Wednesday, 20 January 2010

On The Edge - Permaculture 3

I once lived in the high desert of southeast Arizona on the border with Mexico. I was writing, researching and living the relationship between people, plants and place in this hot, thorny country of mesquite and chaparral (creosote bush), wild sunflowers and ocotillo. What interested me most at the time were the wild plants and where they lived, what they did in terms of medicine and what their stories were.

So when I found myself living on a desert ranch with an adobe roundhouse, a wooden yurt and a strawbale all built by my herbalist friend Mimi and her husband in the 70s with their own hands, the mud under their feet and recycled wood, and no need for air conditioning, I just saw it all as part of my desert years.

But I didn't pay too much attention to this word permaculture that occasionally cropped up in the conversations. Mimi now lived in town and her husband had moved to another state, so permaculture seemed to belong to another time. She did sometimes mention his work as director of the Border Ecology Project (the Mexican-US border follows the course of the Rio Grande).

It was great to have a compost toilet and know that the water from your shower fed the cottonwood tree that sheltered the house. You could sit under its shade by the pond on hot days - and they were really hot in summer. The greenhouse in front of the straw bale was full of plants which kept things cool and added moisture. I learned that although the pepperweed (a wild brassica) seemed to be taking over the paths this year, it might be there as a response to an imbalance in the soil. We could leave it to see what happened next year. There was a bridge over the wash and a cattle grid but apart from that no fences between the ranch and the wild desert.

And though the buildings were weathered and in need of some repair, it was an amazing place to live. You felt really near the earth. And people who visited (including ourselves) would mend a window or repair a water pipe or paint the yurt. By the time I left Mimi and Francisco had started to dig the vegetable beds again in the rich deep soil around the house for planting chard and elephant garlic. Who knows, maybe they’d bring some guinea fowl down again and spend more time there.


“I’ve been in this courtyard so many times and never noticed the things I’ve noticed today,” said Josiah. And we all felt like that after the observation exercise at the Bungay library.

What was the observation exercise? Having time to observe before making any changes is pivotal to permaculture and it's recommended that you observe (or tune into, as I used to call it when I looked at desert plants) a site for at least a year before making any changes to it, so you can get a sense of the seasonal cycles, where the wind blows, where frost settles, which animals and plants are already living there. Graham used the nine ways of 'observing' based on Starhawk’s The Earth Path to get us asking ourselves questions about energy, flow, communities, patterns, edges and limits in the system as well as considering its past and future. We were encouraged to wonder how things were as they were and be still enough to notice what’s going on.

We each found a place outside to practice. I chose to observe 'edges', where one system meets another. This is where some of the most interesting things happen both in ecosystems and human communities. Edges are often the most fertile and diverse places.

I went into the library courtyard and heard birdsong, the first I'd noticed since the cold weather broke. I looked up and saw last year's birds' nests in the jasmine (which several of us mistook for a wisteria!) which twists up the wall and clambers over the pergola. Beyond the birdsnests the sky. So wild birds already make their homes there. We really were going to be 'working with nature', one of the principles we'd learnt that morning. It felt warmer (and drier) next to the jasmine than in other parts of the courtyard. Some way beyond the modern red brick walls rose the winter branches of some large, old trees, and suddenly I felt the library in context, as part of the living fabric of the earth, not just an isolated building amongst other buildings.

What then is the territory? It's wherever you find yourself - a desert garden in Arizona or a library courtyard in a market town in Suffolk.


  1. I read a great book from Norwich library on an introduction to permaculture, but it was aimed at those with a fair bit of land. Do you have a view on a good place to start if you only have a small garden?

  2. This very subject came up in the mythbusting part of the course where we learnt that the system is open to anyone with or without land. Starting just where you are and starting small is one of the great things about permaculture. Even on the 15th floor of a block of flats you can grow some food in a window box or herbs inside.