Here as I begin my second paper of the day for a permaculture class I am taking at a Oakland University, I am feeling a bit of the strain imposed by the compressed summer semester schedule as we tackle the multidimensionality of permaculture as a design science. Yet what better time to learn about this subject than during summertime, when we can actually observe and feel the rhythm of natural systems at their most active?
In some ways, I’m grateful. The pressure of the looming end of class is motivating, and as we head into the month of August I often feel an uptick in physical energy as the days grow shorter. Perhaps in this people are no different than squirrels busily fattening up on summer bounty and stashing away the abundance of autumn seeds. Maybe I’m on the same page as my garden leeks, which right about now usually seem to suddenly realize it’s time to get busy and grow after having apparently estivated through much of the summer. We humans have historically worked extra long days to bring in the fall harvest. In the case of my permaculture class, of course, the harvest I busy myself with is a greatly enhanced vision for how to co-creatively participate in the planet’s living systems.
Still, I also feel poignantly the many opportunities I have not been able to adequately capitalize upon. On our tour of the Michigan State University Student Organic Farm, for example, I found myself lagging behind the group as we moved from feature to feature, at one point noticing a classmate lagging also, perhaps as caught up as I was in the little whirlpools of fascination that hide everywhere, getting bigger the longer one participates in them. As a gardener, I am certain I’ve learned as much by absent-mindedly ambling about as by disciplined study. Sitting down in the squash patch or watching the hogs for a half hour might have been an educational experience, but there wasn’t time.
This brings me to a number of thoughts about the deeper aspects of permaculture as a personal journey. I am currently in the last few pages of Sam Keen’s book, A Passionate Life. Keen’s basic idea in my reading is that humanity is in the midst of an erotic crisis, and the conflation of the erotic and the sexual is but one of the many symptoms of a broader cultural crisis. Keen goes back to the original meaning of eros, which to the Greeks was understood as "the prime mover of stars and acorns and the affairs of men." (p. 26)
In other words, eros moves everything, which explains why people, squirrels and leeks all tend to step it up a notch in the fall. However, by relegating our conception of the erotic only to what happens in our bedrooms, there is a tendency in our culture not to see how this same forward-leaning impulse of life moves also in our thoughts and feelings and can be tapped into to build homes, communities, and workplaces. It is easy to forget, in a culture such as the one that currently predominates, how this thing that moves us, call it what you will, also connects us to everything else that moves.
Instead, we separate, and our inner schisms ultimately manifest as an extreme capacity to compartmentalize our lives that is subsequently reflected by the structures and systems we design. Modern agricultural practices show some of the more grisly outcomes: the reproductive power of plants and animals is here commandeered and dominated in a way that would probably make even a diehard BDSM aficionado blush. In our fields, we destroy fertility. I suggest we do so because we have not adequately cared for our own, and more broadly for that thing now beyond the pale of science—perhaps we should just call it life.
Keen writes, "First love and sex, like value and fact and mind and matter, were separated. Love became a private, subjective emotion, a way of feeling about another person. Its cognitive status was denied; it was not considered a way of knowing. Modern philosophies of science rejected as sentimental nonsense Augustine’s conclusion that we can only know what we love." (p.15) Yes, that sounds like science, doesn’t it? Get rid of that fluffy-headed "love" stuff!
But we see where that takes us, right? It brings us exactly to where we are. There are those who would say that it is naive to include feelings in our ways of knowing, or deny even the possibility of connecting with the pulse of life that moves us. Some look at the state of the sciences and say and that what is needed to rectify the absence of these inner connections is a stronger code of ethics. From my perspective, there is no evidence to support the idea that external measures will support life-enhancing action in the field when the inner connections to life are lacking.
Later in the book, Keen elaborates on how we treat the earth precisely as we treat our bodies. This should come as no surprise, because the two are one and the same. The junkie and the industrialist, both under their own kinds of anesthesia, become addicted to spilling toxic substances into living streams, be they blood vessels or rivers, and the CAFO operator is in every sense, dangerously perverted.
In a way, it’s kind of an irony (and perhaps a great moral victory!) to even study permaculture, which seeks to remedy these and other problems, in a college biology department, given the extent to which science has become the handmaiden of industry and a tool for the abstract, symbol-driven world of profit expressed as monetary gain. Take a look at the people who really care about the practice of permaculture and you will see that it’s about making connections, and the deeper motives of these people must align with those of the natural systems in which they are embedded. Thus - and this is really the main insight I’m offering here - there is an important axis of permaculture practice that intersects with the art and science of arranging biological and other elements on the tableau of a given piece of land, and this other axis goes straight to the living heart of the designer.
This is hinted at when we look at the importance, for example, of the principle of observation in the permaculture design process. But what moves the designer’s eyes? What moves our thoughts, and feelings, and what brings forth remembrances that lead to sudden conceptions, ideas, and the creative upwelling of inspiration? In a very real sense, our ideas spring from the soil of our minds as the flora and fauna of that inner terrain. "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower," as Dylan Thomas wrote—that too drives us.
So this is not a new idea; it’s been said and known forever, but to merely file away expressions such as we find in Thomas’s famous poem as if they were nothing more than a particular kind of intellectual trope is to entirely miss the point. What is necesary is to make that connection now, now, now, in our actual, subjective, lived experience.
This is why it’s so important when possible to follow those "little whirlpools of fascination," even if it takes a bit of time. Through them, the world looks into us as lovers, touches and dialogs with us, and moves us to its side. When we feel the ancient depth and urgency in the rise and fall of each breath that we take as part of this earth, we will know ourselves and thus also the planetary system that meets and inspires us, breath by breath, with gifts and passion.
A friend of mine once quoted, "I am the Earth walking," and to that I add we must also be Earth’s thought and feeling. This is the consciousness of unity, and as a connecting science, the practice of permaculture – which really means the creation of a sustainable, living culture for everyone – will require nothing less.
Recommended Permaculture Resources:
Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, by Toby Hemenway
Perfect for home gardeners interested in applying permaculture concepts.
Permaculture: A Designer's Manual, by Bill Mollison
A compendious investment, a classic of permaculture practice.
Edible Forest Gardens (Vols 1 & 2) by Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier
Permaculture theory and design made into a step-by-step process. Very comprehensive.