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From the Classroom to the Cyclades


The view from Tao’s Center. It is end of April and the pastures are already
dry and barren. Only oleander and villas grow here easily.

One year has passed since my Permaculture Design Course in Melbourne, taught by Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton. At the first day of the course, I clearly remember Geoff saying to our 84-strong group that this course would change our lives. It certainly changed mine. One year later, here I am, back in my homeland, Greece, after several years of absence, fully engaged in a permaculture project in Tao’s Center, on Paros island in the Cyclades.

I had before abandoned the idea of coming back to live in Greece. I left Athens in 2003, with a feeling of disempowerment and exhaustion. A deep institutional crisis was already present, but people were lulled by a rapid and superficial modernization, combined with defiance of law and order, which tasted, misleadingly, like freedom. So, off I went to northern Europe to cash in on my skills, where “at least there are some rules”. Five years later I had learned enough about capitalism, consumerism and the western way of life, and my idealism had received another blow by old Europe, suffering an even deeper crisis.

So, what next? Asia; led there by my personal spiritual quest and by a need for a radical shift of paradigm, I found myself volunteering in East Timor, where I realized for the first time what poverty really is, later observing westerners wasting themselves in Thailand, and ending up in rural Bali following a seminar about permaculture. The dice was cast and I knew from the first day of the seminar that this was the way I wanted to live my life. Eight months later I was in a Melbourne University classroom together with Bill, Geoff and eighty people from all over the world – from China to Sweden and from New Zealand to Peru – my brain on fire, my heart all warm and open, designing swales and food forests on the blackboard and learning how to solve this earth’s problems in a garden.

What surprised me was that during the course all I could think about was Greece and how permaculture principles and design could help her get out of the mess she is in. For the first time in my life I was convinced that there are simple (yet, not easy) solutions to human problems, I felt that knowledge can be truly empowering, I was inoculated with an informed positivism and I had to bring all this back home. But how? I was not even sure I wanted to go back to the backwaters of Europe and would people want to listen to me?

You know the saying: “be careful what you wish for – you might get it”. Before I knew it Tao’s Center invited me to come to Paros and help turn their two acres to a permaculture demonstration site and also bring more environmental awareness into the daily practice of visitors and members of the Center. Enough with the theory, I would finally get my hands dirty.

So, what do we have here?

Three Israeli families came ten years ago to build a meditation center in rural (yet touristy), conservative, Christian orthodox Greece. How more improbable can it be? Choosing a spot with a stunning view, at the rocky top of a hill, between two seas, overlooking the whole Aegean. No soil, water from the grid, only thyme and brushwood was growing here, the site battered by both north and south winds. How many more challenges can a permaculturist ask for?

Paros Island is amongst many islands in the Cyclades in the Aegean Sea, one of the Mediterranean archipelagos most prone to desertification. Deforestation, overgrazing, modern agriculture and even arson with the aim to declassify the land as forested and thus gain permission to build on it, have all have been playing their role in degrading the landscape. The situation has been aggravated from modern “development” to accommodate tourists that flood the island for a short period in summer plus well-off Athenians and foreigners who have built their villas on the island. The former rural economy (not thriving but still sustainable) has given way to a largely dependent economy, based on tourism, services and construction, and it pretty much reflects the entire Greek economy. The financial crisis, creeping in for some time now, has blown up in people’s faces and exposed all the shortcomings of this immature democracy, which has a lot in common with many “third-world” countries, including corruption, graft, incompetence in management, disorganisation and opportunism.


Lavender and oregano blooming in Tao’s spring garden.

But many people have already realized that this plight grants a unique opportunity for things to change, for people to change, for mindsets to change. The economic uncertainty makes people more open to “alternative” solutions (which will soon be the only solutions) and the local rural communities like the one in Paros still have in their “DNA” the memory of self-sufficient, autonomous organization leading to resilience and sustainability, which occurred in several occasions throughout the history of this part of the Mediterranean. The way I see it, Paros is a perfect place for “Permaculture Greece” to be born.

So, what are we doing and what do we plan to do? We are starting with an effort to green the Tao’s hill. By building soil and collecting water in all possible ways: recycling wastewater, collecting and storing every drop of the rainwater, in cisterns, pools and in the soil. By establishing windbreaks and planting vegetables and spices for the Asian restaurant in already existing niches protected from wind. By experimenting with clay pot irrigation, stone mulching, use of effective microorganisms for cleaning, sewage treatment and soil improvement. By exploring ways to produce energy from wind and sun, both abundant resources in the Aegean. We also focus on social sustainability. We are networking with indigenous people, with people who chose Paros as their home out of love and admiration for this beautiful place, with the visitors and assistants of the center, but also with people throughout Greece and around the Mediterranean who are making concrete efforts to protect the fragile ecosystems of the basin – a “green ring” of like-minded people who want to make this world a better place. We are exchanging information and experience and we organize actions and events with direct beneficial impact to the environment together with local associations. We are trying to raise awareness by giving introductory talks and writing articles in the local press and on the web about permaculture, water management, soil improvement and other environmental issues. I am constantly amazed by how many people are out there trying to do the right thing; we only need to get together and unite our efforts.

I often think about what Geoff is saying about time expanding around meaningful action. I would add that meaningful action also brings a sense of empowerment and fulfillment, a sense of connection with other people and with mother earth. And it helps reduce feelings of isolation and helplessness in this challenging society we live in.

Here in Paros we have just started this wonderful journey. We don’t have a big budget but we have a lot of energy and enthusiasm and we can use as much help as we can get. After a long and dry summer we are finally moving to a cooler and hopefully wetter autumn, and work will soon start in earnest. The fun is about to begin.

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7 Comments

  1. Great story Elena. Its refreshing to see people realise how unsustainable and wasteful our lifestyle is, and making a change about it. I look forward to seeing the change on Paros.
    Having lots of stone may actually be useful. Have you tried building low stone walls in an arc, just on the south and west side of a tree?
    I do that on the north and west side because i’m in the southern hermisphere, in my garden in Melbourne where summers can get up to 45 degrees C. I use winter prunings stuck into the ground to form a thick 1 metre tall arc and supported by 3 stakes. I then let the peas run mad on them. A wall 1 metre from the trunk of the tree, I find, shields the base of the tree from sun and wind. The shade lasts all morning up till 11am, when the sun is highest, but at around 3pm the shade begins to work its magic again. I can’t see why stone won’t work either!
    All the best!

  2. Hi Elena,

    Great to hear you are practically applying your permaculture knowledge in Greece…it would seem a positive step toward healing your damaged country and ravaged economy…I wish you well!

  3. Elena, thank you for your inspiring story and the information about Greece. Would like to send you some of our abundant rainfall. There is no dry season here in North Bali this year. Take care!

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