It Takes a Village … Find Yours!


By Steven Saint Thomas

The proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” is widely attributed to Africans but it reflects the experience of most humans around the world (and through the centuries) who have lived in villages.

The late permaculturist Toby Hemenway noted that cities, too, have been around for eons and have served people greatly in our needs for community, security and commerce. Hemenway wrote The Permaculture City in 2015 after having lived both in the off-grid countryside of southern Oregon and the city of Portland.

Now David Holmgren, the co-founder of permaculture, has published his blueprint for the sustainable suburb, RetroSuburbia: The Downshifter’s Guide to a Resilient Future.

Holmgren writes that suburbs are potentially the best of both worlds, a “sweet spot” between rural and urban living.

I think he’s right. Visiting Holmgren at his 2-1/2 acre homestead in central Victoria changed my life. I caught a vision of what you might call “Permie Paradise” – a family producing most of their own food and sharing the surplus with friends and neighbors doing likewise in the small Australian town of Hepburn Springs.

Now, one big difference between Australia and America is scale – only 24 million Australians have to share their continent and resources.

Hepburn Springs (population around 1,000) is what we Yanks would call a “village.” It is not part of sprawling, back-to-back suburbs with which city-dwelling Americans are familiar.

So I think it is crucial for urban and suburban permaculturists to break our high-density regions into, well, villages. Whether these villages have 400 people or 1,000, the point is they are neighborhoods where people can focus their efforts on localizing their food system and economy.

In the Zone
If you only read one section of The Permaculture City, read Chapter 5, “Strategies for Gardening in Community.” Hemenway applies permaculture’s “zone analysis” to the question of local food systems.

Zones reflect the frequency of use, the amount of time and energy, spent in various parts of a property. Zones are usually depicted as concentric circles moving out like ripples in a pond.

Zone 0 is where you live – usually a house – and Zone 1 are the grounds immediately surrounding it. Zone 5 is farthest away and often left alone as “wilderness” in permaculture design.

Hemenway asks us to map our foodsheds. Zone 1 would be food that we grow in our own gardens. Zone 2 would be community gardens or neighbors within walking/cycling distance where you could obtain food.

Food you can buy from a farmer’s market or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) schemes falls into Zone 3. The next zone represents grocery stores or other retailers that sell locally produced food.

Finally, Zone 5 includes corporate chains and big-box retailers selling food from all over the world. Hemenway advises, “Get as much of your food as possible from zones 1 to 3. The leap into a nation- or planet-sized foodshed occurs at zones 4 and 5, with industrial-processed and out-of-season foods bought at retail stores.”

Most of us find our eyes glazing over! Our food systems are completely upside-down, with very little coming from the inner zones and most of it from global, corporate sources.

Holmgren’s new book doesn’t use the word “foodshed,” but makes the central argument about survival in the near future: “Suburban food production capacity is a key factor in the adaptation of cities to challenging futures.”

Village Shift

In the past 20 years, I have lived in San Diego (3.4 million people), Colorado Springs (500,000) and now Humboldt Bay (88,000). All these areas are dependent on large, centralized systems to provide water, energy, food and transportation infrastructure.

They all can be broken down into villages. We launched our first “Village Shift Project” in Colorado Springs in 2015. The first step was mapping all the elementary schools.

Elementary school attendance areas are roughly the same in population and have already been drawn by a school district – a locally controlled governmental entity that gives intense attention to demographics.

The average city map will have elementary schools identified. A map of the Colorado Springs region (El Paso County, Colorado) revealed about 125 schools – approximately 125 villages. We highlighted them and put the map on a large piece of poster board.

Next, we recruited “Local Food Ambassadors.” We brought the map to farmer’s markets, environmental events and community fairs. People passionate about local food, gardening and building community were invited to plot their locations on the map with colored dots. Soon we had about 100 people plotted.

The dots on the map only had numbers, but we kept track of all the names and email addresses. As the weeks progressed, clusters of dots began to form. Some parts of town had many Local Food Ambassadors (LFAs), others had few or none.

Our team connected the dots – we invited people in clusters to meet for potlucks and form Village Food Councils for their neighborhoods. Soon we had like-minded folks sharing food, conducting gardening classes and trying to integrate backyard produce into the local farmer’s market.

Find Your Village
We are in the Humboldt Bay region now, trying to bring Village Shift to the communities of Eureka, Arcata, McKinleyville and Trinidad. This work includes helping edit the 2018 edition of the Local Food Guide, published by a small nonprofit called Locally Delicious.

A catalog of local food assets will help LFAs and other food leaders in assessing and improving the foodshed. No studies have been conducted to determine what percentage of the food on Humboldt tables is locally produced, but the potential is much greater than in Colorado Springs, where the list of farms, farmer’s markets, CSAs and locally made products barely fills two pages.

One great food asset in Humboldt is the North Coast Co-op, which boasts 13,000 members in the bay communities and operates two grocery stores (Eureka and Arcata). Almost every product made in the region can be found on the shelves and the stores even track local sales on the customer’s receipt.

We have proposed a “Co-op Neighbors” project, in which members would be invited to self-organize village groups. Like Village Food Councils, Co-op Neighbors would gather for potlucks, share cooking and gardening, even arrange carpooling to stores.

Our goal is to increase the access of local food in the inner zones. It’s all part of preparing for the impending impacts of climate change, food and energy shortages, and financial collapse.

“It’s incumbent on everyone to begin taking personal and household responsibility for reorganizing their lives to adapt,” writes Holmgren. “My proposals remain valid if you’re looking for better ways to live now, rather than working for a version of the future sold by corporations, media and political parties.”

The Liberation of Toby Hemenway

Toby Hemenway
Toby Hemenway
Permaculturist and author Toby Hemenway passed away Dec. 20, 2016.

By Steven Saint Thomas

When Toby Hemenway gave the keynote speech at last September’s North American Permaculture Convergence, I must admit I was a bit perplexed. I found his talk, “Permaculture for Liberation,” a pedantic little history lesson on horticulture.

Horticulture? Why not plug his latest book, The Permaculture City? That’s the present – the future! Why give a relatively drab academic overview of how humans moved from hunting and gathering societies to agriculture?

Three months later, Toby died suddenly from pancreatic cancer. When I learned he had been fighting the disease for more than a year, I went back over my notes from the convergence.

It all became clear. Toby had been giving this history lesson for the past decade. Despite the professorial tone, it was his most urgent message ever: civilization as we know it is headed for collapse and permaculture might be our best hope for survival.

“We’ve trashed every ecosystem we’ve ever used agriculture on for the last 10,000 years,” he said to the hundreds of permies and Transitioners gathered from around the continent. “We need to try a horticultural society – and permaculture has a tremendous amount of tools.”

Horticulture? Toby traced three stages of evolution in the way humans have secured their food. We started out foraging, then learned how to tend crops – or garden – and then became farmers.

Farming meant plowing and planting. Agriculture meant clearing land – usually by fire – and turning ecosystems into large-scale mono-crops. It required a lot of energy.

Most significant, agriculture gave rise to government. Yes, hierarchical, centralized systems were invented to control our newfound surplus.

“Lots of things happen when you learn how to store grain,” Toby said. “First, you need technologies to store it. You need to protect it. You need systems to measure and distribute it, rules and punishment.”

Toby said the word “lord” means “keeper of the grain.” In fact, from Old English to modern, “lord” is a contraction of “loaf ward,” the “one who guards the loaves.”

Lords and kings took control of land – which had always been considered communal – then decided they could own it as well. Kingdoms and states invented taxes and found grains easy to count and tax.

People Toby called “aggrandizers” – those tempted to take more than their fair share – could be tolerated, controlled or eliminated in small foraging communities. In larger centralized governments, aggrandizers not only amassed real estate but dangerous levels of power.

“A small group of people have taken control of the commons and they’re selling it back to us at an extremely high price,” he said.

Somewhere between foraging and agriculture, however, humans discovered horticulture. Hunter-gatherers learned enough about plant varieties to become gardeners. These societies used tools and small-scale equipment to cultivate a mix of crops.

Ecosystems were enhanced, not destroyed. Humans did this for at least 10,000 years.

Horticulturists from what we now call the Middle East, China and South America didn’t need real estate, beasts of burden, slavery, machines, massive amounts of energy, states or rulers to feed their people.

Toby said that permaculture is a modern path forward to a horticultural past.

“As permaculture designers, couldn’t we design a community to perform all the functions of a state without having to have a state?” he asked that night at the Solar Living Institute in California. “Couldn’t we reinstall the idea of the Commons?”

Toby’s vision has become even more clear to me as our current state enters a new era with a new president who, if nothing else, is starkly honest about how little rulers care about commons.

Large, centralized governments cannot solve the problems we face in the 21st Century. We must pioneer a path forward to the past, liberating ourselves and our troubled ecosystems.

And Toby believed this work is absolutely urgent.

“We need to try a horticultural society,” Toby said in conclusion. “The Transition Town Movement is an example of how permaculture can be used to create a recipe of solutions.”

Thanks, Toby. Go in peace!