PERMACULTURE: California Style
An Interview with Penny Livingston

Livingston Photo
Penny Livingston

Page 2 of 2 - Part One of a three-part series


Ecotecture: So what happened next? There you were. You had finished your course, you went to the Zen center, and you got this big flash...

PL: That is what I got, I got an "Aha!" It also happened with my dreams. I kept dreaming this stuff. Every night. To the point where I would wake up in the morning and sometimes I would just be exhausted because I would have to go out and do it again- designing. As you know, as a designer you use a certain part of your brain when you are intensely designing things. It can be tiring. It is not something that you can do all the time, at least I can't. I get very spaced out when I do three or four hours straight on a project, just doing designing and drawing or measuring or mapping, even. All of that takes concentration.

This "Cobb" structure, built by students at a Permaculture Institute of Northern California workshop, serves as Livingston's office.
Click for full image.

So, I'd do that in my dreams, and then in the morning I would just be wiped out (laughs) to the point where I finally said, "OK, I submit. Stop it!" I decided to devote my life to spreading the word about Permaculture, because, I thought, "this makes so much sense. It is teachable. The curriculum is brilliant."

There is a lot of sustainability stuff out there. A lot of ecological design stuff and all these different flags. But, I find that the way the information is presented, the principals, in Permaculture, no matter who you are, whether you are an architect, engineer, farmer, a housewife who has hardly been in the garden . . . one woman we had was a baker who thought she didn't "have any experience." She found that everyone can tap into his or her ecological knowledge, it is all within us. There is a resonance that starts to happen.

The same curriculum has been taught to Warani Indians in Equador, architecture graduate students in Portugal, communities throughout Latin America, Africa, Asia, Nepal, and Bali, not to mention Australia and New Zealand — it is everywhere. Vietnam has a big Permaculture community now, thanks to one Australian woman who went there. The curriculum is the same everywhere so you can have the same course in India as you do here. It can have a different bent to it, based on the culture, but the essential information is the same. It transcends cultural, political (boundaries) — you can have Libertarians, left wingers, religious right wingers all in the same group, and everyone is resonating on these principals because they just make sense. They are very non-dogmatic.

There is another brilliance to them. They can be applied in the tropics, temperate climates, drylands, wetlands. So that is what psyched me. I thought, "this is brilliant."

It takes a while to really understand and apply it to your own life, because everyone is different, everyone's life is as complex as life itself. But, when you get up in the morning, you start to have a little bit of a palette of criteria about what to do with your life and what decisions you are going to make. "Where is my food coming from? Where is my water coming from? Where does my sewage go? Where is all this garbage going?" You are certainly asking these questions.

Then you start asking, "what can I do to start turning these wastes into resources." Then you find that the creativity is only limited by that of the designer. There are incredible things that can be done to reduce consumption, increase production, create these ecologically viable and economically sound settlements for humans.

Ecotecture: What is the difference between Permaculture and, say, organic gardening?

PL: Good question. They are very different. Very different. One of the things that has been said in the past, and I don't agree with this, is that only Permaculturalists have ethics toward the land. I completely, whole heartedly disagree. Every organic farmer that I know has a very profound ethic toward the land. That's why they are farming organically to begin with.

But, organic farming comes from a premise of monoculture. You are still plowing, in most conventional senses, you are still growing all your crops in a row, you are still growing all your lettuces here, your cabbages there, your potatoes over there — for practical reasons. They are mostly growing money more than they are growing food.

Ecotecture: Permaculture doesn't plow?

PL: In Permaculture you don't dig, you don't plow, you very rarely weed. You have a perennial based system. That is where you start.

Ecotecture: And you have a diverse system?

PL: Yes, very diverse. You basically focus on growing your soil, and the soil will grow the plants. That's kind of true for organic agriculture also, but with Permaculture you plant the foundation first, with all the perennials. Then, within that perennial system (you plant annuals). The annuals may be a small percentage, 10 to 15 percent, depending on what your needs are, how much space you have, and what size your project. It is very small piece. That is the piece of which we say, "if you want to do biointensive (gardening), biodynamic, or whatever method of growing your annual vegetables, go for it." Whatever works for you.

You can also interplant within the Permaculture system, and do sheet mulching (see below). There are a thousand different ways of growing food. More than that (laughs). I don't want to put a limit on it.

There is an unlimited number of ways to grow food. It's probably one of the most site specific things you can think of. I could live across the street from here and I'm going to have a whole different set of issues. For farming, especially organic farming and annuals, the learning curve takes years to get that site down, in terms of starting the seeds at just the right time, and dealing with all the variations in the weather conditions, particularly here in California. There is a huge amount of knowledge that has to be attained through organic farming.

If you design a Permaculture system right, and you put it in place, you can walk away and it will grow itself. That is the primary difference. I've got perennial kales. I just lop off the top and stick them in the ground and they grow. I have greens all year long. We've got fruit trees now that, in their fourth year, are yielding bushels of fruit, and this is just a small garden. We don't have that many trees, but we have many hundreds of pounds of fruit. It is good fruit, it is highly mineralized, highly nutritious.

These are plants that want to grow here. That is the only kind of plants that I'm interested in on any site. I am not interested in coddling plants. I'm not interested in creating false conditions for plants to grow. If it is the right plant in the right place, it will grow itself. It doesn't need much help from you.

Some of these, like that (Australian) Palonia tree I was showing you (which has grown 15 feet in one year), I have given one shovel full of chicken manure and that is it. With our trees, we very rarely fertilize anything. The birds do it for us, the ducks do it for us, the sheet mulch as it breaks down — the carbon breaks down, like a little bio bank, a slow release fertilizer as it decomposes.

Ecotecture: What is sheet mulch?

PL: It is a high carbon mulch. You mulch by putting cardboard and newspaper down, and put wood chips or straw or some carbonaceous material on top of that. Instead of using cardboard, some people in the tropics use giant taro leaves. You can use carpet, especially if it is non-toxic. But, even if it is toxic, even if it has the formaldehyde in the glue, it gets broken down molecule by molecule by bacteria until it is rendered harmless. Sheet mulching is a good bio-remedial way to clean toxins where you get all these critters eating the carbon, the detritovores eating everything and breaking it all down.

That is true also of soil and of water. That is where we work. Our whole process is that as we are growing our food we are also cleaning our water, cleaning our soil, creating food for other critters besides ourselves, and deepening the complexity of the natural world through our participation. It is more complex, more diverse, more fertile, more ecologically rich than it would be if we as Permaculturalists or humans never entered that place.

Nature, without humans, doesn't really contain such a garden. That's the beauty. We are natural beings. We are part of nature. We are just as natural as the mountain lion, bear, elk, skunk, beaver, fish, and birds. Permaculture offers us an opportunity to participate in the natural world in a really good way. We can maintain the balance just like the wolf that kills the weak caribou and keeps the caribou herd strong just by being a wolf. With Permaculture, we can create a system that can go on for an indefinite amount of time.

Ecotecture: Our readers might have a little trouble understanding that human beings can augment or improve upon nature.

PL: OK. Let's take the example of soil. If you take soil that has been degraded, compacted, walked on, exposed, heated, raked, overgrazed, driven on, or whatever- herbacided, pesticided. Even without the poison, just due to the compaction and lack of organic matter in that soil, it will blow away. It takes, depending on who you read, between six hundred and nine hundred years for nature to build an inch of top soil. That can wash away through bad practices in one storm within two hours. You may lose two, three, four inches of top soil in one storm. Without humans, that site will have to wait six hundred to forty-eight hundred years to become viable again.

Enter human beings, homo habilis. Ability and habilis come from the same root. We have the ability to move things around. To create relationships. To put things in certain places. That has gotten us into a lot of trouble, but it can also get us out of a lot of trouble. By sheet mulching, composting, adding organic matter, forking the soil, aerating the soil, whatever we need to do to that spot, we can build that top soil up in two or three years.

I have a bush pile that I created just from the pruning of the fruit trees that I planted here that has created almost a foot of topsoil in four years. It is not just topsoil. It is more like humus, a stable, nutrient laden form of top soil. I don't know what the exponential rate . . .if you want to calculate what percentage of efficiency that is, or what percentage of benefit that has.

It is not only that. That pond I put out there (on my property). . . we saw that little bird before, that little sparrow, that bird would not be here if that pond were not here. The first thing that happened when we filled the pond with water is we could hear, we could feel the birds all saying, "Thanks." Also, "Cool!" (laughs) They weren't coming up and bowing down full of gratitude, but they were very happily and pleasantly surprised when they came back (after the pond construction was complete) and found this water that they could work around. We intentionally made shallow places where they could dip into it. That is what that (stone) waterfall is. It is designed so little birds like that can go there and not be freaked out about it. We had a hawk taking a bath in that waterfall.

Ecotecture: Then you are mostly talking about taking soil systems that have for whatever reasons been degraded.

PL: Or lawn landscape practices. You keep mowing your lawn and hauling away the greens-that's mining your soil.

Ecotecture: Right. The way I heard what you said originally is that if there was a natural area that was in a pristine state you would come into that and make changes. That is where I saw an argument. Obviously, when you are talking about degraded areas, humans can help a great deal in their recovery.

PL: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. No Permaculturalist that knows anything would dare go into a pristine area, especially an old growth area.

For example, there is one principle that is called the "edge effect," or "creating an edge." The idea is that an edge, or ecotone, is more ecologically rich than the two ecosystems that have come together to form it. For example, the border between a pond and the dirt around it, or a clearing and a forest.

One of the things we strongly emphasize in our courses is that you must truly understand edge. It means, for example, that under no circumstances do you go into an interior forest and clear out a meadow, because, in fact, you are removing more edge than you are creating. If you take out one old-growth tree, or one large tree, the surface area you are removing (from the forest canopy) has more edge (than you are creating on the ground.)

Another huge conversation is about the definition of old-growth. It doesn't mean that the forest has never been cut or burned- it is about the level of complexity and the level of interrelationship within that forest. They are still having a hard time defining that. In my opinion, it is not about looking at how big the trees are, but about the ecological complexity in that forest.

In most forests, it is all happening in the ground. We hardly see anything that is going on above ground. There is fungal activity, bacterial activity, the relationships between them. We have already determined that there is more biodiversity in one gram of Pacific Northwest Forest soil, healthy soil, than there is in an estuary. And that there is more biodiversity going on below the ground in a Pacific Northwest Forest than there is above the ground in a tropical rain forest.

It is really about understanding. When we talk about complexity, when we talk about edge, we are not talking going into a pristine situation and removing or changing something. In fact, that is the whole discussion about Eucalyptus (trees.) Everybody is complaining about how Eucalyptus and Scotch Broom (a large shrub) are invasive plants. Let's start focusing where there is nothing growing, and start working on those sites before we start tearing down trees that happen to be habitat for Monarch Butterflies (Eucalyptus stands along the Northern California Coast, particularly in the Monterey Bay Region), that happen to be rookeries for raptors that eat rodents.

What they did at Angel Island (State Park in San Francisco Bay) was horrific. They cut down all the Eucalyptus because they are not native (so they could replace them with native plants). Why didn't they go onto some bald, overgrazed hill and plant a bunch of native trees? Focus on those areas instead of coming into a forested island with a degree of complexity that, even though it is not native, is thriving. An old, tall, huge tree has implicated itself with the critters around it.

So yes, we mostly like to focus on degraded areas. We are fortunate in that way, because there are lots of areas like that. No shortage.