Tagorean Veganism and Permaculture

The idea behind Tagorean Veganism is very simple. ‘Tagorean’ means it is about relocalisation: one village, neighbourhood, or even one home garden at a time. The ‘ism’ in ‘Veganism’ indicates that there is a principle involved. It is about growing perennial plant foods as locally as possible and cooking them at home for delicious meals. In my experience, this needs local infrastructure to be built, which is a complex process requiring considerable time and effort, and also considerable funds …

… unless one belongs to an intentional community where people expect to exchange materials and skills with each other – and that brings us to the permaculture story, or rather, my own permaculture story.

I tend to avoid writing about my own experiences and actions. This could be due to shyness or modesty, or to avoid criticism, perhaps for not doing enough to ‘practice what I preach’. The last point is an interesting one, not only for me but for many people with strong views. It is a complex point which includes questions on what qualifies as ‘practice’. Is writing a letter to one’s MP ‘practice’? Is going on a demo? Joining a political party? Or must practice be personally life changing? There are also questions about the value of voicing one’s views. Is telling others what needs to change more or less valuable than setting an example which may or may not be noticed and followed by anyone else? Is there perhaps a question of balance between telling and doing? My permaculture story, which I’ll tell now, is relevant to that debate. Permaculture should be about practice, not preaching, and it has not been wholly or sufficiently that way for me – which may change due to being spurred on by the idea of Tagorean Veganism.

I begin my permaculture story with the work I was doing for eight years before I first heard of permaculture thirty years ago. That work and its frustrations made permaculture such an exciting revelation to me that disillusionment was almost bound to set in. It involved a life changing shift from having strong views and voicing them in the usual ways,[1] to doing something much more active. Such a shift is a crucial part of what I am calling Tagorean Veganism, Tagore himself certainly went through such a change in the 1890s when he was put in charge of managing the family estates.[2]

I’ll begin with a souvenir of the work I was doing almost forty years ago. It is a photo of four pieces of flipchart paper from a talk I gave. There is no date or indication of the venue and audience. They survived by accident. The work I did involved talks followed by discussions, when I used to write people’s contributions on flipchart paper, type it all up later and send the group a record of our discussion. Usually I then put the flipchart paper in the recycling, but somehow these pages survived, got taken with us when we moved house in 1999, put in the loft with stuff for sorting later, then brought down and put in the garage when the loft had floors put in, and rediscovered during a recent purge of the garage.

All those years ago, I had been researching and teaching on land degradation, having woken up to the damage that agriculture has caused ever since it was invented a few thousand years ago,[3] long before its impact began to surge a century ago due to fossil fuels, big machinery and agrochemicals. In the 1980s I was active in a local support group of Friends of the Earth (FoE) and also spent time as a volunteer at FoE Head Office. I was on FoE’s national speakers list and was regularly invited to give talks about ‘environmental issues’ in schools, colleges and adult discussion groups. I used to bring land degradation into my presentations, even when I was asked to talk about other topics.[4] Looking back with my question of what qualifies as ‘practice’ in mind, I feel some pride in my talks. I built up a considerable collection of slides – physical framed film ones in those days – and for each group I put together a presentation from these to show and talk about. I remember driving on dark evenings to each new venue, annoying other drivers by creeping along and peering at road names, getting there and heaving my screen, stand and projector, and flipchart board out of the boot, setting it all up while people trickled in. The slides showed examples from around the world of deforestation, soil erosion, desertification, floods and droughts, siltation of rivers and seas. This was followed by the usual coffee break, then discussion – the most important part in my view. I often started with three key questions: ‘Does this matter?’, ‘What needs to change?’ and ‘What can I do?’ – ‘this’ referring to the damage, and ‘I’ meaning each of us.

After a few of these talks I dropped the ‘Does this matter?’ question because people just used to say ‘Of course it does!’ People engaged enthusiastically with ‘What needs to change?’, usually coming up with ‘attitudes’, and their ideas for changes in local and national government policy. Curiously enough, ‘more recycling facilities’ was often put forward, even when there was no obvious connection with what I had shown and talked about. Similarly with ‘What can I do?’, where ‘recycle my bottles and newspapers’ was a favourite. What seldom came up, despite my hints, was any suggestion that where our food came from might have anything to do with the land degradation I showed in my slides – although occasionally someone would accuse me of preaching vegetarianism, despite my always being careful not to preach on that or anything else. The important thing for me was that people were interested and did respond, and I wrote down every contribution on the flipchart paper, typed it all up later and sent the group a record of our discussion. For each of these events, I made sure that after the disturbing pictures and serious talk, I was bright and encouraging for the discussion, to convey the impression that the problems were challenges. But afterwards, realising how alienated these people were from the effects of their consumption – and those who came to my talks at least had some connection to FoE – I had bouts of quite deep depression, caused, I think as a reaction to switching on artificial brightness in an effort to encourage ideas about what we could try to do to save the world.

I have already written more than I like to do about myself, but that episode is something I am proud of despite it being a drop in the ocean, just raising a little bit of awareness. I remember the talks I gave every six months to a local probation hostel, when there was a new intake. The residents had committed serious crimes, and they really ‘got it’ when I told them of the destruction of tropical rain forests to produce cheap beef and palm oil. Those bad boys actually chuckled at the thought that this legitimate activity was a worse crime than anything they had done. I was careful with my talks to children in the impressionable age band 7 to 13, who were old enough to understand, and not yet too ‘cool’ to take an interest, so they ‘got it’ and might be deeply disturbed. I was often invited to talk to sixth formers, for the secular slot (called PSRE or PSHE) that had replaced religious education, and I was interested in the contrast between the confidence and responsiveness of students in a local public (fee paying) school, and the bored apathy of those from the comprehensives. I could go on… but I gave up those talks on discovering permaculture in 1990.

I was excited about permaculture – in the original sense of ‘permanent agriculture’ – because it was about reinventing agriculture. Our food and other needs would be met from diverse, local, perennial polycultures, instead of from remote and impermanent, annual monocultures, with the degradation they cause. This all looked possible back in the 1990s, when there were permaculture courses and teachers, a challenging Diploma programme, books, newsletters, local and national groups, sharing ideas and practical experience, a favourite of mine being The Permaculture Plot with designs and descriptions of plots around the country, many of which you could visit. Our own ‘mini-forest garden’ was in the 1996 edition. It is often said that permaculture is a design science, and not just an approach to gardening, and as such it is applicable to social and personal and every other kind of problem; it is ‘permanent culture’ too. This emphasis on design seemed to me to weaken the drive for changes in food production. In particular, it meant that the opportunity was missed of reaching out with these ideas and practices to the twenty million or so gardeners in the UK and the ten million acres of land they had access to. The consequence of my disappointment with the direction permaculture took was a semi-detached engagement for nearly thirty years. This is a brief summary of my formal permaculture involvement:

Full Permaculture Design Course 1991
Life Member of Permaculture Association UK
Participated in local and national Association events such as Convergences
Trustee of the Association 2003 to 2007
Consultant Editor of Permaculture Magazine from 1992 to 2006
Permaculture Ambassador from 2014
Managing Trustee of Plants For A Future (pfaf.org) from 2005 to present (2018). PFAF provides free access to the internationally recognised database of 7700 unusual useful plants, originally established as a permaculture project by Ken Fern in 1989.

During the same period I studied for and was awarded three university degrees including a PhD for my research into Tagore’s books of lectures. I kept informed and campaigned on social and ecological concerns and kept to a strict green/ethical lifestyle regime.

In 2018, looking back thirty years at the efforts I made to raise awareness, and all the voices saying that attitudes in particular needed to change, it is sad and ironic to see that most people are still alienated from the effects of their consumption on distant land and nature. There has recently been a new wave of excitement about recycling. Now it is plastics we agitate about, when it used to be glass and paper, which are now collected, so that is some progress in an otherwise vastly worse problem area. The potential for an alternative permanent agriculture, which got me so excited back then, has not been realised, the old kind still being with us and its effects more devastating than ever.

Nowadays one hears the word permaculture being used and apparently understood as working with rather than against nature, as meeting human needs with no-dig gardening and mixed systems of trees and crops. Permaculture as a network is thriving but it is not mainstream and hasn’t reached those twenty million or so gardeners in the UK and their ten million acres of land. In an article in Permaculture Magazine in 2015, Mark Boyle suggested that for permaculture to be successful at scale, it is necessary to integrate politics into permaculture discourse.[5] In one of my blog posts as a Permaculture Ambassador in 2014, I too made an argument for permaculture to get political in order to apply the ethical principle known as ‘fair shares’ to addressing the gross social inequalities in the UK and the world.[6]

I no longer have any faith in politics, not least because of the populist uprising in 2016 which brought about the Brexit result and the election of Donald Trump. My disillusionment has an equivalent for Tagore, who saw his leading role in the Swadeshi movement of 1903-08 against British government plans to Partition Bengal, as an opportunity to persuade absentee landlords in Calcutta to join him in reviving village economies – to achieve desirable social reform at scale. At that Tagore failed and returned to his local scheme of reform ‘one village at a time’. In the UK in 2018 there are few if any villages comparable to those in Bengal a century ago. Villages here are patches of scattered suburbia, dependent on supermarkets – and increasingly online shopping – supplied by globalised industries and transportation systems. The scope for relocalisation has to be brought right down to household level, and one home garden at a time.

One Home Garden at a Time

The UK has a long tradition of home gardening, which has often included growing food. The usual arrangement was a vegetable patch at the end of a long and narrow back garden, with rows of annual crops, perhaps also a few fruit trees and soft fruit bushes. Housing estates used to be designed accordingly, but nowadays the aim is for high density and gardens are often tiny. With permaculture as an approach that need not be a problem, and very high yields have been obtained on plots with size and also other restrictions. The garden of our home has challenges too. It is on a steep slope and exposed to quite high winds. We are no longer young and fit so accessibility is also an issue. The solution has to be terracing, and we were pleased to have the means and the opportunity of employing local people with the requisite skills, and have them use locally sourced materials. Some time ago we had three level beds constructed in our top garden. This year we had two new beds at the front, one with a substantial pond. The latest addition to our infrastructure is a robust cabin with big windows, a plant house, at the very top of the site. The plan now, with our long involvement with Plants For A Future in mind, is to plant as many species as we can from the book on Edible Perennials. The aim is to show how growing vegan-organically a diverse combination of largely perennial plants can provide a variety of fruit and vegetable ingredients all the year round for cooking delicious vegan dishes. This will be our demonstration of Tagorean Veganism in practice.

 

[1] I was brought up socialist, pacifist and environmentalist, and over the years I joined the corresponding groups and political parties and worked for them in any time I could spare from work and family.

[2] See Tagore’s poem ‘Call Me Back to Work’ (tagoreanworld.co.uk/?page_id=92).

[3] The book which showed me that farming – which was ‘organic’ until a century ago – destroyed forests and ruined soils from the advent of the earliest civilisations was Vernon Gill Carter and Tom Dale, Topsoil and Civilization, revised edition (University of Oklahoma Press, 1974 (1955))

[4] Recycling was a favourite topic in the 1980s when local authorities were beginning collections of glass and paper. The Greenhouse Effect was beginning to dominate environmental discussions even then, this future threat taking attention away from destructive activities already present.

[5] Mark Boyle, ‘Permaculture and Politics’, https://permaculture.co.uk/articles/permaculture-and-politics [accessed 15/11/18]

[6] Chris Marsh, ‘Permaculture and Politics’, http://permacultureambassadors.blogspot.com/2014/02/permaculture-and-politics.html [accessed 18/11/18]

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Posted in environment, land, permaculture, Rabindranath Tagore, rural reconstruction, social reform, Transition movement | Leave a comment