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Beyond Chores: Permaculture as an evolving system

I’ve never particularly liked doing chores. Growing up I did, as many children do, my best to avoid any and all chores. There is something about the nature of a chore that grinds at me. A chore tends to be something we have to do in order to keep a system functioning, whatever that system may be. I fully appreciate the importance of performing regular tasks to ensure that the basics of life are taken care of. From washing to cleaning, chores are a function of every day life and absolutely necessary. The only alternative to doing these tasks is to live in a perpetual, and increasing, mess which is not a very pleasant way to live in my mind.

When it comes to permaculture systems, those chores are extended significantly into our other zones. We have animals that need taking care of, gardens that need weeding, mulching and harvesting, food forests that require maintenance, composts that need turning, and so on. A functioning and thriving permaculture system is made up of a myriad of these small, regular tasks. Without these daily interactions our system will eventually collapse and revert to whatever nature has in mind for the succession of our land. Permaculture in some ways is an imposition, it is an intention to use the energy of nature and funnel it in a direction that is suitable and desirable for our ongoing habitation as humans. A swale, for example, takes water across a landscape in a way that allows us to plant passively watered food forests. This is an imposition on the landscape, yet it is not a harmful one. Actually the benefits to nature are extended through the allowance of water to saturate the soil. Left alone, though, the plant selection will progress to one that is perhaps not so desirable to us and so we must work to channel natures urges in a direction that suits our ongoing, and long-term non-damaging, survival as a species.

Chores then are these tasks that allow a system to continue moving in the direction we wish. Permaculture, however, is an evolving system. From the book ‘Permaculture One’ (Mollison & Holmgren, 1982) “although stability has been stated as a characteristic of permaculture, this is only relative to more traditional agricultural ecologies. Evolutionary change is the essence of the support species. [For example] a permaculture forest may achieve maturity in 200 years…”
From this definition we can consider that our systems are evolving. Where we start, even where we aim to be in 5 or 10 or 20 years is not and end-point. I suggest that this evolutionary process is actually an important and necessary feature of designing permaculture systems, and creating human-centric ecosystems well into the future. To encompass an ideology of evolving is to consider the world through an alternate lens.

From this perspective I find myself approaching chores in a much different manner. There is often a tendency to do things a certain way simply because that is the way they have always been done. Our daily chores may occur in such a manner. We go about our morning routine fulfilling one task after the other until all the boxes are checked off and we can get on with the ‘real’ work. I suggest, instead, that the daily chores themselves are the real work. We have a possibility to view our regular tasks from this perspective of evolution. We can throw away the thought that we have to do them a certain way because that was the way they were done before, and instead we can approach our daily work with observation and curiosity. We can discover new, and potentially more efficient, ways of maintaining our systems. We can explore new interactions and as a result we can consciously participate in the evolution of our this wonderful system from the micro to the macro.

Currently I am an intern at Permaculture Research Institute headquarters on Zaytuna farm in Australia. I have been here for two months now and it has been a rich, educational and occasionally challenging experience. I have gone from a theoretical permaculturalist (where I explored the ideas in my head yet had little experience in practice) to experiencing first hand the what permaculture is actually like in practice. When I arrived on this farm, with several other interns, it had been largely driven by WWOOFers with a few regular staff. Many of the tasks were laid out as set chores, done and taught by rote. I fully understand the necessity of such a structure when workers are short-term and numbers consistently fluctuate. However things have changed, evolved if you will, with the arrival of us as interns. A dedicated, keen and eager group of young people willing to give 1-2 years of our time to diving in deep to the practical world of permaculture. As a result the interactions on the farm have been morphing, changing and evolving as we discover our own strengths and explore through observation, discussion and questioning. Many chores that were once done a certain way have evolved in sophistication. For example, for the past month I have been managing all the animal systems. In this time I have managed to cut supplemental feed by around 50% by increasing animal interaction with other areas of the farm and feeding from fodder sources. Water usage has also been reduced significantly through an evolution of our cleaning practices. These are just two brief examples of the many that we, as a group, have been working on in our own growth and understanding. It’s easy to see when we have evolved a system as one of several things occurs. Either the amount of work will be reduced, the amount of cost will be reduced, or the productivity will go up.

Through ongoing willingness to be open, receptive and experimental with change we have the ability to participate directly with evolution both within a permaculture system and with the very nature of permaculture as a science itself. I don’t think there are any limits to how far we can possibly go.

Here’s to making chores meaningful experiences for many beautiful, abundant filled years.

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