“Change is inevitable in the garden. What works well one season may not be successful the following year. Adapting to the shifting patterns of temperature, rainfall, pest populations, and other external forces is an important skill for the permaculture gardener. Our goal is to work with Nature instead of trying to control it. As you f ace face the challenges that come with growing edibles, keep this principle in mind. You’ll soon realize that in the garden, there are no mistakes, just lessons pointing you toward better solutions.” P. 35
“Seed saving is one of the best ways to practice permaculture. …you learn to select the best crops from each year year’s yield, while saving money on next year’s garden. Seed sharing provides opportunities to expand your plant knowledge, grow some new varieties, and meet other people with similar interests.” P. 228
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Interview with Christopher by Willi
My readers would love to understand the role of story, song, symbol and myth in your community work. Have you written poems about plants and Nature rituals?
Permaculture is applied ecology and remedial ecology / holistics. Mollison and Holmgren come out of an academic tradition/ white male Australian identity/ privilege so most of what’s written about permaculture is non-spiritual. I teach in a hands on way and I guide my students to start learning and experimenting with permaculture principles that can work in their own gardens. I just wrote a book in an attempt to capture some of my story about my own experiences with permaculture. I have yet to attempt permaculture poetry, but I have had some students that were poets, MCs, musicians, etc… to share their art with the whole class. Once I had some friends come in and do an elaborate Joanna Macy ritual “Council of All Beings”, where we had spent weeks before mediating on a spirit animal or plant (one student came up with “mulch” as their guide) and even made face masks and then did the ritual concerning what “we” were going to do about the two legged ones (humans). I think Joanna Macy’s shifting of the perspective of an endangered species is pretty powerful stuff.
For folks without any access to land, is it still possible to adopt and experience permaculture?
Very much so, this is where earth care, people care and fair share intersect. Permaculture in general is not about self sufficiency, it’s about mutually beneficial relationships and community self reliance. So community gardens, school gardens, back or front yard shares, roof top gardens, school gardens, homeless gardens, squat gardens are all expressions of us wanting to connect together around land and working together to create powerful change. We need to push the land reform and land redistribution angle a lot more.
My in box is always inhabited with permaculture training ads. It seems to me that there are too many teachers and schools to support the movement. Your thoughts?
Now there are many excellent permaculture teacher trainings around, so that’s an improvement. Successful courses are largely dependent on successful marketing, so there are plenty of excellent teachers and courses, but not always the marketing, so not all courses run full. And in some markets there can be too many classes targeted to the same people, but there are a lot of unreached markets, and PDCs seem to be evolving. Last summer I saw a yoga/ hike/and PDC all together in one course.
What should we understand about the various levels in permaculture practice, from the weekend back yard gardener to the hard core survivalist permaculturist? Is permaculture politically savvy?
Permaculture in general is not about self sufficiency, it’s about mutually beneficial relationships and community self reliance. There are always exceptions and exceptional people that want to go it themselves. Permaculture is a broad spectrum of political orientation, but I think there is a strong thread of little “d” democracy as in participatory democracy and being engaged locally. How are you going to raise your kids? Public schools or home schools? I think we need to get some permaculture folks into local politics, but I think its generations off for larger organizing structures. Permaculture seems to me to be about community organizing and a vision and practice of a decentralized food system, housing system, energy system, and educational system. There are lots of smaller parts that make up the whole. And interesting political bedfellows we are making on the anarchist green/black/red front with ultra left (think of the Casey Neil song, “Dancing on the Ruins of Multinational Corporations, Ha Ha Ha) slant and other end with the Joel Salatin’s of Polyface Farms, where he’s anti-government and a right wing Christian fundamentalist that listens to Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck to get his political worldview. But he’s one of the most successful eco-farmers in the country, a capitalist but also a greenie into protecting his land. Salatin is getting his children to be a part of his successful farm team, a really good look into how sustainable something really is. I’m glad to see people get into the urban, suburban and rural homesteading movements, but for me permaculture is something much bigger than just growing your own food (fibers, medicine, homes, water supply, etc…) it is about fair share or redistributing the surpluses. From the USA, we need to remember that as a country and western civilization, collectively people from the US are a part of the wealthiest country in human history. Most of us don’t have access to enough land to grow all of our own food, so we need to get to know our farmers and ranchers and build face to face community relations in our food supply chains. And some of the ideas from the early settlers really need some updating so we can integrate some of the indigenous thinking like “all my relations” and know that pioneers were on forcefully stolen land.
In a recent listserv chat with Toby Hemenway, he relayed that he cherishes his personal sense of the sacred in permaculture but must keep such things out of his teaching. Is your own garden practice – or Merritt Community College classroom – “just science” these days?
In the context of the Landscape Horticulture Department, permaculture is really way out there in terms of the hard sciences. We don’t teach pesticide applications or other losing battles from research of reductionist science. We do teach the ethics and principles, which is really pro-life (earth care, people care, fairshare) in the sense of biophylia. We need to teach about the interconnectedness of ecology, of the web of life and how we need to start valuing zone five and wilderness. Like the idea of tinkerers not throwing anything out just because we don’t know what it’s for yet. And zone 5 is our university, the place where we get out of civilization and start to see and observe what’s really going on and what’s working together. Death is a part of life, so it’s pretty hard to understand vegans. We are nature, we need to spend some time just being and then we can observe and connect with the nature in our surroundings and ourselves. Learning about nature awareness and tracking skills and all that is pretty much on a spiritual path. I’ve had guests over the past come and teach about bird song recognition, which is an opening to a whole new way to perceive the natural world.
The ethics, principles, techniques and strategies of permaculture are all based on ecology and the natural world. Nature is about sharing resources, of bounty and abundance. Scarcity comes up too as a check and balance; let’s just not drive our society with it in the pilot’s seat. The brilliance of the 99% movement is it is decentralized and locally empowering and challenging the idea of having a 1% in control of so many of the resources and power. The corporate media couldn’t see it or understand it and just tried to ignore it before it co-opted it. There is enough to go around, we have enough food produced every year to feed everyone on the planet right now, we don’t need the “green revolution” that is just chemicals and irrigation and petroleum agriculture, we need a fair share or a just food system and equitable distribution. Food actually goes to waste now before it gets to where it should. That doesn’t happen in a natural ecosystem on an annual basis like our food supply chain.
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Christopher Shein’s Bio:
Christopher Shein has been a gardener in Berkeley and Oakland, California, since 1993. He has started dozens of community gardens, school gardens, market gardens, and gardens in backyards and in centers serving the homeless. He teaches permaculture at Merritt Community College where he has helped develop the award-winning student farm. Shein also owns Wildheart Gardens, a permaculture landscape business that designs and builds sustainable gardens. He graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and earned his Permaculture Design Certificate at Linnaea Farm on Cortes Island, British Columbia. He lives with his wife, Dr. Runa Basu, D.O., and their daughters, Gitanjali and Basu, in urban South Berkeley.