19 June 2014

Permacultural Renewal

Written by Published in Lifestyle

Image: Lucy Purdy

Image: Permaculture London

Image: Susannah Hall

Image: Lucy Purdy

Image: Permaculture London

Dynamic, evolving and inspiring, Permaculture emerged like a manual of possibility in the late 1970s. Not just sustaining and celebrating people’s love for the natural world, but designed around those very feelings, it began with growing food and reached far beyond. Still not a widely understood concept, it sometimes seems Permaculture has failed to fulfill its own promise. But shifts, especially those as fundamental and far-reaching, take time

London Permaculture

Unceasing change is a part of life. It is life, in fact. As time goes by, the clearer it seems to me that our existence teeters on a swirling mass of uncertainty. Herein lies the startling beauty of being alive. I came to Permaculture in the whirl of my mid twenties, drawn to its calming wisdom: the way the system responds with such elegance to change, treading a path alongside impermanence itself.

While systems of the last few centuries have unleashed a systemic violence toward living things: taking, exploiting, controlling by force, Permaculture values flow above all. It is about harmony in the face of resistance. Sharing, not hoarding. Improving, not destroying. Reclaiming land, place and culture by using the patterns and pathways in nature herself.

Permaculture is the ‘cutting edge of a ten thousand year-old technology,’ said co-founder of the movement Bill Mollison, his words capturing the fact that Permaculture is based on indigenous knowledge, drawn from sustainable cultures throughout history. And herein lies its quiet strength. From mass ‘greening the desert’ projects to local celebrations like next month’s London Permaculture Festival, it simmers in a multitude of guises beneath the drone of mainstream life, a hum set only to get louder.

While modern farming systems wrest food from the landscape as if fighting a war, Permaculture is about detailed, local applications of regenerative design principles. You might imagine smallholdings or urban community gardens when you hear the word – a herb spiral here, a chicken pen there – and many great Permaculture projects are on this scale.

From left: Mark Ridsdill-Smith (the vertical veg man), speaking at last year's festivalFrom left: Mark Ridsdill-Smith (the vertical veg man), speaking at last year's festival, Permaculture farm near Orgiva, Spain

But some are thrillingly ambitious. One of the best known was turned into a video which has been viewed more than 54,000 times online, an inspiring film called Greening the Desert. Well-known Permaculturalist Geoff Lawton helped design a scheme for an arid, flat, salty landscape in Jordan, lying just a few kilometres from the Dead Sea.

‘Everybody’s farming under plastic strips; everybody’s spray, spray, spray; everybody’s putting synthetic fertiliser on, overgrazing goats, just like maggots eating the flesh off the bones of the country,’ he says, in his engaging English Australian drawl, ‘so we designed up a system that would catch every drop of rainwater that fell on it.’

A system of swales [water channels] enabled the capture of water during the winter months which is then stored underground ready for the scorch of the summer. Compost ingredients were collected from nearby farms and made into mulch into which nitrogen-fixing species of tree were then planted. These sheltered the soil, provided shade and helped improve the soil. Just four months later, fig trees were bearing fruit, closely followed by mulberry, guava and pomegranate, citrus fruits too hanging heavy and abundant beneath the scorching sun.

Using just a few simple Permaculture principles, the desertification wrought upon these ten acres of land was reversed. The project became a Permaculture demonstration site and an exemplar of how farming in this once-fertile region could be revitalised.


From the deserts of Jordan to the streets of metropolitan London

London Permaculture Festival 2013. Image: London Permaculture FestivalLondon Permaculture Festival 2013. Image: London Permaculture FestivalThe London Permaculture Festival will take place on July 6 this year at Cecil Sharp House in Camden, bringing stalls, workshops and demonstrations to the heart of the capital, just a mile or two from the London Stock Exchange. Those leading the workshop embody Permaculture’s diversity. There is Su Hart, who has formed a fruitful musical partnership with the Baka people of the Cameroon rainforest. Since first visiting in 1992, she has formed a band Baka Beyond and produced two albums with these people. Hart – a beguiling performer herself and veteran of the likes of Glastonbury Festival - was drawn instinctively to the Baka’s relationship with music: a binding force in their lives. They live in the rainforest, hearing nothing but natural sounds, so learn from birth to listen acutely to the natural world around them. They cure illness and argument with song, they raise their voices to enchant animals, to bring luck in the hunt, to soothe babies and to unite the group in purpose and in joy. Hart will bring a taste of this to Camden on July 6.

There are experts in straw bale building, rocket stove construction and seed-bombing, and an introduction to aquaponics (by a man who keeps tilapia fish in his garage no less). There is a talk on ‘Permaculture in pots’ by author Juliet Kemp, and events designed for children too. Fitting to the festival’s location in Camden – home to the atmospheric, sprawling Camden Market – urban Permaculture is a focus. Mark Ridsdill-Smith, who has clocked up an impressive following as the Vertical Veg Man, will explain how to create a self-watering system. Though not strictly a Permaculture practitioner, Ridsdill-Smith embodies Permaculture’s accessibility, and the way the system is adaptable to whatever space people have. With followers around the world, he is supporting an emerging worldwide movement of people creating edible gardens in surprising places in the city.

A London PermablitzA London Permablitz. Image: London PermacultureA thriving new staple of the London Permaculture scene, and one which will be explored and explained at the festival, is the Permablitz. Permablitzes involve people coming together to create or improve a community or household edible, wildlife-friendly garden, according to the principles of Permaculture. This is learning about Permaculture and gardening as you work, building community networks, sharing good food and enjoying the feeling of coming together on something worthwhile. The concept will be explained in detail on July 6.

It seems likely that Permaculture will increasingly be called upon in the future to address the real and growing problem of food security. Localism and self-reliance, including urban farming and an increasingly inventive use of space, will become only more important as we grapple in the face of diminished natural resources, once abundant supplies bowed and beleaguered by years of abuse.

Permaculture Ras John Cresswell near Orgiva, SpainPermaculture Around the World

UK Permaculture
Australian Permaculture
Permaculture in the USA
Permaculture in India
Himalayan Permaculture
Permaculture in Latin America
Permaculture principles focus on thoughtful designs for systems which are labour efficient and which use biological resources instead of fossil fuels. Closed energy and material loops are central, but the core of the Permaculture model is that there are working relationships and connections between all things. In the natural world, fungi extract minerals from the soil and exchange them with green plants for sugars before insects pollinate plants and receive nectar in exchange. Similarly, a Permaculture system might include rabbits, caged above a fish pond containing tilapia fish. The rabbits feed the fish with their droppings, and the water is then used as a high nutrient fertiliser on plants. Both have inputs and outputs, and make use of symbiotic relationships.

So many people have already been drawn to this most comprehensive of systems, realising that Permaculture is wonderfully diverse, applicable to all people and all places, and full of energy and promise. It is poised to shape the Earth in restorative cycles for years to come – and so the years can continue to come.

See more at the London Permaculture Festival

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