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People & Permaculture - a book review

Transition Leytonstone holds a fantastic collection of books on topics from ecology to gardening, renewable energy to social justice. Before the pandemic struck I used to enjoy browsing the shelves, housed in the home of steering group member Ros Bedlow in Upper Leytonstone, and the books I found sparked many a fascinating conversation. This is a library that positively encourages conversation! And, when the times allow, offers a cup of tea and a comfy armchair too.

I've been particularly inspired by the books and magazines on permaculture, and as a one-time psychology student I was drawn to a book by Looby Macnamara - 'People & Permaculture'.

The ideas of permaculture are most often applied to designing gardens or other growing spaces, using a set of nature-based principles as a guide. I had already completed a two-day 'Introduction to Permaculture' course run by Ros with Phil Mason, and the concepts seemed both exciting and in some sense very intuitive and obvious - learning from, and working with nature rather than trying to control it. It's based on core ethics of Earthcare, Peoplecare and Fair shares, and uses twelve key principles derived from and inspired by the way natural ecosystems work.

In 'People & Permaculture' Macnamara applies those same principles to questions of personal development, relationships, group dynamics and wider societal issues. The web of nature finds a parallel in the interconnectedness of human society, and the principles guide us in designing not just sustainable gardens, but also sustainable groups, communities and social structures.

To take a couple of examples:

Permaculture prompts us to ‘use and value edges’. In a garden that might mean using curved rather than straight edges, to maximise the length of the boundaries between different mini-ecosystems, as these are fertile ground for biodiversity. Applied to human relationships it might lead us to bring together people from different backgrounds in order to spark debate and explore diverse perspectives on an issue.

The principle to 'produce no waste' could be applied in a garden by adding prunings to a compost heap so that the nutrients in them can be fed back into the soil. When considering a social group or project the avoidance of waste might prompt us to look for any habits or group dynamics that are causing momentum or energy to be lost.

This is an easy book to dip into: clearly written and attractively laid out with plenty of engaging line drawings, bullet lists and even examples of the author’s own poetry.

Alternatively you can choose, as I did, to work through the chapters in order and complete the suggested activities. These guide you to reflect on how permaculture might be applied to your own life and to your interactions with others. There’s a natural progression out through the ‘zones’ from the self, through one-to-one relationships and groups, to our wider communities and society as a whole. It’s not just theoretical either - the author introduces her own design tools and encourages the reader to use them to make plans for the future.

I realised quite quickly that I wanted to work through the book over a longer period of time, to allow for reflection time and to give any learnings a chance to 'sink in'. I bought my own copy, along with a small notebook, and embarked on a journey of self discovery. As it turned out, 2020 was the perfect year for the project - finding myself furloughed from my job for ten weeks during the spring, I had the perfect opportunity to sit in the garden reading, thinking, and writing my journal.

What have I learnt? I suppose I have an enhanced sense of connection to the world around me (ironic, perhaps, at a time when social connections are so limited). I've firmed up on what my main interests are, and feel more purposeful in terms of what I want to read and learn about next. And I have more concrete tools for moving beyond daydreaming, to planning for change.

My personal favourite of the permaculture principles is that of 'small and slow solutions' and that has helped me to be more accepting of the current restrictions, and more patient with myself. I still keep lists of things I'd like to achieve, but now I'll break down any daunting tasks and just think about the next small step I need to take that will keep me moving in the right direction.

The overall message of Macnamara's book is inspiring and hopeful. She believes that we are close to the point of the ‘Great Turning’, when the story of humanity and our understanding of our place in the world will shift and take a more positive direction. That will happen, she implies, when enough of us change our own perspectives and behaviour so that a tipping point is reached. At the end of the book she suggests, in keeping with 'small and slow solutions', that we choose one change we can make that will move us towards our vision for the future.

The closing quote seems beautifully appropriate: ‘Begin and the impossible will become possible’ (Thomas Carlyle).

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