On a cold December morning in 2018, our family departed for Maui, HI. High above the Pacific Ocean, I said to my husband, “if no one picks us up at the airport and the site is failing, I give up.” I was teetering on a loss of hope and enthusiasm for humanity and sustainability. Our family lives in a 100% electric, passive solar, solar PV-powered, bamboo and earthen plastered, straw bale, consciously built home in a walking/biking only community in Moab, UT. I bike to work most days. My job entails helping others lighten their environmental footprint. And yet, this feeling of being a parasite on our planet was gnawing away at me. Despite how consciously we built our home, a few truckloads of construction waste made their way to the landfill. Despite biking most days, I also drive a fossil-fuel powered vehicle. Despite my best efforts to reduce my waste, I’m overwhelmed with plastic packaging. But it’s recyclable! And a lot is thrown out or flies away for wildlife to become entangled in. A student wrote in my course evaluation that fall, that I needed to be more optimistic. Reading that was a shock as I had prided myself in being an eternal optimist. My eyes welled both as I looked at my toddling son, awestruck and staring out the window at our beautiful planet below, and as I felt a young baby forming in my body, and I wondered for the thousandth time how I could bring a human into this mess, let alone two. I was at a breaking point.
What I did not consciously know, is that I designed a six-month journey of hope for myself and my family, which we were just beginning that December. Almost a month in Maui would follow with half a year of traveling around the U.S. in an 18-foot camper trailer, interviewing inspirational leaders in ecological design along the way.
We were greeted at the airport and taken to our first site – the Haiku Aina Permaculture Initiative – a diversified food forest and teaching center in Haiku, Maui. We descended a steep hillside past giant avocado, mango, and lemon trees, and stepped out at our one-bedroom bamboo hut that would be our home for the next several weeks. Without cellular service and suddenly with time to reflect and look introspectively, I was in a ripe location to begin my journey of hope. The need for this became apparent when, at a remote area called the “Birthing Pools” near one of the largest surf breaks in the world, the ocean nearly took my life, my identification, and killed my phone. I was baptized by mother nature, dependent on my fellow parasitic humans for help, and for the first time in a very long time, witnessed the beauty in humans and their ability to live mutualistically, if not regeneratively, with our planet.
I interviewed 24 people in 2019, asking what permaculture means, where the movement is headed, hard questions regarding diversity and equity, and more. The beginning of our travels involved a focus on the diverse sites we would visit and places we’d see along the way. Remarkably, however, I began to feel a higher level of excitement in hearing people’s life stories resulting in the physical regenerative work they were engaged in. I found common themes, including fighting in the front lines of environmental activism and turning to the solutions-based framework of permaculture as a refuge, enacting systems-level solutions beyond the home landscape, shortcomings of our siloed academic system, and an overall awareness of humans’ ability to enact positive change. Now as I work through the coding process of the recorded interviews, my hope is strengthened with each beautiful story.
I delivered my baby the same month we returned home to Moab, in temperatures soaring above 100 degrees. His giggles as he plays with his older brother make my heart explode with joy all over again. I still dabble in despair, especially with the visual association of our parasitic nature with masks everywhere under the pandemic. But the stories I recorded along the way provided an anchor of hope that was absent as we flew to Maui that cold December morning. Hindsight is 2020 and this pivotal year of the great pause is an immense opportunity for all of us to rebuild with hope. We belong, can life each other up, and we have it within us to enact regenerative change. Now let’s get to work.
To discover more about the work we are doing, visit our website at http://permaculture.usu.edu
As our communities re-emerge into the sunlight from our lockdowns, put away the latex gloves, explore new greetings of elbow taps, and remove our masks to reveal our faces, what world will we walk into? Moreimportantly, what future will we help create? We have been stripped of our previous reality and as each day passes, we have begun to question how ideal that reality actually was. Do we want a future of endless consumption and removed consequences? Of turning a blind eye to racism and social injustice? Did we enjoy our fossil-fuel-dependent hour-long commute to our eight-hour work days? Aswe venture ahead, stripped naked and wide-eyed, we have an unprecedented opportunity to take a long, hard look our operating systems and apply the permaculture principle of creatively using and responding to change.
And change is happening. Many governments around the world are turning away from fossil fuels towards rebuilding in a waythat addresses both climate change adaptation and mitigation. Cities are closing streets to cars and opening them to pedestrians and cyclists. Community supported agriculture shares with local farmers have increased as much as 300 percent in our country. This disruption is a time to question and create. We are questioning our languages. Our colonialist roots and the biases and racism that have been passed down to us. We are questioning online shopping and political corruption. We are moving towards better alternatives and it turns out that what is better for us is better for our earth – we are integrated, not segregated.
When first learning about permaculture design, landscaping is the gateway through which most of us apply the design framework. The systems-level thinking that ensues after immersing in a permaculture design course can be so profound that we gravitate towards landscaping as something concrete in which to apply our new ways thinking. We question, ‘why weren’t we taught this in over a decade’s worth of sitting in classrooms?’ Many then scale up the application to redesigning our economic systems. To rethinking our language and inherited biases. To assessing our daily patterns and our governmental structures. The opportunities to restructure, especially following disruption, are endless.
Rafter Ferguson, scientist in the Food and Environment program with the Union of Concerned Scientists, is applying systems-level thinking to support shifts in federal policy. His focus lies in bridging agroecology and food systems research with social justice and racial equity. According to Rafter, “Before permaculture, I was not especially interested in the natural sciences. My undergrad was in anthropology--basically a social science, social theory major. When I encountered permaculture, I wasthinking about the ways in which we are all tied into this system of industrial capitalism, a system that is terrible for us and is undermining the foundations that make our lives possible, but at the same time that we depend on.” Rafter has scaled up his thinking.
Of core importance to his work is the ability “to think carefully and critically about human-environment relationships and the role that they play in keeping people subjugated and
exploited versus on a path to liberation.” When he learned about permaculture, he discovered “a way of thinking that…is responding to [environmental and ecological issues] in a way that is very pro-social. There is lots of room for community organization, for all sortsof human liberation projects within that. It’s not just like ‘civilization is evil and it should just fall.’”
In taking his PDC in Argentina with Peter Bane (author of The Permaculture Handbook http://permaculturehandbook.com/) and others, Rafter was energized and excited about the new lens in which he was seeing the world. “Despite having four years plus of undergraduate education, I had never encountered any systems thinking.” What followed was a learning journey of travel and study for several years, where he “started trying to develop a design-oriented, systems-oriented way of talking about [privilege and oppression].” This would allow him to take race and class-conscious movement building strategies and introduce them into a PDC context “in a way that can resonate with the reasons people are there–with their desires for their own lives and with their desires for change, rather than just being like ‘oh and by the way, you should feel bad and maybe those bad feelings will get you to behave differently.’”
“The work that I feel is important, and that I’m motivated to put my attention on, is centered on supporting and amplifying people of color-led movements, as opposed to trying to work strictly within the majority-white permaculture milieu, to herd a million cats to orient more toward people of color leadership. There are already all these incredibly dynamic projects happening–a renaissance of Black agrarian projects, movement building, organizing, and scholarship. [See below for resources.] Some of these folks have actually filtered through the permaculture movement and been like ‘this actually isn’t for us,’ and begun identifying more with agroecology and afro-ecology and other ways of thinking that aren’t overwhelmingly white.”
What follows is one of the most powerful reflections I observed in my many travels throughout my sabbatical journey. It was an appropriate way to cap my interview journey and perhaps, like me, it will get you thinking more deeply about applying systems thinking to enact largescale change. “Permaculture is an amazing tool for shifting worldview, for giving people new ways to think about the environment and their relationships with it, and larger social relationships with that. I think that the primary barriers, the most formidable barriers to change right now are political. By which I mean the capture of our entire political and regulatory system by capital–by people and institutions with a very strong interest in limiting change. If we zoom in on those political barriers, the main thing that’s preventing us from effective large scale collective political action is white supremacy, and the way that so many white people throughout the country either explicitly blame people of color for the problems we face, or are full of confusion and anxiety that implicitly prevent them from fully apprehending their shared humanity and common interests with people of color. So, given that the large mass of white Americans have been dissuaded from finding common cause with people of color, especially with Black Americans… This is the most powerful tool the elite could possibly wield in this country and they are wielding it very effectively. For me, connecting to that issue is the primary thing for determining my personal compass of whether my own or other people’s work is really relevant to the issues at hand. So, I think the degree to which people within the permaculture community are able to find their way to that understanding, and figure out how to take effective action around that…That’s
precisely the degree to which I think permaculture is really relevant to the crisis that we are in right now. To be clear, the worldview shift that permaculture is so great at facilitating is a really valuable one and it was incredibly influential for me. Even when I talk about this Black and brown-centered and led agrarian movement–there are some folks in this space that in some way did come through permaculture, and were affected by that way of thinking, and then grew beyond it and found ways that were more grounded in their own histories and diasporas. It’s a powerful force and I think it’s generally a force for good. Take this idea, that's part of permaculture, that the most effective and powerful interventions into the global crises we are facing are through very local actions–maybe in our own yards or maybe on the community scale; and therefore we don’t have to wait for the involvement or approval of any institutions to take action. I think that’s a powerful and exciting concept that really mobilizes people along the dimensions of that kind of work. But there’s also this resignation in permaculture that since our institutions are all hopelessly compromised, we should all go off and remake our new society over here on the margins. I don’t think that way of working is sufficient for the scale of crises that we are facing. Maybe if we had 500 years to incrementally shift things and gradually do that. But we can’t simply ignore the institutions that we currently have as much as they might suck. And I do think they suck.”
We all possess degenerative thinking patterns. Feeling shame about that, however, ultimately gets in the way of the more important work of establishing new ways of thinking and mobilizing positive change.
To discover more about Rafter, check out his work with Union of Concerned Scientists, his research on permaculture, visit his personal website at liberationecology.org, or read Toward 21st Century Permaculture: Peoples' Science or Pseudoscience?
A New Generation of Black Farmers Is Returning to the Land, Leah Penniman
Towards a “Peoples” Agroecology, Blain Snipstal
Want to See Food and Land Justice for Black Americans? Support These Groups, the Civil Eats Editors
Why We Can't Separate Justice and Sustainability in the Food System, Rafter Ferguson
“If the origins of civilization are bound up with humanity’s expulsion from Eden, then surely the purpose of all our striving must be to regain the garden.”
– Jerome Ostentowski, The Forest Garden Greenhouse.
The Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute (CRMPI), one of the oldest continually operating permaculture teaching sites in the U.S., boasts quite the garden. I visited Jerome Ostentowski at CRMPI last fall, where we walked and talked among 200 varieties of fruit trees and many more perennial edible shrubs and plants all thriving in and around his five greenhouses. The diversity is made possible in part because “each one of these greenhouses is unique. They all have their own climate and succession, soil building…so it’s a unique kind of experiment in carbon farming.”
Carbon farming involves “a suite of crops and agricultural practices that sequester carbon in the soil and in perennial vegetation like trees. If widely implemented, these practices have the capacity to sequester hundreds of billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere in the coming decades” (E. Toensmeier The Carbon Farming Solution). Through sequestering and storing carbon in the soil, carbon farming is touted by many as a key tool in climate change mitigation and adaptation.
And Jerome is observing that “with climate change, everything is shifting faster.” These shifts are becoming hard to ignore, and many are seeking to be part of the solution by increasing their self-sufficiency and reshaping their relationships with each other and the natural environment.
Over 3,000 solution-seeking students and interns have participated in programs at CRMPI, many of whom are now influential permaculture designers and educators in their own right. In addition to 32-years of offering a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC), around five years ago Jerome started The Academy, which is an eight-day program with two four-day modules covering greenhouses and forest gardening. CRMPI also offers various weekend workshops on the same topics.
The site, tucked away on a steep, previously eroded slope above Basalt Colorado, wasn’t always a living experiment in carbon farming. “I tried to do gardening up here and I wasn’t able to do it…I didn’t have any framework.” With over 30 years of trial and error, our walk through CRMPI had me eying a paradise of gotu kola, pomegranate, Washington navel oranges, bananas, jasmine, scarlet runner beans, ginger, yacon, taro and countless other food and medicinal plants and trees. We sampled sweet figs and tangy kumquat as Jerome shared his mounting concerns about the permaculture movement, higher education, our societal structures, and climate change.
When asked about permaculture and its leaders, Jerome reflected a sense of competition, “it’s just business as usual. Every permaculture group is just dog-eat-dog…” As such an influential incubator site for permaculture educators around the county, I was surprised to hear this perspective. And yet, I can see how accumulated years of fighting city and county ordinances, large scale industrial agriculture, restrictive federal policies and more can wear any of us down.
Jerome also questions our societal structure, where people “follow the bouncing ball…and no one even questions it.” We explored “litter” as terminology for nutrient-rich leaf compost in people’s yards. This terminology, along with the broken paradigm of using a fossil-fueled-powered leaf blower, raking leaves into bags, driving a fossil-fuel-powered vehicle to drop leaves at the landfill, and mistakenly believing this as the best environmental practice to engage in (the landfill turns it into compost!) is one of many examples of degenerative patterns in our society. I am hopeful that we can shift these patterns – and with our temporarily clear skies as the planet takes a great pause – we see how quickly change can be enacted.
The dissonance between Jerome’s reflections about both the permaculture movement and our society as a whole and his beautiful oasis of a garden was hard to ignore. The interview had me thinking deeply about gratitude. About the active practice of appreciation upon waking up in the morning. About our self-talk and the choice we have each day to practice and radiate optimism.
I hope for our society and our planet. We have many problems/opportunities (propportunities) before us. And in this fight to reshape our relationships with each other and our planet, we must remember to take the time for self-healing and to reground. Perhaps then we can see the beauty right before us and effectively share the resulting bounty to better our society.
“We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.” — Buddha
To discover more about Jerome, visit CRMPI’s website at: https://crmpi.org/
With my toddler secured in our bike trailer, we take off each weekday on our morning errands past the greywater-fed basins of our house. Those basins bear cherry, apricot, and nectarine trees, currants, lavender, and a range of pollinator attractors and native grasses, all of which are surrounded by a thick, fungal-rich mulch layer. Jeff Adams of TerraSophia, LLC, helped turn my greywater dreams into reality by sizing and implementing catchment basins for our laundry, shower and bath water and integrating them into a permaculture concept design for my property.
I first met Jeff while taking my Water Harvesting Certification in Albuquerque, NM with the Tucson-based Watershed Management Group. He was teaching alongside Brad Lancaster and other experienced leaders in systems thinking and regenerative design, and I was a professor-turned-student in his class, writing math equations for roof rainwater runoff and soaking in the information like a water-thirsty sponge. At the time, my husband and I were building our straw-bale, solar PV, passive solar house in our walking-biking only neighborhood and I realized the potential of many things conveyed in the course, such as the usefulness of a large storage tank instead of a rain barrel for water catchment, and using a three-way valve and a two-inch pipe to gravity feed my laundry and bathwater to the landscape.
As my son and I leave our neighborhood, we pass landscape after landscape planted in a monoculture of resource intensive Kentucky bluegrass. While our cultural norms default to lawns – stemming back to our colonial roots – ecologically and socially beneficial alternatives to this degenerative pattern abound. Lawn signs read “Caution. Pesticide Application. Please Stay off Until Dry” with black and white images of an adult, dog, and a child accompanied by a large circle bearing a horizontal line across it. Stay off. Keep out. Toxic and unsafe.
During his teenage years, Jeff’s career path launched from this default-style of landscaping. In high school, he joined a landscaping crew and embarked in what he now calls “mow, blow and go.” We must ask ourselves: Are lawns easier? Just because we are used to buying lawnmowers or hiring landscaping crews, applying synthetic fertilizers, spraying pesticides, raking leaves, weed-whacking, and refueling with fossil fuels does not mean they are easy. They are habit. And ecologically and socially fruitful alternatives abound.
At Humboldt State University in Northern California, Jeff took a class in appropriate technology with topics ranging from greywater to passive solar to rocket stoves. It changed everything. Now, Jeff is restoring ecosystems and watersheds using permaculture design. Although he uses the term “ecological landscaping” on his website, Jeff loves the term permaculture. This is because “what I’ve realized is that as opposed to ecological design, as opposed to just regular landscape design - all these other design modalities - permaculture has ethical backing and a prime directive and that is really, really important…If you just picked up a landscape architecture/landscape design book, the process is pretty similar: You assess the site and the clients’ goals. You come up with a vision, you do some concepts and then you figure out the details. That part isn’t very different. [The difference is in] the underlying ethics and the prime directive to take responsibility.” This is where permaculture sets itself apart.
In defining permaculture, Jeff says “It’s a whole systems design method based on ecological principles and a whole range of traditional and modern techniques that is guided by ethics and has a prime directive to take responsibility for your actions. I usually try to emphasize as well that while it is most commonly thought of as gardening, landscaping, homesteading, food production, it is just as readily applied to business development, organizational development, interpersonal interactions or anything else because it is a design process. It’s not exclusive to one application or another but it takes a little more thinking outside of the box and creativity to say ‘how do some of these ecological principles and these ethics apply to my business’ or ‘how I decide to go do my errands in town so that I’m using the least amount of time and resources as I go about my 3 or 5 stops.’ That sort of thinking has permeated into my daily life so I try to share that with other people too…It’s almost more of a way of thinking and being than it is anything physical or tangible.”
Jeff does warn about expecting too much out of the Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC); “I think the PDC is an amazing life changing experience, but it’s just the beginning…we are dealing with very complex and in-depth systems as well as the design process as well as principles as well as the actual techniques and technical considerations and there is no way you can be proficient in that in two weeks…it’s an amazing starting point, but it needs to be better framed as a starting point.”
Along his path from a traditional landscaping crew to running his own ecological landscaping business for over a decade, Jeff has scaled up his work and its reach. He is now “really trying to work with institutions so that the work I do isn’t just tucked away in somebody’s backyard.” Albeit, he recognizes all designs are important in both their function and the potential of a ripple effect. His recent projects range from the residential to the watershed scale. In his spare time, Jeff works to influence and change local and state policy. Recently, he helped ensure green infrastructure was written into our city’s general plan and sustainability plan, and the two of us also partnered with our local health department to change (simplify) our state’s greywater policy.
We have much to learn from the way healthy ecosystems function, or the “wisdom of the earth,” which is in fact the meaning of TerraSophia. Such ecosystems are never operating in a monoculture; instead, they thrive with diversity. The same could apply to each of our landscapes and we could reap the added benefits of food production, wildlife encounters, and carbon sequestration. Thanks to educators like Jeff, more people are questioning the norm, removing their lawns, conserving water, and enjoying and distributing the bounty of permaculture.
To discover more about Jeff, visit TerraSophia’s website at: http://www.terrasophia.com
How can we play a more active role in reversing the degenerative patterns of inequality in gender and race within our society? What are our internal and external dialogues, and how can we shift those in a way that cultivates regeneration? In the weeks after my interview with Karryn Olson, I have been thinking through these tough yet important questions.
The people care ethic in permaculture is front and center for Karryn, where her grounding question is “how do we support, especially women, to move boldly forward as permaculture leaders and into permaculture-related careers?” This question stemmed from her personal life experiences, but especially from her role as a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) teacher with the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute: “I would prep really hard…and I would feel like I would show up and I would teach a knock-out section and the comments at the end of the day would be things like ‘Karryn’s such a good mom.’” It was exhausting.
Karryn made it a goal to change this, “I really wasn’t going to the ‘it’s because I’m a woman’ or the ‘victim place’. I literally did this experiment where I tried different things for three years. First, I would prep twice as hard as the year before. My next thought was, oh, it is because I go home at night to my family. I’m going to stay, I’m going to be here at the course, so I was the first person who greeted people, and I would be there 16 hours on my day teaching. I made sure to teach really great technical content, too. Then I literally had a man make a comment to me that he was going to ask my two male colleagues a question that helped me understand he didn’t see me as a leader of the organization. It was actually a wonderful moment, because I was like ‘it’s not me!’, ‘IT’S NOT ME!’. It was so liberating.” And I kept wondering “Am I the only person going through this?’ It makes you feel crazy, it really does.”
She then put out a call out to interview 20 women about their experiences in permaculture. Across the board, difficulties were encountered ranging from sexual harassment to belittling, regardless of how incredible the women were. This was not in an effort to put down the permaculture movement, but to name ongoing degenerative patterns in our society.
Although being a good mom is a compliment, so is being a good teacher, a good leader, a knowledgeable expert. And women have a lot to bring to the leadership table. “Studies talk about [how] women are actually really even better leaders because we are better at creating alliances. When we have more diverse people at the table, women are better at bringing in people and building bridges with people who have been disenfranchised, you get more innovation when you are more diverse. All of those types of skills are super important.”
Yet, as Karryn highlights in her Permaculture Activist publication from 2013, “According to the White House Project, in their ‘Benchmarking Women’s Leadership’ report, women receive the majority of all college degrees, make up almost half of the workforce, and are well represented in entry- and mid-level positions in most sectors of the economy. However, women occupy on average only 18% of top leadership positions (and numbers are lower among women of color). Further, the wage gap for women means that they make 78.7 cents for every dollar earned by men, and that gap widens with age.” In our interview, she elaborated, “leadership, we see as an archetypically male thing. So, women are judged negatively if we are too male, and negatively if we are too feminine. We get this double whammy…micro-disadvantages.”
The solution is not in putting men down – that would be a degenerative approach. Instead, we need to be having conversations about why is this the case, and how do we change this. What are the invisible structures at play in our body language? In our internal dialogues? Our external dialogues?
At 30%, something wonderful happens with leadership dynamics. As stated in her article, “when 30% of the people at power tables are women, organizations reach a tipping point. Women can then change agendas, inform goals, allocate resources, and impact the style in which goals are achieved. Cultural stereotypes are altered so that women are no longer seen as women, but as professionals…‘What is the landscape for women in permaculture in our circles?’ If not at parity, we can set policy to have 30% of our boards, teaching teams, speakers lists, etc., occupied by qualified women. They are out there, and we can find them by replacing the question, ‘Who do I know?’ with ‘Who don’t I know?’”
“It’s not just about how strong our skills are or how professional we are…when you try super hard over a period of time and you can’t get traction, it erodes your confidence.” So Karryn applies her skills in various ways to help others, especially women, rebuild their confidence. In addition to co-founding Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute, she teaches at Ithaca College and started SEEDS and Regenepreneurs. The following is a summary of each:
At Ithaca college, Karryn’s 1-credit course on Gardens, Ecological Design and Practice gets students outside of the classroom. Homework involves working in groups in the gardens. In another course, students made a “business case” for permaculture on campus, given the stronghold of campus mow-blow-and-go landscaping. “We actually did the math…the average lawn mower running one hour is the equivalent to running seven cars at 55 miles an hour…then we talked about ‘what is the embedded energy of the pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers’…[referencing adjacent typical campus landscaping] all of this is put in and ripped out multiple times. They bring in huge loads of mulch and for a while, they were actually raking up all the mulch from last year and putting in new mulch. It’s kind of nuts…if we were ever to have a carbon tax, this is a liability, this approach. It’s actually a mismanagement issue.” Through this type of work, she is helping students rethink our standard mode of operating.
But it is through her newest consulting endeavor, Regenepreneurs, where she is currently dedicating the most time, excitement and energy. Karryn created Regenepreneurs as she was encountering numerous people with amazing skills, but without the know-how of how to apply those in a way that is most strategic given their life situations. “We need to fast-track regenerative solutions.”
The concept of a regenerative right livelihood is adapted from E.F. Schumacher and his work Buddhist Economics. “A lot of people are trying to figure out ‘What is my path? How do I do the good work?’ I know when I took my first permaculture course back in 1994 it was like ‘oh, I’ll become a teacher, a designer’ because that was all I saw as the possibilities and I started realizing ‘wow, you can take these skills and you could apply them in unlimited amounts of directions if you understood the entrepreneurial parts of it.” Helping others understand those entrepreneurial applications of permaculture lies at the heart of Karryn’s current work, developing “skills to co-create a regenerative future.”
Her ultimate goal? “I want people to walk away being like ‘we can do this.’ So it’s really about their own thriving, but then also having an audacious vision of what thriving could look like for our communities and our future, our kids’ futures.”
As a woman, I connect with and am touched by Karryn’s efforts, not to mention her magnetic personality. She is an inspirational leader working to shift deeply rooted degenerative paradigms. Something she said in the interview resonated deeply with me; During her undergraduate studies, a male professor walked in carrying a baby and she thought “how cool!” But then, she asked herself how she would react if it was a woman: “What, couldn’t you find childcare?” That opened her eyes about how “gender schemas” are deeply ingrained in all of us. These are hard realities to face and they are things we all in some way or another have experienced and personally furthered, and we need to be awake to it in order to set regenerative patterns for people care in our culture. These conversations and issues show the potential of permaculture beyond the landscape – fostering regenerative hope in a time where we need it most.
To discover more about Karryn, visit Regenepreneurs’ website https://regenepreneurs.com, or http://seedsustainabilityconsulting.com, or the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute at https://fingerlakespermaculture.org
As permaculture permeates its way into academia, its scientific merit is rightfully questioned and the claims within are strengthened or discredited as a result. For several years, Steve Gabriel played a lead role in developing and teaching Cornell University’s permaculture programming, which included a for-credit student course (no longer offered) and three online Extension courses, entitled Permaculture: Fundamentals of Ecological Design (6.5 weeks), Permaculture Design: Ecosystem Mimicry (6.5 weeks), and Permaculture Design: Practicum (4.5 weeks). In interviewing Steve at his Wellspring Forest Farm in Mecklenburg, NY, I discovered his conflicted feelings about permaculture, and the unique lens it has provided for his work. He was one of the original co-founders of the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute in 2005 and began working at Cornell in 2009 in the Department of Horticulture, focusing on permaculture and agroforestry research and education. He now runs the farm with his wife and is an agroforestry specialist for Cornell Extension’s small farms program.
Steve’s permaculture path began while studying at the University of Massachusetts, which supported him on a semester abroad in Scotland with the Findhorn Foundation Ecovillage.
He became enamored by sustainable living and in returning to the U.S., took his PDC in the early 2000’s at Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina. After studying permaculture next in Oregon, Steve wound up in the Finger Lakes region of New York, where he experienced the struggles of running his own permaculture landscaping business and decided instead to hone in on farming, where he felt a more stable income could be found applying permaculture design. This is also which propelled him into Cornell Extension’s consumer horticulture program, at first editing lawn care fact sheets and working with the primarily retired, female audience of the state’s Master Gardener program. It didn’t take long for public interest in permaculture to begin pulling Steve and resulting in changes to the University’s Extension programming. “Part of my job when I first started was to go to every county Extension office and interview the community horticulture educator and basically get a sense of the state of horticulture in the state of New York. That’s 62 counties and I went to 58….out of that our program at the state level honed in on different theme areas each year as a way to enhance resources and improve enrollment. So the next year, the theme was compost and soil. For me, there was a lot of permaculture stuff I had learned that I could bring into that. And then the next year was about pollinator plants and polycultures or companion plants as it is often thought of in the garden world. That was the focus and so we did programming around that.” Regarding his training and experience in permaculture design, “people got super excited about it…[they] were always asking about it and I somehow got associated with it…that catapulted us to name permaculture.”
After funding ran out for Steve’s initial program development, “we had already started looking at online courses as a good way to generate revenue that didn’t require grants. My boss at the time proposed I develop a permaculture class and it just filled up. So it became the way I actually sustained the majority of my funding was through that course. With regards to enrollment, we were always shooting for about 20 in the first two – the fundamentals and the design and then there’s the practicum that always had less. 20, 20, and 10…We were just doing one of each of
the three modules per year, now they are doing two of the introductory ones and one of each of the advanced courses because they were finding they could get 40 people into [the introductory one] and then you have attrition to the next level and then attrition to the next level.” When participants in the course complete all requirements, they are issued an approved permaculture design certificate through the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute and Cornell University. Although they have seen enrollment from all over the world “Everyone in our online class was a hobby grower, or backyard gardener, or experimenter. It was not like, ‘I want to start a farm and make this a business.’”
I asked Steve about the for-credit student course, how it was formed and what happened to it. He said, “it was both from curiosity of students and also my own interest in having a permaculture course in Cornell. What would that look like to offer that to students? And some students were interested. So, basically, the challenge with Cornell is they don’t really do adjunct faculty. They have tenure-track professors, you’ve got to be full PhD in the system, or you don’t really get to teach. But folks in the horticulture department at Cornell were flexible enough so we had an instructor of record…I basically did most of the teaching…We did the permaculture certification for students for four years…because the university wasn’t flexible enough to accommodate it, it was hard to sustain.” The for-credit course also underwent scrutiny from colleagues at the university. “There were memorable meetings in the educational curriculum committee about where [the content] came from…I tried to build out the curriculum more with reference-based work so that it brought more validity to it. But there was definitely pushback and concern.”
Around the same time, Steve’s work shifted into conducting mushroom research, and his programmatic area moved from consumer horticulture to agricultural Extension’s small farm program. This shift significantly altered Steve’s perception of and teaching in permaculture. “That was ultimately when I could see that permaculture…fell apart a little bit more when we started to look at the commercial aspects of land use production. Consumer horticulture felt much more comfortable in introducing these concepts and ideas…especially with an institution like Cornell it is very agricultural focused, back to the economics, back to the economics…Part of my transition has been to adopt and frame things more as agroforestry or agroecology. Because that has a much better foundation of research and most the folks in these fields are agronomists. They are in the interface between land and economics and that really lacks in permaculture. It was so much better received in consumer horticulture.”
Yet the whole systems design lens permaculture provides still permeates his work. “The projects I’m working on with mushroom cultivation are not just about producing thousands of pounds of mushrooms that people can sell, but the one in particular that we are working on has a lot of layers within urban agriculture and a lot of layers within racial and social justice and we are using mushrooms as this medium to work on those things which is really interesting. I’m actually with one little thing hitting more of my target of linking really important things that often feel disparate versus if I go into New York city and try to talk about permaculture it is hard to ground. So, we are grounding around this one thing, there’s a lot of opportunity to expand from there. I’m doing much more effective work doing than just permaculture.”
When I asked what he thought of the term “permaculture,” he said “I’m pretty allergic to it right now…I’m really conflicted by it because I’ve never seen anything that tries to stitch all those pieces together around living but at the same time I think, I know, that it’s very different in other parts of the world. In the U.S. it has become a white and male dominated thing and it has been very much used as a lever to prop people up into this weird fandom thing that we seem to do in the U.S. whether that’s a musician or a speaker.” He also has concerns with leaders in the permaculture movement not giving credit to various concepts where it is due, especially to the specific indigenous groups from which many techniques are pulled. He sees a critical need for increased self-reflection and to actively work toward truth and reconciliation efforts. Regardless, positive changes are happening in the U.S. “There’s a second wave now…there are people starting to dig more into the social angles and deficiencies of permaculture.”
Both within permaculture and the university system as a whole, Steve says major changes need to ensue. “The university seems more in many cases in the business of getting students to enroll and pay than they are in really preparing them for a career. Two years ago, there was a report that 60% of Cornell graduates across the university weren’t finding a job in their field in the first two years after graduation.” Despite his misgivings with the movement, permaculture design can provide a whole systems lens and practical application to enacting real-world change, empowering students and improving university operating structures.
Although permaculture could be strengthened with careful scrutiny and some needed changes, Steve’s definition of permaculture remains hopeful, which is “looking at sustainable or regenerative ways to live life…It’s a way to think about human habitats, how I live on the earth – not just in the food and the production-oriented stuff but the whole life cycle. All the things we have to do to survive and thrive are part of it.”
I agree that there are many positive ‘second waves’ of change in the permaculture movement – not just in the U.S. but globally as we turn our sites to solutions in the wake of climate change impacts and extreme stress to social structures. With academia housing many of its own issues, especially with cultivating practical skills and career preparedness, the potential of whole systems thinking, skills development, and resulting empowerment that permaculture can bring offers exciting potential. We just need to ensure the claims are credible, credited, and that we don’t lose site of the ethics that serve as the permaculture design framework core: earth care, people care, and fair share.
To discover more about Steve and Cornell University’s Permaculture Extension & Outreach programming, visit: https://onlinelearning.cornell.edu/permaculture-design-series and https://smallfarms.cornell.edu/about/staff/
Walking around Amherst, MA, on the University of Massachusetts (UMASS) Campus, I am energized by the commitment unfolding in regenerative design. The campus houses five different permaculture gardens, with one located as a functional, edible showpiece at Chancellor’s house. Dining Services funds the gardens and campus chefs engage in the Real Food Challenge cooking with permaculture garden produce, often winning top awards nationally for the culinary quality. In 2012, the UMASS permaculture team won the national Campus Champions of Change Award. Fourteen students, the Sustainability Coordinator for Campus, the Chancellor, Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance, and the executive director for Auxiliary Services proudly represented permaculture at the White House with president Obama. According to a UMASS press release, “the president told students that while federal policy is important, ‘ultimately good government policy will only go so far.’ What's needed, he said, is the commitment of individuals to be social entrepreneurs and improve their communities. The group assembled, he said, represents the ability to make a difference.”
Regarding the initiative purpose and impact, the main UMASS permaculture webpage states the following:
A unique and cutting-edge sustainability program, UMass Permaculture provides empowering hands-on education and leadership training, community engagement, and fresh, local, organic produce to the UMass campus. Founded in 2010, the initiative builds and maintains highly productive, highly educational edible gardens right on campus. The gardens are designed using permaculture principles and are installed by students, staff, and volunteers.
UMass Permaculture serves as an international model, which has inspired permaculture projects at campuses across the world. It has received global recognition and numerous accolades, quickly becoming the most widely recognized campus permaculture initiative in the country…We are now in our 9th growing season and our gardens continue to be innovative, regenerative landscapes. Through the restoration of natural ecosystem processes we continue to sequester several tons carbon and capture thousands of gallons of storm water runoff annually. In 2018, our ½ acre of gardens yielded 1,739 lbs. of produce, an estimated value of over $9,000.
I sat at one of the campus permaculture gardens just outside of dining services with Daniel (Dan) Bensonoff, Sustainability Coordinator of Campus Gardens. Dan manages all five campus gardens and although his excitement for the amount of nutritious produce feeding into Dining Services is evident, he is most excited about how the gardens have created gathering spaces for people to slow down and reconnect with their senses and memories. “Our culture is changing so fast that we need time to slow down. We need time to re-evaluate our decisions in life. And I’m hoping that this space can be a part of that work.”
Dan discovered permaculture during an apprenticeship at an Eco Village in Israel after studying English in college. He received his PDC in Israel and learned a range of important topics from natural building to herbalism. In returning to the U.S., Dan was excited to apply what he had learned in Israel to the social structure here. After a few years of working on various for- and non-profit farms, however, the issues in the U.S. farming system structure caused Dan to question whether it was the right career to pursue, economically, physically and psychologically. He began teaching High School English, culinary arts, and gardening, and immersing himself more into his community in Boston by guerilla gardening. “We would take vacant lots and transition them to community spaces where anyone could come in and harvest” – playing around with the commons – to see what communities might come together through shared sights across differences.”
When he discovered his current position at UMASS, Dan found a career that brought together all he wanted to do: teach, garden, and empower others. During the fall and spring semesters, he teaches a one credit permaculture practicum course to 20 students per semester. In the summer, he oversees a garden crew of seven students, 85-100 volunteers, and several tour groups. Teaching permaculture at the university, Dan sees the magic unfold in empowering students. When walking away from his classes, his hope is that they begin to see “…themselves as doers. As people who are able to really take care of themselves and their family and their friends in real ways - whether that’s through emotional support, physical support, making something for them, helping heal them, helping them grow food – whatever it is. We live in a very passive culture where we sit in classrooms or behind TV screens, computer screens. I think students are incredibly excited whenever we do any kind of hands-on project because they want to make, they want to be creative, they want to have an impact. And that’s the part that speaks to them and that spoke to me when I was young as well…I think that there’s a real thirst for not just minimizing impact but really having a positive impact…and that to me is really where permaculture can offer a strong narrative and some techniques as well.”
When people stop by the garden, Dan’s definition of permaculture varies depending on the interest and experience of the questioning individual. By and large, however, he defines permaculture as “a lens for any kind of systems design that tries to bridge ecological and human function.” In reflecting on the major benefits of permaculture, Dan loves how it is open source, the principles are broad enough to apply to any discipline, it reconnects people with their senses, and that it allows for a resurgence in gratitude to the systems allowing permaculture to prosper before it was coined as such; namely the many indigenous and modern contributions to the design framework.
Although his work focuses largely on landscaping, “I think that there’s a real recognition that we need to be really focused on social structures and really redesigning social and economic structures as much so as physical landscapes. Physical landscapes are the gateway. They were for me and that’s still the part I’m most passionate about and I think that for a lot of other permaculturalists that was the gateway and then they perhaps moved on to other projects that were more about how do we bring people together and redefine what it means to share space, to support each other, to create new economic incentives, to create new familial models, new communities – all of those things…rethinking social and economic norms...to really think about longevity, you need to first think about what kind of culture can create longevity.”
Little by little, Dan is helping students rethink their role in our culture and their potential to make a difference. From presidential recognition in Washington D.C. to national culinary awards, the physical gardens at UMASS may indeed simply be a gateway – a gateway to inspiration, change, hope and regeneration of our natural, social, and cultural systems.
To discover more about Dan and the UMASS permaculture initiative, visit: https://www.localumass.com/permaculture.html
Students at the University of Massachusetts (UMASS) can engage with a range of coursework and professional opportunities in permaculture thanks to people like Lisa DePiano. Lisa teaches UMASS’ permaculture programming, which is housed in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture and its Sustainable Food and Farming degree. There are four courses and a practicum option for those who want a deeper dive, including:
● Introduction to Permaculture. This class sees 40-50 students per year, whereas the other more advanced permaculture classes generally see an enrollment of between 12 and 20.
● Permaculture Design and Practice. This, combined with Introduction to Permaculture, results in students receiving a university affiliated Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) issued through the Permaculture Institute of North America (where Lisa is a certified diplomat). In this course, among various aspects of permaculture design work, students engage in silvopasture with hybrid chestnuts and sheep on a 40 acre farm on campus.
● Forest Gardens and Perennial Agriculture. Last year, students in this class built a hügelkultur bed, made mushroom logs, studied and practiced polyculture design, and more.
● Social Permaculture. Of high interest to Lisa is how to use permaculture as a pedagogy for teaching. She co-creates a governance or culture for the class and students learn tools to help them critique inequities, goals for social change, and to analyze their own privilege and competencies in enacting change.
An advantage of students taking their Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) in combination with a specialized degree, according to Lisa, is that they have can apply their new holistic lens of seeing the world to their major degree program, regardless of what program that is.
What leads people like Lisa to teach permaculture at a major academic institution? Lisa grew up as a first generation Italian American with a strong culture around growing their own food. Through her family, “the seed was planted very early on with the culture part of permaculture.” But it was through school where Lisa was exposed to the planetary heartache resulting from our consumptive culture, and where she landed officially working in permaculture. “I went to school in West Virginia and I got really involved in activism against mountain top removal and got to travel to the southern coalfields in Appalachia and saw mountaintop mines from the inside. That just had a huge impact on me. I got to see miles and miles of what was a village and a community center just erased and all for cheap fossil fuel. Early on I also figured the connection between ecological health and social health through that activism work. The people that were living there were very poor. The coal company was such a strong force and economic employer in the region historically so people were afraid to speak out against them. The man that showed us, he was the only person who didn’t sell out to the coal company and he had this one homestead surrounded 360 degrees by mountaintop removal…he got death threats. We saw bullet holes that were shot in his door. [Before then,] I would just turn on a light, pump up the heat and just have no connection to how the way I was using fossil fuels impacted people and the planet…the veil was lifted.”
As with other leaders in the permaculture movement, Lisa began protesting at International Monetary Fund and World Bank gatherings. And it was through protesting against militarized police force that she was turned to solutions-based work. “Here we were going out, fighting for the rights of small farmers to stay on their lands and not be undercut by cheap goods coming from the US and flooding the market and displacing them to sweatshops and cities, so we were fighting for global justice and at the same time being met with militarized force: tanks, tazors, rubber bullets, gases, riot gear…I started to think about ‘ok, the system really needs to change but when you try to change it through street protests, we are really going up against the largest military in the world that is treating its citizens like the enemy. So that was also a wake-up call of how difficult change could be made through those methods.”
While pursuing her M.S. from UMASS in Regional Planning, following an undergraduate degree in journalism, Lisa saw a flyer on a bulletin board for an Introduction to Permaculture weekend in the early 2000s. At this point, she became part of what at the time was a small community in the northeast interested in permaculture, engaging in perma-blitzing work parties, creating demonstration sites in yards and forming the Western Mass Permaculture Guild. She obtained a three-acre parcel and license to farm conservation land through working with the city and neighbors. Permaculture was still a hobby for her at that point, expressed through a no-till Community Supported Agriculture program and forest garden, serving 24 households at its peak. On the side, Lisa was picking up trash and recycling by bike and diverting a ton of vegetable scraps each week.
At that time Lisa also started teaching at Yestermorrow Design Build school, where they were just starting their permaculture programming. Lisa helped create the programs, including a certificate course in sustainable design.
Now, as a faculty member at UMASS, Lisa is adding credibility to permaculture through research. She is currently monitoring soil carbon sequestration through her UMASS Carbon Farming Initiative silvopasture research site. She is also conducting soil proxy tests with the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) to look at proxy indicators including the amount of worms, compaction, infiltration and more. From her website, this is “the first temperate climate research silvopasture plot at the University of Massachusetts. Carbon farming is the practice of sequestering carbon from the atmosphere into soil carbon stocks and above ground biomass. Silvopasture, a carbon farming practice is the intentional combination of trees and livestock for increased productivity and biosequestration.”
Outside of her university work, Lisa serves on a working group for the Massachusetts State Healthy Soils Initiative. She also teaches a women’s teacher training with Pandora Thomas. She sees permaculture as providing hope for our ability as human beings to be keystone species to bring about health and well-being. And she is thinking beyond the individual residential level to larger scales by asking questions like how to redesign her city “so the city has a methane
digester, and instead of the gas being fracked from upstate, we are producing that from our compost instead of it going to the landfill…that’s part of my training in regional planning.”
Although her permaculture programming is housed in Sustainable Food and Farming, Lisa feels “permaculture is so interdisciplinary that it could land in any department.” I asked whether she has received any pushback in teaching permaculture at a major academic institution, and she said “The only pushback is we are in a hard science program, and also being whole systems thinkers, we are thinking about the social. So we are having to prove more of the social forces that are part of science. [As a result], we are asked ‘is this rigorous enough? Is this scientific enough? Is this hard science?’” She is proving that permaculture is both hard science through her carbon farming work, but also social science through her pedagogical research.
When students walk away from her permaculture programming, Lisa hopes they have “a really clear understanding of systems thinking.” She also wants students to understand “design thinking. How you go from a problem to understanding existing conditions, articulating goals and outcomes. How to use the principals to design some options and take it forward. Both the solutions-oriented approach to what’s wrong and then an actual process they can take with them that they can then use to actually enact change.” Lisa’s hands-on research and teaching are breaking exciting new ground regarding the potential of permaculture in higher academia.
To discover more about Lisa and UMASS permaculture, visit: https://stockbridge.cns.umass.edu/lisa-depiano
Does 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) weigh on you, as it weighs on me? A temperature increase above this threshold (that is, 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels) may sound minor, but it calls into question our earth’s livability. According to the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report (https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/), we are set to meet, and exceed this boundary by 2030, around one decade from now. The report is a strong reminder that we are way off track. That expensive, massive changes are needed to remedy our destructive path. The 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold weighs on me when I fill up at the gas station, when a waitress brings our toddler a disposable plastic cup, lid, and straw because I forget to say “our child doesn’t need a toddler cup,” when my carbon footprint reduction just doesn’t seem quite enough despite my efforts, and when I have to fight the onslaught of mass production and single-use disposable items just to do the right thing. It should be difficult and expensive to buy pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables, not organic. It should be prohibitive to build a house with environmentally destructive materials instead of building with materials like straw bales and earthen plaster. It should be socially frowned upon to grow vast green lawns in the desert instead of diversified, regenerative and functional landscapes. But change isn’t easy and fighting to improve our environment means fighting the system.
Given the enormity of the issues, I am hopeful to discover people, like Eric Toensmeier, who are scaling up permaculture given what we know from the IPCC report. In addition to publishing award-winning books such as Paradise Lot, Perennial Vegetables, and Edible Forest Gardens, Eric lectures at Yale University in their M.S. in Forestry Program, and he is a senior fellow with Project Drawdown. According to Eric, “what I’m doing right now with Drawdown is permaculture design for the planet…at Drawdown we sat down and looked at all the world’s land and we said ‘what are the soils, what are the slopes, what’s the climate, what’s currently the land use there and what are the highest and best uses we can see for that land.’ And that was the basis for the adoption of all the solutions we said.”
Eric is more excited about permaculture at the global level than the form it has taken in the US. This is primarily due to the economic and social systems within which permaculture functions here. In his words, “permaculture looks really different in Mexico than it looks in the US. And permaculture looks really different in Cuba than it does here. I’m more interested in what it looks like in those places than what it looks like here – where there is actual need, where survival is on the line to a certain degree or where the standard of living is really different, where food security is really different – permaculture is taken up rapidly. But here it actually costs you money. I would be better off just buying from the store. I don’t think I’m saving money [with my home garden] with all the time and money that I’ve put in it. When your economy is so ridiculously steroided up with petroleum and wealth extraction from all over the world, living simply is a privilege and not a need and that just distorts things here. That’s not permaculture’s fault, but it makes it strange compared to, again, what it is like in Cuba or Guatemala where food security is a very real day-to-day thing for those people.”
Eric makes a good point. Perennial, regenerative residential landscaping only goes so far when our entire consumptive lifestyles are considered. And yet, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, we rank 2nd among the world’s countries in our contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions (https://www.ucsusa.org/global-warming/science-and-impacts/science/each-countrys-share-of-co2.html). Permaculture and the integrated, systems thinking it fosters (going beyond the landscaping level and applying to all aspects of our lives) is equally critical here as it is elsewhere.
Despite the many flaws in our nation’s economic and social systems, Eric is also enacting positive impacts here on multiple scales. His misgivings about our operating system shouldn’t be mistaken for overall misgivings with permaculture. Since first learning about permaculture while working at a nature center in Philadelphia in 1989, he knew from the onset that it is what he wanted to do with his life. When reflecting on permaculture, he said “it’s doing a lot of the right things. It’s really good at being a grassroots way of spreading information and it’s doing really well at the garden scale. Here in the US, I think it is grappling with the farm scale which is a great next step for us to figure out here,” and it is a step he is working on.
Eric lives on a tenth of an acre, including his house and driveway. When he arrived at his Holyoke, MA, property in 2004 with Jonathan Bates, his 45x90 square foot barren backyard consisted of compacted fill with chunks of urbanite. Now he is growing over 200 perennial species on his lot and has increased his backyard soil organic matter from only two percent to nine percent. On such a small plot, he grows and harvests fruit from the first week of June through New Year’s Eve and he can harvest greens every single day of the year. His property serves as a test site for his research and educational outreach. At a larger scale, Eric is part of the team working on a State Healthy Soils Initiative, inventorying all soils in Massachusetts and making best management practices recommendations. “I’m advising foundations and finance people and producer associations and supply chain people, trying to bring together all the missing pieces in kind-of a permaculture way that are needed to scale it up. Consumers really need to be educated, but if you educate consumers and they can’t buy the product it doesn’t matter. I have people who are getting interested in financing in a big way but we need producer associations.” He is also advising state and federal governments about policy, upscaling his influence to secure funding for and growth of agroforestry and perennial crop production.
Eric has recently published “Carbon Farming: A Global Toolkit for Stabilizing the Climate with Tree Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices.” He also published “Guidelines for Perennial Polyculture Design,” which is available for free from the Permaculture Research Institute at https://permaculturenews.org/2016/01/15/guidelines-for-perennial-polyculture-design/. When teaching about polyculture and food forests, the main thing he hopes for is that participants will be able to go home empowered to implement what they have learned. This connects with what first excited Eric about permaculture: “I liked the notion of participating in ecosystems instead of this environmentalist notion I had grown up with where the best you can do is not touch and to shrink our footprint. I like the idea of being fully involved.”
When reflecting further on the mainstream US permaculture movement, Eric said “I feel like it has its own trajectory, it’s doing great, it’s growing well, it’s reaching certain kinds of people at a certain scale very well. But if I died tomorrow, permaculture would be fine. Whereas in the carbon farming world there are things I can do there that not enough people are doing. That is a place where I can have really big impact, that needs me right now.” And his work on larger scales will be included in the next IPCC report.
Ten years. Thanks to people like Eric, we know where we need to go and are more empowered to get there.
To discover more about Eric and Paradise Lot, visit: http://www.perennialsolutions.org/
Take a moment to reflect on your childhood. Think about the people and environment that led you to who you are – to seeking solutions for internal and external healing. My childhood was free and happy despite a mother’s early death, a father’s lost heartbreak as a result, and an early concern about encroaching urban sprawl, subsequent loss of wild areas, and destruction of the rainforest. When reflecting on my childhood, I see long days of playing in the forests surrounding my house, biking to the corner store with change found in the couch to buy penny candies or further across the village to jump on my best friend’s trampoline, scavenger hunts, tree climbing, ice skating on the back pond, “helping” the neighbors make maple syrup, and playing cops and robbers. My father would yell for me at dinner and sometimes I would hear him, sometimes I had wandered too far off in the back woods and streams. Although there is tragedy and beauty in every childhood, for Jason Gerhardt, director of the Permaculture Institute Inc and Real Earth Design (his own permaculture design company), childhood entailed some of the same things that mine did, but also included gun violence, drug pushing, street gangs and the deaths of close friends under the towering eyes of concrete buildings. Jason’s home city of St. Louis, MO, regularly tops national charts as one of the most violent and deadliest. Your chances of becoming a victim to violent or property crime there is one in 12. Compare that with Boulder, CO, where your chances of becoming a victim of violent or property crime are 1 in 367. In a simple google search of “living in Boulder, CO”, the first sentence I read was “With a population that strongly supports environmental protections and farm-to-table restaurants, Boulder is considered one of the best cities for liberals.” Nothing like this is found when exploring living in St. Louis, MO.
You would think that when Jason worked his way to Boulder, CO, enacting permaculture design privately and through his role as a faculty member at Naropa University, that he “made it”. Yet the comfort and security surrounding him didn’t quite sit right at a deeper level. After long and slow internal observation of working in the arid west for over 10 years, he packed his car and drove east to his city of origin. Jason’s decision to re-immerse himself in regenerative design in a place so scarring and yet meaningful to him serves as a flowing source of inspiration.
As with many environmentalists, prior to this journey a large part of me believed we needed to get the people out of the way in order to restore our environment...that the people were the planetary parasites; even more so than the ticks I’ve encountered in the eastern US. But to Jason, it’s the people where the potential lies and empowerment is needed to shift the cultural paradigm: the problem is the solution, if I may.
Permaculture provided Jason with “a direct pathway to discovering a way to heal human culture and therefore how we interact with the planet as well.” The framework, which he first discovered in a Zen monastery, is beyond solutions-based and encompasses the spiritual quest he was seeking to transform human culture. “Permaculture is lastingness of human culture, and design is how we get there…what I was really looking for was culture healing…the planet is fine on its own, it’s human culture that causes the problems to the planet. I don’t need to solve ecosystems, I need to solve the problems of human culture that lead us to either be destructive or productive and regenerative. Therein lies the choice.” This thinking can be seen on his Real Earth Design page, where it’s people, or social structures, that take the forefront: “We unite human communities and landscapes with ecological design.”
In St. Louis, and many cities like it, “lastingness in human culture means healing people and relationships between people and different cultures. That’s because without that, this place has absolutely no future…we could have green infrastructure on all of our streets, we could have food forests in all of our parks, and people are still killing each other. That’s not permaculture. That’s not an aim high enough. That’s not achieving the goal of more permanence in human culture.” Jason feels “our natural way of being is more permacultural. It is to care for our place, it is to care for the people around us…recognizing that you have connections to everything else and what you do has a direct impact on other things. And that’s our original nature, you could say. But we’ve had this other paradigm forced down our throats through education, media, entertainment. All of that changes the way we think about and see the world. And permaculture is something that undoes that.”
When Jason designed the permaculture gardens for Utah State University, Moab, I saw the potential and actualization of whole systems thinking in a design process. He brought in the community to discuss the space, history of place, and to visualize its potential. From there, he developed a design that focused on patterns instead of things – patterns of water flow, nitrogen fixation, people, and more. Forty people came to implement what he designed for that space, volunteering their weekend to implement regenerative design. I participated in awe and knew there was more to the permaculture framework than I had understood.
I took my PDC with Jason and Scott Pittman, and I would fall into what Jason describes: “I’d say most students leave the course with a glimmer in their eyes of what the paradigm looks like and they don’t quite know how to get there.” How we get there is through shifting the shallow, degenerative paradigms we were raised to believe in. Now when Jason teaches his courses, he hopes students “have tools to think in ways that are radically different than what they learned growing up.” Regarding this type of thinking, Scott Pittman recently passed the Permaculture Institute Inc. down to Jason who wants to revisit the standard curriculum. I’m looking forward to seeing where he takes it.
Coming back to “making it,” Jason discovered what that means through designing and co-teaching a weekend PDC in St. Louis. The course structure of six weekends over six months fostered a local audience, with the furthest commute taking 45 minutes. “We offered a ton of scholarships so we got a lot of people in the course who otherwise wouldn’t have been there.” Through appropriate networking in the community, Jason had partner organizations sponsor and advocate for the course. This helped pull people in from different parts of the city with different economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds. The realization of finding what he was looking for came on the first day of the course. “Everybody sat down, everybody was there. Class was about to start and I stopped for a second and looked at everybody and was like ‘wow, I’m back in my home. This place that I ran away from.’ I mean, I RAN away from this place…when I was in Boulder doing design work I was like ‘yeah, I made it, I got out.’ On some level, that’s how I felt. And coming back here, I left all that behind, that joy of ‘I have an opportunity now.’ Standing in front of that class, ‘I made it’ meant a totally different thing in that moment, which was ‘I changed my life and transformed who I am and now these people are showing up to learn from me in my home town.”
To discover more about Jason, the Permaculture Institute Inc and Real Earth Design, visit: https://permaculture.org/ and http://realearthdesign.com/