Permaculture teacher, designer. Jason Gerhardt has professionally applied ecological design for over 15 years from hyper-arid deserts to lush temperate forests to dense urban centers. He applies a keen study of ecosystems, human culture, and design to this blog.
Guest Post by permaculture yogi Sarah Keown. Sarah is a yoga instructor in Saint Louis, MO and works for Real Earth Design.
Every morning I have a ritual that I start my day with. I wake up, light a candle and incense, and sit on my meditation cushion, watching my breath until the incense goes out. When I light the candle, then sparking the incense with the flame, I wish for peace and well-being to envelop the hearts, minds, and bodies of others. The candle is central to this daily ritual.
My partner and I inherited a honeybee hive when we moved into our new rental home last year. It was relatively neglected, and lacked essential components for the health, and ultimately the success, of the hive. While we were unable to save the hive, we were able to collect what honey wasn’t robbed by other bees.
We set the whole comb in a paint strainer and let the honey drip through into a bucket on a hot sunny day, pressing the remainder through with our hands. This left us with a giant ball of beeswax that we knew exactly what we wanted to do with.
I’d processed comb before for making salve, but was excited to take on the more careful task of candle-making. The comb sat for many months as our busy lives carried us away. Enter the global COVID-19 pandemic and everything was forced to stop. My job shifted and I found myself spending almost every hour at home. It was a blessing in disguise. I finally had time and energy to take on all the things I didn’t have time for, including candle-making! I didn’t have fancy tools or supplies, but was able to use what was on hand to get the job done.
I filled our tallest pot halfway with water and brought it to a simmer. I took a third of the comb we had in a paint strainer and let it simmer in the water. As the comb heated up, the wax melted through the strainer and into the water. After 20-30 minutes of squeezing out all the wax, I composted what was left in the strainer and poured the water and wax mixture into yogurt cups. I repeated this step with the other two thirds of the wax until all of it was processed. The wax and water separated almost immediately. As it cooled in the quart yogurt cups, the wax hardened on top of the water. After it fully cooled, I poured out the water and patted dry the thin discs of wax that were left on top. At this point the wax still had a lot debris from the honeycomb in it.
To get the wax pure enough for candles I melted and filtered it one more time. I took all the wax discs and melted them in a double boiler. I then strained the wax through a reusable coffee filter into yet another infinitely useful quart yogurt cup.
In addition to the wax from the hive, I’d also been saving all of the remnant beeswax candles we burned from our morning ritual over the years. I filtered a second batch with those bits and pieces. It was amazing how much wax was generated from that alone.
With all of the wax fully purified, it was finally ready to be poured into candles. At this point I had been using our cooking pots to melt the wax and it was quite a pain to get all the beeswax off the pots after use. I ended up ordering a pot that was specifically made for melting wax, which made things A LOT easier. I also bought premade wicks and a pillar candle mold.
I melted both blocks of wax together in a double boiler, which took about 30-40 minutes. While it was melting, I dipped the metal bottoms of the candle wicks and placed them in the center of the mason jars I used for some of my candles. Setting up the pillar candle was a little different and didn’t require a metal tab (it’s important to oil the inside of the mold so it’s easier to get the candle out once cooled).
After everything was set up and the wax was melted, I poured it into the pillar mold and mason jars. I made sure to pour slowly and with control so the wicks stayed in place. After I poured, I made sure to adjust the wick on each candle so it was in the middle. It’s also important to keep the wick taut, but not too taut that you pull the metal bottom off. After the candles fully cooled, I cut the wicks to ¼” in height.
Through each step of the candle-making process I felt a connection to the nature in my neighborhood and a deep appreciation for what bees do in the world. Each candle I made was imbued with a promise to acknowledge and support these life-giving creatures.
Now my morning ritual is that much more special since the candle I light is a candle I made. I think of the darkness that exists in the world during these pandemic times, and I’m reminded of all the bees out there buzzing and dancing about. In addition to the many other functions they serve, the bees let there be light. For me, and by extension through my candle lighting wish each morning for the world, this light is right on time.
In 2013 at Utah State University in Moab, a community of faculty, staff, students, and citizens gathered to participate in a design charette on the campus landscape. After a workshop on rainwater harvesting and edible forest gardening, the group and I walked out from a classroom, scanning the land for the potential to harvest water and grow perennial tree crops. Opportunity was everywhere, even in a climate that received only 9 inches of annual precipitation.
The campus was a sea of asphalt in the desert. Parking
surfaces dominated. Scant rainfall hit those unreceptive surfaces, while the more
plentiful sun shone on them to raise air temperatures. The opportunity existed
in removing pavement, capturing rooftop runoff, and cutting curbs to invite
sheet flow from the parking lot into contact with the soil.
After the charette, Real Earth Design generated a detailed rendering of what the campus could be. The swales, basins, fruit trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants were implemented a few months later by many of the same people who gathered to initially consider the campuses potential.
Over 7 years later, the project is thriving. It’s been well
tended by campus faculty, staff, students, and community groups. After all,
they had a big hand in it since inception, so it’s theirs to ensure success. Additions
have been added over the years with pollinator houses, six cisterns, and a few
plant replacements. It hums with pollinators, is activated as a living
classroom for the university, and the fruits harvested and shared with
community outreach groups during the pandemic of 2020.
As a designer this is exactly what I seek through my work. Well-crafted
places, beloved by users, ever-growing and evolving.
This project would not be possible without the essential contributions of Dr. Roslynn Brain McCann (whom all photo credits belong to), Jeremy Lynch, Barnabas Kane, Joel Glanzberg, and Brad Lancaster.
Guest post by Dr. Roslynn Brain McCann. She traveled the USA in 2019 interviewing leading permaculture figures and we will be sharing many of those interviews over the course of 2020.
How can we play a more active
role in reversing the degenerative patterns of inequality in gender and race
within our society? What are our internal and external dialogues, and how can
we shift those in a way that cultivates regeneration? In the weeks after my
interview with Karryn Olson, I have been thinking through these tough yet
The people care ethic in
permaculture is front and center for Karryn, where her grounding question is “how
do we support, especially women, to move boldly forward as permaculture leaders
and into permaculture-related careers?” This question stemmed from her personal
life experiences, but especially from her role as a Permaculture Design
Certificate (PDC) teacher with the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute: “I
would prep really hard…and I would feel like I would show up and I would teach
a knock-out section and the comments at the end of the day would be things like
‘Karryn’s such a good mom.’” It was exhausting.
Karryn made it a goal to change
this, “I really wasn’t going to the ‘it’s because I’m a woman’ or the ‘victim
place’. I literally did this experiment
where I tried different things for three years. First, I would prep twice as
hard as the year before. My next thought was, oh, it is because I go home at
night to my family. I’m going to stay, I’m going to be here at the course, so I
was the first person who greeted people, and I would be there 16 hours on my
day teaching. I made sure to teach really great technical content, too. Then I
literally had a man make a comment to me that he was going to ask my two male
colleagues a question that helped me understand he didn’t see me as a leader of
the organization. It was actually a wonderful moment, because I was like ‘it’s
not me!’, ‘IT’S NOT ME!’. It was so liberating.” And I kept wondering “Am I the
only person going through this?’ It makes you feel crazy, it really does.”
She then put out a call to
interview 20 women about their experiences in permaculture. Across the board,
difficulties were encountered ranging from sexual harassment to belittling,
regardless of how incredible the women were. This was not in an effort to put
down the permaculture movement, but to name ongoing degenerative patterns in
Although being a good mom is a compliment, so is being a good teacher, a good leader, a knowledgeable expert. And women have a lot to bring to the leadership table. “Studies talk about how women are actually really even better leaders because we are better at creating alliances. When we have more diverse people at the table, women are better at bringing in people and building bridges with people who have been disenfranchised, you get more innovation when you are more diverse. All of those types of skills are super important.”
Yet, as Karryn highlights in her Permaculture Activist publication from 2013, “According to the White House Project, in their ‘Benchmarking Women’s Leadership’ report, women receive the majority of all college degrees, make up almost half of the workforce, and are well represented in entry- and mid-level positions in most sectors of the economy. However, women occupy on average only 18% of top leadership positions (and numbers are lower among women of color). Further, the wage gap for women means that they make 78.7 cents for every dollar earned by men, and that gap widens with age.” In our interview, she elaborated, “leadership, we see as an archetypically male thing. So, women are judged negatively if we are too male, and negatively if we are too feminine. We get this double whammy…micro-disadvantages.”
The solution is not in putting men down – that would be a degenerative approach. Instead, we need to be having conversations about why is this the case, and how do we change this? What are the invisible structures at play in our body language? In our internal dialogues? Our external dialogues?
At 30%, something wonderful happens with leadership dynamics. As stated in her article, “when 30% of the people at power tables are women, organizations reach a tipping point. Women can then change agendas, inform goals, allocate resources, and impact the style in which goals are achieved. Cultural stereotypes are altered so that women are no longer seen as women, but as professionals…‘What is the landscape for women in permaculture in our circles?’ If not at parity, we can set policy to have 30% of our boards, teaching teams, speakers lists, etc., occupied by qualified women. They are out there, and we can find them by replacing the question, ‘Who do I know?’ with ‘Who don’t I know?’”
“It’s not just about how strong
our skills are or how professional we are…when you try super hard over a period
of time and you can’t get traction, it erodes your confidence.” So Karryn
applies her skills in various ways to help others, especially women, rebuild
their confidence. In addition to co-founding Finger Lakes Permaculture
Institute, she teaches at Ithaca College and started SEEDS and Regenepreneurs.
The following is a summary of each:
SEEDS: Strategy, Education, & Ecological Design for
Sustainability “combines coaching services with the
typical consultation approach. Instead of just “dropping knowledge,” and
leaving folks to struggle, Karryn works with people (often her clients are
women) to deepen their understanding of design and permaculture, so they can
create their own, robust permaculture design for their site, but with the
support of a professional.”
Regenepreneurs: This is Karryn’s main focus now—because
in talking with women, they were doing great work but too many weren’t earning
a living from it. So Karryn dove into learning all she could about
entrepreneurship, and supports people to learn those skills but from a deeply
regenerative approach. She does this through group programs and one on one
Ithaca College Permaculture: Karryn designed and
installed with students Ithaca College’s first permaculture garden, located near Williams
Hall. She teaches the associated
course Gardens, Ecological Design and Practice.
Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute (FLPCI): Karryn
co-founded this in 2005. Over the years, FLPCI has offered workshops, study
groups, apprentice programs, and Permaculture Design Certificate courses, all
based around sustainable and ecological design. FLPCI became a 501c3 a few
years ago, and is building board capacity and focusing its efforts on an annual
At Ithaca college, Karryn’s
1-credit course on Gardens, Ecological
Design and Practice gets students outside of the classroom. Homework
involves working in groups in the gardens. In another course, students made a “business
case” for permaculture on campus, given the stronghold of campus
mow-blow-and-go landscaping. “We actually did the math…the average lawn mower
running one hour is the equivalent to running seven cars at 55 miles an
hour…then we talked about ‘what is the embedded energy of the pesticides,
herbicides, fertilizers’…[referencing adjacent typical campus landscaping] all
of this is put in and ripped out multiple times. They bring in huge loads of
mulch and for a while, they were actually raking up all the mulch from last
year and putting in new mulch. It’s kind of nuts…if we were ever to have a
carbon tax, this is a liability, this approach. It’s actually a mismanagement
issue.” Through this type of work, she is helping students rethink our standard
mode of operating.
But it is through her newest
consulting endeavor, Regenepreneurs, where she is currently dedicating the most
time, excitement and energy. Karryn created Regenepreneurs as she was
encountering numerous people with amazing skills, but without the know-how of
how to apply those in a way that is most strategic given their life situations.
“We need to fast-track regenerative solutions.”
The concept of a regenerative
right livelihood is adapted from E.F. Schumacher and his work Buddhist Economics. “A lot of people are
trying to figure out ‘What is my path? How do I do the good work?’ I know when
I took my first permaculture course back in 1994 it was like ‘oh, I’ll become a
teacher, a designer because that was all I saw as the possibilities and I
started realizing ‘wow, you can take these skills and you could apply them in
unlimited amounts of directions if you understood the entrepreneurial parts of
it.” Helping others understand those entrepreneurial applications of
permaculture lies at the heart of Karryn’s current work, developing “skills to
co-create a regenerative future.”
Her ultimate goal? “I want people
to walk away being like ‘we can do this.’ So it’s really about their own
thriving, but then also having an audacious vision of what thriving could look
like for our communities and our future, our kids’ futures.”
As a woman, I connect with and am
touched by Karryn’s efforts, not to mention her magnetic personality. She is an
inspirational leader working to shift deeply rooted degenerative paradigms.
Something she said in the interview resonated deeply with me; During her
undergraduate studies, a male professor walked in carrying a baby and she
thought “how cool!” But then, she asked herself how she would react if it was a
woman: “What, couldn’t you find childcare?” That opened her eyes about how
“gender schemas” are deeply ingrained in all of us. These are hard realities to
face and they are things we all in some way or another have experienced and
personally furthered, and we need to be awake to it in order to set
regenerative patterns for people care in our culture. These conversations and
issues show the potential of permaculture beyond the landscape – fostering
regenerative hope in a time where we need it most.
Guest post by Dr. Roslynn Brain McCann. She traveled the USA in 2019 interviewing leading permaculture figures and we will be sharing many of those interviews over the course of 2020.
The high winds blow sand across AZ-264 as we travel through
the Hopi reservation and land at Kykotsmovi Village, site of the Hopi Tutskwa
Permaculture Institute. Lilian Hill and Jacobo Marcus-Carranza founded the
institute in 2004, and since then have been guiding mainly Navajo and Hopi
youth through internships teaching essential skills in natural building,
permaculture techniques, local food production, solar installation, harvesting and
selling at local farmers markets, and youth empowerment.
I had visited Lilian and Jacobo last spring as part of a
permaculture workshop and partnership with Community Rebuilds, a natural
building program and original collaborator with the Hopi Tutswka Permaculture
Institute. Since then, I was excited to return. At the workshop, a group of 25
or so from Moab, the Hopi and Navajo Nations all began in a circle, introducing
ourselves and tossing a ball of yarn to the next person. There were so many of
us that we ran out of yarn and had to move in closer, further demonstrating the
interconnectedness between us all – both by the yarn web we created and the
closeness to our peers left and right. We spent a large amount of time that day
discussing sustainability failures at the local, regional, and national level,
broken out in groups with various topic areas such as energy, water, etc. These
came to mind easily and within minutes our group’s flipchart was full. When we
flipped the story, and had to write down sustainability successes, however, these
flowed a little slower at first. They exist, but we can become focused so
closely on the problem that solutions thinking is overshadowed; an important realization
for all of us. We know the problem – the planet is warming and we have a
limited window of about a decade to enact large scale change. However, we
haven’t been discussing hope, solutions, and empowerment with the same urgency.
The experience last spring had a lasting impact on me and I
was excited to return as part of this research tour. We had eaten delicious,
healthy food, connected with each other across cultures and environments, and
discussed what we can do to be part of the solution.
Hopi Tutskwa translates from the Hopi language to the life
ways and knowledge of the land and soil. Lilian and Jacobo are helping their
communities and beyond to reconnect, relearn from, and reshape our relationship
with the environment that sustains us, our “Earthmother.”
When I asked Lilian and Jacobo who the main students are
that attend their program and what they are looking for, Lilian answered “our
main students we are designing programs for are within our own community – so
both within Hopi and the surrounding Navajo reservation. We have opened up our
programming to other people as well, but mostly very young people who live in
the community who may or may not have graduated high school but who for one
reason or another have not left. They have stayed and a lot of them remain
within their own family structure too – with their parents or grandparents. A
lot of the students who come to our program are in an interesting place, in
their early 20s and don’t know what they want to do with their lives.”
Jacobo added, “We wanted to design programming to really help folks
strengthen their lives in meaningful ways. A lot of the students who are part
of the program are just here in the community and a lot of times they don’t
have meaningful interactions…I guess with the home they live in, a disconnect
between the home they live in and how they can contribute to the home. We are
trying to develop programming to help folks have applicable solutions to where
they can feel empowered to build their own home, grow their own food, and to
catch their water. It’s really important for us to pass that on.”
Their vision “is to strengthen community
through the continued intergenerational practices of traditional Hopi farming
and gardening, rainwater harvesting and spring restoration, natural building,
and orchard-keeping while applying applicable Permaculture principles, methods,
Lilian and Jacobo are working to create a world where:
practice cooperation in all aspects of life, continuing the traditional Hopi
values of Sumi’nangwa and Nami’nagwa which means to help others selflessly for
the good of everyone.
learn to value, care for, respect, protect, and manage the natural
environment while ensuring adequate resources for the future generations.
learn innovative ways towards creating sustainable communities locally and
have clean water, good nutritious food, and thriving ecosystems and
came to Permaculture through a combination of hope and desperation. After
growing up with street violence, early death, and urban entropy as central
themes of my life, I hoped the rest of life wasn’t going to be such a fleeting
affair. With that single point in mind, I became desperate for something that
would equip me to alter the trajectory of human culture.
revisit my original motivation for Permaculture often. For me, it’s not about food
production or watershed repair or any of the other “things” I do. It’s about
developing a fundamentally different way of being alive. The only way we will
develop greater permanence in human culture is by profoundly changing who we
are. We know well that we can’t apply the same ways of being to our lives and
magically manifest a different result. Paradigm change, then, is our only hope
for a better life. How do we make the shift? Fortunately, Permaculture Design
provides a pathway.
I discovered Permaculture while training at a Zen monastery. Nineteen years ago and then a teenager fresh off the city streets, I found myself surrounded by mountains, rivers and wildlife in Vermont, immersed in a traditional Vietnamese Buddhist culture. Everything was unfamiliar, yet I adapted. I threw myself into snowdrifts, trekked in the forest by moonlight, meditated beside beaver ponds, and foraged mushrooms and fiddleheads with monks. My experiences during these years confirmed the plasticity of my then-existing paradigm. It also exposed me, through a book on gardening, to the philosophy and methodology of Permaculture that I would carry with me for nearly two decades.
After leaving the monasteries, I found my way to an Ecological Design course, and subsequently a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) in 2004. Initially reading Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual (PDM), I wrote critiques in the margins. Steeped in Zen for so long, I was struck by how materialistic Bill seemed. Aside from the first couple of chapters, the PDM read to me at the time as an instruction guide for Earth repair. By contrast, I was interested in culture repair more than forming an army of planetary surgeons running around trying to fix everything. Regardless, there was something embedded within Permaculture that I could not discount.
After my first courses, even with my hesitations, I wasted no time. I dove into a life of designing and building food gardens, water harvesting systems, and green buildings. Practicing on properties I rented, then friends’ yards, a couple farms, a New York ecovillage, and my college campus in Arizona, I made a lot of mistakes I never would have learned to avoid had I not played and trialed in so many places.
five years I worked mostly on small sites, never accepting pay for my work. I
felt responsible both to Permaculture and to the people and lands I worked
with. I couldn’t pretend to be an overnight expert post-PDC. That kind of
amateur zeal seemed too shallow. I would work my way through mistakes to get
results, and use the results to gain success.
After college, the people who became my first official clients approached me as regulars at the sprawling farmers’ market stall I helped run in Boulder, Colorado. They invited me over to an extravagant dinner in exchange for a consultation walk around their yard. I was delighted. I recalled a Zen saying I once heard, “You’ll know you have something to offer when you are asked to offer it.” And so it began.
I quickly went from consultations-for-dinner to other projects, as I saw there was real demand for permaculture-inspired landscaping where I lived. I also needed a new income stream after the farm I worked on caught major herbicide drift from a neighboring monoculture, voiding our organic certification, and ending the enterprise in a lawsuit. Almost immediately, I began practicing professional design/build on private residences all over the Front Range. In five years of residential work, I learned a lot about land regeneration techniques commonly espoused in permaculture circles, as well as how a designer typically works with clients. I also learned about the limitations of these approaches. Ironically, that’s when I felt my Permaculture practice had begun to ripen.
usually have more to learn in disappointment than in excitement. As we begin to
grasp permaculture, there can be a tendency to evangelize. The ideas are heady,
but the ardor and zest of youthful confidence aren’t yet rooted in experience.
With high hopes, we get to work, and some of those hopes get dashed. Depending
on one’s outlook, that can be a beautiful thing.
me, it fit right into my design for growth. After all, I had set a tall task
for myself—regenerating human culture. Nothing less would answer my original
the one hand, I was building the most beautifully productive landscapes I could
imagine, but on the other, I grew to feel that these creations weren’t adequate
to transforming life in the ways needed. Food forests, rain gardens,
regenerated soil, pollinators buzzing about—these are the tracks of a healthy
culture, but they lag behind the actual steps being taken. They are firmly
material: prone to degeneration, erosion, and entropy.
the most part, during my early professional design/build years, I fabricated
landscapes out of predetermined visions and techniques. This, I felt at the
time, was what the Designers’ Manual
directed me to do. I was a landscape pharmacist, filling prescriptions for
every site. But just as prescriptive medicine often fails to address the
underlying causes of dis-ease, so too, I learned, does the same approach to
Please don’t misunderstand me: ecologically designed landscapes are awesome in the truest sense of the word. I’ve found incredible value through them, and I’d never minimize the importance of that work. In fact, the fervor I had for Permaculture-inspired landscaping was essential to my becoming a Permaculturist. It was a gateway to further growth, keeping me true to my original intentions. And, I still create ecologically designed landscapes all over the country, but my approach has changed.
took me ten years to figure out that human culture deserves more focus than the
land. This goes directly against Mollison’s directive that the Earth is our
primary client. In fact, it’s the root of my critique of Mollison’s
materialistic focus. I’ve discovered that land has an incredible capacity to
regenerate and grow with the intentional actions of people. The reverse is also
true—people’s actions have a profound capacity to destroy the land. I began to
see culture as the intervention point in Permaculture.
all turned for me on a project in 2011. My work was moving to bigger scales,
and a suburban project came my way that represented a diversionary scale-back I
wasn’t sure about. Walking up to the client’s door in a cookie-cutter
subdivision with extreme clay soils and a strict homeowners association, I
glanced around the landscape thinking, “What a tiny spit of land they have to
work with.” I wasn’t into it.
when they opened the door to greet me, I was reminded how much I liked these
people. The husband and wife had been in my Permaculture classes, so I felt
comfortable with them, and they with me. This
comfort allowed us to explore more widely than plug and play design. I was able
to really see into this family. My
most valuable discovery was the whole family
was craving to engage with the processes of nature, especially their young
daughter. In the end, they helped dig water-harvesting earthworks and planted a
food forest with my crew. Together, we transformed their small suburban site
into a little slice of paradise.
the years, I noticed these clients, who became friends, changed through their
interaction with the landscape. Their yard was so small that they deeply
cherished what we had created. At the least, the family healed from nature
deficit disorder. At a wider look, neighbors started emulating the
transformation in their yards. The homeowners association gave us the Star Yard
of the Year Award, and eventually, the family left the site behind for a home
more deeply immersed in nature. I could’ve been upset that this site was being
left to unknown caretakers, but I wasn’t. I grew to see this project as the
beginning of cultural transformation for this family.
also noticed how I was changing
through the project. I saw that my landscape work had a lot less to do with the
land than with the people. I got closer to what led me into permaculture in the
people problems of my childhood which had led me to permaculture weren’t
problems with individuals (though they can certainly show up that way)—they
were problems with our cultural paradigms. After working with the land for a
long time, I realized I could spend my whole life building beautifully
engineered ecosystems, but if the dominant paradigm of disconnection and
exploitation was still in play, the transformation I wanted to help create
would never take root.
design practice has a lot more intimacy in it these days. I want to know my
clients, to pry open their lives a little, gently and patiently, of course. I
view my job as equipping people to make the changes they seek in their lives
and relationship with the land, while providing encouragement and resources to
see beyond the limits of their imposed ideas.
typical list of “wants” that a client presents has proven to be a light first
place to start. These lists show projects are more often about the client’s
growth than the land. Even in the design stage, the land is their practice
center as they work on themselves.
example, a client may say, “I really like berries, and it would be great to
have berries for breakfast most days of the year.” As a designer, I have to
guide them through a series of questions to get from the imposed detail of a
berry garden to the bigger pattern. It’s likely they’re seeking health and
happiness with a berry breakfast most days. And it’s likely that search is the bigger pattern for
the project. With a focus on health and happiness instead of edible
landscaping, many more doors for transformation suddenly open. And yes, some
people do just want a berry patch, which is better than none at all, but as a Permaculturist,
I’m not the person to simply give them what they desire without deeper levels
I now view Permaculture quite literally as meaning greater permanence in human culture. Integrated and truly regenerative design is the process and practice to get us there. Our work must go beyond prescriptive landscape design and farm master planning to succeed. Fortunately, many more practitioners now share this view, so Permaculture is evolving beyond basic material “things”.
residential projects were the best proving ground I could have practiced on.
I’ve been able to take the lessons from working with one or two people at a
home and use that to inform my approach to community scales with urban planning
projects, educational campus design, cooperative land use, and agricultural
enterprise development. The past seven years of this work has involved a lot
more education, collaboration, social navigation, and professional-level
work—all skills I’ve had to learn as I go, with the goal to impact human
culture as a whole.
Today I work with a truly diverse array of clients, from social justice activists in crumbling inner cities to religious farming families struggling in rural America. Each project feels fresh with potential, and each client’s story brings a greater understanding of the lasting culture we are developing.
Permaculture provides a pathway to transform the world. To realize its potential, we have to use design as an empowering and transformative process for our clients and ourselves, together with the land itself.
also have to continually upgrade our frameworks, learning from the wider
community of practitioners that has grown from the idea of regenerative
culture. There is a lot of movement in this space, and we can all learn from
each other whether we call our work Permaculture, Regenerative Design, Ecological
Design, Living Systems Design or draw from any of the many other diverse and
contributing fields. To use a metaphor from the Buddha, these are all fingers
pointing at the same moon. Let’s keep our eye on the prize.
Culture change doesn’t happen overnight. I see a long road ahead. In the face of real threats to our survival on Earth and with each other, I hope we can take each step along this road deliberately and have faith that despite the daily chaos in the world, we have a path to follow, and we got this.
Jason GerhardtStriking at the Root: A Life In Permaculture Design
Guest post by Dr. Roslynn Brain McCann. She traveled the USA in 2019 interviewing leading permaculture figures and we will be sharing many of those interviews over the course of 2020.
“Look at the pattern above…
The alphabet is arranged in a particular pattern
here. What is it? If you were illiterate you would more easily see it.
Initially, I looked for an arithmetical pattern, but that does not work. Or
some form of wave… Is it Morse code? No. What is it? The letters on the upper
line consist of all straight lines and those on the lower line all contain
curves. Once you know, it is obvious. Why is something so obvious so difficult
to see? What else are we missing? How does this impact our effectiveness?
How do we learn to see patterns not things?” – Joel Glanzberg, Pattern Mind, 2019.
Joel’s question of “why is something so obvious so difficult
to see” is one that becomes increasingly present as we learn to observe through
an integrated, patterned lens. Why are we paying millions of dollars for
infrastructure damage during flash floods in the southwest and yet still
designing streets that act as rifle barrels shooting water past thirsty trees
barricaded off by curbs? Why are we designating billions to road improvement
and to lane expansion and not to alternative transit? Why are we designing
homes with thirsty monoculture lawns and without any rainwater harvesting,
greywater, and water-wise appliances yet complaining about water shortages in
the west? The more we learn, the more we ask these important questions. It all
seems so obvious, but we are raised to see pieces, to observe objectively, and
to associate wonder with childhood and childhood alone. Yet we could learn a
lot from the wonders, systems, and patterns in nature.
Although based out of Santa Fe, NM, Joel Glanzberg has
travelled across North America, helping us shift away from segregated towards
patterned thinking. His journey reads as an effort to help us regain what was
lost from our ancestors – of understanding, respecting, and playing an
important role in nature. If we were able to better engage in pattern thinking,
we could find those critical points to shift and create a new ripple in the
pond, a new pattern that may make a whole lot more sense. Least change for the
Joel is a founding partner of Regenesis Group, working with schools, farms, resorts, parks, housing, neighborhoods, and more in an effort to consider the whole living ecosystem. Through this work, he is helping us re-envision our roles as humans from a source of destruction and degradation to health and regeneration. Why do what he is instead of teaching the standard Permaculture Design Certification? Joel wanted to make way for new leaders to join the field and enact change. He sees hope in young permaculturalists teaching and also working with policy makers, economic systems, community design, and other important change makers in our society. Through these large influential networks, we can enact largescale positive, regenerative change.
Roslynn Brain McCann is an Associate Professor and Sustainable Communities Extension Specialist in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University. She lives in a hand-built strawbale home on the Colorado Plateau and practices permaculture in most everything she does. She is an instrumental board member for the Permaculture Institute.
Many of our course participants go on to do great things with Permaculture. This summer during the Sustainable Backyard Tour in St. Louis, MO, I made a point to visit the home of Ryan Young and his family. Ryan was a participant in the Saint Louis Permaculture Design Course (PDC) in 2017-2018, and I’d been way overdue checking in on what he’s been up to.
On a crowded block of brick two and three-stories, I found Ryan’s home immediately by spotting a slim cistern neatly tucked against the house. Ryan took the water harvesting lessons from the PDC to heart by designing a home landscape that can be entirely irrigated from harvested rainwater. The benefits to this are huge, but perhaps most importantly in this land of big rivers, Ryan is no longer contributing runoff from his property to the sewer system, which directly impacts water quality for downstream neighbors, and contributes to the near lifeless hypoxic zone of the Mississippi River delta.
These are not small impacts. Part of the power of one person taking care of their runoff footprint like Ryan has is that it demonstrates what’s possible when we all do. At scale, cities can become natural places, full of a whole diversity of life, with food dripping from trees and shrubs beside runoff dripping into basins, cisterns, and swales.
More than anything though, as a stay at home dad, I think Ryan just wanted to raise his kids in a verdant, life-teeming place with good things to eat. I’ve watched yards like Ryan’s positively effect families for years. In suburbs and cities, it’s only become increasingly common for young kids to be disconnected to nature and their food system. Remediating this has been a pattern in my own work and I love seeing my students expand it.
To pull this all off, Ryan crafted a landscape design with his Permaculture training, applied for a rainscaping grant from the Metropolitan Sewer District in St. Louis, and ultimately was awarded funding. That allowed the purchase of materials like cisterns, which otherwise can be cost prohibitive. Small grants like this exist all over the country too and are becoming more and more prevalent. What the grant couldn’t pay for, Ryan pieced together as time and funds allowed, which is what most folks do, but as funding to positively impact our environment becomes increasingly available, Ryan suggests it’s worth looking into opportunities in your area.
Well-planned work goes a long way toward success. A couple of weeks after visiting Ryan, he sent me a photo of the Yard of the Year Award he received from the organization who hosted the garden tour. I was elated for him!
People putting what they learn into practice, taking it to their unique neighborhoods, and inspiring others in following suit has the potential to shift many of our collective destructive patterns. That’s part of the ‘each one, teach one’ power of the PDC. It’s not the only level of change to be sure, just an absolutely essential one.
When I learned Permaculture almost 20 years ago, there were few books one could learn from for applying Permaculture Design to specific subjects. Two years after my Permaculture Design Course, Brad Lancaster, one of my original instructors, published his water harvesting books, and I dove right in.
The first edition of Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond Volume 1 was a groundswell for my life. It allowed me to take my practice of Permaculture into the world of water systems. I lived in Central Arizona then, and water harvesting was badly needed to grow much of anything in that parched landscape. I built rainwater capturing swales and basins in different contexts, put trash cans under my downspouts during monsoon season, and even constructed one rock dams across erosive rills and runnels on hikes in the national forest. The book guided me in the mindset, details, and joyful approach of opening oneself up to downpours that Brad Lancaster taught with. It imparted the preciousness and potential of each raindrop.
A couple of years later, Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond Volume 2 was released and I knew I would continue with water system work. I felt so alive thinking about and working with water in the landscape. I had also just moved to Colorado where water harvesting was legally prohibited. I set myself on changing that, and to do so, had to build a lot of rain gardens in a confusing legal landscape, however undeterred.
Volume 2 was all nuts and bolts for passive water harvesting via earthworks. I referenced the book in the field constantly. I remember constructing water harvesting basins and terraces on a grassy slope at 8,500 feet in the Rockies —the pages still bear my soiled handprints. As I worked, I noticed how the terrace rocks held the sun’s warmth, which would keep my garden warmer in that cold climate. I reveled in finding additional functions from what I was doing. In Brad Lancaster’s words I began to “do more than just harvest water”.
The water work was transforming me to make connections that were not obvious. Just harvesting water was no longer enough, so I learned Colorado Water Law to understand the history behind the prohibition of capturing the rain in hopes of making further connections. The reasons for prohibition were understandable, mainly that it was important not to impede the flow of rain so downstream users were ensured water. On the surface I could understand how one would think intercepting the flow of runoff from an upstream rooftop or street would reduce downstream flow, but what was less obvious was what happened to precipitation once infiltrated into the ground.
It turns out infiltrated precipitation is what keeps streams perennially flowing as opposed to surface runoff. Logically then, increasing infiltration could be viewed as a good thing, especially considering the high evaporation rate for surface water in drylands. I took it to the streets so to speak, and confidently built more and more rainwater harvesting gardens, armed with data from studies commissioned by the state itself that showed 97% of all surface runoff wouldn’t even make it to the stream before it evaporated.
With this new confidence, and seeing the oasis-like results of my work, I sought out opportunities to teach municipal water managers, sometimes to dismissing comments that I was promoting illegal behavior. Unfazed, I spoke at conferences, put on workshops with conservation organizations, eruditely challenged the governor in a town hall, and eventually persuasively presented my work and information in a special session of the state legislature.
It was a pivotal time in Colorado water history. The historic basis for water harvesting prohibition in the state was eroding, and I, along with many of my colleagues and students, were pushing from all sides. We made headway. New laws permitting rooftop runoff were written, greywater reuse was legalized (even though it’s still in limbo), public opinion was shifting via education, and the work continues, in no small part to the hard work of Brad Lancaster in compiling his books.
Eventually I moved away from the drylands back to my home city of St. Louis, Missouri, a much wetter climate, where I looked forward to working with water in a different context. I moved into the seemingly nebulous “Beyond” that the books titles referred to. It wasn’t nebulous at all however, because almost everything I learned about water harvesting in the drylands worked for flooding in this region of 40 inches of annual precipitation. The techniques work to reduce nutrient pollution in the mighty riverways of this land too, a co-benefit of water harvesting and an environmental issue of incredible importance for the Mississippi River Basin.
There’s a lot more work to do managing water resources for the health of people and ecosystems. Perhaps we just need a lot more people to read Brad Lancaster’s books and put the information to use. As a practitioner and instructor of this work, I can honestly say there is no better time to learn water harvesting green infrastructure practices than now. For one thing, we need it more than ever. For another, it’s a rapidly growing field. But even more so, those learning this work have a better-than-ever resource at their fingertips in the new all-color editions of Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond. The books might just change your life and the world around you.
Jason GerhardtThe Potential of Taking Two Books to Heart
North City, Saint Louis, Missouri, 3am…I’m freshly awoken, once again, by the heart-stopping sound of 15-20 gunshots fired from what sounded like a cannon on my street. Some days around here, rebuilding community seems utterly fraught with impossibility.
I’ve lived in the Old North St. Louis Neighborhood for almost three years. I still can’t bring myself to call it my neighborhood. I may be a member of this place by residence and involvement, but I didn’t lay a single brick in these sidewalks. Nor have I stuck it out through the hardest decades like many of my closest neighbors. I simply returned to my home city and chose this neighborhood because against all odds it had the enlivening feel of community I’ve found in very few places. How could that be? Regardless of daily gunfire, drug sales, arson, and all manner of recklessness, death, and crime, there was something going on here with which I had to engage.
North St. Louis is regularly used as the poster child for community dissolution. The list of causes and conditions for the present reality is extensive, ongoing, and frankly disheartening to recount. From dispelled industry to extensive white flight throughout The Great Migration to astonishingly failed top-down policy and planning, this is just the dust on the surface. Peel back a couple layers and it gets far more discouraging, as if every element needed for the continuance of human community has been ripped out from underneath and scrapped.
The neighborhood I live in is one of the oldest neighborhoods in north city. It has historically deep and actively growing roots that have allowed it to continue to stand while much of the city around it has fallen. A huge reason for that is the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group founded by neighborhood residents in 1981 as a community revitalization non-profit (ONSLRG). They started out boarding up abandoned buildings, creating gardens on vacant lots, and forming closer bonds among residents. They’ve since gone on to restore entire blocks of historic buildings, build new affordable housing, and incubate neighborhood businesses, among many other successes.
I was humbled as I got to know Old North. Here they were, doing so many things urban permaculturists talk about, totally unaware of the moniker. With many visits to the neighborhood and much research, I realized how much I had to learn despite already being a leader in the permaculture field.
Entering a community
In my first few days living in Old North, I walked to the 13th Street Community Garden (a project of ONSLRG) to see about getting involved. I began by weeding overgrown gardens and helping harvest for the North City Farmers’ Market. After showing up repeatedly and quietly attending garden meetings, my neighbors asked if I would take the lead in the market garden. I did have extensive market farming experience to offer, and definitely saw room for improvement, but I didn’t talk myself up. I simply demonstrated my ability by being helpful. I wasn’t seeking to work in a perfect permaculture paradise either (whatever that would mean), so I had no reason to force my own ideas and potentially repel my neighbors. What I cared about was learning from the efforts here, and contributing to the existing goals.
The aims of the 13th Street Community Garden and North City Farmers’ Market were to increase access to fresh, healthy food in this food desert, to be a source of beauty and ecological health, and to build community in the neighborhood. These are worthy goals for any “permaculture” project, and for this challenging place, without these essentials, and especially each other, there’s no chance of permanence in human culture at all. In a way, the neighborhood felt like the essence of permaculture to me—a community that has strived to last in the face of ruin—a likely distillation of what permaculture will need to mean for many more places over the next one hundred years.
For community, by community
Every Saturday from May to October my gardening neighbors and I get up early to harvest and set up tents for the North City Farmers’ Market. We do a pop-up market in the garden mere steps from where the food is grown. We have a regular crew most Saturdays, as well as a changing cast of characters from week to week.
Sometimes groups from other parts of the city come to help and learn. Oftentimes boys from the neighborhood wake up early to perform quality control sampling of the veggies. And less frequently it’s just two of us, running around with an ever-present feeling of being behind. The hallmark is that we are here, consistently, as a hub in the community.
I’ve observed the garden serve as shelter from gunfire. I’ve facilitated young children having their first experiences devouring fruit off a tree or a carrot from the ground. I’ve had neighborhood boys pick flowers, take them home, and come back the next week with a notebook full of drawn zinnias and roses to show me. And I’ve felt the corners of my mouth lift higher in this space than any other.
What allows this garden to exist is effort. We’re all volunteering our Saturday mornings for over half the year to make the garden possible. Nobody gets paid to be here. Instead, we find great value being in community as we work for community.
We’re growing on top of a collapsed cooperage, a former barrel-making factory. There is very little soil before ruins. I can barely get a garden fork ten inches deep before clanging against rubble. There’s one spot of compacted wreckage at the surface that stays bare and grey, with green growth all around. I call it the garden truth window, showing we don’t need much to build something of value.
We’ve been composting, sheet mulching, and cover cropping for years, and that accounts for our production—the ecological processes that allow the former factory site to be human habitat at all. Without the people though, there would be nothing. The persistent bermuda grass would do about as good of a job at greening this urban desert as our preferred crimson clover, and the neighborhood has plenty of green-grassed lots to go around, with nobody using them.
But when the blue tops of the tents unfurl and the street signs for the farmers’ market go up, the 13th St. Community Garden is like a beacon. Suddenly there are kids running around, customers asking if they can walk through the rows, neighbors looking to help out and converse. Life shows up at the presence of other life. At that moment, this is the most important thing going on in the neighborhood, built from the rubble up by human will.
I’ve taken to paying attention to other things that bring people together here too. Anywhere on the northside of St. Louis, a dollar store exists nearby. It’s evident that dollar stores are some of the most important businesses in low-income communities. This is simple observation science, as they are always hopping with life, and for one reason—they meet community needs. In Old North, residents themselves directly advocated for the Family Dollar at the entrance to the neighborhood.
As with any observation made, I make them to inform what I do. A year ago I proposed to the garden group that we nickname our market the “Dollar Store Produce Stand”. “What if we sold everything for a dollar a pound and a dollar a bunch,” I asked? The group has kept such good records, I was able to go back and determine that if most items were sold in one-dollar increments the market would make the same amount of money it has historically, if not more due to increased affordability and pricing consistency. The exceptions being heavy weighted items like fifteen-pound watermelons, which could be sold for a few dollars. We decided to try this pricing pattern out.
It turns out we’ve sold a lot more with this technique. We made the market more approachable by fitting the market pattern to the patterns of the people. And what we are gardening for, is people.
Life begets life
Every single cent we earn from produce sales gets reinvested back into materials for improving the garden. It ends up being a little more than enough. As we improve the garden habitat, the more capacity for life it has. With increased capacity we have more food to distribute, more beauty and ecosystem health, and most importantly, more people coming together in a place with a long history of strife. From passersby turned customers to neighborhood youth turned garden artists to garden enthusiasts turned community builders, we’re bringing people together and finding we all have softer edges than it may otherwise seem.
Over the last three years the garden hasn’t done huge fundraisers, and we haven’t sought big grants. We’ve received basically no press. We’re certainly not a social enterprise. We’re just neighbors, choosing to care for each other because we understand the well-being of ourselves is only as good as the well-being of the community.
Coming back to life
Not everywhere shares the struggles of North St. Louis, and that’s a good thing. With every new climate change report and tale of social conflict, however, my certainty grows that community-based efforts in places like this have a lot to share about permanence in human culture.
In a world that wants to pull apart more than come together, it makes me think those who are ripping apart never understood somewhere that has already been ripped apart, and more importantly, somewhere that has started the difficult mend of sewing the pieces back together. In an effort to advance that understanding, allow me to share this—we’re going to need each other more than anything if we want any chance of a bountiful future. My time here has made this abundantly clear.
For those of us trying to represent the mending, I think the realest version of permaculture needs to be called forth. In the words of Arundhati Roy, “it lives low down on the ground, with its arm around the people who go to battle everyday.”
Originally published in Permaculture Design Magazine in Spring 2019, issue #111. Reprinted here with authors permission.
Jason Gerhardt is director of the 20+ year-old Permaculture Institute Inc. He is the founder of Real Earth Design, where he strives to make permaculture as accessible and authentic to real life as possible. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Jason GerhardtCommunity in the Hardest Place I Know
“Just join with one or two friends to make your way in the confusion. Others will follow and learn” – Bill Mollison
Observing my life and the world around me, it’s easy to see how little I know about the systems that I live in. How could I have done elementary school and high school without learning the simple skills of gardening, plumbing or motorcycle maintenance? How could I know more about history and literature than about the names and functions of weeds that have grown around every home I have ever lived in?
Jason GerhardtPath to Permaculture: Delvin’s Story
Permaculture Institute Inc co-founder and original permaculturist. Scott has been teaching Permaculture globally for over 30 years. Full of wisdom and astonishing stories from the beginnings, Scott cares deeply about upholding the highest qualities of Permaculture.