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Robyn Francis Reflects on two decades of Permaculture – how it has changed my world view

A Radio Essay commissioned by ABC Radio Eye, 1996

I first heard about Permaculture in 1977. I’d just returned to Australia from 5 years in Europe and Asia studying traditional cultures and farming practices.

I had concerns for the environment and the ideals of the alternative movement of the 60’s and 70’s.

For the next 6 years I co-owned a rural property and organic herb farm on the NSW mid-north coast. I experimented with ideas from the permaculture books but it was only after I’d left the farm and completed a Permaculture design course in ’83, that I realised how deficient and incomplete my understanding of permaculture had been.

The two week course opened up a whole new world of opportunities and possibilities – new ways of thinking, of making lateral connections, of creative problem solving and facilitating change.

I saw the landscape, the patterns and processes of nature, and human potential with new eyes and new insights.

What surprised me most was my new picture of the city.
Where I once saw only an ecological disaster zone of too many buildings, cars, people and pollution, I now saw acres of roof-tops with the potential to support gardens
– walls and fences waiting for vines to clamber over them to soften the hard surface landscape
– hectares of useless lawns and unutilised parkland that could be oases of food production; community gardens, orchards, forests and city farms
– and in incredible wealth of wasted resources that could be composted as nutrients to sustain production.

I realised that self-reliance was not dependent upon having acres of land in the country – that the urban environment had the space and resources to produce a lot of its own food.

I moved to Sydney and based my permaculture work there for the next five years. As one individual I knew I could not change the city but I could train, inspire and empower people living in the city to change.

I began with my own environment and within two months was eating most of my vegies organically grown from my tiny 6×8 meter rented backyard in Petersham. It was through this garden that I discovered the productive potential of small spaces and the importance of practical models.

A presentation on this garden in India inspired Dr Venkat to introduce a kitchen garden programme with landless laborers in malnourished rural villages which transformed the health and quality of life of thousands of families in the Deccan, and his work, in turn, has inspired others. I leant the value of the ‘power of one’.

Beyond gardens, farms, and forests, it was the big picture of permaculture that really excited me, the integration of the invisible structures of society in design – of responsible social and economic systems to support both human needs and the environment.

The design of human settlements and eco-villages struck a special chord, particularly when I visited Village Homes in California – seeing the concepts I was teaching as a living, working reality – a suburb designed as a productive village.

I wandered along the footpaths and cycleways meandering under a closed canopy of heavily laden almond, apricot, and peach trees. On either side, edible landscapes graced the passive solar houses, interspersed with comunity gardens, vineyards and orchards.

The interconnected overlays of landform, productive systems, hard and soft technology, and social patterns of Village Homes made a great impression on me and gave me a working model to aspire to.

Aspire to rather than imitate – a successful project should not be reduced to a new formula – a new dogma. Permaculture has successfully challenged my dogmas. I have learnt to look at the quality of thought that has combined the elements, harnessed the potential and dealt with the inherent constraints of a situation to produce a working sustainable design.

Permaculture has given me both a philosophy and a practical methodology that enables me to draw on all my skills and talents in doing work that holds great challenge, that gives immense personal satisfaction as well as the knowledge that I’ve contriuted to something greater than myself.

I have found that the simple yet profound principles of nature apply to my personal life and development, that they enrich my understanding of myself, the world and human nature.

I have learned to be patient, to hold a long term vision and to be pragmatic about the short term needs and constraints of a situation.

There is no single perfect solution, but many ways to address an issue. It’s a matter of selecting what is appropriate at the time, then monitoring, and adjusting the system as it evolves.

As I look back over the past 13 years of my permaculture work I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude that life has offered so many opportunities for so much challenging, interesting and ground-breaking work.

Bill Mollison had an immense vision and faith in human nature – without introducing the permaculture training programme, empowering people to get out there and do it, empower others – Permaculture would have just been another interesting book that came out of the generational shift of the sixties and seventies.

Here was a man with the vision to provide us with the inspiration, direction and practical groundrules to turn our lives and energy around to become a part the solution. That is why permaculture is where it is today – because it has cultivated human potential.

Now we have two decades of working systems, of working solutions.
Once permaculture was out there on the fringe, now the mainstream is beginning to swim with us.

I think the challenge now for permaculture is to work more effectively within the mainstream yet at the same time to keep on pushing the edges, continue to pioneer new frontiers of creative thought, effective change and forge new partnerships of cooperative enterprise in the development of a sustainable future.

Robyn Francis, 1996