Howdy y’all. My name’s Ben. I have a master’s degree in duck husbandry and domestic thermodynamics and a minor in bull manure, which is probably how I ended up on the prestigious list of presenters and learning leaders for Dancing Rabbit’s new, homegrown Permaculture Design Certification currently in progress. Now a person can read some of the several, thousand-page tomes on the subject of permaculture or attend a class such as the one being offered here at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, but don’t be surprised to discover that there’s a bunch of permaculturists around who don’t even know that they’re already doing it. Like my great Uncle Shedd who had an outhouse suspended above his hog yard. (I’m in no way endorsing this practice, just so you know.)
So, what’s my elevator pitch for permaculture? How would I describe it to someone who’s never heard this made-up word? Well, I wouldn’t call it a pyramid scheme, at least not without laying out the bait first. When others have used the term on me in the past, I’ve felt like maybe it was a secret society, like the freemasons, with a lot of arcane mumbo-jumbo about ethics, principles, and secret handshakes. Like a very well-intentioned plan for world domination, centered on designing sustainable, life supporting systems for everyone. Especially microbes.
And so, whether capital “P” Permaculture is a new-age conspiracy created by hyper-intelligent soil biota meant to sell hundred-dollar textbooks, I think humans can do a lot with the basic design principles it teaches, not just in agriculture, but in the manipulation of all material resources as well as social ones.
Scientists, activists, teachers, builders, and gardeners are making huge strides in developing technologies and techniques (or borrowing them from ancient and indigenous cultures) that can put our species on track for mitigating a carbon crisis and feed everyone on earth. And not all seven billion people on earth need to be indoctrinated. Just a few people who wield political clout could be the leverage needed to begin building a saner, more sustainable planet.
While I openly malign most experts—and the world of permaculture has lots of them—I had the opportunity a couple of years back to take a Permaculture Design Course myself. I bristled at the notion of studying to get a piece of paper saying I was qualified to do what I’d been doing for years. I rolled my eyes and snickered at some of the material from time to time. Then we got to this sort of archaic primer on land-use called P.A. Yeomans’ Scale of Permanence and I realized that while I had good ideas and sound practices on how to build a sustainable farmstead, I’d really been implementing it all wrong. With some attention to the finer details that make all the difference, like observing how the water flows on the land, or considering how fertility is distributed; I’ve been rebuilding and redesigning our project ever since.
Living in an ecovillage, I’m already familiar with the accusation of being involved in a cult (despite knowing this place is home to some of the stubbornest, most contrary individuals I’ve ever met). And I’m sure someone will prove my point by disagreeing with that. Still, permaculture even has the word “cult” hidden in it. Despite my best attempts, there’s no way I can encapsulate it in an elevator speech, or even a sentence, which is true of any religion, organized or disorganized. All I can do is point to some of the ways it has helped me to better manage resources, feed humans, animals, plants, and soils, and do less work.
Every year we are producing more animal protein on less and less commercial feed. Collecting food scraps from other villagers and casting them out to the livestock was low-hanging fruit, but now we have literal, low-hanging fruit that our livestock can harvest and consume without help from me at all.
I haven’t had to carry a bucket of water to our livestock since winter (with a few exceptions) now that I have a system of rain-fed, gravity-powered waterers. Our laying flock is consuming between two-thirds to one half less organic, laying ration now that our hens are being rotationally grazed. We’ve made significant cuts in our losses to predators by employing dogs. I hardly mow grass anymore or spread fertility. Every year we yield more and more food with less physical labor.
The other day, we harvested 155 pounds of winter squash, approximately a third of what is on the vine. Back in May, we direct-seeded an envelope or so of seed and watered it into an old hill of mulch left behind from feeding hay to the goats. It was a half hour of work and now I can eat as much squash as I’d like. The pigs are not only being raised without commercial feed, they garden for themselves dispensing fertilized seed bombs throughout the barnyard that turn into stands and patches of sorghum, squash, and tomatoes.
Still, not everything flows as well, looks as pretty, or smells as nice as the illustrated examples in the permaculture books. Hoses get clogged or sliced in half by a scythe. Gates get left open and forty adolescent chickens ransack the ripening tomatoes. Goats get their heads stuck in old barbed wire. I can feed a whole kitchen co-op on homegrown produce, but some of the meals are mediocre bordering on weird. Nobody likes or respects walking onions as better than commercial onions. I can’t find my socks and it’s getting cold. They say that when a permaculture homestead is fully functioning, the designer becomes the recliner; but that person probably doesn’t have goats, or children, or live in community. Still, I count my blessings. We have loads of squash and seven tiny little piglets. We have three livestock guardian dogs who are diligent in their work and have more intellect than some humans. We have access to food, fuel, water, and shelter, and these resources are becoming more accessible and of a smaller footprint every day.
Look folks, I’m not here to sell you permaculture; I’m here to sell you a duck. But, the reason I can even provide you with one without going into debt—financially or energy-wise—is because of some of these permaculture principles. Whether I picked them up from a book, a class, or Uncle Shedd, you can be one of us. You don’t even need to know the secret handshake.
It’s fall now. The tippy-tops of the cottonwoods have begun to turn yellow. Walking about, I crack hazelnuts with my teeth and in the early morning, I catch slow, cold grasshoppers to toss to our chickens. The dogs bark at deer emerging from the shelter of the creeks and draws. Cardinals and nuthatches have begun to leave the woods and seek seeds from the desiccated sunflower stalks in my yard. The ducks are full-feathered and plenty fat, flying about rooftop to rooftop every morning, ready to move on to their next stage of existence. The Indian Grass is in full flower. I’ve eaten about a dozen, ripe Asian pears. Autumn olive trees are festooned with scarlet berries that don’t taste very good. I’m beginning to collect, sort, and process firewood for the winter. I’m looking for some socks and some long pants that won’t fall off. If autumn is like death’s springtime, then the skein of geese I saw headed southwest yesterday is sort of like the first emerging crocus. Stock your larder and find your socks folks, it’s almost soup season. But, before we get wheelbarrow loads of turnips and a good frost, I’ll be plenty busy in many directions. I might design, but I don’t recline.
Want to see what it’s like living in an ecovillage where permaculture is applied? Come visit us this year to get a glimpse into how we live and how you can incorporate these practices into your own life. There is only one Sustainable Living Visitor Program session left happening in October. Come join us!