What is permaculture?
The Wikipedia definition of permaculture states “Permaculture is a branch of ecological design, ecological engineering, environmental design, construction and integrated water resources management that develops sustainable architecture, regenerative and self-maintained habitat and agricultural systems modeled from natural ecosystems.”
While that’s a definition most would probably be comfortable with, permaculture is also a hard thing to pin down. Like so many powerful ideas which connect to an underlying truth, people have taken it to heart, made it their own, and taken it off in all manner of different directions. Consequently, it means different things to different people. The diversity is now such that people are rejecting the word in favour of terms which peg their own particular variant of it, while everyone else argues about it.
Possibly this stems as much from the very different characters of permaculture’s two founders, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Since they first formulated it in the 1970s, they’ve also diverged in their individual perspective and practice of it, the former more practical and landscape-focused, the latter more philosophical, going beyond our relationship with the land into our relationships with each other within the human ecosystem. Thus it can encapsulate anything from small-scale landscape design and use all the way out to a conceptual blueprint for reimagining our entire relationship with this planet and each other.
David Holmgren explains …
Some take it beyond philosophy and into spiritual dimensions, causing friction with those of a more materialistic perspective within the movement. But like all holistic models which come closer to reflecting the natural world as it is, it seems amenable to mapping many dimensions of life as we experience it, so no two viewpoints of it are necessarily mutually exclusive, even if they might appear to be so at first glance. Diversity, as in nature, is the signature of a healthy ecosystem. This process of differentiation merely mimics the process of species evolution …
None of permaculture is really new – it’s very close to how most traditional, so-called ‘primitive’ societies live(d), deriving their functional framework from rigorous observation of natural forces and processes, both material and immaterial, and pursuing a fundamental aim to work with them, not against them.
It’s certainly about seeing the bigger picture and the inter-relationships of the processes going on within it. In the context of land use, this means considering all the features and processes affecting the land together as an integrated whole: the path of the sun in summer and winter, prevailing winds, water courses, slope, shade, soil type and quality, the position of buildings and access, the patterns of land usage, vulnerabilities to fire or flood, etc – and designing a landscape for maximising the natural retention and accumulation of water, fertility, richness, health and abundance. It’s about utilising nature’s cycles and integrating them into all aspects of land use. It’s about stacking functions, creating multiple uses for and connections with every element, bending linear production lines into self-perpetuating and self-replicating feedback loops.
This was something practiced with enormous wisdom, subtlety and sensitivity by generation after generation of our ancestors, building quietly on knowledge carefully passed down, and often still with its imprint on our landscapes where it hasn’t been bulldozed into oblivion. (Archaeologists and anthropologists are now beginning to realise that what western man had taken for ‘wild’ landscapes in the New World were ones which had been carefully gardened and shepherded by the indigenous population for millennia.) An encyclopaedic knowledge dismissed and rejected in our self-important headlong rush to embrace one-size-fits-all technology, a falsely objectified lifeless ‘science’, and speed and profit at the catastrophic expense of due diligence and respect for natural systems and their inherent diversity. We thought we knew better. How arrogant! And how incredibly stupid!
Now the chickens are coming home to roost. It’s time to concede we were horribly wrong and make amends and reparations. This is where the conceptual framework of permaculture is of enormous value. It provides a route map for halting destructive land use practices and fast-tracking the repair work – urgently needed when UN scientists estimate we may have just 60 years of growing left if we continue destroying soils at our present rate.
It also offers a framework for the repair of degraded and eroded social structures and interactions.
Whichever angle you’re coming at permaculture from, it is, at the very least, about regenerative – ie. well beyond the merely sustainable – use of the land and its resources. Sustainable has become such a buzz word. That’s unfortunate because it’s the barest minimum we should be aiming for at this time. If we’re to stand any chance of repairing the damage we’ve done, then we have to give back more than we take until such time as ecosystems are restored to health and abundance. We need to pay back the loan we’ve taken from our children’s future. Given the extent to which we’ve laid waste to the biosphere – creating 3cm of topsoil through natural processes alone takes 1,000 years and we’ve degraded fully one third of the world’s supply in less than 100 – that’s going to take some doing.
Whether you’ve taken a permaculture course and just want a second opinion, or whether you’re new to the whole idea of regenerative holistic landscape design, if you feel you might like some help with designing your land and how you use it, I’m available to help in Central Portugal for anything from a walk round and bit of advice over a cup of tea to a full landscape design.
I can also offer advice on natural building techniques, ecological sanitation systems, grey-water processing, water storage/supply and off-grid power systems based on my experience here at Quinta do Vale and, where required, can bring in a local architect and other specialists I’ve worked closely with to design and install these systems for you.
What I ask for in return is a donation to the project at Quinta do Vale. How much depends on what you have in mind, but you can donate in several ways. Cash donations via PayPal, payment in estrelas, our local community currency, or we can trade in equivalent work on each other’s projects. Or any mixture of the three. The value of the exchange is generally based on an hourly rate and will include the time taken to draw up any designs you might want after I’ve visited you. I do ask for cash to cover my travel expenses which will be charged at cost. There is a minimum donation of 45€-equivalent. Full landscape designs will be priced for the whole job.
If you’re interested, please contact me by email in the first instance and we’ll take it from there.