A sustainable way of living

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Solar energy storage. Vertical gardening. Organic agriculture. Rain catchment systems. Recycling. Composting. Straw bale gardening. Renewable resources. Aquaponics.

HERLIFE readers will recognize these phrases as concepts and practices that we have described and encouraged over the past several years. If any of you have participated in one or more of these principles or ideas, you have also taken part in the action and philosophy of Permaculture.

The word was coined in the mid-seventies as a contraction of “permanent agriculture” or “permanent culture” and describes a system of designing ecological human habitats and food production systems. In an environment intentionally impacted by the principles of permaculture, living spaces are built using passive solar strategies for cooling and heating, with buildings sited to take advantage of natural light and constructed of recycled and low-VOC materials. Food production systems integrate the microclimate, soil nutrient levels, animals or aquaculture, composting, wastewater treatment and multi-use plants into a sustainable ecology that provides for the local community or for larger production needs.

In the mid-1970s, David Holmgren, an Australian ecologist, and his associate, Bill Mollison, encapsulated the ethical principles of permaculture into three foundational concepts: Earth Care, which views the earth as a living, breathing entity and emphasizes caring for the soil; People Care, focusing on the needs of people in simple and compassionate ways that help the environment to prosper; and Fair Share, the idea of taking what one needs and sharing abundance with others.
The permaculture designer is concerned with observation, attention and listening to the natural patterns of the site or ecosystem, and then using information gleaned to create sustainable buildings and agricultural processes. Just as common sense indicates it’s an inefficient use of water resources to farm in a desert, permaculture employs common-sense and site-specific methods of cover crops, rotational grazing, vermicomposting, rainwater catchment systems, solar technology and companion planting. Discerning readers will again see the trend–an urban garden, small or large, can be as sustainable as a larger-scale farming operation.

The dozen books of the Foxfire series, a project started by English teacher Eliot Wigginton at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in Georgia’s Appalachian Mountains to engage his students in writing, published interviews with local residents about the agricultural and livestock practices that sustained their families. Members of the ’70s back-to-the-land movement used information from these volumes, as well as Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog and John and Jane Shuttlesworth’s Mother Earth News, as guidance for living an ecologically sound and sustainable lifestyle, whether personally or in community with others of like mind.

A core principle of permaculture is sustainable agriculture. Leah Penniman and Jonah Vitale-Wolff, founders of Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, New York, have established a Certified Naturally Grown family farm using sustainable techniques that have transformed rocky, marginal clay soils into highly productive, micro-nutrient rich, black gold that produces impressive amounts of food per square foot for their communities. Soul Fire Farm’s website states, “We bring diverse communities together on this healing land to share skills on sustainable agriculture, cooking and natural building, and contribute to the movements for food sovereignty and community self-determination.” As a foundation for their community that focuses on food justice and empowerment for marginalized farmers, they built a straw-bale, timber-framed, passive solar home plus a barn, cooler, animal housing and irrigation system, and have hosted 491 youth for their farm and food justice programs. They have trained 58 farm apprentices, two-thirds of whom are people of color. Several have gone on to manage justice-oriented farming programs around the country. Penniman earned a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher scholarship that she is using to develop a curriculum based on the best agricultural practices of Oaxacan farmers and indigenous communities.

The environmental stewardship encouraged by Audubon International dovetails into permaculture principles. To be certified within their Sustainable Communities program, a community develops an individualized program based on the three pillars of a healthy local environment, quality of life for citizens and economic vitality. Public and private communities extend from Riverside, California, and Huntsman Springs, Idaho, to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. The impressive success story of Stowe Mountain Resort, Stowe, Vermont, chronicles practices such as local food sourcing, conservation of more than 2,000 acres of natural habitat that protect peregrine falcons, moose and bear, and the installation of energy-efficient lighting and heating and cooling systems. Stormwater runoff is collected and stored in two ponds and is used for golf course irrigation and snow-making. The resort partners with local environmental groups to provide educational events such as birding events and nature walks that highlight the use of native vegetation for the resort’s landscaping.

These and other communities across the United States and around the world provide awareness of green principles of sustainable behavior and the opportunity for all of us to “think globally, act locally” in our own lives. Let’s be aware of the simple actions we can take to care for our living, breathing Mother Earth. HLM

Sources: attra.org, auduboninternational.wildapricot.org, herlifemagazine.com, motherearthnews.com, permaculturevisions.com, permaculturedesignmagazine.com, ucsusa.org, soulfirefarm.com and wikipedia.com.