Penrhos Home PagePenrhos home page site mapSite Map resourcesResources


Written for Green Line Magazine. 15th. April 91.

Chris Dixon



Permaculture, basic service and paradigm shifts.

A consequence of self-consciousness is the separation of reality or experience into opposites. We could speculate that this reflects the apparent separation of self-conscious from unconscious. Oppositions that are particularly relavent here are wilderness\agriculture and chaos\order.

In cultures where this separation out of self- consciousness seems complete and final, as in much of the westernised world, we could characterise the resulting state of mind or atitude as, much simplifeid, "This is me in here and everything else out there is not me". Armed with this state of mind it is possible to exploit, murder and rape without feeling as though you are damaging yourself.

In terms of land use, wilderness, like the unconscious and chaos, attracted, (and still attracts), negative values. When white settlers looked on the wilderness in which the American Indians lived and moved and had their very being, they could only see a waste of land. To them, land needed to be ordered to be productive and agriculture was the ordering process.

Changes are taking place in attitudes to wilderness. Its getting easier to see that the natural world, rather than being a chaotic jungle, is a fantastically interconnected and ordered system. its just a bit complex for us.

We can now begin to look at agriculture as an extreme simplification of wilderness. Everything is stripped out to leave space for the required plant or animal. What is not yet so acceptable, despite being obvious when you think about it, is the fact that this also represents an enomormous reduction in yield.

When the African rainforests were first felled and replaced with beef cattle, its estimated that in terms of meat alone, production fell to one sixtieth of its former forest levels. When the other forest products that were also lost are considered such as food, fodder, medecines, dyes, fabrics, fuel, building materials, etc. and the additional costs of imposing and maintaining the agricultural order are taken into account such as time, machinery, fuel, chemicals etc. it becomes clear that agriculture is far less productive than wilderness. And this is without even considering intrinsic yields of wilderness such as soil conditioning, carbon dioxide absorption, water retention, beauty, life, climatic stabilisation etc. etc.

I spent six years on my own land watching the process of natural regeneration, from field to forest. I was generally boggled by it; the way different species just appeared, how gorse expands with a rim of herbs and trees just grow straight up through it. I did practically nothing on this patch, just various forms of harvesting, (such as gorse for fodder, bracken for potash, blackberries, raspberries, seedlings for other areas etc.). I added a few plants like soft fruit and herbs and watched this self-generating, self-sustaining environment grow up around me. Without really knowing it, I was beginning to put agriculture, (in terms of yield), and wilderness back together.

I went on my first permaculture course just a year ago and it crystalised the whole process. Among other things I was suddenly aware that there are people all over the world who have been working along similar lines, many of them very successfully. This was encouraging. I also discovered that the concepts I had been vaguely grappling with had already been formalised, that is, made communicable, largely by Bill Mollison who coined the word permaculture to suggest a natural evolution from agriculture. This is how he defines it;

"Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. Without permanent agriculture there is no possibility of a stable social order."

The real emphasis here is on the generation of yield through conscious design. This means that, using natural wilderness as the source for our patterns, we can arrange plants and animals in mutually beneficial arrays from which we can gather most of our needs. By the careful selection of species, these systems, like natural systems, (eg. forests), can be self- fertilising, self-perpetuating, self-watering, self- mulching, self-weed suppressing, self-pollinating, self-healing, highly resistant to pests and diseases and require very little energy input other than harvesting at various levels. The most interesting early example in this country is probably Robert Hart's Forest Garden in Shropshire.

In permaculture, conscious design is strongest where attention is easiest to give, so you begin from your back door. Moving further out, conscious design becomes less and less obvious until it blurs into wilderness or natural design in the places where people rarely or never go.

This obviously presupposes that you have something other than a road outside your back or front door. However, permaculture can be applied at any scale and is being practised in roof gardens and city farms. There is also tremendous scope for developing permacultures on so called wastelands within cities or on the acres of mown land, (ie energy sinks), both private and public.

There's no attempt to generate self-sufficient, isolated units with people working like slaves all day. On the contrary, using simple permaculture strategies it should be possible to grow something like 70%-80% of our requirements relatively easily, and sustainably, even in this country and trade for the rest. That's why permaculture courses include explanations of local exchange and green pound systems, among other things.

Estimates for yield in intensive areas are up to twentyfive times conventional agriculture and its claimed that the population of the planet could be fed from permacultures occupying 6% of currently used agricultural land. Leaves a lot of room for wilderness.

Apparently outrageous claims may be one reason why so little attention has been given to permaculture when its been about for over a decade [rem. this was written in 1991]. But there are others; that white settler mentality still presents a very basic resistance to the idea that wilderness is more productive than agriculture and that growing food might be easy or at least a lot easier, (ie. anyone could do it).

To support this, its worth noting that permaculture has been taken up more readily in other parts of the world. A permaculture course held with indigenous peoples on the fringes of the Kalahari was reported in the PC newsletter. It describes how the "teachers" soon turned into facilitators as the "students" quickly recognised the basic principles. A strong traditional knowledge of plant\animal relationships and interconnections coupled with life experience dependant on the close observation of nature plus a recognition that the observer is part of the whole thing, will make for very good designers. They will be over here to teach us one day.

Its been very dificult writing such a short piece; permaculture functions as an inter-disciplinary subject and as such it usefully connects many of the problems in our lives, often revealing absurdities, and presents positive strategies. My problem has been what to select in order to give an idea of that broadness while still presenting it as a coherent general approach; not easy that. The minimum that can be said is that permaculture represents a very positive trend in our experience of land and our work with it and is deserving of serious attention.

For those of you who want to know more, the Permaculture Association is a registered world charity and will provide information on courses. Mollison's books, among others, can be supplied by Ecologic Books or they can be ordered through libraries, quoting Ecologic Books as the UK source.

Finally, its worth considering that in all our self-conscious history, food production was and is the essential basis for our continued life and actions on this planet. Many of us are now so far removed from our sources of food that we've forgotton this. Gardening, as care for plants and animals, is, like care for people, an act of service. This caring is the antitheses of the attitude I described earlier. It is a reconnecting process that allows opposites to draw together. A very simple example is work\play, neither of which have any real meaning to me when I garden, or should I say, when there is the experience of gardening.


Penrhos Home PagePenrhos home page site mapSite Map resourcesResources