Permaculture: Deep Roots and the Growing Canopy

Scott Pittman
04. 23. 2019
When I encountered permaculture, what really drew me was the statement of ethics and the principles of nature applied to society.

In the beginning there was the word and the word was spirit as articulated by three ethics: Take Care of the Earth. Take Care of people. And reduce materialism and population, and return excess yield to care of the Earth and people.

These ethics have been enshrined in multiple religious movements and were elucidated in multiple ways. In the Jewish religions they were expanded to 10 ethical statements, which were reduced to two statements by Jesus: “Love the Lord thy God with all your heart, thy mind, thy spirit and love thy neighbor as thyself”. In Buddhism it was further reduced to Compassion for all living beings. And so on…

Over time religion forgot about spirit and focused more on spiritual leaders, which allowed for a callusing over of the human spirit with materialism, and narcissism. This then led to humans loss of their real reason for evolving here on planet Earth—to care for the earth (care-taking) and to care for all its wondrous manifestations, including us humans.

After many years of war, despoiling nature, fear of the other, and egotism there has begun to emerge, among many, an awareness of how empty life is without spirit. At first it was just a glimmering of conscience revealed as an awareness of our environment and the joy that it brought to those who spent time within the enfolding arms of a forest, or the awe inspiring oceanic view, and has become a desire to care for what is still remaining.

Many organizations have been founded and operated to save forests, grasslands, oceans, rivers, atmosphere, animals, soils, and finally humans. This awakening is now worldwide, but each organization has been isolated from the others and therefore they have never become powerful enough, through cooperation, to change the cultural paradigm in which they are embedded. Among these organizations is what was initially an Australian group formed in the mid-seventies around the writing and teaching of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.

Permaculture was unique in that it was a practice based on ethics and the principles of nature, though the teaching was mostly about how to become self-sufficient both physically and socially. But at least the underpinning ethics and principles were strong enough to soften the calluses that had formed over spirit. This is where my own personal story intersected with permaculture.

I was raised on a farm/ranch in the lower panhandle of Texas—a blistering climate of hot windblown sandstorms and bitter cold winters. As a youngster I felt very underprivileged; we had no television reception, no social life except school, family gatherings, and church. Church was boring to the point of tears for me and the atmosphere of puffed up self-righteousness was belied by the behavior of the congregation the other six days of the week.

Looking back, I count the blessings of living a life of nutritious, home raised vegetables, eggs, milk, cheese, butter, cream, poultry, pork, and beef. I also appreciate all of the skills I learned living on an isolated homestead. We did our own carpentry, electrical, plumbing, and whatever else was needed in every day life. I also loved the open spaces and my encounters of what was left of wildlife in that part of west Texas. My early spiritual encounters were experiences of being out of body watching huge thunderheads rolling overhead as I lay on my back, overwhelmed and thrilled, in a row of sorghum, or a cluster of Mesquite trees shaking with the joy of it all.

When I encountered permaculture many years later, most of the “how to do” stuff I already knew, but what really drew me was the statement of ethics and the principles of nature. Unfortunately my teacher Bill Mollison had a hard and fast rule of no spirituality (“woo-woo”) and no politics in permaculture classrooms. Once again I was confronted with my youthful dilemma and my personal experiences of hours of Methodist pew time and the out of body thrills of my youth. I accepted Bill’s belief that spiritual and political topics were more divisive than was agriculture, construction, forestry, ecovillages, and all of the sundry topics within the permaculture curriculum, but as time went by, some 25 years, I watched conditions in the dominant human culture deteriorate along with the environment.

This deterioration is manifest in an obvious division within the populace: Racism and its first cousin Jingoism versus Humanism, Capitalist versus Socialist, Haves versus Have Nots, and Right versus Left political views. Living in this swamp of racism, xenophobia, grand larceny, fear/anger, and poverty, it was obvious to me that planting a garden and building a tiny house was not the solution. More and more I felt that we as a culture were suffering from a lack of ethical direction and spiritual groundedness; I took a year off from teaching and went to Sat Yoga, an ashram in Costa Rica, to take another look at spirit, seeking a healing of my own from my cultural dis-ease.

After over a year of quietly sitting meditation at 4:00AM each morning, and sometimes twice a day during retreats, I decided that spiritual wasn’t the problem. The problem was that religions, for the most part, had lost their spirit and were more devoted to the same pursuits as the culture that surrounded them; that is, a paternalistic pattern of materialism and narcissism. It seems that most churches, temples, mosques and other places of worship serve as monuments to the ego of the spiritual leader rather than as examples of social justice and ethical behavior. Somehow spiritual became confused with religious.

I left the ashram with an understanding that the cultural affliction of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was its loss of spirit and the teachings of the spirit that so many of the religions gave service to, but did not provide to their followers. I realized that permaculture too had focused too narrowly on the material world and that without the enlivening influence of spirit, it was not providing the necessary guidance to those seeking another paradigm.

We have just concluded a year of sabbatical at the Permaculture Institute, an organization founded by Bill Mollison, Francis Huxley, and myself 21 years ago. Our purpose was to be an educational, demonstration, and research organization founded on the teaching of permaculture. After the last year of thought, meditation, and conversation we have agreed that we want to include more emphasis on ethics, principles and spirit in order to heal ourselves and our wounded culture. We believe that part of the healing comes from learning how to cast off the economic bonds of the dominant culture through self-regenerative lifestyles. To do this we will have to depend more on the Folk Wisdom of land-based peoples that permaculture has drawn so much from. We also want to reconfigure the standard permaculture curriculum to make clear and emphasize ethics and principles while eliminating the greed and materialism from our lives, simultaneously introducing mutualism and love in their place. I often substitute the word love for care as I think that one can only truly care for that which one loves.

I certainly hope you join us in creating a strong and viable medicine for the cultural malaise we seem to be surrounded by. I am only hopeful when I think of a future of more caring for each other and our living Gaia.

I am stepping down as board member and director of the Permaculture Institute and leaving it in the caring and capable hands of Jason Gerhardt. I will continue to serve in an advisory role to the institute as long as I possibly can.

The Permaculture Institute will be offering three updated courses this year: a teacher training and two PDC’s; we intend to offer curriculum and training encompassing our updated direction for permaculture, and hope you will join us and follow along as we release more articles and insights for the permaculture movement.