Controversy–The Grumpy (Permaculture) Gardener

by Elsa Johnson

I come by my grumpiness honestly – I am the child of grumps . . .and they came by it honestly too. But I mostly blame my dad. Both my parents were young adults at the start of the Great Depression: she was 19, attending Flora Stone Mather; he was 22, going to Antioch College on the work-study program… in the course of which he became an English major, worked on a Great Lakes ore boat, taught at a progressive school in Michigan, and learned architectural drafting (which turned out to be far more marketable than English over the long haul). Somewhere in all that he was exposed to the agricultural writings of Louis Bromfield, which inspired a dream of having land of his own on which to develop a self-sufficient place.  The dream did not die. After my parents met and married my mother’s father sold them the 40 acres he had bought in Twinsburg to run his hunting spaniels.  They moved there in 1944 to begin their great adventure — in rather primitive circumstances. I was 20 months old.

Of course, at that age I can’t remember being saved from falling off the hay-wagon and almost being run over by a tire. I only vaguely remember being chased by the geese (a year later). But I do happily remember family excursions through the fields to the woods, ledges, and forest; the beauty of bloodroot and hundreds of trillium in the spring wood; the scent of black walnuts in their pulpy cases; the juice of peaches fresh off the trees, warmed by the summer sun.   

What I missed as a young child was an awareness of the hardship and hard work — that the cow had to be milked every day; that butchering a rabbit took a toll; that half an acre of garden meant hours of weeding (which included me…and I didn’t like it!); that fields had to be tilled, planted and harvested; vegetables and fruit processed and canned; and that despite all that, we really couldn’t live self-sufficiently on 40 acres. My father took a job as a draftsman (and modeled tractors!). Piece by piece the dream began to fall away… first the rabbits; then the geese; then the cow; until, by the time I was 7 or 8 the chickens, the orchard, and the garden were all that was left, and much reduced in size. There wasn’t much canning going on. My mother also took a job (law degrees help). Piece by piece, I became aware.

But there was always a garden up until the year my father, in his seventies, broke his hip.

So I come to permaculture with not the enthusiasm of the idealist and convert, but with suspicion and grumpy pessimism. I know that, unlike a building, something created of nature is not static. In permaculture the model of a food forest that is used is that of a young forest/meadow intermix. But I know forests do not stay young. They grow and change and as they do so, they change the environment of everything around them. And what then, I ask?  So I am skeptical that there is such a thing as ‘permanent agriculture’ (and at any rate, I think, it is definitely for someone younger than I am).

That is not to say I do not see value in permaculture. There is much I value. In particular I value what permaculture has to say about soil, soil structure, soil organisms, how soil functions, and how important it is to have healthy, living soil, because that is the one thing on which everything else depends. ThIs knowledge informs a deeper understanding that I incorporate into my landscape design practice today.

One thought on “Controversy–The Grumpy (Permaculture) Gardener

  1. Permanent Agriculture/Permanent Culture? Elsa, I agree with you – the use of permanent in a changing, dynamic system is problematic. I may be harangued for this but it is one of those sloppy, but cute, created words that allows us to gather round and celebrate an idea (which I deeply support). I have even more trouble with the second part. If you look at what permaculture espouses, we are talking more about Horticulture rather than Agriculture (which usually refers to an expansive planting of one “crop”). You don’t hear anyone saying Permanent Horticulture… But, I am biased: I am a horticulturist 🙂 Nice post!

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