Striking at the Root: A Life in Permaculture Design

by Jason Gerhardt

I came to Permaculture through a combination of hope and desperation. After growing up with street violence, early death, and urban entropy as central themes of my life, I hoped the rest of life wasn’t going to be such a fleeting affair. With that single point in mind, I became desperate for something that would equip me to alter the trajectory of human culture.

I revisit my original motivation for Permaculture often. For me, it’s not about food production or watershed repair or any of the other “things” I do. It’s about developing a fundamentally different way of being alive. The only way we will develop greater permanence in human culture is by profoundly changing who we are. We know well that we can’t apply the same ways of being to our lives and magically manifest a different result. Paradigm change, then, is our only hope for a better life. How do we make the shift? Fortunately, Permaculture Design provides a pathway.

The Ground

I discovered Permaculture while training at a Zen monastery. Nineteen years ago and then a teenager fresh off the city streets, I found myself surrounded by mountains, rivers, and wildlife in Vermont and immersed in a traditional Vietnamese Buddhist culture at that. Everything was unfamiliar, yet I adapted. I threw myself into snowdrifts, trekked in the forest by moonlight, meditated beside beaver ponds, and foraged mushrooms and fiddleheads with monks. My experiences during these years confirmed the plasticity of my existing paradigm. It also exposed me, through a book on gardening, to the philosophy and methodology of Permaculture that I would carry with me for nearly two decades.

After leaving the monastery, I found my way to an Ecological Design course, and subsequently a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) in 2004. Reading Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual (PDM), I wrote critiques in the margins. Steeped in Zen for so long, I was struck by how materialistic Bill seemed. Aside from the first couple of chapters, the PDM read to me at the time as an instruction guide for Earth repair. By contrast, I was interested in culture repair more than forming an army of planetary surgeons running around trying to fix everything. Regardless, there was something embedded within Permaculture that I could not discount.

After my first courses, I wasted no time. I dove into a life of designing and building food gardens, water harvesting systems, and green buildings. Practicing on properties I rented, then friends’ yards, a couple farms, a New York ecovillage, and my college campus in Arizona, I made a lot of mistakes I never would have learned to avoid had I not played and trialed in so many places.

For five years I worked mostly on small sites, never accepting pay for my work. I felt responsible both to Permaculture and to the people and lands I worked with. I couldn’t pretend to be an overnight expert post-PDC. That kind of amateur zeal seemed too shallow. I would work my way through mistakes to get results, and use the results to gain success.

After college, the people who became my first clients approached me as regulars at the sprawling farmers’ market stall I helped run in Boulder, Colorado. They invited me over to an extravagant dinner in exchange for a consultation walk around their yard. I was delighted. I recalled a Zen saying I once heard, “You’ll know you have something to offer when you are asked to offer it.” And so it began.

I quickly went from consultations-for-dinner to other projects, as I saw there was real demand for permaculture-inspired landscaping where I lived. I also needed a new income stream after the farm I worked on caught herbicide drift from a neighboring monoculture, voiding our organic certification, and ending the enterprise in a lawsuit. Almost immediately, I began practicing professional design/build on private residences all over the Front Range. In five years of residential work, I learned a lot about land regeneration techniques commonly espoused in permaculture circles, as well as how a designer typically works with clients. I also learned about the limitations of these approaches. That’s when I felt my Permaculture practice had begun to ripen.

We usually have more to learn in disappointment than in excitement. As we begin to grasp permaculture, there can be a tendency to evangelize. The ideas are heady, but the ardor and zest of youthful confidence aren’t yet rooted in experience. With high hopes, we get to work, and some of those hopes get dashed. Depending on one’s outlook, that can be a beautiful thing.

For me, it fit right into my design for growth. After all, I had set a tall task for myself—regenerating human culture. Nothing less would answer my original quest.

On the one hand, I was building the most beautifully productive landscapes I could imagine, but on the other, I grew to feel that these creations weren’t adequate to transforming life in the ways needed. Food forests, rain gardens, regenerated soil, pollinators buzzing about—these are the tracks of a healthy culture, but they lag behind the actual steps being taken. They are firmly material: prone to degeneration, erosion, and entropy.

For the most part, during my early professional design/build years, I fabricated landscapes out of predetermined visions and techniques. This, I felt at the time, was what the Designers’ Manual directed me to do. I was a landscape pharmacist, filling prescriptions for every site. But just as prescriptive medicine often fails to address the underlying causes of dis-ease, so too, I learned, does the same approach to design.

Please don’t misunderstand me: ecologically designed landscapes are awesome in the truest sense of the word. I’ve found incredible value through them, and I’d never minimize the importance of that work. The fervor I had for Permaculture-inspired landscaping was essential to my becoming a Permaculturist. It was a gateway to further growth, keeping me true to my original intentions, and I still create ecologically designed landscapes all over the country, but my approach has changed.

The People

It took me ten years to figure out that human culture deserves more focus than the land. This goes directly against Mollison’s directive that the Earth is our primary client. In fact, it’s the root of my critique of Mollison’s materialistic focus. I’ve discovered that land has an incredible capacity to regenerate and grow with the intentional actions of people. The reverse is also true—people’s actions have a profound capacity to destroy the land. I began to see culture as the limiting factor in Permaculture.

This all turned for me on a project in 2011. My work was moving to bigger scales, and a suburban project came my way that represented a diversionary scale-back I wasn’t sure about. Walking up to the client’s door in a cookie-cutter subdivision with extreme clay soils and a strict homeowners association, I glanced around the landscape thinking, “What a tiny spit of land they have to work with.” I wasn’t into it.

But when they opened the door to greet me, I was reminded how much I liked these people. The husband and wife had been in my Permaculture classes, so I felt comfortable with them, and they with me. This comfort allowed us to explore more widely than plug and play design. I was able to really see into this family. My most valuable discovery was the whole family was craving to engage with nature, especially their young daughter. In the end, they helped dig water-harvesting earthworks and planted the food forest with my crew. Together, we transformed their small suburban site into a little slice of paradise.

Over the years, I noticed these clients, who became friends, changed through their interaction with the landscape. Their yard was so small that they deeply cherished what we had created. At the least, the family healed from nature deficit disorder. At a wider look, neighbors started emulating the transformation in their yards. The homeowners association gave us the Star Yard of the Year Award, and eventually, the family left the site behind for a home more deeply immersed in nature. These are the beginning tracks of cultural transformation.

I also noticed how I was changing through the project. I saw that my landscape work had a lot less to do with the land than with the people. I got closer to what led me into permaculture in the first place.

The people problems of my childhood which had led me to permaculture weren’t problems with individuals (though they can certainly show up that way)—they were problems with our cultural paradigms. After working with the land for a long time, I realized I could spend my whole life building beautifully engineered ecosystems, but if the dominant paradigm of disconnection and exploitation was still in play, the transformation I wanted to help create would never take root.

Integrating

My design practice has a lot more intimacy in it these days. I want to know my clients, to pry open their lives a little, gently and patiently, of course. I view my job as equipping people to make the changes they seek in their lives and relationship with the land, while providing encouragement and resources to see beyond the limits of their imposed ideas.

The typical list of “wants” that a client presents has proven to be a light first place to start. These lists show projects are more often about the client’s growth than the land. Even in the design stage, the land is their practice center as they work on themselves.

For example, a client may say, “I really like berries, and it would be great to have berries for breakfast most days of the year.” As a designer, I have to guide them through a series of questions to get from the imposed detail of a berry garden to the bigger pattern. It’s likely they’re seeking health and happiness with a berry breakfast most days. And it’s likely that search is the bigger pattern for the project. With a focus on health and happiness instead of edible landscaping, many more doors for transformation suddenly open. And yes, some people do just want a berry patch, which is better than none at all, but as a Permaculturist, I’m not the person to simply give them what they desire without deeper levels of inquiry.

I now view Permaculture quite literally as meaning greater permanence in human culture. Integrated design is the process and practice to get us there. Our work must go beyond prescriptive landscape design and farm master planning to succeed. Fortunately, many more practitioners now share this view, so Permaculture is expanding beyond basic material solutions.

Small-scale residential projects were the best proving ground I could have practiced on. I’ve been able to take the lessons from working with one or two people at a home and use that to inform my approach to community scales with urban planning projects, educational campus design, cooperative land use, and agricultural enterprise development. The past seven years of this work has involved a lot more education, collaboration, social navigation, and professional-level work—all skills I’ve had to learn as I go, with the goal to impact human culture as a whole.

Today I work with a truly diverse array of clients, from social justice activists in crumbling inner cities to religious farming families struggling in rural America. Each project feels fresh with potential, and each client’s story brings a greater understanding of the lasting culture we are developing.

What’s Next?

Permaculture provides a pathway to transform the world. To realize its potential, we have to use design as an empowering and transformative process for our clients and ourselves, together with the land itself.

We also have to continually upgrade our frameworks, learning from the wider community of practitioners that has grown from the idea of regenerative culture. There is a lot of movement in this space, and we can all learn from each other whether we call our work Permaculture, Regenerative Design, Living Systems Design or draw from any of the many other diverse and contributing fields. To use a metaphor from the Buddha, these are all fingers pointing at the same moon. Let’s keep our eye on the prize.

Culture change doesn’t happen overnight. I see a long road ahead. In the face of real threats to our survival on Earth and with each other, I hope we can take each step along this road deliberately and have faith that despite the daily chaos in the world, we have a path to follow, and we got this.

Jason Gerhardt serves as director of the 20+-year-old Permaculture Institute Inc. He is the founder of Real Earth Design, where he strives to make Permaculture as accessible and authentic to real life as possible. He can be contacted at jason@permaculture.org.