Healing the land with permaculture 

Permaculture is a design practice that consciously aims to mimic natural systems by creating sustainable sources of food, fuel and fiber for local needs.

Developed in the mid 1970s by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, this unique blend of ecological theory and practice has generated an international series of permaculture design courses. Thousands of people have since learned the permaculture principles.

Bloomington resident Peter Bane has been at the forefront of permaculture promotion, teaching design courses around the country and publishing a quarterly magazine, The Permaculture Activist.

Bane said Indiana is well-positioned to become a “green” leader. “Indiana enjoys the advantages of an abundant nature here,” he said. “There’s no reason to be pessimistic about Indiana’s future unless we build the state up with lots of crap, as someone stated recently.”

One approach is to develop what Bane calls more intensively cultivated landscapes. “That’s one of the ironies in talking about permaculture,” he said. “We’re looking at actually doing more intensive gardening of the landscape than is done even now, on perhaps a less broad scale.”

This contrasts with the degraded landscape Bane sees as the result of large-scale monoculture farms. “Right now agriculture is very simple,” he said. “It’s usually one or two crops grown in rotation with no trees!

“We pile up an unnatural number of animals in one place and mountains or lagoons full of manure and figure that maybe we can make it all go away,” he added.

“Cow manure is not a problem until you accumulate mountains of it. It’s food for soil or plants,” Bane said. Piling it up makes it toxic. “It becomes dangerous, breeds disease and threatens to overwhelm waterways, and you have to push it around with bulldozers.

“That’s a pretty ludicrous proposition,” Bane noted, “but that’s where our agriculture is trying to head, unfortunately.”

“Part of our problem is that our large-scale operations are out of control,” Bane said. “Human beings really don’t have the wisdom to regulate things in a large scale.”

He said permaculture relies on biological thinking and systems that always work from small scale up to a larger scale. In design courses, Bane urges students to focus on a small scale. One tactic he uses is to add another “R” to the three R’s of Recycling: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. “I put one even above Reduce, and that’s Refuse,” he said. “Don’t get into it at all! Some things you have to have and you probably could do with less, but some things you don’t need at all. So just refuse! Don’t bring it home!”

That translates into refusing the refuse, whether it’s a plastic bag or excess packaging or a CAFO operation generating too much waste.

Bane said permaculture encourages a more complex agriculture. “Food ought to be local,” Bane said. “We could use all of our wasted suburban lawn to grow food gardens and fruit orchards and so forth.”

Bane isn’t calling for a return to a mythic, bucolic past. “The peoples who lived here 300 years ago were, if not exclusively foragers, substantially foragers. They could do that because they were few in number in an abundant environment. We’re not able to do that because there are 6.5 million people living in Indiana now.”

The backward glance seeks to learn from the past. “Permaculturists want to know what the native peoples did here and what’s native to this bioregion because that’s part of the story here,” he said.

By paying close attention to a bioregion’s “story,” the permaculturist seeks to nourish and amplify those components through the grouping of plantings, the selection of seed stock and the design and placement of structures that lead to a greening of both urban and rural life.

“The future is going to be in lots more smaller farms,” Bane asserted. “As we see the price of oil continue to skyrocket, the agriculture we have now is going to come to its knees. People are going to grow food and whether they do it well or badly they’re going to do it. So we might as well start now while we have a chance to do it well. Figure it out and get a whole bunch of new farmers growing food and marketing it locally. We need another million farmers in Indiana.

“The farmer is the basis of democracy,” Bane continued, “and democracy is in peril today. We don’t have enough people with the independent means to have a view and a proper challenge to the political system.

“People in Indiana should have no fear about the notion of local food because we have some of the best agricultural land in the world,” he said. By his reckoning, there’s 3.5 acres per person in the state. “The last I checked on all my ecological scales, that’s plenty of resource base to provide food and fiber for everybody in Indiana at a reasonable level,” he said.

The problem is we’re trying to export about two-thirds or more of our agricultural output. “We don’t see the shortsightedness of that,” he said. That’s because our agriculture is neither clean nor careful. “We’re losing a lot of soil from tilling. It winds up in the Gulf of Mexico and we don’t get it back,” Bane said. “Once topsoil is gone, it’s pretty hard to rebuild it,” he added.

“We’re still cavalierly going on spewing pollution out to the environment, and at some point it’s going to become evident that’s shortening our life, limiting our health and making our economy falter as we run out of clean space and virgin resources and new land to exploit,” he said.

“What we try to do in our permaculture courses is to teach problem-solving skills,” Bane said. “We want people to be able to think critically and analytically but also use their intuition about environmental conditions and see how they can be changed,” he added.

“We’re trying to decentralize access to resources,” Bane said. “We want to inspire and empower people in order for them to be able to make changes.”

Bane will lead a five-weekend permaculture design course in Rocky Ripple beginning Oct. 10. For details, go to www.permacultureactivist.net or e-mail info@permacultureactivist.net.

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