On Permaculture

I first wrote this article for “The Sauce” magazine by Foodscape Pages.

I don’t remember when I first came upon permaculture. Perhaps there was never an exact moment, like the conception of a human. Perhaps the point when the sperm entered the egg was in 2011, when I took up a five square meter allotment plot at an organic farm in Hong Kong. I was working weekdays and come weekend, would jump on my white Vespa for the one-hour ride to my tiny garden in the mountains bordering China. I was clueless about farming then, but Nature was forgiving enough to spare me among the weeds some choy sum, French beans, and one strawberry. The point when the baby popped out was when I spent my 2013 Christmas and New Year holidays at the foothills of Genting Highlands, building a bamboo hut and digging canals to irrigate a paddy field as part of a permaculture course. Since then, it has been a bit of an obsession, practicing at the farms in the day and reading the same in the evenings.

Yet, five years since its birth, I still stumble whenever someone asks me, ‘What is permaculture?’ The answer varies, always. This difficulty is not unique to me; ask most permaculturalists and you might get responses ranging from well-memorized standard definitions to a blank-eyed ‘hmm’. The difficulty lies in the all-embracing scope of permaculture and what permaculture means personally to each practitioner. Try asking a loving elderly couple ‘What is love?’ and you’ll get an idea. On top of that, we try to customize the answer to the enquirer. A budding gardener and a corporate executive might go home with different answers after a conversation about permaculture with me. To be honest, I don’t think I would get better at answering even with another five years of practice. But I take consolation in the first verse of the classic Chinese text Tao Te Ching: ‘The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao’.

It all started when…

In mid-1970s Australia, Bill Mollison and his graduate student David Holmgren couldn’t find a term to describe a sustainable agriculture system that integrated perennial plants and animals useful to man. Mollison, who had left school at 15 and witnessed the world as a baker, shark fisherman, forester, trapper, tractor-driver, naturalist, field biologist, felt that modern industrial agriculture was wrecking our planet. Sick of protesting against faceless governments and institutions, he wanted something positive that anyone can do to make a difference. Eventually, they came up with the term ‘permaculture’ by marrying ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’. Today, forty-odd years on, ‘permaculture’ has expanded to include anything that is related to designing sustainable human settlements.

A more current but still evolving definition of permaculture would be: a way to integrate people and land harmoniously. Through permaculture, we strive to provide for our material needs (food, energy, shelter, etc) and non-material needs in a sustainable way. With such a lofty goal, permaculture covers many disciplines to get us there. Like a Swiss Army knife, the permaculture toolbox includes agriculture, water use, energy, natural building, forestry, waste management, animal systems, aquaculture, appropriate technology, economics and community development.

While the individual disciplines are important, how they cross and relate to one another is equally, if not more, important. For example, instead of segregating the orchard and chicken yard, one can free-range chickens under the fruit trees. The chickens eat up the damaged fruits, weed, and provide manure to fertilize the trees. The trees shade the chickens from the sun and offer protection from aerial predators.

Permaculture does not dictate rules and laws. Rather, it is guided by ethics and principles. The three ethics are straightforward:

  1. care for the earth,
  2. care for people,
  3. fair share.

The absence of clear rules and laws can make it confusing and frustrating, especially for some of us habituated to a predictable and precise modern life. However, the very lack of rigid rules opens up permaculture to be applied anywhere. From balcony gardens to hundred-acre farms to entire towns, or from deserts to the humid tropics.

Like myself, most people first hear of permaculture through farming. But surprising to some, you don’t need to do organic farming, or even farming, to be practicing permaculture. On the other hand, an organic farm that exploits workers and is only concerned about profits runs against the ethics of permaculture. The principles can readily apply outside of farming. A friend of mine, an organic farmer in Thailand, recently wrote about joining her community of farming neighbors (who do not run their farms organically). “Make friends, not fence,” she said. That’s number eight of the twelve principles of permaculture: Integrate rather than segregate. Farming is but a part of permaculture, like body postures are but a part of yoga.

Another common misconception is that permaculture invented a variety of farming techniques, like mulching, green manure, and food forest. These, and many other methods, might have been made popular by permaculture but are in fact taken from century-old farming practices of indigenous or tribal cultures. Almost always, these methods mimic Nature.

After all the verbiage…

How does one start to practice permaculture? Here goes:

Leave your phones and step into the garden (shoes optional).

Start small, don’t expect much, try whatever, and fail often.

When dealing with plants, nurture rather than manufacture.

Your garden can be a few pots along the corridor; even better if you manage to wrangle a few square meters of soil below your HDB block. Small-scale gardening remains one of the more accessible ways of allowing urbanites to catch a glimpse of how Nature works her wonders.

Books, courses, and certifications are extremely useful, but only as a supplement to practical experience. We live in an age of abstraction and have enough problems being disconnected from the earth.

After all, there have been many people and cultures practicing what we call permaculture without even knowing it. One doesn’t need to know what happiness is to be happy, or what love is to love. Really, like me, you don’t need to know ‘what is permaculture’ to be a permaculturalist!

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