social permaculture

Striking at the Root: A Life In Permaculture Design

Striking at the Root: A Life In Permaculture Design

I 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.

I 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.

Maple Forest Monastery where the author first immersed in Zen practice.

The Ground

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.

For 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.

We 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.

For 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 quest.

The author teaching in greenhouse lab at Naropa University.

On 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.

For 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 design.

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.

The People

It 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.

This 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.

But 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.

Over 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.

Family moving on from their micro food forest rain garden.

I 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 first place.

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.

Integrating

My 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.

The 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.

For 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 of inquiry.

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”.

Small-scale 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.

What’s Next?

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.

We 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
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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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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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