In my definition of permaculture, I state two things. Permaculture is
- a method of raising numerous useful plants in logical (and often close) proximity to each other, and
- a mindset, an ethic that says that humans can meet their needs AND participate in the healthy biodiversity and ecosystem functions of the land on which they live.
There is nothing in those two definitions about needing to be tapped into a club by somebody who’s been certified or otherwise given somebody’s blessing. This is not to say that certification courses are useless, far from it, but let me come back to that idea in a moment. First, a little history.
Where did Permaculture start?
The guys who started this whole thing were Bill Mollison and David Holmgren down in Australia. They were working and thinking independently for a long while, but when they connected in the 1970s, a lot of things started to click. In searching for an antidote to industrial agriculture, Big Ag’s complete opposite as it were, Mollison and Holmgren paid attention to how nature was providing food in the wild.
Certain patterns began to appear, two of the most crucial patterns involved plant associations and spatial structure. Certain plants kept showing up as neighbors- since plants don’t have emotions this wasn’t a ‘chickweed is nice to me’ thing. For a plant to keep showing up around the same three other plants, and rarely without them, there has to be something those plants are doing for each other, some way in which the whole exceeds the sum of the parts. This beneficial interlock is what permaculture now calls ‘guilds’.
The second pattern had to do with the vertical density of the forest. The up and down layering was having as much or more impact on the diversity of food available as the horizontal diversity. Put in landscape designer terms: the section matters more than the plan. We knew that spatially, turns out it’s true ecologically too.
Holmgren and Mollison offered a two week course on what they’d put together. They taught a number of people what they were doing, and those people went out and taught others- great ideas have always spread by exactly this method.
From everything I have read, and every knowledgeable person I have talked to, it was not their intention to create another codified system of agriculture to be memorized and recited (or re-sited, in this case). They were teaching people a way to look and think and notice. They were encouraging experimentation, trial and definitely error, and in the long run, instigating a new form of wisdom predicated on people participating in the natural cycles.
So do I need to take a Permaculture Design Course or not?
This means that, yes, a lot of permaculture can be learned from book. People can, in fact, be highly knowledgeable, self-taught permaculturalists. I’ll even recommend a few books that I consider to be amongst the best asap, so no, you do not have to take a course to learn to do this.
BUT, permaculture is such a hands-on practice that the education available at some of the best workshops out there really will save you several years of experimentation. When people say they are ‘certified permaculturalists’, well… there’s no such thing. What they mean is “I’ve taken courses, I’ve practiced these methods and ethics for X number of years, and I’ve read most of the books Molly’s about to recommend.” (Except they don’t know my name.)
So yes, a course with a ‘certified’ permaculture teacher can be astonishingly valuable, but since there is no certifying agency, you need to ask some questions to figure out what exactly your potential teacher has to offer you.
- Where did you study? Where do you do most of your work? These two questions will tell you about the ecosystem this teacher will know best. Do not fly from Phoenix to Philadelphia for a course and expect to take home as much practical knowledge as if you went to a course in Tuscon. Save the airfare.
- Are you connected to a larger network? (Or institute or guild or some such, the term varies.) Somebody who’s tapped into the resources and camaraderie of the Blue Ridge Permaculture Network is going to have fresher information and be learning from more than just their own personal trials and errors.
- This is another reason to take a course close to home. At its core, permaculture isn’t a DIY practice, it’s a neighborly practice, a social culture, and developing relationships within the local and regional communities where you are growing will be invaluable.
- Have you published anything I can read? Hey, not everybody’s a writer, but if you stumble onto a course in upper New York state by some weird guy named Dave Jacke…
- How long have you been practicing permaculture? Over and over, permaculturalists find that they work and work and work to get a place going and then suddenly one year, it just takes off. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. It’s a magical moment in any permaculture garden and I’d expect it to take 4-8 years to happen.
- Anybody who has been at this for less than five years is unlikely to have experienced this phenomenon and will lack the light and joy and grounded enthusiasm of a more seasoned practitioner. It’s one thing to have faith in miracles, it’s another to have lived them. I’ll just leave it at that.
Coming soon: that reading list!