Remembering Bill Mollison, the Man I Never Knew

I first encountered Bill Mollison in Nicaragua through Permaculture One, without even really stopping to notice his name, setting aside that book in order to read something from another friend I’ve never met, John Seymour, whose book The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency: The Class Guide of Realists and Dreamers captured me for the next month (It is also a fantastic book). By the time I’d finished it that December, I was leaving Totoco Farm and its library on Ometepe Island, and I wouldn’t cross paths with Bill again until March.

But, his term “permaculture” continually came up during those interim months, and I even managed to do my first permaculture project, so to speak, building a banana circle in Panama. I knew what I was doing had reached me through the permaculture movement, in particular from Finca Los Perezosos, “the lazy farmer”, but I didn’t yet know how much the movement would come to be part of my future and the name, Bill Mollison, a person of unique standing. I would later see videos of him describing the type of circle I’d built.

Jagannath K The Natural Farmer – Tropics #6 Banana Circles

I finally took notice of Bill and permaculture properly while working on a farm in Colombia, La Juanita Finca Verde, just outside of Bogota. It was the first farm I’d visited actually using full-on permaculture as its guidelines, and for the month I was there, I voraciously read the books there, one of which was Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. By the end of that month, I was sold on the idea, and I began learning, practicing, sharing, and designing as much as I could. And, when Bill Mollison’s name was attached to something, I gave it due attention.

After that trip to Colombia, I returned to Panama, where my wife Emma and I had been hired to look after a 2-acre property on Lake Gatun for the next six months. The owners wanted organic gardens, and they’d given us a loose leash on what we could do to about half the property. There’s was no doubt that we were going to build a food forest. We become true devotees to living low impact, building soil, creating guilds, working toward eco-systemic garden development, and creating cyclical, waste-free environments. I—up until then, a travel writer—even managed to place of few articles with PRI’s Permaculture News.

We found a few great online videos of Bill Mollison during that time: which we showed to all of the volunteers that came through to help us, and a rather shabby version of the documentary In Grave Danger of Falling Food. We watched it all again and again, becoming more and more excited about the possibilities of permaculture. We learned about new techniques—swales, hugelkultur, sheet mulching, herb spirals—and played at making every new thing we could. In six months in Panama, we had cultivated over 75 different edible plants and had essentially built the early stages of a food jungle on half the property. The owners loved it.

Bill Mollison inevitably became a name I repeated again and again, starting each explanation of permaculture with a brief summary of where it began. He was and is the father. To him, anyone who has come to enjoy the practice, owes a great deal of gratitude, and the beautiful thing is that, despite a gruffness that endeared him to me but begrudged him to some, he was happy to have had so many great students and students of students who will continue on with permaculture. Like the systems he was teaching us to design, his idea evolved organically into one that was diverse enough to endure and reach a maturity that he could have never predicted.

After Panama, we also took off in new directions, became familiar with many other names common and famous within the realms of permaculture: David Holmgren (whom I had not noticed early on because I’d not read that Permaculture One book), Geoff Lawton (whom I was so proud to be very loosely attached to via PRI), Masanobu Fukuoka and The One-Straw Revolution, Toby Hemenway and Gaia’s Garden, and ultimately Graham Burnett and Spiralseed. Emma and I are vegans, something big Bill would have grimaced at, but with which Burnett offered some specific guidance.

We began to seek out permaculture in all forms and under whatever name. We introduced everybody we met to the practice, the names and techniques, the websites and videos, the thought of the reality of a different way of living. We, after nearly a decade of traveling as English teachers, decided we were ready to (jokingly) retire, become perennial gardeners, and live the type of life we’d been reading about. Bill Mollison’s concept, permaculture, had touched us so deeply that there seemed nothing left to do but find away to adapt our lives to being something greater, those of permaculturalists.

In Grave Danger of Falling Food

To Bill Mollison, in all his fury, his cranky charisma, I am indebted for what I hope to be a very fulfilling future, a life steeped in doing good for the planet and those around me, in finding happiness in a technologically simpler but ample means of existence, one that puts me in better control of my own surroundings, that inspires creativity and craftiness, one that helps me build a paradise to enjoy and share and with which to exist in harmony, one that I’d hope Bill would be proud to have inspired.

A belated thanks, Mr. Mollison, for having the gall to see what needed to be done and going after it with the gusto of a man meaning to make a difference. You have for me; you have for many.

Feature Photo: Chatting with Bill Mollison (Courtesy of Nicolás Boullosa)

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

One Comment

  1. Have you taken the permaculture design course yet? If so, you know all you need to know to design a main frame and get started. If not, take Geoff Lawtons online course and get certified. He ties it all together. Good luck with your continuing in permaculture.

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