Permaculture and Community

This is the first in an ongoing series of articles that I’ve written in our town’s alternative paper, the Madison County Crier. The series is intended to be an introduction to permaculture, often illustrated by examples taken from our homestead. When possible I’ve also made it a point to link in to the potential for a permacultural approach to town and community life as well as the prospects for easing our town’s transition into this new future we have before us.

In May 2008 I made a decision to take hold of a long held dream and grow it into reality: a permaculture homestead. Now, I suspect that many folk have not heard the term permaculture so I plan to get to that in just a bit. First, let me say that I spent most of my childhood summers visiting my grandparents who lived on a bit of land with a small lake just a few miles north of town. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that some of the best childhood memories are those days of fishing with dad or grandpa. Little did I know that catching and cleaning fish for food would one day be more than just a fun weekend treat, but a part of a deliberate effort to “live off the land.”

After graduating high school I went off to college and then moved to Memphis, Tennessee. In those years I was rarely able to visit my grandparents and the lake except the odd summer weekend and holidays. The memories of my adventures in the woods and around the lake remained and the fondness I’d developed for the natural world during those early years had greatly affected my outlook on life. In my years in Memphis I was an avid gardener of organic vegetables and native wildflowers. I helped create a housing cooperative where residents not only grew some of their food but also taught workshops to neighbors who were interested in gardening. We installed wood burning stoves and systems to collect rain water and gray water for use in the garden. We reached into our community and helped to set up a food co-op, bicycle co-op, and media co-op.

After 12 years I left Memphis because I wanted to reconnect with my family and, as it turns out, the landscape of my childhood. It is now official that the U.S. has been in a recession for the past year but most folks don’t need an official declaration to know that times are getting very difficult. We’re even beginning to hear predictions of another great depression. It is times such as these that living in community is most important. I’ve long felt that community life is the foundation of democracy and liberty. It is in community relationships that we act as citizens to govern ourselves and aid one another.

This brings me back to permaculture. Permaculture, a phrase created by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, means permanent agriculture or permanent culture. It is a system of designing and maintaining food producing ecosystems which are stable and resilient. What makes permaculture different from common small scale gardening is the careful arrangement of diverse groupings of plants using no till methods and heavy mulching so that energy input is greatly reduced even as productivity is increased. More than that, permaculture is not just about food. People also need shelter and energy so permaculture design considers these needs as well. Energy flows such as sunlight and rainwater are harvested by the buildings and the landscape. The efficiency of permaculture designs makes life easier even as it saves us money and reduces our negative impact on the environment.

On our permaculture homestead we are using methods that are sustainable and which produce a surplus beyond our needs so that we can help feed others in the community. Anyone, in town or in country, can use the same principles and techniques of permaculture design to become more self-reliant and, by doing so, increase the food security of our region. Whatever our future may bring, growing some of our own food can only be a good thing.

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