The following is a blog by our contributor Stuart Anderson all about his experience with permaculture and how it has affected him and what it actually is. This will be a continued blog with it being part one of many…
Permaculture? Nope. No idea.
Six months ago that would have been it. And yet here I am with a Permaculture Design Certificate in hand, a steadily expanding library, and an allotment covered with two tons of woodchip…. mulch to the dismay and bewilderment of my new neighbours. They seem to think I’m crazy. I’m still wary of this person in the mirror who likes to spread woodchip over lawns.
“… originally ‘Permanent Agriculture’ … often viewed as a set of gardening techniques, but it has in fact developed into a whole design philosophy, and for some people a philosophy for life. Its central theme is the creation of human systems which provide for human needs, but using many natural elements and drawing inspiration from natural ecosystems. Its goals and priorities coincide with what many people see as the core requirements for sustainability.” (Emma Chapman: writer for Permaculture Magazine)
Got it? Nope? Me neither. I mean, yes, I understand the words but it is still so vague, and the question for me was always ‘how’? A good place to start would be the 500+ page keystone text “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual” by Bill Mollison; the creator of the term permaculture, and who designed the philosophy after a lifetime spent observing nature and indigenous growing techniques. However, I’ll save you some time, I went there and you’re not ready … trust me. This really isn’t a book to read, it is more a manual to be studied and implemented through practice. And it is dense…so dense. I am in agreeance with Geoff Lawton when he states ‘every sentence feels like a paragraph, every paragraph could be a chapter.’ I made it to the end of chapter three …twice.
But there is another way.
The Permaculture Design Course (PDC); a deliberate and hands-on introduction to the complex inter-connected socio-agronomic concepts of earth care, that teaches you how to approach implementing the permaculture design system anywhere on Earth. It’s also an intense and fully immersive experience that will change you. But it is pricey, and you need 12 days to spare… but when was the last time you changed your life in 12 days? I still can’t put a price on it and will never regret it.
Tap O’Noth Permaculture Farm
Tap O’Noth is the UK’s first certified permaculture research institute and resides in the gorgeous Aberdeenshire hills. It is also the home of James and Anna who are quite possibly the nicest people on the planet. Joined by the sage-like PDC teacher Angus, we struck gold in those hills. James’ farm was also the perfect place to learn in situ, with a stunning and initially mind-boggling expanse of permaculture practices in action, with practical examples of all the techniques we were to learn.
It was from walking around the farm and listening to James that I was introduced to the permaculture design approach; to learn how to observe, survey, analyse, design, implement and maintain a food growing system in harmony with nature. A process that requires a degree of mindfulness in the observer and the patience to allow nature to reveal her secrets. By doing this you learn to observe the behaviour of the elements, how the sun progresses over the land, how slope and aspect define your land, the behaviour of water and the techniques open to you. This natural infrastructure becomes your blueprint and the permaculture designer’s role is to construct a harmonious multi-functional system that best utilises their energy with minimal waste and maximum yield.
To achieve this you have to progress to the next level. It is here that things get really interesting. This is the world of succession, layers, edges, multiple-functionality, guilds, soil structure and agroforestry. This is where you separate the perennials from the annuals, get stuck in to nitrogen fixing, natural defence systems, worm farming, composting and keeping chickens, where you discover the wonders of mulch and learn your swale technique. So this is what they mean by a design science I thought to myself. And also ‘what the hell is a swale?’
I will admit that at times it felt like trying to complete a three-dimensional puzzle blindfolded while considering space/time relationships. I found it easier listening to Anne Hathaway attempt to describe why love is like gravity. (Yes, we even get to watch movies at night … I highly recommend Inhabit as the best documentary on permaculture in action). But there is a secondary strength to the fully immersive PDC experience. Because you are living on site for 2 weeks with 12 other like-minded souls you find yourself on a learning-journey together. And what a journey! It is not everyday you find yourself in the company of a horticultural professor from Washington State University, a biologist from New Found land, a marine biologist from Tasmania, a Zimbabyan farmer, a yogic nutrionalist , and a permaculture documentary filmmaker called Phil, to name but a few.
The most memorable experiences were those evenings where you would enjoy a leisurely beer and discuss the day’s teachings and how to integrate them into our own lives. Night after night we would sit out under the stars, clarify points of uncertainty and marvel at the simplicity of the permaculture approach. Together we were able to guide each other through those areas we didn’t quite understand and to formulate plans to take back with us. Sometimes we would get carried away, and yes, world domination was discussed … resistance would be fertile (sorry couldn’t resist it).
You also realise that, although you are operating under this umbrella term ‘permaculture’, what you are actually doing is unlearning all the information you were taught about agriculture. You begin to ask yourself why do we grow acres of monocultures? Why do we destroy the soil with constant tilling, chemical fertilisers and pesticides? Why can we not see that the most fertile soil is that which is left untouched, or that the greatest defence mechanisms are those already in nature? Finally, like Mollison, you begin to realise that permaculture is the reintroduction of design systems perfected by nature over millennia. It is through our own arrogance that we have convinced ourselves that we can better nature in her own backyard.
“Throw mother nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork” (Masanobu Fukuoka)
It was with slight trepidation that you approach the final design project at the end of the course. The sheer volume of knowledge that has been thrown at you in 12 short days doesn’t feel like it has had time to settle, but we definitely surprised ourselves. Working in small groups we were given a design brief to implement on the farm. From then on it was a frenzy of activity, ideas explode from within, words are used fluently that a week ago were like some alien archaic language, concepts usually reserved for professionals flow off the tongue with surprising confidence, greeted with quizzical looks, fist pumps and a succession of ‘wow… did I just say that’?. The final design plans are actually works of art, oozing multiple-functional elements of design, and a deep consideration for the environment. We didn’t just pass, we owned it!
Now here in lies the problem. That last paragraph is a fine example of what is known in permaculture circles as ‘Permaculture Design Course Syndrome’. If you could bottle the enthusiasm generated by the PDC then our energy worries are over. But we need to be wary. The design plans are simply ideas; we do not actually implement them. The majority of what we have learned has been theory. It would be the equivalent of reading an introduction to the human body and expecting to perform surgery. 12 days does not make a professional agricultural farmer. It is too easy to point fingers and snigger because the whole agricultural system seems to be getting it wrong. My actual practical experience is still pitiful and in its infancy. Who am I to offer criticism? But I would argue that the PDC should not be criticised for creating an over-enthusiastic novice with a strong sense of self and a desire to understand nature. We need people like that, and lots of them. We should question the industrialised food industry, we should look for alternatives to chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and we should investigate the possibility of local food growing networks.
I think what has really resonated with me is not so much what I have learned, although it still feels profound, it is the change I have seen within myself. Before the course my experiences of growing was defined by my speciality in killing houseplants. I regarded gardening as intensive, time consuming and a world belonging to horticulturalists and the retired, an alien world, impenetrable and spoken in Latin. The greatest gift of the PDC has been to make the unfamiliar familiar, and to give me the confidence to get an allotment and put these ideas i’m having too frequently at night into practice. This not only feels possible; it feels like it is a part of who I am. We are a part of nature, blessed with the intelligence and awareness to observe, and to harness natures systems to not only sustain us, but to provide us with a vibrant, healthy ecosystem in which we can all live. That last part might seem like some hippy idealism but I would borrow a quote from Robert Llewellyn, author of ‘News from Gardenia’.
“The message is tireless and simple: the human race is stupid and we will destroy ourselves … So all I have tried to do is create a world where eventually, instead of the human race destroying this small planet we inhabit, we get it right. It’s not perfect, it’s not likely, but it is entirely possible.”
– Stuart Anderson, October 2015