Evolving Thoughts on Permaculture

I talk a lot about this movement called Permaculture. If it gives me no other gifts, it has transformed my life simply by bringing together the people it has. By running around using the p-word all the time, I meet plant people, healer people, poet people, animal people, appropriate tech people, community people, most of them closer to the wild margins of our world than not, and almost always holding some living wriggling sprouting question in their day-by-day healing bodies.

When you go to join the official formal lineage of Permaculture as a movement, you take a Permaculture Design Course. For many students, it is transformational. Depending on the teacher, the place, and yourself, you can be taken apart and remade. In the twelve-plus days, you’re being filled with knowledge received through all senses on dozens of interwoven topics. If taught well, every topic is a holon containing the whole. For me, what I learned in fourteen days was more important than what I learned (and had to slowly unlearn) in the 14+ years of formal education because it primarily concerned what was real and meaningful in a world where we are separated from the earth, ourselves, each other. Receiving this knowledge, my hand flew through notebook after notebook, filling multiple books in just two weeks, writing and sketching as a frantic prayer to hold some of the soil of this new learning through the inrushing waters of life.

I have never gone back to these cherished notebooks. A year later, these ten thousand vital facts sit in a plastic file box somewhere. Meanwhile, one lesson from the class never leaves me. It sits in the center of my heart. It was there informing me when I walked away from my job. It is there each time I take a big leap to go change my whole life or a small leap to be radically honest with a friend. This lesson was not how to build a cistern or what the 12 Permaculture Principles are, but a talk shared one evening near the end of the course where a teacher sat down with us below the stars and told us, without slide or structure, a story of future weather.

I can’t tell this story of the weather here. It is a sacred story that can only ripple out from one heart to others in person beneath the darkness between stars. I can tell you how that story now is calling me to be curious again about what this Permaculture path really could be and what I can offer to it.

The last thing you do in a Permaculture course’s curriculum is a Permaculture design. You use all the skills you hopefully learned to understand the patterns of a landscape and its inhabitants and then, on paper, create a drawn design attempting to weave all the elements in a harmonious arrangement that reconciles, amplifies, heals the forces embodied there towards some aspiration of ecological reintegration. What this feels like at its best is like gently holding a blessed paradox; a poetic image where opposites dance into each other; the closing chord resolving the orchestra swirl big bang chaos of the Beatles’s Day in the Life: here it is, all working together, dissonance into abrupt reunion. What it looks like is a bunch of squiggles and circles on paper in different line weights in a rectangle and with some color.

If you practice Permaculture design for someone for money, you are usually delivering to them the paper (and of course, a lot of support and discussion, too). After you leave, they are primarily experiencing what this paper with drawings looks like. You hope that if they are one day lucky and determined enough to see this vision teased, sculpted, raised, and seeded into physicality from the living material of the land, then they will also get to know the harmony that went into the design, too; but this is not guaranteed by the long and expensive paper design process. Ultimately, Permaculturists at their best get to embody the harmony, hold the paradox, and be changed by their communion with the patterns of the land; and their clients usually are left with the design, the two-dimensional left-brain plan, the visually appealing way forward into something we can only hope approximates what is living in us when we set pen to paper at all.

This pattern is where some of my current questions about Permaculture come in. As far as I can see, Permaculturists, if they get to ‘do something’ with Permaculture, end up doing one or many of a few things:  they design, they educate, they work on their own place, or they find a way to have a livelihood from growing things. All of these ways seem worthwhile to me and are appropriate and usually land- and people-regenerative uses of the systems thinking of Permaculture; but when I think of that moment that transformed me, of that story of the weather, I glimpse a new deer track through the forest I have an urge to wander down a while.

What if the culmination of Permaculture for our clients / friends / neighbors / beloveds / selves wasn’t on-paper design at all, but the laying of the first stones of a lifetime path towards their own gnosis of the whole – their / our own awakening of them-/ourselves as all the land, plants, animals, fungi, waters, soils, and people of the place? What if we focused first on helping students to awaken to the deep life of the land – not separate from the deep life of themselves – inviting it through personal work seamlessly interwoven with ecological gardening and systems design to remake them, even if only for a time, as an extension of the land and its beings; on letting the vulture soaring above them in the field teach them how to see the field as a whole and themselves as an inextricable part of it; on feeling the dryness of parched soil as the dryness in their own mouths begging for moisture relieved by rain entering a keyline; on linking themselves in an unbroken circle flow of nutrients by fertilizing the land with their own composted waste after a feast from the same land; on letting them discover the tears they didn’t know they have been too numb to cry by learning to feel where and how and why the land is suffering?

The other day, I was meditating by our creek. I was so curious why I was feeling so distant, so shut down, so distracted, checking the news daily against every intention I’d set not to, only half-living this life I had been praying to live every single day.

When I sat in silence and birdsong with this curiosity, what came up was a sunken river of grief. I was aching with subterranean sorrow for our world, but I was too far away from myself to cry. I stayed with this feeling with curiosity, and then something else came to me: you need to help the land cry.

A week ago I’d discovered that the Milpa field I work in has a very high water table. When I did a test dig for a possible charcoal trench, I struck water. When the rains came multiple days in the week, all the low places between the first garden beds filled with water. The water stayed. I was ecstatic and afraid. There was certainly enough water, but maybe too much. I thought about chinampas style agriculture, about ponds, about working with the water. The water didn’t go away. It stayed and stayed, and it led me to the feeling – not thought – that the land needed to cry. The need wasn’t separate from my need. The body of the field is my body and we were already woven together as one so much more than I had consciously known.

That day, the motivational slump I was in shed completely. Mostly with just a grub hoe, I dug channels all over the field from where the water was pooling down the hill. I invited it to move, to flow, to let go. I sang as I dug, feeling limitless energy to move the water through the soil. I got down with my hands in the ecstacy of wet clay covering my arms and hands, the scent of it, the coolness of it. Trickles of sandy water and trickles of clay water met in a dancing harmony of mingling fractals: the pattern of the harmony of opposites, joining to move downhill – to cry.

I didn’t shed any tears that week, but something changed. I’ve been finding it so easy to motivate myself to work non-stop. Something brought me home. The next week, when I sat in stillness with myself, I could see an image behind my eyelids of water gently washing over me and around me. I saw myself as reeds being bathed in estuary flows, gently being cleaned and cured – and the next day my buckwheat, having cried away its pooled water, sprouted its first precious leaves. The healing of the land is the healing of ourselves. Care for the land is care for ourselves.

As systems thinking, Permaculture is always about perceiving and integrating the whole. For myself and others from my cultural background, we never know what it is to be whole. We reject people, groups, whole cultures outright. We name some plants bad and some plants good, some dreams bad and some dreams good, some feelings bad and some feelings good. We struggle daily with addictions, self-judgement, aggression, and mediated disconnection all to avoid experiencing the terrifyingly beautiful wholeness of ourselves.

Permaculture follows from the assumption that we can learn everything we need by observing and interacting with forests, rivers, meadows, oceans. I’m wondering, then, if one of Permaculture’s greatest possible outcomes for some of us is the offering of a powerful way apprentice ourselves under natural systems for reweaving ourselves into the whole that the exiled places in us are patiently waiting for us to become again so that we may then begin to seat the whole of that personal ecology within communal, cultural, and greater biological wholes – all the way up to relearning, re-experiencing we are a planet, and we are a whole whose known boundaries are the cosmos.

When we relearn from beautiful wild complex ecological systems that we ultimately are beautiful wild complex ecological selves, we will be endlessly more able to heal, love, or even recreate from a parking lot the beautiful wild complex ecological systems yearning to be in all of our surroundings and in each other.

If I read a book about designing water systems, I can better help water move through the landscape; but when I remember I am the rain, then I am the rain welcoming itself, healing itself, drinking itself, quenching itself.

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