Honouring Those Who Have Gone Before

Maddy Harland
Thursday, 8th August 2019

At the doorway of Permaculture Magazine 100, Maddy Harland explores the nature of time and space and explains why it is so vital that the permaculture movement honours its 'ancestors' in all shapes and forms, to demonstrate the ethic of 'Fair Shares' in action and restore the ancient practice of reciprocity with the natural world.

In his extraordinary book, The Spell of the Sensuous, about First Nation cultures and their active relationships with animals, plants and natural phenomena (mountains, rivers, winds, and weather), David Abrams explores how human beings have severed their ancient reciprocity with the natural world and how we can recover a sustaining relation with the breathing, animate Earth. As part of this beautifully written exploration of oral cultures, Abrams writes of time and space, “The senses of an oral people are still attuned to the land around them, still conversant with the expressive speech of the winds and the forest birds, still participant with the sensuous cosmos. Time, in such a world, is not separable from the circular life of the sun and the moon, from the cycling of the seasons, the death and rebirth of the animals – from the eternal return of the greening earth...” Whilst Western cultures have beginnings and endings, some First Nation languages do not even have terms for the past and the future. Everything rests in the present. Time has its own curvature, like a landscape with a vast horizon.

Abrams explains that on high plateaus in the Rocky Mountains, the visible horizon is especially vast and wide. Here they appear as circular arrangements of stones arrayed around a central hub. These enable people to orientate themselves within a dimension that is neither purely spatial nor purely temporal. Time is cylindrical and space is directly experienced as a place or places. The past is literally regarded as the ground beneath our feet, where our ancestors reside. The present is the vast space that holds the horizons, and the future is what lies beyond the horizon. If we climb to a vantage point we might glimpse some of what is coming in the future but we can never fully grasp what is beyond the horizon. There is much that we can learn from this, but here I will explore two aspects...

When the past is the ground beneath our feet, we can call this ‘the ground of our being’. As we bury our ancestors, the ground holds the particles of all that has gone before. These are not just our human relations, but all our relations that precede us on the animate Earth: animals, insects, stones, weather, rivers and mountains. To truly integrate the past we need to honour our ancestors, human and more than human. This means honouring our past teachers like Bill Mollison and Wangari Maathai, but also the wisdom of the cultures that have informed them. After all, permaculture has borrowed so much of its understanding of patterns, zoning, space, time and natural principles, from indigenous people. Their wisdom is the ground of our being too. If we masquerade as the inventors of our knowledge without reference to our ancestors, we lose our authenticity, we become ‘pretenders’. We need to make it a first principle to honour our ancestors, both living and dead. This is the permaculture ethic of ‘fair shares’ in action.

Secondly, as we climb high, we stretch the horizon and glimpse into the future. The study and application of permaculture is one way of climbing above our current orientation. It opens our eyes to natural principles, patterns and cycles, and it helps us develop a sense of vision of what could be. This is why imagination is an important principle in permaculture design. Bill Mollison said, “The yield of a system is theoretically unlimited, or, limited only by the information and imagination of the designer.” David Holmgren writes, “The butterfly is a positive symbol of transformative change in nature, from its previous life as a caterpillar. The proverb ‘vision is not seeing things as they are but as they will be’ reminds us that understanding change is much more than a linear projection. Abundance is unlimited.” If we are serious and patient, permaculture is, in part at least, able to restore our ancient reciprocity with the natural world.

When Tim and I began Permaculture Magazine in 1992, we never imagined that we would reach 100 issues, let alone publish over 100 books about permaculture and related subjects. What seemed like a good idea at the time has become our life’s work. We ask ourselves, “What has actually changed and what desperately needs to change?” The urgency of our planetary crises are even greater than they were 27 years ago. In dark moments, we feel our work hasn’t made any difference, but perhaps we cannot see beyond the horizon. What is indisputable is the beautiful mosaic of good work that has unfolded across the world in the past three decades. As we seal this 100th issue, we want to celebrate the visionaries, the authors, the artists, the permaculturists, the Earth restorers, the gardeners, the transitioners, and the ones that practice the gentle art of reciprocity with Nature. Long may you walk lightly on this Earth. Thank you for inspiring us.