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What is Permaculture?

“Permaculture is a new word for an old way of living.” – Jude Hobbs

“Permaculture is an ecological science- the study of nature and natural systems.  It is a design system for self-reliant living in which everything is connected to everything else.  Permaculture involves the integration of water, people, animals, land, plants, technologies, and community for productive and beautiful environments.  Permaculture builds harmony, through cooperation with an attitude of positivism.  Permaculture is a global grass-roots movement applicable on all scales and in all situations.” – Bill Mollison & David Holmgren

“A system only becomes permaculture when its design is shown over time to produce no harm to any other system and touches every aspect of our lives.” – Graham Bell

I like to think about permaculture as design-intensive design.  The aim of a permaculturalist is to meet the ongoing needs of a place with the same area’s ambient yields.  Observation is key, as without a keen idea of what’s already happening on the land or in the community it’s very difficult to ensure that our actions have a beneficial effect.  Work and pollution are minimized, while diversity, flexibility, resilience, vibrancy, and other desirable characteristics are encouraged to develop.  The intention is to go beyond sustainability.  At minimum, a system should be sustainable, otherwise it will eventually cease to exist.  ‘Thriving’ rather than ‘sustainable’ is how I tend to describe successful permaculture systems.  Another word that I find useful is the Maidu term yahatidom.  Literally translated, it means ‘being an active part of the cause of [its] being good’.  Yahatidom is used when referring to healing or doctoring, but also to forestry and cultivation of the land.  Permaculture is a uniquely Western type of yahatidom.

Who is Ben Kessler?

Born to a zookeeper and an artist, I grew up in suburban Montgomery County, Maryland.  Much of my childhood was spent tromping around in the woods behind my parents’ house, sneaking up on deer, catching crayfish in the creek, and falling out of trees.  The Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River wound through our neighborhood, forming oxbows at the edges of cul-de-sacs and dipping into canyons of vinyl siding.  Many fine hours were spent wading in its murky waters and following raccoon tracks along its banks.

I followed the sciences in school with a religious ferocity matched only by the sort of people who go on to conquer Mesoamerica or blow themselves up in trucks.  After several forays into marine biology, which took me from the coral reefs of Belize to the laboratories of Oregon, I left the path of Western science, shaken and frustrated at its inability to either accurately describe or effectively heal a clearly ailing world.

Food, and how to acquire it without causing excessive harm, took center stage in my thoughts and my studies.  I led student trips out to local farms for my college, organized an after-school environmental-ed program at a Yonkers, New York community garden, WWOOFed for a summer in Scotland, initiated clandestine composting projects everywhere I traveled, and enrolled in a permaculture and ecovillage design certification program at Lost Valley, in the douglas-fir and cascara groves surrounding the Middle Fork of the Willamette River.

Towards the end of my academic years, a nagging sense of incompleteness dogged my studies.  The Western world seemed to be missing something, but I wasn’t quite sure what.  Humans have been around for at least 500,000 years, and only in the last several thousand of those have a very small collection of societies been living in ways that cause more harm than good to their ecosystems and themselves.  The knowledge systems that emerged from my home culture, capable of turning fertile crescents into barren dunescapes, old-growth forests into dollars on the stump, and the wisdom of ancestors into mere superstition, seemed to be more concerned with wounding than healing, and with aloneness rather than relationship.  If I wanted to go about the business of living well, I realized that I would have to look beyond my textbooks- beyond the whole academy, in fact.  I began seeking out non-Western viewpoints, attempting to integrate them into my own burgeoning worldview.  I meandered from Kanatsiohareke, in the Mohawk Valley, to the Tsi-Akim Maidu homeland in the Yuba River watershed, picking up fragments of creation stories, traditional ecological knowledge, and bits of North American language as I went.  It is a fine line to walk, especially for a refugee of the European diaspora, between appreciation of another culture’s unique worldviews and appropriation of its material trappings.

I’ve bounced around North America quite a bit these past few years, spending my time between the urbanized New York-Washington D.C. corridor, the oak savannas of the low Sierra, the coastal scrub of the California coast, the red rock deserts of the Navajo Nation, the forests and plains of volcanic north California, and now the mosaic landscape of farmland, oak-hickory woods, and meadow that characterizes the rural mid-Atlantic.

Most of the time I’ve earned my keep as a teacher of one sort or another.  I’ve taught in classrooms, gardens, forests, and deserts, from Yonkers, New York to Agua Prieta, Sonora.  My students have ranged in age from toddlers to teenagers to nominal adults, usually in some marvelously unwieldy mixture.  I’ve worked in colleges, Quaker schools, urban gardens, summer camps for feral children, and the lawn-lined lanes of suburban communities.

I hold certificates of Permaculture Design, accredited by the Cascadia Permaculture Institute, and Ecovillage Design, accredited by Gaia Education, both from Lost Valley Educational Center in Dexter OR, as well as a B.A. with concentrations in Biology, Visual Arts, and Education from Sarah Lawrence College.

Contact Information

bkessler [at] gm [dot] slc [dot] edu

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