Permaculture and Art Part 1: Using Art in Ecosystem Restoration

This week we saw the tipping-point of darkness and light start to shift; after 3 days of the sun seeming to ‘stand still’ in the sky, we now begin to move inexorably towards more or less darkness in the day, depending on which Hemisphere we live in.

As humans, we have been noting and celebrating this ‘sun-stillness’, or ‘solstice’, for thousands of years (1), though in much of modern society you may be forgiven for thinking of the stories told by our ancestors as just that, merely stories.

Yet in order to create regenerative systems to encourage healing of ecosystems, it seems of utmost importance to include not only consideration of the ecology of the land but also of the ecology of the human spirit, or our own artistic expression. Why is art important to permaculture and how are the two connected? And how can we use art as part of ‘People Care’ to create effective ecosystem regeneration?

What is ecosystem restoration?

Twenty-two years ago, film-maker and journalist John Dennis Liu was commissioned to make a documentary about the Loess Plateau in China (2). After “centuries of soil erosion” (3), the Chinese government commissioned a huge ecosystem restoration project for the Plateau, an area of China “the size of France”. Inspired by the project’s success and by the idea that humans can make a difference to regenerate the landscape, Liu founded the Environmental Education Media Project (EEMP) in 1997 (4), who are dedicated “to learning how natural Earth systems function and to freely share this knowledge with everyone on Earth” (4).

Then, last year, Liu founded the Ecosystem Restoration Camps Project (5), which aims to use the knowledge gathered by a decade of work by the EEMP, as well as utilising permaculture knowledge and practices, in “camps” around the world which are set up in areas where the ecosystem has been degraded in order to restore the balance in the local ecology.

The idea of the camps is that volunteers come and live on the land for long enough to study it and be a part of creating systems which will help to regenerate it, after which time they can move on, leaving the care of the newly regenerated landscape to the people who actually live there.

Things to consider about restoration

Having had over a decade of experience of ecosystem restoration in a number of countries around the world, Liu has probably thought about how the camps could function on a practical level. One thing to consider about this technique is the possible conflict between the people who already live in the area and the volunteers who descend upon it for the restoration process. The style of outsiders travelling to a place that they deem needs ‘help’, ‘development’ or ‘improvement’ has been well-established by the international development and protest camp movements, from Cambodia to Standing Rock, as well as being criticised by so-called ‘post-development’ writers and thinkers, who point out that if such ‘development’ work is done in an insensitive way then it may hinder more than help (see for example 6).

NGO workers, international volunteers, and campaigners may feel they have a good reason to be in a place, but if they do not consider the cultural and environmental balances at play already then they could be a cause of disruption. The fact that development is a global industry complicates things even further; for many, development work is a full-time profession and so they expect certain levels of comfort and compensation which may be in stark contrast to what the environment they find themselves in can realistically provide in a balanced way, and ignore the ‘set limits and redistribute surplus’ ethic.

Examples of this kind of behaviour abound such as in Heidi Postlewhait and Kenneth Caine’s 2004 book ‘Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures’ (7). More recently, the Greek island of Lesbos for numerous reasons gained a lot of media attention for the number of refugees arriving on the island (see for example 8). One result of this attention was that many refugee aid campaigns were started, from established NGOs and concerned individuals alike, so that the island’s population, already stretched hugely by the influx of refugees (8), swelled even more. Volunteers, though they may be in a better position than those they have come to help, need food and shelter too, and they may also have strong opinions about what they need to do which clash with other volunteers’ opinions (9). Unless resources and tasks are very carefully managed and organised, going to a place to help people might mean that you are taking away resources from them.

Then there is the matter of the worldview of the helpers. Post-development critics such as Arturo Escobar have argued that the idea of ‘development’ as it has been propagated by the United Nations and other international aid organisations represents more of an imposition of a certain way of organising society, and restrictive economic paradigms, than it represents a way of actually helping people (Escobar even goes so far as to describe this as ‘hegemony’) (6). Even well-meaning volunteers may end up having this effect if they unconsciously try to impose their cultural biases onto those they are supposedly assisting.

How to avoid development mistakes

So how can people wanting to help with ecosystem restoration avoid creating a drain on resources, a cultural bias or even a hegemonic imposition?
The factors affecting this are myriad but two seem to stand out.

Firstly, we need to remember that both ‘Earth Care’ and ‘People Care’ involve not a one-way action but a multiplicity of interactions, and it is impossible to be in a place and affect people and the environment without also being affected yourself.

Secondly, there is the factor of cultural storytelling and the possibility that one reason people who grew up in a so-called ‘Western’ culture are more likely to travel to new places and assist the people and the environment there is that we can see that our culture is somewhat lacking in a cohesive story which ties us to any one place, so we are more willing and able to roam from land to land.

To see is to be seen

To discuss the first factor further we can look to a book I have discussed many times before (see for example 10, 11), David Abram’s ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ (12). Abram points out that much of our modern reductionist thinking leads to a world-view that we are each lone units in a world which can be separated neatly into parts and is not in any way a functioning whole. However, if you consider the way that the air interacts with your skin, the way the sky affects your mood, or the way your bare feet interact with the soft earth just after a gentle rainfall, you can start to notice that the whole of the world is connected.

Abram quotes a number of phenomenologists such as Maurice Merly-Ponty who theorise that we can only perceive things if those things are also perceiving us (12). Whether or not you literally believe this is kind of irrelevant as the theory is still a useful one to help us to clearly visualise the interconnections of the world and the ‘animate landscape’, a web of interconnected intelligences rather than a passive backdrop; thus enabling us to understand our place in it and so act in a more effective way towards creating harmony and balance within and without ourselves.

Stories and restoring

The second factor is about the role of art in our lives. Mark Lakeman, the founder of the City Repair Project (13) in Portland, Oregon, USA, tells this story,

“An indigenous man once said to me, he said, ‘Ha! You think that we are the ones that’ve been hurt, you’ve taken our land and we’ve been devastated‘ and he’s like ‘Yeah it’s true we have a lot of problems but at least we know who we are, and you do not know your own story…You don’t know what brought you to this place you’re at right now, you don’t know what it is you’re looking for, you say you want to help the world but you don’t even know your own story…So until you know where you’ve come from, the story of yourself in relation to your family, you don’t know what you’re capable of or even what your challenge is‘” (14).

From this point of view, we cannot effectively restore our outer landscapes until we have done some work to restoring our inner ones. This includes recognising and validating the stories of the people who already live in the land we are trying to help, because they are the ones who have been interacting with it for most of their lives. For example, coming from temperate and Mediterranean climates to live in Thailand I was at first rather critical of the intensive management style of many gardens, farms, and parks, where nowhere is left simply to grow wild. It was only after living here for a number of months that I began to understand the speed with which a tropical climate can reclaim land for the wilderness. That is not to say that leaving spaces as wild is not important, simply that is more understandable that gardeners here want to keep it in check. Realising this difference and how it affects humans’ cultural understanding of and relationship with the natural world is an important part of my practical permaculture work in Thailand.

Reconnecting to our own stories and remembering our roots can be seen as of equal importance to learning about other perspectives. Our stories come from our culture, which for many of us is a unique one in that it incorporates many world-views and places a high value on individual freedom and expression, but is possibly lacking in a sense of the sacred and therefore sometimes can feel slightly empty. One way we can fill this emptiness is through the art we make.

Art as ecological healing

A couple of recent, Solstice-published blog posts from the Ecosystem Restoration Camps website reflect this very need to incorporate art into our ecological work (14, 15). Robin, a volunteer from the Altiplano Camp in Andalucia, Spain, describes the experience at Day Out of Time, a public dance event in Athens in which “21 dancers in public spaces throughout the city and for 16 hours …freely move responding to the surrounding stimulus, providing an embodied expression of the relationships in the environment” (15).

Many members of the public witnessing the dancers in this event “wrote them off as mad” but it helped Robin to “experience… the concept of ecology in my body” which he equates to the work of the Ecosystem Restoration Camps (15), since the camps (and the world of permaculture) recognise that the ecosystem is a connected whole, a concept which is often missing from Western thought.

Echoing Abram’s sentiment, he says,

“By embodying our personal ecology, we deepen our presence in our environmental ecology. From this practice, we are much more equipped to holistically know the systems we are a part of.” (15)

Practical steps

Though Robin focusses on dance as a practice towards ecological restoration, since embodied ecology has already been recognised and somewhat accepted as a valid means of expression in the world of dance (15), there are many ways to bring our art into our practical ecological work. In Abram’s book, he recommends many meditative techniques which focus on perception (12), while the City Repair Project and the EEMP look at ways to tell and re-tell our stories (4, 14).

The power of permaculture to help people to find ecological balance and regeneration within themselves as well as in their environment can be seen in its widespread popularity, but if it is to truly become a resilient permanent culture, then as well as spreading the techniques of permaculture maybe we also need to be basing our art and stories on it. Conversely, if we are to successfully practice permaculture and ecosystem restoration we need to first find out what our own story is, and how we want to be ‘following our own bliss’ as Joseph Campbell might say. One simple way to start is to do something to recognise some of the things which we all share as part of the human experience, like the sun and the moon and the way they change. I share some of my ideas about this here (1), but how you choose to express your own art and your connection to your ecosystem is up to you.


Ashwanden, C, 2017. ‘Down the Rabbit-Hole: Storytelling and its Healing Potential in Modern Society’. Abundance Garden, 20/6/17.

Liu, J.D, 2011. ‘Hope in a Changing Climate’. Available on Vimeo here:

Environmental Education Media Project, 2017. ‘Lessons of the Loess Plateau’.

Environmental Education Media Project, 2017. ‘About the EEMP’.

Ecosystem Restoration Camps Project, 2017. ‘Our Vision’.

Escobar, A, 1995. Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton University Press: New Jersey, USA

Postelwait, H; Thomson, A, 2004. Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story from Hell on Earth. Miramax Books: USA

Smith, H; Tran, M, 2015. ‘Lesbos ‘on verge of explosion’ as refugees crowd Greek island’. The Guardian, 7/9/15.

Karas, T, 2015. ‘Greek Island Struggles to Provide Medical Care to Refugees’. Al-Jazeera, 5/11/15.

Ashwanden, C, 2016. ‘Language and Permaculture part 1: Why we need to focus on terminology to take permaculture to the next level’. Permaculture News, 15/12/16.

Ashwanden, C, 2016. ‘A New Way to Say…’ Abundance Garden, 21/2/17.

Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage: New York City
City Repair Project, 2017. ‘Mission’.

Lakeman, M, 2007. ‘City Repair – Permaculture for Urban Spaces’. Peak Moment TV, 2007. Available on Films for Action here:

Raye, 2017. ‘Music and Restoration’. Ecosystem Restoration Camps, 21/6/17.

Robin, 2017. ‘What does Dance have to do with Restoration?’ Ecosystem Restoration Camps, 24/6/17.

Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth). Born in London, I am very interested in peace and community and have a degree in Peace Studies. I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and my Permaculture Teaching Certificate in 2018 at Aranya in India. For me, permaculture is about so much more than garden design; I am mainly interested in applying ‘human permaculture’ as a complement to peace practices. In particular, I like to look at how human permaculture can be applied through psychology, communication and education techniques. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. With my husband, I’ve travelled a lot in Europe and Asia and encountered many permaculture and community projects. I have lived in various situations, from squatted land to intentional communities, as well as more ‘normal’ places, in the UK, Spain, Italy, Thailand and Vietnam. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and sometimes run dance meditation workshops. Currently, I live in the Andalucian mountains.

One Comment

  1. Jon Rappoport goes on and on about the importance of nurturing creativity as our key pathway out of the matrix. And, when selling permaculture theories on a civic scale, as I’ve been doing this year in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, it’s the visual overview of an abundant landscape that most intrigues all onlookers. And, while I may not directly convince the banksters to abort their habitual slash-and-burn interest in land development, where the best net returns come just prior to the handrails coming unglued and the cladding catches fire, those who do get it, never forget. And all the effort is rewarded in kind.

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