Tagorean Permaculture – Diversity & SW Convergence

At the South West Regional Permaculture Convergence (SWRPC) on 9-11 June 2017, I learnt (or was reminded of) a great deal about the people now fondly referred at as ‘permies’. They – or we – are very diverse. Our level of commitment, depth and length of involvement, identification, understanding and practical application shows much variation.

On 12 June I wrote up my notes from the participatory session to discuss what a South West Network might look like, and undertook to write up other sessions later. However I didn’t write much in some sessions – and don’t now recall much detail. Most sessions ran in parallel, with my choice pointing to my particular interest in permaculture as a movement. I now feel that an overview may be more interesting. I had day tickets for Saturday and Sunday and didn’t stay for the evening events. I wish I had taken more pictures. I took some photos of presenters’ slides which didn’t come out well.

I really enjoyed the opening plenary on Saturday 10 June entitled ‘Regional Mapping & Network Session’. This was introduced and organised by Andy Goldring, Coordinator and CEO of the Permaculture Association in Leeds. (At the final session on Sunday afternoon Andy mentioned initial mutterings about why he was there leading a SW event, which changed over the weekend because he’s good at all this.) Regional Mapping is a way of getting people into smaller, more local groups to get to know each other, and compass points within SW was suggested, with Andy taking ‘not from SW’ people. My group was South, eight of us from South Devon, Dorset, Somerset and Hampshire. We had a lively go-round/discussion, on plots, problems with too few people, an overprotective local council, Duchy land, soils, edible (or not) plants, seeking land, working with Lush sustainability scheme, permaculture apps to link sites. I mentioned wanting to identify and trial edible perennials which are really easy to grow. Allium triquetrum, wild leek and Sedum spectabili, ice plant were suggested.

There were several parallel session during the rest of the day. I was torn between ‘No Dig Gardening’ and ‘Sagara: East Devon Forest Garden’, but decided on the latter because of my focus on perennials. The first challenge was to find the venue, a satellite barn called Clover, which I found, only to be told it was full of junk. I wandered around the area for a while, thinking I might go back to the main Greys barn for No Digging. But there were two marquees. As I dithered between the two I was asked if I wanted Biochar, I said no and was then told I was in the right place for East Devon Forest Garden. Sagara was the presenter, and he began with his own personal and spiritual journey from several years ago. He was a little apologetic about this and I began to wish I had opted for no-dig gardening, but when Sagara got to describing the 3 acre site the background made sense, and what was done was very impressive and inspiring. There were a lot of earthworks at the start, throughout the site – which began as a bare field, windswept but with good soil. The aim was to enhance microclimates, creating banks with a digger to make frost-free areas, dig a pond and surround that with a protective wall. The result was the opposite of a flat field, one feels held in the landscape, in outdoor living rooms, with maximum edge and interest. Sagara emphasised that he had done nothing to the site for the first two years, during which he carried out the design. Eric Toensmeier’s book was an important resource and inspiration – he read and studied it all. After the two years the site had 8 foot rye grass as green manure, rotivated in, nutrient recyclers. The site has 3 metre high banks, alcoves in the banks lined with stones, which absorb heat during the day, 26 degrees in summer through radiation and reflection. He has a lemon tree in an alcove which has fruited, it is like an orangery. Building the banks took a week, the hire of machinery costing £1000 – showing the benefit of fossil fuels. The site is an ornamental and forest garden, aesthetic and imaginative. The social yield is forage for lunch, and winter fruiting. It is low input, not fighting successions. The lower layers have been somewhat neglected so the main physical effort has been mowing. But now the site is feeding people off perennial vegetables. Sagara reminded us that 30-40% of our carbon footprint comes from supplying food, and in general ten times more energy is input for one unit out; 50% of inputs are wasted.

My choice for the next session was easy: Permaculture & Politics: Discussion with Maddy Harland, Andy Goldring and John Yates. I didn’t take notes but it was a lively discussion, with a feeling that everyone had been encouraged by the surge of support for Jeremy Corbyn. My contribution was to say it’s great to have a discussion of permaculture and politics, and to suggest we reclaim radical and much-misunderstood words: socialism, of course, and anarchism, recognising that this mean local participative democracy, not absence of organisation, and also communism. Localisation as a movement may mean giving up on the state and representative democracy – as was recognised by those – like Sylvia Pankhurst, surprisingly – who formed an ‘anti-parliamentary communism’ movement in 1920s and 30s.

After lunch I went to Mandy Barber’s talk on ‘Incredible Vegetables’, having visited her amazing site recently on behalf of Plants For A Future. Then I went to ‘Andy Goldring: Permaculture, sociocracy and changing the world’, followed by ‘Maddy Harland: Designing Enterprises with Permaculture’. On Sunday I attended Jay Tompt’s session on ‘South West Local Economic Networks – What roles does permaculture have to play?’.

What is Tagorean about Permaculture?

At the end of this report (below) I have listed the titles of all the sessions over the course of the 3-day convergence. The wide variety of topics illustrates the inherent diversity of permaculture, and admirers of Tagore will know that he believed in ‘unity through diversity’, which is a key idea in his book ‘The Religion of Man’ (1931) and a principle which was central to his practical projects in education and rural reconstruction in the 1920s-30s. Those dates are significant to Tagorean Permaculture because they are almost a century in the past. I am convinced that to bring about Tagorean world change we have to go back in order to go forward (http://tagoreanworld.co.uk/)). We have to be prepared to undo some of the so-called ‘progress’ and ‘development’ which has taken place since Tagore’s time.

When we examine Tagore’s lectures addressed to people in his own country and to the wider world, we see that he frequently warned about structures and systems brought in by the West, dictating how we should conduct our lives, and even determining our thoughts and feelings and sense of identity. Nationalism was often the explicit target of Tagore’s warnings, but nationalism was linked in Tagore’s mind with many other ‘isms’: commercialism, racism, institutionalism, professionalism, territorialism. Tagore deplored all oppressive and mechanical structures because they are dehumanising and alienating, and hinder or prevent creative cooperation at the local level.

I always have Tagore’s warnings in mind when considering proposals for world change, and this affected my reaction to two key presentations: Andy Goldring (AG) on ‘Permaculture, sociocracy and changing the world’ and Jay Tompt (JT) on ‘South West Local Economic Networks – What roles does permaculture have to play?’.

AG spoke about attending a ‘Global Challenges Convention’, and realising that there is a crisis of governance and also a crisis of imagination in the world, and a need for rules, norms etc. for acting together. AG quoted David Fleming: ‘Large scale problems do not require large-scale solutions; they require small-scale solutions within a large-scale framework.’

AG defines permaculture as ‘a goal-seeking design and implementation process inspired by nature, and bound by ethics’. In the 40 years since 1976, permaculture has reached most countries in the world, and people are doing extraordinary things with it. There are formal permaculture organisations in 126 countries, and 10-15 other countries with people engaging in permaculture but without any formal grouping. The governments in some countries have brought permaculture into important spheres of their national systems. For example, East Timor has adopted an education curriculum which includes permaculture.

AG sees this widespread recognition and use of permaculture as a ‘permaculture cake’ with all the ingredients assembled. The outstanding question then is how to mix and cook the cake – and that means and requires organising. The solution in AG’s mind is Sociocracy. ‘Sociocracy is a system of governance that applies the principles and methods of sociology, cybernetics and general management theory’. (wikipedia) It is a consent based decision making approach.

AG then used the term Permaculture Co-Lab or collaborative laboratory for a scheme to enable people to govern themselves, to work together, the idea being to put that online. He then drew a typical permaculture spider-diagram of the key elements, including (of course) sociocracy, plus various online platform and tools, connected to key projects, stewards and technicians.

Bearing in mind Tagore’s wariness about systems and institutions, I have wondered about the need for ‘rules and norms’, even for the ‘large-scale framework’ within which diverse small-scale solutions develop at a local level. I warmed to the idea of sociocracy when AG mentioned that it derives from Quaker business method. That would make it appropriate for the UK, where Quakerism originated, if we recognise that each part of the world has its own traditions and ways of doing things. We do know that a number of Quaker families were entrepreneurs, founding businesses and banks which have survived to the present day. This perhaps provides some justification for the ideas put forward by Jay Tompt on ‘South West Local Economic Networks – What roles does permaculture have to play?’, which otherwise I might have some concerns about. JT told us the background to his work with Transition Town Totnes, which one can read about online (http://reconomy.org/1-to-1-with-jay-tompt/). JT told us that he came from California eager to help people in this country start green businesses, but found English people resistant to that approach; it seemed not to be their/our way. I was reminded of the book The Restoration of the Peasantries: With especial reference to that of India (1939), where the author G.T. Wrench begins with his concern over the customs, laws and general outlook of the British being imposed on a country with very different traditions – for the sake of ‘progress’. Wrench begins his book with a quote from Goethe:

Only that is good for a nation which comes from its own core and from its own seed, without aping of another. For what is beneficial to one people at a certain historical stage, may perhaps show itself as poison to another. All attempts to introduce foreign novelty to a people in whom a need for the same is not deep within its heart are foolish, and all devices with this revolutionary intention are without success; for they are without God, who holds Himself aloof from such blundering. (Goethe’s Talks with Eckermann, January 4th, 1924.)

I’ll close this report with a list of all the topics which featured over the course of the convergence, which illustrates the diversity of permaculture in theory and in practice, and of permies as agents of radical world change.

Jack Everett: Bamboo and Wind Resistant Structures
A guide to making Biochar with Matt Ralston
Bob Mehew: Huxham Cross Farm – A community-owned permaculture and biodynamic project
Harriet Bell : Dartington Agroforestry Project
Sagara: East Devon Forest Garden
Maddy Harland: Designing Enterprises with Permaculture
Tomas Remiarz: Forest Gardening in Practice
Q&A With Maddy & Tim Harland
Helen Kearney: Herb Walk
Ffyona Campbell – The Hunter Gatherer Way
Mandy Barber: Incredible Vegetables
An Introduction to Permaculture: Marion Fanning, 2 sessions, Fri. & Sat.
Elisabeth Winkler: Looking for Land Whisperers
Jay Tompt: South West Local Economic Networks – What roles does permaculture have to play?
Daniel Thompson-Mills & Paul Boocock: Low Impact Living – The joys & challenges of living on the land
Anne Stobart: Designing a Medicinal Forest Garden
Peter Cow: The Art of Mentoring and Cultural Emergence
Steph Hafferty: No Dig Gardening
Building an online regional network : Discussion & Strategy Group
Wenderlynn Bagnall: Live and Talk Permaculture without the jargon
Permablitz with Wenderlyn and Iain Bagnall, 5 sessions, all on Saturday
Permaculture & Politics: Discussion with Maddy Harland, Andy Goldring and John Yates
Steph Hafferty: Garden Potion Making
Tess Wilmot: A Resourceful Permaculture Garden
Jane Gleeson: Growing Future Growers, Schumacher College
Anne-Marie Mayer: Applying permaculture in Science and International Development
Mark Biffen & Gisela Mir: All you need to know about seed saving
Alison Ensor: Love your Slugs, Snails and Weeds (walk starts here)
Klaudia Van Gool: Social Permaculture Design
Andy Goldring: Permaculture, sociocracy and changing the world
Caroline Aitken: Thinking like an Ecosystem
Matt Ralston: An Introduction to Upcycling
Sarah Pugh (Shift Bristol): Urban Permaculture
Nicky Scott: Waste = Food
Larch Maxey: Well Being & Permaculture
Yoga with Natalie Fox

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