Permaculture! What is it? How did it start? Where did it come from? These were all the questions I had when I started learning about permaculture two years ago. As my adventure began, learning about the roots of this principle based practice which was actually the revival of what I later learnt to be an ancient way of farming that many people practiced around the world until only a few hundred years ago.
Permaculture is more than a way of growing food; the ethics and principles of it are firmly rooted in much older belief systems. To me, Permaculture is a way to understand and interact with all other life, in a symbiotic and valuable way, in where there is a responsibility towards all living things and to learn how they interact with each other. Bill Mollison, the man who coined the term ‘Permaculture’ along with David Holmgren created a set of ethics and principles that were adapted over the years, which encompassed the art of permaculture or the ‘natural way of farming’.
The Ethics which it rests upon are; Earth care, People Care and Future Care, the foundations that all the principles are built and rely upon.
Earth Care, is based on the connection that we have with nature, it is our ancient bond with other life. It means to respect and use natural resources in a mindful and creative way. By understanding nature we can develop a deep understanding and work with it to produce abundant nutritious food, and replenish the soil back to it’s pre-industrial condition. Essentially there are many natural cycles which influence life, including the connections between soil, flora, water, Sun and air. Within the soil, there are cycles, as there are cycles for the other natural systems. Earth is constantly recycling and replenishing herself and that includes humanity. The reason that our planet is in the state it is, both ecologically; due to pollution and socially is by the inequality caused through our disconnection with nature. Without this mutual and responsible connection to nature, how can we know what it is to be human? For me this is a very important point; essentially, we have reached a crossroads in our evolution, not for the first time, but certainly this time it is the most important decision that we have faced, mainly because 90% of the population rely on the consumer based system we live in today. If our connection with nature is severed, then how can we know if the actions we carry out are actually good for the planet and ultimately humanity? Learning from nature and how to work with it, so there is a mutually dependent relationship that fits in with all other life that we are nurturing, is our most fundamental goal in life and certainly now it is essential if we are to live a healthy and abundant life. From my understanding Earth Care is the relationship that we develop with nature and how we nurture that relationship based on creating a balance within ourselves first and then connecting to our ancient roots. Without Aborigines, and the tribes of the rain forests, humanity wouldn’t have such deep roots with Mother Earth. The industrial revolution was instrumental in causing this disconnection with our roots in growing food.
The second ethic ‘People Care’ encompasses the actions of our society and what they are based on, without equality, humility, love and respect, there can be no prosperous and fair society. When our actions are based on ignorance and narrow thinking, we tap into the part of brain that is controlling, fearful and weak and we cannot see clearly. On the other hand, when we approach people with the same care, that we best treat nature, we can have coexistent, harmonious and fulfilled communities, that respect nature, work with nature and each other, to create a naturally regenerative society, without the poisons and toxins that exist within society and our natural world today. Basic human rights, such as clean drinking water, warm shelter and enough food to fill your belly each day, have been stripped away from people in many parts of the world, by the big multi national companies invested in profit at the expense of people and nature. But without the knowledge and courage to take action, we will lose our rights and ability to be able to have a relationship with the land. Take people away from the land they depend on and they will forget how much they need it, and when that land is filled with toxins and polluted, then this passes up the food chain to ourselves but when we work together and have a shared goal we can be far more creative and beneficial for each other than if we see life through a narrow lens of ignorance.
In the third ethic, ‘Future Care’ we find the solution to over consumption. If people were to think of 7 generations forward’ perhaps we could become producers rather than consumers. It is ultimately the investments we make that define our future. When, most of the consumption of the planets resources are consumed by only a handful of countries. In my opinion, most of the products people buy, whether, they be food or useable goods, are ineffective at fulfilling us and further disconnect us from the wonders of nature. This is no judgement on individuals, as the situation is far more complex and requires an understanding of a broad range of subjects to be able to ascertain to causes and the solutions. However, movements such as Permaculture are linked to much deeper and older understandings of the Earth and Indigenous people around the world, hold the secrets to our future success.
For me these Ethics not only underpin the core and essence of growing food or being self sufficient and caring for the Earth and all life that exists here, more so, it echoes the voices of our ancestors and the stories that they have of their connection to Mother Earth.
Built upon these ethics are the principles of Permaculture, these have been developed over the years to include now more than 20, which are a set of guidelines to create an abundant and healthy natural system and by following these guidelines we can not only sustain ourselves and our community but actually create a new localized society in which everyone can get access to and be responsible for creating a happy, harmonious and healthy community.
The first principle-‘Observe and Interact’ is synonymous with Buddhism, in as such as observing our environment to see how it interacts and understanding your part in the great web of life, and this as a principle is universal to learning all things. As far as nature and growing food forests is concerned, observing and interacting, is essential to growing abundant and healthy food in a closed loop system. Meaning that, after a ‘forest garden’ or similar technique is employed within a permaculture framework, after a while it becomes self sustaining and few if no external inputs are required. What this means is that through observing and interacting we are are seeing how we can mimic nature, as best as we can and through this relationship, we start to see patterns and cycles the nature creates.
The second principle is ‘Capture and store energy’, which is essential in a closed loop self supporting system, capturing the elements of energy that nature creates is exactly what a natural system like a forest achieves. Trees in the forest, use the wind to procreate, the sun to store energy and feed growth and the water to replenish and conserve the water within the soil to mitigate against to drier times. Photosynthesis is the most efficient engine that has ever been created with 95% efficiency of energy transfer.
And by using the source of energy to aid your food forest, with the third principle you are able to ‘Obtain a yield’. Whether it be food, medicine, building materials, or any other useful product, the ability to obtain a yield, all on the way you capture and use energy and the way you understand it in relation to all the other inputs. Within permaculture, yield increases as your own understanding of the Soil Food Web deepens. Knowing what is good for your plants and what is harmful, will affect the yield, understanding which creatures allow you to be able to keep the balance of life and understand what is causing what, enables you to increase any yield. Over time, your yield will increase as balance is restored and the work you put in becomes less.
When we ‘Apply Self-Regulation & Accept Feedback’ as the forth principle we are able to progress in our understanding and respect for nature. Being mindful of what we take from the Earth, whether that be the goods we buy or how we use that item, allows us to understand the importance of self regulation. Creating a self maintaining system is the ultimate achievement in permaculture, by following what nature does, we can reproduce this natural system to sustain ourselves. Forest Gardens are a perfect example of this, providing natural fertilizers, weed control and open pollinating plants a balance can be achieved where little input is needed.
The fifth principle of ‘using renewable resources and services’ and holding them in high value such as our Sun, water cycles and the power of the wind, can all be harnessed and captured to create energy that is needed, whether that be for composting, procreating or replenishing, there is no need to use external inputs when you can understand and harness natures power. This includes the amount of water we recycle and reuse or the amount of trees we harvest within a woodland. This is all part of keeping the balance within nature. In society this means that we hold nature in high respect and do not pollute the seas, toxify the soils and chop down pristine habitats, all in the name of profit. When our society is geared towards consumption on a mass scale which mostly masks the deep voids people have in their lives, we produce a lot of waste, in fact it is hard to imagine just how much waste is produced even by a small country like the UK. Natural systems like forests produce no waste whatsoever, every single nutrient, is extracted, recycled, and cycled again, then providing food to smaller and smaller organisms and the cycle starts again. In society and in our conventional ways of growing food, waste is probably the biggest problem that man has created for nature. The humble worm is one of the best recyclers on the planet-along with fungi, composting-whether it be through heat, natural turning or by working with worms, is following natures way. Worms amazing ability to be able to break down organic matter, into soil organic matter, or hummus, in my opinion gives them the humble status of kings of the soil. As the worm pushes the organic matter through it’s gut and processes it, taking the nutrients it needs, the soil is filled with carbon and other elements and turns into a rich dark multi-organism filled with life. Once we understand this cycle or life and death, we see that a natural system is the most effective, productive and least wasteful. Even the way humans recycle is inefficient. If only big corporations were to take a look at the humble earth worm to gain insight into creating a perfect equilibrium. They would see that just taking and taking and expecting there to be no consequences of their irresponsible behaviour is the most ignorant and damaging act. But if we do not hold them accountable they will destroy all that is beautiful in this world under the guise of progress. Nature, as I mentioned briefly above, creates patterns which are numerous and varied, although they follow certain principles, of birth, formation, decay and death, or the cycle of continuous recycling.
‘Design from Patterns to Details’ the sixth principle encourages us to look at the bigger picture, how individual organisms fit together, how they merge and overlap to integrate into the bigger picture. It’s impossible to see the bigger picture, when we observe only one phenomena in isolation, it cannot exist as it is without the dynamic inter personal relationships with all other life. The Soil, animals that live in and on it, as well as the plants all act as one interconnected organism, which, feeds every human on this planet. The top 3-4 inches of soil, brings life and provides, food, textiles, medicine to billions of people. That to me, means that by degrading and disrespecting the soil we are sentencing ourselves to a slow death. Once we understand the bigger picture, we can also see how we fit into the grand ‘Food Soil Web’.
In Permaculture, zoning is a way of understanding your overall patterns within your site and to see efficient it is at capturing and storing energy. Another method in permaculture is ‘sector analysis’, understanding the different energy sources and how they influence your site.
‘Integrating rather than Segregating’, is another principle at the heart of Permaculture, what in essence it represents is that, every living thing is as important to itself as it is to itself and everything is as important to having a healthy ecology of the soil and society. In this respect, nothing is more important than anything else. An obvious example is weeds, some think they serve no function at all, but as well as adding carbon to bare soil, weeds do serve other purposes, like telling us how healthy soil is, they can indicate certain thing with your soil but also some weeds provide medicinal benefits. Each element in a system, will provide many functions and each function is supported by many elements, this means that nothing can do it on its own, in isolation. Without opposition, support, rivalry and diversity, evolution would not exist. Practically, each element, like when cropping a vegetable, provides many functions, such as food, mulch, seeds for next year, medicinal value, etc. Each important function is supported by many elements, the food we consume, is supported by many different elements, main crops, herb gardens, orchards, greenhouses, micro greens, etc. If one element fails, our system can still be sustained. The location of the separate parts of a system in relation to each other is also key, water butts, would need to be near downpipes and herb gardens near the house.
Nature very rarely does things quickly, certainly not on a biological level-the changes are small and slow and as there are so many of them, the system is in a constant cycle of birth and decay, everything plays its part in a small way. On a community level, small is easy to grasp and can be implemented and used much more effectively. When trying to change something, the most effective way is to start small and see your success and expand or change accordingly, small steps lead to great changes. Diversity is the purpose of nature, the complexity of any eco system, is beyond many peoples view, especially within the mono-culture driven agricultural industry. The purpose of this way of growing is not health or well-being or respect of nature, it is merely another business for making profit for the greedy global corporations, the entity of business allows them to cut many corners, poison the earth, destroy communities and heritage.
Preserving natural habitats and cultures are central to the Permaculture principle of ‘using and valuing diversity’. The aim of Permaculture is to regenerate areas that aren’t wild to increase their diversity to what it once was, by seeing diversity in everything action we take and using nature as our teacher we can increase our yields, our health, our soil and our communities. Diversity on your permaculture farm, would be everywhere, orchards, green houses, food forests would all have their own eco system, within the larger one of your farm, all working together, supporting each other, supporting us. What a shame that so many people have forgotten to wonders of diversity.
In Permaculture design, it is important to allow nature it’s own space, this is known as ‘zone 5’ but the more blurred the boundary, the more diverse your life will be. ‘Using edges and valuing the marginal’ is something that can be incorporated into a permaculture design by understanding that sometimes the most productive areas are where to habitats meet, like a woodland and meadow. Ecotone is the ecological term given to this and when used correctly can hugely benefit your permaculture space. Within society there are marginalized people, movements and beliefs and quite often these are a source of growth and diversity.
Change, the one constant in life that creates more opportunity for growth and understanding. How we deal with the change is fundamental to our success in growing food or within society. Many of the worlds issues arise from from people not willing to change or how they react to change. Within an eco system there are slow changes that nature responds to; the seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter are intuitively followed by plants, tuned into the temperature, air pressure and other chemical and biological changes which drives there internal clocks to get ready to grow, flower, bear grain and germinate. Succession is a technique used in permaculture which prepares for what nature is going to do and pre-empt that with cleaver design. Forest Gardens are a prime example, all layers are put in at once, rather than nature taking years to achieve this.
Permaculture is vast as it is deep, it encompasses many aspects of society and mother nature and has the proof and insight to bring much value to the world, through the eyes of permaculture we can see life more clearly. But Permaculture has not only a lot of science behind it but also technical knowledge. Design, analysing, implementing, surveying, maintaining and evaluating are all aspects of any successful permaculture project. Permaculture can be adapted to any environment, to any culture or religion, there are no barriers to permaculture, only the ignorance of ourselves.