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The Indigenous Science of Permaculture

The last few decades have seen a slow yet steady rise in the awareness and practice of permaculture in conservation and environmental communities. This growing understanding is both heartening and deeply necessary. It also gives rise to occasional pauses to take a closer look at what the term permaculture implies and means, and its true origins. In particular, this examination compels us to look at how permaculture, like much other wisdom deriving from pre-industrial, non-hierarchical, collaboration with land and nature, is at risk of being appropriated and colonized. The resulting reductionist approach seeks to create homogenizing formulas to work in harmony with the environment, a hallmark of mainstream western scientific materialism. This is anathema to what was originally — and still is — an indigenous science of working in partnership and reciprocity with the land and cycles of nature.

Bill Mollison in the garden of his Enmore, Australia home on January 16, 1989. | Greg White / Fairfax Media via Getty Images
Bill Mollison, the "father of permaculture," in the garden of his Enmore, Australia home on January 16, 1989. | Greg White / Fairfax Media via Getty Images

The term permaculture — a fusion of “permanent” and “agriculture” — was first coined in the 1970s by two Australians, David Holmgren, and Bill Mollison. Both were academics in Tasmania. Holmgren was at the time a graduate student studying environmental design at the Tasmanian College of Advanced Education, and Mollison — also dubbed the “father of permaculture” — was a senior lecturer in environmental psychology at the University of Tasmania. The foundations of permaculture rest on two concepts: an understanding and acceptance of the diversity of whole systems, as opposed to the soil-degrading effects of industrial monoculture; and on the relational, slow-yet-dynamic practice of observing the land, and its many complex ecosystems.

Tending Nature video clip: Running Ditches and Slowing Water - Paiute People Adapt Traditions to Modern-Day Gardens

Both of these principles have also been the core tenets of relating to and working with nature by Indigenous people the world over for millennia.

That permaculture arose as a vital response to the dangerous environmental and human degradation of industrialization, and its toxic farming and agricultural practices is undeniable. Its philosophy is based on the common-sense truth that the human race cannot survive in any measure of health if the Earth is being poisoned. We are at a point in our evolution where anything less than an applied understanding of this idea spells disaster to our survival. In all of this, the propagation of permaculture is crucial.

What is at issue here is the importance of recognizing that permaculture’s roots lie firmly and deeply in the ancient, fertile, organic soil of indigenous science. To overlook and ignore that is to leave permaculture at the mercy of the dogmas of mainstream science, and the latter’s view of the manifold, complex systems in nature as nothing more than resources to be exploited. From this vantage point, humans control, degrade and exploit the land to become obedient, consummate consumers; and the indigenous science of cultivating a reciprocal, regenerative relationship with the Earth, in which the human acknowledges her innate connection to Earth, is dismissed as "unscientific" and empirically unsound.

The Potawot Community Garden, housed at United Indian Health Services’s facility in Arcata, California, incorporates elements of permaculture seamlessly into the center's holistic approach to healing the Earth and body. | Still from "Tending Nature"
The Potawot Community Garden, housed at United Indian Health Services’s facility in Arcata, California, incorporates elements of permaculture seamlessly into the center's holistic approach to healing the Earth and body. | Still from "Tending Nature" episode "Healing The Body with United Indian Health Services."

Without actively anchoring itself to the wisdom of indigenous science, permaculture is rudderless and vulnerable to invasion by the parasite that only feeds off its host, without giving anything back, ultimately destroying both.

Indeed, Mollison attributed much of what he came to create as "permaculture" to what he learned from the Aboriginals in Tasmania, and other Indigenous people around the world.

Permaculture is fundamentally then, an indigenous science. Its framework is a design system that incorporates core principles and practices from indigenous knowledge around the world, assimilating it with sustainable new technology that is making strides towards harmonizing this traditional wisdom with pioneering modern quantum science. As such, it can restore valuable ancient knowledge, while steering our industrialized society towards a more viable future based on regeneration and reciprocity.

Tending the Wild: Episode 1 - Cultural Burning

In California, the Chumash, Yurok, Karuk, Hupa, and Miwok tribes have, for over 13,000 years, practiced and handed down the tradition of prescribed burning as a way of tending the land. As people Indigenous to California, and as guardians of Native wisdom whose cultural foundations rest on a reciprocal, reverential, subject-subject interaction with nature, the practice of prescribed burning sees fire as a necessary medicine for the land. For millennia, this method of small-scale, skillfully managed, intentional burning of dead or dying underbrush has been a way of regenerating the land, and significantly decreasing the risk of catastrophic, out-of-control, large-scale wildfires.

Given the devastation caused by wildfires in recent years, a result of climate change and rising temperatures, the art of prescribed burning is something that is finally being looked at by state fire officials and environmental agencies as a viable means of minimizing the risk of wildfires. Tribes are now working together to revive this ancient and practical wisdom of fire as preventative, restorative medicine through the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network. Crucially, state governing bodies are now beginning to work with tribes and their tradition of prescribed burning as a time-tested way of reducing the conditions that cause wildfires in our current, climate-sensitive age.

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This restoration of Native wisdom is critical at this time because we are all indigenous to somewhere. There is as much to be gleaned from pre-Christian, pre-industrialized, indigenous old European culture and wisdom as there is from our more current understanding of what being native is. These traditional societies also operated within an Earth-focused, reciprocal, relational paradigm and were decimated through the terror of widespread witch trials and burnings. They also became colonized by the belief that man is here to exercise dominion over land and sea. These old, indigenous, pagan ways became marginalized at best, literally demonized at worst. What did survive we displaced to the fringes of society, viewed by mainstream science and “sensible” society as esoteric, crackpot nonsense — Fait accompli.

Permaculture’s ability to re-indigenize Caucasian people, to reconnect them with their indigenous wisdom traditions of working in partnership with the land, has the potential to stem the tide of the, frankly, crackpot notions of the colonial mindset. These notions are summed up succinctly in the unabridged subtitle of Charles Darwin’s landmark “Origin of Species,” which is: “By Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.” There is nothing that comes close to resembling “natural” about this type of “selection.” That this book is the cornerstone of what has been accepted science for almost 200 years, also coinciding with the Industrial Revolution, has alarming and multiple layers of significance. For this piece, however, our focus is on the importance of recognizing the core truth that permaculture is an indigenous science.

Why is this important? As a philosophy, practice, and movement, permaculture is gaining much support and momentum across the world. Inevitably, the reductionism of mainstream science and its focus on relentless hyper-productivity, are making insidious advances towards permaculture. This rise in awareness is a bid to dominate and reduce to formulas a system rooted firmly in the cultivation of a dynamic, reciprocal relationship between the human and the Earth, both as subjects. As with any relationship, this takes patience. Permaculture can thrive under the pioneering auspices of new quantum science and technology that is discovering that what the ancients knew to be true is also empirically verifiable. The findings of this new science accept the wisdom of indigenous science — and permaculture as a product of it.

As Bill Mollison, the “father of permaculture” so articulately put it:

We must safeguard the permaculture movement against colonizing influences that seek to reduce it to a system of sterile formulas if we want it to remain a powerful agent of healing for the Earth — and for us. It has to be seen for what it is: an indigenous science.

Tending Nature clip: Potawot Health Center - A Holistic Approach to Healing

Activist and Mayan-tradition shaman, Martin Prechtel, who was raised on a Pueblo reservation by his Canadian-Indian mother, makes this poignant statement on cultureofpermaculture.org:

The relatively new science of quantum physics is discovering what indigenous science has known for millennia: we live in a world where all matter is sentient, a subject-subject stance. This traditional knowledge is very much at odds with the fictions of the lifeless, mechanical “objective” world over which humans ruthlessly rule that has been the prevailing dogma of mainstream science. Permaculture can remain immune to the parasitic disease if colonialism of its origins are grounded in indigenous science, and with this new science as its companion and benefactor. It can be a powerful movement of authentic and radical change that it has the potential to be.

Indigenous science is unequivocally a science, and the system of permaculture is a recent offspring. A dismissal of it as such is a telltale sign and symptom of the colonizer and its unnatural selections.

 

Top image: Members of the Syuxtun Plant Collective tend to and collect medicinal plants, fostering a reciprocal relationship with the land. | Still from "Tending Nature" episode "Holistic Healing with the Syuxtun Collective."

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