The Permaculture Design

A science of securing basic needs through sustainable, ecological methods

By John Oberlin

Miekal And explains his permaculture views
Miekal And explains his permaculture views.
Photography by John Oberlin

    Let’s say you want to eat an apple. Simple enough. But how much energy does it take to do just that? If you drive to the grocery store, you’ll need fuel; the Earth uses its energy through geological processes to create that fuel by compressing organic matter for thousands of years. Assuming you pay for the fuel, you’re also using the energy that you put into your job.

    The apples arrived at the store much the same way you did -- through the use of nonrenewable fuel. You pick out an apple from a bin that some worker has put energy in to organizing. A percentage of the apples will be thrown away because, as a business, the store only puts out the freshest of apples. After paying for the apple, with every step of the process of growing and transporting the apple added to the price, you drive back home, using more fuel. Finally, you have reached your goal! You eat the apple, and its nutrients feed your body.

     Alas, the energy keeps moving even after you’ve completed your goal. You then throw the leftover core in the trash. On Monday, the garbage service picks up your core and throws it in a huge pile landfill, and what is left of your apple sits there.

    This is an open energy circuit. Although the energy fills certain societal needs like creating food and jobs, in the end, it goes from soil to landfill.

     There is a science of design that seeks to understand that energy, recycle it back down to its own path, and secure basic human needs. To modern day people, this method is called permaculture, but it is difficult to say when people began using it. Some take it as far back as the ancient Indian Vedic culture, one of the longest existing cultures. The Vedic culture, like cultures still deeply rooted in religion, traces its existence back to the beginning of time.

     Whether God passed these sustainability tools down to some ancient society or not, permaculture (in its modern form) emerged in the 1970s. David Holmgren, one of its founding fathers along with Bill Mollison, has said that permaculture is consciously designing, “landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature while yielding an abundance of food, fiber and energy for provision of local needs.”

    By its very essence, permaculture is difficult to hold to a single definition. Basically, permaculture observes how energy flows through a system -- which can be anything from a backyard garden to a university campus to a city -- and then designs a method around the needs and wants of those within the system.

    Since Mollison and Holmgren coined the term in 1976, permaculture has been put to work at different levels and parts of the world: the United Nation’s refugee camps, the Mars Confectionary Company cocoa production, and as an erosion preventative on a Vietnamese hillside.


See diversity as an opportunity

    Activist and permaculture designer Rob Scott uses it to operate the Urbana Permaculture Project in Illinois. In 1998, Scott studied at the School for Designing a Society in Illinois, which, according to its website, “is an ongoing experiment in making temporary living environments where the question ‘What would I consider a desirable society?’ is given serious playful thought, and taken as an input to creative projects.”

    He also earned a critical pedagogy degree in 2001 from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, and then his master’s degree in environmental science from the University of Illinois.

    "Permaculture designers run from the scientific to the religious," Scott says. "I’m definitely in the physical-biological end of the spectrum."

    The Urbana Permaculture Project (UPP) is made up of multiple sites in the Urbana, area. Each site grows up to a hundred food-providing species. Goods harvested from each site are then available for every other site involved in the project. The sites are encouraged not to make an individualized profit from the products harvested. Any surplus from the system is directed back into itself. Each site is an input in the UPP system.

    Scott says the UPP system is "a network of friends, not a commercial farm."

    This "friendship economy" involves landowners sharing land-access with friends. "If friend A has an ever-bearing mulberry tree in her front yard," Scott says, "then she expects to see friends B, C, and D showing up when they have a use for mulberries. Friends maintain their presence in the system by maintaining friendships, asking friendly permission, and generating reciprocity in sharing goods."

    Friendships are also maintained between sites through the project’s plant ordering parties and workshops. There are economical advantages to ordering plants all at once and knowing who is purchasing what. And one may leave the workshops with logs inoculated with mushrooms, wines fermented from homegrown fruits, or plants propagated from existing gardens. Each input should have multiple uses. If one input fails, another is there to pick up the slack. Diversified characteristics are essential parts of a permaculture design. The workshops, which can be considered inputs, have multiple uses: spreading permaculture (and therefore ensuring abundance), maintaining connections (abundance), and raising money. The money from workshops goes back into hosting more workshops, stimulating the whole cycle again.

    In the garden, diversity works as biodiversity through symbiotic relationships. Crops benefit when grown in diverse ecosystems. On a home property, diversity could be in the form of a flooding ditch that could be turned into irrigation. One may be missing the opportunity to harvest the land’s maximum energy by looking at the flooding as a problem and not as an example of the land’s diversity. In a community, diversity could come in the form of a vacant lot turned into an edible garden.

    Diversity ensures abundance at each level of life.

    One of Scott’s main goals is to create more permaculture sites, thereby intensifying the system and ensuring abundance. "I’m interested in new designs, and the network at Urbana is unique," he says.

    In his "Illinois Permaculture Handbook," Scott identifies four roles to intensify the UPP and similar projects: host, sponsor, intern, and organizer. A host--a homeowner, a landlord, a city, a school--is anyone who offers land to people practicing permaculture. The sponsor is someone who donates money or resources. The intern, or apprentice, supplies the labor. The intern has a desire to learn about permaculture but may not have access to land or the financial resources to start a permaculture site. The host, sponsor and organizer provide the apprentice with the proper resources and they, in return, get labor and more goods. The organizer teaches permaculture design and facilitates relationships between hosts, sponsors and interns," Scott says.

    "Permaculture is radical for its premises," Scott says. "With different premises, you get different consequences. There is no reason to promise which consequences will result from the design constraints.”


Get in the loop and feel the feedback

    Scott also studied permaculture at Miekal And’s Dreamtime Village in the Ocooch mountain range of southwest Wisconsin. The worn rocky hills use to be as high as the Himalayas, says And from within his dark indoor forest of dusty houseplants, strange paintings and Buddha-like images. He says that, with its limited flat space, the Ocooch landscape has turned away large farming operations while opening its fertile soils to small organic farmers and a number of permaculture designers.

    "It’s really like a Zen thing," And says about his permaculture philosophy, stroking his untrimmed graying beard. He says that the Western way of going about things looks at situations as problematic: If you want to create something, you first clear everything away and then project your grand idea onto that space. Instead, permaculture is based on receiving feedback from the present system and working within the system.

    And is a Web designer and lives in West Lima’s old post office. A quarter of West Lima, Wisconsin, population 65, was donated to And and his late wife’s non-profit art organization called Xexoxial Endarchy. They named the area Dreamtime Village and created a permaculture experiment incorporated with the arts.

    Dreamtime’s backyard permaculture setup looks like a bunch of different plants just thrown together. That’s exactly what it is: ordered chaos. Crunching across the snow-covered ground, And can describe and explain each and every plant because he makes use of each and every plant for either food, juices, wines, tinctures or salves.

    Instead of rototilling and chopping up the soil for his annual vegetable bed (an example of a traditional Western method), And lays down a layer of compost and then a layer of straw. His whole setup is organic. He says he grows soil, not plants. "You make an ideal environment for the plants and they’ll do their part."

    On his backyard permaculture tour, And stops and points to a foot-high anthill. “They’re telling me something,” he says. “They make them right on my path. They have no fucking consideration.” Although the anthills are creating a problem for him, he doesn’t just try to remove them. He will let them go until he understands why the ants are building these homes and how they can help his design.

    He has a similar attitude toward a grouping of pine trees on the south side of the yard. “Around here, you don’t want to block the sun from the south side,” And says. But instead of cutting the trees down right when he notices the problem, he says he will wait until they grow some more and just deal with the "problem" a little longer. By doing this, And will have a substantial source of wood in a couple of years and a clear, sun-permeated south side.

    Permaculture is site specific. "I wouldn’t be doing the same kind of permaculture if I lived somewhere else,” And says.

    Before engaging in any actions, And likes to walk through his permaculture setup just taking everything in, mentally noting what needs to be done. This "daily communication," as he calls it, is the feedback process itself. "I look at it like the whole thing is an organism," he says. "I never have a static picture of what it is. It’s like a light show."

Mark Shepard looks out onto his permaculture farm.
Mark Shepard looks out onto his permaculture farm.


Stack your systems

    Just south of Dreamtime Village, Mark Shepard, a friendly middle-aged man dressed in blue jeans, an orange stocking cap and a camouflage winter coat, drives his car across a sloping lane of frozen dirt toward his home hidden beneath the rolling Ocooch hills. Different from the neighbor’s field farms, his New Forest Farm is more like a 106-acre off-the-grid science project. Stepping over his old, champion weight-pulling dog he got while living on one of the last homestead lots in Alaska, Shepard enters his passive solar and wood-burning home and begins explaining how his youth could be considered accidental permaculture.

    Every year his father, a factory worker from a rural wildlife guide family, would look through nursery catalogs and say things like, "Gooseberries! Oh, gooseberries are high in vitamin C and anticancer drugs." Shepard says his father would buy plants for their back yard in Massachusetts. Year after year, the plant mass started accumulating in his family’s suburban lawn. "And so we learned how to manage a backyard jungle," he says. "Accidental permaculture, I call it."

    After growing up in a permaculture situation, quitting his mechanical engineer career to study forest ecology at Unity College in Unity, Maine, and living in the Alaskan forest 300 miles from the nearest "real” town, Shepard uncovered a creative approach to agriculture that could be eco-friendly—actually eco-encouraging—and practical. It was only after this, while attending a bioregional meeting in Anchorage, that Shepard heard the word permaculture. Realizing that he had been around permaculture for most of his life, he took courses to become a certified permaculture instructor.

    In ecology, there are certain requirements and relationships between plants and animals that nature must work out. "You just plant a bunch of things, like my dad did in our backyard, and you let them sort them out. They’ll take care of themselves."

    Shepard is trying to imitate the different processes and principals found in nature to efficiently provide products for sale and for personal consumption. One such principal is called stacking. Instead of using an acre as one layer of a single food producer like corn, permaculture would tend toward creating multiple living layers. By selecting the life (plants and animals) that can coexist and then putting them in the right relationships to one another, the acre can theoretically take care of itself while producing more than just one crop of corn or soybean.

    "What if we have a food-producing tree up high, a food-producing tree down low and all kind of stuff underneath it?" says Shepard equipped with pruners, pointing toward a grouping of trees, bushes and other smaller plants. "We now have 60 feet worth of photosynthesis instead of a mere six feet of photosynthesis going on."

    "Humanity is in an incredibly precarious situation on this planet right now, and we don’t have any fucking time to waste, pardon me," Shepard says. "We’ve got to do [permaculture] starting yesterday—if not 50 years ago. . . . We can’t fool around anymore. We have to get our food differently than the bare black dirt agriculture."

    The dirt agriculture he is talking about has a linear energy path; nutrients are exported away from the farm in the form of whatever product to never return again. The same is true with an organic, non-permaculture farm. "It’s not an intact ecosystem. The soil is washing away. The nutrients are washing away,” Shepard says. In permaculture, energy is recycled back into the system to ensure long-term success. Energy is also captured by stacked systems, whose layered plant life prevents erosion and amplifies photosynthesis.

    "Our big thing is we’re trying to capture carbon because that’s free, and carbon is our energy source. . . . The carbon is the energy source for our soil food web. Without tons of carbon being sucked onto the site and staying here, we wouldn’t have that nutrient cycle."

    Permaculture stresses the thinking and integration of systems. Many of the ideas can be used not only in nature but in other areas like architecture and lifestyle. Shepard considers the shed near his house to be a kind of stacking. Its roof gutters water to a tank for livestock, the front serves as a bat house for pest control, the side holds a rabbit cage, part of the inside is a chicken coop, and a compost pile sits in the fenced-in area connected to the coop.

    Shepard extends the stacking concept further to his morning routine. On his way to the outhouse, he sits the compost bucket down for the cats and dogs to pick out the meat scraps from the kitchen waste. The cats keep the rodent population down. The dogs keep the foxes, coyotes and raccoons away. He then dumps the compost to the chickens, who, by doing their natural functions and scratching at the dirt, aid the composting process. From the shed, Shepard feeds his cattle, hogs, chickens and rabbits. He then goes in to collect eggs. He can cut mushrooms from the Shiataake mushroom-inoculated logs lying next to the shed. On the way back to the house he walks through the garden to pick vegetables for his omelet.

    "Just because I had to go to the bathroom," Shepard says, "I fed the cats, fed the dogs, fed the chickens, fed the cattle, the hogs, the rabbit, got eggs, got mushrooms, harvested the garden, and got breakfast ready—just because I had to poop."

    Shepard says that one of his objectives is to show that we can grow native plants as staple crops in healthy, intact ecosystems. All around his property, he planted what he calls variety trials--many types of a plant that are left to grow on their own. "Only the plants that could survive with sheer, utter and total neglect are the ones we’re interested in. Because if I have to baby the stupid little plant to keep it alive, I’m sorry, I’m not interested."

    When people express interest in living off-grid and ask Shepard how go about it, he says he simply answers with: "Pull the plug. Stop! What do you need as a human being? Do you need electricity? Humans have been without electricity for zillions of years. Pull the plug and then say, ‘Well, what do we really want?’"

    The first thing the Shepard’s wanted was a light bulb, which they powered with a car battery and a small solar panel. And then they wanted a freezer to store food. And of course, they wanted music: "We need our tunes." Shepard says now they have it all, including a computer, a synthesizer, electric guitars and amplifiers. All their electricity is provided through solar panels and a small wind turbine. Shepard says he’s actually producing too much electricity for their use and plans on directing that excess to a hot water heater.

    "Any time you hear the word waste or problem, that’s the word profit spelled wrong," Shepard says.

Spring 2006