I’ve never been fond of buzzwords. “Organic,” “Natural,” and “Sustainable” lost their foothold in reality decades ago when they were co-opted as marketing labels. Corporate buzzwords, cynical and empty, are often buzz-phrases anyway: “Whole-Systems Thinking,” “Trickle Down,” “Customer Journey.”
In my view, “Permaculture” has been teetering on the edge of irrelevance for some time. Just look how it’s described in Wikipedia, which can usually be trusted for succinct and reasonably cogent (if not entirely accurate) definitions: “Permaculture is an approach to land management that adopts arrangements observed in flourishing ecosystems, and includes a set of design principles derived using whole-systems thinking.” Wait a minute – whole-systems thinking? I’ve heard that somewhere.
Ideally, permaculture is a beautiful thing, growing crops which are subject to fewer pests and diseases in a way that requires less maintenance, less land, and less water. But in a world where you can buy “corporate team permaculture training” to improve the “customer journey,” or become a “Certified Regenerative Designer” in two weeks for a mere $2,000, I had all but lost hope that the term could be revived. But then I read a May 4th, 2021 article in The National Post that changed my mind.
A unique Simon Fraser University study recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Ecology and Society proves that permaculture is no buzzword. Along Canada’s Pacific coast, indigenous forest-gardens (today we’d call it agroforestry, a type of permaculture) are thriving, replete with fruits, nuts and medicinal plants – after something like 150 years. For about a century and a half, no one has weeded, fertilized, pruned, or otherwise tended these plots, and still they produce. That’s as close to permanent as one can hope for.
Researchers visited four archaeological sites (two Ts’msyen locations in northwestern British Columbia, and two Coast Salish sites in the southwest) known to have been inhabited for at least two thousand years before residents were forced out in the late 1800s. Near these former villages they found discrete zones vastly different from the surrounding vegetation, and within these niches carved out of the forest grew a surprising range of plants typically used for food and medicine.
Tree species which have survived or regenerated include crabapple (one of two native North American crabapples), hazelnut, cherry, and hawthorn. Growing in their partial shade are bushes like elderberry, and below the shrub layer, herbaceous plants such as wild ginger and cranberry. Thus the ancient forest gardens rediscovered by the team from Simon Fraser have three distinct layers within the same space, making them tremendously efficient and productive.
These permaculture (in the true sense of the word) plots are also impressive in their species diversity. After making surveys of the surrounding native coniferous forests, researchers concluded that the forest gardens contained up to twice as many species as would normally be found. Some of the plants growing in these gardens had obviously been brought in from a substantial ways away. As Simon Fraser University ethnobiologist and lead author of the study Chelsey Armstrong is quoted in the National Post article, “These plants never grow together in the wild. It seemed obvious that people put them there to grow all in one spot like a garden.”
Clearly, another aspect of the forest gardens is their tenacity. In the article, Armstrong notes that “On the Northwest coast, conifer forests are stubborn. They will reestablish themselves 20 to 30 years after a disturbance.” And yet more than a century later, the permaculture plantings have “bucked the trend,” as Armstrong concludes.
An interesting take-home corollary is that human disturbance of ecosystems need not degrade the environment. In this case, indigenous wisdom was employed to provide long-term, low-input sources of food and medicinal plants, increasing biodiversity and yet leaving the forests around those intentional plantings intact and healthy. In addition, a wide array of pollinators, birds, and other wildlife also benefit from such forest gardens.
There is no cookie-cutter permaculture recipe. Even within the same biome, subtle differences from one location to the next can lead to slight differences in the suite of plants that develop and thrive there. A two-week “Certified Regenerative Designer” is bound to wreak havoc if they think they’re fit to establish the kind of longevity documented by Simon Fraser researchers. An intimate knowledge of one’s environment, the kind of grasp that only comes from a long-term relationship with the land, is required for true permaculture to happen.
Here in North America, we Euro-Americans (scientists in particular) need to give more credence and respect to First Nations expertise. We’re perhaps the least-rooted people on Earth, and have no business ordaining mail-order permaculture gurus after a few weeks of training, which is often done online or in distant, unfamiliar ecosystems.
Colonization, attempted genocide and forced relocation of First Nations peoples has set all of humanity back. Yet even in the face of this profound disruption, indigenous knowledge does survive. For a real permaculture plot, we’d have to leave instructions for our heirs to stay put and get to know the land for a few dozen generations. Then maybe they could get a certificate.
I’m happy to know that permaculture hasn’t completely lost its meaning. It’s hard enough to avoid all the other buzzwords like “Incentivize,” “Pivot,” and of course, “Buzzword.”
The original paper authored by the SFU team can be found here.
Photo of Suburban permaculture garden in Sheffield UK with different layers of vegetation courtesy Wikimeida user Claire Gregory.