Why Permaculture – The Start of a Journey

No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”
~ Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

“Tell your story before others tell it for you” ~ Anonymous


As many of other “doers”, I struggle with documenting what I do: I don’t carry a camera with me and rarely have time to sit and write about the many things I observe, learn from others or from books…this past weekend I learned a big lesson on the value of documenting: I started to see how reading, watching and listening to what others do can not only teach and lead by example but also serve as an important source of inspiration.

Image from RuneScape Game
Image from RuneScape Game

It all started with RuneScape, my oldest son favorite’s game: I don’t recall the exact conversation, but seeing my son so obsessed with building villages and farming, I asked him why he wouldn’t do it in real life.

The question doesn’t matter. What matters is his answer: “Because there is no more virgin place anymore. We have invaded and destroyed every single corner of this planet”.

We can have things in front of our noses for years, and then a single prod makes us shake. That day I set myself to read about off the grid living, I wanted to show my son there was hope, and that his dreamed lifestyle from the game was still possible.

It was not a surprise that when looking for an answer to my son’s affirmation I bought yet “another” book: Twelve by Twelve by William Powers (I’m addicted to learning and books, what some may call a “nerd/geek” personality)

The little book was written as an autobiography: Powers tells the story of the months he spent at a 12×12 cabin without running water or electricity owned by a friend (Dr Jackie Benton). Powers is an activist, writer and international aid worker who had recently came back to US and was appalled to see the increasing mismatch between the cultures he helped and his fellow Americans’ lifestyles. In the months he spent in this cabin, he managed to introduce (me, through this book) to wonders I have never heard of: Permaculture, Transition and the issues I had no idea were so real and close: biodiversity loss, resource depletion, climate change…

I don’t recall how long it took me to read that book: I devoured it. When I finished, I was not the same person. My first “action”? I converted an IKEA plastic box into my first vermicompost…

The actions that followed included changes in our use of electricity around the house, changing light bulbs and adding power cords that could be turned off without having to unplug all the equipment. I made a plan to get rid of credit card debt, stopped using hot water for washing clothes, hanged clothes o dry in a rack, stopped using the dishwasher and got rid of tons of stuff through a garage sale. I was already gardening but decided to take it to the next level and talked to my children’s school to use the some of the school space for a community garden. Started talking about peak oil at work and reading books, articles, blogs, watching videos, doing research…

I  took courses on climate change and food security at the university (until then, my courses were on psychology, sociology, education, philosophy  and human resources)…it was like a giant earthquake shaking me to the core: I finally understood how the world worked, why I felt so disconnected, and the things I had known for decades started to finally make sense: that urgency I had when I joined the scouts at age 15 and wanted nothing but live in a cabin in the woods and learn about self sufficiency (an urge every single person I knew tried to discourage in me and made me feel inadequate)

I went to protests against pipelines, joined a nascent Transition group and supported its emergence, read even more books and gave presentations…my earlier blog (“Living as if Others Really Mattered”) was born at that time and talked about the painful discovery that the life we thought was progress, the “development” we thought was unstoppable and needed by everyone not only were now impossible and had demonstrated being a lie for many, but were also impossible: the carrying capacity of the planet was simply beyond its limits and not only we were not going to have “the dream” here and now for everyone: it was impossible to continue this beyond this generation…

The Issues

I always knew “something” was wrong but as it is said, “couldn’t put a finger on it”. Working to pay rent and food, then marriage, kids, formal education and more work kept me busy for many years. I worked in so many things that I could write an entire book about it!

Due to my own upbringing, I was very aware of social justice, political and economic issues. Trauma had separated me from trying to understand them and for a while I didn’t want to dig on those issues and studied psychology and education instead. I struggled with post trauma, depression and other mental health issues for many years, always trying to find a way out and eventually giving up on medication and “therapy” as none seemed to be able to address the root causes of my pain and confusion.

I came to Canada to escape what I found as a dissociated and unwelcoming, deeply violent and corrupted society.

But then the roller-coaster started again: why would I not feel happiness and fulfillment in what it seemed as a “perfect society”?

And then I learned…

…about the original trauma: the slow but deep separation between “human beings” and “nature”, which lead to the many artificial dualities: body-soul; male-female; us-them…

…about how “hurt people hurt people”, feeding the endless cycle of pain and abuse (until someone consciously decides to stop it)

…about how the cycle of violence we started with domestication and the artificial sense of entitlement and dualism has brought us to this corner, where we are at the brink of the abyss and in overshoot…

…that the cycle of entitlement and violence has created incremental biodiversity loss, pollution, resource depletion and now climate change, on the top of social, political and economic messes that are unsustainable and irreversible…

…that “development” and “progress” have not delivered what they promised and have instead caused corruption and more violence in otherwise sustainable communities and cultures, benefitting only a few and creating more elites…

…that “sustainable development” and “green economy” are nothing but excuses to keep using the same mental models of entitlement and abuse, where the predominant language uses “I”, “me” and “mine” and speaks of “rights” but ignores “you” and “your”, especially when it relates to those same “rights”…

And I finally understood why this “progress” we have is so addictive but is so empty at the same time: why we feel so disconnected and isolated, why we look for love in the wrong places and keep hurting each other, including Nature.

I understood that this “progress” can’t continue and that we either accept and prepare for as soft of a landing as possible or we will all perish in a big and painful crash (including other species and elements of the Earth ecosystems)

I also understood humans are not inherently corrupt or bad: we just have accepted and continued the cycle of hurt, violence and entitlement taught to us by the original trauma (when we decided we could domesticate others and separate ourselves from Nature as if we were “different”).

Advanced Permaculture Certificate Program at the Elphinstone Forest
Advanced Permaculture Certificate Program at the Elphinstone Forest

Enters Permaculture

I took my first “formal” PDC in 2013. Till then, I had been exploring, reading and trying on my own but never had the money (or the opportunity) to take a few days off to fully immerse into a PDC. It was an act of “selfishness” that I will never regret, because it changed my life forever.

Permaculture showed me not only how to match the dots of the main issues I was seeing, but also how to start healing and, more importantly, how to start reversing the cycles of erosion and creating cycles of abundance and regeneration.

My view on Permaculture

Permaculture has many areas/petals (as in Holmgren’s Permaculture flower), and each of us may use different ones.

For me, Permaculture is about healing and building resilience.

Healing starts when we decide to stop the wheels of a system gone crazy: when we find the leverage points and decide (consciously and proactively) to stop feeding the pain, the corruption and the abuse we have become aware of.

Resilience starts in the centre (zone 00) and goes all the way through Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs but not necessarily in the same order: sometimes ethics (self-actualization), love and belonging and self-esteem need to come before safety, security and physiological needs…but for those beyond pain and abuse, physiological needs (food, water, shelter) and safety and security may need to be taken care first.

That’s how I can put together my everyday work as a social worker/career coach and settlement worker working with immigrants and refugees, vulnerable populations and now with people with multiple barriers (mental health, homelessness, addictions). Or my work teaching communities and individuals about food security/urban food production/soil/food preservation and disaster preparedness and first aid: all is Permaculture as long I can see and make conscious the connections to its ethics and principles.

Through Permaculture and engaged Buddhism, non-violent communication and compassion, I’ve found that working to stop the wheels of destruction and erosion while building the force to turn them into creativity, regeneration and abundance, is the only way to heal ourselves as individuals and communities…

We can choose to stay eternally stuck on blaming and complaining or start the healing by embracing others and switch the wheels of the systems we want to “fix” to the opposite direction…

Two types of choices seem to me to have been crucial in tipping the outcomes [of the various societies’ histories] towards success or failure: long-term planning and willingness to reconsider core values. On reflection we can also recognize the crucial role of these same two choices for the outcomes of our individual lives.”
~ Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

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