An Unlikely Journey to Permaculture

Jason Gerhardt
Dec 12 2017

By telling and contemplating my story I found deeper potency in my own journey, and what that could contribute to…

jason teaching the first annual saint louis permaculture design course

A couple years ago I had a conversation with a woman who started a phenomenal affordable housing program in Utah using education and natural building as her means. I asked about the story of how she got there. Was she in construction? Was she an educator? She was a mortgage officer for a bank. She got tired of turning people down who didn’t qualify for a home loan due to low income, and knew personally what it was like to not have a consistent home as a child growing up in Cincinnati.

Permaculture is all about story. Reading the landscape is an art of tracking the story of a place. Client interviewing is an art of tracking the story of people. In teaching and learning permaculture we are tracking the story of every subject, from the story of the climate to that of the soil to the world of economics. We are less adept at tracking our own stories however, and I’ve come to understand there are great rewards to be found in honing that skill.

My Story

I came up in the city. More accurately, I was raised in a post-industrial city, which is to say a city that used to have industry with pride of things created and made, and lots of jobs. With that element long gone and overlain with resultant environmental contamination, racial discrimination, flight to the suburbs, and extreme built environment entropy, you have the once illustrious city of Saint Louis.

By the age of seventeen I was a burnt out young menace on the St. Louis streets with only one of two paths before me. The first path, a violent death, was clearly laid out by some of my close friends. The second, also well outlined for me, was jail. I had seen enough violence, death, jail cells, devastating poverty, drugs, and crumbling cityscape, to know that a better world had to be possible. I had no better choice but to discover it.

Jason climbing over boulders

After graduating high school (by the grace of the supernatural power known as mom), I quickly boarded a train to a Zen monastery. I needed to get out of the city. I needed a discipline too, something with a spine, something that encouraged me to dig deep into my heart and mind. The next few years saw me spending most of my time with Vietnamese monks in old mountains. I developed a love of nature and a particular fascination with plants during those years. With that foundation, it was there that I first encountered permaculture, while researching agriculture and soil building as some of the monks and I prepared a big garden on a rocky Vermont hillside.

After I left the monasteries, I decided to pursue a degree in Sustainable Design. In college I took my first Permaculture Design Course, and now, thirteen years later I tell my students after I took the PDC I knew exactly what my life was going to be about.

Upon graduating college in Arizona, I moved to Colorado to farm and contribute my hand to developing a local seed company under the masterful guidance of Rich Pecoraro, founding grower of the original Seeds of Change. I learned more about agriculture in those years than I can comprehend. I also learned a lot about human culture, but a different aspect of culture than I experienced growing up.

Spending many hours a week talking to people at the farmers markets, serving hundreds of families’ community supported agriculture shares, and leading the seed company was the beginning of my love affair with people over plants. I had spent years avoiding human culture, too wounded from childhood trauma that the garden side of permaculture became my escape. In contrast, the daily business of the farm provided me with a way to engage.

As I moved away from farming and began to teach things got upturned however. Questions from my students about how I became involved in permaculture steadily chipped away at the armored farm boy façade I developed through college and farm work. The need to teach the invisible structures of the PDC such as social dynamics, legal policy, economics, and related social justice contributed to eroding my front as well. I had to integrate the whole of my story into my work to genuinely engage with the curriculum. I had to develop something closer to authenticity.

A teacher training with Larry Santoyo and Scott Pittman six years ago is where that really hit home. These seasoned men beamed a power of authenticity that I hadn’t fully encountered before. It kept me up at night. I even became horribly ill during the training. A few weeks later I understood their rapture inducing ability to tell story is what had me so shook. Why? Because I wasn’t telling my story. I was ignoring the potency of my own journey. I was also ignoring the power that permaculture held for the world of my youth, and vice versa, ignoring what I knew of the world and the power of bringing that to permaculture.

Jason teaching in St. Louis with Pandora Thomas

Now, teaching permaculture at universities and public venues it’s become my objective to tell the realest story I know. I share my turbulent history with my classes, and I ask them to share theirs, to be open to discovering and revealing themselves as the course goes on, and not just to the class, but to reveal themselves to themselves. Through permaculture we study place, the stories of where we find ourselves—this Earth, the communities we come from and live in, where we are in our personal sagas. We come to understand physical places and our own place within those. We get to the heart of what it is to be alive in an ecosystem, both physical and social, and through that we understand how to nurture the life within us and around us.

What’s Your Story

We all have a place, a niche to fill, a role to play, it’s important that we discover that through our own experience. Most of what we take in through our senses on a daily basis is somebody else trying to give us a story to live out. The media and modern education system are particularly guilty of that. Permaculturists can be equally guilty of that. I’m not one who thinks you should give up what you do and start a homestead or a farm or a design business. I don’t actually believe farming or homesteading or professional design is what permaculture is about. We need people who know about housing and can create better versions of it through permaculture thinking. We need people who know about health and medicine to create better approaches to healing. The world, and permaculture, needs your passion.

As a child, the first time I had a meaningful answer to the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I told my mom I wanted to be a city planner. I didn’t know what that entailed, but I knew that I was sick and tired of what I was experiencing as a city kid. And I’m still tired of it, except now I have a framework that helps me know what to do. The combination of the two, genuine upset at the condition of the world and the permaculture design lens is what drives me forward to create the world I know is possible.

Who are YOU? It matters.

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