Blog: A Permaculture Language

Community in the Hardest Place I Know

Community in the Hardest Place I Know

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. 

Dilapidation in Old North St. Louis

Deconstructing destruction

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.   

Neighbors inspecting produce at the North City Farmers’ Market. Photo by Kayla Hatcher.

Our foundation

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. 

Pattern application

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 jason@permaculture.org.

Jason GerhardtCommunity in the Hardest Place I Know
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Permaculture: deep roots and the growing canopy

Permaculture: deep roots and the growing canopy

In the beginning there was the word and the word was spirit as articulated by three ethics:
Take Care of the Earth
Take Care of people
Reduce materialism and population and return excess yield to care of the Earth and people.

These ethics have been enshrined in multiple religious movements and were elucidated in multiple ways. In the Jewish religions they were expanded to 10 ethical statements, which were reduced to two statements by Jesus: “Love the Lord thy God with all your heart, thy mind, thy spirit and love thy neighbor as thyself”. In Buddhism it was further reduced to Compassion for all living beings. And so on…

Over time religion forgot about spirit and focused more on spiritual leaders, which allowed for a callusing over of the human spirit with materialism, and narcissism. This then led to humans loss of their real reason for evolving here on planet Earth—to care for the earth (care-taking) and to care for all its wondrous manifestations, including us humans.

After many years of war, despoiling nature, fear of the other, and egotism there has begun to emerge, among many, an awareness of how empty life is without spirit. At first it was just a glimmering of conscience revealed as an awareness of our environment and the joy that it brought to those who spent time within the enfolding arms of a forest, or the awe inspiring oceanic view, and has become a desire to care for what is still remaining.

Many organizations have been founded and operated to save forests, grasslands, oceans, rivers, atmosphere, animals, soils, and finally humans. This awakening is now worldwide, but each organization has been isolated from the others and therefore they have never become powerful enough, through cooperation, to change the cultural paradigm in which they are embedded. Among these organizations is what was initially an Australian group formed in the mid-seventies around the writing and teaching of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.

Permaculture was unique in that it was a practice based on ethics and the principles of nature, though the teaching was mostly about how to become self-sufficient both physically and socially. But at least the underpinning ethics and principles were strong enough to soften the calluses that had formed over spirit. This is where my own personal story intersected with permaculture.

I was raised on a farm/ranch in the lower panhandle of Texas—a blistering climate of hot windblown sandstorms and bitter cold winters. As a youngster I felt very underprivileged; we had no television reception, no social life except school, family gatherings, and church. Church was boring to the point of tears for me and the atmosphere of puffed up self-righteousness was belied by the behavior of the congregation the other six days of the week.

Looking back, I count the blessings of living a life of nutritious, home raised vegetables, eggs, milk, cheese, butter, cream, poultry, pork, and beef. I also appreciate all of the skills I learned living on an isolated homestead. We did our own carpentry, electrical, plumbing, and whatever else was needed in every day life. I also loved the open spaces and my encounters of what was left of wildlife in that part of west Texas. My early spiritual encounters were experiences of being out of body watching huge thunderheads rolling overhead as I lay on my back, overwhelmed and thrilled, in a row of sorghum, or a cluster of Mesquite trees shaking with the joy of it all.

When I encountered permaculture many years later, most of the “how to do” stuff I already knew, but what really drew me was the statement of ethics and the principles of nature. Unfortunately my teacher Bill Mollison had a hard and fast rule of no spirituality (“woo-woo”) and no politics in permaculture classrooms. Once again I was confronted with my youthful dilemma and my personal experiences of hours of Methodist pew time and the out of body thrills of my youth. I accepted Bill’s belief that spiritual and political topics were more divisive than was agriculture, construction, forestry, ecovillages, and all of the sundry topics within the permaculture curriculum, but as time went by, some 25 years, I watched conditions in the dominant human culture deteriorate along with the environment.

This deterioration is manifest in an obvious division within the populace: Racism and its first cousin Jingoism versus Humanism, Capitalist versus Socialist, Haves versus Have Nots, and Right versus Left political views. Living in this swamp of racism, xenophobia, grand larceny, fear/anger, and poverty, it was obvious to me that planting a garden and building a tiny house was not the solution. More and more I felt that we as a culture were suffering from a lack of ethical direction and spiritual groundedness; I took a year off from teaching and went to Sat Yoga, an ashram in Costa Rica, to take another look at spirit, seeking a healing of my own from my cultural dis-ease.

After over a year of quietly sitting meditation at 4:00AM each morning, and sometimes twice a day during retreats, I decided that spiritual wasn’t the problem. The problem was that religions, for the most part, had lost their spirit and were more devoted to the same pursuits as the culture that surrounded them; that is, a paternalistic pattern of materialism and narcissism. It seems that most churches, temples, mosques and other places of worship serve as monuments to the ego of the spiritual leader rather than as examples of social justice and ethical behavior. Somehow spiritual became confused with religious.

I left the ashram with an understanding that the cultural affliction of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was its loss of spirit and the teachings of the spirit that so many of the religions gave service to, but did not provide to their followers. I realized that permaculture too had focused too narrowly on the material world and that without the enlivening influence of spirit, it was not providing the necessary guidance to those seeking another paradigm.

We have just concluded a year of sabbatical at the Permaculture Institute, an organization founded by Bill Mollison, Francis Huxley, and myself 21 years ago. Our purpose was to be an educational, demonstration, and research organization founded on the teaching of permaculture. After the last year of thought, meditation, and conversation we have agreed that we want to include more emphasis on ethics, principles and spirit in order to heal ourselves and our wounded culture. We believe that part of the healing comes from learning how to cast off the economic bonds of the dominant culture through self-regenerative lifestyles. To do this we will have to depend more on the Folk Wisdom of land-based peoples that permaculture has drawn so much from. We also want to reconfigure the standard permaculture curriculum to make clear and emphasize ethics and principles while eliminating the greed and materialism from our lives, simultaneously introducing mutualism and love in their place. I often substitute the word love for care as I think that one can only truly care for that which one loves.

I certainly hope you join us in creating a strong and viable medicine for the cultural malaise we seem to be surrounded by. I am only hopeful when I think of a future of more caring for each other and our living Gaia.

I am stepping down as board member and director of the Permaculture Institute and leaving it in the caring and capable hands of Jason Gerhardt. I will continue to serve in an advisory role to the institute as long as I possibly can.

The Permaculture Institute will be offering three updated courses this year: a teacher training and two PDC’s; we intend to offer curriculum and training encompassing our updated direction for permaculture, and hope you will join us and follow along as we release more articles and insights for the permaculture movement.

Scott PittmanPermaculture: deep roots and the growing canopy
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Permaculture Ethics: A Touchstone

Permaculture Ethics: A Touchstone

The permaculture ethics were presented in my first Permaculture Design Course as the touchstone of designing towards sustainability – whether as a landscape designer, as an architect, urban planner, as a farmer/gardener, as a teacher or activist, or as an urban dweller seeking to find balance and create an ecologically-sound life. I was amazed that I hadn’t been presented with a statement of ethics in any other discipline I had studied; I had known about the Hippocratic oath taken by medical practitioners, but not for professions that deal with the health of the land, of our communities or our cities and ecosystems.  Since that time I have realized how critical ethics are in my permaculture design work and my teaching of permaculture.  Ethics guide my work and my daily activities.

Scott PittmanPermaculture Ethics: A Touchstone
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Path to Permaculture: Delvin’s Story

Path to Permaculture: Delvin’s Story

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
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Founding a Journey Through Permaculture

Founding a Journey Through Permaculture

I came to permaculture, in a very convoluted way, through my friend Ali Sharif, (a late renowned permaculture activist and organizer, working in Mozambique, Africa).   We became friends when I was helping him find a small farm to purchase, and later to remodel an old adobe house.

One day Ali asked me to watch his place while he went to a training program called permaculture. Ali didn’t make clear what this training was all about, and I agreed to take care of his home.

Scott PittmanFounding a Journey Through Permaculture
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An Unlikely Journey to Permaculture: we all have a story, and why it matters

An Unlikely Journey to Permaculture: we all have a story, and why it matters

A couple years ago I had a conversation with a woman who started a phenomenal affordable housing program in Utah using education and natural building as her means. I asked about the story of how she got there. Was she in construction? Was she an educator? She was a mortgage officer for a bank. She got tired of turning people down who didn’t qualify for a home loan due to low income, and knew personally what it was like to not have a consistent home as a child growing up in Cincinnati.

Jason GerhardtAn Unlikely Journey to Permaculture: we all have a story, and why it matters
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