Bringing urban living in harmony with nature

Permaculture Focused on meeting basic human needs in an environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable manner, permaculture branches out from creating ecological landscapes that produce foods, to include mindful land-use and community planning. Founded in 1978 by Australian academic Bill Mollison – who was frustrated first by the degradation of nature, and then a second time by feeling helpless to affect change as an activist – permaculture is gaining rapid worldwide popularity as a means to directly address everything from oil dependence to consumerism. It is seen as the answer to activism, and a series of upcoming locally organized instructional events – as close as Southeast Austin and as far as the southern side of the Tex-Mex border – are designed to provide individuals with tools to affect changes through their own existence.

Jenny Nazak, who's promoting the permaculture events, was preparing to plant a plum tree in front of permaculture instructor Selwyn Polit's house, near the old Mueller Airport, when I arrived. She said permaculture is "less about living off the grid and being self-sufficient than being self-reliant: knowing where stuff like food and energy comes from and taking responsibility for it." She added that while most of us don't grow our own food, many don't even know where it's grown.

Polit, a techie by day, is co-instructing an eight-weekend Permaculture Design Certification Course in Austin, beginning this Saturday. He says permaculture can be practiced by people in all walks of life – just by supporting local business, creating an apartment balcony garden that doubles as a bird habitat, using vermiculture (worms that compost food scraps) to reduce waste, planting a vegetable garden or edible landscaping, catching rain water, building a compost pile, or participating in community-supported agriculture (such as East Austin's Oasis Gardens Farm, For the less green-thumbed, he said, one could patronize a nearby farmer's market or food co-op.

Tramping around his compact but elaborate backyard garden, Polit gives me a sample of a sinus-clearingly potent mustard green he grew before feeding some to his chickens (Mrs. O, Ariana Eagle-feather, and Dorothy), who hop off the ground to snatch the leaves with their beak. He especially fancies the chickens, because, in accordance with permaculture principles, they are "one element serving multiple functions" – food production (eggs), soil tilling services, entertainment, feathers, and the beneficial consumption of cockroaches and table scraps.

Later that day I met more city chickens, not to mention a duck and a turkey, due south at the Rhizome Collective, the self-described center for urban sustainability, located in an industrial corner of Southeast Austin. Rhizome is hosting a permaculture and social activism seminar in March. Scott Kellogg coordinates Rhizome's sustainability projects, which include an EPA-funded brownfield cleanup, a gray water processing unit utilizing artistically adorned, vertically stacked bathtubs containing wetland plants, and an aquaculture pond that produces grains, crustaceans, and methane gas, among many other eco-experiments. He defined permaculture as "creating lasting human communities using intensely cultivated small spaces to provide for as many of our needs as possible." Kellogg emphasized that while permaculture is about building urban soil and cultivating edible landscapes, it must also include consciousness about gentrification and class to be truly effective; he likened Rhizome's brand of permaculture to a transitional strategy for diminished participation in the petro-economy, and said permaculture needs to critique the global economy, "the predominant force that makes it hard to live sustainably." Pointing to "peak oil" – a theory that we're currently atop a glut of cheap petroleum, that the world will never again produce – Kellogg insists that now is the time to wean ourselves off foods and goods from faraway places, a habit that begs oil dependence just as much as America's beloved SUVs, and one that is expected to harshly impact our standard of living as fuel costs rise. By its nature, Kellogg said, "permaculture calls into question the way in which the consumer economy holds dominance." He suggests taking back urban spaces for localized food production and engaging in the intensified use of the area's recycled materials. "We're not waiting for politicians to start being green, we're taking matters into our own hands."

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permaculture, Bill Mollison, Jenny Nazak, Selwyn Polit, Oasis Gardens, Rhizome Collective, Scott Kellogg

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