What is Permaculture?

Well day 2 of the Whole Earth Summit where all the muckety mucks of the permaculture movement converge and talk endlessly about, you know…permaculture stuff. Anyone who dabbles in permaculture will recognize some of the names; Dr. Vandana Shiva, Geoff Lawton, Joel Salatin…a pretty mixed bunch of characters with their own specialties and egos (if you listen to the talk) but all with a common goal and a well purposed one at that.

I attempted to join the online conference via skype. I have never used skype. Once my daughter assured me there were no hidden webcams on my computer for thousands of people across the world to watch me feet up, drink in hand, in my pyjamas I decided to give it a go. Well…turned out a no go. After an hour of frustration I gave up and tuned into Masterchef Canada. Ya, ya…I know…the epitome of waste, indulgence and consumption. What can I say – I’m a walking contradiction. Besides, I like it when they get scrapping.

Finally someone sent me a link so I could listen to the Summit online. Now maybe it’s just me. Maybe I require the visual element (although I can listen to CBC for hours) but I was nodding off after ten minutes. Maybe I was just permacultured out last night but I realized how many of these die hard permies think of nothing else all day. They scour the internet for groups to join – permaculture, edible forests, living off the grid…their facebooks are filled with permaculture links, green earth promotion, hugelKultur, guild planting, solar energy, global warming predictions…there’s a lot of stuff out there!

The scarey part is I get it. Thank God I am still posting pictures of my kids on my facebook and bashing Harper and Ford every chance I get. I haven’t tipped over the edge yet. But I know it’s starting. I find myself laying in bed at night with visions of seedlings and guilds in my head. I was invited to a brunch on the weekend with women I had never met and cleverly steered the conversation around to gardening and permaculture. I could tell the one women was keen and an avid gardener. Yes, but do you do it the permaculture way?

Now there is the question of the day. What is the permaculture way? I’m on these groups and sites. I see tilling and rows of single crops. I thought this was exactly what permaculture wasn’t. Are there levels of permaculture?

This morning I was musing about my experiences with my own family and gardening (permies prefer to be called farmers by the way – I’m not sure why since the “farmers” have been doing it wrong all along apparently). I come from a family of skilled gardeners. My mother attained Master Gardner status in her 70’s and I can vividly picture her hunched over her acid rain experiments as she studied. It always seemed wherever she lived, as soon as the gardens were done and she could expand no more, the for sale sign would go up. She died last year at 86 and I will note – the entire lawn of her and my older sister’s home was garden from edge to edge.

I remember my Mother early in the mornings, walking along her beds, her lips moving. Yes, she believed in talking to her plants as did her best friend Laura , whenever she came up from the States for a visit. My Father loved to garden too. When he became too ill to venture into the garden himself he was happy to dictate. I recall an afternoon, early spring, living in Kearney Ontario with my Mother and I working up the garden, snow blowing around our heads and my father wrapped up in a warm blanket on the deck bellowing at us. Yes – I know gardening.

I also know harvest. Our harvest was supplemented with bushel baskets of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers…did I mention tomatoes? Days and days of blanching and peeling tomatoes. Days and days of chopping, slicing, dicing. I hated it. I didn’t even like chili sauce. Who would eat 80 jars of chili sauce in a year?! But we were always out by the next harvest.

My brother and I decided to tap trees for maple syrup one year. There was a maple bush just down the road from our house and back in the day people didn’t get so uptight about trespassing. My brother was handy at that kind of stuff. Like the time he knew exactly what kind of silvery fish were choking the creek in masses the first year we moved to Beaverton, Ontario. Those are smelt, he said simply. Smelt? We moved from Toronto. What did he know of smelt? That led to years of smelt fishing parties with lots of libation and hours and hours of cleaning tiny little fish but I won’t go into that right now – back to the maple syrup.

So he decides we are going to tap the trees and he knows exactly what a tap is and what to do with it. Every day after school we would excitedly collect our sap and haul the buckets home. For days we forced our mother to boil sap. For weeks actually. It was her penance for the tomatoes. Our house was filled with a sweet sickly smell and a fine film of sticky goo for days on end. It took her forever to clean it from the walls and doors and furniture and in the end we bottled a liter of syrup – which, as it turned out, I was allergic to.

So my question again is what is permaculture? Well, by the time we moved away, there were no smelt left to fish for in Lake Simcoe or very few. That maple bush is now gone, replaced by homes and I don’t think they would take too kindly to kids drilling holes in their trees. It’s cheaper to buy 80 jars of chili sauce then the produce to make the equivalent and nobody really has the time for that anymore. So I guess that answers that question.


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