Authored by Sean McShee

TWH – Pagans often have deep reverence and concern for the natural world. Nature, however, can only benefit from that reverence and concern if things happen on the physical plane.

That will require knowledge of agroecology (the study of ecological processes applied to agricultural production systems), soil, and water, as well as work respecting the Earth and the spirits there. Permaculture may bridge this gap.

Karla J Arnold, “The Permacultured Pagan,” says that permaculture indeed bridges the ethical and spiritual gap.  Arnold told TWH, “The ethics of permaculture align with Paganism as Paganism is an earth-based, earth-centered spiritual path.”

Arnold added that those ethics are: “1. Care of the Earth, 2. Care of people
3. Fair share/ future care. As you can see, care of the Earth being the first ethic fits nicely into Paganism.”

Permaculture students in the garden, in Arbizu, Spain in 2016. (courtesy photo)

The Permaculture Institute defines permaculture as “a design discipline based on a set of ethics and the foundational principles of the natural world. Permaculturists apply what they learn from nature and traditional land-based cultures to the human environment, developing ways to ecologically produce food, create shelter, store water, design economic and governance systems, and meet human needs via informed ecological design.”

On his YouTube channel, permaculture trainer, Aranya Austin, reported that permaculture accepts technology, but acknowledges its dangers. That acceptance drives permaculture’s stress on pragmatic and scientific knowledge as well as its formal training of permaculture practitioners or “permies.”

Andrew Millison teaches Permaculture Design Course and the Advanced Permaculture Design Practicum at Oregon State University. These courses are available online. In 2015, Millison founded Permaculture Design International.

Marisha Auerbach also teaches at Oregon State University. For one month a year, she teaches at the Maya Mountain Research Farm in Belize. She developed the “Grow Your Own Produce” workshop series to teach people how to grow their own food. She specializes in urban permaculture. For the last twelve years, she has been producing most of her own food in “on a standard urban lot” in Portland, Oregon. Auerbach collects rainwater, develops soil fertility, and shares surplus.

Soil Fertility

Permaculture stresses building soil fertility. Mark Feineigle writing in “Permaculture News” distinguished between modern farming and building soil fertility. He described modern farming as “mining the topsoil for minerals.”

Feineigle distinguished permaculture from soil conservation. The former seeks to build soil fertility rather than just conserve it. Rather than feeding the plants, permies feed the soil.

The first step in feeding the soil involves designing a gravity-powered water catchment, storage, and irrigation system. This involves rainwater, run-off, and greywater, recycling of household wastewater except for toilet water. Structures can collect and store the water. Channels can then guide the flow down through the rest of the field.

Permaculture favors chisel plows. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, a chisel plow has “narrow, double-ended shovels, or chisel points, mounted on long shanks.”

Feineigle reports that a chisel plow facilitates both aeration and water flow into the topsoil and the compacted soil beneath it. This flow begins the integration of the compacted soil with the topsoil. Once water and air break the compacted soil, organic material can decay. The soil can then “self-fertilize.”

Earthworm on soil  [Pixabay]

Permaculture in unexpected areas

Afghanistan. According to The New York Times, Scott Pittman directs the national Permaculture Institute in Santa Fe, N.M., U.S.A. He estimated that worldwide 100,000 to 150,000 students had completed certificates in permaculture. He even reported training the Oklahoma National Guard in permaculture. They used permaculture when deployed in Afghanistan.

Crystal Waters, Queensland, Australia. Crystal Waters describes itself as Australia’s original Permaculture EcoVillage. Permaculture drove the design for Crystal Waters in 1989. This Australian Wildlife Sanctuary provides habitats for local plants and animals. Kangaroos and wallabies dwell there. Over 230 people live in Crystal Waters, with more in the surrounding areas. The village has a coffee shop, bakery, and markets. It offers a Permaculture Design Course. In 1996, Crystal Waters won a U.N. Habitat Award.

Malawi. One of the more interesting examples of permaculture occurs in Malawi. Stacia Nordin, a cofounder of Never Ending Food, worked with the Malawian government to lessen food insecurity. Never Ending Food uses permaculture in its work in Malawi. According to the Oakland Institute, 51% of the Malawian population were severely food insecure.

The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa reported on the Never Ending Food project in Malawi. The Central American crop, maize (corn in the USA), has dominated agricultural production. Maize absorbed so much land and time from the growing season, that Malawians could not produce enough food for domestic consumption. From December to April, Malawi chronically experienced “hungry seasons.” At that time, food from last year’s crops had begun to run out before this year’s crop ripened. Malawi has a malnutrition rate of 47% for children under 5 years of age. In addition, Malawians had to spend a great deal on fertilizers and commercial seeds.

In contrast, permaculture stresses the need to produce “perennial, year-round, and daily access to diversified and highly-nutritious foods.” It also minimizes dependence on fertilizers, pesticides, and the commercial seed markets.

The Oakland Institute discusses a common complaint about Western “experts” and donors in the developing world. That complaint charges that while poverty endures, Western “advice” and aide only seem to enrich Western corporations and local political elites.

In 2017, Luwayo and Grace Biswick founded the Permaculture Paradise Institute near Mchinji, Malawi. Biswick had interned and worked at Never Ending Food. The Biswicks live in a house made from “rammed earth.” That house is solar-powered.

The Oakland Institute praised the Permaculture Paradise Institute as a success in lessening hunger. They reported that the Permaculture Paradise Institute “now produces over 200 different crops without chemical fertilizers or hybrid seed.” The Institute did this by using native crops, using a water catchment system, planning trees, and composting. The Institute also noted that native Malawians run the Permaculture Paradise Institute.

These programs work in reverence of the soil and keep the land productive and the food local. They return to Pagan-centric practices of honoring the Earth.

Michael Karkainan of the Facebook group Pagan Permaculture for Progressive Thinkers, also stressed how permaculture aligns with Pagan practice. Karkainan said, “As modern Pagans, we should be stewards of the land and healers of the earth. We talk about it all the time, well here’s a working system to do it and it doesn’t require tons of work.” He added that, “permaculture builds community as well as soils.”

While small compared with agribusiness, permaculture provides a way out of the many crises facing the planet and treats the Earth with respect. It deserves to be explored. Arnold made clear, “The 12 principles of permaculture can be used as a guide for your thinking, way you live and to make your Pagan practice more earth-centered. Where you walk your talk.  It deepens your practice to everyday life, not just eight parties a year.”