…guest post by Jason Gerhardt…
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.
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.
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 and immersed in a traditional
Vietnamese Buddhist culture at that. 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 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
leaving the monastery, I found my way to an Ecological Design course, and
subsequently a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) in 2004. 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
my first courses, 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
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.
college, the people who became my first 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.
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 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. That’s when I felt my Permaculture practice had begun to ripen.
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.
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
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.
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
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. 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.
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 limiting factor in Permaculture.
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.
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 nature, especially their young daughter. In the end,
they helped dig water-harvesting earthworks and planted the food forest with my
crew. Together, we transformed their small suburban site into a little slice of
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. These are the beginning tracks of cultural
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
view Permaculture quite literally as meaning greater permanence in human
culture. Integrated 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 expanding beyond basic material solutions.
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
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.
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.
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, 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.
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 Gerhardt serves as 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 email@example.com
Originally published at the Permaculture Institute of North America and republished here with Jason’s kind permission