by Cathy Ingham
Some may say it is a “fringe” movement started by a hippie Australian guy in the 1970s. Indeed, Bill Mollison, the man who coined the word permaculture and literally wrote the book on it, would very likely agree with that assessment. Perhaps the word “fringe” would even delight him—for in the world of permaculture, the fringe—or the edge—is where all the good stuff is!
To describe what permaculture is in a short essay is a little like explaining what the Bible teaches. Over the years we have started affectionately call Bill Mollison’s book the ”Permaculture Bible”—both due to its enormous size and its comprehensive content. You can glean information on everything from growing a food forest, to building a home out of natural materials, to building a “chicken tractor,” and so much more.
The Urban Harvest organization teaches a whole series of permaculture classes that offer a certificate upon the completion of all the required classes and the final project. The course offers in-depth study of natural systems and how humans interact with and how they can mutually benefit from them. Topics covered in the course include energy systems—wind, solar, thermal—even how to live off the grid; designing our homes and communities—including the use of natural building materials such as straw bales and cob, and how to design an efficient, livable community; hydrology and water systems—including rain water collection and re-use of gray water; growing food—including efficient design of gardens, orchards and animal keeping; and the over-riding concept of care for people and care for the planet. The course is an introduction, really. Permaculture is a way of living that begins with a basic skill set and becomes richer and more profound as concepts move from the brain to the heart, and become habits.
One of the key concepts taught early on is the skill of observation. This sounds very simple—and it is—until we look deeper. When we really take the time to observe the way nature takes care of things, how nature has a use for everything (there is not any waste), we begin to see how we can learn from her example. In nature, there is no sewage treatment plant, no incinerator, no landfill or trash dump. In fact, there is no “trash”. Rather, decaying plant and animal life becomes a food source for soil building micro-organisms which, in turn, become the building blocks for new plant life, and the cycle continues. If you have ever walked in a forest and observed the forest floor—with its mulch layer sprouting ferns, or decaying logs growing mushrooms, you have seen this cycle in action.
This is the idea we now call “cradle to cradle”—or the cycle of life. There is no waste and there is no end. This is the true meaning of the word sustainable—and something we humans, who are a part of nature, can certainly learn to emulate.
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