Brace yourself. What you are about to read might go against what you think is the general wisdom of conservationists: if it’s pee, don’t let it be. Now, I’m not advocating that you should flush. What I’m about to suggest emerges from the world of permaculture, and you’re about to find out all about it.
Permaculture is an approach to sustainable living that entails close, spiritual observation of nature and its inherent patterns and rhythms. Through contemplation of the land — a backyard, an entire city, Yosemite’s wilderness — humans can learn how to interact with the environment in a balanced and harmonious way. According to its adherents, permaculture design can integrate the vast spectrum of biological diversity into a functional system that naturally replenishes what it depletes. It seems fundamental that imitating the cycles of nature would produce a less wasteful way of living, but permaculturists insist that we’ve strayed so far from that course (for example, by farming miles and miles of wheat and using limited sources of energy) that it’s time for a full-on return to basics.
But permaculture is more than just a lesson on the how-tos of composting. And it’s more than simply a call to turn back the clock of industrialization. As Guillermo Vásquez, a Mayan from Central America who has been running the Indigenous Permaculture design course around the Bay Area since 2002, puts it, “It’s about how local communities can use their resources in the city in a sustainable way.”
Though geared to the urban environment, Vásquez’s classes use farming techniques drawn from native rural communities in El Salvador, South Dakota, and Guatemala. As a demonstration of how some of these techniques can be applied to everyday situations for the typical city dweller, he talked to me about the patch of bereft soil that is my backyard. Local permaculture courses such as the one Vásquez teaches introduce students to a holistic way of gardening that goes beyond throwing down some dirt, plugging a tomato seedling into the ground, and then turning on the hose. I mentioned that I should probably wait until winter to plant, in order to take advantage of the spring rains, so that I don’t have to wastefully water the yard so much, to which he responded, “you’re right, but first you have to find out what’s in your soil.” His classes give practical lessons in such things as testing the soil for lead and rotating crops and adding trees that retain water and recycle nutrients.
Vásquez’s class is taught on a shoestring budget. He organizes the course with elders from native communities in Central America and the United States. The staff includes specialists in water, soil, and green business. Employees of local nonprofits and people from underserved communities are invited to take the course for free, so long as they make a solemn commitment to do permaculture work in their communities for at least a year after the training. “We have a really teeny budget. Sometimes we work with nothing. We do this because we believe in hard work. We don’t get a salary. We organize the students to work with no money. We prove to them and show them that we can do positive things in our community with no money.”
Permaculture courses were developed in Australia in the mid-’70s when it first became obvious to environmentalists that the planet was in serious trouble due to monoculture farming. These environmentalists believed that we should value the earth’s bounty and endeavor to not hog all of its resources. Then they looked for ways to draw upon the interconnection between earth, water, and sky. One should meditate upon a site for as long as a year before farming, permaculturists advise, making note of all the connections observed. You might notice the sun’s path through the area or how water is leaking away from the site instead of being absorbed into it.
Besides ecological sustainability and environmental relationships, most permaculturists focus on creating social sustainability, recognizing cultural and bioregional identity, and building creative activist networks to implement “placemaking” and “paradigm reconstruction practices.” Not surprisingly for such an interactive philosophy, permaculture has found a huge following on the Web — sites such as permaearth.org and permacultureactivist.net host lively online forums.
Permaculturists also believe that humans should not interfere with the wilderness and that our only interaction with it should be to observe and learn from its ecological systems. The permacultural interactivity of humans and the environment is usually organized and described graphically as a system of concentric zones, like a mandala, beginning with “home” and extending toward “community,” so that the patterns of our social worlds can be put into balance.
Permaculture instructor Kat Steele of the Urban Permaculture Guild got into this kind of holistic approach because she wanted to combine her graphic design background with what she learned about sustainable living while traveling. She took a permaculture design course and started a landscaping business, then moved on to teaching certification courses. (In most cases, permaculture certification allows graduates to teach and participate in larger projects). The Urban Permaculture Guild uses “nonheirarchical decision-making” as one of its principles, and its members, in between contributing to the guild’s operations, have been involved in such large-scale projects as working with Jordanians to green their heavily salted deserts and transforming water recycling policies in Australia.
Steele discussed the guild’s training course with me while on a break from a six-week course conducted at the education facility of Golden Gate Park’s botanical garden. (It’s the first time the park has offered the course; the educational director hopes to develop the program further with Steele.) As in Vásquez’s class, students learn about the principles and concepts of permaculture and put them into practice in gardens. They learn from guest lecturers about soil enrichment and gray water (any water except toilet water that’s been used in the home). Both Vásquez’s and Steele’s classes follow the guidelines of the Permaculture Institute of Northern California and offer certification to students who successfully complete the course. They can be beneficial to yard gardeners like me, architects who wants to consider the best way to orient a building in order to make use of the sun and shade, and civil engineers looking for different approaches to water use and recycling.
During my conversation with Steele, she indicated how the concepts of permaculture could translate to social systems. “In our social landscape, we want to look at where energy is leaking. Typically in most businesses there is an organizational structure that is sort of top-down, and we can create feedback loops from energy or information that might be stored in areas that aren’t being used, so that it all can come back to decision makers. So creating flows that mimic cycles in nature in our business structures can help that.”
So learning from leaks is a key practice of permaculture design. Before we finished our interview, Steele got me thinking about how much I leak at home and that flushing isn’t just a gross misuse of water, it’s a waste to send all that pee down the drain. Turns out pee, when diluted in, say, a backyard pond fed by rain runoff from your roof, is excellent for your garden. SFBG
INDIGENOUS PERMACULTURE DESIGN COURSE
Aug. 26–Sept. 13
20 hours a week, dates subject to change after first class session
Free with one-year commitment to community work
2530 San Pablo, Berkeley
URBAN PERMACULTURE GUILD
Check Web site for upcoming sessions in the Bay Area