Even after spending two weeks learning about it, I still have a hard time coming up with a short and sweet definition of permaculture. Usually it takes a few sentences about gardening, and resources, and the amount of effort and intervention necessary, a bit about diversity and working with what is there rather than imposing a vision of what is desired on a place that might not be able to support it. But what I also learned over those two weeks is that permaculture is really about relationships.
Permaculture has three ethics – care of the people, care of the land, and care of the future. At the core of permaculture design is the goal of leaving things better than they were, not in an ego-supporting way (Look at how I imposed my Will on the Land!) but in a way that supports the forces of nature and spirits of the land that are present in any area. Permaculture teaches observation first, getting to know the area, and using that knowledge to shape the plan of action.
The relationships between bacteria, fungi, plants, animals, and place are incredibly complex. Anything we do to a part of the system affects the whole system, for good or bad, and sometimes unpredictably. We think we are doing one thing, but we are actually doing several, because of the invisible connections. This inspires permaculturalists to act cautiously when intervening in a system, and to value slow and small changes over grand sweeping efforts.
There are lots of places, especially in urban areas, where nature has to work hard against a legacy of oppression by humanity just to survive. There is healing work that must be done in these areas, and permaculture provides the steps to take to bring life to areas that are damaged or dying.
Earth Activist Training culminated with each of the students receiving a certificate in permaculture design, but the training itself included social permaculture and even spiritual work. For me, and for other students, desire to learn the practical ways of working with the Earth flows from a spiritual connection to nature, and a wish to come together with other people who share that connection. However, connection at Earth Activist Training was not always easy.
Like the land that has been oppressed and needs healing, there are peoples who have been oppressed, and there is healing work that needs to happen in order for the human system to operate at its full capacity. Through careful observation, honoring diversity, using the resources at hand, and understanding that the problem is the solution, change is possible but it requires a willingness to see what is really there.
For white people, it can be difficult to see the way our culture of white supremacy bestows privilege on some and robs others of dignity, agency, and humanity; especially for people who don’t see themselves as racist, it can be difficult to accept that change is needed. But here we are, in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, waking up to the ways our culture harms all of us, but disproportionately people of color, by allowing well-meaning white people to believe that we have nothing to do with (and therefore to do nothing about) the uncountable injustices, intentional or unintentional hurts, and deaths inflicted upon people of color. I returned to my day-to-day life more sensitive to the culture of white supremacy, prepared to be an agent of change, and full of gratitude for those people, of color and of pallor, whose openness and willingness to share broke me open so I could see what was there.
Before Earth Activist Training, I didn’t think I had any expectations about what the experience would be; I thought I had mustered up my courage and walked into the situation knowing I couldn’t know what to expect. But once I arrived I realized that I did have some hidden expectations born out of past participation in Pagan circles. I wasn’t expecting the tension, the energy leaks, or the uncomfortable moments that came up in ritual space. I wondered at first if maybe talking beforehand about the values of entering circle with “perfect love, perfect trust” would have helped the group come together more easily. I know now that we had the experience we needed to have, and while it wasn’t always fun or comfortable, it was beautifully enriching. Easy connection feels good, and is valuable, but connection that has to be worked for has its own rewards.
Working in groups on small projects also proved to be more challenging than I expected. In a group full of leaders, activists, priestesses, and artists there were many times when strong personalities clashed. The experience helped me to realize how I sometimes need to be softer and more playful, but also to value my ability to focus and organize. I also learned that I sometimes have a problem with interrupting other people in conversation, and that I have a hard time articulating strong feelings in a group setting.
I’ve been home for almost two weeks, and thanks to Facebook and email, am able to stay in touch with my Permie friends. I’m so grateful for all of the people and connections in my life, new and old, and excited for the ways permaculture will help me expand on them further.
Next I’ll write about the Fire aspects of Earth Activist Training – the spiritual work, energy, and possibilities for transformation.