture is via vicarious experience: research.
It’s an amazing thing to discover authors and books that inspire you, whatever craft it is you are looking to develop. Some of the following books and/or authors will be purely about permaculture, others about topics somehow related, but all of them will have played some vital role into forming my views. They have help me better grasp what, how, and why we are doing what we are doing as people who want to make a positive change.
Eight Permaculture Classics
As with any subject, it helps to get our feet planted in where it began, so it’s impossible to read about permaculture without delving into Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Together they wrote Permaculture One, and separately they each went on two write more. Mollison wrote Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, upon which many courses are still based. Many years later David Holmgren wrote Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. In truth, these books are full of insightful and inspiring information, but they are often very heady and read more like textbooks. They are labors of love.
For those looking for permaculture books that are more reader friendly, ones that I often enjoyed as much for the writing as I did the information, there are other suggestions. Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway is amazing, both accessible and enlightening. The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach (Ben Falk) is also thick with practical information and first-hand experience that seems relatable, and the same is true, on a smaller scale, for Paradise Lost: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre, and the Making of a Garden Oasis in the City by Eric Toensmeier. Restoration Agriculture: Perennial Permaculture for the Farm (Mark Shepard) was a great read for thinking of food forests (and permaculture) on a commercial scale. The Vegan Book of Permaculture by Graham Burnett struck a real chord as well.
Eight Other Gardening Yarns
Though it is far from what defines permaculture, gardening is what brings most people to the practice, and I was no different. For me, it all began with wanting to understand how to grow food to feed myself. Though permaculture books offer a lot in the way of accomplishing this, I’ve definitely been inspired by other sources, as have most of the current and past central figures within the movement. After all, permaculture isn’t about exclusivity but rather adopting that which works for both people and the planet, regardless of where it originates.
John Seymour, author of The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency: The Classic Guide for Realists and Dreamers and The Self-Sufficient Gardener, is an endless wealth of information, inspiration, and realization. Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution is a part of many permaculture-related reading lists, and it is a surprisingly easy read about low-impact gardening. Recently, I discovered Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest and, having just moved to the temperate climate, got a lot out reading it. Lasagna Gardening (Patricia Lanza) is a kindly grandma’s take on no-dig gardening via the lasagna method—a good beginner’s book. On the other hand, Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests is a much deeper look at how to work within existing forests.
• Eric Toensmeier (from above) was also involved in some helpful, list-like reference books: Edible Forest Gardens (with Dave Jacke) and Perennial Vegetables: From Artichokes to Zuiki Taro, A Gardener’s Guide to Over 100 Delicious, Easy-to-Grow Edibles, which come highly recommended but that I’ve yet to read.
17 More Books in Keeping
Once we move past the garden, permaculture delves into efficient house designs and looks into our lifestyle choices. Admittedly, I’ve not weeded through nearly as many design books yet, but The Cob Builders Handbook: You Can Hand-Sculpt Your Own Home (Becky Bee) was hugely inspirational. Earthbag Building: The Tools, Tricks and Techniques (Kaki Hunter, Donald Kiffmeyer) is another specialized text, while The Art of Natural Building: Design, Construction, Resources gives a great overview of ecological construction. The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure, the work of Joseph Jenkins, forever changed the toilet for me. Additionally, books like Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own and Bill Bryson’s At Home, a Short History of Private Life have added a lot of thought to my conception of home and building.
Lifestyle choices—adopting new ways of living with an eye towards sustainability—are also integral to permaculture, and I’ve read some things to that tune. The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from around the World (amongst many others) by Sandor Katz is incredible. Also related to eating, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals was the overview of modern food systems that converted me from vegetarian to vegan, with some extended thoughts inspired by the aforementioned Michael Pollan’s works, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.
Other books have helped to refine my thinking while at the same time been informative and/or entertaining. Greasy Rider: Two Dudes, One Fry-Oil-Powered Car, and a Cross-Country Search for a Greener Future (Greg Melville) gives a digestible look at actual social efforts towards greenness. No Logo by Naomi Klein is a stark look at the economic system. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life is Barbara Kingsolver’s account of eating locally in the modern world. The Mosquito Coast by the legendary Paul Theroux has also put into perspective the notion of “sharing” ideas with other cultures. Ishmael: A Novel and The Story of B (Daniel Quinn) are both well written mind-openers on the history of civilization.
I hope some of these were familiar, others of interest. Sometimes it’s just nice to have someone fill up the reading list for you or to remind you of a great read. Trying to buy all of these books at once would be insanely expensive, so I just wanted to remind everyone that libraries are fantastic places. I was recently lucky enough to be forced into a situation in which I worked (writing) in the library daily, and I rediscovered the joy of having so much at my fingertips for free. While it’s lovely to support the authors who write these books, not all of us are in the position to do so. Dust off the library card or get a new one. Then, if a book really wows you, spend the cash to add it to your personal bookshelf.
Please feel free to extend this list in the comments below. I’m particularly interested in finding some good, both practical and stimulating, books about natural building techniques and small-scale DIY renewable energy. But, that’s not to say others won’t be after something else. If there have been books that have really moved you along into a better way of living, particularly in practical terms, let us know.
Feature Header: Courtesy of Les Chatfield