fw: The Permaculture Movement Grows From Underground

Jon Bosak bosak at pinax.com
Thu Jul 28 07:59:01 EDT 2011

The New York Times discovers permaculture.



July 27, 2011
The Permaculture Movement Grows From Underground

AS a way to save the world, digging a ditch next to a hillock of sheep
dung would seem to be a modest start. Granted, the ditch was not just a
ditch. It was meant to be a "swale," an earthwork for slowing the flow
of water down a slope on a hobby farm in western Wisconsin.

And the trenchers, far from being day laborers, had paid $1,300 to
$1,500 for the privilege of working their spades on a cement-skied
Tuesday morning in late June.

Fourteen of us had assembled to learn permaculture, a simple system for
designing sustainable human settlements, restoring soil, planting
year-round food landscapes, conserving water, redirecting the waste
stream, forming more companionable communities and, if everything went
according to plan, turning the earth’s looming resource crisis into a
new age of happiness.

It was going to have to be a pretty awesome ditch.

That was the sense I took away from auditing four days of a weeklong
Permaculture Design Certificate course led by Wayne Weiseman, 58, the
director of the Permaculture Project, in Carbondale, Ill.

The movement’s founders, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, coined the
term permaculture in the mid-1970s, as a portmanteau of permanent
agriculture and permanent culture.

In practice, permaculture is a growing and influential movement that
runs deep beneath sustainable farming and urban food gardening. You can
find permaculturists setting up worm trays and bee boxes, aquaponics
ponds and chicken roosts, composting toilets and rain barrels, solar
panels and earth houses.

Truly, permaculture contains enough badges of eco-merit to fill a Girl
Scout sash. Permies (yes, they use that term) like to experiment with
fermentation, mushrooming, foraging (also known as wildcrafting) and
herbal medicine.

Yet permaculture aims to be more than the sum of those practices, said
David Cody, 39, who teaches the system and creates urban food gardens in
San Francisco.

"It’s an ecological theory of everything," Mr. Cody said. "Here’s a
planet Earth operating manual. Do you want to go along for a ride with

It’s hard to say just how many have climbed aboard the mother ship. In
San Francisco, Mr. Cody saw more than 1,500 volunteers turn out in 2010
to create Hayes Valley Farm, a pop-up food garden near the site of a
collapsed freeway ramp.

"I like to say it was the largest sheet-mulching project ever done in
the world," said Mr. Cody, who designed the garden following the
permaculture principles and directed the process of covering the ground
with a cardboard weed barrier and organic material.

"We sheet-mulched about an acre and a half," he said. "That’s something
like 80,000 pounds of cardboard diverted from the waste stream."

In the last four years, Mr. Cody has helped train 250 students through
the Urban Permaculture Institute in San Francisco.

Scott Pittman, 71, who directs the national Permaculture Institute from
a farmstead outside Santa Fe, N.M., estimates that 100,000 to 150,000
students have completed the certificate course since the philosophy was
developed in Tasmania over three decades ago. "In the U.S., I would say
we represent 40,000 to 50,000 of that number," he said.

But then pemaculture has no membership rolls or census-takers. By
intention, "it has been, for all of the years I’ve been involved, a
pretty decentralized movement," Mr. Pittman said. The message seems to
get out in its own fashion, without publicists. Mr. Mollison, for
example, has been permaculture’s leading figure since the late 1970s,
and his books have hundreds of thousands of copies. Yet his name has
apparently never warranted a mention in this newspaper.

Permaculture, Mr. Pittman said, is "guided by the curriculum and a sense
of ethics, and that’s pretty much it."

The ethic of permaculture is the movement’s Nicene Creed, or golden
rule: care of the earth; care of people; and a return of surplus time,
energy and money, to the cause of bettering the earth and its people.

In its effort to be universal, permaculture espouses no religion or
spiritual element. Still, joining the movement seems to strike many of
its practitioners as a kind of conversion experience.

MR. Pittman first encountered Mr. Mollison and his teachings at a
weekend seminar in New Mexico in 1985. As a system, permaculture
impressed him as panoptic and transformational. "It shook my world,"
Mr. Pittman said.

Almost on the spot, he decided to drop his work and follow Mr. Mollison
to the next stop on his teaching tour: Katmandu, Nepal. Soon after, he
began to lead courses alongside Mr. Mollison, in cities and backwaters
around the globe.

Mr. Mollison hasn’t toured the United States in almost 15 years. At 83,
Mr. Mollison has "kind of faded into semi-retirement in Tasmania,"
Mr. Pittman said.

Yet in recent years, Mr. Mollison’s ideas seem to have bubbled up from
underground, into the mainstream. "I just trained the Oklahoma National
Guard," Mr. Pittman said. "If that’s any kind of benchmark." The troops,
he said, plan to apply permaculture to farming and infrastructure
projects in rural Afghanistan.

It’s a system, permaculturists contend, that can work anywhere. In Park
Slope, Brooklyn, Claudia Joseph, 53, has used the precepts of
permaculture to develop new food gardens at the Old Stone House. (Its
original 1699 Dutch edifice was a locus of the Battle of Brooklyn in the
Revolutionary War.) "It’s a huge breakthrough," she said. "To go from a
swatch of grass to 1,000 blueberry bushes."

The parks department recently bulldozed two of her gardens in an
overhaul of the playground in the surrounding Washington Park. But in a
few protected spots, Ms. Joseph, an environmental educator and
consultant who lives two blocks away, has already started on an edible
food forest.

This "guild" of complementary plants is the opposite of annual row-crop
agriculture, with its dead or degraded soil and its constant demand for
labor and fertilizer. Permaculture landscapes, which mimic the ecology
of the area, are meant to be vertical, dense and self-perpetuating. Once
the work of the original planting is done, Mr. Mollison jokes in one of
his videos, "the designer turns into the recliner."

At the lowest level of a food forest, then, are subterranean crops like
sweet potatoes and carrots. On the floor of the landscape, mushrooms can
grow on felled logs or wood chips. Herbs go on the next level, along
with "delicious black cap raspberries," Ms. Joseph said.

Other shrubs, like inkberry, winterberry and elderberry, are attractive
to butterflies and birds. They’re an integral part of the system, too.

But more likely to appeal to the children who attend the nearby William
Alexander Middle School is a Newtown Pippin apple tree, "a variety first
grown in Queens," Ms. Joseph said.

Ruling the forest’s heights are the 40 large pin oaks already in the
park, whose abundance of acorns will make a banquet for
squirrels. Permaculture also looks favorably on high-quality
bushmeat. But Ms. Joseph will be leaving that harvest well enough alone.

WITH its focus on close planting and human-scale projects, permaculture
is ideally suited to a small suburban yard or a patio garden. But most
of the students I met in Wisconsin had their own 1,000-blueberry-bush
visions and ideas on how permaculture could help fulfill them.

Kellie Anderson, a 27-year-old rolfer, lived for five months in a giant
sequoia tree named Keyandoora. (At the time, she was protesting a
logging plan in Humboldt County, Calif.) After the workshop,
Ms. Anderson said, she planned to inhabit a 1986 diesel school bus that
she and her boyfriend were in the process of converting into a
camper. But fortune seems to have taken her instead to Sanibel Island,
Fla., where she is now helping to plan a sustainable-housing community.

Kris Beck, 48, a founder of an energy-efficiency tech company, had a
notion to build a sanctuary with a megalithic stone circle (think
Stonehenge) on her family’s old Wisconsin dairy farm, along the
Mississippi River bluffs.

Bruce Feldman, 60, who spent two decades as an English teacher overseas,
experienced the collapse of the baht in Thailand (he was being paid in
that currency), and an earthquake in Japan, in 1995, that left him
wandering the streets for four days. These events, Mr. Feldman said,
"got me thinking that I should start preparing for my own future,"
ideally, a four- or five-acre self-reliant homestead in the Ozarks of

The site of the workshop was a permaculture Shangri-La unto itself: 60
acres of rolling pasture and woodlands, a few miles from the Buffalo
River in Wisconsin. In 2004, Jeff Rabkin and his wife, Susan Scofield,
bought this Amish farm for $125,000.

The original plan was to lease out the fields and build a cordwood cabin
as a weekend home. Instead, under the influence of permaculture,
Mr. Rabkin became seized with the idea of stewarding the property
himself. To this end, he and a permaculture buddy, Victor Suarez, 44,
bought a small flock of sheep and planted 300 fruit and nut trees.

During the work week, Mr. Rabkin, 49, and Ms. Scofield, 48, run a
marketing and public relations firm in Minneapolis. That background is
apparent in the catchy name they gave the place: Crazy Rooster Farm and
Amish Telephone Booth.

But the Amish telephone booth is no gimmick. The couple installed a
phone line in the shed next to their farmhouse, and their neighbors roll
up in buggies to make calls.

While Amish visitors mill around in Mr. Rabkin’s yard, they may strike a
deal to sell him three steer and two heifers, or 20 black-locust fence
posts. Like a coneflower patch draws honeybees, Mr. Rabkin said, "I like
to say that the telephone attracts beneficial wildlife -- our Amish
neighbors -- which is what permaculture tells us to do."

Ms. Scofield collected asparagus, beets and raw milk from neighboring
farms to feed the permies. The occasional Amish visitor, like Thomas
Zook, who delivered a bucketful of new potatoes in the middle of a
downpour, gave a glimpse of what low-impact living might look like,
taken to an extreme.

Mr. Zook’s father, Jonas Zook, even dropped in to watch a video about
pond management, but walked out after a minute or two. After marathon
days of PowerPoint presentations, I wouldn’t have minded joining
him. For all its exhilarating ideals, permaculture is a movement
grounded in "zones," "patterns" and "functions."

Labs, as it were, took place in the toolshed. On the first day,
Mr. Weiseman demonstrated how to create biochar, or partly burned
charcoal, in a primitive "rocket" stove, a device he assembled out of a
piece of ductwork and a paint can.

Helpful mineral elements attach themselves to the unique molecular
structure of biochar, Mr. Weiseman explained. Mixed with compost, it
makes a top-dressing for trees.

Next, he started bubbling compost tea with an aquarium pump in a plastic
bucket. ("Even petroleum has a place in permaculture," he said. "The
five-gallon bucket is the greatest application of petroleum in the
world.") He wrapped a clump of standard compost in a cloth like a hobo’s
bandanna pack and dunked it in water. Next, he added molasses to feed
the brew.

After a couple of days, we would fling this brownish broth over the
kitchen garden to enrich the soil with beneficial bacteria.

That was the concept, anyway. A week after the workshop, I ran these
theories past Jeff Gillman, 41, an associate professor at the University
of Minnesota and an author of four books about gardening practices and
the environment.

He professed to be "a believer in the whole concept of permaculture."
But he dismissed the compost tea as "lunacy." Scattering a few foreign
microbes into a sea of soil, he said, was like parachuting 10,000 people
across the breadth of the Sahara. They would not survive.

Normal compost, the solid stuff from a backyard bin, "should already
contain all the microbes that are beneficial to the soil," he said. And
if it doesn’t, "beneficial microbes move in very, very quickly."

With biochar, Mr. Gillman admitted to a bit of bafflement. "Charcoal, in
general, is not in and of itself harmful to soil," he explained. "It
helps to hold on to nutrients. But having said that, it boggles my mind
why you would take a perfectly good block of wood that you could use as
compost or mulch, and burn it."

IN a broad sense, though, permaculture is not about the scientific
method or textbook agronomy.

"I don’t know that anyone has ever done a double-blind study of
permaculture," said Mr. Pittman of the national Permaculture
Institute. "Most people in permaculture are not that interested in doing
those kinds of studies. They’re more interested in demonstrating it. You
can see the difference in species diversity and yield just by looking at
the system."

As Mr. Weiseman observed, permaculture may be a "leap of faith." But not
leaping might have its own consequences.

Beginning with Mr. Mollison, permaculturists have forecast a near future
of resource scarcity. "Not just peak oil," Mr. Weiseman said, "but peak
water, peak soil."

And the news, with its drumbeat of economic decline and ecological
catastrophe, feeds the prophecies. In this dystopia to come,
permaculture won’t be a lifestyle choice, but a necessity.

"We know what’s right," Mr. Weiseman said. "We know what’s best. We feel
this thing in our bones and in our heart. And then we don’t do anything
about it. Or we do. And I did. And it’s bearing fruit."

But preparing for doomsday in San Francisco, Mr. Cody said, is not what
draws a crowd of busy souls to shovel horse manure on a drizzly Saturday
morning. To the 12 central tenets of permaculture, then, Mr. Cody added
a 13th: "If it’s not fun, it’s not sustainable."

In other words, why mourn the eventual demise of our office blocks and
factory farms, when there’s a feast to be made, right now, in your own

The Movement in Your Backyard

A good introduction to permaculture is Bill Mollison’s 1991 book,
"Introduction to Permaculture" (Tagari Publications, $25). For a start,
it’s 350 pages shorter and about $75 cheaper than his "Permaculture: A
Designers’ Manual," the movement’s full, unexpurgated testament.

The greatest hits of permaculture are all in the "Introduction": the
ecological ethics, the landscape design principles, the domestic
architecture. The book also dabbles in some colorful minutiae. Will
shredded licorice root make suitable wall insulation? Does a goat like
to munch carob pods? (Spoiler alert: the answer to both is yes.)

New Yorkers won’t have much use for the section on "Avenue Cropping
Techniques for Monsoon Tropics." Permaculture’s philosophy may be
universal, but its practice, focusing on microclimates and native
ecosystems, is strictly local.

In this spirit, dozens of cities hold regular permaculture
gatherings. The New York Permaculture Meetup Group is one such place to
post questions and view local projects. New members can join at
nycpermaculture.info, and attend the next assembly on Aug. 2, said Alice
Lo, 29, of Rego Park, Queens, one of the event’s hosts.

If Meetup participants go home believers, they may be ready for the
baptism of an immersive Permaculture Design Certificate Course. Many of
these workshops take the form of a residency. Ms. Lo suggested a
permaculture-and-yoga biathlon, Aug. 5 to 25, at an ashram/ranch in the
Catskills. For information: (845) 436-6492 or

Wayne Weiseman, who taught my course at Crazy Rooster Farm and Amish
Telephone Booth, worked as an organic farm manager, an outdoor skills
instructor, a public school teacher, a cabinetmaker, a luthier and a New
York cabdriver. He brings these trades to the teaching of
permaculture. Mr. Weiseman will lead fall workshops in Jessup, Md., and
Americus, Ga. (For information: www.permacultureproject.com).

Permaculture should be practiced at home. Commuters can be sojourners at
courses in Brooklyn (permaculture-exchange.org), San Francisco
(upisf.com), Oklahoma City and Albuquerque (permaculture.org).

And if all these newly minted permies feel compelled to quit their day
jobs and start urban farms? Well, there goes the neighborhood.

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