A Peek into Permaculture

While in Costa Rica, at Aquas Sagradas, an up and coming organic cacao farm created by a middle aged california hippie, I dove (or was thrown) into practicing the art of permaculture.

We (the other volunteers and I) worked hands-on at the farm with Max Myers, one of the current leaders in the field of permaculture. He made this information digestible to us, so I owe him credit for my current knowledge of the subject.

What is permaculture you say? Permaculture is grounded in several principals: everything is connected to everything else, everything has more than one function, and the needs of one thing can always be filled by another.

The overarching premise is a symbiosis with everything around us, and turning problems into solutions while expending the least amount of energy and creating functional, diverse ecosystems.

Permaculture is rooted in natural cycles, and it uses basic tools and culturally appropriate material to create sustainable habitats for humans and the environment. Human habitats catered to specific environments create empowered, healthy, and self sufficient individuals and communities. It’s a beautiful fusion of design and ecology, and it creates an ease and flow for all systems involved, as it doesn’t yank or strain any one system.

Merriam Webster may put it as “an agricultural system or method that seeks to integrate human activity with natural surroundings so as to create highly efficient self-sustaining ecosystems.

While many have the notion that “going green” is difficult and requires more time and effort than necessary, I found the solutions encountered through a permaculture lens to be profoundly… basic.

Modeling our human-made settlements after the natural ecosystem of our environment, so that everything can flourish, is just so intuitive, so… un-American. After all, it seems we will do anything possible to avoid simplicity and ease.

My experience with permaculture in Costa Rica reminded me of some radically simple solutions:

– Growing and harvesting our own food. We grew a variety of food and spices at the farm: ginger, beans, vanilla, potatoes, all spice, papaya, lemongrass, mangoes, cinnamon, you name it. We blended up fresh almonds to make almond milk, and created our own chocolate from harvesting cacao.

Creating a biodigestor for scrap food. In the biodigestor, scrap foods will ferment and produce a gas, which can power other areas of living: cooking, lighting, etc.

Digging swales for maximized water flow. Enhancing the natural routes in which water already flows, and growing food along these routes, allows for the best possible use of water.

-Composting. Food Scraps can be composted to create rich fertilizer for plants and gardens. (As you can see, a common theme of permaculture is taking waste and converting it to new sources.)

If permaculture lived inside the box, it would look like a very complex equation between plants and animals and humans per square inch of land in order to equal complete sustainability and synchronicity.

But often we don’t see that nature already lays this foundation for us. Exhibit A: The vanilla vine needs shade and likes to climb, and cacao trees provide the perfect girth and height for the vine, creating the perfect symbiotic relationship between chocolate and vanilla. The opponents of the inevitable first date question grow together. Who knew?

Max continually reminded us that with permaculture, nothing is impossible, our only limits lie in the mind, and he used this specific example:

We cannot feed everybody in the world. (False!) 11% of the worlds rooftops could provide all the food for everyone in the world. Permaculture screams, WAKE UP! Lets utilize space and resources, and grow food on top of the rooftops! Nature provides us everything we need, problems are solutions, done.

I find that the principals of permaculture can not only be applied to nature, but the way in which we live. As we are constantly careening in and out of each others lives, we must remember that we are connected to everything else, and the more diverse webs we create, the better.  Most importantly, we have all the solutions, and in order to find these solutions, we must first be mindful and embrace simplicity and abundance.

[I traveled to Costa Rica with Volunteers for Peace (VFP). To read more about VFP, check out my previous blog post http://wordsofawanderer.com/2012/03/08/volunteers-for-peace/ or visit their website at http://www.vfp.org/ ]


  1. Lisa O'Connell | 17th Jun 12

    Amazing pictures. They really bring out the true meaning of permaculture.

  2. Grethe Rundquist | 17th Jun 12

    Very insightful. The concept is so simple, yet so functional. Now to find a way to bring these solutions to the masses. Also, beautiful pictures, Casey!

  3. Deanna O'Connell | 18th Jun 12

    Great article! I like the chocolate and vanilla example.

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