Permaculture Design and the art of letting go of control

IMG_2124My introduction to permaculture was through doing a distance learning course about it when I was in prison. Working in a banal prison garden, permaculture became a sort of fantasy-escapism-therapy. I dreamt of overflowing gardens of produce, abundant food forests and deep rich soils. My formative ideas of permaculture weren’t grounded in pragmatic realism that a good teacher might convey in a face-to-face design course. When I got out, it was like finally – access to a playground. Unemployed and on benefits, I had plenty of time to build compost piles, make raised beds and pay attention to young seedlings in need of nurturing.

After finding work, my time available reduced and I just had to do my best in the time I had. Over the years the responsibilities continued to pile up. More paid work, ever-growing caring responsibilities supporting my family and people I love to die, intensifying numbers of prison visits for my friends left behind inside. I began to feel a sense of grief that I had lost this time on the land. I’d look out to my garden while working on the computer, contending with bureaucratic necessary evils. At this point, I still had the physical energy to try to do it all – gardening after work, waking up early to sow seeds, spending my day off each week on my hands and knees planting out and harvesting.

Finally, two years ago, I got sick. Really sick. In-and-out-of-hospital-weeping-regularly levels of pain and sickness. I could barely get out of bed let alone attend to any kind of garden. And so I developed a different relationship to the land; one where if I made it out to have a cup of tea outside, my day was a success. My herb garden, once my biggest source of pride and joy, became overgrown. Plants moved into paths, grasses invaded beds and I could not pull them out because of my inflamed rib cage. I just had to sit there and watch over time how certain plants dominated and these delicate-beautiful-heart-throb like plants who needed extra TLC to survive, they died. They were overwhelmed, just like me. It was like seeing the grief I was feeling in my body about losing my health, right there in my herbs. My herb garden bench became the place where I went to cry.

My Herb Garden in its second year

My Herb Garden in its second year

Even though my Mum who, to be honest, has always been the main gardener, did an incredible job keeping things going. I started to feel a sense of shame or embarrassment about the untended land. It is meant to be a permaculture demonstration site. I felt myself over explain to people about my illness and how I haven’t been able to do things but will ‘sort my herb garden out soon’. I found myself when giving tours, bypassing certain areas, because I felt so embarrassed about how they looked. I stopped posting beautiful pictures on Facebook of my favourite plants. Some days I wouldn’t even want to go outside because the whole place just made me feel like a massive failure and the thought of making any interventions to regain some control felt too overwhelming to think about. Yes, we could have got volunteers or woofers or friends who kept offering to help, but I could barely get out of bed let alone coordinate a group of people. My Mum had her hands full basically caring for me, looking after guests felt all too much.

And so the land changed. Brambles succeeded enveloping trees they had always had their eye on. Bare soil I was too exhausted to mulch was covered by weeds (their own kind of mulch, for sure). Beds in need of a sowing of green manure went unsown and any form of rotation or design for the vegetable garden just went completely AWOL. A lot of fruits and nuts went unharvested, and nettles that I normally dry by the bucket load went undried.

IMG_3535You know what I learnt? Nature doesn’t give a shit. Like, seriously. Yes, it feels problematic to let land ‘go to waste’ when so many people are denied access to it, and when so much of our food comes from industrial soil-destroying systems. But really, the only thing being actually harmed was my ego – my desire to have a beautiful demonstration site, my subconscious desire to show the world look how on top I am of my life and aren’t I wonderful. The apple trees weren’t grieving the fact that I hadn’t pruned them. I was grieving a sense of control that I thought I had. And letting everything go wild – it made me realise how even with a wonderful embrace of permaculture ethics, and attentiveness to ecological principles – I still had a domesticating force within me. Or at least, a desire to cultivate (and I think having a desire for a proactive relationship with the land IS really healthy).

My burnout and chronic illness that resulted from it was my body’s way of showing it cannot cope anymore. I couldn’t keep trying to control everything – to repress the feelings of grief from my dead friends, to keep pretending that prison hadn’t deeply traumatised me and wasn’t entering my dreams each night, to believe that if I just got more efficient in designing my workflow that I could somehow manage to keep a million projects going… The body said no. I cannot control everything. I have to let things go. Desire for control has been generated in me after a childhood feeling more often than not out of control, unsafe, unstable. Coupled with dealing with trauma through workaholism, you can see where this toxic mix has got me.

IMG_3504Then one day recently, I was sat on my bench and I looked at my herb garden. The wild mess that it is. And I just started to laugh, so hard. Who the hell did I think I was that I could somehow control that space? That with a little bit of effort it could look super-beautiful and enable all these unusual medicinal plants to somehow flourish in a situation beyond what their own preferred habitat is? I teach that plants are self-determining, I study plant ecology and I talk about self-willed animals and working with nature. So it wasn’t my knowledge getting in the way – it was my ego. It was the desire to impose my ‘creative order’ (in the words of Bill Mollison) on the land.

My illness has been humbling and generative of more wisdom than I could appreciate at first. So right now – yes my herb garden is a mess, yes there is bare soil around that really should be mulched, yes there is a compost pile that really needs a cover, yes there are fruit trees that could do with a prune, yes we really need to make the use of the greenhouses more, yes I need to install some gutters on the polytunnel… But right now, there isn’t. And there won’t be until I’m better. Even then, I might not do it out of laziness, lack of desire or skills or because I’m kind of gleeful in the fact that I really don’t give a f*ck right now because I’m focused on getting better. And the land? It’s fine. It’s SO fine doing its thing – and if all I can do is sit outside and drink tea and cry and appreciate its wild beauty – then it’s still doing it’s thing really damn well.

So tonight I toast to all the unkempt gardens, all the half-finished projects, all the tired-and-stressed permaculture designers and gardeners. Compost your shame, your secret areas or your guilty pleasures of mail-order plants because you failed to sow the seeds on time. We are all doing our best to survive (and hopefully destroy) capitalism – so don’t sweat it right now if your permaculture project is not what you want it to be. It never will be. But learn from what it is, help it understand your place in this rather ginormous and wonderful web of life. And it’s even more liberating when you apply this learning to your life – that you can’t manage it all, you can’t control everything. In wildness there is freedom. Sometimes you just need to let go.