Reflections on Permaculture: farming, nursing and education – 3 epiphanies in 24 hours
by Milly Carmichael
I went to George Hosier’s talk last night at the Merchant’s House - their Autumn lecture. George’s family have farmed at Wexcombe for nearly 100 years, always innovating and being creative with their farming practice. George continues that tradition and has been practicing no-till methods and holistic land management for the last three years and was sharing what he had learned and how he plans to continue to develop into the future. It was so refreshing and encouraging to hear a local farmer sharing his passion and enthusiasm for new farming strategies and technologies in this way – so far his yields are holding up well while he significantly reduces his use of diesel, heavy machinery, pesticides and herbicides; the farm is a haven for wildlife and the soil is becoming more full of life and resilient to the vagaries of our changing weather patterns.
At the end of the talk, someone asked, “This is really niche farming at the moment isn’t it? Do you think it’ll ever become mainstream? “
“It might have to” – I said under my breath – not feeling quite bold enough to state it out loud in a room that looked like it might contain quite a number of traditional farmers. With real conviction, and respect for his fellow farmers in the room who might be facing considerable change in the near future, George said that it already is mainstream for those farming at the edges – in Australia and South America, in very dry places, in very wet places where the weather and soil conditions are already changing and becoming critical, these practices have become mainstream because those farmers now have few choices to do otherwise if they want to survive along with their livelihoods.
I felt goosebumps rise in my skin and a surge of adrenalin course through my veins. He said “it’s already mainstream at the edges”. ‘Value the edges and the marginal’ is a key principle of permaculture design. The Formidable Vegetable Sound System remind us that ‘The edge is where it’s at’ (track 4 on their album ‘Permaculture: A Rhymers Manual’) Something came together in that moment – a great way of explaining the principle in my own teaching and a way of connecting with people who we might perceive, perhaps, as not being particularly open to a permaculture way of thinking - traditional agriculturalists. Then I was sitting at work office today talking with a colleague and she was sharing concerns about the way some teachers at a school she knows manage behaviour and discipline in a rather Victorian manner – not really taking account of the individual nature of the children but using a one-size-fits-all / adults have the power / “it’s not because you can’t , it’s because you won’t” kind of approach. My friend has tried to introduce some new ideas to the school about language use, connecting with the children and using a solution focused approach but her suggestions for changes to their behaviour policy have not yet been welcomed. Some key members of staff are of the belief that children’s behaviour can only be managed with a ‘healthy’ fear of authority and threat of punishment or humiliation in front of their peers. They don’t yet have confidence that children’s behaviour can be managed without them.
Then another light bulb moment! At the talk last night, someone else had asked George ‘but what will you do if they ban Glyphosate (Roundup) – we just can’t farm without it – it’s not possible’. To which George replied – with respect and humility – that he’s not sure yet how he’d do that. It won’t be easy but he’s pretty sure it’s not impossible. Farmers will need to be creative and try out new ideas. He’s met people who are doing it though – organic farmers who have farmed without glyphosate for years and he had already explained how a no-till method radically reduces seed germination for black grass. By leaving seed on the surface where it can be eaten by mice and birds, rather than pushing it into the soil and providing its ideal conditions for growth, pernicious weeds like black grass can be managed without weedkiller or at least, significantly reduced quantities. Authoritarian methods of raising and teaching children are a bit like Round-up, I think: broadcast methods aimed at killing all ‘weeds’ rather than understanding the conditions in which they germinate and changing those conditions with observation, care, attention and gentle action. Or even changing our perspective on ‘weeds’ and seeing their real value.
As we talked, a third wave came over me as the phrase ‘wound care’ popped into my head.
Back in my nursing days I was taught that a wound must be allowed to granulate – to heal – slowly from the bottom up and from the edges in. If it heals over the top while the bottom is still infected, bacteria can track out into surrounding tissues and cause more serious problems. Perhaps contrary to what might seem logical at first, wound management can actually involve actively keeping a wound open so that it can heal from the bottom and the edges. This is most important with deep, infected wounds. And so it is, both in the flesh and almost poetically as metaphor. We heal from the bottom up and from the edges in – whether as individuals, as families, as communities, as nations, as a planet. It can be slow and healing can look ugly, raw and painful in its process. If we can bear it, not shy away from it or try to cover it up, we stand a better chance of real recovery with minimal scarring.