Art in Permaculture, Permaculture in Art

On being creative with no waste and no pollution

Art is part of our lives. I’ve been writing since I was 12 years old, starting with a sappy love poem for a 6th grade girlfriend and blossoming into whatever it is I do now. Whether or not others want to call that informational rather than creative, writing still gives me an outlet to speak about what matters to me, expand my horizons, and express my emotion. I play music as well, and sing. I build things.

Emma hasn’t had it as simply. She is a visual artist, primarily a painter. But, the deeper we’ve moved into the practicality of permaculture, the further she’s moved from her fine art roots. She’s hit serious obstacles, unwilling to pollute with oils, acrylics, and cleansers to produce something else for the portfolio. She’s fretted about where it all goes and what to then do with a painting, a dozen paintings, more. She’s worried about creating trash, in the actual physical sense of the word, with her art. She’s worried about the pollution.

It was eye-opening during our course with Geoff Lawton to hear a permaculture perspective of art, a look at art—song, chant, painting, tattoos—that were a form of personal expression, community connections, and educational transference. Long before the course, my writing had moved to being largely about permaculture and sustainable thinking. It was an easy switch and a sensible transition. Because Emma both feels truly invested in our permaculture lifestyle and, at the same time, irrepressibly moved to make physical art, her journey has taken more roundabout routes.

Lately, I’ve been really excited about, even somewhat envious of, what she’s been doing.


Wood Carvings

When we moved to our current home, a log cabin in North Carolina, we often admired the carvings that one of our neighbours had done. They were these amazing wizard faces carved into posts, onto logs, and upon various other wooden surfaces. They were expressive and impressive. They seemed something that would take a lifetime of rocking chair whittling to accomplish.

Then, one day, I got home from my gardening job and noticed Emma had cut a small piece of a newly fallen branch, something maybe an inch or two (3-5 cm) in diameter and a few inches (10-15 cm) long. We sat for a snack together, and I came in to work on a writing assignment. About an hour later, she called for me to come and see. She’d carved a wizard’s face into the branch. With a Swiss Army pocket knife. Over the next couple of days, she did a couple more.

Now, the practicality of carved wizard faces may be up for debate, particularly when we don’t have any spiritual affiliations, but here’s what was notable. She got to be creative. She didn’t create any waste. The basics of the new craft were simple—she literally made the thing in less than an hour—but also showed plenty of room for development: adding details, increasing size, playing with shapes of wood, etc.

People, of course, loved the carvings, but for Emma, she loved that, when the time came, they could be tossed into the forest to decompose like any other piece of wood. They are 100% natural, and no chemicals are necessary for clean up. Plus, they are multi-functional: a fulfilling hobby, home and garden decoration, a reason to monitor the forest (looking for good selections of carving wood), and eco-friendly gifts to give when those times roll around.



A week or few after the carvings took place, something she’d more or less mastered by the third go-round, I walked outside one morning to find her hunched over our campfire pit with a glass jar and a wad of clay. She had an empty spice container in one hand and the clay in the other, and she was rubbing the open mouth of the container in little circles over the hunk of earth, shaping it into a sphere.

Dorodango, polished Japanese clay balls, apparently are becoming a popular craft, and YouTube had tracked her craft-happy videos in order to recommend one on dorodango. Emma couldn’t resist. She laboured meditatively—one of the points of the exercise—over her first dorodango, creating a nearly perfect sphere with which she was unsatisfied because she’d not filtered the clay enough. There were little stones popping through.

Emma left the formed and polished dorodango on the table over the weekend, and it dried into shimmery triumph. She was excited, so much so that she began reshaping it, working it over again. She sat in the chair, calm and focused and driven with the project. The art form was filling the creative void for her. It was producing a beautiful object. It produced no waste and was completely natural. It provided her with peace and something artistically fulfilling to do.

Dumpster dive table and benches.


I’ve long been into rustic carpentry with repurposed wood, but in the United States, access to interesting pieces of lumber has been tremendously different than when we lived in Central America. What people throw away here is astounding. Not only have pallets become an easy staple, but we’ve now taken down a shed and two homes in order to repurpose the lumber. I’ve gone dumpster diving at construction sites and come out with enough salvageable wood to build a six-foot (two metre) table and benches.

Emma has begun to dabble as well. It started with a small end table. Then, she built a box seat for a bucket composting toilet. She recently made a screen door and went the whole nine yards with decorative corners and flashes. She has immediately shown a patience for the extras that I still lack. Since we are about to build a wooden cabin for a home, that’s going to come in handy. She’ll have attention to visual details that would likely not occur to me.

Carpentry projects are on the upcoming list.

Herb spiral.

Gardens, Fences, and More

One of the things both Emma and I have long been inspired to do is create beautiful garden spaces. Of course, we like to think of the functional elements, assessing sites and choosing appropriate species for circumstances. We like to zone spaces logically and plant biodiverse gardens that are stunning in and of themselves. But, we also like to take the extra stretch to make those spaces more than raw production, particularly when we spend so much time in them.

We’ve created lots of different borders for raised beds: logs and stones for sure, but also woven sticks, rooted tree cuttings, lines of stumps, floating berms, and hügelkultur. We’ve played with edges and tessellated patterns between beds and paths. We’ve mixed vertical gardening into the square footage, constructing appealing trellises and aspirational awnings. We’ve built herb spirals, compost bins, and cob pizza ovens with toppings growing alongside them.

The point is that our gardens and structures, however practically they may originate, often end with twists of inspiration and flair. We like function, but we also like pretty things. We like projects. And our life, inadvertently, even though we’ve come to expect it, becomes our artwork. Our gardens are places we play, spaces where we are both most at ease and freest to tap into our imaginations, melding the knowledge we gain through study and research with the yearning to devote ourselves creatively to the things we do.

Emma’s sense of whimsy and patience to explore that whimsy sometimes befuddles me, but that’s more an artistic choice. There are times I rewrite a sentence multiple times, agonising over a word or phrase, and I can only explain why by the fact that each sentence matters to me, each word does. For her, each visual undertaking matters, and it matters enough to revise and revise until she’s satisfied. It’s not unlike the evolution of permaculture designs, from expectation of feedback to willingness to adjust.

Art in permaculture is easy to find, and Emma is surely finding ways to put permaculture into her artistic pursuits. She still occasionally paints, but she’s adapted to buying secondhand materials and creating things that people ask for. She’s worked extensively making signs, and she’s currently illustrating pictures for a children’s book. And, of course, in terms of pen to paper permaculture designs, she’s totally in her element: designs are practical on the page but easy on the eyes.

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.

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