Korean War-era Tasmanian Bill Mollison developed permaculture in the early ‘seventies with younger Aussie, David Holmgren. In the Global Gardener video series, Mollison said, “In the late ‘sixties I was protesting social and environmental issues. But by the early ‘seventies, I decided that protest wasn’t good enough. So I commenced designing gardens and positive design systems for human habitation.”
What he means is that social and environmental ills come out of scarcity, and he meant to pitch in on the side of abundance. People starve because of scarcity; that’s a no-brainer. The next step is that people worry that somebody will steal what they have, so they organize to defend themselves and their treasure...and maybe swipe a little of somebody else’s. After that we soil our own nests because we don’t have, or believe we don’t have, the means to keep them clean. Mollison believes that by studying natural systems and trying to imitate them, people could cultivate plenty. A variation on Buckminster Fuller’s thought that, “If you want to change a system you cannot amend it. A new system which makes the old one obsolete is the only true change.”
Homo sap hasn’t really figured out yet what it is, and figuring it out means fitting in with all the other living things on Planet Gaia. Permaculture is still at the pre-Model-T stage, but by following its principles and ethics, our species will come of age.
Yeah, but what is it? Here’s what David Holmgren says: "Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs."
Here in Minnesota, and much of the central United States, what you do is try to mimic the native oak savanna, substituting plants that will fulfill your needs. Anchor your garden with oak or, more usefully, a chestnut or two. Below that, plant hazelnuts, apples, and cherries, with grapes trellised on the branches. The next story is fruiting shrubs, bush cherries, currants, gooseberries, blueberries, etc., oriented to the larger plants according to how much sun they need. Then herbaceous perennials, pollinator attractors, pest repellants, long-rooted plants to bring minerals from deep in the soil to the surface, and nitrogen fixers. Bees, ducks, chickens, hogs, etc., according to your site. Mushrooms, medicinals, ginseng.
1. Observe and interact;
2. Catch and store energy;
3. Obtain a yield;
4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback;
5. Use and value renewable resources and services;
6. Produce no waste;
7. Design from patterns to details;
8. Integrate rather than segregate;
9. Use small and slow solutions;
10. Use and value diversity;
11. Use edges and value the marginal;
12. Creatively use and respond to change.
Criticism has mostly been that permaculturists import non-native, invasive species, and that mature, or “climax,” ecosytems are not very productive of fruit, etc. The invasive-species critique may have been true once. I found reading Mollison infuriating because I wasn’t familiar with the species he prescribed. Maybe people with more expertise jumped the gun and tried to build Tasmanian ecosystems in the US. The fact is that current Minnesotan and Wisconsin permaculturists use familiar plants. As for the objection that climax ecosystems aren’t productive from a human point of view, that’s a management problem. Finesse it by thinning, planting, pruning, coppicing, and you wind up with a kind of bonsai ecosystem. Even if what we call “permaculture” were shown to be humanly useless, the objective of designing “landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy," or at least figuring how to do that, is the best use of human time as of the early 21st century.
Permaculture Activist Magazine -- Good, dry articles about permaculture in the US, with beautiful color covers;
Permaculture 101 -- Series of short videos about permaculture;
Midwest Permaculture -- Three designers in Wisconsin and Illinois who offer instruction (my teachers); these guys say their style of food growing has an eighteen hundred-year rotation; they also claim you can get 25% more ethanol per-acre from apples than from corn, and you can graze the orchard, since you aren't worried about human consumption of fecal coliform bacteria;
Permaculture Research Institute - Cold Climate -- Minnesota-based designers working to learn more.