The very term is a misnomer. Permanence is not possible, especially in a changing world. We look to nature to find our way, but without accepting and adapting to change we will always be unable to adapt to our changing environment. The culture part makes more sense because it implies a variety of players working together to achieve what would be impossible in isolation. When we think of human cultures, they have generally left us great artifacts or earthworks, architecture or although failed, massive remnants of agricultural systems. Perhaps this is a poor word to use when trying to get across the true meaning of permaculture as well. Although many who endeavor to share permaculture with the masses try to do so with earth moving equipment and large scale terra-forming, the true nature of this approach is to sit still, watch nature unfold around you and then adapt your methods and approaches to most gently wrest a living from what naturally occurs in your garden, farm or acreage. The drastic changes and unimaginable damage that can be done with heavy machinery may take dozens of years to mitigate with this approach and although some may seek to hurry up the process, nothing good comes easily and trying to make drastic change happen quickly is the antithesis of permaculture as I understand it.
I have been on “my” land for about ten years. In that time I have established some, but not all of my planting beds, begun to see the forest trees that I have planted get their start, developed berry beds and built up nearly half the soil to the point of being relatively weed free and productive. There have been beds developed that have not had a human foot in them for ten years. We have brush piles and active composting as well as mowed areas that are less than half their original size. We have removed hundreds of square feet of impermeable surface, created a living gazebo out of our grape vines and for a time enjoyed a tipi covered with hops.
Saying that the land is “mine” puts the emphasis on the wrong end of the equation. Truly, I belong to the land. Recognizing this fact has led me to plant several hundred thousand trees in the watershed whose drainage flows past my house. Even though I have not seen a qualitative difference in water quality, I will continue to plant trees through the not-for-profit that we established to plant trees, not just because It is the right thing to do, not to try to create permanence, but to help heal the immense damage that has been unleashed across the landscape over the past hundred and fifty years.
Permaculture seeks to work with the landscape, the watershed, the climate to enhance the quality of life for all the creatures who share the space. The goal of health supersedes production. Sustaining high yields without massive inputs is the focus of this approach. Learning which parts of the property thaw first or drain last can help tailor your approach. Feeling the difference between the wind swept ridges and protected hollows can make the difference between success and failure, not only for individual plants, but when planted to scale, whole crops. If a plant will produce heavily when it is planted in a high and dry area, putting it down in a wetland would surely make no sense. Similarly, watercress will die on the knoll overlooking the creek, unless abundant cool clear water is available.
We need to think about our interactions with the earth, not as top down managers but rather as an integral part of the fabric of life upon it. The wildlife that exists on the land twenty four seven three sixty five do not have to think about how they are interacting with their environment and similarly, perhaps, neither do we. Certainly, we are agents of change. The goal of permaculture is to do the most good without causing too much harm. Put another way, we seek to work with what we find and try to adapt our desires to what the earth can give. Accepting, responsibility for production in the face of change.