Blog #5 9-3-12: Take Home


Back to my home on Bainbridge Island after 3 months in Italy and a week in Germany. After smelling the sweet air wafting up from the summer waters of Puget Sound, I confronted the jungle of weeds that had covered our backyard garden. My strategy had been to plant my favorite varieties of potatoes in the areas of our garden that weren’t occupied by perennial berries, veggies, and fruit and nut trees. German Butterball and Ozette (the finger potatoes that were cultivated for hundreds of years by the Makah Tribe on the NW coast of Washington – disease-resistant and grow anywhere (although my wife says she doesn’t like their texture). Potatoes require minimal upkeep (compared to conventional veggies), and we can share a large potato yield with our fellow community garden neighbors. In exchange, we can harvest the bounty from the neighborhood beach community garden, and assuage our guilt from not being home to take care of that garden. Maybe not as productive as if there had been continuous weeding, but potatoes are forgiving. They are, after all, the most productive vegetable per square foot of garden.

Productivity has been on my mind during much of my European trip. When I was in my last month of living at Damanhur, I had been talking with my friends there about what it would take to make Damanhur more sustainable. I did several consultations on how they might increase their productivity at some of the nucleo gardens and at Prima Stalla, the commercial scale farm nucleo where production occurs for distribution to the rest of the Damanhurians. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, Damanhur doesn’t really consider itself an “eco-village” (although they are a main leader in the Global Eco-village Network) – they consider themselves foremost a spiritual and social community, and secondarily focused on ecological sustainability. Similar to most intentional communities, they tend to report a greater degree of food self-sufficiency than what actually occurs. Maybe those optimistic numbers don’t include grains and meat? Regardless, our diets were the same throughout my 3 months there, even though it was only late in my stay that we were eating eggplants, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers grown in the greenhouses of Prima Stalla. In my discussions about sustainability there, it became clear that if there were more people actually putting their hands in the soil and tending plants, there would be a greater commitment to adjusting diets to fit the local harvests, rather than the cultural norms of Italy. The fundamental problem with Damanhur growing a significant amount of its own food is the same reason most of the communities in the United States produce less than 2% of their own food. It’s too cheap to justify doing the local labor for food production, compared to working in jobs that are part of the “global economy”, and purchasing imported food. The economy of scale and the use of cheap fossil fuels for production, transportation and fertilizers keeps the price of globally produced food so low that it is difficult to make a living wage producing food on a community scale. Many farms find ways to “subsidize” themselves by selling to high-end markets such as local harvest specialty restauarants, farmers’ markets supported by people with disposable incomes, and farmers who have outside sources of income support.

At Damanhur, there was a lot of borrowing when they were renovating the old farmhouses that each became nucleos for two dozen people. More debt was incurred when Prima Stalla was developed to become more of a production farm, with many commercial greenhouses, a facility for raising a large beef herd (using conventional corn, soybeans, and hay production to bring the food to the cattle rather than use permacultural grass-fed systems), and a budget for equipment purchase and hiring staff. Now there is a stiff monthly debt payment that necessitates each nucleo contribute from its citizen’s monthly wages. In my nucleo, most of the adults drove their own cars to workplaces located as far away as Torino, in order to make their monthly nucleo payments that included a recent increase to cover the debt payments. Most nucleo’s have one person working part-time on their gardens and greenhouses, which, although a few nucleos pay one person to work as a full-time food gardener, is not nearly enough labor to produce significant food for the nucleo family members. My nucleo has a knowledgable garden person, who also works full-time as a real estate broker. He managed his time well enough to have some good garden production, but I greatly increased the food production from our garden while I was there. I pruned the tomatoes weekly, and they were producing massive amounts from the 6′ tall vines by the time I left. My permaculture-garden-on-a-terrace (with seeds I brought and started in the greenouses) was cranking out cetrioli (cucumbers), kale, costa (chard), cilantro, and basil. I hope it gets harvested and utilized now that I’m gone.

perm garden

My strategy for them would have been to start a permaculture school, with students living in the nucleos, working and developing the gardens and coming together for common learning and to help one another increase sustainability community-wide. That would provide a labor force that would be welcomed by Damanhur. By creating a change from outside, rather than forcing internal change, I thought there would be a gradual community learning process. I also suggested that the main production farm should focus on produce that the nucleos couldn’t grow themselves, such as pastured poultry, dairy and grains. The nucleos would have to be doing succession cropping to keep a continuous supply of fresh lettuce and greens throughout the year- focusing on those items which are best when picked fresh that are easily produced on terraced gardens of the hilly regions of the Valchiasella Valley. I also was in discussions about the credito local minted currency, suggesting ways that it could be used to “contain” the energy of the locally produced ecoonomic goods, rather than allowing that life energy to escape the community by being freely exchanged for the euro. I was interested in coming back to do some more work with Damanhur, because I really like living in their community and because of its potential for having influence on other parts of europe. However, the visa process has become impossible, and I’d have to come and go for 3 month periods of time. Perhaps I could come up with another solution for being able to do some work there, after embarking on my last adventure before returning home – a week in northern Germany, at the European Permaculture Convergence.

I left Damanhur with my all my luggage, which I stored for a week in a hotel in Milano Centrale. I took the shuttle to the out-of-the-way Milano-Bergamot airport for my cheapo productions Ryanaire flight to Germany the next day with my carry-on pack. After landing at another out-of-the-way- Frankfurt airport, I took a long shuttle and much longer train and local tram to the permaculture site outside Kastel, Germany.

Along the way, I watched from the train as the beautiful countryside rolled by. Europe looked the same as when I had been there last, 25 years ago. Small villages, surrounded by agricultural fields (of corn and soybeans- no doubt for the same agro-industrial uses as in America – feed lots and commodity sales). Each village also had a nearby forested woodlot, which I found out is still maintained as the village “commons”. There were some areas of new housing construction added on to the villages, but most of the growth was around the large cities. There was no suburban sprawl that I could see. It would be much easier to imagine Europe shifting their agro-biz corn and soybean fields to provide crop diversity needed to feed the villages, than it would be to imagine the suburbs of America become retrofitted to become food self-sufficient. Part of me felt like Europe is the place to be to participate in the transformation of human civilization to become sustainable, and part of me felt the call of loyalty to share my gifts and creativity with my own people.


The European Permaculture Convergence (EuPC) was indeed amazing. The design that had gone into the physical site was only overshadowed by the design that had gone into the “invisible structures” – the social organization that created the conditions in which learning, love and transformation could emerge. The site was a small eco-village community that lived and worked together to produce a CSA (community subscription agriculture) for the local community. It had been an old agro-forestry and tree farm production site, and the huge greenhouse had been modified for veggie production, and new ones converted to aquaponics and conventional agriculture. The permaculture influence had been more recent, but there were examples of herb spirals, sheet-mulched beds, hugel-kultur beds and lots of photo-voltaic solar roofs on the buildings. The infrastructure for the Convergence included some very innovative designs. Rocket-mass stoves for heating 55 gallon barrels of water for the showers to augment the solar hot water collection system.

water heating

There were women and men “pee” stations, which used gravity to move the volume of liquid into containers on pallets for fork-loaders to move. That kept the main weight from overwhelming the collection containers from the composting toilets. Instead of using sawdust or leaf mulch to cover the offerings in the toilets, there was a combination of ground up charcoal, clay, leaf mulch and sawdust to use the principles of “bio-char” or “terra preta” to speed up the composting process and create highly fertile soil as the end product. There was a great variety of tents, to host the presentations and workshops, but I loved the one with tons of sand (that would be used for natural building projects afterwards), where children played during the day. At night, with string-lighting, the structure was transformed into the “beach bar”, with appropriate mood or trance music as the hour of the night (or morning) called for. The main firepit had a seat on one side which was the back side of a sweet hugel-kultur garden.

In the beginning I felt out-of-place at this convergence of European permies. There were few Americans (all were accidental tourists in Europe like myself). There were many internationally renown permies – the “father of European Permaculture” – Declan Kennedy and his wife Margrit (author of many books in alternative economics).


They first took a course from Bill Mollison in 1982 and were so impressed they quit their professorships in Austria and went to learn permaculture in Australia. Permaculture is spread through the oral tradition of permaculture courses, and Germany is one of the most progressive permaculture countries in the world. England is perhaps ahead of Germany, because they have a well-developed “diploma” program, and people study in England and set up permaculture institutes in other countries in the European Union. The EuPC was partially sponsored by a new grant for creating a formal learning network of permaculturists throughout the EU. There was travel money for them to meet and develop formal diploma programs in countries in Scandanavia and southern Europe which are behind Germany in their maturation. As I shared my experiences in setting up the Cascadia Permaculture Institute, which we in the Pacific NW have recently formed to support a formal diploma and permaculture education program, I became accepted and valued among the folks in the European networks. I look forward to being able to visit there and share ideas with them in the future, now that I have established those relationships. One of the most powerful parts of the EuPC was a coming together of those of us who consider ourselves “elders”. We convened at dinner every evening in a yurt in the “Wise Woods”. A young woman – who is versed in the Wilderness School Jon Brown tradition – brought our food every evening so we could spend the entire dinner meeting as an elder council. As an outcome from that I will share that tradition at the Pacific NW Permaculture Convergence in October. I will also share the idea of putting up “office” hours where anyone can sign up to have a listening session with an elder. The Elder Council really captured the sacred nature of the emergent properties from the convergence. It’s time we who were the rebels of the 60’s and 70’s – as youth with no models or guidance – reach out to provide the wisdom and sharing of our gifts with others in our tribes.

My workshop on using whole-systems principles of nature to guide strategies for economic localization, was well-received. In the small group discussions that followed my slide show presentation, I asked for volunteers in each group who might have a model community that could be suitable for creating a permaculture school for training a labor force and incubating new businesses to stimulate the local economy sustainability. I listened to a young Croatian man who lived in a war-torn, economically devastated village with deserted buildings and despondent farmers who couldn’t afford the the chemicals they had become addicted to for producing economically viable crops. This quiet, bull-necked giant of a young man slowly began to speak about the possibilities of using those abandoned buildings for housing the school. Of working with the old farmers to try new ways of growing food with the old ways of creating fertility. What did he have to lose? The town was being abandoned by depressed villagers who are gradually leaving to live with relatives in the cities.

Of course most of the best conversations occurred in the meal lines, outside the formal sessions, and around the campfires at 4:00 am. I won’t forget my new friends from that intense week together.

Probably the most dramatic day was the last day, when it would have been impossible to get transportation to the town because it was Sunday when the tram had limited hours of operation. That was “social sculpture” day, when the entire group “converged” into buses and set up a parade that shared permaculture with the entire town of Kassel. We decorated ourselves with flowered wreaths and wore our fanciest “uni’s”, and carried signs in German – such as “share the surplus”. We visited a park which had a large permaculture installation next to the local needle-exchange, and the local drug and alcohol users were actually involved in caring for the gooseberries, currants, and veggie beds (food free for the taking.) Participants in the permaculture course that had taken place at our Convergence site 2 weeks before, were responsible for designing the social sculpture skits. One involved setting up a web of string to simulate the web of life, which we danced through limbo-style to the sound of drums and instruments from our rag-tag band. We rolled a (heavy!) 4′ diameter ball made of baled recycled clothes for the entire parade.

rag ball

We read a declaration of rights, at the Kassel ‘Occupy” camp, next to the “University of the Trees”, where ad hoc courses happen. Afterwards we each took a handful of the “terra preta” (unused!) from a wheelbarrow we had rolled with our parade that had a sign about the virtues of compost soil. These handfuls were ceremoniously applied to the drip line of the oldest oak trees in the Occupy Park.

compost on parade

My train ride back to the Ryanaire airport where I slept until my 6:30 am flight back to Milano was a time for digestion. Inspired by the advanced state of permaculture and sustainability that I had seen, I felt ready to bring new ideas and renewed energy back home. I felt encouraged that my ideas for economic localization by using a permaculture school as a focusing change agent are ripe for sharing and implementing in my own community where I have rich social capital and networks. I feel refreshed and enriched by my summer experiences.

Bios Design
design bylili estin