I first got into permaculture in my late teens — being introduced to it by a friend who was also learning about it and working on an edible garden. It wasn’t a simple, house backyard garden, though, but part of a multi-cultural intentional community that was just starting out. While not an eco-community per se, this group was hard at work to commit to a more sustainable lifestyle, and gardening was encouraged and supported through various means. As a 17-year-old kid, the freedom of having full reign over gardening space was amazing and empowering. Over the course of the next three years I experimented and explored permaculture, sometimes with friends, often by myself. Even before going on to take my PDC, it became clear to me that there was much more to permaculture than the spirit and art of gardening, weeding, and designing raised beds. There is also the equally exciting and terrifying social factor.
It was an enriching and dynamic environment, with such a disparate cast it seemed like something out of a movie. It included, at intersecting points in time, three goats, seven ducks, 15 chickens, two to three dogs, a cat, and anywhere from 10 to 25 people. With all of its beauty, tempers and ideologies often clashed when concerning the gardens and animals, and what directions, tools and languages were to be used as we moved towards a greener and more aware lifestyle. Not everybody knew (or wanted to know!) about gardening and permaculture.
In my borderline-obsessive passion and energy, it seemed ridiculous that people would not cooperate with such simple instructions as ‘do not step on the plants,’ ‘do not touch,’ or ‘do not disturb’. Working alongside one of my closest friends, however, did allow for the comforts of ranting and validation, but I often felt like I was alone fighting a very big battle. Eventually I came to realize that, although adopting permaculture and all the wonderful, earthy things it implies was easy for me, that was not the case for everybody. Mass media, the powers that be, and consumerist cultures have conspired so that most people will stubbornly resist when confronted with the urgent problems of food security, getting down and working the dirt, the meat industry, recycling, etc. And rightly so, since uncovering the truths underneath the issues relevant today often necessitates extremely critical commentary on the systems we live in, the spaces we occupy, and, ultimately, ourselves.
Parallel to this exciting new way of thinking I had found, there were also the issues of living day to day, communally. In my enthusiasm, I had perhaps glossed over the fact that I was living with people who had very full, busy lives. Some had full time jobs, others were in school, or raising families. People were running from pasts and sprinting into futures, trying to forge a present out of whatever was around. There’s a can-do, ‘never say no,’ positive message associated with permaculture and the green movement that makes it easy to forget how truly difficult it can be to effect, and undergo, the famed paradigm shift required by sustainable endeavors.
What I came to realize is that this resistance to change is not at all coming from a badly intentioned place. You’ll be hard pressed to find people who, for example, would actually say they are against conserving water. There are simply a thousand factors that come into play. There’s fear of new, ‘strange’ ideas, and simply not knowing. At times, particularly when I was first starting out, I felt defensive, and superior — as if not understanding was a personal flaw of the people I lived with, and my insistence indicative of the possession of a truer truth. But at the same time, the frustration I felt was real and called for, when, for instance, I would return after a weekend’s absence to find a particular plant simply gone or damaged. It was painful. But I told so-and-so it was edible!, I’d say. I told you what it was, how to eat it, how to use it! Heck, at times it felt like persecution, but looking back, as happens with most things, I realize there was a lesson hidden there.
When I started with my solo gardening, there was a need to easily and practically inform the people I lived with of what they were looking at. What to me looked like earth brimming with baby seedlings, possibilities and shoots could as easily be seen as an empty space by somebody less informed. Many of these people were unlikely to even step into the gardens, much less try and understand them. With countless guests and volunteers arriving and leaving, without time for proper introductions, it wasn’t a strange sight to walk out to the garden and find it in disarray. Instructions given to one person were forgotten, never shared. Initiatives lost momentum. Communal interest was slow and often wavered, and miscommunication and confusion took away from the pleasure and activism of growing your own food. At some point in time somebody even killed seedlings by dumping plastic bags full of trash on top of them. At another, my beloved, flowering sunflowers (which I had been saving for seed) were cut to make arrangements for a birthday. Even the cat took a liking to lounging on the baby lettuce!
Although none of these incidents were truly malicious in their intent, they caused plenty of conflict, and I, not knowing what else to do, resorted to making signs that banned people from the garden areas (See picture at top). Angered, I fenced off beds and discouraged others from participating.
Fortunately, growth did not stop there. Eventually, we all realized that we could do more, which is always a good first step. Honest effort from the community was slow, and not always as deeply rooted as I would have hoped for, but there was more involvement and respect for our fertile spaces after some much needed, honest discussion. I, in turn, tried to steer away from going at it alone, and, as the situation relaxed, so did some of my methods. Below you find a sign for the same garden area that I made some months later.
Touch with respect
The notable change, not only in presentation, but in medium, content and color, is something that never fails to make me smile. And, although it seems kind of simple, these evolving, changing signs have become very symbolic of my own journey. I think that understanding, from a young age, that permaculture is beautifully chaotic and often (and at its best), boldly radical, has and will make me a more resilient person and designer. I believe it has made me much more capable and excitedly patient than if I had encountered no friction at all in my earliest endeavors.
I realized that pushing people away, even if my ideals seem to be considerably different from theirs, is never the ‘permacultured’ answer. I couldn’t expect them to fall in love if I was barring them from understanding what was growing there. The choice of whether to engage or not was theirs, but I had no choice: I had to be open. And although my sign-making has obviously relaxed, that is not to mean that my idea of becoming more sustainable has lost its edge or become about compromise at a loss. In painting native plants and potentials of greenness on reclaimed wood, I am not giving up my ideals of an anarchic revolution blooming up in fruit and food. It is, in a zen-like quirk, exactly the opposite.
One of permaculture’s greatest strengths is its difference, its gentle but tireless mettle. Its ability to change minds through compassion, though alternatives and possibility. Permaculture is a beautifully painted, hand-made sign in flowers, next to the authoritarian ‘Do Not Enter.’ As I now realize and embrace, it is always an invitation, and never a prohibition, no matter how hectic the logistics and practicalities get. As we collectively continue to change our ways, minds, and paradigms, I believe in a luminous future in which we’ll have understanding written into the grooves of our finger prints, and will need no signs at all.