We’re sitting in Francesca’s, a quaint little cafe on 9th street. The walls are purple, bedecked with colorful paintings, and bouncing with laughter and conversation. I’m sitting across from my college advisor happily chatting about my current classes when the word “permaculture” enters the conversation. At this, my advisor stops me – “perma-what”?
Frankly, less than one week ago, I was in the same position. What is permaculture? I had heard of agriculture, of course, of industrialized planting. I have discussed CAFOs at length and horticulture in my spare time. But permaculture? The word brought to mind images of “permafrost” and the Arctic. Little did I know that permaculture is a form of “permanent” + “agriculture.” More than simply promoting sustainability and the idea of doing less bad, permaculture endorses actively doing good, mimicking natural patterns and relationships found within nature itself. As exhibited in the film Inhabit, permaculture can take on countless shapes and forms, ranging from Ben Falk, the self-sustaining homestead farmer from Vermont who makes farming look far more attractive than I ever thought possible, to Mark Shephard who makes his livelihood off of a perennial agricultural forest, to suburban gardens, to rain gardens along the streets of New Jersey. Our current approach to permaculture is founded on three core ethical principles: “care for the earth,” “care for people,” and “fair share,” established as part of the Permaculture Design Course, a manual which helps people like myself who had zero exposure to the concept of permaculture create their own form of agriculture, tailored to their lifestyle but sharing the same kind of positive impact.
Interestingly, though the term “permaculture” has a very short history, with the term first coined in the 1970s, permaculture principles fueled much of history’s agriculture. For example, the Three Sisters farming method which grows squash, corn, and beans together and is currently used by Susana Kaye Lein on Salamander Springs Farm – as shown in the film Inhabit – was widespread in Native American societies and used by the Iroquois as trade goods. This goes to show that in calling ecologically friendly “advances” may not actually be so innovative, but rather a return to earlier times in which people and Mother Earth coexisted more peaceably.