I was 18 in 1998 when I went to Sasha Scatter’s permaculture workshop at the Spurkraft diy/punk warehouse in Portland, Oregon. I was deeply moved by his thorough and heart-felt words. I remember he spoke about how the industrial agricultural system grows our food in nutrient depleted soil, how by laying down cardboard, dead leaves, and other organic matter you can mimic the recycling of nutrients on the forest floor and accelerate succession. He also mentioned how they have to spray vitamins onto Cheery-Os because processed food is so devoid of nutritional value. He explained how by working with, rather than against natural systems you could create ever more productive and fertile soil and crops.
That day we started to do some prep work for installing a permaculture garden but for some reason I don’t’ think the project ever came to fruition either due to soil contamination, land lord issues, or typical punk inefficacy. If I had a time machine I would go back to that day and take my guitar away until my teenage self spent as much time learning and mastering permaculture design as I did learning solos.
Over several of the following years I had numerous opportunities to help my more green thumbed friends in their backyard gardens, but I was never that psyched on it. It just seemed to yield so little and take so much time and effort. It wasn’t “my thing” really either. I’d rather be shredding on the guitar or being politically active in what appeared on the surface to be more agitational/confrontational ways.
Later when I was actually in close proximity to a fully functional permaculture project, I was virtually blind to it because the ideological camp I was in was such a manarchist macho insurrectionist-wanna-be revolutionary vanguard it scoffed at permaculture as yet another form of tame, soft, reformist, life-style anarchism. Tragically and foolishly, we sneered and snickered, thinking we knew everything and were better than everyone.
I know now that what the eco-feminists (including my own dear ex-lover) said about us was absolutely right.
I had little if any sacred connection to Mother Earth.
Just as women’s work is devalued in the dominant patriarchal society, feminized work in revolutionary movements is all too often invisible and inglorious. Gardening is for all sexes and genders and all must cultivate creative, nurturing, intuitive feminine energy within to succeed in cultivating the crops needed to feed the revolutionary war effort.
I wanted to play GI-Joe revolutionary and generally lacked the emotional intelligence, sensuousness, and patience to have authentic relationships with plants and animals. I had an inflamed ego and intellect and spent most of my time in hot winded debates in college, collective meetings, at the bar, and in street protests.
There were good and pure hearts involved in that scene, but that heart energy was misdirected and poisoned by corrupt male egos. There were some backyard gardeners among us, but we were all still living mostly off the industrial system’s food supply chain, even if a lot of it was eco-friendly, organic, vegan, and locally produced. We were still paying money for it, and would have starved to death within in a few weeks if the system we so passionately wanted to fall would have even stumbled.
It wasn’t until about 2003, 5 years after my first exposure to permaculture, that I came to a point in my political/ecological thinking that I realized that even if I don’t have a green thumb, and I’d rather be acting out my masculine revolutionary hero fantasy in mythic street battles, there was an inherent paradox. If I’m fighting to bring down the system, yet I’m completely dependent on it and it’s dumpsters for every aspect of my survival, then to bring down the system would inescapably mean bringing myself down as well. This sprouting thought continued to take root in my mind and soon the implications were too powerful to ignore.
I imagined a little comic strip that showed all different types of intellectual ideological windbags who shout out their theses and pound down their fists at the bar or podium, being held accountable to the source of caloric energy that was financing their cause, campaign, or career. What if in order to criticize the system you had to produce the caloric energy used for your rants? What if you could only bash the system with food energy you grew yourself or bartered directly from your local organic farmers? There would be great silence on the left.
On a more serious note, a synchronistic set of events unfolded that forced me to trip out really hard on the future of punk. I was watching a good friend’s diy Mad Max style video production where he and some friends chased each other around in motorized scooters with classic punkified/tribalistic armor and portrayed primal, bestial, feral mortal combat.
Something hit me hard and I realized, wait a minute, the future is real, it does exist wherever it exists and it’s determined completely by our actions now. That seems obvious but that means that we are directly responsible for it. Since most of us are caught up in our own ego-based life-dramas, we rarely pause to apply what I like to call fourth-dimensional psychology and imagine how our actions today will shape the future of our own punk progeny. At some point in the evolution of punk, our descendents will be surviving in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s not just a sci-fi film genre, or a religious cult phenomenon, or just a great theme to write brutal music for. No it’s real and it’s out there, how close we don’t know exactly but by all measures it’s getting closer and closer.
So that begs the question, what will that world look like for punks? My college background in human ecology made me realize that I needed to let go of my anxiousness to be in the revolution, and spend more time seriously thinking about how life would look for the punks that survive catastrophe.
Would there be overflowing dumpsters? Would there be government hand-outs? Would there be people to spange from? Would there be corporate markets to shop-lift from? Would any of the once proud and dignified survival strategies of first-world scavengers hold up post-shift-hit-the-fan, or would we be the first to go? I had to get honest about it and take a long cold hard look at my relationship to food production.
Fast forward to today and I’ve initiated and/or participated in numerous urban garden projects and co-founded a non-profit punk oriented community gardening/eco-arts and education institute. It’s a humble, struggling, microscopic phenomenon, but it’s a big part of my world, and has since 2005 had a meaningful effect on people’s lives and thus the future. In short, I’ve decided to prioritize community self-sufficiency as a matter of political primacy.
Now back to permaculture. Without knowing it, I’d been practicing permaculture by definition because I’d been attempting to design permanent cultural and agricultural systems. But like in so many other areas of my life, I lacked the time and/or funds to pursue formal training.
Thanks to the podcast medium I’ve been able to not skip a beat and multi-task at high speeds while dosing myself with countless hours of free education. Since 2008, thanks to Jack Spirko of The Survival Podcast, I finally started to know what I’d been missing. I had the why, but not the how. I knew that we needed to go local, go organic, and do it diy but I just saw it as organic gardening, or organic community gardening. I did not understand permaculture until I heard it passionately ranted about on The Survival Podcast.
The first real Earth-shaking, eye-opening, jaw dropping, ah-ha/duh moment was when I first heard the magical term “FOOD FOREST”. Immediately I envisioned the board game Candyland, and then the Ginger Bread House came to mind. A colorful fairy tale children’s book visual emerged as I began to understand the concept. Agro-forestry, edible forest gardening, food forests, layered gardening, whatever you want to call it. What matters most is establishing the visual in your mind.
Please pause, take a deep breath, and after reading this paragraph close your eyes and visualize the following in your mind’s eye. You’re walking through a meadow and approaching a thick woodland. You start to look for a clear point of entry so you can find your way through the forest but there is not one break in a seemingly endless barricade of weedy plants, vines, and shrubs forming a vertically stepped wall of impenetrable vegetation climbing and stacking all the way up to the lower and upper canopies.
Okay now open your eyes. Take another deep breath, read this paragraph, close your eyes and visualize again. As you get closer to this matted tangled mess of greenery, you begin to notice something odd. There’s a strip of land where all the trees bear edible fruits and nuts, all the vines are covered in pods, the bushes are dotted with colorful berries, what looked like weeds are all herbs and vegetables, the grass has been replaced by creeping edible flowers, and ground is riddled with root crops.
Now open your eyes. You’ve just visualized a seven layer food forest. A human designed landscape that takes one of the most biologically productive natural terrestrial eco-systems, a forest edge, and plugs in variables comprised of edible, medicinal, and otherwise desirable/beneficial crops. The result is a fully self-hydrating, self-fertilizing, self-sustaining, artificially enhanced natural environment that produces a yield density/diversity exponentially greater than any typical backyard garden bed or mass scale industrial agricultural field.
This form of bio-mimicry is just one of many gems the permaculture design movement has been establishing and promoting throughout the world for the last few decades. Of course it’s nothing new really; most subsistence horticultural societies in the world with any intact land rights have been practicing and perfecting these techniques for thousands of years. Permaculture just adds dimensions of western science, engineering, and systems theory. It is a synthesis of the best of both the ancient and modern worlds.
It’s also an open source technology that anyone can use and contribute to under certain minimal ethical and commercial guidelines. I think of it like Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do. It’s not a closed, rigid, fixed martial arts system. It’s the opposite; it’s constantly growing, evolving, and integrating the experiences of new practitioners. However, not just anyone should go out claiming they’re a master and start charging people for lessons. There are formally recognized institutions and lineages of Bruce Lee’s students that maintain the integrity of the core concepts, curriculum, etc.
Permaculture is, I believe, the only real bridge the human population has to reintegrate itself sustainably into planetary ecology. The degree to which we establish permaculture designed landscapes now will determine the degree and duration of famine, disease, cannibalism, and mass death to be suffered if/when the global industrial system collapses.
I can’t go really deep into the concepts, mechanics, etc. in this short column, I just want to introduce it to those who haven’t be exposed, or who like me, have had a vague awareness of it but lack a solid understanding of how it’s vastly different then simply gardening. The food forest visual is the most powerful and enlightening promotional tool, but again it’s just one aspect. A core principle that ties all permaculture theory and practice together is the idea of minimizing input and maximizing output or yield.
When designing systems to provide your own abundant and regenerative food, fiber, fuel, potable water, medicine, shelter, heating/cooling, etc. you have to determine the financial, energetic, and material costs of installing and maintaining the system(s) and be sure that your yields provide an exponential return of investment over time.
Now I know why typical organic veggie gardening used to seem like such a chore. It felt almost symbolic to put in so much effort and just have a few crops that only last a couple months, only supplement store-bought meals and only for a few people at most.
But by planting a diverse array of annual and perennial crops, time stacking, using bacteria, fungi, worms, fish, chickens, and more to enhance and accelerate composting and produce protein, catching rainwater, sculpting the landscape to capture and retain moisture, etc. the yields go up over time and the inputs needed go down. In a few years, if done right, permaculture systems (like natural eco-systems) can mature to the point of near-complete self-management and essentially the only work to do is harvest.
One of the most elegant and beautiful aspects is the scalability of permaculture design. Once you grasp the concepts of layers (planting crops to maximize vertical space) and zones (the horizontal distribution of the elements, living and non-living, in your system relative to your dwelling or most trafficked area), you can build systems in window sills, apartment balconies, roof tops, backyards, front yards, vacant lots, fields, farms, mountain tops, deserts, etc.
I hope this gives you a gentle nudge to look further into permaculture. I recommend spending a couple hours watching a few of the videos that come up in a search for permaculture on google video. My favorites are those by either Starhawk, Geoff Lawton, or David Holmgren, but there are thousands to choose from. Also check out www.PermaculturePodcast.org for a punk rooted online radio show where you can learn much more for free. Another cool site is www.PunkRockPermaculture.com.
I know to be punk is to hate work, either for the man or for the land, but that doesn’t mean we have to be lazy and perpetually useless and helpless. Punk and permaculture go hand-in-hand: work less and party more by creating a natural habit to let the tribe increase. And as a result of ever-increasing independence and autonomy be able to, as permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison said, “fight the bastards” with the Earth as our greatest ally.