This was just one more reminder to look beyond the details and not to become a pompous permaculturist.
I remember looking at Hainan on a world map at my parents house in Roseburg, Oregon in the U.S.A. and wondering what it’d be like to go there. I did the same with Taiwan, and I suppose I do get some sort of boyish satisfaction out of saying "I’ve been there!" As much as I enjoyed being in Hainan, I wish I could say the same about the farming experience.
The most surprising thing about this particular farm was how little work we actually did. It’s hard to recall what we did. We moved stones to a "soon-to-be" fish pond that will probably be finished in the far distant future rather than in the not-so-distant. This hits on another annoyance: having land but no vision. Being somewhat of a modern day landless serf with a bachelor’s degree, I’ve noticed I become frustrated with people who have land but don’t know what to do with it. Owning your own property allows you an opportunity to exhibit what living sustainably looks like. I quickly realized we weren’t going to be there to help with much. Our hosts seem to treat it like a bed and breakfast, which would be fine if I weren’t writing a blog about sustainability. It seems they were happy hosting us and only having us work no more than an hour a day. I was looking forward to working hard in hopes of learning some skills.
Granted, the farm is partly powered by solar and biogas with plenty of fruit trees surrounding the house so I will give them credit where it is due. However, it didn’t seem like there was clear overall strategy for the farm. It could have been a reflection of our host’s personality, slightly disorganized and clumsy. He has the best of intentions but my frustration lies in the fact that he treats sustainability like a hobby rather than an idea to promote to save us from extinction. He had solar panels but the system was so small that it could only power lighting. The biogas digester is functioning and connected to their septic system but only provides half of their cooking gas needs due to such little input. They save money by these techniques but not much. Any progress should be congratulated but I feel that with a little more work and modification they could power their entire home on solar power.
Although, I definitely had minor problems and complaints about the farm, it was great to really get an idea of what it’d be like to live on a farm (sustainable or not). A lot of their diet is based on vegetables and fruit they grow. For instance, because it was jackfruit season we ate jackfruit for almost every meal. I am a huge proponent of growing one’s own food but diversity is key. Living on a farm can be somewhat dull as well. I am a pretty social person and when I don’t have interaction with different people each day, I start to notice. By the time we reached Haikou I was ready for a sandwich, a beer and a friendly chat with fellow travelers.
At the time of writing the piece above, I was clearly upset because I had expectations that were not met. If it weren’t for my best friend and editor informing me that I sounded like a pretentious prick, then I fear I would have carried on, posted this article and not learned from this experience. Thank goodness for friends.
I gave it another read and then another because to my surprise, she was right. I do sound like a jerk above and a judgmental one at that. Permaculture projects are as unique as the designers that implement them. It is absurd to evaluate on a universal scale.
I’ve talked to many older farmers I’ve met traveling who lament about young permaculture ‘fanatics’ that criticize these farmers for not having a chicken tractor, swales or arbitrary measurement of whether it is truly permaculture or not.
The truth of the matter is that we cannot get lost in the details. Rob Hopkins, one of the founders of the Transition Network, has a great story of people visiting Totnes, the first Transition Town. As its fame started to raise about its transition, more folks showed up to see it for themselves. That’s when he noticed the questions. People asked Hopkins all sorts of things as to why all buildings were not covered in solar PV or why were the cars still using petrol. A German visitor complained, "The houses don’t have green roofs and there are no goats eating grass on the roofs!"
The problem here is that our own expectations get the better of us. In a quest to satiate our passion for a more sustainable future we can become quite critical of each other. I am certainly no different.
Instead of criticizing my host’s property for treating sustainability like a hobby, I should have been praising him for doing something that no one else is doing 100km around him. He’s setting up a sustainable example of living to the surrounding community and that should be commended. I feel ashamed for saying that he had no vision. He does! How else could he have accomplished so much (solar, biogas, fruit orchard and vegetable garden) with no vision? Just because there are many projects that are unfinished and by their sheer size take longer to complete, does it mean that he doesn’t have a vision?
The farm did not meet my expectations and that is my fault because I had too many of them. I suppose a way of looking at it is seeing a permaculture farm for the first time is like a meeting a stranger. You cannot judge a book by its cover just like you can’t judge a farm on whether it has a chicken tractor or not. We must look at the principles the farmer is guided by, his vision and most importantly, do so with no grand expectations.