Book Review – Rosemary Morrow’s Journey

Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere – on water and land
~ Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Last weekend (November 8, 2015) I started a new Permaculture Path: an advanced Permaculture certificate through Gaia Craft that, along with the Diploma mentorship, documents the readings, reflections, projects, learnings, challenges and successes we have as we deepen in our Permaculture journey.

My commitment is to document every project and reading that have the potential to teach or inspire others…enjoy!

Photo : Vacio Cielo
Photo : Vacio Cielo

This week I read a small book called “A demanding and uncertain adventure” based on a series of lectures called the “James Backhouse lectures” organizers by Quakers in Australia.

The book represents the transcript of the lecture Rosemary Morrow did in 2009/2010. For those of you new to her, Rosemary is one Permaculture pioneer, considered the “grandmother” of Permaculture as she embraced it early in the 80’s and after she was already a successful humanitarian aid worker and agriculturist.

Anyone considering humanitarian/aid work under Permaculture, anyone considering herself a visionary/missionary would benefit from reading her words: the book is short and can be read in two days.

The writing is simple and relates to her journey from her early love of Nature and Earth to her decision to study agriculture and sociology/anthropology and how she started her journey with “People Care” even before Permaculture was created: in 1973, she joined the little community of L’Arche where Jean Vanier was starting a community to allow intellectually disabled individuals to live a normal life (at a time where people with disabilities were locked away in mental hospitals and given painful and aggressive treatments)

Her search for a spiritual answer to the many things she was witnessing led her to embrace Quakerism. As a Quaker and thanks to her studies, she travelled the world offering support to different impoverished communities, many of which were suffering the consequences of war, social and political injustices and even environmental destruction of their local ecosystems, impacting not only their health, their water and food supply, but also their livelihoods.

“I was blind” she tells us about her missionary work in Lesotho: “my extensive education was useless and I was not equipped to see, much less to solve, the problems of hunger and thirst”

Reading this and her transformative journey that made her transition from “expert” to observer, from “agriculturist/sociologist” to permaculturist and from Quaker to embracing a religion of the Cosmos/Earth was for me like being taken by the hand of an amazing big sister or wise friend, somebody who has already walked the path and is sharing similar uncertainties, doubts and pain coloured by an unstoppable hope and faith that there are thousands of things to be done….

Rosemary talks about her concern (a concern, among Quakers, is “A deeply-felt and Divinely inspired sense of personal responsibility to do something about a situation or problem or need”

She says: “I found that a concern evolves, stretches and changes us”…”the concern was multi-faceted and I had much to do to realise it”…anybody dealing with the call of living an ethical life (not the unexamined, laissez-faire and “happy” lives we are told we are entitled to live in the Western, middle and upper class world of post-industrial culture) knows of this evolution, stretch and change and how we go back-and-forth, sometimes falling deep into the dark abyss of despair, or as Rosemary calls it: “A spiritual Darkness”:

We have forgotten who we are.

We have alienated ourselves from the unfolding of the cosmos.

We have become estranged from the movements of the earth

We have turned our backs to the cycles of life.

We have forgotten who we are.”

~ UN Environmental Sabbath Program (as quotes by Rosemary Morrow in her book, pg. 43)

“Development”, Rosemary says, “a worldwide industry carried out by NGO’s, grew out of 18th century missionary work from the days when people of different cultures and history were seen as needy, uncivilised or primitive. Today it refers to a fuzzy concept called poverty.”

She continues:

“The drive to develop derives from attitudes that other cultures should:

  • live European lifestyles
  • become globalized and speak English
  • join the growth economy, mainly through credit
  • buy our goods
  • govern themselves as we do
  • run their health and education systems as we do
  • sell us their raw materials cheaply”

“The ideas” , continues Rosemary on the expressed above, “can be terrifyingly destructive. There has been ‘development’ for more than 100 years and some recipient countries are poorer today than before.”

While the world is much more complicated than this, I like the simplicity with which she summarizes what we call “colonization” and “oppression”, driven by capitalism and the mental model of entitlement and progress that believes we are the chosen species, separated from Nature (and all other species) and that we have followed an evolutionary path were hunters and gatherers and early horticulturists, nomads and Nature-peoples are somewhat inferior than the (superior and better) European/American worldview and lifestyle (these ideas are mine and not necessarily express Rosemary’s)

Photo : Norma Jean: Real Skewed Vision
Photo : Norma Jean: Real Skewed Vision

I was touched to the core by Rosemary’s words on chapter 9 “Spiritual Darkness” where she shares Peter Singer view of humans as responsible for the mess we are in and the already set in place Sixth Major Mass Extinction and the opposite view from Arne Naess and John Seed, who express that humans are only one more species who failed to adapt and would not be different from other species who in the past drove MME events (Major Mass Extinctions).

Rosemary shares both views (as she states)and writes: “I grieve when thinking others may never have the opportunity to experience life, nor humans have the chance to reach their potential.” (pg. 44)

And she quotes:

” How can we wait the many a weary year

Before rock of pride and cruel hate,

Into fruitful earth disintegrate.” (Sonnet VII by Kenneth Boulding quoted by Rosemary Morrow)

She then shares how she witnessed not only the permaculture and humanitarian projects being implemented, but also how individuals and entire communities go corrupt, take advantage and become selfish…”I saw all this and then with sadness fatigue I began to lose faith”  she writes…

Being as she is a visionary, deeply hopeful and caring soul, Rosemary courageously emerges from this abyss of despair and shares:

” And I found none of the religions could offer and understanding and worldview that made sense of what I had known until I found cosmology which presented me with an extremely long world view, wonder at evolution confirming that life is the one real miracle, and a spirituality for all times and places.

Cosmology traces the scientific history of Earth from its origins through the evolving complexity including the human development. In cosmology I found solace and learned that destruction and chaos have been part of all evolution and usually contain the seeds of future stability and richness. I let go of my small time perspective and took an evolutionary one. Cosmology also shows that change can come from anywhere, not necessarily where human minds think it will. I decided that being part of the solution was my task.” (pg. 47)

Come to the edge, he said.

We are afraid, they said.

Come to the edge, he said.

They came to the edge.

He pushed them…and they flew.

~ Guillaume Apollinaire

Photo : Norma Jean: Real Skewed Vision
Photo : Norma Jean: Real Skewed Vision

Chapter 10 (“Slowing the descent: living adventurously” starts: “And now we are dancing on the peaks of oil, fresh water, soil, biodiversity, global warming, population, consumption and food. Any one of these can collapse and take the others with it, along with whole societies and ecosystems. Too much momentum and destruction have gathered now so we probably cannot stop a collapse but we can make it slower and less catastrophic.”

She proposes:

  • Model different ways of living (transforming our behaviour and thinking). “It isn’t easy but this is really the only option”
  • Observe our behaviour (see what is happening in our minds, then adapt thoughts, practices, ethics and even deeply held beliefs: “species and ecosystems survive when they observe (notice) change and then adapt. Those who don’t adapt become extinct.”
  • Adapt-in-place and localise our lives
  • Change behaviour:” Live as if there is little food, no coal, oil or town water.” She says “I find that faith often follows action. Psychology has given us the powerful knowledge that changing behaviour changes the habitual thinking patterns of the mind. It is also my experience from teaching permaculture than when people practice new behaviours then fresh attitudes emerge.” (bold is mine)
  • Embrace a psychology of possibility and she proposes:

* Studying what might be, rather than a describing what is

* freeing ourselves from constricting mindsets

* recognising the difference between what we can control and what we cannot

* asking ourselves ‘how can we do it?’ rather than ‘can we do it?'”


  • Live community: only collectively can we build resilience and restore Earth.
  • Train ourselves: “learn negotiation and mediation skills to cope with potential conflicts over storage of resources.” she recommends…”It is probable that lack of these skills might finally determine how well we shift to a low energy and resource future.”

She closes:

“This calls for radical witness. Are we willing to do it?”

One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”
~ André Gide

I love books: they are doors to other people’s souls. Through books, I have found love, friendship, sister and brother-hoods…

Closing this book, I feel less alone in my journey.

Thanks Rosemary, and Delvin for showing me her book.

The greatest thing in this world is not so much where we stand as in what direction we are moving.”
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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