Permaculture: Another Journey Toward Wholeness

– Andy Wade –

My head’s been swirling with questions and ideas this past few weeks as I’ve been taking a free online permaculture class. The instructor, Larry Korn, quoted Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer and philosopher who cultivated the concept of “natural farming”, which greatly influenced the emergence of the permaculture movement. Korn had worked for a while on Fukuoka’s farm in Japan, where he gleaned keen insights.

Once Korn asked Fukuoka about the difference between industrial and organic farming. His response stopped me in my tracks:

To me, industrial farming is the right hand and organic farming is the left hand. They are the same thing…because they both come from the same place. They both try to use nature for human benefit; what’s the most efficient way to use nature…but once you plow you’re not part of it all anymore. We’ve wiped out what was there and made that plot strictly for human benefit, then we have to take on all the responsibilities for the damage we’ve caused, and that makes more work.

A product of my generation, when I first started gardening I was convinced of the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. I was beginning to move toward a more organic approach when I had my first panic attack. Those years of generalized anxiety and random panic attacks actually made me fearful of eating out of the garden. They also hastened my adoption of purely organic methods.

Double-dig gardens ready for planting

As mentioned in earlier posts, I began with the biointensive method of gardening following the advice of John Jeavons in “How to Grow More Vegetables in Less Space Than You Ever Dreamed Possible”. This approach began with a heavy turning of the soil, a “double-dig” method that left the earth turned 24 inches deep. It was a lot of work, but yielded impressive results.

Biointensive JungleEven though the crowding of plants shaded the bare soil below, greatly decreasing the amount of weeding, it still left much of the soil exposed. The following season was less work, but still pretty intensive. Like farming with chemicals, I still had to “work the land”.

As mentioned, the permaculture movement owes much to Fukuoka’s approach, often referred to as “Do Nothing Farming”. One only needs to stroll through natural spaces, spaces undisturbed by humans, to recognize that God doesn’t create barren soil. Whether  a forest floor or an open meadow, there is a covering for the soil with various plants and fungi naturally poking their heads through to the air above.

But to say that Organic and Industrial farming are really not that different! Isn’t that a bit of an overstatement? I’ve been wrestling with this idea. The whole industrial method relies on killing off living organisms in the soil and then artificially feeding the planted monocrop, dousing them with heavy doses of specific weed and pest killers. Organic gardening, on the other hand, seeks to take care of the soil and its many beneficial inhabitants. It may take the form of monocropping or of companion planting, but its nurture and protection rely on non-toxic alternatives, certainly better than all those chemically-derived methods for maintaining control. These approaches seem at odds — at least on the surface.

But when you begin to scratch below the surface you discover that, while there is a difference, it’s not as big as you might like to believe. Digging deeper, it’s clear that disturbing the soil even through organic methods disturbs the community of life that naturally nurtures and protects the plants above. In contrast, permaculture, or natural farming, attempts a minimally invasive relationship with the land.

And here’s where the difference between these three methods of gardening/farming began to truly shake me up: both Industrial and Organic methods have the end product in mind. What do I get out of the farm/garden? What’s the value to me? How can I produce the greatest yield? Organic farmers would toss in, “How can I produce the healthiest produce”, often adding, “with the least negative impact to the land.” But both primarily have their eye on the end product.

This was, and still is, a bit difficult for me to accept. I want to think my organic motivations were pure. But when I examine them closely, I’m forced to admit that my purpose sprouted from the same seed as Industrial agriculture. Even though I don’t sell my produce, my relationship to it is one of producer-commodity. My underlying assumption is one that seeks to exploit nature for my own benefit (and the benefit of my family and friends).

This is a perfectly acceptable approach in our culture. Many Christians would even argue that this is our duty! But the result of our commodification and exploitation of everything so that we can “prosper” has wreaked havoc on our environment — and on our relationships with one another. Perhaps this is part of what intrigues me so much about permaculture. It’s as if we, as a society, have moved so far from God’s intentions for us as a people that we now must turn back both to God and to God’s creation to understand the purposes of mutuality and inter-dependence.

So as you can see, my head has been swimming with questions and ideas that are shaping both my thinking and my approach to the tiny plot of land we call home. Join me next time as I explore some of the spiritual applications of the questions discussed above.