Wednesday, August 10, 2011


In July of this summer, I spent two weeks at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center taking a Permaculture Design Intensive. This resulted in my becoming a certified Permaculture Design Consultant. Since the Transition Movement is based in permaculture, it is highly recommended that at least one person on a Steering Group get a design degree.

First let me acknowledge that the term “permaculture” often scares the hell out of people who don’t really know what it’s about. From here on I’ll abbreviate it to SW (scary word). I’m not exactly sure why this is but I have my suspicions. It might be an unconscious retreat from the responsibility of the word “permanent” embedded in the phrase. The SW poses a deep and profound change in the way we do things. The word does in fact come from the conflation of the words permanent and agriculture and, though really NOTHING is permanent, it refers to a system of land use design that works with nature to create an abundant and sustainable habitat for all creatures living in a given region.

This course was grueling, profound and life changing. I heard the hard-core, scientifically verified facts about the degradation of our environment and the tipping point at which we now find ourselves. Forget the SW word. These facts are what scared the hell out of me. But I also learned the SW solutions. They work and are very DO-ABLE.

To demystify how you might start inserting the SW into your life right here, right now, here are my suggestions in order of importance:

1.  Stop wasting water at all, ever! Especially in Southern California! Read the recent study by the Stockholm Environmental Institute if you need to know why. Put in low flow fixtures, take 3-minute showers and, if you’re able, start rain catchment off your roof and convert to a simple greywater system for plant irrigation from your washing machine. Start using biocompatible (NOT biodegradable) soap for all purposes. In Joshua Tree, our only source of water is an ancient underground aquifer that is being depleted at a foot a year, has no new water replenishing it and is in serious danger of nitrate contamination from septic systems.

2. Stop throwing valuable kitchen scraps into the landfill. Start composting. It’s very easy to do and there are instructions all over the internet. If you don’t have land to start a compost pile, you can start an inside worm bin (again lots of simple DIYs on the net). They turn all those kitchen scraps into worm castings, which are one of the world’s most amazing fertilizers. No it doesn’t stink. As a matter of fact it smells like rich sweet earth.

3. Start a vegetable garden using drip irrigation, grey water irrigation and drylands garden bed techniques (if you live in a drylands region). Fertilize with your compost and your worm castings. If you live in an apartment, grow in containers and look into vertical gardening.

4. If you live in a dryland region, plant some mesquite trees and pee on them. Yeah, that’s right. Mesquite seeds can be ground into flour that is extremely nutritious and the trees are nitrogen fixers. They will take that pee, which otherwise will go into your leach field and convert to nitrates, and instead use it to grow big and strong AND enrich the soil around themselves so you can start to put in other nutritious plants. If Mesquites don't grow in your area, pour your pee on your compost pile. Human pee is sterile and happens to be a very effective fertilizer. It must be diluted 1 part pee to 10 parts water if you put it directly on your plants. Mature Mesquite can take it full strength. But best of all is to install a pit toilet or waterless composting toilet and then use humanure for your trees. Ecosan makes one that is simple, cost-effective (if you compare to the cost of putting in a septic system) and was developed in Africa to eliminate nitrate contamination of the aquifer.

You can see here how each item relates to and enhances the others. This is the heart of SW. Just start with conserving water and move on when you’re ready. Put one foot in front of the other and you will find that it’s not scary at all. It’s empowering. And really, we have no other choice.


Saturday, August 6, 2011

Stepping Up

This is a guest post by Sekai Chideya. One week ago Sekai and I completed a two week permaculture design intensive along with 24 other students at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in Northern California. Sekai is an Atlanta-based medical doctor focusing on global HIV prevention, and a fledgling permaculturalist. The course was a life changing experience. I think this letter from her very eloquently expresses the profound nature of this change.
From Sekai:
Dear Perma-friends,
It’s been 1 week since we parted ways, though, strangely, it seems like longer. The sudden absence of oak trees and fresh salad, of Kendall and Brock and Zora, and of the 25 of you, threw me into a bit of a tailspin. That, and the 30 hours of flying it took to get to Malawi.  But now I am on my way back “home,” to Atlanta, and to the world of perma-possibilities literally right outside my door. It’s exciting. I’m excited.

I was looking for an excuse to say hello, but found a legitimate reason in Malawi. I stayed in the city of Lilongwe, a city that, per local staff, was covered with trees a couple of generations ago, but now is now covered with dusty, depleted soil that grows little without fertilizers. The profit of monocropping tobacco, tea and sugar has led to widespread deforestation and a cycle of worsening soil quality (hence the government’s decision to subsidize fertilizers). And residents, desperate for a source of fuel, have multiplied the tree loss.  This desperation has increased in the past year as petrol (gas) has become a rare commodity. Petrol stations sit empty, and when the rare fuel truck arrives people sit in line for days waiting to fill their cars and cans. Literally, cars stretching for blocks and intersections full of frustrated people. Like the U.S. in the late 1970s.

The first time I saw the snake of cars waiting for petrol I turned to my colleague and said “Peak oil has come and gone. This is what every country’s eventually going to look like, starting with the poor ones.”   I don’t think she knew what ‘peak oil’ meant because she looked at me blankly. But perhaps that was because she was in a daze from driving by a mass of people so clearly at the mercy of petroleum. The situation has brought the normally peaceful and unfailingly polite Malawians to a boil. Last month, the government shot and killed 18 rioters; more riots are planned for next week.

While in Malawi I connected with a permie who has been living in the country for several years, Stacia Nordin. Using permaculture principles, she and her husband transformed their dusty urban plot of land into an oasis. She works for the Ministry of Education, but also promotes and teaches permaculture locally with a group called NeverEndingFood ( She and I tried to find the time for me to visit her home, but our respective Ministries made our schedules hell and it didn't happen. But as I rode by the denuded fields and empty gas stations (and the occasional mobbed one), I realized how relevant, timely and important her permaculture work here was. And how absolutely timely and important our learning, using and promoting permaculture principles is, will be. These are desperate times, growing rapidly more desperate. May we have the skills and strength of spirit to thrive despite it all.
Am leaving Malawi now, about to board a plane for Johannesburg. The airport counter computers, metal detectors and x-ray machines aren’t working because the generators are out of petrol…because the economy is failing...because the agricultural sector is weak.  My flight will probably use enough fuel to run the airport’s generators for a week. Clearly I need a new job.

Anyway, these are my itinerant ramblings. Miss you all.
With love,

Banner image of cob bench built by myself, Sekai and the 24 other permies.