Community Permaculture Parables: Give People Freedom, Not More Work

Plan Projects that Support Social Structures, instead of Planning Social Structures to Support your Projects

That’s a longer way of saying the same thing, for those who aren’t into the whole brevity thing. 

And I hope that’s you, because it’s taken me a long time to really learn that, so this will be a long post. For me, this was clarified greatly by something I’ve heard both Permaculture originator Bill Mollison and his student Geoff Lawton say in several different ways, to paraphrase:
If you build something that demands more time, energy and work from people than they started with, that’s not “caring for people” and it’s not “Permaculture.” 
That last part’s a direct quote and, and it’s rare for Mollison to be so stern and universal, so it bears repeating: “If your design takes more work than you started with, that’s not people care and it’s not Permaculture.” 
That means that if your project starts with a lawn, whatever you build on it should–after an initial investment of thought, energy and time–ideally take less time than it took to mow. This is obviously an ideal “easier said than done,” but a good goal for us none the less. 
I think immediately of the fantastic “Global Gardener” videos that BIll Mollison made in the early days of Permaculture, ( featured him lazing around in his garden, sleeping instead of weeding, and bemoaning our western priorities of “work” over “living.” 
While much of the hippie “back to the land” movement, as well as the modern communitarian, environmentalist and food movements romanticize hard work and long days of toil in the fields in the old struggle of man vs. nature, Mollison knew it didn’t have to be that way. He had learned from the relaxed, care-free horticultural people in the tropics and sub-tropics, who cooperated casually with nature to meet their needs on a few hours a week and spent the rest of their time living
Anthropological studies of forest gardening cultures verify that they often only spend around 4 hours a week doing what we would consider “work,” and most of that is casual harvesting. (For example, Douglas McConnel, the Economic Structure of Kandyan Forest Garden Farms 1973; Allen, the Kandyan Gardens of Sri Lanka, etc.) There’s a reason why “People Care” is one of Permaculture’s founding ethics and “protracted observation and planning instead of protracted work” was one of the original “Mollison Principles:” to Mollison, one of the primary goals of Permaculture is to set people FREE to enjoy life.
In 2002-2004 I was a student at the University of Illinois in Champaign at a time when a very energetic and active Permaculture communtiy was busy building gardens and food forests all over town, it seemed. The word “Permaculture” was completely new to me, and suddenly it seemed I was hearing it almost daily in my environmental and anti-war circles, as well as on the community radio station WEFT. And when I’d travel outside Urbana, I’d repeat the opinion I often heard on WEFT “Permaculturists” are doing the most important work in the world today!” Of course, I had no idea what Permaculturists were actually doing, but still it sounded good when I said it. 
While I believe this flurry of activity inspired a great many people such as myself, probably more than their designers even know about, the results were mixed. There were conflicts with neighbors and the city, a number of fines, and the widely-circulated belief that Permaculture is necessarily messy, loud and un-neighborly. Today, almost none of the gardens remain, and none of the original projects remain under their original social structures. 
Anyone who’s interested in doing community or public Permaculture projects should read all about this in Rob Scott’s “Critical Review of Permaculture in the United States–a must-read for those interested in doing Permaculture in public.
While my personal involvement in those projects was limited to being inspired on my own Permaculture journey, I’m glad for the opportunity to learn from them, thanks to this incredible piece, which is a profound gift to the Permaculture Designer community, and one of the most important short pieces of Permaculture writing out there. 
It’s worth noting that garden design and ecological soundness had nothing to do with why these gardens didn’t last. The problems were all about “people.” Most of these projects didn’t last because of their social structures, or more precisely, because they were designed to be supported by social structures, rather than to support social structures. When the social structures fell apart, so did the projects. 
(Humble beginings…)

The first community Permaculture project I planned and designed was the McHenry County Defenders’ Sustainable Educational Garden, a project which never even got around to finding a shorter name. (We were apparently not into the whole brevity thing.) After a few years of dreaming, discussion, planning–working up to presentations and committee meetings and so on, the project “broke ground” in 2010. The garden had nice seasons in 2010 – 2012, primarily with a few community gardeners tending a small polyculture keyhole garden, before I had to leave the project to move to Michigan.  
I had heard that some people were still gardening the site after I left, and that another couple of Permaculture Designers who had been involved in the project took over, but the last I checked the “Garden Committee” was no longer meeting and the project as I designed it essentially came to an end when I left. 
Sad Panda.
Yet, I’m aware that some portion of it remains…. Part of my original design integrated into an existing community of plants including: several shagbark hickories, black raspberries, elderberries, pin cherry, highbush cranberry, wild grapes, aronias, wild onions and a few other species. Even before this was a designated “food forest,” foragers were coming here to gather food, and hikers would stop to snack on berries as they walked. It was my personal favorite site for collecting hickory nuts. Even though we didn’t get far on our “improvements” this “food forest” will continue on, feeding nature and and humans for years, if not generations to come…. 

(Looks like hard work, kids! I’ll be over here taking pictures.)

Yesterday, I visited the site of one of Kalamazoo’s public food forest projects. I was not involved in the planning but I had the pleasure of helping out with the planting. The project was again put together in a flurry of activity with probably over 100 volunteers and literally thousands of dollars of plants and tree stock were donated, primarily by one local member of Van-Kal Permaculture. I donated a few plants myself, but ended up taking most of them home after seeing the way the establishment would be managed. 
The design team diligently took names and tried to organize a social structure to support the ambitious project, which was planned to require a large amount of volunteer labor to establish. In addition, it was planned to require a commitment from an inherently political property manager, the Kalamazoo Land Bank, subject to the whims of its own turbulent social structure. 
When I had last visited the site, most of the trees seemed overgrown and there didn’t seem to be any signs that a volunteer group had materialized to maintain the donated plant material. I know that I had volunteered and never received a call or email. 
When I visited yesterday, I was sad to see that virtually all of the highest quality trees and plants had been removed, mown over or sprayed with herbicide in a phase of re-establishing a “native” prairie planting (that would not have been native pre-settlement vegetation) over where we had planted a food forest. From what I can tell, most of what remains is a placard indicating that this foul-smelling poisonous field of dying vegetation “demonstrates the value of the Permaculture Design method.” 

(Sad Panda Image, Fluffington Post)

Again, I don’t consider this project (which probably isn’t “finished”) to be a “failure,” as I know for certain that some of the young people I met there were inspired to start their own Permaculture paths….
There was nothing inherently wrong with any of these projects or designs. This is the rule for such projects, not the exception. I have seen many similar community and public projects over my time as a Permaculture activist, and the vast majority are short-lived. The internet is filled with stories of failed community garden and orchard projects. Here is a short collection of them, for those as interested as I am: (Note, this is another very important “celebration of failure” and a very important work of Permaculture research.)

Meanwhile, Kalamazoo’s many unofficial “food forests” continue to thrive. These are “wild” places where the natural plant communties have been casually tended and improved by foragers and guerilla gardeners, who meet and chat as they gather nuts, pick asparagus, or collect berries. These places require very little maintenance but continue to produce food year in and out with no inputs of fertlizer, or toxic sprays of biocides. 

They don’t require a team of volunteers or an enduring rigid social structure to keep them going. But they instead CREATE AND FUEL a fluid, informal and friendly community of families and foragers who come together authentically over their shared connection with food and nature. 
These food forests don’t require the energy input of committee meetings, planning sessions, consensus deliberations, arguements or votes to maintain. Nobody has to do presentations to get funds for them. The interaction is so casual that most people wouldn’t even recognize it! But the trained eye recognizes a grafted tree, a stand of tended irises, or a patch of sunchokes where they wouldn’t grow naturally. Or that someone has kindly thinned a particularly good stand of raspberry canes, ensuring we’ll all share in a better crop next year. 
These food forests don’t require a “volunteer” committee to figure out how to “engage” supposedly apathetic modern citizens. There’s nobody to grumble when volunteers are “no shows.” The volunteers just show up because the phsyical structure allows them to “obtain a yield” for their efforts. It “gives” the volunteers more than it demands of them. Nobody even has to call them! 
They do not require a “social structure” to continue. And yet these “physical structures” will continue to support social structures for years, if not generations, to come. Friendships will start here. Families will bond here. Teachers will lead “foraging” walks. The hungry will find free food. The spiritualist will find sanctuary. 
And so it will continue on until the day someone comes in and tears them out… 
Knowing that social structures change and that initial energy fades, smart designers wilil plan to “catch and store” those bursts of energy into “durable infrastructure,” systems that look like the ones I just described…. That’s “people care,” and that’s “Perma” culture. 
And if you’re asking “who will volunteer at the food forest?” you’re asking the wrong question. 

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