Leah Penniman from Soul Fire Farm on Permaculture, Decolonisation, and Re-Indigenising

It was a deep honour to have Leah Penniman from Soul Fire Farm join me for this conversation. Along with Leah’s beautiful sharing, I was grateful for the feelings the conversation evoked (many of which only emerged when I listened to our chat again afterwards). I feel like I gained some powerful waypoints in navigating the journey back home. A journey I’m sure I’m not alone in craving.

I also appreciated hearing the heartache Leah has around certain patterns she perceives permaculture to be perpetuating. My focus in the conversation was about inviting and engaging with Leah’s perspective. A perspective which comes from her standing outside permaculture and looking in. I would love to hear your perspective in the comments below. What of Leah’s experience of permaculture resonates with your own? What, if anything, doesn’t? What impact, if any, does you listening to this episode have on your journey forward?

Learn more about Soul Fire Farm here, and check out a rich trove of Leah sharings on youtube here. This one’s a goodie:

And here’s one helpful summary vid in which Leah shares the Soul Fire Farm journey:

Also here’s a link to the work of Toshi Reagon (see also Toshi’s Opera about Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower Opera) that Leah recommends during our chat. Which, by the way, I must mention happened way back on January 8th, 2021.

What did this conversation evoke in you? Would you like to hear more conversations of this nature on the show? Should I share Tyson Yunkaporta’s perspectives on the same matters in the next episode? Please let me know in a comment below!

9 Comments

  1. Interesting conversation… it left me wondering about what is indigenous in Europe? “White people” have a right to being indigenous to somewhere as well and to have traditional practices. Concerning ourselves with how endogenous or exogenous people are to place is, in my view, a way of compartmentalizing the perception of human experience and relativizing value. The role one claims in the whole is much more important than the inheritance you have a right to claim. Furthermore, we are always assuming who owns what even if we relentlessly go revising our history through archaeological evidence – and even that can be misinterpreted and is inherently based on human perception.
    My answer to Scott up there would be that his concerns are well-founded. We do not need to claim possession over our cultural lineage and to reflect that technologically – the philosophical effort would render any regenerative development process completely impractical if we are always concerned about being offensive for simply claiming possession of ideas that are not our own.
    That being said, there is a need to compensate people and cultures who were subject to the injustice of forced or imposed colonisation (there are other kinds in my opinion). However, it is hard to relate to this discourse being an “indigenous person” from Portugal (if that even is a reasonable claim in a continent that has been through consecutive civilization shifts, wars, etc.). Portraying myself like that makes me feel like a nationalist of sorts, which is something I abhor.
    Decolonisation doesn’t seem to me to be a good thing per se. , but then again I am white, so it could just be my cognitive dissonance. It reminds me of the broader biological/ecological debate between restorative/adaptive approaches to ecosystem regeneration. Should culture be preserved too, or should it just adapt to its place and time, unhindered by conservatism?

  2. Hey Dan, I really appreciated listening to this conversation, and the follow up with Tyson! I wanted to share something I’ve found helpful – distinguishing between decolonising and de-colonial -ising. I think MPS is doing the later for permaculture.

    Decolonsiation being about colonised people reclaiming & healing their land and culture.

    and decolonialisation being about settlers giving back what was stolen, dismantling the dominating power structures, unlearning habits of control, entitlement, separation etc. learning to be humble, reciperocal participants in the creative unfolding of life. MPS is ever refining and enriching my perspective with that worldview/habituation stuff, so thank you 🙂

  3. I think there’s a lot of truth to be gained by looking in the side mirror. Things are closer together than they appear. I’m grateful for this episode because I think the conversation shows how true that is. Thank you Leah, for your spirited work, and thanks Dan, for doing the show.

    I can clearly see Leah’s perspective on permaculture. I think it’s a fairly surficial view, as I’ve observed very different outcomes of permaculture’s history, but on the surface I share a lot of the same criticisms. It’s really just the surface though, kinda like judging a book by the cover. The cover is still there and it’s annoying, but Permaculture’s full history hasn’t even been captured so that someone could actually dig deep and learn about it without having been very involved in it. And it’s imperfect, hence the reason for Dan’s work in the first place.

    We’re in a time of feeling very deeply for the pain that people cause each other. We should feel that pain, and we should change the conditions. I know I’m there. We might hope that critiquing everything and shaming things will be enough to change them, but that strategy has a very low track record. It can be enough to get an acknowledgement, but it’s never been enough to shift the pattern. Time for something new. The on the ground work is what matters and Leah’s work is fucking awesome!

  4. Dan, thank you so much for making this conversation happen. I really enjoyed listening to Leah. She contextualized a lot of her comments and perspectives well. I appreciate that she clarified that she wasn’t coming from a permaculture background, hadn’t taken a course, etc. That helped for me recognize how she might consider permaculture as a set of stolen/borrow/appropriated techniques, as opposed to the process of design, of reconnecting to place that I believe your work, this show has really tried to distinguish. More evidence of the need for this show.

    It was interesting how you expressed the weakness of the approach of the appropriated permaculture grab bag as taking techniques out of context of their usefulness while Leah expressed it as something closer to theft. Both of you recognized this grab bag approach, whether from youtube videos and permie books or direct from indigenous land stewards, as highly problematic.

    Leah’s clarity in defining decolonization, the return of land, period, was refreshing; and will inform my use of that word.

    My follow up question; let’s see how well I can articular them:

    If we are striving to acknowledge/compensate for the use of indigenous practices in our work, at what point might that be a barrier to people having the courage start a garden, plant a food forest, etc? We already suffer from paralysis by analysis in taking these leaps. I can genuinely see how this conversation would make people stop and question if they should make raised beds or design a multistory polyculture because of fear of political correctness, because of wanted to do it perfect, but knowing they can’t. So how do we both give people permission to do all these things, which as Leah said, are good things, that we want people practicing, all people, while simultaneously meeting the standards of acknowledgment and compensation? Is one of these more important? What tools allow us to do both simultaneously?

    Huge fan of Leah’s work and appreciate her articulation of complex ideas. I enjoy how they make me think about my teaching, our clients, our work in a “developing country”, etc. More of these conversations please!

    1. Thanks Scott and great follow-up question. Look forward to seeing how Tyson’s in some ways refreshing perspective on this lands for you :-).

  5. Please do share Tyson thoughts. The conversation needs continuing and maturity needs practicing. I have disagreements and questions and there are not many ways to process these thoughts without a continuing conversation.

    1. Hey David thanks for commenting, right on re the need for maturity in these conversations, and prepare to have Tyson chime in (with a rather different perspective) when I release the next episode later today!

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