[permaculture] Overly optimistic permaculture attitude towards land

Toby Hemenway toby at patternliteracy.com
Thu Dec 3 11:12:45 EST 2009

Rain, it sounds like the problem you and Nicholas have is mostly with 
Bill's salemanship. He knowswill definitely catch more flies with honey 
than with vinegar. But for every time I've heard him say "the designer 
becomes the recliner" I've also heard him say, I still don't know how to 
define permaculture and nobody seems to be doing it well. And if you've 
ever  worked with a film crew, they don't encourage you to say how 
difficult it's all going to be. So I'm okay with cutting Bill some 
slack. I don't see much support for a sweeping claim that "permaculture" 
is doing people a disservice. And I've definitely seen large areas of 
soil made fertile and local climates (over acres) changed using 
permaculture. Yes, it's easier to start with good soil, and much land 
isn't meant to be farmed, but I can't blame Bill if I don't know that.

I think we take home what we are predisposed to learn. And westerners, 
especially college educated ones who've never used a shovel, like it all 
to be easy. Probably after 20 years of doing Pc, Bill may have felt that 
most of it was pretty easy. I was with him when he went to a place to do 
a design consult, and he told me he had the whole design worked out 
between the time he saw the house from down the lane and when we parked 
the car. If you watch a calligraphy master make a lifetime's work look 
easy, and then get pissed off when your first brushwork is a mess, I 
don't think it's fair to blame the master.

What I see in the permaculture literature--like the Designer's 
Manual--looks pretty damn challenging to me, so I'm not sure how anyone 
who digs into it would think it is easy. It's true that people make lots 
of mistakes similar to the one Christopher mentioned, but I suspect 
that's partly because we carry our own preconceptions with us ("now I 
can be master of the landscape!") and because some people  consider 
themselves an expert after taking one PDC ("now I'm a certified 
permaculture designer!" Uh, hardly.) We're also so terribly disconnected 
from the land that our idea of how much work planting and caring for, 
say, 20 nut trees, is based on nothing but romantic Hollywood fantasy. 
Then you put up the deer screen for the 30th time or haul the 50th 
bucket of water, and you want to cry. But it's hard for me to see how 
that is permaculture's fault, rather than that of our own ignorance and 
conviction that there's got to be a magic bullet that will make it all easy.


Rain Tenaqiya wrote:
> Well, Toby, I don't have the time to do a literature search to back up my claims, but I run into a lot of people like the one Christopher mentioned who didn't seem to get an appropriate permaculture education.  As for myself, I was deeply influenced by Bill Mollison, and he definitely seems like a booster to me.  I remember him saying not to worry too much about soil since you can always transform it with organic matter and amendments (which is common in Australia given the poor soil).  His Global Gardener videos make it all look so easy.  He talks about how cheap earthworks are (not!) and gives inflated statistics about how radically you can transform local climate.  For results within one person's lifetime, I'm learning to expect much less.
> If you are only wanting to grow food for a small household (which is probably all that is truly sustainable in the long run), it is possible to do impressive things in tough circumstances, if you are willing to do all the work.  But it takes a long time without unsustainle inputs from outside.  Agriculture (which is not sustainable, even though included in Mollison's books) is not worth considering on most marginal land, in my opinion.
> Gotta go,
> Rain
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