Tagorean Permaculture

Recently I have found myself using the phrase ‘Tagorean permaculture’ without having thought through what that might mean. From my own perspective the meaning is straightforward. I see Tagore as the inspiration for an alternative future, a path back to the cooperative local community, with ‘life in its completeness’, self-reliant and self-governing as well as joyful and creative. I see permaculture: ‘permanent agriculture’ and ‘permanent culture’, with its ethical basis of ‘earth care, people care and fair shares’, as the potential solution to global land degradation and social breakdown, and the modern equivalent to Tagore’s vision and practice.

‘Tagorean permaculture’ will probably not mean much to other people. I could define it as I have just done, but I would have to provide examples, which is easy, because it was encountering examples which led to me using the phrase, and then I would generalise, identifying the features of the examples which illustrate the model.

The first example is Wishtree Agroforestry & Permaculture Centre, which I visited on 4 October 2017, and wrote up as a photo essay: http://www.pfaf.org/user/Research.aspx?id=312 . The second is an ecovillage in India: http://www.vikalpsangam.org/article/fed-up-of-city-life-this-51-year-old-is-building-an-eco-village-from-scratch/#.WgKXkGKCyAw .

Both these projects feature food forests, an approach to feeding people which I am sure would have appealed to Tagore, who has written about the birth of Indian civilization in the forests in harmony with nature.[1] Tagore wrote about forests being cleared for agriculture as part of the Sriniketan rural reconstruction work, and he instituted tree planting in and around Santiniketan. He was aware that large-scale agriculture to supply cities causes ‘the robbery of the soil’,[2] and he supported the idea of small farmers cooperating to buy and deploy agricultural machinery.[3] Such a model of village-scale mechanised organic mixed farming, interspersed with patches of newly planted woodland, may well be part of the what is needed for a sustainable future, but how much better if the two land uses could be combined into food forests. This would certainly require considerable modification of our diets, with less dependency on grains and domesticated livestock.

Another interesting feature of the two projects is their scale: both small, bringing to mind Tagore’s aim of showing what is possible in one or two villages to provide a model for the whole country.[4] The aim of the eco-village in India is to provide for around 1000 people on 20 acres of land. The permaculture plot in Devon is only 5 acres of challenging boggy woodland, and it would take some time before it could supply all the food needs of the two owners. Meanwhile, the idea is that visitors to the site and helpers will browse and gather and learn from the food plants introduced. The Indian eco-village also has a teaching role, with a 3-acre demonstration plot showing how people can grow ‘papaya, banana, coconut, and vegetable crops even in a very small area’, and also working with schools and aiming to replicate their eco-village model in other villages.

Both these projects identify with permaculture, and they use approaches and techniques commonly found in permaculture land based projects, such as guilds and swales, as well as food-yielding forestry. Neither project claims any link with Tagore, the cultural icon and poet, or with his philosophy and vision for social reform, or his approach to rural reconstruction. But what makes them Tagorean – to my mind – is that they are radical and revolutionary rather than reformist, and not associated with or dependent upon local or national government, funding schemes, the market or the cash economy, even if some activities involve local exchange and trading. However, again, I need to explain what I mean by Tagorean in that sense.

A century ago Tagore published a book called Nationalism, the text of lectures he had given in America and Japan in 1916. A reviewer called the book ‘The Protest of a Seer’. But Tagore was not only protesting about how national rivalries give rise to war. Nationalism is a 3-part story: first his condemnation of Western commerce and politics, and how they are dehumanising; then his concern about Japan emulating the West; and then his warning to India not to follow that path.

In the West the national machinery of commerce and politics turns out neatly compressed bales of humanity which have their use and high market value […] the Creator will find it difficult to recognize it as a thing of spirit and a creature made in his own divine image.[5]

Tagore believed that the Age of Nations would come to an end; power would become ‘ashamed to occupy its throne’ and the morning would come for ‘cleansing the bloodstained steps of the Nation along the highroad of humanity’.[6]  In his last talk, read for him shortly before he died in 1941, in near despair at another ghastly war, he concludes with hope for the future:

I look back on the stretch of past years and see the crumbling ruins of a proud civilization lying heaped as garbage out of history! And yet I shall not commit the grievous sin of losing faith in Man, accepting his present defeat as final. I shall look forward to a turning in history after the cataclysm is over and the sky is again unburdened and passionless.1

Tagore’s alternative was the cooperative local community, with ‘life in its completeness’, self-reliant and self-governing as well as joyful and creative. Politically that is anarchism. But Tagore did not expect his alternative to come about by first overturning the current system, and purging its politics and its economics, unlike prominent anarchists in history and our own time.[7]

There has been no sign of Tagore’s turning in history happening. During the birth centenary celebrations, twenty years after Tagore’s death, Bengali sociologist and economist, Sasadhar Sinha, in his book Social Thinking of Rabindranath Tagore, suggests that Tagore’s ideal of human unity ‘could only come when the present possibilities of compromise and reform had been completely exhausted’, and that this would involve ‘the disappearance of one’s own familiar world’.[8] In 2011, the 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth, there was still no sign of the turning in his hoped for direction, or the disappearance of the modern age he warned India against. Indeed, in that year Aseem Shrivastava, ecological economist, was writing his book Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India, about how, from the liberalisation of India’s economy in 1991, the country had followed the West, ‘threatening the future of India as a civilization’.[9]

And this is where Tagorean permaculture comes in! It is potentially radical and revolutionary, but does not need a ‘turning in history’ or a change of government. It has been said that ‘permaculture is revolution by organic gardening’, and many permies describe themselves as anarchists. I see Tagorean permaculture in small land-based projects as where fundamental change is seeded and takes root, rather than in diluted permaculture reform or transition, applied to some strand of personal or community activity. This is happening. There is hope. But we do need many more examples, to confirm that the two sites I have identified as Tagorean permaculture are viable models, capable of being replicated elsewhere, and to find other sites to show what is possible in different situations.

[1] ‘[I]n it was in the forests that our civilisation had its birth’. (Tagore, ‘The Relation of the Individual to the Universe’, in Sadhana: The Realisation of Life (London: Macmillan, 2013), pp. 1-22 (p. 4).))

[2] Tagore, Appendix II, in Leonard Elmhirst, Poet and Plowman (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1975), pp. 168-73 (p. 168).

[3] Tagore, ‘City and Village’, in Towards Universal Man, ed. by Humayun Kabir (London: Asia Publishing House, 1961), pp. 302-22 (p. 321).

[4] Tagore, ‘City and Village’, p. 322.

[5] Tagore, ‘Nationalism in the West’, in Nationalism (London: Macmillan, 2017), pp. 1-46 (p. 6).

[6] Tagore, ‘Nationalism in the West’, p. 46.

[7] Murray Bookchin comes to mind, an anarchist with all the right ideas, but with a Marxist revolutionary background and worked for a movement rather than a gradual change through radical practice (https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/janet-biehl-bookchin-breaks-with-anarchism).

[8] Sasadhar Sinha, ‘The Ideal of Human Unity’, in Social Thinking of Rabindranath Tagore (London: Asia Publishing House, 1962), pp. 43-53 (p. 53).

[9] Aseem Shrivastava and Ashis Kothari, Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India (New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2012), back cover blurb.

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