Leaving the World Better Than You Found It

South prairie at GilChrist retreat center in Three Rivers, Michigan

The south prairie at GilChrist retreat center.

According to the textbook for my Permaculture Design Certification course, permaculture is a term coined in the 1970s by two Australian visionaries named Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Bill and David were seeing the environmental destruction and corporate degradation of our natural world well before the rest of us and knew that something needed to be done. Their response evolved into something that would integrate various systems: ecologic, economic, and even interpersonal ways of understanding our world. They wrote a book and sparked a movement that would grow for 30 years before really catching on. Permaculture hasn't taken over just yet, but it's on its way, and my fellow students and I are one of a very small percentage attempting to learn and proliferate this new way of seeing and understanding the world.

Bill Wilson, the lead instructor at Midwest Permaculture, tells us that permaculture has a hundred definitions, but the first one he wants us to know is a simple one: permaculture is leaving the world better than when we found it.

This is so simple that part of me wants to dismiss it. Where's the long, scientific answer that I would expect to hear at a university lecture? Give me complication or give me death!

However, it is, in some respects, that simple. At GilChrist, our tradition is for guests to prepare their cabins for the next visitor. This is an act of respect, of gratitude, and of reverence for time spent in peace and solitude. As a caretaker at a spiritual retreat center, I take this tradition and practice to heart. I don't ask for anything more complicated, and when I realize that what Bill is saying is merely a matter of scale, it makes perfect sense. We are on this planet for a short time, the blink of an eye in cosmic terms. That we have wrought such desecration so completely in that span makes humanity a personification of the atom bomb. We came. We saw. We made a mess. But it's not too late.

Permaculture is a recognition that we are caretakers of this mass of land, and ocean, and sky, and that it is necessary for us to tidy up, sweep the floors of debris, wipe the counters down, and hope that when our children come to inhabit the space that has sustained us, that they can recognize the love, respect, and spirituality of our caretaking.

That's the elevator speech for permaculture. When Bill Wilson gave us the simple definition, it was the lid on a much larger treasure chest of actions, practices, and information on this topic and movement. Over the next week, Bill would give us very specific instructions on just how to take care of this planet and leave it in better shape than it is now. These strategies include water retention, growing healthy plants, designing entire landscapes with sustainable strategies in mind, and other standards and practices too complicated to sum up in a single phrase. By the end of the course, we were full to the point of oversaturation. And though much of this knowledge has been filed away in strange places in my brain that I can only access when prompted with very specific questions, there's an important bit of knowledge that is easy to access. I can now answer the question: "What is permaculture?" It only takes a sentence, and it opens up a conversation that could save us all.  

David C. Stewart is a writer, farmer, past-times bartender, sometimes librarian, gardener, learner, reader, game player, food lover, beer drinker, and many other things, including caretaker at GilChrist, the Fetzer Institute's retreat center in Three Rivers, Michigan