I believe in the power of a good cry. Three years ago, I read a book called Eaarth by environmentalist Bill McKibben and it changed my life. Few things have had such a profoundly lasting effect on me, and I dealt with coming to terms with his depressing statistics and threatening realities through cycles of anger, dread, denial and hope. Interspersed with fits of crying, of course. For a long time I felt weighed down by his insights and powerless that his suggestions for changing the world could actually do so… What effect can one person really make by biking to the grocery store and using a reusable bag?! I can see the parking lot full of cars and the stacks on stacks of plastic bags ready to be used! Also, I cannot afford even one solar panel, dude.
One day in the middle of a good cry, I got sick of crying and being pessimistic and turned all that worry into just accepting our environmental situation as it is. Fuck, it is a really big situation. Everywhere you look the world is crumbling: we fight wars for oil and frack with chemicals to feed our greed, we do not have enough resources to sustain our overpopulated world, an estimated 200 species go extinct every day, resistant bacteria will sabotoge our advanced health care systems, fucking Monsanto and agribusiness… But I am not going to talk about what has happened and how we got here–that is an endless spiral that leaves one feeling defeated, isolated and pointing fingers. I found that once I accepted everything as it was I was truly able to see where I fit into the equation and what I could do. So I am going to talk about a more optimistic option that lifts one up, inspires and connects: Permaculture!
I have spent the last ten days in a small Mayan village immersed in a Permaculture Course with Atitlan Organics that completely blew my mind and revved up my soul. I would encourage anyone even slightly interested in growing their own food to take such a course, or just flood their brains with information from Bill Mollison, Geoff Lawton, Penny Livinston Stark, and other phenomenal permaculturists. There is sooo much information out there on the internet and in your community!
Before starting this course, I was only generally acquainted with the 12 Permaculture Principles and more familiar with other homesteading practices and sustainable living techniques. These are the small movements and efforts that I believe in, that make me feel optimistic and empowered and inspired. Indeed, this is part of the reason I came to Guatemala: to actually put all these principles, practices and techniques into action! Mission accomplished! As expected, my peers and I learned all about the principles and ethics, water, soil, seeds, plants, zones, sectors, land contour and the design process. We got dirty and sweaty and sunburnt, built swales and played with mud, transplanted herbs to start a medicinal herb garden, thanked plants, goats and chickens for their bounty. It was a magical week full of hopeful ideas, sore backs and happy, healthy bellys!
Amongst all the expected learning and dirt were the unexpected tidbits of knowledge, the gems of truth that leave you wide-eyed, shocked, or having an intense “AHA!” moment. Yes, everything is connected! The following are five such examples of things I did not expect to learn from/about permaculture:
1) Nothing is good and nothing is bad. The way the news tells its stories, everything is always either good or bad. We settle for this point of view and accept what we believe. Cows are bad, their methane and antibiotic poop is heating up the planet and ruining soil! Organic food is good! GMOs are bad! This week, I learned to look beyond this scale and to challenge politically charged issues such as these from an objective point of view. Cows themselves are not bad, the way that we have designed them to produce for us could be done in a better way. Organic food bought in plastic bags is really not the best conscious solution; the government owns, markets and profits off of this label in a devious way, there are no ethics here anymore. Are GMOs really unnatural if we have made them and we are natural? Through discussion, we also learned that all observations are valid. Observations themselves are neither good nor bad. They are reflective of the situation and our task is to make the situation better, to improve what we have! We were also challenged to try to use the word “fruitful” in place of good and “sterile” in place of bad. It was really difficult, but once I started to be mindful of how often I use the words good and bad, I also became mindful of the way I allowed these words to skew my preconceived beliefs. It was really neat to see this connection and then set it aside to objectively view an issue! Try it!
2) We know all of this stuff already, we just need to remember. This isn´t even hippie nonsense, this is truth. I mean, we are made of the same elements as nature, as everything. We cannot survive without her nutrients. Before there were iPhones telling us the weather and the time and what to do, Mother Earth told us everything we needed to know. We would watch her and track seasons to understand how to prepare for rain and heat, we would watch the sun to tell time, we would observe how animals behaved so we could trap them for food. We know how nature works because we are nature. We are just disconnected from her and confused about the roles.
“We are nature, working!” is one of my favorite definitions of permaculture. It implies that we are not separate from her. She gives to us, so we need to give back to her. We spent a lot of time this week just sitting in nature and watching how she worked, observing how water flowed through the land or paths insects would take. We were instructed to tap into our intuition and feel how nature was living without jumping to conclusions. Why do certain plants choose to grow beside others? What purpose can a banana tree that stores water serve to the greater ecosystem? When you start to tap into and think about how each component of nature is serving a purpose on many different levels, lightbulbs start going off! The whole idea behind permaculture is to harmoniously integrate ourselves into the landscape in order to provide resources for all living things: for yourself, your neighbor, and back into the Earth. We can do that by mimicing her, by enhancing how she designs ecosystems to maximize a space and a yield for all! It makes sense, right? It blows me away how simple it is! We cannot outsmart Mother Nature, so why would we try? Why wouldn´t we just join foces with her and learn from her? She´s been doing this for a lot longer than we have…
3) Permaculture is a framework for decision making. Literally, the twelve principles of permaculture can be applied to anything, not just the garden system. Any decision or plan that you need to make in your life can be broken down and worked through with the help of these steps. Objectively apply some or all of the steps to guide you to a solution. They are so simple and actually practical! Click on them to learn more!
4) A huge cultural limit to yield is ignorance. We talked a lot about limits to yield, as the third permaculture principle is “Obtain a Yield.” Obviously, in the garden system you want to get as much bounty as possible from your plants, but sometimes that just isn´t the case. Even if the garden produces a small harvest, the creativitiy, inspiration and knowledge that is generated is a yield. Perhaps you have inspired someone to grow their own food or get a chicken! Perhaps you know what you will do differently next time to prevent any limits to the yield! This feedback system is positive and encouraging. But here is an interesting example of the converse: Right now we have clean, breathable air. Even in exhaust central of the world (in my opinion) Coban, Guatemala, the air is breathable without the need of a mask. But the lungs of our planet are becoming diminished by deforestation. Will we have to provide air for our suvival at some point in the future? I had seriously never thought about that being a possibility before. This is a huge yield we do not know how to create or obtain and we take for granted every breath of clean air! Woah. This situation poses a direct threat to our lives, yet we are ignorant about these facts possibly becoming a reality with the path we are on. Lots of awesome discussions (and hopefully possible solutions) can be generated from ideas about cultural yields and their limits.
5) Most permaculture effors fail because of people care. The ethics of permaculture is a simple list that crosses over religions, cultures, regions, etc. They are: 1) Earth Care, 2) People Care, 3) Fair Share. I touched on the ethics of Fair Share in the second point, about how we need to give to everyone, including the Earth so that she may regenerate and give to future generations. This includes both the sharing of physical things like tools and harvest, and the sharing of abstract things like ideas and knowledge. This runs into the ethics of People Care… We are in this together. This is our one planet to preserve and live with and we are sharing it with 7 billion people. It is our job to spread empowerment, respect, and love to ourselves, family, friends, employees, and our community! By treating people like they are people, with no judgement and an understanding that this is what it means to be human, we can mend the separation we live among. We can make fruitful decisions together!
When we become passionate about things we truly believe in, we want to get everyone to believe it too. Tread lightly here, be conscious that everyone is coming from so many different paths and backgrounds. My instructor says that if you want people to change, stop “should-ing” on them. And it´s entirely true! Think about a time someone told you that you should do something differently. Immediately, you create an aversion to that suggestion, especially if it goes against something you strongly believe or have ingrained in you, and you will most likely not do it. In fact, you might do the opposite! More often than not, if there was any potential to change, it is now gone. The same thing applies to yourself, too. When you “should” on yourself, you create a pool of guilt or regret and these things are detrimental to any sort of progress or change. Instead of telling yourself you shouldn´t have eaten that whole piece of cake, take a moment to sit and observe (the magical word of the week!) how you are feeling and reflect on what can be done next time. Be willing to self-forgive and move on! I believe that through forgiveness we learn how to accept and through acceptance we learn to let judgements go. With no judgements there is no separation and we can start to connect, build, learn, grow as one.
On that note, go give someone a hug and practice people care today! And if you are feeling especially ambitious, I challenge you to spend 5 or 10 minutes sitting quietly in nature and observing how she works, from the pattern to the details.
Much love! ❤