Alternatives to Political SystemsBiodiversityFood Plants - PerennialSeeds

Look Locally, See Globally

It’s just amazing how many of life’s lessons can be learned in the garden. It is also amazing that even though we think we have an understanding of things they don’t truly hit home until we experience them for ourselves.

I had quite a jolt last week as I searched for my bush basil. I considered myself to have a deep affiliation with the plant. It grew for me when it was dead for everyone else. I was always cutting it and giving it away or putting it into glass jars with water where it gave a clean fresh fragrance to the house, kept the flies away and sent out wonderful hairy roots that would strike every time in the garden. This year it had the most precious little mauve flowers that are as useful to it as our appendix is to us. They have given up setting seed as the plant propagates so well vegetively I had bushes everywhere. Or so I thought!

Out I went in search of a bunch for the bathroom and all I could find was unforgiving brown sticks. Then I remembered my complacency. I had not been cutting it back or planting it on and it had gone!

Can I have a new gene pool?

Being the philosopher that I am, I pondered on my situation. Quickly I reassured myself that all those gardens I had supplied in the past would restock my place. But what if I were alone like the little blue planet, then how would I get it back? I couldn’t pop next door and ask for a new genetic pool!

So the consequences of complacency, neglect and overuse hit home and I vowed that if a bush basil would flush again in my yard I would never ever take it for granted again.

The responsibility for all the species of the world then started to weigh heavily as my deep pondering continued. How could I ensure the survival of all those species? It was then that the genius of the totem became clear. No one person or group of people could be responsible for all species but a group could maintain the survival of one species as the aboriginal people knew for tens of thousands of years.

The sharing of cuttings and seeds is a way for Permaculturalists to ensure the survival of planting material within the group and our Seed Savers Network protects heritage species from all over the world.

Politicians: "Ignore the bastards"

My burden lifted, I continued to garden thinking I had experienced a very significant lesson. I wondered how many of our politicians really felt the key issues of the survival of our species and indeed our planet and how many only paid lip service to them.

I think perhaps every politician should tend a garden and I would vote for the one that had the most sustainable and productive system. A gardener learns to plan in harmony with natural forces, to use all resources and therefore learns that there need be no "waste". Gardeners have a vision for the future and the optimism to believe there is one. They learn patience and nurturing skills and they realise the consequences of their actions or their inaction. From the garden we can learn the benefits of co-operation and the effects of competition. Thinking about it, the garden is a most productive learning tool and should be a compulsory subject in schools.

I would like my elected representative to have all those skills and to demonstrate them in their decision making.

As I pondered on these points I realised how well a permaculture background would equip a local, state or federal representative. Yet Bill Mollison’s advice to the students of his second last course was to stay away from politics, more the "ignore the bastards" attitude which I seem to think was what he had advised previous courses too.

After my bush basil shock I thought about the big picture and decided that by ignoring the bastards we were perhaps allowing them to do as they pleased in a system designed to allow them to do it. And perhaps it was time to use our skills to better represent the growing forces of concern.

Permaculture Politics

Consumed by the growing seed of my new philosophical position I phoned my permaculture mate proclaiming my desire to begin my political activism, despite the warnings from Bill. Strangely PC mate had spent that very weekend with Bill who had, to everyone’s surprise, stated that "the time was now right for permaculturalists to become politically active and that we should form a Permaculture Political Party." I’m in! Like our designed systems, we just couldn’t do worse. We have the training, we got it in the garden. We aren’t afraid to get our hands dirty or to try new approaches or to use the old ones that worked. We come from all walks of life and have expertise in all fields.

And the bush basil? Well, my friend told me that it usually dies back in winter and that if I cut it back and wait until spring it will flourish once more. So I needn’t have worried after all; or did I? I had the most wonderful first hand experience of losing a species. I discovered the learn-scape in the garden and I launched myself into politics. I will always love bush basil, I think it is my totem.



  1. Hi Janet, years ago I wrote this piece which no magazine was game enough to publish. It ties in well with your search for a feeling for country and ecology. I think my totem might be the banana: not native but well acclimatised and has so many uses.

    The Ecological Significance of the Totem
    Susan-Zela Bissett (1998)

    The totem or special animal is a little-understood feature of the aboriginal lifestyle, sometimes regarded as a superstitious ban on specified foods. I will argue in this article that the practice of assigning totemic animals (or plants) represents a complex and sustaining system of alliances between humans and the natural world. If the common claim that Australia’s indigenous people lived a “sustainable” lifestyle over extremely long periods has any truth, it owes much of its success to a range of ecological strategies, one of which is the totem system.
    While differences in the type of geography, climate and vegetations required different strategies, in many parts of Australia it can be said that by the allocation of totems, major elements in the local ecosystem are provided with a human “advocate group”. Williams (2002) locates the totemic practices of the indigenous people of Guree (Fraser Island) in the sphere of active conservation:

    “This attitude of conservation was demonstrated in one of the islanders’ most stringently observed customs – the totem system. Every person was given a totem of an animal or plant. This totem represented one’s other self and so was sacrosanct – no one could eat or damage his own totem while within the bounds of tribal lands. This may have protected a wide variety of species within the tribal areas.

    Typically the group whose totem an animal or plant are restrained from eating that food except in exceptional circumstances, and expected to act in the best interests of its survival in such ways as refraining from cutting trees which may be home sites or food sources. The system works to retain balance between the tribe and its main sources of sustenance. Mollison (1988) remarks that tribes were
    limited in range by brother trees, such as the ironbark, native cherry or cider gum. The tribal ecology is the ecology of that tree.
    We have all heard the adage that traditional “owners” of country are in fact custodians and regard themselves as more “owned by” than “owning” their country. A similar attitude applies with the totemic entity. Rather than having pretensions to owning the totemic animal or plant, the person could be said to belong to the totemic species, in the sense of having special responsibilities for its well-being.
    A man of, say, the koala totem may not hunt, kill or eat the koala. In addition, he is expected to have special insight into the koala with regard to its food requirements, mating and breeding habits, and so on. Another individual, from the kangaroo totem for example, is not bound by such expectations concerning the koala, but must respect them in regard to his own totemic animal. In this way, the major elements of the local ecosystem are provided with human allies who not only refrain from harming them, but will act in their favour not just in practical ways, but also spiritually, singing their songs and performing their ceremonies.
    Given that a woman had to respect not only her own totem but also those of her mother and father, her husband and his family, the totemic system required extremely sophisticated understanding of the ecological interconnections between species. Totemic compatibility was weighted far more highly than individual preference or attraction. The senior custodians determine whether a proposed marriage is acceptable. Similarly, “law” people who have reached the highest levels of initiation, or knowledge of a particular species, may broaden its protection to prohibit hunting by all tribal members at critical times. Following their understanding of “carrying capacity” and seasonal conditions, the “law” person may place a total ban on hunting species perceived as vulnerable until conditions change, perhaps until enough rain has fallen/ or enough chicks have hatched. In this sense, we can catch a glimpse of the wisdom with which the initiated elders managed their resources, negotiating agreements not just human ends in mind. It appears they plainly saw what our leaders today do not, namely that human survival ultimately depends on those other, brother species with whom we co-exist.

    About Susan-Zela

    Susan-Zela is a third generation Australian of mixed Celtic and Asian descent. She has always felt a profound respect for indigenous cultures. She learned a little of indigenous culture from friends from Kabi, Butchulla, Waka Waka, Kamillaroi and Yuin peoples.

    Susan-Zela Bissett
    3 Carrington Avenue
    Gympie 4570
    Ph 07 54829831
    Mob 0439 130 537

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