All posts tagged: permaculture education

Practicing What We Learn

Practicing What We Learn

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.

water harvesting cistern
Street facing cistern with educational signage

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.

Rooftop to landscape irrigation

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.

For more info on our Permaculture Design Courses visit:

Jason GerhardtPracticing What We Learn
The Potential of Taking Two Books to Heart

The Potential of Taking Two Books to Heart

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
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
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