Monthly Archives: August 2017

Wishing peace to the spirit of a Permaculture hero

I only know the smallest fraction of the beautiful contributions of Chuck Marsh in the service of mother earth and from that glimpse alone he is a hero to me.

Permaculturist Chuck Marsh died yesterday, his spirit set free to echo on in the lives of the plants and people he tended joyfully, generously, with laughter, skill, and devotion.

I am grateful I had the opportunity to learn from him even a little and to bathe in the peace of the place he helped to create, the courageously always flowering and reflowering Earthaven Ecovillage.

The last thing he ever said to me was, “nice hat, brother!” This is probably the point I decided to permanently wear a hat whenever I ‘do permaculture.’

To honor Chuck last night, I made a biochar fire in the site of our future forest garden. I’m sure those at Earthaven were offering their own beautiful prayers as I know they have so powerfully learned as a village to do.

Here is a Permaculture Podcast where this dear human talks about the neo-horticultural revival:

…and if you tend to fruiting perennials of any kind, his free videos from the Useful Plants Nursery he started at Earthaven are a tremendously helpful resource:

May the seeds he planted in the hearts of so many all flourish. Peace, Chuckster. We’ll watch for you in the garden.


As long as we cannot meet our own needs and ‘need’ a certain quality of life that only extractive systems can deliver, much of our lives will ultimately go, no matter what political opinions we express, to feed the industrial growth machine just so we can live.

That machine may occasionally reward some of us with small reforms and concessions, but it cannot defy its purpose: to protect and concentrate wealth for a few. As it finds more ways of existing without us (e.g. automation), it will eventually choose those ways rather than give power and wealth back to people.

In our lives we always have tremendous power to be healers to the land and people around us and this is vital, precious, and needed always. We can live lives of great love, healing, and regeneration no matter who we are; the grocery store is full of saints and miracles; but if we want to talk seriously about slowing the big machine, we need to talk about how powerless we really are unless we can live without it.

When we can learn to court the land for the impossible gift of abundant food; when we can create our own shelter from the grove we keep healthy for future generations; when we can entertain ourselves without digital media; when we can heal our bodies and spirits from the plants; when we can travel by horse and bicycle and gather our families and friends around us in a village; when we can live with so little power that Duke Energy will not have any customers to buy its coal – these are the places the power to resist the industrial growth system comes from.

If we cannot meet our needs, we can only beg the institutions which are the codified algorithms of our reified self-perpetuating fears to be a little less horrible. Sometimes they will and sometimes they won’t. Meanwhile we’re stuck asking congresspeople to even begin to care about the smallest version of our most compromised dreams.

Better to start learning to beg the land for food. Better to stand outside the office of the soil humbly practicing your best arguments as to why you need the land to please hear your very legitimate need to live.

What if 100,000 activists sang a honey-tongued petition to the land right beneath their feet to please help them live without relying on the bulldozers, mountaintop removers, nuclear reactors, child laborers they never see but certainly somewhere inside feel?

What if those 100,000 just went on a general strike from the laborious and hazardous daily maintenance of the illusion of separation, instead seeing the people around them as the stubborn flawed and immeasurably alive and potent members of their very own village with whom they will tearfully and screamingly learn to cooperate with no matter what?

What if 100,000 learned herbal and country medicine that weaves people back into the land as it weaves whole their bodies?

What if 100,000 sold their worthless guns that can only ever ultimately create yet more trauma and ghosts and instead bought from a local blacksmith scythes, hoes, broadforks, axes, and saws?

Once the pain of the news is just too great, it is time to stop feeding that system with your life.

There is something holy in the land beneath your feet that wants you to feed it. Do you hear the patience in that wounded scorched soil? We can stop giving our attention to our “feeds” and start feeding our attention to life.

Begin with stillness, and then loving actions of care with the land to meet our common needs; these are the only things that will serve us through the million possible futures and under it all, the welling up joy of an infinite sunrise…

Outside Inputs, Experimentation, and Self-Compassion

As I’ve written about before, my milpa farm experiment of gardening in the heart of the forest is an attempt to grow food without material inputs (other than seeds, tools, knowledge – all extremely important!).

For me, this experiment is important because we need to relearn how we could still grow food if we didn’t have access to fossil-fuel transported compost, manure, straw, rock phosphate, or even waste stream products like municipal yard waste or woodchips. Even more important to me was to be able to do this work without any fossil fuels used to prepare the fields, chip woodchips or shred leaf mulch, or using a chainsaw to clear the forest. If we don’t know how to do this, we may be unable to grow food one day. This is motivation enough, but I also believe in the ability to have this experiment teach me far more about how to tend the wild and work with nature than I would ever have to learn if I could just purchase and import solutions.

At the same time – this year, because of this slow approach and my lack of knowledge of limits, my plants did not produce food for us.

One of the vital Permaculture principles is Obtain a Yield. I obtain many yields from my milpa farming experiment: joy, learning, inspiration, wonder, beauty, healthfulness, but I do not yet obtain food. We find ourselves at the grocery store frequently and I find myself unable to feed the family, friends, neighbors, and community I love.

My sense of mutual indebtedness to all the beings that have so long supported my body and my heart has led to a longing of many years to simply feed others. It was so sad for me this year to realize I will not yet be able to do that and to understand that the milpa experiment, vital for the future and the way of farming I hope to ultimately rely on, may take a while.

Pickle is one of my main teachers of the profound arts of gentleness and self-compassion. She is also an avid and to me legendary harvester of the Waste Stream. Constantly on craigslist farm and garden section and neighborhood listservs, she deftly discovers abundantly available free or cheap resources to support our vision. Master of the Create No Waste Permaculture principle, she sees others’ refuse as something that can serve life instead of landfill.  If at any point I’d asked her, “Please help me find manure for the garden!” she’d have been able to track down enough to provide all the nitrogen the milpa could need in a day – but, I did not ask. This experiment is too important to me. At the same time, I was aching to produce food to nourish us and others and to begin selecting and saving seed for the future. What to do?

In an act that feels like the kind of peace-making synthesis that I am a student of, I finally decided to accept the reality of our scenario – i.e. it will take a few seasons for us to slowly generate the fertility we need to create food, but we also want to produce food right away – and find a simple pattern to harmonize these two seemingly contradictory facts. I have designed a “zone 1” garden close to the yome in which I will welcome waste-stream inputs. Yard waste, woodchips, even manure – if it’s free, organic, and in the right proportions, I will use it within the annual and perennial forest garden beds around the yome.

With this, I can already see a clear path to producing abundant food next Spring. Meanwhile, the milpa experiment will continue in the heart of the forest, slow and input-free, working only with what the forest itself can create, with me learning and responding to feedback from the plants and discovering how to grow food in this old and simple way.

I am a person who tends to feel the weight of the world and, because of my pain for all of our loss, I tend to try difficult and somewhat extreme solutions. My usual thinking is that enough people understand how to walk a middle-road; my role in our cultural immune system is to discover the marginal solutions that will make life possible when the middle collapses. I know this is part of my purpose and welcome it. At the same time, I am learning that the medicine for this way of being is to be gentle and kind with myself; to trust that slowing down and offering myself self-compassion, forgiveness, and ease doesn’t compromise the edge experiments I am working on but actually enables them.

To hold in one hand the help of all these in-this-moment available helps from the outside in terms of free nutrient flows to our deprived soil while holding in the other the awareness that these flows will not always be available and that we need to learn how to tend the wild from the wild alone heals my spirit. I love my fossil-fuel free milpa who is my greatest teacher and I love my simple beautiful easy waste-stream garden who can feed us as we learn.

The joy I feel looking at the ducks and geese playing in the truckload of free spent mushroom straw has been a gentle rain upon my heart.

bonus tip: if you also tend towards extreme solutions because of world pain, look into a tincture of Passionflower, Milky Oat, and Wood Betony from Medicine County Herbs or make your own.

Earthworms, Charcoal, Flows and Stocks

Earthworms and charcoal are made for each other.

Here’s the thought I had yesterday about gardening in and regenerating an American temperate forest:

Anyone who has been to a party with me has probably heard my invasive species rant (i.e., how the term ‘invasive species’ is almost meaningless, has its roots in a fundamental error in how we think about systems and change, etc.). It was somehow still new to me when someone, in a well-meaning but misguided anti-invasive discussion that I decided to diplomatically stay quiet through brought up our beloved earthworms with the same accusational tone people use for kudzu or Japanese honeysuckle. Earthworms?

Ever since I began gardening, I saw earthworms in the soil as a sign of life, health, vitality. If there were earthworms, the soil had enough for them to eat and enough moisture for them to survive and was in turn being continually improved by their subterranean livelihoods. If I improved soil, more earthworms came; and then the soil continued to improve. Earthworms aerate compacted clay soils and gently mix and move the layers of soil to help communication between them and aid plants and other soil organisms in accessing what they need. Earthworm castings are rightfully seen as gardener’s gold, having not just essential nutrients in abundant available forms, but helpful plant growth hormones. Earthworm vermiculture bins turn kitchen scraps into choice concentrated plant food faster than any method of decomposition I’ve worked with.

All of these benefits are possible because earthworms rapidly break down decaying organic matter – and this, in invasion biology, is the root of the complaint. Earthworms were all over North America before the ice age and remained in the south after it but were wiped out by it in latitudes above 45 degrees. ‘Invasive’ earthworms came over again from Europe and Asia in the 18th century (that recently! …and that long ago) and there was likely nothing that decomposed decaying organic matter as quickly as they did. Both ‘native’ and ‘invasive’ earthworms are migrating north with climate change and the efficient ‘invasive’ earthworms also play a transformative role in southern temperate forests. The entire rate of decay, and therefore the whole process of nutrient cycling in temperate forests, and therefore temperate forests themselves which in one sense are nothing more than these cycles of stocks and flows, would have been very different before the movement of these earthworms came over. Earthworms changed and continue to change the forest dramatically.

What is or was your first response to this knowledge? Are you wondering if we should try to get rid of the earthworm? Or do you feel like I do – fear in your chest that someday corporate-sponsored ecologists will be trying to genetically modify earthworms into sterility to “restore” the dream of an old ecosystem? Do you feel a crying out to stop the spraying, the gene splicing, the rejection of new organisms, of immigrants, in favor of a dream of the old, the idea of Make the New World Forests Great Again like they used to be?

* * *

In Permaculture the Problem is the Solution. 

Earthworms, when viewed as a problem, do this: 

Relative to the conditions temperate forest species lived in before they arrived, they accelerate the breakdown of decaying organic matter, spreading it into the soil and making the nutrients more immediately available.

This is a problem because many of the northern forest ecosystems were more recently adapted to conditions of lots of accumulated decaying organic matter. Nothing broke the forest litter down so rapidly so species would make use of that slow breakdown to gradually feed their root systems, provide a long-lasting mulch, house lots of insect life, and so on. Worse yet, when nutrients are released from the system’s stock or storage of a resource into the flow or movement of a resource and lack enough plant life / root life / soil organic matter to sufficiently take up the flows back into stocks in the form of plant bodies, the nutrient flows leave the system and end up in bodies of water that carry them away, thus impoverishing the forest of essential nutrients. This becomes a ‘spiral of erosion’ in Permaculture terms or a ‘positive feedback loop’ in systems dynamics, leading to less overall and less diverse plant life which then has even less ability to catch the nutrients made available by earthworms, thus leading to more loss of nutrients, and so on – or it can be explained like this:

Earthworms rapidly breakdown organic matter -> plants dependent on slow breakdown and leaf litter die off -> there is less plant life to catch nutrients -> nutrients leach out -> plants die off -> earthworms breakdown the organic matter -> …..

…and so in this scenario, what would being a friend of the earth look like? If you cherish these northern forest ecosystems, what would you do?

* * *

Earthworms, when viewed as a solution:

Relative to the conditions temperate forest species lived in before they arrived, they accelerate the breakdown of decaying organic matter, spreading it into the soil and making the nutrients more immediately available.

This is a solution because it means there is an abundantly available flow of life-essential nutrients. In this time where our top soils have been massively depleted by industrial farming, we have an ally available who can hypercharge the decomposition process, speeding up the release of organic matter for the life around it. This is a condition we work hard to simulate with our compost piles, worm bins, cover crops, and in a sense, tilling (although in tilling’s case, it leads to soil death and nutrient loss since there is nothing to catch the suddenly available flow). If there are plants with roots at all depths and good soil organic matter to catch the rapidly made available nutrients, then we can create what in Permaculture terms is a ‘spiral of abundance’ from this. The spiral, or positive feedback loop, would look like this:

Plants release organic matter to the forest floor -> earthworms create rapid decay and available nutrients and increase soil organic matter -> plants grow more in response to the available nutrients, plant growth hormones, and soil organic matter -> plants release more organic matter to the forest floor -> earthworms create rapid decay….  additionally, through the accelerated plant growth, we get more carbon sequestration in plant bodies and in the soil organic matter, which means we’re taking more carbon out of the atmosphere while increasing our future ability to take even more carbon out of the atmosphere.

…and so in this scenario, what would being a friend of the earth look like? If you cherish these northern forest ecosystems, what would you do?

* * *

Which of these two stories are true? Do earthworms lead to a net nutrient loss from the system and eventual forest collapse or a super-abundant accumulation of forest life and thriving nutrient-rich soil and forest?

* * *

It is true that many of our industry-abused forests and fields already do not have the ability to keep the nutrients they have within the system. Rains flooding the nutrients freed up by mass-die off of soil life in a newly tilled field, high-grading of the healthiest trees from a forest or cyclical clear cuts that turn forests temporarily to deserts that leach nutrients for lack of roots to hold them, pine monocultures that destroy forest ecology, forests struggling to adapt to climate change – our ecosystems are already suffering. Earthworms, as part of a system that already cannot absorb its nutrient flows, increase the speed of these nutrient flows. In this context, the additional nutrient flows can be a problem.

In the absence of earthworms, we would still be facing the problem of nutrient leaks from the system. As with all invasion biology thinking, we are perpetuating a perception error with tragic consequences when we blame a species that cannot speak for itself rather than question the industrial growth economy’s continual extraction and abuse of these systems as a whole. Remove earthworms and the process will still occur. The forest is kept out of balance by our constant over-exploitation of it and insistence on maintaining it in life-deprived monocultures, clear cuts, and false ideas of restored wilderness based on an unrealistic idea of what the forests once were. In most American ecosystems, the context itself is one of damage, fragility, and loss.

As Permaculturists, our true hearts’ work is the tending of the wild – the wild in the forest, the wild in the field, the wild in ourselves. What does it mean to tend the wild in this case? How do earthworms fit into this sacred work?

Catch and Store Energy

Given the reality that our industry-wounded forests are struggling to keep the nutrients they have and that the earthworm is making even more nutrients that cannot be caught available, how do we work with this reality to regenerate the wild and provide for ourselves and all beings?

Most of my friends will be sick of hearing this answer by now, but:  CHARCOAL!!!!  yep, of course I am once again going there. But hear me out –

Forest-made charcoal is ideally suited to turn the earthworm into a net gain for the entire forest ecosystem.

In forest ecosystems where earthworms create an unusable abundance of nutrient flows, trees mostly continue to thrive because of their ability to pull up nutrients from the deep levels of soil. Trees then create woody biomass in abundance. Woody biomass, as part of good forest tending practices (especially including coppice agroforestry), can be selectively thinned for charcoal production.

Charcoal added to the soil is the perfect stock. Charcoal has a remarkable ability to take up nutrients. Its slow breakdown makes it a long-term buffer or battery for excess flows. In times of excess nutrient flows, charcoal-rich soil, along with soil organisms and plant roots at many depths, can hold the nutrients. They then became available for slow release over time during times of relative nutrient scarcity.

When forests are too depleted of life and diversity to have sufficient root networks to uptake the overabundance of nutrient flows made available by earthworm rapid decay, charcoal can be the battery to catch-and-store these flows.

As a result, charcoal in the soil can accumulate what is needed to turn a spiral of erosion into a spiral of abundance. The herbaceous plants of the forest floor that need those earthworm-freed resources to stick around long enough for them to use can access them, in partnership with symbiotic mycelial networks, from charcoal.

A human-implemented small-scale charcoal-earthworm tending strategy has the potential to hypercharge the growth of life-supporting soil organic matter while keeping the vital flows from leaving the system.

This could be the basis in our Piedmont region and others of an accelerated regeneration for our top soil and ecosystems that would not be available without the ‘invasive’ and other earthworms.

Now when I see an earthworm, my wonder is increased: this being that was not here offers an opportunity for more rapid regeneration of our soils and therefore all life than we would have without it. The difference between the spiral of abundance and the spiral of erosion here is once again loving and skillful human intervention. To find the way to the right intervention, we must again learn to drop enemy mind, problem mind, bad species mind. We must again learn to see the radiant dance of stillness and movement, stock and flow, that all plant animal and fungal life trace the shape of.

* * *

Bill Mollison reminds us: a tree is an explosion. The ecstatic branching magic of a tree’s yearning is the story of nutrients racing out from a center towards the sky and the center of the earth. Everything alive is a dynamic explosion of material and energetic gradients. The seed of a tree falling on the forest floor is like an answer to the prayer of the patient accumulated nutrients, hoping to discharge themselves up down and out through space and time to express the joy in having gathered together, having something to offer, having life.

Therefore, another way to think of humans tending the wild – we are slow explosions learning to slow down other slow explosions.

Professional explosion slower. This will be my new title on the business card I give to officious squirrels questioning my credentials.


…next year if the pine trees don’t crush us and our hearts stay brave:

The pine forest path from our car to our shelter sings a corridor of shade-dwelling gifts: juneberries, paw paws, young hickories and hazels, gentle forest medicine plants, rattlesnake plantain, tea. along the way deadwood lies across the contour helping slow the manic Spring rains (should we be so lucky as to welcome them who we depend on completely to live) into the thirsting sandy earth, collecting decaying life and decaying along with it to feed the tender saprophytes. King stropharia wine caps bloom in the pine straw in this newly humid earth, hawks nest in the tops of loblollies, and the trees are blessed with what we weave and sculpt and paint and carve.

Our bold vulnerable silly and dignified bunny-like octagonal shelter, an inside that every day courts the outside, barely more interior than a nest and as fragile and as much a nurse of early dreams of flight, wears a cloak of trellised passionflowers opening the alien impossibility of their blooms enough to repel government officials, linear thoughts, obsessive anxieties, productivity measurements, budget concerns, and repressive missionaries and also distracting enough to distract from distraction, visitors lowering their smartphones like weapons before a miracle as the buzzing radial life pulls everyone a little bit deeper into the sometimes lucid dream of their life in which they soon are drinking passiflora tea and wine and finally like tendrils grasping at empty space remembering what to forget.

Butterflies and persistently curious bee mimics, hummingbirds we are mutually indebted to, house-rabbits doing their daily cocky dance for the watching hawks upon the deck and a sleeping tree cat dreaming of raising her babies in the tree tops, and the earth shrine of a handmade kitchen that uses no coal, oil, gas, nuclear or ecocidal dams to prepare the prismatic food that blesses us from the earth in defiance of all greyness, the food always part wild with bitter flavors that wake us and nectarous flavors that tickle our mouths into ravenous pulpy grins and hearty flavors that let us become nests for each other and for peace. The perennially unwashed molcajete’s accumulated memory of a thousand spices, herbs, meals, seasons, rains, oils brings a hint of absolutely everything that is into each meal for those who become nothing enough to taste it. Sweetgum railings protect all of us from falling from our high home just as the perfumed sweetgum medicine again and again keeps us our health from falling into sickness and suffering, just as the ecstatic smelling sweetgum charcoal we make and bury keeps the precious mineral jewels in the soil from falling out of the earth and into the waterways. Meanwhile our circus stop-sign of a yome billows our simple protest to the sky: you are our breath and our star and we will not participate in that which harms you any longer, we will stop.

Beneath the deck a shady bar without walls makes no money and is corpulently wealthy with ten thousand half-feral laughs. The under-deck bar emerged naturally from our bodies’ simple need to duck out of the Piedmont’s soul-refining summer Sun but became known to visitors as half speakeasy, half medicine house where few gins ever get served without a kiss of smilax root, honeysuckle flowers, or sweetgum. Here we honor rest, friendship, intoxication, silliness, chance, and especially the specific kind of aliveness that comes from one of us growing up awake in Florida’s teeming interior.

Continuing downhill two great shoulders of charcoal-mulched blackberries, blueberries, juneberries, otherberries absorb greywater and rainwater and explode with a ‘pestilence of berries’ enough for everyone to experiment and make cocktails and fruit leathers and paint our face with berry dyes and smash berries anywhere on our bodies really and throw berries at sassy ducks and give away cuttings to visitors to create their own berry pestiliences for which they can only blame themselves.

A secret skink, anole, and snake nest brush pile we skillfully pretend to be totally oblivious to, occasionally saying ‘i sure hope there aren’t any long hungry sinuous mouse-eating copperhead-devouring black snakes in there!’, sits securely in its messiness slowing erosion and deterring all but the bravest warrior mice above the zone 1 herb and vegetable garden that we feed and water with duck and goose energy and forest leaves and our pee and our slow worm hotel compost and in which we shamelessly have an herb spiral, yes an herb spiral, a big unapologetic spiral nipple of the earth with ten thousand specific microclimates, one of which some totally forgotten variety of amaranth somehow migrates to, takes a deep breath and says ‘finally someone understands me!’ before bolting twenty feet high and covering ten square meters in miniscule black seeds.

Near this, a small greenhouse and near this the new cavernous entrance to the old kind certainty of a root cellar which doubles as an ancestor shrine, triples as a tornado shelter, quadruples as a secure archaeological store of all our buried for generations after ours waiting even millennia to sprout seeds of the first and always reincarnating dreams of our true hearts, and quintuples as somewhere to get some earth quiet when the neighbors funk a little too loud again, sextuples as the most predictable yet still somehow overlooked hide-and-seek-spot, and octuples as somewhere to sincerely practice freestyling that is not ready for the world / the world is not ready for.

Around it all, a real forest garden bordered by forest; the dream of living without having to disturb the soil, of food fed by its own stretching exploring roots, of food that is also habitat, of food the main labor for which is continual harvesting and joyful making use of the precious leavings, and all through it places for humans and ducks and geese including and especially the small glorious emerald pond fringed by edible and medicinal water plants that cleanse water and bird and human, that grows duckweed to feed the ducks and people, that hide frog and fish and fly, that buffers the frost and the soil temperature, that quenches fires and gentles the air, that breathes dew crystals into the wind and gives us a tranquil reflection to be with as we sit on the small screened porch of our humble hippy log cabin bathhouse in the cool rainwater bathtub in which we try by holding still to catch the full moon in our belly buttons as if our navels were ancient astronomical calendars only to find that the full moon in your belly button is mysteriously ticklish making holding still impossible.

From here, a winding wild path back to the forest where we are helping the young succession woodland move into its next life as an oak-hickory forest…

…an in-the-heart-of-the-wild milpa garden in which I have finally, finally learned to grow the corn that has so unexpectedly become my north star

…a gentle terraced slope meadow of quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, barley, and old wheats to run our hands through, to watch the wind in, to sing to, to watch the stars in, to make a treehouse in, to nourish the earth of our bodies

…a creek that has been dug out, slowed down, protected, healed, held, loved, pooled, meandered, honored, worshipped, and relied on

…a herd of sassy wild goats who wake up our eastern energy and call us to play, who are equal partners in our forest cooperative, whose smells are prohibited by municipal code from being within ten thousand feet of any office buildings for fear of prompting mutiny, whose bodies we take in grief and praise to give us the strength to lift our bodies to work again, our hearts to beat

…a community of other souls beginning to gather in humble dwellings who ache to burn themselves up completely in joyful aliveness, in service to the wild, in devotion to the love that is the ultimate fruit of mother planet earth.

This is my dream for next year.





The Effect

On the way out of this year’s life-giving Firefly Gathering a new friend asked potent questions we didn’t have time to answer:

How do we think our move towards creating a community in a rural area away from the city still can be a part of affecting significant change on all the major social issues of our time? In other words – are we hiding in the country taking care of ourselves while the world burns? How is what we’re doing part of anti-oppression work? How does it address the overwhelming increasing global suffering outside of our little forest?

I told our friend I’d write a blog post and send it on, and so here it is.

While I know in my heart there is no one right way to live or one right answer to any of this and that we need people working in all places in all ways for the healing of the world, I arrived at this lifestyle in part because it was the only answer I could personally come to believe in doing (with my limited knowledge, learned biases, blind spots, fears, loves, etc). For me with my limited perspective, this way of life is my best guess at an appropriate response.

The best way I can explain this guess is by approaching it both from the dimensions of gut feeling and of systems thinking.

Systems thinking is how, years ago, in response to the world pain I was feeling, I approached the question of what I could do seriously and I began to eliminate some guesses of how to do this. As I continued to explore hypotheses and learn more, my guess became more and more refined towards this one.

The paradox here is that while I use systems thinking to eliminate many approaches to world change for myself, I still respect anyone else’s choice to take any of those approaches and can believe in most of them pretty well. This is because I follow another systems thinking principle: that a healthy intelligent system (in this case, our collective response to the pain of the world) involves diverse inputs receiving and transmitting wisdom about different parts of the whole that they uniquely experience; in other words, other people know things I don’t and that’s wonderful. If I love you and trust you, I love you and trust you and I am so grateful you can see things I don’t and so contribute intelligence to the healing that I can’t.

I also struggle intensely with trying to have the ‘perfect’ answer in a way that I know is based largely in my own beloved neuroses. This is why I had to do a lot of consideration of all the possible ways people follow to make change and rule out the ones that didn’t work for me.

So then – please take my writing here as revealing my own personal thought process to guide myself and not as the one true or right answer. This is not meant to be persuasive. I really believe that part of the power of Permaculture is that a skillful practitioner guided by the more-than-human-world can apply it absolutely anywhere. There is no right way to live and there are endless ways to love the world and I am grateful for all my fellow beings doing whatever they do wherever they do it and loving however they love. We need all ways and every act to relieve suffering of even one being even for one moment matters completely. 

Why I don’t want to live in the city

We were previously living in Durham. Community organizing and neighborhood-level power is one route I did see open as a potentially meaningful and effective way of creating change. For me this started to turn when I saw that if we were going to continue to live in the cities near us, we had one of two options: either to buy into an affordable neighborhood, or earn more income to live in an expensive one.

If we lived in a neighborhood we could afford, we could find no way not to contribute to gentrification. The towns near us are experiencing massive and rapid neighborhood-by-neighborhood gentrification, tripling of housing values, massive explosion of condos, and a rapid homogenization of race, class, and culture. Our attempts at creating community sometimes seemed to make it worse. I came to think, in my pain, of activists and artists like ourselves unwittingly serving as the first wave of development in affordable neighborhoods that would make them “safe” and “funky” for the second wave of condos and then the third wave of yet more luxury concept hotels (i.e., Durham).

Additionally, the kinds of community activism we tried over the years (gift economies, alternative currencies, barter networks, commons) were always interesting, meaningful, and led to some benefit, but never became an actual meaningful alternative to business-as-usual because none of us in the city needed to rely on them. They were something fun that some people chose to work with but did not ever reach the point of demonstrating a viable alternative to the industrial growth capitalism all of us in the city needed to rely on to pay our bills. I don’t think it’s impossible that they could and they may come to as things get harder in cities, but for now the commons in cities always seemed to serve as primarily an additional benevolent layer that never touched the root of the system devouring the world.

The second option – living in an expensive neighborhood that had already gone through this – meant we would have to work so much that we couldn’t afford to do anything but earn money, that we would have largely culturally homogeneous friends and neighbors who didn’t really need a commons to survive, and that, I suspect, we would be in some way become more and more servants of the industrial growth system that offered us the paychecks required to afford that more expensive way of life.

With an already gentrified neighborhood, if something needed to be done that wasn’t significantly financially rewarded by the system, we would not be able to do it and still pay our bills (& I think just about everything that needs to be done is not every going to be significantly financially rewarded by the system since most of what needs to be done would undo that same system).

As resource-scarcity and industrial automation increase, the jobs that will still be rewarded by the growth system will likely become increasingly and increasingly onerous in terms of both daily worker experience and the ways in which they contribute to the exploitation of people and planet.

With either option, city life still means relying on resources extracted from somewhere else. Most estimates of what resource base it takes to support a human being require more than a few acres even in a very simple lifestyle. Though I think urban forest farming has significant potential for city self-reliance in food production (with some major caveats for where the fertility comes from, since we don’t have horses making manure everywhere like the 19th century urban market gardens of Paris, or the minerals, since we’ve depleted them all in city soils), building materials, firewood for heating and cooking, energy for keeping houses cool that were designed around cheap oil availability and air conditioning, and all the energy required to maintain urban infrastructure that urban life is dependent on results in the taking of resources from some other ecosystem outside the city limits.

Finally – both Pickle and I came to believe in Intentional Community / collective ownership and living as a vital part of the puzzle.

To get to the root of our separate apartment, separate land, separate property, separate lives alienated culture and return to the interdependence of a village that is vital for an ecological life and to learn the tools of cooperation that can hold us together when our government enforced agreements begin to falter and economic stresses increase, we need to be able to live together.

My own experiences at Earthaven and Twin Oaks convinced me that a life lived as separately as most of us do in the cities is not how we were born to live. We were evolved to be intimate and relational beings. My experience at Living Energy Farm further taught me that most of the ecologically appropriate technologies we need to survive a post-oil world make the most sense at a small community scale. Owning enough land collectively in a community to meet our needs is extremely difficult.

Punk collective houses accomplish some of it but few of them can acquire long-term stability or meet their resource needs. Co-housing communities accomplish some of it but are usually totally unaffordable for most people and also don’t often meet their resource needs. Walkable friendly neighborhoods accomplish some of it but never get to that level of collective decision making or interdependence that is at the heart of true community.

When things get tough, we just go back to our own houses and so we never really have to learn to live with each other.

I do think it would be easier for us to live a lower carbon lifestyle in the city; in fact, we were living one (though I suspect we can long-term change this both by having a community around us to meet our needs and by practicing carbon sequestration via biochar creation, soil building, and forest management strategies). This is acceptable to me because my theory of change isn’t just about reducing my impact….

Why I don’t focus on reducing my impact

I can reduce my impact to zero (i.e., I can die) and nothing in the greater systems trend will change. Shocks to the system will happen, chaos will spread, things will fall apart, suffering will increase. Focusing on a single number makes us lose sight of so much. This is different from focusing on non-participation in systems of violence (e.g. extractive mega-corporations) which I think can make a difference if we make this non-participation choice available to others. Instead, I’ve come to believe in Permaculture’s philosophy that while reducing our footprint, we need to increase our handprint.

What My Gut and Heart Say About It

Doing what we’re doing feels absolutely right to me in my heart and gut. Relying on corporations that destroy people and planet doesn’t feel acceptable for me anymore. In the image of the product or food item I’m holding, I see the suffering embedded in its creation. Living close to the earth feels beautiful and life-giving. Living the way we’re living feels like I’m learning to let the planet speak through me. I know at the end of the day that it is right for who I am. I can find endless gratitude for the opportunity to serve life in this specific way. It works with my specific gifts and simultaneously heals my specific wounds so that I can continue to heal the wounds of the land and of others.

If You Do Want to Live in the City or Have to Live in the City

Your life in the city is still extremely precious and potent, and there is a magnificent Permaculture book arguing that we can and should focus Permaculture on cities and that the advantages of doing it there are as numerous as the advantages I think of for rural places. Here’s that book:  Permaculture City

What I Do Focus On

Here is a fast vision of what I think we can do by living rural in this way.

We can actually come to collectively meet our own needs. Within our community, we can learn how to meet our own needs for food, water, shelter, medicine, fuel, fiber, fun, friendship, beauty, joy, purpose, and so on. The whole ‘means of production’ thing is so critical. Land is the only reliable ‘means of production.’ Everything else produces for a capitalist marketplace that may or may not need you tomorrow.

We can create an option that is actually accessible to people violently marginalized by the industrial growth system. Because the rural ecological life can be lived with far less dependence on earning money (land is cheaper, needs are simpler), the way of life we’re experimenting with can exist as a real viable option for people who are continually priced out of life in gentrifying cities or discriminated against in terms of well paying jobs. Arguing for a living wage is important, but creating a replicable way of life that is at its very root more affordable does both far more to create a stable dependable life for systemically marginalized people and more to slow and soften the eventual massive destructive impacts of climate change and market collapse that will almost inevitably follow the usual pattern of hitting those who are most already injured by the system the most.

The rural cooperative model offers the basic dignity of people meeting their own needs rather than trying to convince a racist, sexist, classist system to throw us a bone by not make the gross inequality even worse. Instead of focusing on petitioning corporate executives to create more jobs by decreasing their tax rates, we learn to rely on our own hearts and hands and those of our neighbors.

We can move to a renewable wood-based livelihood that can work for future generations. It is possible to meet our energy needs for a simple life but we need biomass to do it. Solar and wind at small scale will always struggle to meet our heating, cooking, and cooling needs. Using coppice agroforestry practices, we can do it without deforestation, but it still requires trees. A wood-based livelihood for all, incorporating these new understandings of coppice agroforestry and biochar production, could become a truly sustainable model for the future. We can additionally sequester carbon in the form of sustainably grown lumber for two-hundred year small homes rather than making disposable factory-made dwellings that fall apart in decades and become poison in the landfill. I can’t see any economy working in the future that isn’t based primarily on well managed trees, soil, and healthy aquatic systems as our primary renewable resource bases.

We can be a model for accessible low-tech distributed reduction of atmospheric CO2. Permaculturally managed land can offer a solution right here and right now that each of us can do to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and turn it into healthy soil to support life. Waiting for policymakers to do this or for high-tech solutions with unforseen consequences to solve it is likely to lead to catastrophe. When we work with land, we have a directly accessible route to reversing climate change (via a coppice -> biochar – > soil carbon – > coppice cycle) that also regenerates topsoil and provides us with food.

We can have time to do the work that needs to be done. Because buying land is cheaper than buying a house, we can, if we’re willing to live simply, support ourselves on very little money. This means that we have much more choice in what jobs we take and most importantly, free time to do what will never be called a job but needs to be done.

We can have a community. While neighborhoods are still sources of community for many, the difficulty of ownership for most and the fluxes in market prices and available jobs lead to frequent migrations in and out that disrupt forming community. Rural communities can potentially have much more stability by starting simple and staying simple. You can get people who really dig in deep to knowing place and each other. We can also buy enough land that people can live together and share ownership. Acquiring land in the city that allows many people to live together and meet their needs is almost impossible.

We can meaningfully participate in and support existing rural communities. If we feel a need to work to lift up populations of people who have disproportionately borne the brunt of the violence of the industrial growth economy, we will find those people everywhere in the country. Of course – if we approach this as being the heroes we’re going to cause a lot of problems and miss out on a precious opportunity to remember that we are the new people there and our job is to listen, care, and ask for help as often as we give it.

We can experiment. There is a great need to find lifeways that can work for this entirely new era we find ourselves in of 9 billion people, powerful extractive technologies, shredded remnants of ecological cultural lifeways available but growing in the margins. The rural areas can be a living experiment for cooperative living close to the earth in a way that cities, with their upheavals, lack of available experimentation space, and complicated overlapping political and economic interests, cannot. Permaculture experiments especially take years and even decades. It’s unlikely someone will suddenly build a highway or extend the city development plan through a rural Permaculture experiment sufficiently outside the city. It is also far easier to experiment with alternative dwellings, water systems, and energy systems in a rural area.

We can learn from earth how to live with earth and ourselves. The skills we need to survive without violent extractive corporations are almost lost in America – but beyond the physical skills of growing food without tractors, we also need to learn how to be basically OK with ourselves and to see like a mountain. Permaculture believes that nature is the greatest teacher of what is real and what works. Like Masanobu Fukuoka, we can take our philosophy to the soil and see if it works. If we approach earth systems with our delusions of separation, or our aggression or our greed, eventually those systems become depleted and we fail. All the layers of abstraction that the bizarre modern economy puts between us and reality fall away when we are in a forest itching and thirsty and wondering how to keep from giving up every single day. Living close to the earth, we live with the greatest teacher and lover we could ever ask for. Earth can teach us how to work on the root as it exists within our world and ourselves.

We can network. Urban activists and collectives can work in a potent synergy with rural cooperatives. The wisdom and unique resource bases of each can form a powerful link of mutual support. There are innumerable benefits to having radical rural collectives and radical urban collectives working hand-in-hand.

We can heal. Part of being alive now is acknowledging the traumatic upbringing most of us have experienced as part of the industrial growth system. Schools-as-prisons, prisons-as-prisons, constant messages from the media to be aggressive towards ourselves and fearful of everyone else; we are almost all deeply wounded inside. The pressure a lot of activists put on themselves is to see their own healing as something they don’t have time for or that is selfish; but without healing ourselves, we will eventually recreate the patterns we are trying to work to undo. Living rural gives us an opportunity to create a model of a non-violent world free from extractive and exploitative systems while simultaneously healing ourselves. The work for the world and the work for ourselves doesn’t have to be compartmentalized. In the forest, nothing does. Each day is born as a fertile question of what our lives is about and instead of facing it alone, we have the innumerable living beings of the land to walk with us as we make our guesses one moment at a time.

A dream:

People aching with the pain of the world sell their city houses and leave the city. They buy land together and near each other in rural communities in which they absolutely listen to, respect, learn the history of, and humbly contribute to (and depend on).

These small rural collectives cooperate so that when one struggles, the others hold it up. Then the network weaves together in the form of collective decision making and economic power. Each part of the network contributes to a fund that helps people who cannot buy land but who want to live this way acquire it. Each person who buys land in this way agrees to certain ethics of earth care and people care.

The countryside becomes full of healed forests, rivers, and meadows where the seeds of a viable lifeway form. By the time the system starts going through greater collapse and the jobs begin evaporating, there are hundreds of thousands of people practicing Permaculture in the rural areas who know the formula of how to live lightly and live together. The next wave of people leaving the cities were anticipated and they are welcome.

The collective learning of all the nodes of this rural network means the livelihood they provide, while still very much living within the limits of the planet, is beautiful and joyful, simple and smart. The people welcomed into it suddenly discover a sense of purpose that being assigned as a random cog in a big corporate bureaucracy never provided. The wisdom they bring helps it all really come alive.

People have learned to grow food for a whole family on 1/4 acre with no loss of fertility. No one really needs much money anymore. A new culture of music, celebrations, and ritual emerges around these lifeways, guaranteeing the survival of it for a time through the changing future.

The hills and valleys sing with the joy of free beings willfully tending the wild.