Health & Disease

Permaculture and Healing — Part 3

What is community healing?

In parts 1 (1) and 2 (2) of this article, we looked at the potential detrimental effects on humans and the environment of modern non-holistic medical healthcare systems, and explored some ways to transcend these systems by engaging in self-empowerment and taking responsibility for our own individual healing. I hope you have found the suggestions helpful. In this part, the penultimate in the series, we will widen our lens from focussing on self-healing to take in healing of our communities as well, and some ideas of how to begin engaging in this. This article draws together many ideas which I have written about in previous articles, and if you are interested in exploring further you are welcome to check these out too by looking at the ‘references’ section.

The myth of self-sufficiency

In permaculture design, we can recognise that there are some systems which we do not wish to be a part of, and design new systems which we feel more comfortable engaging in. A common example is the recognition of industrialised chemical-intensive monoculture farming. There are many ways to step around this, such as choosing organically-grown food or growing our own food. In the same way, we can recognise that there are many aspects of non-holistic healthcare systems that we do not wish to engage in, and choose to step away from these by taking responsibility for own healing, researching medicinal plants or engaging in healing techniques.

Taking these steps towards self-reliance can be very empowering. Even if all you have grown in your garden is a papaya tree, when you eat the fruit of that tree it can be a marvellously liberating experience. Similarly, if you previously always went to the doctor for antibiotics when you had an infection, and then one day discover that you can heal yourself with ginger tea instead, it can aid a lot with self-confidence and so quite possibly promote overall health.

Yet we are still engaging in other people’s systems all the time. Even if we become fully-accomplished gardeners or self-healers, which, to do properly, will probably take many years, we probably still also want more of a variety of food, care or medicine than that which we can produce within our own personal system. As many permaculture practitioners (see for example 3), have pointed out, self-sufficiency, though perhaps a nice provisional goal to encourage lack of dependence on any one system, is a very impractical and almost impossible to achieve state for humans to engage in.

Can we live together as community?

We are social creatures, and though we often engage in actions which encourage separation or estrangement, the permaculture perspective can help us to transcend these lines and view all of our human and non-human world as part of one holistic ecosystem. As I wrote about in ‘Permaculture as a Tool for Peace’ (4), there are a number of practitioners of Peace Studies already working towards achieving this goal, and it may be helpful for social permaculture practitioners to begin working more closely with those in this field.

As well as those actively engaged in encouraging human co-operation and peace, there are many who do so through imagination, which is no less powerful. For example, a lot of science fiction explores the concepts of peaceful living through stories of humans interacting with other species, or other humans from different planets. Such ideas can be a great help in our quest to understand each other (see for example 5, 6).

Sometimes changing our language is the first step towards changing our actions and behaviours, and so the offerings of new words given by such authors can be of great help. Some examples which have helped me are Ursula K LeGuin’s ‘Hainish Cycle’ series (7) and Orson Scott Card’s ‘Ender Saga’ (8), in which we hear an ‘alien’ forest-dweller coming to terms with human peaceful concepts:

“The tribe is whatever we believe it is. If we say the tribe is all the Little Ones in the forest, and all the trees, then that is what the tribe is. Even though [we] came from warriors of two different tribes, fallen in battle. We become one tribe because we say we’re one tribe. (9)”

Not self-sufficient but …tribe-sufficient

At our best, we can thrive and learn and make ourselves great through the thriving, learning and greatness of all those of our human and non-human tribe. Therefore, along with any design of our own individual holistic health systems, it can be seen as of vital importance to also include re-design or re-engagement with those of our ‘tribe’; however we define such a term.

In order to achieve these aims, it may be helpful to have a look at what exactly is healthy and how we can heal each other. Much of the wisdom of permaculture is based on practical activities of traditional human communities as studied by Bill Mollison, David Holmgren and others (see for example 10). So in order to use the lens of permaculture to see how we can engage in community healing, we can begin by using the ‘Observe and Interact’ principle by taking a brief look at what the historical role of the healer has been in our various human tribes throughout history.

Traditional medicine and its roots

I have already touched upon the similarities between many traditional medical views of the world and that of permaculture, such as the idea that in order to be healthy, we need to view our physical, mental and emotional selves as part of one holistic ‘ecosystem’; just like when utilising permaculture design within a physical landscape.

There are many forms of traditional medicine in the world which are being practised today, some of which are also supported by national governments, but most of them have been revived in recent decades following a period of disregard (see for example 11, 12).

In terms of continuing a holistic medical tradition which has remained more or less unbroken since the beginning of its development, the main societally-condoned holistic medical systems in the world seem to be those practised in China and India. Ayurveda or ‘Life Science’ of India’ and Traditional Chinese Medicine, now formalised as ‘TCM’ by the Chinese government, form part of long traditions which were recorded using written language between 5000 and 500 years ago (13, 14). These sciences incorporate many sources of knowledge and views of the world and the human body which have since been rejected by modern Western medical science, leading to a lack of holistic wisdom in the latter. Yet even these traditional forms of medicine were developed after the rise of agriculture became prevalent in their respective societies, and along with the skills of literacy (13).

Why words and wheat?

Why is this important? Some would say that the development of written language was one marker of our disconnection from the natural world (14). This can also be argued with the development of agriculture, in particular large-scale grain agriculture, which seems to have happened in tandem with the development of literature in many ancient societies, which may or may not be a coincidence.

As pointed out by Toby Hemenway (15), Joseph Campbell (5) and others, once humans discovered ways to propagate grains on a large scale it fundamentally changed our relationship to the wilderness around us. Previously, we had lived in harmony with the forests, the mountains and the plains; but growing grains demanded that we disregard the ecosystem already present in an area in order to have enough space to grow all the grains we needed.

This is rather a circular argument, as the reason so much space was needed for the fields was in order to feed all of the people who were necesssary to tend the fields; and because, in the destruction of the surrounding ecosystem, other sources of food were destroyed, thus rendering our ancestors dependent on the agriculture which had replaced it. Thus our ancestors began basing their society, customs and diet not on the ecosystems within which they were growing, but on their own human-made systems, and so began to withdraw from a sense of connection to the other plants and animals present in their world (14, 15, 16).

Similarly, or perhaps in tandem with this, the rise of written and particularly phonetic language can be seen to have enhanced our disconnection to the natural world (14). Phonetic language is language based on a system of rules which have no meaning beyond the actual sounds and forms of the words and letters themselves, so once our ancestors began using phonetic and written language they can be seen to have cut themselves even more from the natural elements and creatures with whom they previously shared a much closer communication (14).

Pre-linguistic roots

Through this narrative, we can begin to see that it may be helpful to view human history as having experienced a fundamental shift with the rise of agriculture and literacy. Such a shift enabled our ancestors to develop abstract concepts and ideas, and to gather in greater numbers and travel greater distances than ever before, as well as many other achievements. However, it also enabled an artificial abstraction of ourselves as humans from the rest of the natural world, and so perhaps is one source of our current willingness to engage in wilful acts of destruction of the natural world. Even if we know on a theoretical level that we are in some way connected to the air, the rivers and the trees, we no longer feel it. As David Abram would put it, our senses themselves are under a spell; the alluring hypnosis of phonetic language and all it represents (14).

Therefore it seems that if we are to truly engage in healing ourselves and our world, we need to look – if only briefly – to more ancient cultures for inspiration.

David Abram, who lived with a number of different traditional tribes in order to learn about their healers, in Indonesia and Nepal among other places, describes his revelation that the traditional medicine-man or woman, though from an outside perspective could be seen as practising medicine as their primary function in the tribe, did not consider this their main role. Indeed, the definition of a medicine-man or woman, though described with a different word in every tribe, can more accurately be said to be that of a mixture of healer, ecologist, magician and priest. In English the closest term we have to encompass these roles is ‘shaman’ a word which comes originally from the Tungus tribe of modern Siberia (17) but which has come to mean all kinds of different traditional practices all over the world. Even this word seems to require explanation however. Abram describes,

“The traditional or tribal shaman…acts as an intermediary between the human community and the larger ecological field, ensuring that there is an appropriate flow of nourishment, not just from the landscape to the human inhabitants, but from the human community back to the local earth.” (14)

This role, then, was one of intense communion with the wilderness, as well as intimate knowledge of the physical and psychological health of the individuals within the tribe and of the tribe as a whole. The health of the former is seen as inextricably linked with that of the latter. The “shaman”:

“…is the exemplary voyager in the intermediate realm between the human and the more-than-human worlds, the primary strategist and negotiator in any dealings with the Others. And it is only as a result of [this, that they are] able to alleviate many individual illnesses that arise within that community.” (14)

So, if the ecological relationship between the humans of the tribe and the natural or ‘more-than-human’ world beyond and surrounding them becomes unbalanced, it is impossible for individual healing to take place as the health of the individual is seen to depend upon the health of the environment.

How is this relevant to our lives now?

Now we have explored a little of the meaning of the role of healer, we can see that in pre-historical (i.e. pre-literate and agricultural) societies, a ‘healer’ was someone who encouraged not only physical, emotional and spiritual health of the humans in their community, but also ensured that the ecological relationship of that community was in balance with that of the natural world around it.

Can this definition of healing be translated to our lives now?

One thing to be aware of when drawing inspiration from ancient peoples is that although we can absolutely use what wisdom we feel is appropriate, we need to adapt this wisdom to whatever situation we find ourselves in at the present moment. David Abram was exploring the possible detrimental effects of phonetic language; but he was doing it in a written book, using English – that is to say, just because we can recognise some negative consequences of using a tool, it does not mean that we need to disregard the tool itself (for more on this you can see my article here 18).

We all have healing tools

One thing which our ability to read, write and use abstract concepts has given us is a very powerful control over our own imaginations. In this way, we can all be defined as being very powerful healers in a much stronger way than traditional so-called “shamans”;

“The development of intentional inner vision took a long time in traditional societies, because it wasn’t reinforced by the whole society. Exceptional people like poets, storytellers, and shamans seemed to be using magic when they evoked waking visions in the minds of listeners to their tales, legends, and inner experiences.” (19) (for more on this see my article 20)

Although it seems important to recall our healing roots, it is of equal importance to adapt such wisdom as we can learn to our own unique present experiences. Perhaps we do not have a modern equivalent of a “shaman”. But it seems that perhaps the closest thing we have right now – people whose work comprises a mixture of ecology, storytelling, holistic awareness, and health – is permaculture practitioners. In the next and final part of this article I will look at some ways of utilising permaculture as a practical tool for healing within our own human and more-than-human communities.


  1. Ashwanden, C, 2019. ‘Permaculture and Healing part 1: Looking at Healthcare Through the Lens of Permaculture’. Permaculture News, 01/06/19. – retrieved 14/06/19
  2. Ashwanden, C, 2019. ‘Permaculture and Healing part 2: Connecting with Inner and Outer Ecosystems for Health’. Permaculture News, 13/06/19. – retrieved 14/06/19
  3. Morrow, R, 2010. Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture. Permanent Publications: Petersfield, UK.
  4. Ashwanden, C, 2017. ‘Permaculture and Community part 1: Permaculture as a Tool for Peace’. Permaculture News, 2/11/17. – retrieved 14/06/19
  5. Campbell, J, 1959. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Griffin: New York City, USA.
  6. Ashwanden, C, 2017. ‘Storytelling for the Future: Permaculture, Star Wars and Mythology’. Permaculture News, 4/5/17. – retrieved 14/06/19
  7. Good Reads, 2019. ‘Hainish Cycle Series’. – retrieved 14/06/19
  8. Good Reads, 2019. ‘Ender Saga’. – retrieved 14/06/19
  9. Card, O.S, 1986. Speaker for the Dead. Tor: New York City, USA.
  10. Mollison, B; Holmgren, D, 1988 (1997). Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, USA.
  11. Azaizeh et al, 2010. ‘Traditional Arabic and Islamic Medicine, A Re-Emerging Health Aid’. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2010 Dec; 7(4): 419–424. Published online 2008 Jun 13. – retrieved 14/06/19
  12. Salguero, C. P, 2007. Traditional Thai Medicine: Buddhism, Animism, Ayurveda. Hohm Press: Chino Valley, USA.
  13. Gowans, S, 2004. Ayurveda for Health and Well-being. Jaico: Mumbai, India.
  14. Huang, T, 2015. Food As Medicine. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform: Scotts Valley, USA.
  15. Abram, D, 1997. The Spell of the Sensuous: Language and Perception in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage: New York City, USA.
  16. Ashwanden, C, 2019. ‘Balance in Healing, part 1’. Abundance Garden, 22/1/19. – retrieved 14/06/19
  17. Laufer, B, 1917. Origin of the Word Shaman. American Anthropologist, 19(3), new series, 361-371. Retrieved from
  18. Ashwanden, 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. – retrieved 14/06/19
  19. King, S, 1990. Urban Shaman: A Handbook for Personal and Planetary Transformation Based on the Hawaiian Way of the Adventurer. Simon & Schuster: New York City, USA.
  20. Ashwanden, C, 2017. ‘Down the Rabbit-Hole: Storytellig and its potential in modern society’. Abundance Garden, 20/6/17. – retrieved 14/06/19

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. Regular readers and “Friday Five” subscribers need take note of Geoff’s current outward plea for crowd source financial assistance.

    Though my 24/7 position as a caretaker provides me little more than free room and board I am compelled to invest more energy; pointing out that understanding these principles implies acceptance of and executing certain responsibilities, whether by posting ‘show-n-tell’ videos, teaching, writing or simply broadcasting the importance of implementing simple regenerative gardening practices. As we are quite literally all in this together we need to think bigger, expressing these issues worldwide.

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