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Published on Saturday, March 08, 2014

"Permaculture Principles & Pathways..." by Holmgren

The long winded holy grail of permaculture originators...

If you're not one to read the preface material of a book this is one book you'll want to do that with - there's a lot of information there that helps set up his position for the rest of the book. And regardless of your political or religious persuasion I think it's always good when an author gives theirs so you can accept what is being said without trying to decide what that persuasion is. If you don't know me, know this about me, I am completely comfortable with disagreement. Pretty sure I've just set a tone...

I'll start by saying this is a mind I can identify with - detailed graphics using bullet points, arrows, circles, and swirls to show movement and transitions...I love it! Add to that his general verbosity and self confidence and I was hooked at the first paragraph. I find myself compelled to read the material and then study the graphics to make sure I've understood the words so I can formulate my own thoughts about what I've just read. This is going to be a very satisfying if not tedious read!

On page XXX he talks about the view from the top of Peak Oil in a small section titled "From the Mountain Peak" that is particularly insightful despite its small size. The beauty of the peak we are still perilously on is that we have this one opportunity to see the lay of the land ahead of us so we can chart a course down. Once we're off this vantage the view becomes less broad and the chance to plot less informed. While I know I'm "preaching to the choir" here I think this is a HUGE part of choosing Permaculture practices - to become aware of the landscape into the future enough to prepare and plan for it rather than fall victim to it.

Several references were made throughout this preface about the word "Sustainable" as well, and that it's undefined. I agree! But what a painful paradox in that the moment you start defining, legally speaking, words like "organic" and "sustainable" you inevitably leave the word open for redefinition by the same institutions that originally defined it. For example, the word "organic" is a legally defined word you can't put on the label without meeting certain requirements. The problem is that because of lobbying by agri-business to make that labeling more accessible to their business model organic doesn't really mean what it used to mean and still does in the mind of the consumer. In effect the act of defining the word legally has messed with the intent of defining it in the first place. There is now a list of approved chemicals for organic farming that wasn't approved even 10 years ago in the name of productivity. The same trap is likely to happen for "Sustainability" as well and we'd better be prepared for it. As in all things, I think we're better off forging relationships with growers on our own who practice methods we can see and agree with and refusing to buy "USDA Organic" labels from produce imported from China.

On the topic of Over-promotion in the preface, I think we already have several experiences as a community with that very issue in Spokane. Part of it is the long term nature of Permaculture that doesn't give municipalities the instant results they frequently want and part of it is the inexperience of practitioners locally to develop connections and practices that matter here. Socially speaking, we have to be willing to put the practices into more than just an ecological framework. I personally think the Food Forest project is a GREAT example of that working in the right way! Even though we can't personally participate much everything I see happening there looks, to me, just as it should. Many perspectives are being invited to participate, many objectives being considered, and a long term view is being taken. It's the right answer to some of the community's failures in the public arena in the past - I think Holmgren would approve!

Chapter 1 - pg 2 & 3 was my first hiccup. Holmgren has already by this point acknowledged his atheism which I appreciate him doing. At the very least he is being honest about his rejection of a spiritual life despite his admitted attraction to it. I do find it difficult though to understand why he paints certain religious perspectives the way he does in the graphic on page 4. And here is my bias - we are Evangelical Christians. I would hardly put my worldview where he has put it on the continuum his is describing. His pan-theist placement is equally as confusing. Pan-theism by definition should allow a place for even mono-theistic points of view. Having a relationship with Jesus as described in the New Testament is only in conflict when it is institutionalized and militarized rather than internalized. I think this is a huge distinction to make and not too fine of one. It is also the same institutionalized and militarized spirituality that has been employed by most other codified religions and philosophies the world over and is not unique the Inquisition or the crusades. In my need to make the balanced case Holmgren cannot, I offer the original function of humanity in Genesis 2:15 "Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden to farm the land and take care of it." It may be Holmgren's ignorance of such passages suggesting the intimate connection humanity has with the earth that prevents him from also distinguishing between the "formal" nature of religion and the spiritual expression of the individual. You can't be all embracing without being all embracing. It's not ecumenism or universalism that solves this problem either, both of which I reject, it is respecting people enough to be unwilling to distill them down to a world view which is nothing more than arbitrary convenience labeling.

While we're on the subject of Stewardship, on page 5, I just had questions and maybe someone out there has some insight. He talks about land ownership. "Control of land and natural resources has been central throughout history;...the ethic of earth stewardship provides a moral imperative to continue to work out more creative ways for vesting control in collective structures, rather than taking as natural the individual ownership of land that goes with our Western industrial culture." My only real question here is - haven't we already tried some horribly failing experiments on this subject already? In South America, private land ownership doesn't exist. Farmers clear forests for farmland, overgraze and over tax the ground, and when fertility declines they move on to more publicly owned land to repeat the same process again. In China poor practices along the Yellow river of publicly owned land caused the aridization of the same ground that once produced 80% of China's staples for several hundred years. It took the government to subsidize subsistence farmers to NOT graze their animals and a massive land management project to stop the insanity, the erosion, and the environmental destruction of the Yellow river itself. Then in America we had millions of family owned farms and dairy's that produced enough to export food after feeding America up until the industrialization of farming began in 40's. We have millions of acres of privately managed forests, not corporately managed forests, that are more productive than wild harvest forests. I don't see how private ownership has been the cause of so much trouble. I do see how corporate ownership has caused a lot of trouble and I think it's important to note the difference in objectives and results. Corporate farms only consider cost per unit and production per acre. Private farms have people living there who are not too keen on drinking the pesticides and fertilizers leaching into their wells or looking out on sterile fields from their sealed windows. In a more European model, land ownership is extremely expensive and generally limited to the wealthy or the inherited. Land use rules are strictly codified for the "benefit of owners" to nearly the obscene - just read Sep Holtzer's book; he was fined for growing what was "not possible" to grow there and therefore illegal to grow. Add to that the distinct strangeness of being a land owner while rejecting the idea makes this difficult to swallow for me. If we're going to succeed in stewarding the earth we're going to have to recognize both public/communal ownership AND private ownership as necessary to human survival. The same side of this coin is the question of how much land can one person or family really manage anyway without mechanization? There is enough good ground out there that everyone could have a private small holding of ground already under production without losing any more wild lands and, in my opinion, be able to increase productivity per acre over what industrialized food is able to do at a fraction of the cost. The BIG question on this point, though, is if we are willing to re-inform our own society into remembering the importance of actually feeding people rather than just putting something in the mouths of the population.

So, I haven't quite finished chapter 1 but will and am likely to have more thoughts that I will post as well. I also welcome any thoughts or additions - even vehement ones - to further the conversation. Last, thank you for reading and for thinking seriously about what I am saying even if I didn't say it well. :-)
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Author: Siemen Family Farms, Inc.

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Siemen Family Farms, Inc.

A Wedding and Event Center North of Deer Park, Wa with plans for a commercially viable Permaculture demonstration farm.

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1 comments on article ""Permaculture Principles & Pathways..." by Holmgren"

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Annie M

3/15/2014 5:02 PM

Sean I appreciate your views on Holmgren's book. This is one book I have not read but your description makes me think I should.

On private ownership...I believe Mr Holmgren owns property in Australia that he has developed using permaculture principles. There's a YouTube video by Daren Doherty in which he compares Holmgren's place to the one directly next door. If that is the case I wonder how he can advocate public ownership?

I heard a podcast where Geoff Lawton was talking about the difference between some areas of the US and Australia. In Australia you are a "good citizen" if you grow a front yard garden while here there are cases, across the US, of people growing front yard gardens being taken to court. The gardens are considered a nuisance and an eyesore. In that sense I believe there needs to be a collective idea about what constitutes "moral behavior" in regards to our shared lands and fellow men. However, I don't believe that can be legislated. In WWll there was a nation wide understanding that everyone, to be considered a "good citizen", had to participate in recycling, growing gardens, rationing. The conditions of war required nationwide cooperation.

I honestly think it will take something dire to get anything close to country-wide buy in to the changes that need to be made. If the country and world wakes up to the fact that businesses and individuals are responsible for the declining state of the only world we've got, we may see some change.

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