Into the Jungle
We are crouched in the dory, a traditional canoe carved from a solid tree trunk, being punted upstream through the darkening jungle. The vine covered rafters reach over us, blackening into the night sky. Jorge struggles valiently but weighed low with passengers we frequently grind to a halt and have to jump out barefoot and push. It starts to drizzle, only adding to the atmosphere.
Eventually we arrive, slipping precariously up the bank with our lumps of luggage, climbing a stepped slope until we arrive at a covered courtyard and calls of welcome from our fellow students. We've reached the Maya Mountain Research Farm (MMRF) ready to begin a two week Permaculture Design Course.
MMRF is the life's work of Christopher Nesbitt, a forty-something New Yorker who in the eighties swapped the furious pace of a Manhatten cycle courier for a seventy acre damaged citrous farm in Southern Belize. From his early days living in a wooden shack, beholden to the sun for wake-up calls and lights-out, he has observed, studied, planted and nurtured his land into a lush and productive agroforestry system. Papaya, pineapple, breadnut, corn, beans, coconuts, eggs, vanilla, cacao, coffee... the list goes on and on. Solar panel by solar panel, stone by stone he has built a comfortable, light-filled home - complete with kitchen, book-lined study and panoramic vista'd bedroom - fit for the cover of glossy magazine.
Although the dreadlocks went decades ago he's not shaved since eighteen and Chris could now be credited with creating the 'Jungle Rabbinic' look: cropped hair and vast beard, baggy Carhartt pants betraying his urban roots, wellingtons, army surplus rucksack slung over one shoulder and riffle or machete over the other. His face is open and kind but his large, sad eyes hint at the tough graft and personal tragedies that he's overcome building his home in the jungle of this sparsely populated river valley.
Chris was the perfect host and his farm the perfect location to study something that I hoped desperately could offer a last minute reprieve to a world on life-support.
Permaculture is short for 'permanent agriculture'. It sums up the ambitious hopes of its founders, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, who in 1978 launched it with the publication of 'Permaculture One'. In 1988 the hefty 'Permaculture: A Designers' Manual' was published, one percent ethics and ninety percent practical design instruction, where the definition given is "the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive and healthy ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems." Still not clear? I wasn't either.
Most of my fellow students weren't entirely sure, but our anticipation grew during the introduction: we were to be learning a whole new vocabulary that included the mysterious 'swales', the principle of 'stacking functions' and the crucial tool of 'needs and yields analysis'. With it we could share ideas with the millions of other permaculturists around the world, in the common language of the 'permaculture army'.
There were sixteen students, of all ages and backgrounds. Many were from the U.S. but there was a Canadian, some Mexicans, a Trinidadian and some Belizians on scholarship. Three teachers joined Chris - Albert Bates, Maria A Martinez Ros and and Andrew 'Goodheart' Brown - making an eclectic and experienced team who each brought their own angle. Initially teaching was theory-heavy as we learnt key principles of ecology and of permaculture design. Later in the week we practiced mapping out an area of the farm, using our bodies as rulers - our result was 2,000 square 'Erles' - and learnt how to use a simple A-frame to measure along the contours of a slope to dig a swale - simply a shallow ditch that catches and holds water, but a key tool to build healthy soil.
Piece by piece it started to make sense.
A Deficit of Ducks
There's a story that one day a student was lamenting to permaculture's founder, Bill Mollison, about loosing her lettuces to an onslaught of slugs. "You don't have a surplus of slugs problem." he replied. "You have a deficit of ducks". It neatly illustrates the goal of permaculture - to think like an ecosystem and strive always to 'close the loop'.
The carefully fostered illusion of consumer culture is that things magically appear and disappear to satisfy our needs. Yet every bit of matter passing through our hands comes from and returns to the earth's ecosystem and is part of its cycles. (A point made brilliantly in The Story of Stuff). Extraction and disposal have consequences and these can only be ignored for so long before they return to bite us. Simply put, our waste is wasting us - most prominently, our waste carbon, which we thought we could walk away from. Surprise, surprise, we can't. 'Up in smoke' should not be a synonym for disappeared.
Nature works in cycles and so permaculture rejects the whole concept of 'waste'. Waste is a resource that we've not been smart enough to put to good use yet. No good use at all - spent nuclear fuel rods, for example - is a warning that whatever system is producing it has no sustainable place in the world. There's no waste in nature as such.
So one of the key tools we learnt was 'Needs and Yields Analysis'. Each element of a design has needs and yields and the aim is to match them up - to close the loop. The chickens on Chris's farm are my favourite example. They need food, water, space to roam, a safe place for the night. They yield products and useful services: kitchen scraps disappear greedily, turned into tasty eggs and nutrient rich droppings. A big problem for tropical farmers are Leafcutter Ants, or 'Wee Wees'. The fossil fuel solution: put poison in the system, pesticides bought from outside - a complex external industrial product. The permaculture solution: Wee Wees as chicken food. Having been chased from my bed by Soldier Ants I gained a new found respect for the chicken as I watched them gobble up huge-pincered ants streaming from an aggravated nest.
So we are part of the loop, but everyday life constantly hides this from us. For me the beauty of studying at MMRF was that you couldn't forget this basic fact: from the bug bites yelling "you're part of the food chain" to the tasty meals cooked from ingredients plucked straight from nearby trees. For the first week I recoiled: used to a more sterile environment I was faintly flustered by it all, by bugs and bites and slippy pathways. Then I relaxed, the unseasonal showers passed, and I felt wonderfully and peacefully at home.
My favourite moments were stolen between classes: swinging gently on the hammock, cool after a swim in the river, just soaking in the sounds; cheeps, flutters, rustles, whistles, pulsing bug rubbings, the high pitched whine and zoom of passing flies; the jungle community going about its daily business, from soil to canopy top. There was a rhythm and intimacy with nature that brought a deep sense of calm.
As the exotic became more familiar what struck me was that this 'exotic' was nothing of the sort. This is how it has been, day after day, for millions of years. My normal (our normal) everyday life is a freakish aberration: we drive complex machines over fields of asphalt, stopping at filling stations to pay pittance for fossilised sunlight, and then carelessly burn up this rich energy resource (equivalent to thousands of hours of human labour) on activities that we could often happily do without. All civilisations are temporary, perhaps as temporary as their foundations, and we have thrown in our lot with a dwindling treasure trove of inherited energy, egged on by blind faith in free-market capitalism whose priests insist that the mighty market will provide - "We'll cross that bridge..."; "Don't plan ahead (Communist!), believe"; don't save for a rainy day...
The 'normal' has a way of lulling us into a false sense of security and permanence. For hundreds of years life was very 'normal' in this now jungle-filled river valley, when it was part of a bustling Mayan metropolis. One evening we climbed the ridge in the gold of the setting sun and through a clearing in the undergrowth looked at a beautifully set Mayan wall, 1200 years old. Chris told us that there are literally hundreds of house mounds dotted around the farm (his house is in fact built on one). At their zenith the Maya ruled an area from Southern Mexico to Northern Honduras for over 600 years before their civilisation declined and came to an end. But we're smarter than them, right? We have Google and ATM machines. And cars. And toilet paper made from ancient forests. The Mayans might beg to differ and challenge us to last a little longer than the century and a half since industrialisation began.
Just not seeing it
When I first walked through Chris's farm I saw trees. Just lots of trees. But walk through with Chris as translator and you start to see complex systems, carefully designed and incredibly productive: coffee and cacao shaded under breadnut trees and coconut palms, pinapple crescents catching water and building soil around sapplings. My illiteracy was shared by the 'conquerors' five hundred years ago, who lamented the ignorant slash and burn agriculture while missing the carefully managed agroforestry system of the 'fallow' land (see 'Beyond Wilderness: Seeing the Garden in the Jungle').
Yes, we know more than the Mayans. Our scientific method is qualitatively different from what went before. It has given us great power. But perhaps we're all the more stupid for it.
The fertile middle ground
For me the genius of permaculture is that it recognises this stupidity but refuses to fall into the opposite trap of romanticising past cultures. It respects both the natural systems that ultimately support all life and also the scientific method that has given us so much power to understand and influence them. My interpretation of permaculture as that it is a science-based design system. Ultimately we are completely reliant on nature, but if we approach it with respect we can understand and learn from the systems that keep our world alive. Then we can apply our intelligence and creativity to tweak and mould them to provide generously for human life. It is a middle ground between domination (destined to fail) and subservience (destructive of our humanity), aimed at creating a humane space within the natural world. A garden.
Spades out for the revolution
So that's what it boils down to: permaculture is gardening. And to think as a boy I saw my Grandfather as such an anachronism, with his rows of raspberries and inability to operate a video recorder. If engineers ruled in the 20th Century then perhaps the 21st belongs to the gardeners: scientifically literate, socially influential and operating in their millions. We hope.
'Everything gardens' is a permaculture principle and it was illustrated every night as we carefully stepped over the torch lit highway of Leafcutter Ants, ferrying green chunks in their millions back to their nest. They use the leaves to grow mould that will feed the whole colony. They hardly ever kill a tree, Chris explained, but strip only some branches before moving on. They do not destroy that which they depend upon. The heart of permaculture is learning from nature, and we could take a leaf from their book.
I Will Survive: Permaculture Remix
It was a fun-filled night tinged with sadness, as everyone pitched in for the 'No Talent' show that rounded off the two week course. I'll spare you the full version, but my group had 're-designed' Gloria Gaynor's classic 'I will survive' to include lines such as: "At first I was afraid, I was petrified. Kept thinking I could never live without these pesticides" and "But no, not us, we will survive. For as long as we know how to swale I know we'll stay alive." After two weeks we had all become quite fond of each other. I wondered where this group of radical gardeners would get to, and what difference we would make. And why the course was only two thirds full when the 'normal' world is so clearly starting to unravel.
Still, we left inspired, determined to plant and compost to a better future.
Back to Civilisation
The bus was pretty swish - air conditioned, reclining chairs, video screens - but I felt uncomfortable. A growing sense of agitation was making me desperate for the journey to end.
We stopped at Gautemala's version of a service station. As I looked round at a forest of plastic, tin cylinders behind glass and bulging humans poking at synthetic food on polyester plates, I realised what I was suffering - culture shock. I was trying to place it all in the natural cycles I'd become used to and so little of it would fit.
It showed the change my fortnight at MMRF had brought. In my five years of 'environmentalism', first of study then work, I've heard lots of theory about living within the earth's limits. Now for the first time I really felt it, in my guts. Permaculture might not be 'the answer' - there's no such thing - but it taught me to see the fundamental logic of our place in the natural order.
More than this, perhaps it might allow me the audacity of hope for a reconciliation between humanity and the world we're currently beating the crap out of. Perhaps environmentalism does not equal atavism. Perhaps MMRF hints at a way forward, rather than a retreat, as the interns check their emails under locally grown bananas: the Apple Mac sitting with the permaculture pineapple.
I don't know yet, but I firmly believe that Bill Mollison was right in 1988 when he wrote that "in the near future we will see the end of wasted energy or the end of civilization as we know it". I just hope that, over two decades later, another of his assertions still holds true: "What we have done, we can undo."
Photo credits: Thanks to Erle Noronha for the second picture (Chris's house) and Albert Bates for the group photo. All others are my own.
What permaculture can do - the mighty 'swale' in action. A great little video:
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