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.
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 us?”
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.
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.”
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
This is truly great publicity for Permaculture (and we all know you’re nobody until you’re featured in the Times). Most people look at me like I have two heads when I talk about it – I didn’t know anything about it four years ago, and I essentially grew up living it! Hopefully more articles like this will start coming out; educating people on simple changes that can positively affect their daily life and the lives of those around them – not to mention, the existance of those who come after them.
Photo from Claudia Joseph’s website: Permaculture-Exchange