Last weekend I took a bus ride up to Epworth Camp in High Falls, NY to drop in on a Permaculture Design Certification course taught by Geoff Lawton. Geoff is an internationally-recognized permaculture expert who has overseen projects all over the globe, from soil restoration at a former refugee camp in the Balkans to creating a food forest in the Jordanian desert. I had heard that this course will be the last one he teaches for some time, as his services are much in demand from governments and communities around the world; so it seemed worth the trip to see what was going on up in High Falls.
I generally feel like a fish out of water in the country, with few skills to offer in an outdoor setting. The truth is, while I love the IDEA of composting my food scraps, I am still somewhat intimidated when confronted with an ACTUAL pile of steaming horse manure, even though it is a crucial component of the process and therefore Special. My biggest contribution was tearing up cardboard boxes for sheet mulch, while scanning my pant legs for ticks. But despite non-starter status in the realm of farming, I was truly captivated by Geoff’s lecture about the chemistry behind soil renewal, the promise of farming without pesticides, the ability of natural systems to remove toxins from soil and water, and the potential to make design serve humans and the environment equally. As he stated more than once, our species has the potential to do as much GOOD as we have already done BAD… translation: we have screwed the planet up, yes, but we can also fix it!
So my question once again is how to translate these concepts into an urban setting, with its specific needs and agenda. Collecting rainwater in the city has less to do with irrigation than with Combined Sewer Overflow; composting food waste is less about making plant food than about NOT making massive quantities of garbage to be trucked off to a landfill at huge municipal expense. The “nutrient” byproducts of these efforts are a side benefit; the big payoff is in finding ways to relieve stress on our urban infrastructures, ever more burdened as cities grow denser. But the methods and practices are much the same, and whether you call this “permaculture” or “sustainability” or common sense, we’d be better off applying it now â€“ voluntarily â€“ than waiting until we are forced to. That is an effort I’d like to be part of.