Environmental Activism in Disempowered Communities: A Pattern Language for the Privileged

12074750_10208294481788092_7217098040051561359_nTo support Ben’s ongoing research, writings, and teaching, please become a regular monthly contributor via Patreon.

by Benjamin Weiss

Part 3 of a series on social & economic inequality in permaculture. Part 1 is entitled: The State of American Permaculture: A Millenial’s Perspective. Part 2 is entitled: The Need for Landless Permaculture.

Who am I to write this essay?

According to the color of my skin and the current state of race relations and economic strata in the Western world, I am a white, heterosexual man who grew up in an affluent American suburb in a middle-class family. And so, according to privilege analysis, the contemporary method of analyzing people’s social, economic, and political relationships to issues of inequality and oppression, popular amidst progressive activist circles, and which has been very useful for me in my life’s work, I’m “at the top of the food chain” when it comes to privilege.


The author and his friend Wilson Alvarez talk to a group of their students in a permaculture course in 2014. Photo by Michelle Johnsen.

Nonetheless, in my youth, I was heavily influenced by my grandfather and my aunt who both spent much of their lives working for civil rights and to defend disempowered communities. During my high school years, and in my early twenties, I studied the history of oppression in the United States, participated frequenty in social justice initiatives, and attended many trainings related to progressive activism and community building. So, after studying permaculture and organic farming for several years as well, at age 23, I began what has become 9 years of work on environmental issues in communities where social and economic oppression tend to be a more apparent challenge to the people than the plight of nature.

Who is this essay written for?

This is written for anyone of privilege who wants to do environmental work in underprivileged communities that are not their own. As a permaculture teacher, organic farmer, and progressive activist, I have so often spoken with well-meaning activists who want to do the kind of work that I’ve done, but who don’t yet understand the nuances of working as an outsider in a disenfranchised community. Some of these activists have already participated in projects that have failed to achieve their goals or have even done damage in the target community due to a lack of social awareness. I’ve also spoken  and worked with many activists within such communities who’ve witnessed these failures and are often made very bitter by them. I’ve participated in such failures myself. Thankfully, I’ve also been a part of some successes. This essay is intended to be a gift to people on both sides of the equation. I pray that it helps lead to more successful projects, more powerful relationships, healthier people, renewed community, and the healing of Mother Earth.

Understanding privilege…

Privilege analysis makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Especially the privileged. So many of us want to jump past a deep look at the differences that divide us straight to our shared humanity as a foundation for working in outside communities. Our mutual, underlying humanness is a much safer place, emotionally and on many other levels, than the places where we may be unwittingly participating in forms of oppression. Nonetheless, a successful partnership with activists in underprivileged communities requires a humble and healthy self awareness of one’s own privilege on the part of the outsider activist who comes from a community with more power. Power comes in many forms, and the power of humility cannot be underestimated as a tool for finding the shared humanity which so many of us yearn for.

I have found it helpful, many times, when CaptureI’ve struggled with guilt or shame while analyzing my own unfortunate participation in oppression, to understand and remember the difference between interpersonal and systemic forms of oppression. Interpersonal oppression is a direct act of undermining a vulnerable individual. Systemic oppression is participation in social, economic, and political structures that disempower whole groups of people. Flinging a racial slur at someone with a different skin tone is an example of interpersonal oppression. Purchasing clothes manufactured in a sweat shop is an example of participation in systemic oppression. Generally, it is much easier to weed out one’s own habitual forms of interpersonal oppression than it is to unplug from the vast monstrosity of systemic oppression that modern, global, industrial civilization is founded upon. Do the best you can to unplug, and take solace in your efforts. The shame of participating in systemic oppression is only a hurdle to finding solutions.

And please remember that privilege analysis is not truth. It is a way of looking at the world, a useful lens for self-improvement and to understand complex dynamics of community interaction. As with any other way of looking, the more we assert its correctness, the less correct it becomes.

What’s a pattern language?

A pattern language is a set of sayings useful in a specific discipline, field, or practice for the purpose of systematically designing solutions to problems or attaining desired outcomes of a project. The key word here is “systematically.” A pattern language helps us to move through a process in a way that is not haphazard. The sayings themselves serve as guidelines, reminders, and even ethics that keep us moving toward better and better results. The phrases follow a specific order that lead us through different scales or scopes of observation of our work. The sayings also relate back to other phrases on the list, continually reminding us of our own guidelines and goals. The term comes from the book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction authored by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein. Pattern languages have become popular conceptual tools in the permaculture movement as an approach to sustainable design.

This essay, then, as stated in the title, is a pattern language to help those who wish to address environmental degradation in underprivileged communities to which they are an outsider.

The pattern language…

I’ve divided the twenty-five sayings that make up this pattern language into three sections. Each represents a general body of work to be addressed during different phases of a project. The three sections are:

  1. Before beginning our work in a community, we need to do some work on ourselves…
  2. As our aim becomes clearer, and we identify a community in which we hope to work, it’s time to hone our focus…
  3. Here’s what we need to keep in mind as we actually engage in our work within the community…

Section 1:

  • Be authentic, transparent, humble, & sometimes vulnerable.

There are so many traits we can cultivate to become better human beings in the eyes of those around us. My experience has taught me that it’s up to each of us to take responsibility for our own moral and ethical development if we want to participate in healthy community. I’ve identified the four traits named in this saying (authenticity, transparency, humility, & vulnerability) as ones that make us trustworthy as outsiders in a new community. It is impossible to be of real help in any community if we are not trusted by those we are working with. Simple as that.

Through authenticity, we allow others to know what to expect when they work with us, to know what we’re good at and what we aren’t. This way, we set ourselves up to be placed into roles in which we can succeed. And we don’t shock people by doing something unexpected, especially when it comes to our shortcomings. Though we must play different roles at different times in our relationships with others, consistency within our values shines through and, hopefully, builds trust.

Through transparency we never have reason to deceive or lie, and we make it easier on ourselves to work through our inevitable mistakes. I once got into an argument with an African American colleague about a lack of funding for a permaculutre workshop we were organizing in her neighborhood. We challenged each other about whose responsibility it was to be raising funds, and where some of the prospective funds were supposed to go. Although the conversation got heated and we disagreed about several important points, I had built up enough of a rapport with her that there was never an allegation of wrongdoing, and we came to the conclusion that we both needed to work harder to raise the money.

Humility is of the utmost importance when engaging with a community in which people may view us as members of a demographic that tends to be oppressive toward them. To show that we are aware of this oppression and have worked to understand our own part in it is essential. I cannot stress this enough. Many of the sayings that follow are about the cultivation of humility in this work, such as: “recognizing privilege is the responsibility of the privileged,” “shed intellectual superiority,” and “withhold value judgments.”

And by learning to be occasionally vulnerable, to stretch our boundaries of comfort, to put ourselves into situations in which we may lose out, builds courage within us and shows others that we are not rigid, overly demanding, arrogant, or selfish.

  • Be clear about your values.

When we work in a community whose culture is not our own, it becomes crucial that we understand our own values and boundaries, and where we are willing to bend. I taught a three month long permaculture course in an African American neighborhood in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania that was attended by a handful of members of the Nation of Islam. As a Jew, it might seem obvious that I would have some conflicting values with these folks that could derail the goals of the class. But I found the opposite to be true. By being forthright about my values and making space in my curriculum for the students to converse about theirs, we were quickly able to find common ground, and I was able to see potential conflict points to avoid. One example from this story is that these fellow humans’ religious views made it hard for them to process some of the scientific ideas that I normally use in my curriculum. So I minimized those portions of the curriculum and turned unavoidable pieces into conversation topics that benefited the whole group.

  •  Understand oppression & empathize with the oppressed.

Oppression comes in many forms, subtle and obvious, interpersonal and systemic. There are many groups of people who are habitually mistreated and abused by others. Understanding and recognizing oppression and our own complicity is a long, difficult process. If you’re reading this essay, you probably already have an in-roads to this understanding. Yet the work may never end. Study and research is helpful. Choose an issue that hits your heart and start there. For me, as a teenager, it was racism in the United States. I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, every book and essay by Mumi Abu-Jamal that I could get my hands on, Black Panthers Speak, and so on. Through my deepening knowledge of my country’s history of racism towards blacks, I began to consider the genocide of the Native Americans. I read a book called In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, and then many others.


A Black Lives Matter “die-in” protest that Ben helped to organize in December of 2014.

Attend anti-oppression trainings. As a youth, enraged by what I read in those books,
passionate to act, I went three years in a row to NCOR, the National Conference on Organized Resistance, at American University. There I underwent anti-racism trainings, learned about feminism, sexism, and positive masculinity, met people working for labor rights, immigration rights, Palestinian rights, LGBTQ rights, and on and on. The more I studied different forms of oppression, the easier it became to see and understand other forms, and to begin to root out my own habitual participation in the mistreatment of underprivileged peoples.

Find, in your own life, moments when you have felt mistreated, disempowered, or taken advantage of, even if you’re a white, heterosexual man in America who, by birth, has a mountain of privilege and power. Recall the negative feelings that arose within you and use these memories to understand how others feel when they are mistreated. This is the root of empathy. My Jewish ancestors have been persecuted for thousands of years like some nightmarish pinball game of bad luck. Contemplating this history has made it impossible for me to support Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. You will find your own threads from within you outward onto the scale of world events. This foundational empathy is essential for work in oppressed communities.

  • Understand privilege.

A full explanation of privilege analysis is far beyond the scope of this essay. But essentially, this is about seeing the ways in which society and culture grant some people power where others are denied. For the purpose of engaging in environmental activism in disempowered communities, we must understand our own privileges, especially the ones that separate us from the people we’re trying to help. Even our concerns about the environment and conservation, and the quality of air, water, and food, can be seen as a reflection of our privilege. Although this may not be true in many indigenous communities in which the relationship to the land is of deep cultural and spiritual significance, in many impoverished, oppressed, and war-torn areas people’s desperation to meet their basic needs trumps, or even negates, their concerns for nature. For the privileged, it is our degree of economic stability that affords us the time and safety to focus on issues beyond daily survival. Some of the phrases in sections two and three of this pattern language, such as: “withhold value judgments,” and “prioritize the issues of the community,” reflect this realization and help guide us toward helpful solutions for the community we’re trying to assist.

Understanding our privileges also makes interpersonal relationships easier, especially with people who might be inherently suspicious of us. For example, as a man, being aware of men’s tendencies to talk over and interrupt women, and to devalue their ideas, I can help to put people of different gender identities at ease in a meeting or brainstorming session by pointing out these tendencies to the group and asking the men in the session to be extra self-aware.

Lastly, people in underprivileged communities often expect individuals from more powerful demographics to co-opt their ideas and projects, to grab the power. Many of the sayings in section three, such as: “be an ally & an advocate,” “leave decision-making to the community,” and “train leaders from within the community,” are meant to help guide us away from becoming just another inadvertent power-monger.

  • Recognizing privilege is the responsibility of the privileged.

Because those who are discriminated against have inherently less power, they are at a disadvantage to teach the powerful about discrimination. This is why the onus to learn about the dynamics of privilege and power is on those of us who have it, especially if we wish to work with those who don’t. So if it’s our responsibility to learn, how do we do it? The kinds of transformational educational experiences that I described above in the section on “understanding oppression & empathizing with the oppressed,” are good examples of the process. It is also possible to have conversations about these dynamics outside of the professional/volunteer realm with friends who are members of disempowered social groups. I will speak more about this in section two in relation to the phrase: “recognize personal & professional relationships.”

  • Understand environmental justice.


    In January of 2015, Ben was arrested with a group of friends for blocking a core-sampling rig at a Native American burial ground. Photo by Michelle Johnsen.

Environmental justice is the crossroads of environmentalism and social justice. As I said about privilege above, a full explanation of environmental justice is far beyond the scope of this essay. And also, as I encouraged above, find issues that hit your heart and use them as springboards for your research. For myself, the more I’ve learned about the struggles of oppressed peoples and the ways that extractive industry degrades the global ecosystem, the more I have realized that the recipients of the worst effects from these industries are almost always the poor. The wealthy (and often the middle class) tend to have enough economic power to prevent dangerous facilities from ending up in their backyards. The poor often lack access to healthy food and healthy land. This, then, becomes one of the most obvious areas of focus to do environmental work in underprivileged communities.

In my early twenties, I managed a small urban farm for a non-profit organization whose mission was to combat gang violence by providing alternative opportunities for disadvantaged youth. As a friend of mine who works on similar programs has said many times: “The young men in my neighborhood are already good at growing, weighing, selling, and keeping track of their money, so why not teach them how to do it with vegetables instead of drugs?” I once asked one of the directors of the organization I worked for how he had come to the idea of using urban farming as a solution to the gang problem. He answered: “Whenever I deal with a complicated social ill, I try to boil it down to one of the simplest parts of life, so why not start with food? When the youth are malnourished, their minds don’t function well.” During this same period of my life, a dear old friend of my grandparents’ was dying. She had just finished helping a non-profit food cooperative in her city, of which she’d been a member for decades, to found their own small urban farm to supply produce to their shop. She was a life-long volunteer and progressive social activist. I went to visit her one last time, and I asked her why she had spent some of her waning energy on this initiative. Her answer to me was that after a life of helping underprivileged people, she had come to the realization that they needed cheap, local, healthy food.

  • Shed intellectual superiority. 

Academic intelligence is not the only intelligence. The ways and means of knowing and understanding are not exclusive to the well-educated. In fact, the way that people of privilege use the word “education” is loaded with prejudice. All my life I’ve heard so-called liberals say things like: “Those people wouldn’t have so many kids if they were better educated,” and “the people in the ghetto would be able to get better jobs if they had better education.” Have you ever stopped to really think about what a saying like this means, and how it might sound to one of “those people?” Although there certainly is some truth, and some well-meaning kindness, behind statements like this, there is also a latent assumption of intellectual superiority. The underprivileged tend to have less access to the educational resources of the privileged, but they have no less life experience. As activists working in disempowered communities, the way we speak to people and convey our ideas is of the utmost importance. Using vocabulary that others can easily understand is not “speaking down” to somebody. Utilize resources that the community is familiar with. Shed your belief that what you know and have is better just because it’s more “advanced.” Other sayings later in this pattern language, such as “withhold value judgments, and “have realistic expectations,” will help us to build on our understanding of this one, which challenges us to a difficult personal process of letting go of hard-to-see cultural biases.

Section 2:

  • Prepare to be invited.

    susquehanna permaculture, rewilding school, rebel garden, pennsylvania permaculture, pennsylvania primtive skills, wild land permaculture

    Ben with his graduates from a 2012 permaculture course he organized with his friend Rafiyqa Muhammad and her organization Ngozi, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

This saying addresses the most common mistake that I’ve encountered among environmental activists who want to work in underprivileged communities. The mistake is to insert oneself into an outside community with ideas of how to “fix” something, without the welcome of the community itself. I’ll speak to this even more thoroughly later in this essay under the phrase: “Don’t impose solutions.” For many people in disempowered communities, unwelcome reform efforts from outside do-gooders is obnoxious, offensive, and ignorant.

So how do we prepare to be invited? I set this saying as the first of section 2 (As our aim becomes clearer, and we identify a community in which we hope to work, it’s time to hone our focus…) because as we worked through the sayings in section one, we were already involved in this preparation, and the following phrases in section 2 represent the deepening of this process. We can place ourselves in a good position to be invited to work in the community by gaining useful skills for any activist, such as facilitation training, social media literacy, anti-oppression trainings, and so on. We get to know the community in which we want to have a positive impact by making friends and colleagues there, by knowing the history and the current situation, and by being observant, diligent, and empathetic.

  • Know the situation.

This saying represents a deepening of the work expressed by several of the sayings in section 1. Now that we’ve identified a community we wish to assist, and we’ve begun the process of getting to know the people, it’s time to take our understandings of oppression, privilege, environmental justice, and so on, and to focus them on the specific issues and history of this group of people.

I’ve been fascinated by reggae and Rastafarian culture since I was a teenager. Rastfari has had a huge impact on my worldview. I hoped for many years to eventually make a pilgrimage to Jamaica to meet Rastas and to thank them, somehow, for the positive influence their culture has had on my life. But I knew that I didn’t want to just land in Jamaica with no guidance and strike out into the country in search of new friends. Finally, last year, I was invited to do a consultation at a farm where an American Rasta lives with his family. Because of my knowledge of and respect for his culture, we easily became


Ben on a “ganja” farm in Jamaica in March of 2016. Growing cannabis is now legal for Rastafarians in Jamaica. Photo by Kendra Hoffman.

friends, and a few months later he invited me to travel with him to Jamaica. I spent three weeks on the island, traveling to meet Rasta elders and farmers. Yet again, my knowledge of reggae, Jamaican history, and Rasta culture made it easy for me to connect with many people in this new community. Two weeks into the trip, some of the Jamaican farmers were already asking my opinion of some of their farming techniques and we began to trade knowledge and skills. I was welcomed back by a handful of people to participate in their projects. This story is also a good example of the previous saying: “prepare to be invited.”

  • Book knowledge is no substitute for first-hand experience.

And that includes this essay! Get out into the community. Make mistakes and learn from them. You’ve gotten the idea by now that I’m stressing the importance of preparation and research. But once we’re empowered by these, it’s time to hit the ground running. I’ve spoken so much about communities and how to understand and anticipate the dynamics within them, but communities are comprised of individuals, and every individual within a community will have there own opinions. The only way to figure out how to deal with so many nuances is to experience them firsthand. I had a sixty-year-old supervisor at the urban farm I mentioned above who used to pull out two pairs of boxing gloves when one of the teenage boys in our youth employment program was really causing trouble. I once watched him pop the top of a surprised young man’s head in one of these impromptu bouts. You would never find a method like this in a book or a workshop on how to deal with uncooperative teenagers, but my supervisor earned more respect from those kids than any of the other staff members could. And I learned a lot by watching.

  • Don’t impose solutions.

Again, as I mentioned previously, I have encountered so many times, the common mistake of imposing solutions to problems on a community that we are not members of. This is such an easy trap to fall into. Just as the first principle of permaculture, as stated by David Holmgren, is “Observe & Interact,” so this second section of the pattern language is all about observing and getting involved with the community we wish to help. Everyone who studies permaculture learns that the essence of sustainable design is to watch how nature works, and to mimic her balance, her process, her efficiency, and her flow in order to create human systems that function in harmony with the Earth. A social movement, or a grassroots strategy can be designed in the same way.

We begin with a sense of wonder, of openness, and all of the empathy for this new community that we’ve created within ourselves by following the previous steps of this pattern language. And from this place, we get to know the community, to “know the situation.” Through this process of observation we begin to see the needs of the community, and what work is already being done to address these needs. I encourage you to look for an initiative or an organization that is already working within the community, especially one that is run by members of the community itself, rather than to start something new, especially when you are new to the situation. This, hopefully, will lead you to the kinds of work that I’ll articulate in the third section of this pattern language, represented by sayings such as “prioritize the issues of the community,”  and “leave decision-making to the community.”

  • Withhold value judgments.

As we get to know the group of people we wish to assist, we have to recognize and come to understand the core values of the group as a whole and of the individuals we’ll be working with. But we don’t have to share all of these values. We must work to find common ground, as I illustrated under the phrase in section one, “be clear about your values,” but we don’t have to agree on everything. And, without a doubt, the more harshly we judge the values of the people we’re trying to help, the less likely we are to succeed. The core value of any activist working in an outside community has to be “service.”

I taught permaculture and organic gardening classes for four years at a Quaker spiritual retreat center. My supervisors explained to me that students there would expect my curriculum to be spiritually challenging. I’m not a Quaker, as are many of the teaching staff at this facility, but I am spiritual, so I did the best I could to find common ground. So many times, students there assumed I was a Quaker because of the spiritual values I included in my classes. Although I don’t even understand or agree with all that I’ve learned about Quaker faith and practice, I merely created space for the students to explore their own spirituality within my curriculum.

On another occasion I was asked to teach a permaculture workshop at an Occupy Wall Street encampment in autumn of 2012. I seriously disagreed with much of the strategy and rhetoric of that movement, but wishing to be of service, I used permaculture design concepts to help those activists examine their own strategies and tactics without inserting my opinion. It was a useful experience for everyone involved.

An African American activist who is my friend told me of a meeting with white activists hoping to organize around food justice in her neighborhood. She told me that a number of people in her community were offended when they brought food to a potluck meeting and some of the white activists complained that the food wasn’t organic, and didn’t want to eat food such as fried chicken supplied by the community members. This is the kind of value judgment that we have to avoid in this work. We do so by grounding ourselves in the very first saying of this pattern language: “Be authentic, transparent, humble, & sometimes vulnerable,” and we expand this work by following some of the sayings in section 3, such as “when in Rome” and “take some personal risks.”

  • Recognize personal & professional relationships.

Creating interpersonal relationships within the community we’ve begun to work in is essential to the success of our work. But this phrase of the pattern language isn’t only telling us to recognize such relationships; it’s also a reminder to distinguish between friends and colleagues. Understanding who is our friend, who is our colleague, and who is truly both is important. I have found in my own work that in any community, there are people vying for power and/or trying to gain leverage for the community itself who will act friendly when it benefits their cause, but will switch quickly to a very professional demeanor (which may include distancing themselves or their organizations from our work) if they see fit to do so. Although I urge you, as an activist whose core tenet is “service,” to avoid these kind of “politricks” as much as possible, it is crucial to be on the lookout for this pattern, to understand why and when it happens, and to know how to deal with it. I have found over the years that, although it is sometimes necessary to distance ourselves and our projects from trouble-makers, generally, those who prioritize projects over friendships are not actually building community. This behavior happens in every community, but can be particularly severe in communities where resources are scarce. In such a situation, the battle for resources can easily destroy our work. I will speak to this more in section 3 under the saying “give gifts carefully.” 

Harrisburg PDC Spring 2013 (6)

Permaculture design is based on observing the relationships in natural systems. Grassroots initiatives can be observed through the same lens.

Again, it is crucial to distinguish between the kinds of services and behaviors we expect from friends as opposed to colleagues. I once had an awful experience while working for the non-profit urban farm I’ve mentioned several times. I was struggling to find some of the resources I needed to do my job well. I was approached by a woman from the local college which had partnered with my organization to obtain a very large amount of funding via a grant. This woman framed our meeting as an offer to help me do my job well by finding out what kind of resources the organization lacked. I was so glad to have her help, and she was friendly. I gave her all the information she asked for. The result of this was not helpful at all. This woman used the information I’d given her to attack the board members and the director of my organization for neglecting to run the program the way she wanted it to be run. I ended up being caught in the middle as the board members and director felt I had betrayed our organization. The woman from the college, who had so much sway over our funding, was white, and many of the members of my organization, mostly Latino and African American, felt that they were being undermined in an overtly racist power grab by this woman and her institution. In the end, we lost our funding, and I lost my job. A lesson learned the hardest way.

Section 3:

  • Prioritize the issues of the community.

When we work on environmental issues with an underprivileged community, it is essential that we understand the primary concerns of the people there, make them the priority in our work as well, and find ways to make the solutions to environmental issues function also as solutions to the primary concerns of the neighborhood. In permaculture design, this kind of double solution is called “stacking functions.” In an organic garden, straw mulch around the base of the vegetable plants serves to protect the soil from erosion, to hold in the moisture, to stifle the growth of weeds, and to slowly feed the soil as it is broken down through decomposition. Similarly, a movement such as the one that recently prevented the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline served as a wake-up call against climate change, as a warning to extractive industry that their dangerous and greedy projects will continue to be met with resistance, as a source of pride for rural farming and indigenous communities whose land was threatened, as a heartening victory for the environmental movement, and as an opportunity for many different people and communities to find rare common ground.

Especially in communities whose history is one of systemic racial oppression, trying to do environmental work without also addressing racism is unlikely to succeed. This may be the single most important point I’ll make in this entire essay. So I’ll repeat it:

Trying to address environmental issues in oppressed communities without also addressing the oppression will not work.

All of the previous sayings in this pattern language have led us to understand and address this necessary effort. By the time we actually begin to implement a serious project in this outside community (recall that this section 3 is defined as what we need to keep in mind as we actually engage in our work within the community…) we should have already done so much work within ourselves that we understand this point completely. I have had many conversations with seasoned environmental activists who still don’t want to have to address racism when they work in racially oppressed neighborhoods, and it saddens me every time. The environmental movement will likely never become racially diverse if this trend isn’t bucked. So how do we make our green solutions serve doubly as push-back against social injustice? Many of the following phrases, such as “be an ally and an advocate,” “train leaders from within the community,” and “phase yourself out” address this question.

  • Have realistic expectations.

This saying is an important guideline for crafting our goals in this work. Especially in economically underprivileged communities, over-utilizing financial resources on a project that fails or doesn’t meet the critical needs of the community can severely discourage future projects with similar aims. Once a project fails, donors are often hesitant to lend money to something similar, volunteers are often hesitant to participate, and community leaders are often hesitant to get on board.

Regardless of the economic situation, when we work in disempowered communities, it’s important to remember that no matter how much research we do, if we’re not truly a member of the community, there are likely to be nuances that we cannot understand. And misunderstanding these nuances can lead us back to a place of unwitting participation in the forces of oppression that negatively impact the community, and we can quickly lose our good standing. For this reason, the goals of our projects should be as simple and clear as possible. Avoid trying to change beliefs, customs, or political views. If these factors are fueling environmental degradation that your project is directly trying to address, find ways to compromise. Look within the culture itself to find stories or practices that protect and nourish the Earth, and encourage these rather than discouraging something else. Find examples of people within the community who have already begun this work, who have already found culturally acceptable ways to bypass or bend the beliefs or views that cause the negative environmental impacts. Many of the following sayings such as “when in Rome…,” “give gifts carefully,” and “small victories are big victories,” help us to keep our expectations realistic.

  • When in Rome…Capture2

…Do as the Romans do.This one is simple.We shouldn’t design projects that are filled with ideas, people,
resources, technology, aesthetics, and products that are alien to the community we’re trying to serve. This doesn’t mean we can’t do
anything new. It’s just a suggestion to clothe the work in the trappings of the culture. People take care of things that they love. People don’t love things that they don’t understand. So we have to make our work as easy to understand as possible, and utilizing the culture, people, and economics of the community we’re working with is an easy way to help people relate to the work. We also, as outsiders, can allow ourselves to assimilate somewhat into the culture to help our friends and colleagues therein to relate to us, and to show our respect, and even our love, for aspects of this community that isn’t our own.

  • Take some personal risks.

Recall that the very first saying in Section 1 of this pattern language is: “be authentic, transparent, humble, & sometimes vulnerable.” This current phrase about taking personal risks is that vulnerability in action, with a bit of courage thrown into the mix too. Throughout this essay I’ve spoken of ways to make ourselves trustworthy to the people we’re attempting to help. I can think of no better way to prove trustworthiness than to show that we are personally invested in our work, our project, our initiative, and the community we’re serving. In section 2, when speaking of the importance of understanding personal and professional relationships, I offered a warning about blending the two as we engage in this work. But this third section of the essay is about action, and so now I’ll discuss the opposite of that warning. There comes a point when taking some calculated personal risks can achieve several crucial goals:

  • To further erase doubts within the community about the goodwill of our intentions…
  • To demonstrate the level of understanding and concern that we have developed for the issues that challenge the community…
  • To distance ourselves ever further from participation with the forces of oppression that may have previously set us apart from people we are working to help…
  • To “become an ally and an advocate” as I will speak more about below…
  • To blur the lines between colleague and friend with the right people, a blending that has the potential to become a source of inspiration and power for our work that exceeds either type of relationship by itself… (Just as in ecology, it is often the place where two ecosystems overlap, called an “ecotone,” in which energy flows are most abundant, bio-diversity is highest, and resources are most readily available. Hence David Holmgren’s permaculture principle: “Utilize edges & value the marginal.”)
  • And to galvanize others to act, or to join the effort.


    Ben presents a certification to his friend Rafiyqa Muhammad at the end of a permaculture course they organized together.

So how do we take a personal risk? We can invest some of our own resources or assets, beyond just our time. We can push our projects into realms that more directly challenge the forces of oppression that afflict the community we work with. We can lend our voice and express our opinions on related issues. We can show up at other projects within the community that have similar aims. We can continue to build personal relationships in the community, and we can take care of people outside of the professional/volunteer realm, simply on a person to person basis. And we can even participate in civil disobedience and direct action protests if we deem it appropriate.

  • Give gifts carefully.

There are so many different yields that can come out of any environmental initiative, and so many different ways to offer these yields as gifts to individuals, organizations, and communities. These gifts can range from fresh organic produce, to a new park, to volunteer labor, to jobs, to financial grants, and so on. I cannot overemphasize the thoughtfulness that must go into giving these gifts within underprivileged communities. One thing to be mindful of is to give gifts that “prioritize the issues of the community.” A new park may create lovely green space in a downtrodden urban neighborhood, but can it also address food scarcity, unemployment, gang activity, and systemic racism? The answer could be yes if the project is designed with these issues in mind. Often in such communities, the giving of expensive gifts can come across as an unwelcome publicity stunt by the economic elite, yet another way to quickly undermine essential support for environmental initiatives within the community.

Unfortunately, in this work, we also have to be aware that, in any community, there are individuals who take the goodwill of charity and use it for selfish gain. This ranges from crooked politicians and organizational leaders to regular people in the neighborhood. We have to do the best we can to make sure that the resources we pour into our projects actually make a deeply positive impact that reaches the neediest people and combats oppression, rather than propping up broken and back-door social and economic structures that proliferate injustice.

Several of my friends have worked for years on an amazing initiative called the Philadelphia Orchard Project (POP). They partner with other non-profit organizations to build food forests in urban Philadelphia. They utilize a fairly rigorous screening process to make sure that their partners will actually be able to maintain the complex orchards and gardens that POP designs and builds for them. This helps to ensure that the resources POP gathers for the communities they work in are not poured out in vain, an excellent example of giving gifts carefully.

  • Be an ally & an advocate.

Environmental injustice in disempowered communities is always connected to a slew of other social and economic injustices. By this point in our work, we should have a deep understanding of this truth, and hopefully we’ve begun to see many ways in which the issues and concerns we’re working to address are directly connected to other forms of oppression impacting the community we work with. I’ve already explained, under “prioritize the issues of the community” and “take personal risks” how we can become more integrated with the community in order to make our projects more successful and useful. This saying of the pattern language speaks to the inverse effect. Once we have trust and clout within the community through our successful environmental work, we can begin to lend our voice to efforts to combat other injustices, whether they’re environmental or not. This deepens our service to the community.

Remember that as people of privilege, we have power to speak to the privileged and powerful in ways that the underprivileged do not. By intentionally including marginalized people in our projects, we expose the more closed-minded to opportunities to expand their own views, and we send a clear message to the privileged that one of their own sees value in neglected sectors of society, not in an economic sense (although that is a potent force for getting the attention of the powerful), but in the innate value of the humanity of others unlike ourselves.

  • Leave decision-making to the community.

This phrase, as well as a few that follow, including: “train leaders from within the community” and “phase yourself out,” speak to the importance of empowering the disempowered. We have been welcomed into a community because we have some expertise and understanding that the community needs, but now it’s time to pass it on. This is the essence of the the old saying: “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he’ll eat forever.” If we’ve been tasked by the community to lead a project, then of course we must take some responsibility for making decisions. But as much as possible, we should empower community members to increasingly make important decisions about the direction and goals of the project, especially when it comes to decisions related to sensitive community matters in which we may still be viewed as an outsider without a very relevant opinion. Choose trustworthy advisers from within the community to help you make decisions such as who gifts should be given to, how to clothe the project in the culture of the community, when and how to take personal risks, and what other initiatives to advocate for.

  • Train leaders from within the community.


    Listen to my friend Scott Mann’s interview with Karryn Olson-Ramanujan about her “Pattern Language for Women in Permaculture” by clicking here…

Teach a woman to fish and she’ll eat forever too. When I first began teaching permaculture and sustainable gardening in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, there were very few women doing similar work. It bothered me terribly that my classes and workshops so often had an all-male teaching staff, because I understood that for many of my female students this just made them uncomfortable. So I made a several year effort to find women interested in this work, build professional connections with them, and either offer them some training myself or encourage them to get it wherever they felt comfortable. The result, now, is that there are a handful of amazing women, and people of other gender identities, in my region who I feel confident are now ready to teach permaculture. I’m grateful to be able to work with them, and I’m glad to see their own efforts flourish. Much of my work in this process was inspired by another pattern language about women in permaculture written by permaculturist Karryn Olson-Ramanujan. This is an example of how this saying further encourages us to empower the disempowered through a focus on environmental justice rather than simply environmentalism.

  • Channel the fire of the youth.
Examining Turkey Tails

Ben and his friend Natasha teach his daughter Soul about “Turkey Tail” mushrooms. Photo by Michelle Johnsen.

Just as it is important to make space for leaders from within the community to emerge, it is equally as important to make space for the youth to feel valued, understood, needed, and respected. In some cases, involving youth in positive and meaningful ways may be the key to reaching other members of the community who have resisted or rejected the work we are doing. Youth involvement may also be a powerful force against oppressive factors from outside, or a key to unlocking much-needed resources. Sometimes the fresh vision of the youth offers us insights and ideas we wouldn’t have come up with. And where the efforts and ideas of the youth are a little too fiery for the good of the work we’re doing, we must find roles for them to play that satisfy their need to feel validated and included. At the urban farm I worked for, I and the other staff members saw directly how the lessons learned by the teenagers we worked with trickled through to their families and the neighborhood. Our youth crew brought friends and relatives to visit the garden, many of whom had minimal experience with gardening or fresh food, or knew so little about healthy nutrition. But the youth crew also brought us elders from the community who taught us gardening techniques we didn’t know about, educated us about varieties of vegetables that were desirous to the community, and taught us about the history of the land we were working.

  • Small victories are big victories.

I’ve already emphasized the importance of having realistic expectations, and of keeping our goals simple and clear. This saying is a reminder to take every success as a milestone, every failure as a useful lesson, and to build on these little by little, no matter how little they may be. Many environmental activists have huge visionary goals when they embark on projects in disenfranchised communities. But again, remember my warning under the phrase “have realistic expectations” about not trying too hard to change religious and political views. Massive sweeping reforms pushed on a community by outsiders, no matter how well-intended, are another force of oppression. Massive sweeping reforms have to be carried forward by people within their own communities and cultures in order to be peaceful and just. So as an outsider, celebrate the little victories every time. I once was with a friend visiting the tiny gardens she had built at the Boys and Girls Club in her neighborhood to teach urban children about fresh food. I pointed out that some of the techniques being used to grow the food were far from ideal, and my friend looked me in the eye and said “Most of these kids have never eaten a tomato before Ben. I got them to grow one and eat it right off the vine. That’s a big victory for them and for me.” And I realized instantly that her way of seeing the situation was powerful and positive.

  • Know when to fold ’em.

When we do fail, it’s often crucial to gracefully step away from the scenario so as not to make it worse. I’ve failed in this manner of work so many times and so many ways. My sincere hope is that through this essay, some of you won’t have to “reinvent the wheel” of failure, and can succeed more than I have and avoid some obvious mistakes. When we cling to our goals, unwilling to cast the work we’ve done onto the grindstone of trial and error in the face of impending failure, we do harm.

In this essay I’ve pointed out so many ways to avoid becoming just another oppressor, just another mindlessly over-privileged do-gooder. Holding fast to a collapsing project is a fast-track to losing our good standing in the community we’re working with, and can once again make it difficult for other similar projects to succeed in the future. So we have to know when it’s time to throw down the cards, throw in the towel, and hoist the white flag. I’ve watched well-intended, poorly executed environmental initiatives drag on for years, souring the community to the cause, the participants often oblivious to the negative impressions of the surrounding community. Then, finally, a blow up occurs, almost always followed by a black-hole of wasted resources. In order to avoid this scenario, rely upon the work that we’ve done in some of the sayings earlier in the pattern language such as: “be authentic, transparent, humble, & sometimes vulnerable,” “be clear about your values,” “don’t impose solutions,” “prioritize the issues of the community,” and “have realistic expectations.” And lastly, when it is time to walk away from a failing project, do it as cleanly, kindly, and responsibly as possible.

  • Phase yourself out.

Fittingly, this is the final phrase of our pattern language. As I said before, “we should empower community members to increasingly make important decisions about the direction and goals of the project,” and “reforms have to be carried forward by people within their own communities and cultures in order to be peaceful and just.” This is why, ultimately, it is best if we train leaders from within the community to replace us, and eventually step down from a leadership role. This doesn’t mean that we have to abandon all of our friendships and involvement in the community. We can still “be an advocate and and an ally,” and we can find another injustice, possibly within the same community, to confront with all of the skill, tact, and wisdom that we learned from the last project.

Just as in every natural ecosystem species peak and fade away, having created the resources and fertile ground for another species to thrive, this is how we can empower the underprivileged to take environmental justice into their own hands and join a burgeoning international movement in defense of our Mother Earth. These kinds of projects and initiatives are more authentic and more inspiring when they are carried out effectively by the people whose communities are directly threatened by the injustice they seek to overcome. Local control of essential resources by local people is a solution to economic injustice, as well as environmental degradation. Local control of essential resources by local people is the embodiment of environmental justice. This is why the community must ultimately lead.

“When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists. Next best is the leader who is loved. Next, one who is feared. The worst is one who is despised.

If you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy.

The Master doesn’t talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say “Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!”

-Tao Te Ching

I am humbly overjoyed to offer this essay to the world. I sincerely hope that it provides inspiration and assistance. It is the result of 17 years of work and study, many failures, and a few successes. So many people have helped me on the path to understanding what I’ve written about here, some of whom surely suffered from my mistakes. I’m grateful to them all. I’d especially like to thank my mom Miriam Ryan, my grandparents Gene & Rose Bloomfield, my aunt Barbara Bloomfield, and Mumia Abu-Jamal who wrote me a letter from his maximum security prison cell when I was 15.

A Recap of the Pattern Language:

Section 1:

  • Be authentic, transparent, humble, & sometimes vulnerable.
  • Be clear about your values.
  • Understand oppression & empathize with the oppressed.
  • Understand privilege.
  • Recognizing privilege is the responsibility of the privileged.
  • Understand environmental justice.
  • Shed intellectual superiority. 

Section 2:

  • Prepare to be invited.
  • Know the history.
  • Book knowledge is no substitute for first-hand experience.
  • Don’t impose solutions.
  • Withhold value judgments.
  • Recognize personal and professional relationships.

Section 3:

  • Prioritize the issues of the community.
  • Have realistic expectations.
  • When in Rome…
  • Take some personal risks.
  • Give gifts carefully.
  • Be an ally & an advocate.
  • Leave decision-making to the community.
  • Train leaders from within the community.
  • Channel the fire of the youth.
  • Small victories are big victories.
  • Know when to fold ’em.
  • Phase yourself out.
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El estado de la permacultura en EE.UU. desde el punto de vista de un “milenial”

por Benjamin Weiss; traducciόn por Lucίa Moreno Velo

Este artículo es la primera parte de una serie sobre la desigualdad social y económica que existe en el movimiento permacultural. La segunda parte se titula “La necesidad de una permacultura para los sin tierra” y la tercera parte “El activismo medioambiental en las comunidades desposeídas: un patrón de lenguaje para los privilegiados”.

Mis intentos por vivir de la permacultura

Tengo 31 años. Durante los últimos diez años he estudiado permacultura y muchos otros ámbitos y disciplinas con total dedicación.  Durante los últimos diez años he estudiado permacultura y muchos otros ámbitos y disciplinas con total dedicación.  He asistido a clases, talleres, seminarios y conferencias, y he realizado prácticas de diversa índole. Tengo los certificados de diseño de permacultura y profesor de permacultura. He ofrecido 14 cursos de certificación de diseño en permacultura (PDC). En varios de ellos he sido profesor. Y organicé yo mismo los catorce. He desarrollado el temario de docenas de clases y talleres, desde temas filosóficos y espirituales, hasta desarrollo comunitario y formación de activistas, pasando por la gestión de la tierra. He participado como organizador y activista en campañas diversas, desde campañas antibélicas, hasta la defensa de los derechos civiles de los presos, pasando por campañas en defensa del medioambiente. Soy co-fundador del Sistema de diseño para el resilvestramiento (Rewilding Design System), una rama completamente nueva de la ciencia y la filosofía de la permacultura que cuenta con su temario, programa formativo y una serie de principios, éticas y herramientas de diseño plenamente desarrolladas. He diseñado, implementado y gestionado tres granjas ecológicas, entre ellas una granja urbana dedicada al empoderamiento de los jóvenes. Me he dedicado profesionalmente a la búsqueda de alimentos silvestres. He estudiado herbalismo y forestería. He dirigido tres tipos diferentes de negocios en los campos del diseño y la implementación. He sido miembro de comités sin ánimo de lucro. Me he formado intensivamente como activista, profesor, facilitador de grupos, organizador y emprendedor. He organizado convergencias regionales, hablado ante públicos diversos, cultivado una presencia online intensa. He hablado en podcasts y escrito artículos en publicaciones en papel y en blogs, he llevado una campaña de crowd-founding para financiar un libro sobre permacultura y resilvestramiento, he trabajado con grupos de diferentes religiones, grupos de nativos americanos, gente de barrios pobres de grandes ciudades y comunidades de clase media suburbana, he apoyado el trabajo de mis amigos y compañeros, asistido a grandes conferencias y convergencias, y mantenido debates significativos con grandes permacultores. El volumen de correspondencia que recibo por email, Facebook y teléfono es abrumador e imposible de mantener al día.

Y sin embargo, he ganado una media de aproximadamente 10.000 dólares al año en la última década. Ha habido años en los que apenas tenían suficiente para comer. No he tenido seguro médico hasta este año. He vivido gracias a trabajitos que me iban saliendo, a la asistencia pública y al apoyo de mi familia y mis amigos. A día de hoy, sigo trabajando sin descanso y estoy más ocupado que nunca. Dirijo mi propia empresa y he construido toda la infraestructura que requiere un negocio de ese tipo. Pensando que si mejoraba mis contactos y tenía más presencia pública, al estar creciendo el interés del público en la permacultura y con la tendencia que está experimentando la economía hacia la relocalización, pensando que todo ello me ayudaría a conseguir un buen sueldo, me deshice de los trabajitos y me dediqué en cuerpo y alma a mis objetivos profesionales. Pero no está funcionando.

La situación real

Mis clases y mi programa formativo, diseñado para adecuarse a personas de todas las edades, son más populares que nunca. Pero la asistencia no aumenta. Me he pasado el último otoño/invierno creando un calendario de clases para un año y realizando todas las tareas organizativas y administrativas necesarias para lanzarlo. Lo publicité en los medios sociales, en mi página web, con folletos y con el boca a boca. Empezaron a llegar las respuestas. Pero la inmensa mayoría de las personas interesadas en estas clases no se las pueden permitir, a pesar del hecho de que mis programas de permacultura son de los más baratos del país. La fuerza de la respuesta, que ha llegado como palabras de ánimo, solicitudes de becas y ofertas de intercambios de clases por trabajo, así como miles de “likes” en Facebook, ha sido abrumadora. El apoyo económico que recibo me viene principalmente de un pequeño pero dedicado grupo de mentores y antiguos alumnos, y no llega ni de lejos a responder a mis propias necesidades como para mantener el funcionamiento de mi negocio ni poder crear puestos de trabajo para los compañeros y estudiantes dispuestos a llenarlos.

He vivido una montaña rusa de frustración y esperanza, a través de la cual me he repetido el mantra que dice: “Si se quiere de verdad, de verdad, cualquiera puede conseguir mil dólares para asistir a un curso.” Pero ahora me doy cuenta de que este mantra es el discurso de la clase media, una clase en la que crecí pero a la que ya no pertenezco. Ni tampoco me creo ya los mitos y la cultura de esta clase. Cuantas más conexiones hago con las comunidades de personas de color que viven en los barrios oprimidos de las grandes ciudades, más me parece obvio que las personas que más merecen el acceso a la formación que ofrezco sencillamente no tienen los recursos necesarios para financiar mi trabajo. Un joven negro que vive en un gueto y quiere asistir a mi curso no puede recurrir al crowd-founding para conseguir mil dólares porque todas las personas que conoce son pobres. Y la coletilla de responder que es posible reunir el dinero “si se quiere de verdad, de verdad” es un crimen. Yo tengo el privilegio de poder acceder de forma indirecta a la monumental e inaudita cantidad de recursos acumulada por las personas de la generación del Baby Boom a través de miembros mayores de mi familia que, hay que decirlo, han sido muy generosos a lo largo de mi intento de conseguir vivir de la permacultura. Pero este acceso no está disponible para muchas de las personas de las comunidades racialmente diversas con las que los permacultores dicen una y otra vez querer conectarse y cooperar. Y ese cuento de hadas llamado “el sueño americano” que dice “si trabajo con suficiente ahínco tendré éxito” no se me ha cumplido a mi en mi vida adulta, a pesar de mi acceso indirecto a las riquezas de la generación anterior, ni tampoco se ha cumplido para la mayoría de las personas de mi generación.

Al contrario de lo que han predicho durante décadas los demagogos del movimiento medioambiental, el acceso a la tierra, a los contratos con grandes empresas, a una marea súbita de recursos que debían ocurrir cuando las masas se dieran cuenta de la necesidad de la permacultura en este momento de catástrofe inminente, no han ocurrido. Mi empresa de diseño no cuenta entre sus clientes a ninguna agencia gubernamental ni está diseñando la transformación de grandes extensiones de césped urbano a hábitat para la fauna ni a sistemas de producción de alimentos. Ni tampoco se han desbloqueado fondos para realizar experimentos de gestión de la tierra ni programas de desarrollo comunitario.

¿Y ahora qué?

A pesar de haber pensado lo contrario durante años, hoy en día creo firmemente que la formación en permacultura deber ser nominalmente gratuita, al menos en términos del coste monetario para asistir a este tipo de clases. Para mi, esta premisa tiene las siguientes consecuencias:

    • Es el sector sin ánimo de lucro, y no los estudiantes, el que debe ser la fuente de financiación para las necesidades económicas de los proyectos educativos.
    • Se tiene que crear una infraestructura multifacética que pueda identificar y seleccionar a los estudiantes que merecen esta formación y van a valorarla inherentemente, de forma que se garantice que la falta de pago no desvaloriza el verdadero valor de la formación.
    • Se deben desarrollar otras formas de que los estudiantes paguen la formación, por adelantado o a posteriori, como intercambios de trabajo y trabajo voluntario.
    • Para evitar la mediocridad, tan común, de los programas de intercambio de trabajo y voluntariado, estas oportunidades también deben incorporar un aspecto de formación continua que afiance los temarios de las clases gratuitas.
    • Para poder ofrecer este tipo de prácticas profesionales a los estudiantes según van avanzando en su formación, prácticas que sirven tanto como pago por la formación inicial como de apoyo en forma de trabajo a los proyectos reales donde se realizan, es necesario que haya empresas y proyectos florecientes y basados en la permacultura.
    • Para que florezcan las empresas y los proyectos de permacultura, los permacultores tienen que poder acceder a todos los recursos necesarios para alcanzar un nivel profesional.
    • En último término, no es el diploma ni el certificado ni los años de formación lo que hace que una persona sea profesional, sino el acceso al dinero de los clientes, ya que este dinero es lo que se necesita para construir un negocio real y poder pagar la formación y la infraestructura necesarias.
    • Así que la permacultura necesita un mercado y el apoyo económico de mecenas y benefactores, y sin esto no vamos a ningún sitio.

Business Structure Diagram

No sólo un paseo por la cresta de la ola

Como la inmensa mayoría de la riqueza económica sigue en manos de la generación del Baby Boom, y como los pioneros de la permacultura pertenecen a esa generación, hago un llamamiento a todos ellos para que se den cuenta de que a día de hoy el acceso a la financiación es la principal barrera que impide el crecimiento y la influencia del movimiento de permacultura, y a que utilicen su voz colectiva para animar a su generación a desviar capital a los esfuerzos de los permacultores nacidos en este siglo.

El Dr. Hunter S. Thompson describió una vez el fracaso de la revolución contracultural de los años 60 con gran visión y sinceridad:

“Ese sentimiento de victoria inevitable sobre las fuerzas de lo viejo y lo malo. No en un sentido militar, no necesitábamos recurrir a eso. Era que, sencillamente, nuestra energía tenía que prevalecer. No había motivo alguno para la lucha, ni en su lado ni en el nuestro. Teníamos momento: estábamos montados en la cresta de una ola alta y hermosa. . . . Así que ahora, menos de cinco años después, si te vas a Las Vegas y te subes a una colina medianamente alta y miras hacia el oeste, miras con el tipo de ojos adecuado, casi puedes ver la marca que dejó el agua al subir: ese sitio en el que la ola se rompió y retrocedió.”

Ningún movimiento se puede mantener con sólo buenas ideas. Sin una entrada masiva de financiación, los jóvenes permacultores como yo y muchos de mis compañeros tendremos que dejar de lado nuestro proyectos y el movimiento se estancará. La ola se romperá, y lo todo lo que se ha logrado hasta la fecha no será más que la marca de hasta dónde llegó la ola de la permacultura y la del  movimiento medioambiental. Para mi eso significaría una década de esfuerzo y una visión de lo que podría ser echadas a perder. Para la generación que fundó la permacultura, significaría un enorme fracaso ver sus propios esfuerzos y su visión finalizar con sus propias vidas. Y para el mundo, significaría una oportunidad perdida de tener un futuro mejor.


Benjamin Weiss


Posted in Uncategorized

Pre-Industrial & Low-Tech Tools for Rewilding

by Benjamin Weiss

logo-patreon-150x150To support Ben’s ongoing research, writings, and teaching, please become a regular monthly contributor via Patreon.

This essay was originally published in the Permaculture Activist magazine, winter 2014 edition.

There is a meme of self-identification, part of the “creation myth” of permaculture, that David Holmgren describes as a “focus… on learning from indigenous tribal cultures… based on the evidence that these cultures have existed in relative balance with their environment and survived for longer than any of our more recent experiments in civilization.1” And, Gregory Cajete, in his essential book Native Science, urges us to renew “our faith in the possibility of a sustainable future in tune with the truth of nature’s primal laws, because our images of the future are self-fulfilling… The images we create, the languages we speak, the economics we manifest, the learning systems we espouse… must all reflect and honor interdependence and sustainability.2

The permaculture zone map is a conceptual tool for examining the relationships between the flow of human resources and the broader encompassing ecosystem. Zone 0 represents humans and their essential needs, Zones 1-3 are designed, managed systems of resource production to support Zone 0, and Zone 4 is the buffer between the human environment and the wild. In the design (or lack thereof) of modern civilization, Zone 0 is generally surrounded by an immensity of Zones 1-3 (industrial resource production) that have come to dominate the surface of the earth, ravaging the bounteous diversity of ecosystems and landscapes. Zone 5, the wilderness, is debatably nonexistent, and the labyrinthine semi-wild margins (Zone 4) are untended and ignored waste places. According to Cajete: “while Native peoples all over the world are diverse in their expressions of culture, their fundamental way of relating to the natural world is remarkably similar, a commonality of ways that allows for generalizations to be made.2” One such commonality can be observed and described via the Zone Map concept: native civilizations utilized a vast, semi-managed Zone 4 in order to produce the majority of their essential resources.

In her book Tending the Wild, M. Kat Anderson asserts that natives “protected and tended favored plant species and habitats, harvested plant and animal products at carefully worked out frequencies and intensities, and practiced an array of horticultural techniques. Through coppicing, pruning, harrowing, sowing, weeding, burning, digging, thinning, and selective harvesting, they encouraged desired characteristics of individual plants, increased populations of useful plants, and altered the structures and compositions of plant communities. Regular burning of many types of vegetation… created better habitat for game, eliminated brush, minimized the potential for catastrophic fires, and encouraged a diversity of food crops. These harvest and management practices allowed for sustainable harvest… over centuries and possibly thousands of years.3” The scattered semi-wild lands that surround modern development still present such opportunities for yield. A contemporary methodology for managing Zone 4, widely employed, would present myriad benefits and solutions to social, economic, and environmental challenges such as:

  • generation of renewable resources in space-intensive perennial systems
  • reduced dependence upon industrial agriculture
  • reconnection with nature for individuals and communities
  • job opportunities and the creation of local economies
  • local control of resources and resource production
  • regeneration of wildlife habitat
  • protection for and regeneration of essential wild systems that maintain the biosphere

Such management practices require careful and subtle understandings and interactions between semi-wild ecosystems and the people who influence them. The techniques and information must be rediscovered and invented anew, and be suited to the novel ecosystems which, according to David Holmgren, now cover as much as 30% of the land mass of the earth4. The first step in any attempt to craft such techniques must be the establishment of an intensive and intentional observation practice (see my article in the summer 2013 issue of the Permaculture Activist). Beyond that, however, there are many small, appropriate interactions with semi-wild ecosystems that can lead to the wisdom required for the implementation of larger management practices. This article suggests some low-impact, introductory practices and outlines a low-tech tool-kit available to any permaculturist or rewilder who wishes to begin the pursuit of this endeavor.

Initial Interactions with Zone 4 Ecosystems

Although observation practices are the foundation-stone of any interaction with a semi-wild ecosystem, some small, positive-impact interventions into the landscape serve to deepen the observer’s awareness and understanding and bridge the gap between observation and cooperation. Here is a list of appropriate first interactions with most semi-wild land-based ecosystems:

  • Clean up trash and manageable refuse (items that can be carried out in a trash bag or backpack).
  • Utilize, maintain, and mark existing trails. Exploring an area that does not already have a trail is a potentially disruptive exercise. Where I live in the northeastern US, I sometimes follow deer trails, which are generally large enough for humans to pass along. This requires a deeper ethical examination of the action than following a pre-made human trail, has dangers such as the presence of Lyme-infected deer ticks, and usually requires more physical exertion. While many human trails in semi-wild environments are poorly designed and lead through sensitive areas, it is still generally, a good idea to begin on these routes rather than “bushwhacking.”

    Lititz Run at Millport Conservancy

    A rewilded creek at the Millport Conservancy in Lititz, PA where Ben & Wilson Alvarez have taught several classes.

  • Drink some wild water. There is an essential connection to the landscape that can be formed by drinking wild water. However, there is also essential yet basic knowledge required to begin this practice. I often carry a filter/pump that is lightweight and easily stored in a small pack. These filters, available from any outdoor sports retailer usually have two components: a ceramic filter with tiny pores to block the passage of micro-organisms such as Giardia, and a charcoal filter which removes chemical pollutants from the water. Other filtering accessories include iodine pills and small UV lights that kill micro-organisms. Swiftly flowing water is almost always the safest to gather for drinking, especially where it cascades, as it will be very low in sediment, and very high in oxygen. I have spent most of the last decade drinking small handfuls of unfiltered, wild water, straight from creeks and streams that flow through deep woodland environments. Through this process I seem to have built up a tolerance for the potential pathogens in my eco-region and I am now able to fully hydrate myself with this unfiltered water on long hikes. This practice requires extreme caution and a knowledge of the up-stream waterway and potential vectors therein such as animal pastures and industrial sites.
  • Harvest abundant plant items for food, medicine, or craft. Here is a scale of ethics I have created to gauge the impact of wild-crafting (harvesting) from most acceptable to least:
    • Harvest plant parts least likely to kill a plant, such as fruits, buds, seeds, or leaves (a good rule of thumb is to take a third or fewer of the total of these parts per individual plant).


      Fresh Yellow Dock shoots, recently harvested. The plant will rapidly regrow.

    • Harvest stalks of non-woody plants, or roots of clumping or rhizomatic
      herbaceous plants.
    • Harvest tree sap or resin.
    • Harvest limbs of woody plants or trees.
    • Harvest bark, root bark, or inner bark of woody plants or trees (inflicts potentially lethal wound).
    • Harvest whole root from plants that do not run or clump (kills the plant).

And another scale for choosing which species to harvest, from most acceptable to least:

  • abundant non-natives (most ethical)
  • abundant natives
  • semi-common non-natives
  • semi-common natives
  • rare or threatened non-natives
  • rare or threatened natives (least ethical)

A Basic Tool-Kit for Zone 4 Permaculture

Here are the tools that I often carry with me when I venture into semi-wild spaces. These tools are low-tech, widely available, and easy to use. They are versatile and light, and as hand tools they are highly energy efficient.

  • Pruning saw (with a blade that folds into the handle for storage). I prefer a Japanese-made saw called Gomboy.
  • Hori hori. This is a Japanese tool that is essentially a trowel with knife-blade edges. I
    prefer a blade that is about a foot-long and keep the edges razor sharp. This tool can be used for digging or harvesting roots, and works well as a small machete for chopping.
  • Hatchet
  • I prefer a hand-held size that can fit in my back pocket. I utilize cheap snippers as this tool tends to take a beating in the field and needs to be replaced frequently.
  • Multi-tool. Mine, made by Leatherman,

    Hori hori

    contains knife-blades, a saw blade, scissors, and other useful implements.

  • For harvesting, and ideally made from fibers wild-crafted from a Zone 4 ecosystem. paper and plastic bags are also handy.
  • Sight-level. An essential tool for finding and marking contour lines on slopes. This tool needs to be used in tandem with a flagged pole, and the process requires two people working together.
  • Field guides. I cannot overemphasize the importance of carrying these books into wild ecosystems. In the US, the two main publishers of field guides are Audubon and Peterson. While I generally prefer Audubon’s field guides because of the quality of their photos, if I have to choose only one guide to carry, it is Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Forests. This book is essentially a guide to broad ecological patterns. I highly recommend it for any permaculturist living in the eastern US.
  • Work gloves and safety glasses.
  • Water filter/pump.

And here are some tools that I utilize less frequently and are more difficult to transport in semi-wild areas:

  • Loppers (for cutting thicker branches than snippers)
  • Rope
  • Digging fork

The Efficiency of Hand Tools

Hand tools are more energy-efficient than tools that run on a concentrated, industrial fuel source because they are powered by human labor, the energy of which comes from our metabolic processes. These processes are energy exchanges that have co-evolved within the broader ecosystem and are therefore essentially pre-balanced as a part of the dynamic equilibrium of the earth’s biosphere. This does not mean that modern industrial tools can never serve as appropriate technologies. In Zone 4 ecosystems, however, the likelihood of harm caused by complex machines and their outputs to delicate forces and flows that are not designed, created, or well understood by humans make hand tools a more generally ethical choice for the tending of these environments.

The Value of Pre-Industrial Tools and Technologies

I strongly encourage any permaculturist or rewilder who intends to engage in the work of tending Zone 4 to learn the skills required to create pre-industrial tools and technologies, and to incorporate these into their routine interactions with semi-wild ecosystems. Such skills and technologies include:

  • Fire-starting; hand drill, bow drill, fire piston etc.
  • The making of cordage
  • Wood harvesting, curing, carving, and finishing
  • Animal stalking
  • Trapping
  • Hunting techniques and the crafting of hunting tools; archery and bowyering, atlatl, throwing stick, sling etc.
  • Knapping
  • Shelter building
  • Cooking
  • Basketry
  • Weaving
  • Hide tanning, leather making.
  • Fishing
  • Herbalism

Many of these technologies have the potential to be perfectly efficient when properly applied within ethical constraints based on real information about the supplies and limits of resources within an ecosystem. Speaking of the application of appropriate technology in native cultures, Gregory Cajete states that “adoption of technology is conservative and based on intrinsic need, and care is taken to ensure that technologies adopted and applied do not disrupt a particular ecology.”

Furthermore, the creation and use of these technologies provide insights into the subtle aspects of an ecosystem. These insights can catalyze a sense of reverence for the landscape and the community of life that is essential for the application of the three-fold ethic of permaculture: earth care, people care, fair share, an ethic which guarantees appropriate interaction with the wild.

1: Holmgren, David. Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Holmgren Design Services; 2002.
2: Cajete, Gregory. Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence. Clear Light: 2000.
3: Anderson, M. Kat. Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge & the Management of California’s Natural Resources. University of California Press; 2005.
4: Mann, Scott. David Holmgren on Permaculture: An Interview. The Permaculture Podcast with Scott Mann; April 4th, 2013.


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Traditional Observation Techniques for the Permaculture Designer

by Benjamin Weiss

logo-patreon-150x150To support Ben’s ongoing research, writings, and teaching, please become a regular monthly contributor via Patreon.

This essay was originally published in the Permaculture Activist magazine, summer 2013 edition.

“Observe and interact” is the first design principle of permaculture as stated by David Holmgren, and observation is the first step of the scientific method, permaculture being a “design science.” All conscious human cognition and decision-making begins with observation. And, because permaculture is an effort to consciously create human systems, as opposed to the haphazard manifestation of modern, global, industrial culture, the cultivation of observation skills is absolutely vital to the practice of permaculture design.

In my experience as a teacher of the PDC during the last three years, the difficulty of transmitting to students the critical nature of observation skills as the foundation of sustainable design, not merely as a conceptual understanding, but as an insistence upon practice, has led me to focus on these skills for as much as a quarter of the curriculum of my classes. The maintenance and honing of these skills are an assurance of the integrity of permaculture design, an integrity for which each practitioner is responsible toward the global community of permaculturists.

While techniques such as measuring, mapping, sketching, fact-checking, historical research, interviews, statistical analysis, and zone and sector analysis are all indispensible forms of observation, there is a much more foundational level of observation technique, and there are other techniques, equally as sophisticated as those listed above, that have been marginalized, neglected, or forgotten by most modern sciences and disciplines. In this article I offer an introduction to an array of “nature awareness” skills and practices, all of which are rooted in indigenous and traditional world-views to which the concept of permaculture already owes so much. I have divided these techniques into three categories: those that rely primarily on the human body, the human mind, and the human emotions.

Techniques of the Body

The human body is the ultimate scientific tool. All other technologies that humans have created for gathering and analyzing data serve only to channel that information back into ourselves, and it is within the human being, not within a machine, that this data may become crystallized into understanding. All peoples who live in direct connection with the earth, that is, who work actively, daily, to gather the raw materials of their needs directly from their surrounding ecosystem rather than having these needs met by pre-fabricated products of industry, must cultivate foundational skills of “nature awareness,” or perish. The five (or six as I will examine below) body-based senses must be in tune. As a natural human moves through their environment to gather raw materials, the machinations of the mind must not wrench focus away from the data being received by the body. There is a stance, a walk, an alertness that we as humans are capable of; indeed, our bodies have evolved with the landscape and the community of organisms to be an impeccable tool, to thrive.

The “Foxwalk”

I first learned of this technique (really a set of techniques) eight years ago from Tom Brown’s book The Tracker, and I have been practicing daily ever since. I teach the foxwalk to my students early in the PDC, an exercise often met with confusion as to
how it relates to design. I encourage my students to practice and utilize the technique throughout the course. Few of my students earnestly follow through,


Wilson Alvarez teaches the Foxwalk. Photo by Michelle Johnsen.

although most seem, by the end of the course, to at least discern the potential value of the foxwalk to a permaculture designer. The technique consists of a posture and a step. The posture is quite similar to the basic stance taught in yoga classes. The chin is tucked slightly in toward the neck, the neck is held straight, and the jaw relaxed. The shoulders are rolled back to open the sternum, which naturally turns the palms slightly forward. The arms and hands are relaxed, the elbows and fingers naturally bent. The spine is held straight and erect. The front of the pelvis is tipped slightly up, placing a gentle pressure on the abdomen and helping the lower back to straighten. This tilting of the pelvis naturally tucks the tailbone down, but the large muscles of the upper legs (the glutes, hamstrings, and quads) should not be allowed to tense as a result. The knees never fully lock and are held gently bent, and the feet point forward, out through the second toe. I urge my students to practice standing in this posture for long periods of time outside of class, and to notice the sensations of their body, especially as they relate to their surroundings.


Once the body is in this posture, the step begins, the namesake of the foxwalk. One foot is lifted from heal first to toe last. This foot comes down nearly in front of the planted foot, as though the two big toes were perfectly in line. The foot does not land on the heal, however, as most modern people walk, but on the outside edge, and more specifically on the outside of the “ball,” at the first joint of the smallest toe. Next, the outside edge of the small toe and the heal come down simultaneously, and then the whole foot “rolls” inward until it is planted flat with toes splayed wide; “rolling” inward past the point of a planted foot is stressful on the knee and should be avoided. The pace of the walk can be extremely slow, minutes passing between each step, or swift as a jog or even a sprint.

This way of walking, especially done with bare feet, enables a person to move with incredible tact silently through wild terrain, and to feel subtle textures, temperatures, and vibrations underfoot. It is excellent for tracking and hunting, and is therefore excellent for making observations with the bodily senses with minimum disruption to what is being observed. If the subject of observation is a wild or semi-wild ecosystem, patterns will become evident to a person utilizing this technique that will otherwise be invisible to someone moving in a more disruptive manner. Gathering first-hand information and understanding of this sort is crucial to the permaculturist because our effort is to design human systems that follow the patterns of sustenance and abundance generated by wild, natural systems. I encourage my students to make Zone 4, the semi-wild margins of the landscape of civilization, into a laboratory for the study of natural patterns, and the foxwalk is the lab-coat of the sustainable design scientist. Nonetheless, this technique can be utilized everywhere, and the posture can be maintained subtly so as to be indiscernible to the unfamiliar onlooker. I walk the city streets of my neighborhood using the technique daily, observing the patterns of people, plants, and animals, and the cycles of the earth and the atmosphere as they erode the unadapting urban landscape.

Wide Angle Vision

For the foxwalk to be fully effective, the mind must be fully focused on the reception of sensory data. Wide angle vision is a technique that not only maximizes sensory reception, but helps the modern mind to silence thoughts and memories unconnected to the task at hand. Wide angle vision is simply the technique of allowing the conscious awareness to dwell in, or focus upon the peripheral vision, rather than the tunnel-vision that most modern people utilize so dominantly. Although I have listed this technique as one of the body, there is no actual bodily effort required. Our peripheral vision is always functioning, and this technique is merely a shifting of our attention onto the shapes, colors, textures, and motion being received thus. It is this influx of data and the simple effort to focus thereupon that silences the chatter of the mind. For many of my students, this shift and its effect are so elementary that it is not a matter of practice to utilize the technique, but a matter of remembering to break the habit of directly focusing on everything seen. Peripheral vision is specifically potent for noting motion, and as with foxwalking, this technique enables the user to notice many patterns only seen incidentally by the modern eye. Immersion in auditory perception is a similar technique with equal value, and many seasoned practitioners of these techniques, myself included, begin to notice a certain synesthesia; that is, the peripheral vision seems to blend gradually toward our sense of hearing in a kind of spherical encapsulation of sensory reception.

An Exercise of Adaptation

Part of the practice of foxwalking and utilizing wide angle vision is to resist the urge to constantly look down to check for obstacles as we step. Here is a delightfully simple exercise I offer my students to help them overcome this urge, and to understand that our bodies are perfectly suited for interaction with the surrounding environment:

Stand straight in the posture of the


Students practice wide-angle vision during a permaculture course.

foxwalk, and focus your eyes directly forward,perpendicular to your vertical stance. Utilizing wide-angle vision, take one normal-sized pace forward, and notice whether or not you can see your toes as you step. Most people cannot. Now resume the stance, but this time allow your eyes to rest at their natural place of focus, which tends to be angled slightly downward. Now utilize wide angle vision and take one pace. Most of my students subsequently are able to see their toes as they step forward in this way.

With practice, the use of wide-angle vision with a relaxed eye allows us to see where we will step without actually looking down. This is an example of adaptation, of evolutionary interaction between the gradual growth and shaping of our bodies and our need for survival as hunters and gatherers, and now as conscious designers of civilization.

Techniques of the Mind

Pattern recognition is the root of intuition. The effort to master the body as a tool for the observation of the physical world empowers the mind to do the same. As the body becomes habituated to focus on certain details and patterns of the natural world, there is a certain mental acuity that develops that may seem foreign or even supernatural to “civilized” people. But there is nothing supernatural about this acuity; indeed it is absolutely natural for a human to maintain conscious, rather than passive, awareness of surrounding forces and flows.

In the book Wizard of the Upper Amazon, Manuel Cordova-Rios reports that among the Amahuaca Indians, with whom he lived for seven years, “there were a very few forest sounds that could not be identified,” and on one occasion he relates that the appearance of strange “bird-calls” alerted the people to the presence of enemies within their territory. The chief of these people had “knowledge of the forest for several days’ journey in all directions from the village (that) was phenomenal. This came from his own experience… and from the daily reports brought back by the hunters.” On numerous occasions in Cordova-Rios’ account the chief  predicted or intuited the location of game and enemies, the coming of the rainy season, and the return of hunting parties to the village. In the book Aboriginal Men of High Degree, anthropologist A.P. Elkin asserts that “the various psychic powers attributed to (indigenous Australian medicine-men) must not be too readily dismissed as mere primitive magic and “make-believe,” for many of them have specialized in the working of the human mind, and in the influence of mind on body and mind on mind;” the implication being that the cultivation of an understanding of the mind leads to a greater capacity to utilize its abilities.

These abilities are unlocked through rigorous exercise. Techniques of sharpening mental acuity must precede the practice of the actual techniques of intuition which are essentially a reading of subtle changes in natural patterns, or as G.I. Gurdjieff names them: “lawful inexactitudes.”  Of this Elkin states: “At the back of these claims to various psychic powers… is the fact that Aborigines spend much of their time with their own thoughts, reflecting on dreams, and being ready, at any moment, to enter a condition of receptivity,” and that “the temptation is to think that an Aborigine sitting down, apparently dreaming, is doing nothing. But he may be engaged in serious meditational and psychic discipline.” It is far beyond the scope of this article to outline specific meditational practices, however, I encourage serious students of permaculture who wish to achieve a lucid grasp of the surrounding ecology to adopt a meditational discipline. Meditation systems geared specifically toward “nature awareness” have been put forward by contemporary educators such as Jon Young and Starhawk who encourage students to utilize a technique often called the “sit-spot” or “power place” respectively. In my own life, I currently utilize Buddhist techniques learned from the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh and the Shambhala tradition, methods from Kabbalistic Judaism, and I practice Aikido as well. These efforts have lent an ineffable benefit to both my ability to make observations, and to logically analyze this data.

Emotional Techniques

Previously, in this article, I mentioned the possibility of there being a “sixth sense.” By this, I was referring to the human ability to perceive and experience emotions. Whether or not these emotions arise from within does not negate our ability to sense them. And in actuality, we have many more than five or six senses (we can sense physical pain, the passage of time, temperature fluctuations, balance, posture etc). In his book The Secret Teachings of Plants in the Direct Perception of Nature, Stephen Harrod Buhner, the great contemporary herbalist, healer, writer, and teacher explains in yeoman’s terms much of the recent research on the heart as an organ of perception through information encoded in electromagnetic fields. Buhner states that:

“Plant nervous systems are as highly sensitive to electromagnetic fields as ours… They can, in fact, detect and respond to electromagnetic signals, as can all organisms. And we, like plants, are evolutionarily designed to encounter such fields… The meanings embedded within those fields, experienced by us as emotions, affect the heart’s rate, hormonal cascade, pressure waves, and neurochemical activity. Directed emotions– intentional, informational, electromagnetic embeds sent outward– affect those external electromagnetic fields in turn. Through such directed communication and perception, a living dialogue occurs between us and the world.”

The implications of this science go well beyond the common experience the evocation of emotions by a certain architecture, season, or landscape. That humans may actually consciously decode information embedded in electromagnetic signals by plants, animals, rocks, or topography into applicable knowledge sheds light on the origins of the incredible technologies and understandings of non-industrial peoples. For our purpose as permaculturists, a mere recognition of the significance of emotional information is an invaluable tool for the observation of nature, and subsequently for the design of sustainable systems.

An Exercise in the Origin of Emotion

I have experimented with a number of exercises in my permaculture classes to help students take the observation of emotions more seriously, and to begin to recognize natural patterns that come to us through the heart. These exercises have been difficult to integrate into the curriculum mainly due to the fact that many of my students have a frank disbelief that there is actually applicable information to be gathered from emotions. So I have settled upon this very basic exercise:

Go to an outdoor location that features a prominent view of both buildings and natural scenery, especially plants and trees. Spend one half-hour in this location by yourself, changing your vantage point every five minutes. In a notebook, record every emotion that you sense, regardless of origin. It is imperative to this exercise that you not only record emotional responses to the scenery and happenings at the location, but also emotions that you may feel from thoughts, memories, or daydreams that arise within you seemingly unrelated to your current experience. Your notes should consist of a name of an emotion felt and the accompanying experience that elicits the feeling. For example: I see a church, I feel solemn; I am hungry, I feel anxious, etc.  At the end of the half-hour, the list should be sorted between emotions elicited by the chosen location, and emotions elicited by some other source.

There are two important results to be seen from this exercise. The first is that we experience emotional reactions to both tangible and intangible, present and non-present experiences. The second is that most of our emotional responses are predictable and follow a pattern. The fact that viewing certain colors, looking at trees or buildings, watching various interactions between other people, or recalling certain ideas or memories evoke similar emotional responses in everybody constantly amazes my students. We have such an innate sense of emotional patterning that many people are not consciously aware of it. But, again, a conscious observation of our emotions lends an increasing clarity to natural patterns. Stephen Harrod Buhner offers more advanced techniques of emotional information gathering in his book Sacred Plant Medicine, Dr. Ibrahim Kareem’s BioGeometry institute carries out fascinating research on human reactions to shape, and the science behind “sacred space,” and the late Masanobu Fukuoka, the developer of the techniques of “natural farming,” writes in all three of his books about the direct perception of nature through a non-rational emotional exploration.

Again, advanced techniques for the extrapolation of information from emotions is beyond the scope of this article, but a basic recognition of emotions is vital to nature awareness. This awareness, integrated into the techniques of foxwalking and wide-angle vision, and bolstered by meditational practices,  leads the practitioner to an ability to turn the self, the human being, into an impeccable tool for the observation of nature. And, again, it is this observation only that will allow us to understand the deep patterns of the biosphere, our home, and to redesign civilization in an ecologically sound way.


Brown Jr., Tom: The Tracker; Berkley, 1978.

Buhner, Stephen Harrod: Sacred Plant Medicine: The Wisdom in Native American Herbalism; Bear & Co., 1996.

Buhner, Stephen Harrod: The Secret Teachings of Plants in the Direct Perception of Nature; Bear & Co., 2004.

Elkin, A.P.: Aboriginal Men of High Degree; St, Martin’s Press, 1945.

Holmgren, David: Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability; Holmgren Design Services, 2002.

Lamb, F. Bruce: Wizard of the Upper Amazon; Houghton Mifflin, 1971.

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Rewilding Notes 4/26-28/16 & a Visit to the Farm in Summertown TN

by Benjamin Weiss

logo-patreon-150x150To support Ben’s ongoing research, writings, and teaching, please become a regular monthly contributor via Patreon.

This month I’m visiting my aunt and uncle who live at The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee. The Farm is an ecovillage founded in 1971, famous once, for being the largest hippie commune on Earth, and its midwifery clinic, now The Farm is a quiet little community in the middle of nowhere. I love it here. I studied off and on for two years in my early twenties at the Ecovillage Training Center, a permaculture education site here at The Farm. During my stay this month, I’m doing a long fasting regimen. I’ve was on a low-fat, salt and dairy-free diet for almost two weeks. For the past three days I’ve only had fresh juice and tea, and tomorrow I begin a water fast. I’ve been following the recommendations of Stephen Harrod Buhner in his book The Fasting Path. I’ve also been helping to rehabilitate the synergistic garden at the Ecovillage Training Center, which has been a bit neglected over the past few years.

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Rewilding Notes 4/6-4/17/16

by Benjamin Weiss

To support Ben’s ongoing research, writings, and teaching, please become a regular monthly contributor via Patreon.



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  • @100AcreWood
  • Mostly cloudy, rained this morning, nights have been in the 20’s recently, currently about 57 degrees F
  • Transplanted golden ragwort & blue cohosh from MossBluff
  • Weeded 2014 ramps in rewilding patch
  • All of last week’s transplants continue to thrive
  • Marked out more small walkways for tending rewilding patch
  • Lots of spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) flowering in rewilding patch
  • Counted 340 ramp (Allium tricoccum) plants

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  • @100AcreWood
  • Very sunny, roughly 75 degrees F
  • Transplanted ramps, Virginia blue-bells, and Trillium sessile from a friend’s woodland nursery into rewilding patches
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ReWilding Notes 3/28-4/4/16

by Benjamin Weiss

To support Ben’s ongoing research, writings, and teaching, please become a regular monthly contributor via Patreon.



  • @Penninsula
  • Scattered ramp seeds (from a friend’s property in next county) in and near a very small native ramp patch
    • Currently count only 6 plants in native patch
  • Gathered 13 trillium for transplant at 100AcreWood
    • trillium are budding but flowers not yet open
  • Gathered several handfulls of wild ginger (Asarum canadense) for transplant at 100AcreWood
    • Scattered ramp seeds into holes in the duff made by removing the ginger
  • Gathered 12 bloodroot plants (Sanguinaria canadensis) for transplant at 100AcreWood
    • Scattered ramp seeds into holes in the duff made by removing the bloodroot
  • Identified 2 “Toad trillium”(Trillium sessile) about to bloom
  • @100AcreWood
  • Found a large canine tooth (identical to wolf tooth on my medicine pouch) on the riverbank while gathering mollusk shells
  • Saw a red-tailed hawk circling above me with a black snake in its beak
  • Weeded garlic mustard from ramp patches transplanted in 2015
    • Built 2 narrow walkways along edge of ramp patches, on steep slope with sticks and branches on down-hill side, pathway filled in with recently-weeded garlic mustard debris and compacted by my feet while working
    • Beginning to envision other tiny walkways for more intensive work in this area
  • Transplanted trillium, wild ginger, & bloodroot from Penninsula into ramp patches from 2014


  • @100AcreWood
  • Checked on transplants from  3/29. Looks very successful; nearly all plants are re-orienting leaves to sun, minimal signs of shock or wilt



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The Need for Landless Permaculture

by Benjamin Weiss

To support Ben’s ongoing research, writings, and teaching, please become a regular monthly contributor via Patreon.

Part 2 of a series on social & economic inequality in permaculture. Part 1 is entitled: The State of American Permaculture: A Millenial’s Perspective. Part 3 is entitled: Environmental Activism in Disempowered Communities: A Pattern Language for the Privileged.


The first essay in this series, entitled The State of American Permaculture: A Milennial’s Perspective was met with a stark dichotomy of support and criticism. In that essay, I analyzed the difficulties of making a living as a second-generation permaculturist, and spoke to some of the economic inequalities within the permaculture movement. I also offered a business model that seeks to empower low-income individuals to access permaculture education by making such programming nominally free. The support and positive feedback that I received fits into roughly 4 narratives:

  1. “Don’t give up. We need people like you in permaculture.”
  2. “Yes, permaculture training needs to be more accessible to those without abundant financial resources.”
  3. “I’ve had the same experiences that you’ve had.”
  4. “Thanks for pushing us to examine ourselves more thoroughly.”

The criticism that I received fits roughly into the following 6 narratives:

  1. “Anyone who really wants to take a permaculture course can find the money.”
  2. “How can you get paid to teach permaculture if the classes are free?”
  3. “Nobody should be making a living off of permaculture anyway!”
  4. “We need to get all of this social/philosophical/spiritual crap out of permaculture! It’s all about land management…”
  5. “Build abundance and experience on your land, on your site, and make a living off of that, as opposed to teaching.”
  6. “Quit complaining kid. And quit talking about yourself.”

I addressed the first two criticisms within that first essay, and so apparently those critics didn’t read it thoroughly. The third and fourth critical narratives are so oppositional to my own understanding of permaculture that I hesitate to engage them because there is no middle-ground available for compromise. The fifth point of criticism has much truth in it, but also represents a subtle and under-examined thread of social injustice that has been woven into the fabric of the permaculture narrative. This will be the topic of this second essay. And the sixth piece of criticism is always valuable to me as a source for self-reflection and the cultivation of humility, and so I thank those wise sages who’ve abolished their own self-absorption and developed the clarity to call me out on mine.

The Creation Myth of Permaculture

David Holmgren says in the introduction to his essential book Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability that the “focus in permaculture on learning from indigenous tribal cultures is based on the evidence that these cultures have existed in relative balance with their environment and survived for longer than any of our more recent experiments in civilization.” Throughout the permaculture movement, in literature, in classrooms, and in conversations, the idea is repeated:  permaculture is an effort to reinvent for the modern world the kinds of life-ways practiced by indigenous peoples.  And the focus on permaculture as a land-management system tends to reflect this story as well, with permaculturists widely valuing and seeking out traditional land-management strategies as the heirlooms of an age when humanity treated the Earth with deeper care. Yet, as I have mentioned above in the list of outside criticisms of my first essay, and as anyone who frequents the permaculture blogosphere or social media, or who has attended a major convergence recently, can attest, a debate rages about whether permaculture can or should be applied to the design of social structures as opposed to land use. The argument against social permaculture ignores huge portions of the founding literature  from Holmgren and Bill Mollison who spoke heavily on the design of community, economy, and culture. And yet, some of the heavy bias toward permaculture as land-management may be attributed to the kinds of examples that the founders overwhelmingly pointed to in the early days, which were largely agricultural.

Gregory Cajete points out in his impeccable book Native Science that “in its most basic sense, culture is the way in which a group of people have come to relate to a place and its natural processes.” Culture provides the array of tools and techniques available to an individual or community for the purpose of land-management. Dave Jacke explains this idea in-depth in his interview on the Permaculture Podcast with Scott Mann, and I have heard this idea reiterated in works by Starhawk, Charles Eisenstein, Derrick Jensen, Joanna Macy, & Gregory Bateson. In essence, a land management system represents a conversation between the voice of culture and the voice of the Earth, and individual practitioners are the transmission of the message. In the same way that oppression of people is manifested when one culture deems another to be of lesser worth, if the voice of culture says that the Earth is unfeeling and that the needs of the Earth are beneath the needs of people, then that culture’s land-management strategies will degrade the land.

There is one aspect of modern life, though, for which we cannot look to any ancient examples for guidance. All indigenous and traditional societies lived much closer to the land than do many members of our modern civilization. So how do we design sustainable systems in places and cultures where there are people who do not have land access, who do not actively interact with or tend the Earth, and whom have forgotten how to do so entirely?

The Quality of Land Access

The narrative expressed in the criticism of the first essay in this series, which I summarized as: “Build abundance and experience on your land, on your site, and make a living off of that…” and is so common in permaculture, automatically excludes anyone without land access, or whose land is impacted by outside forces that limit the possibilities for self-reliance. Inherent in the idea of the land-based permaculture system is a bias toward those with land or the financial resources to acquire land, and those who live in areas and cultures where land is abundant and accessible. Land access is not a “black or white” issue wherein a person or community either has land or doesn’t. Land access can have qualitative differences as well. There are many factors that affect the quality of land access including:

  • Legal/Political/Social Restrictions
  • The Public/Private Land Dichotomoy
  • Land Health/Pollution/Prior Use & Misuse
  • Climate
  • Size/Amount/Scale
  • Proximity to Outside Resources
  • Proximity to Community
  • Proximity to Economic Markets
  • Ecological Volatility/Stability
  • Social Volatility/Stability

And the quality of land access tends to be lower in arid and urbanized areas as is evidenced in the Zone Map below:

Quality of Land Access Zone Map

Furthermore, heavily urbanized, ecologically degraded, and arid landscapes tend to be the population centers of the economically disadvantaged, of indigenous peoples, and of peoples who have been historically subjected to racism and genocide. In these places and in these communities the vast majority of people do not have access to the quality of land and to the financial resources needed to be self-reliant on a permaculture site, to make a living on permaculture, or to build material abundance. The narrative that says that permaculture begins on the land and that anyone can access resources if they work hard enough is rooted in the economic and racial privilege of cultures that have historically dominated the desirable land-base and the political establishment.

Nonetheless, the call to the wealthy to re-allocate their surplus resources to the underprivileged as a solution to all of humanity’s problems has been echoed from Jesus to Bill Mollison, yet remains unheeded. That is why permaculturists have so strongly encouraged local efforts to gain local control over local resources as a solution to local scarcity. And so I call on the permaculture community to abandon the narratives rooted in cultures of oppression that restrict novel approaches to sustainability by communities who lack the abundance of high quality land access.

Community Cultivation as a Pathway to Land Access

The classic permaculture model sounds like this: permaculture practiced on the land leads to an abundance of material resources which can nourish and cultivate community.

Permaculture on the Land> Material Abundance> Nourishes Community

But in a place where land access is unavailable or where the quality of land access is very poor, the design of social structures that lead to sustainable community is the only available entry point into permaculture. Strong communities grounded in rehabilitated cultural systems grounded in shared ethics, shared language, shared values, and mutualism can build an abundance of material resources through the cultivation of local economonies not directly based on the resources of the land. This is why, as I stressed in the first essay, it has become necessary for permaculture education to be nominally free in places where financial resources from land-based systems are scare. In such places, the systems analysis that permaculture provides can empower people to develop green technologies founded upon information, services, and the overlooked or underutilized resources of the waste of our present civilization.

These cultivated resources become money that can begin to make land accessible and to nudge poor quality land access toward higher quality land access by ameliorating factors such as pollution, parcelization, political restrictions, and limited access to the information needed to rehabilitate the land and to relate to it in an empathetic and sustainable manner. In systematically redesigned sustainable cultures, individuals regain health, wisdom is generated and cycled, and the wish to reconnect to the Earth is likely to arise naturally from the inherent human  connection to the Earth, from what Edward O. Wilson, Stephen Buhner, and others have called “biophilia,” an innate love of the natural world.

Therefore, social permaculture implies a second narrative possibility that sounds like this: permaculture practiced in the community leads to an abundance of material resources which can nourish and cultivate the land.

Permaculture in the Community> Material Abundance> Nourishes the Land

And the two narratives can nourish each other:

Land Access Diagram


Benjamin Weiss


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The State of American Permaculture: A Millennial’s Perspective

by Benjamin Weiss

To support Ben’s ongoing research, writings, and teaching, please become a regular monthly contributor via Patreon.

Part 1 of a series on social & economic inequality in permaculture. Part 2 is entitled: The Need for Landless Permaculture. Part 3 is entitled: Environmental Activism in Disempowered Communities: A Pattern Language for the Privileged.

My Attempts to Make a Living in Permaculture…

I am 31 years old. During the past ten years I have studied permaculture and many other fields and disciplines with full dedication. I have attended classes, workshops, seminars, and conferences, engaged in apprenticeships and internships. I am a certified permaculture teacher and designer. I have taught 14 Permaculture Design Courses (PDCs). Several of them I taught myself. All of them I organized. I have developed curricula for dozens of classes and workshops ranging from philosophical and spiritual topics to community-building to activist trainings to land management. I have been an organizer
and activist in campaigns ranging from anti-war to prisoner’s rights to civil rights to environmental defense. I am the co-originator of the Rewilding Design System, an entirely new branch of permaculture science and philosophy with a curriculum, training program, and fully articulated principles, ethics, and design tools. I have designed, implemented, and managed three organic farms, including an urban farm dedicated to youth empowerment. I have foraged professionally. I have studied herbalism and forestry. I have run three different iterations of design and install businesses. I have been a member of non-profit boards. I have trained intensively as an activist, a teacher, a group facilitator, an organizer, and an entrepreneur. I have organized regional convergences, spoken to diverse audiences, managed an intensive online presence. I have spoken on podcasts, written articles in periodicals and blogs, run a crowd-funding campaign to fund a book on permaculture and rewilding, networked with religious communities, Native American groups, poor urban neighborhoods, middle America, supported the work of friends and colleagues, attended large conferences and convergences, and maintained valuable dialogues with leading permaculturists. The volume of correspondences I receive via email, Facebook, and telephone is overwhelming and impossible to keep up with…

And yet, I have made an average of about $10,000 per year over the past decade. Some years, I’ve barely had enough to eat. I didn’t have health insurance  until this year. I’ve lived off of odd jobs, welfare, and the support of family and friends. To this day, I work tirelessly, now more busily than ever. I run my own business, and have built all of the infrastructure that such a business requires. Anticipating that more networking, greater exposure, growing public interest in permaculture, and the trending of the economy toward re-localization all would help me attain right livelihood, I have shed the odd jobs and wholly dedicated myself toward my professional goals. But it’s not working.

The Reality of the Situation…

My classes and educational programming, crafted to serve all ages, is more popular than ever. But attendance is not increasing. I spent the past autumn and winter months building a year-long schedule of classes, and doing all of the organizing and administrative work required to launch them. I rolled them out on social media, on my website, with flyers, and word of mouth. The communications in response began pouring in. But the vast majority of people interested in these classes cannot afford them, despite the fact that I offer some of the cheapest permaculture programs in the country. Support in the way of encouraging words, requests for scholarships and work trades, and thousands of “Likes” on endless Facebook pages have been overwhelming. Financial support comes mostly from a small, dedicated group of mentors and former students, and comes nowhere close to meeting my own financial needs, to sustaining the operations of my business, or to building jobs for peers and students ready to step into them.

Through waves of frustration and hope, I have reiterated the meme that says: “Anyone can raise a thousand dollars to attend a course if they really want it badly enough.” But I see now that this is the talk of the middle class, a class in which I was raised, but in which I no longer reside. Nor do I buy into the myths and culture of this class any longer. The more I have built connections with communities of color in downtrodden metropolitan neighborhoods, the more obvious it has become that those who most deserve access to the education I can offer, simply do not have the resources to support my efforts. A young black man who lives in a ghetto and wants to take my class cannot raise a thousand dollars through a crowd-funding platform if everyone he knows is destitute. And his other recourse to answering the nonsensical notion of access to funding “if he really wants it badly enough” is crime. I am blessed enough to have indirect access to the monumental and unprecedented treasure trove of resources accumulated by the Baby Boomers through older members of my family whom have, indeed, been generous with me throughout my pursuit of professional permaculture. But such access is not available to many of the racially diverse communities whom permaculturists have so vocally wished to connect with and help. And that American Dream fairy tale that says “If I work hard enough I’ll make it” has never been true for me during my adult life, despite my indirect access to the last generation’s wealth, nor has it been true for most of my peers.

Despite decades of predictions by the demagogues of the environmental movement, the access to land, to corporate contracts, to a sudden surge of resources as the masses realize the necessity of permaculture in an age of looming catastrophe has not occurred. My design business is not consulting with governments or redesigning sprawling suburban lawns into wildlife habitat or food production systems. Funding for land management experiments or community-building programs has not been made available.

Where To Go From Here…

Despite many years of agreeing to the contrary, I now firmly believe that permaculture education must be made nominally free, at least in terms of the cost in money to attend such classes. The implications of this that I see are as follows:

  • The non-profit sector, rather than students, must be the source of funding for the budgetary requirements of educational programs.
  • A multi-faceted infrastructure to identify and select students who deserve this education and will value it inherently must be crafted to ensure that the lack of tuition does not cheapen the true worth of the education.
  • Other ways for students to “Pay it back” or “Pay it forward” must be cultivated, such as work trades and volunteerism.
  • To prevent the all-too-common lackluster investment into work trades and volunteerism, these opportunities must also represent further training that builds on the curricula of the free classes.
  • To provide such professional training to advancing students, which serves as both repayment for initial educational opportunities as well as labor support for real-world projects, localized industries and economies built on permaculture must be flourishing.
  • In order for permaculture-based industries and economies to flourish, permaculturists must be able to access all the resources necessary to attain to a professional level.
  • Ultimately, it is not a diploma or a degree or years of training that leads to professionalism, but access to funding via customers; funding required to build real-world businesses and pay for advancing training and infrastructure.
  • And so permaculture needs a market, and financial support from patrons and benefactors, and without it, we go nowhere.Business Structure Diagram

Not Just a Ride on the Wave…

Because the vast majority of financial wealth is still controlled by the Baby Boomer generation, and because the pioneers of permaculture are of that generation, I call on them to recognize that access to funding is now the primary impediment to the growth and influence of the permaculture movement, and to utilize their collective voice to spur their generation to divert financial capital to the efforts of Millennial permaculturists.

Dr. Hunter S. Thompson once described the failures of  the countercultural revolution of the 1960’s with incredible insight and sincerity:

“That sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . . So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

No movement thrives on good ideas alone. Without a massive influx of funding, soon, young permaculturists like myself and many of my peers will have to put our projects aside and the movement will stagnate. The wave will break, and what has already been done may very well represent the high water mark of permaculture as well as the environmental movement. For me, that would represent a decade of wasted effort, and the visions of what could be dashed. For the founding generation of permaculturists, that would represent a gross failure to see 10338325_10102352819098543_5541339237638422603_ntheir own efforts and vision through to the end of their tenure. And for the world, that would represent a missed chance at a brighter day.


Benjamin Weiss

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The Essence of Rewilding

by Benjamin Weiss

To support Ben’s ongoing research, writings, and teaching, please become a regular monthly contributor via Patreon.

A Step Beyond the Dogma??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

Four epochs of the sciences:


poetic, superstitious;


investigative, curious;


didactic, pedantic;


methodical, mystical.

–Goethe, Maximen und Reflexionen

(via Dale Pendell’s Pharmako/Dynamis)

“Native philosophy has always been broad-based. It is not based on rational thought alone but incorporates to the fullest degree all aspects of interactions of “human in and of nature,” that is, the knowledge and truth gained from interaction of body, mind, soul, and spirit with all aspects of nature.”

–Gregory Cajete, Native Science

Water is consciousness. Water is spirit. The scientific worldview that industrial civilization is founded upon is reductionist. Inherent in this reductionism is an insistence that all aspects of the universe have a material basis, a physical source. This assertion is not wholly incorrect, but it is only a portion of the truth, and does not accurately describe the totality of the universal pattern. My studies of the worldviews of non-industrial cultures have repeatedly revealed to me that a more accurate cosmology entails a recognition of at least three fundamental media of which the world is comprised, which correspond to a view of three ways that a human experiences life.

These three modes of experience, nested in the body, heart, and brain, channel sensory stimuli into a field we call “mind” which is not the brain but an interface between our awareness and our experience. The body is comprised of, moves within, and experiences the physical universe, that which reductionists insist is all. But the heart experiences something called emotion, and the brain thinks and imagines, and where these emotions and thoughts exist in the physical universe has not been adequately explained by reductionism. Yes, modern science has found analogues between these subtleties and physical systems within the body, but that still does not explain where in the universe a thought actually exists, for when I think, I am completely unaware of synapses, neural pathways, and complex chemicals in my brain, yet I am aware of the thought itself, the words and imagery.

The experience of our body is evidence that the universe is a physical place comprised of matter. And, the experiences of our minds and hearts reveal that there are other fundamental realms of the universe. I will name two other realms, and call them consciousness and spirit, corresponding to the experiences of the thinking center, and the emotional center, and you, surely, could articulate other delineations of the realms of the universe. Where, for example, does time fit in this equation? And, yes, everything can be reduced rationally to a physical source, however, everything can also be reduced rationally to a conscious source and a spirit source. I believe that a more accurate description of the universe traces all phenomenon to multiple fundamental media, such as the three I’ve just articulated, not simply to matter/energy.

A Re-focus on Learning From

“(The) focus in permaculture on learning from indigenous tribal cultures is based on the evidence that these cultures have existed in relative balance with their environment and survived for longer than any of our more recent experiments in civilization.”

–David Holmgren, Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability

“In process, reflection, and practice, Native science embodies the natural system characteristics of diversity, optimization, cooperation, self-regulation, change, creativity, connectedness, and niche.”

–Gregory Cajete, Native Science

In permaculture, as in many other new scientific disciplines based on systems analysis (an effort to move away from reductionism) there is an anxious clinging to classical science borne of a fear of rejection by academia, the mainstream scientific community, and the general public. This clinging arises from a fear of alienation, a fear that is a deep-rooted human instinct for cooperation and interdependence within community. But the arrival of these new sciences is the result of a realization by many edge thinkers that it is in large part the old science of these decrepit institutions that has perpetuated the worldview that gave rise to industrialization and destroyed human community by severing our link to the great and wide community of life through reckless mythology and outright barbarism.

In the permaculture community, we now deal with the result of one of these reckless myths: the idea that humanity’s understanding of the universe has been an ascent; that through mechanical magnification of our own senses, modern science has articulated truths that no ancient person could have discerned. For me, this present-centric view of the scientific capabilities of non-industrial peoples has been laid to waste through my efforts to locate, in history, examples of cultures that sustained themselves for millennia without wreaking ecological chaos on their surroundings.  The idealistic nostalgia that many contemporary rejectionists of industrialism have toward pre-industrial, and especially indigenous cultures, as being pervasively sustainable is, I think, rooted in a visceral reaction against the atrocities done to the earth and these cultures by our own societies, but is actually oversimplified and wrong. Nonetheless, there are scattered examples of ideal cultures and societies that remain in both anthropological (scientific myth) and mythological literature. And the empirical, social, and spiritual technologies that these ideal societies developed are the result of sciences far DSC02064more advanced than our own, and birthed cosmologies far more accurate than the inane, barely functional, jumble of cultural nonsense articulated by the cataclysmic collision of religion and science in modern times.

The idea, even, that these “primitive” ancient cultures had science is difficult or impossible for modern people to grasp, even for those whose gut rejection of modernism is fierce. This, perhaps, is mostly a linguistic problem, for the word “science” denotes to modern people an objective, technocratic, method for discovering inherent aspects of our world previously unimaginable, and the “scientist” is a highly learned, highly accredited expert whose intellectual and technological prowess dwarfs that of the average person. Now throw away that impression and examine, for a moment, the creed of modern science itself: the scientific method. This method is simple: observe, ponder, guess, test, observe, ponder, guess, test… And the result is supposed to be the recognition of a discernible, predictable pattern by the observer out of which understanding and technology can be built. You don’t have to be a “scientist” to follow this method.  

Listen to Stephen Harrod Buhner’s interview entitled “The Citizen Scientist” on the Permaculture Podcast with Scott Mann.

And perhaps the greatest mistake of the modern scientific community is the assertion that eventually  these well-understood and predictable patterns can be observed as so regular that they must never change, they must be “constants,” and therefore it is safe for the scientist to assume that they will never change. In English, we have one short word for this concept: faith. Here, another linguistic problem brought about by our culture’s inability to bestow communally shared understandings of the essential meanings of words for the sake of generating conversations that lead to shared knowledge rather than confusion and disagreement. How difficult is it for us to consider the possibility that a highly advanced scientific culture would consider the refinement of language a technological process vastly more important than the refinement of iron ore?

As permaculturists, we must undertake processes to unravel our convoluted conceptual inheritance so that we can begin to craft culture in the image of these ancients we so highly revere. The unraveling of our nonsensical worldviews and biases is done through the application of technologies that have often been labeled in our movement with the idiotic term: “woo-woo.” Examples of such technologies, which modern edge thinkers have mostly borrowed or retrofitted from non-industrial cultures, include meditation, mediation, the use of mind-altering scenarios, ritual, dreaming, story-telling, and rites of passage. It is time for us to accept these technologies as scientific, and to pay homage to the historical sustainable cultures we celebrate with actions more than words.

A Step into the Sea of Meaning

 “A system’s function or purpose is not necessarily spoken, written, or expressed explicitly, except through the operation of the system. The best way to deduce the system’s purpose is to watch for a while to see how the system behaves.”

–Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems

“Ritual and ceremony can be personal or communal “technologies” for accessing knowledge, and symbols are used to remember key understandings of the natural world.”

–Gregory Cajete, Native Science

Ancient sustainable cultures maintained fluid cosmologies that were artfully crafted by the addition of each individual’s dreaming of the present reality of the community of people and its relationship with the community of life. But dreams of such import and value do not typically arise in the untrained mind. Tibetan Buddhism has articulated a brilliant technology known in the west as “Dream Yoga.” Three different degrees of dreams are defined in this system. The basest, sometimes called karmic dreams, are full of unprocessed pieces of our waking life and comprise the vast majority of most people’s dreams. The second, finer kind of dreams are called in the west: “lucid dreams,” in which a person is aware of the dream-state and has some power over the dream, and hence, some capacity for active growth and discovery. The third kind of dreams, sometimes called “clear light,” are prophetic or telepathic, and often result in a great epiphany or profound personal growth.

I can validate through experience that lucid and clear light dreams are made more valuable and occur more often as the result of certain kinds of practice, and that even karmic dreams can yield otherwise inaccessible information about the waking life if the dreamer learns to interpret the dream. To generate lucid and clear light dreams, a person must practice two kinds of techniques: firstly, meditation, which is some form of honing mental acuity and stabilizing attention, and secondly, the art of navigating severely altered states of consciousness. And to make any of the three kinds of dreams valuable, a practitioner must be able to extract meaning from them, which is made vastly more DSC02357possible through the acquisition of literacy in the pantheon of cultural symbolism.

Because all aspects of culture derive initially from human observation of and interaction with the natural world, symbols have the same origin. Communication is the conveyance of information between two entities. Symbols originally conveyed information from and about nature to human minds. So, symbology, initially was the shared language of the community of life, an encoded version of the shared experience of human with non-human.

All of the ecosystems on Earth contain a mechanism for self-perpetuation, and this mechanism can be generalized as the cycling of energy to delay entropy or the maintenance of the necessary conditions for existence. All aspects of an ecosystem must contribute to this function of self-perpetuation or the ecosystem will fail, and all of the Earth’s ecosystems must contribute to this function of the global ecosystem, the biosphere, or the biosphere will fail. Culture, then, as an aspect of the human ecosystem, wielded as a tool by humanity, rather than acting as an unharnessed force that shapes our societies without our conscious participation, can be the crucial technology to engineer sustainability.  No amount of renewable energy will make our civilization sustainable if we do not have a cosmology that values the other members of the community of life as equal to ourselves.

Only through deep observation of nature, and through a symbolic conversation with the intelligence of the Earth can we build such sustainable culture. Our rational thinking mind alone does not have the capacity to distill meaning from the voice of the Earth. The “woo-woo” processes, such as Tibetan Dream Yoga, that hone a person’s ability to comprehend complex systems are technologies that blend, within the human being, the various ways of experiencing the various realms of the universe into a whole, a gestalt, that is not possible in the linear, reductionist format of modern science. A human being, as a phenomenon manifest from nature, is suited to understand and act in coordination with the myriad forces of nature, but the ability can, and must, be honed.

An Answer to Elder Brother’s Warning

“People coming unexpectedly on a great rock formation or tremendous old-growth tree sometimes experience a sudden feeling of awe… Some powerful living force –despite the years of schooled reductionism –touches a person when they have such an experience. And for  a few minutes in time, they are held in the embrace of the world’s touch, taken out of the mechanical world in which they have been submerged since their schooling began, experiencing, as our ancestors once did, the living reality of the world –connected to the… Earth, to some living and intelligent phenomenon that will not let us go until we feel its touch.”

–Stephen Harrod Buhner, Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal realm

“We the Mamas know that there are special sites and they are threaded together. We’re explaining this to our brothers across the sea and showing the connection between places.”

–Mama Manuel, Aluna

“Important sites along the line on the coast are connected to esuamas in the mountain. We collect materials here on the shore to make payments in the mountains. And we bring materials from the mountain to make payments down here.”

–Mama Shibulata, Aluna

“You don’t have to give up your lives, but you must protect the rivers.”

–Mama Shibulata, Aluna

Obvious to anyone who studies permaculture or systems ecology, obvious to any environmentalist, is the truth that humanity needs to move swiftly to protect and rehabilitate the essential elements of the biosphere in order to continue to survive. And it is not difficult for most environmentally conscious people to see that a paradigm shift away from the commoditization and subordination of nature is a necessary prelude to implementing the technological infrastructure that will be needed for the rehabilitation of the Earth. This process will be massive. Yet, in any system, there is a leverage point by which a designer may, with small effort, cause vast systemic change. And there is a story, hidden far back in the depths of culture, and spoken at us by the Earth in a language most of us never learned to speak, about this leverage point, this place of immense ecological power.

The Kogi people of Columbia maintain a concept called an esuama. An esuama is a sacred site where the physical universe connects directly with the other realms of existence, and most importantly, with the dream of creation. In the films Elder Brother’s Warning and Aluna, the Kogi holy men, called the Mamas, have sent a message to humanity: rediscover and protect the esuamas or the Earth will die. In Aluna, producer and narrator Alan Ereira follows a group of Mamas as they unravel a golden thread for hundreds of kilometers linking recognized esuamas as a demonstration to those of us they call “Younger Brother.” Though, as the film progresses, Ereira is convinced that the Kogi’s understanding of ecology is highly advanced, and that their main message is about the fragile interconnectedness of nature, I believe that he missed the main point that the Kogi were trying to relay. Most modern people would miss it too, because it is so far outside the boundaries of our language and concepts that it appears to be nothing more than “superstition.” But it is not.

Through the film, the Kogi are trying to relay to us an essential aspect of being human that is gone from our culture: the ability to listen to the voice of the Earth. Not metaphorically. The ability to receive direction from the forces that create the universe. The responsibility to act on these instructions and to assist the flow consciousness and spirit from the realm of the dream throughout the physical universe, and back again. The Kogi rituals of gathering shells at esuamas on the coast and placing them at sacred sites on mountain tops, and bringing leaves and feathers from the esuamas on the mountain to esuamas on the shore are not symbolic acts. These “payments” are not tokens that represent the Kogi’s respect for ecology. These payments, and the pilgrimages to these places, are acts of recognition of the pouring forth of life-force at these sites, a recognition that is necessary for the pouring forth to continue. The Kogi, like every other indigenous group whom have spoken out against industrial culture’s destruction of sacred places, understand that for our world to exist, we must acknowledge its flowing into existence, and these esuamas represent potent points along that flow. Seeing the Earth and sacred sites in this way, by removing the biases of our modern “scientific” cosmology, and listening to Elder Brother’s words as direct truth rather than metaphor is so very difficult, but if you can do it, the cultural history of the world will suddenly make much more sense.

Years before I saw either of these films, in my efforts to utilize ancient technologies such as shamanic dreaming, vision questing, trance, and other rituals to learn to listen to the land, I began to be drawn, not through my rational mind, but rather through my intuition, to certain sites, always on high places or near bodies of water. I asked the community of life (I would use the word prayed but it will send some of you running because we do not have ???????????????a shared understanding of what that word means) why I was drawn to these places, and I was told that it is because they are places of immense power. When I asked how I might honor these places, I would be given specific instructions about small tokens from other sites that should be brought. A golden gingko leaf from a massive tree in a cemetery should be sent floating down the Conestoga River at a very specific bend where two fallen sycamore trees make an arch shape that mirrors the shape of the hill on the far bank. Rounded river rocks should be brought from gullies on a rugged island in the middle of the great Susquehanna River to the same bend in the Conestoga. Small pieces of green serpentine stone should be gathered at the Serpentine Barrens far to the south of my local watershed, and placed on the tops of stone cairns at all of the various power places near my home. And these places told me their names. Place of Walking on Air. Place of the Blue Eagle Heron. And the creeks began to tell me their names as well. Coyuniquan. Manitequan. For the rivers themselves are a reflection, in physical form, of the flow of spirit and consciousness through the universe from the dream of creation to animate all beings, and back again to the dream. Water is consciousness. Water is spirit.

To rediscover the esuamas, we must utilize technologies that cannot exist in the modern scientific worldview. This kind of task is the essence of rewilding. Listen to the elders. They tell us that no matter how many species we can identify with our field guides, no matter how many riparian buffers we build, no matter how good we are at stalking a deer, or building fire with a bow-drill, or designing agroforestry systems, if we do not listen to the Earth, we will do no good. The esuamas are the leverage points. Protection and maintenance of the esuamas, by even a few people, will begin to influence the rebuilding of communities that revere the Earth. These communities will begin to take on the hard work of rehabilitating the ecosystems. But if the dream of creation is forgotten, then there is nothing to re-create.

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