Last January I embarked on a journey that literally changed my life, and permaculture was the catalyst that made it all happen.
I worked in a high pressure sales environment and although I was very successful and the position was financially rewarding, I was utterly miserable. I spent more time at work than with my young family and I didn’t feel like I was achieving anything meaningful in life. Every day seemed like Groundhog Day. I had to force myself out of bed to make profit for a company at the expense of my physical and mental wellbeing.
I do not believe that it is natural for humans to be cooped up inside like a battery hen all day at a desk, rarely seeing sunlight or breathing fresh air. I knew I had to do something. I sat down with my wife and we came up with a five year plan, to save as much as we could, sell the house and try to buy a small holding or homestead and make a living away from the destructive city lifestyle we had become trapped in.
I had heard the word permaculture banded around and other than having a general idea of its definition I knew nothing about it. Then a friend of mine gifted me a few back issues of Permaculture magazine to read for inspiration on my allotment and the ideology behind the articles resonated with me.
I noticed that one of the articles was a project at a local pub, written by someone from my hometown of Southend-on-Sea. I looked up the author Graham Burnett and found that he was teaching a Permaculture Design Course (PDC)* at weekends over the next six months that I could fit around work, not to mention being able to pay in instalments each month. As a city boy with little experience of what I thought of as ‘Farming’, I decided it would be advantageous to do a PDC, so I booked on to the course not really knowing what to expect and was totally unprepared for what lay ahead.
Take The Challenge!
The PDC challenged everything I knew about growing from what I had learnt at the allotment... Impossibly manicured plots, neat little rows weeded daily, treated with gallons of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides desperately trying to emulate the behaviour of large scale commercial agriculture.
One of the pivotal moments for me was when we did an exercise on the energy transactions of trees, showing that everything in nature is connected and has its rightful place and it forced me to wonder, what was humankind’s place? If everything has a function in the system then I could only conclude that our true rightful place is as the shepherd of the system, the warden of the woods. To observe natural systems and maintain balance, our unique skill is being able to identify if resources need to be distributed or made available to certain plants, animals or locations.
I knew then that my plans had to be taken back to the drawing board, that I couldn’t just scale up the way I had used my allotment to intensively grow annual crops. My new focus shifted to perennial production, self-contained and self-sufficient systems that wouldn’t rely on fossil fuel subsidies for fertility.
The beauty of annual crops is you can go full circle in a year, whereas perennial systems (particularly food forest systems that I wanted to set up) could take years, even decades to set up. I felt like there was no time to lose, I needed to get things in motion immediately. The only solution to speed up our plans was for us to find a cheaper way to secure land. Since land in the UK is so expensive we looked at various other countries and eventually settled on Spain. There we could buy a suitable plot with building permission within our means, so we put the family home up for sale. Our five year plan had turned into a five month plan! By the time I graduated from my PDC, I was already putting my knowledge to use and sharing my plans with our tutor and the group.
I sold the house, quit my job and when we broke the news to the in-laws, they were so excited that they decided to join us on our adventure and we moved the entire family to Spain. We have bought a five acre plot of land that we have named Wyrdwood Acres and hope to transform it into a flourishing food forest and establish a permaculture paradise over the coming years.
Mononculture to Permaculture
The plot is currently a total monoculture of almond trees, heavily ploughed between the rows and totally reliant on human maintenance. Our plan is to combine water catchment techniques with hedges/windbreaks and introduce as much organic matter as possible to the soil to improve its ability to retain moisture, making it easier for us to plant a more varied range of both native and more unusual trees. By increasing the variety and biodiversity using appropriate plant guilds and animal systems over time it will become a true self-sustaining layered forest garden.
Walking the land
We also plan to build a straw bale eco-home on the site with the grey water from the house feeding into the swales that will help hydrate the land. Once it is more established there will also be accommodation and facilities for people to stay with us and participate in a whole host of courses and activities. In the meantime, we are working on a community garden project in the small village where we are currently staying.
Our Spanish neighbours have gifted us the use of a 150m2 corral to get growing and keep chickens so that we can bring the local elderly community together in the permaculture spirit of Earth Care, People Care and Fair Shares. We have just built a chicken coop for the total cost of a €3 box of screws using pallets and the project has started to generate a lot of interest with the locals.
Aurora sowing beans
Our permaculture journey is just beginning and we have had the opportunity to connect with some truly amazing individuals along the way and look forward to meeting many more in the future. So many people have told us that we are ‘brave’, but ultimately I would rather risk the chance of failing at doing something that I whole heartedly love than stay stuck it a rut and succeed at being miserable.
I believe that freedom is within reach for everyone in the so-called ‘free world’ if they believe in themselves: Start a small business doing something you love; create independent income streams; design resilience into your life. That is what I have done and now instead of looking longingly at the photo of paradise on my screensaver in a windowless office, I will spend the rest of my life making those fantasies a reality. Don’t let your dreams just be dreams.
* Interested in taking a PDC? We have a range of permaculture courses at www.permaculture.co.uk/courses
Vegan Book of Permaculture by Graham Burnett