Permaculture is the combining of the words Permanent and Culture. Bill Mollison the founder of permaculture in 1978 first defined “permaculture” as: “The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems."
I think of permaculture as a form of whole-systems thinking biomimicry, in that at its core it is a set of design strategies for site and structure management by adopting processes observed in healthy natural ecosystems.
Permaculture is a big topic so to make learning it a little easier I am focusing on just one principle per post with this post being how I discovered permaculture and what it means to me.
Thinking Outside the Garden
The two main goals of this series are to provide an introductive overview of the 12 principles of permaculture and to introduce readers to the thinking that permaculture is something broader than a set of gardening techniques. The design principles are common sense and can be applied to any type of system design. They will guide the process naturally as you walk your design through a given principle.
Throughout this series, I will be giving you examples of how to apply the principles not only in your garden but in other areas of your life as well.
Image courtesy of Whispering Jane
I’ll give you an overview of each principle and then provide real-world examples of how the principles apply in other areas beyond the garden. I’ll give examples in topics like finance, health, and education then prompt you with questions to see how and where you can apply permaculture practices in your life. From plant guild combinations to how the permaculture mindset can help you save money and live vibrantly.
Experimentation is Your Teacher
People want and like simple step-by-step instructions, 1, 2, 3 done. A key to permaculture concepts and one that I emphasize is experimentation. You can use the principles as a framework to guide you in any situation. You will find common threads throughout the principles and key points repeated.
It’s a Puzzle
If I repeat something, I’m doing it intentionally to illustrate its importance and its interconnectedness with other principles. The principles have overlapping similarities that weave together to make a united whole. As you read, watch for the parts of the puzzle and how they fit together.
Image courtesy of Hans Braxmeier
My Permaculture Journey
My introduction to permaculture was completely by accident. To give context for how why permaculture is important to me I need to give a little back story.
After years of working in corporations, I found it increasingly harder to convince myself that the corporate grind was a good thing. I had jobs that people would consider good with great benefits, high pay, and even work that was “meaningful.” However, I was building someone else’s dream in an environment that was often toxic.
I found it increasingly difficult to justify my existence as a corporate mope. I began to display self-destructive behaviors such as speaking my mind a little too openly to managers, co-workers, and even clients. I became overly aggressive to win small arguments, I began over-eating, drinking too much, and using drugs. I became extremely negative and dark predicting that all was hopeless. I would have mood swings from happy to crappy on truly short notice.
I was spiraling downward and wanted desperately to change my destructive behaviors before I destroyed all I had built, but I felt trapped. A friend who knew what I was going through recommended I read Tim Ferriss’ book the Four-Hour Workweek.
I voraciously read the book over a weekend and then I read it again. It opened my mind to question all sorts of assumptions about working for the man, good ole corporate America.
Ferriss questions aloud what people have been thinking for a long time is thinking, things like:
Does my butt in a chair 8-hours a day equal high productivity or can I accomplish these same tasks remotely in half the time?
Do I want to be a millionaire (wealthy), or do I just want to live like one?
Instead of waiting until sixty-five to retire why not disperse annual “mini-retirements” throughout your life?
Plus, other what seems to be uncommon and impractical questions/exercises helped me revaluate my lifestyle design.
Change or Crash
It was obvious to me that I needed to change something before I snapped and ended up shuffling around in circles ranting dystopic end-of-the-world denunciations.
I began escaping from the rat race by going on “adventures” anywhere, anytime for as long as possible. I didn’t care if it was for the day or for weeks I just wanted to get out into nature and re-connect with it.
Image courtesy of Mhrezaa
At first, I still unconsciously operated via the modalities of the consumer culture, always wanting to gear up with the best kit from snowshoeing to biking.
It took me a while to realize that the best adventures happen with little gear, in places you’d never even heard of, and with cool people you’d have never met otherwise.
Even though I was escaping as often as possible the fact remained, that I still had to return to work and each time I returned from a “break out” it would take me days or even weeks to acclimate back into the grind.
I started brainstorming about what I wanted to do and how I could support myself and my family by doing something else. I needed to turn my back on the lifestyle that made me feel like a cubical Lemming waiting to die.
On one of my regular searches for our next adventure, I found a small ad in a local entertainment magazine for a 3-week, 150-mile bike trip to the big island of Hawaii. Meals, bikes, and support staff were all provided for $350 per person and a couple of hours of work at the farms we would be camping at. The ad also said that the farms practiced permaculture concepts and we would be learning more about it as the opportunities arose throughout the trip.
Image courtesy of Jill Wellington
Permaculture cool. I had no idea what permaculture was. I thought it had something to do with permafrost. I didn’t know what it was and honestly, I didn’t care, all I knew was it seemed like an inexpensive way to see Hawaii via bike.
After a couple of months of preparation, my wife and I finally found ourselves sitting in the trip orientation class on the beautiful campus of the University of Hawaii. It was the first day of the ride and I assumed we would have a short session on safety, route, and whatnot then attack the first leg of the tour. This is what happened but with group-building exercises and a lecture on permaculture.
Cradle to Cradle
To launch his lecture our tour guide used the book Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. The authors make an exciting and viable case for change away from our Industrial Revolution "cradle to grave" manufacturing model. These antiquated ways of manufacturing turn out up to 90% of the materials they use as waste, much of which is toxic.
“Why not take nature itself as our model and design products so that after their useful life, they provide nourishment/purpose for something new-either as ‘biological nutrients’ that safely re-enter the environment or as "technical nutrients" that circulate within closed-loop industrial cycles, without being "downcycled" into low-grade uses (as most "recyclables" now are).” ~ Cradle to Cradle
Following the lecture was a lively discussion about how permaculture is used to solve so many kinds of problems in so many different settings. I was starting to get a handle on what permaculture was; a set of guiding design tools that can be applied to all systems. I thought that was cool, I design things, so I thought I’ll learn something I can use professionally.
As the bike tour continued, I began to feel different, it was a slow and gradual awakening, a reconnecting with the Earth, a blossoming love if you will, corny but true. I was unplugged from the constant ping, ping, ping of technology and the pressures of getting stuff done. I started focusing on being in the moment and engaging intentionally with others and my environment.
We visited remarkable farms and met the happy thriving individuals that occupied these intentional communities. The farms varied in size from 5 to 20 acres and all the farmers we met were producing minuscule carbon footprints.
We saw elegantly designed rainwater harvesting and gray water reclamation systems and clever uses of swales to manage surface water. We used methane gas from bio-digesters for heating, cooking, lighting, and efficient closed-loop composting toilets.
One site we saw had an impressive solar farm capable of meeting the entire site’s energy needs. We worked in thriving gardens that were living examples of smart, common-sense use of permaculture principles with a diversity of insectary plantings along with plant guilds that are mutually beneficial to each other and the surrounding ecosystems. The living structures I saw were constructed with local materials and minimal impact building methodologies.
Image courtesy of Mauricio Uchoa Bruttos
We witnessed forms of governance and economics guided by the principles of permaculture to create safe, equitable living spaces and to operate responsible and profitable businesses.
It inspired me to see people living so well but not trashing the planet or each other to do so. I saw firsthand that living lightly on the planet is possible and practical, you just need guiding principles to help you along your path.
It Takes Work
I also want to make it clear that these practitioners of permaculture are not all just a bunch of hippies spending time together in the jungle gnawing on papayas and waiting for their cannabis plants to flower. The people I met were very much of an enterprising spirit and conducted their businesses in harmony with the planet.
Image courtesy of Gabriel Jimenez
Farmers also had other businesses as well such as online ventures, art portfolios, and the monetization of the farm through the rental of its facilities for seminars, retreats, and concerts.
One man I met named Tom has a shrewd business model that he shared with me. He puts in 15-20 hours a week at the farm he lives, but on the weekends, he sells vintage Hawaiian shirts and ties to the tourists at the local farmer’s markets.
Every few weeks he does a bike tour around a section of the big island and hits up yard, and garage sales, and buys up all the old Hawaiian shirts and ties he can get his hands on. He has a bike trailer that he pulls behind his bike and when that’s full he heads home.
He then meticulously goes through his new purchases cleans and repairs them, so they are in mint condition. Tom has an elegant bamboo residence with another smaller bamboo ‘warehouse’ where he has racks filled with restored vintage Hawaiian shirts and ties.
Image courtesy of Bamboo hut Shazaf Zafar
With all the imbued costs Tom has in each item he feels justified charging tourists $80.00 for a shirt he originally only paid 75¢ for. He sells hundreds of shirts annually and told me “It’s a win, win, win, I save a treasure from the bin, I connect it with someone who loves it anew and I get to put dollars in Tom's pocket.” Works for me.
Some farms do better than others because thriving farms organize around the rock-solid principles of permaculture. They have designed a plan and systems that meet their needs, and they consistently execute their plan always accepting and adjusting to feedback.
I’m not trying to paint a picture of utopia here, these farmers face challenges that require demanding work to create their lifestyles. The one common factor is how joyful people were no matter where we visited, everyone seemed at ease and in flow with their surroundings. People told me that because they lived so simply, they could concentrate on what was important, eating clean, reinvigorating forms of exercise, doing meaningful work, creating sincere relationships with other human beings, and a deeper appreciation of mother earth.
Image courtesy of Lucas Sankey
I have always felt my best when I am somehow working or playing in direct connection to the planet, whether swimming in a lake, hiking a mountain, or just digging my toes into the sand at the beach.
The awaking I experienced in Hawaii wasn’t so much as an awakening anew, but a reawakening of knowledge repressed and ignored for too long.
I was very realistic about the things I was learning and experiencing. I recognized that I was in a tropical paradise, temporarily participating in a magical lifestyle lived by few and I was headed back to my stateside high-pressure, high-stress life. I kept asking myself questions.
How can I put this philosophy to use back at home?
How can I influence others to embrace the principles of permaculture?
Is it possible to recreate the lifestyle I saw possible on the big island?
The End of Paradise
The bike tour ended on a bitter-sweet note. I had made new meaningful friendships that still to this day enrich my life, but I knew that we all had to return to our “other” lives and deal with the “real” world. My wife and I extended our trip by a week to let this unique experience sink in and mentally prepare for our return.
Image courtesy of garden Bodil Kreativ Skjolven
Returning to work was particularly painful not only could I not stop thinking about everything, I had just experienced but I was sure I was in hot water with my manager. I had extended my vacation without permission, by just sending a simple email stating that I’d be returning a week later than anticipated.
My manager flipped his corporate wig over that. He seriously suffered from the conditioning of a lengthy career in giant multi-national conglomerates that formed his beliefs of what was important. He was extremely officious, and the number of hours/days spent at work were equally if not more important than the results produced. A product of the military-industrial complex.
After returning I took a little scolding from my boss, and I tried to curtail my negativity. Unfortunately, I couldn’t seem to kindle a fire for performing at an elevated level which is a death rattle for any job.
A New View
I began to look at life anew through these simple principles called permaculture. I especially fell in love with principle #1, Observe & Engage.
Image courtesy of Pexels
The job I had in engineering sales, required countless decisions that need to be made quickly without always knowing what the best outcome would be. It puts a person in a perpetual state of hoping for the best and praying any mistakes made would be small enough to be mitigated later.
Instead of striking on every perceived opportunity, I began to use principle #1 Observe & Engage to get better at qualifying each opportunity which tied nicely with a tried-and-true system I had been using called Strategic Selling.
Strategic-Selling’s process for how to observe, move through and closing complex sales are genuinely like the principles of permaculture. The process can be slow, and it takes time to evaluate all the players in a complex sale which may have a sales cycle as long as six months to a year.
The good news was that this process of creating detailed diagrams, evaluating, and tracking the players in a sale began to pay off but the unfortunate news was it took time.
I was working for a person trained to “take that hill at all costs” and he thought the Strategic Selling concept was fine, but I needed to “keep throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks.” This mentality is a huge waste of resources if you take the time to track the results.
It can take time to build sincere relationships and far too often this important key to building long-lasting successful relationships is often pushed to the side with the singular focus of making money quickly.
The Beginning of the Beginning
The inevitable eventually happened and my manager let me go. It was a blessing. The company I was working for had struggled through a recession and then the founder died so the family sold the business quickly. The new owners were Ivy League MBAs that were all about “right-sizing” the company. My manager’s corporate overlords gave him the directive to cut staff and I was first in line. No surprise.
Change of Course
After I got laid off, I found it tremendously hard to change the direction of my career, it was like trying to turn a large ship that had been moving full speed ahead in one direction for a long time.
Image courtesy of Honey Yanibel Minaya Cruz
My personal life began to have its challenges too, within just a couple of years I lost both of my parents, I lost my sister, my wife got extremely sick, and I was seriously running out of money. However, it was during these tough times that I used the principles of permaculture to help me design solutions to the challenges that had nothing to do with gardening.
I adopted a minimalist mindset as well and started eliminating all things from my life that no longer served me, physically, mentally, and emotionally. I became a purging fanatic. The philosophies of minimalism and permaculture work well together with their overlapping and interconnecting parts.
Image courtesy of Michal Jarmoluk
I created systems, rituals, or whatever you want to call them to keep me focused on what was important and not make emotional or rash decisions. It’s good to rely on self-discipline but it is far better to design systems to keep you from misbehaving.
During this time, I learned as I much as could about permaculture through books, blogs, accompanying videos, and by attending permaculture Meetups. I volunteered for the permaculture-based non-profit, City Repair and I obtained my Permaculture Design Certification from a course that the late Toby Hemenway taught through Portland State University. I just dove in and learned as much as I could.
Recommendation #1: One of the best books for residential permaculture design that I highly recommend is Toby Hemenway's: Gaia's Garden, you can thank me later.
Recommendation #2: The second must-have book for any serious practitioner of permaculture is Permaculture: A Designers Manual by Bill Mollison - This is a deep dive by the founder of permaculture that includes large land planning and sustainable human settlements.
I have met and still do meet positive, enthusiastic permies that inspire me and to do everything I can do to make an impact so I decided to do what any sane individual would do and started a sustainable consulting and design business based on permaculture principles.
The Brutal Start-Up
The first couple of years were the most brutal because sustainability services aren’t easily marketable to the masses although people may be in love with the idea of living a green life, statistics show otherwise.
To improve cash flow and expand my clientele base I teamed up with an old friend and co-worker who was just starting his firm, karlfriesen.com. Through this collaboration, I have been able to expand my expertise in the built environment to include energy analysis and explore innovative ways to meet the challenges of today’s-built environment.
The trick was recognizing that I didn’t need to be designing cob cottages or gardens to be a practicing permaculturist but that I could apply the principles to anything I designed. It has allowed me the freedom to do things like research, author books, and start my sustainable living website Blended Tribes. I still have things I’d like to accomplish but I am on a much healthier, happier path. It’s a lifelong journey and I’m focused on enjoying the trip.
More Than Gardening
Many people think of permaculture as just a set of gardening techniques or know nothing about it at all. Others think of permaculturists as lefty, wild-eyed, hippies and don’t take them seriously. Of course, like any other tribe, there is a spectrum of people with varying degrees of interpretation of the ideology and commitment to its implementation.
Image courtesy of Schaferle
I believe we can design a future that blends sustainable living and living well as synonymous. This is a time when all the makers and builders should be excited about all the opportunities that exist within the problems facing the world.
Now is the time to seize leadership and create a future that is sustainable and desirable. Opportunities in the” green” or “sustainable” sector will inevitably continue to grow due to both status and need, from products like electric vehicle manufacturers to developing better ways to manage and use water.
A Work in Progress
For the sake of brevity, I have summarized years of my life’s experiences but no doubt my life is far better because of permaculture. My life isn’t perfect, I still participate in the consumer culture albeit minimally as I can and there is still much, I can do to be a better steward of the planet.
Image courtesy of Steve Buissinne
It’s a work in progress but I have followed my intuition regarding the principles of permaculture, and I have applied them as part of my life’s foundation. I don’t consider permaculture to be a religion or a set of rigid rules but what they are, common-sense guidelines that work in elegant sustainable ways. The principles simply fit so naturally with my core beliefs such as healthy eating, intense movement, and minimalism, hopefully, they will fit into your life as well if they don’t already.
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