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…by Russ Grayson, September 2012

A cow was staring at me when I opened the brown paper envelope. A smallish, fawn-coloured animal that had looked up from its grazing when someone pointed their camera at it. Like any image in which the subject looks directly at the camera, my eyes went straight to those of this bovine (why is it that cows lack any sense of urgency and always appear unhurried?)

That this occurred was somehow fitting, for the publication that slid from that envelope belongs not to the realm of cattle but to the photography genre. But let’s step back a bit and consider Apples and the act of opening packages.

Just as Apple computer afficianados have turned the opening of those sturdy little boxes their iPods, iPads, iPhones or iWhatevers come in into a Zen-like ceremony they call ’unboxing’ (how’s that for inventing a new word?) during which the dominant emotion is anticipation, so that was what I experienced when I opened the brown paper envelope that permaculture educator and graphic designer, Richard Telford, had sent me all the way from the flatlands of rural Seymour in Victoria. And what slid out? The 2013 Permaculture Calendar.

The calendar continues what has become a publishing tradition now of five years standing—the first Permaculture Calendar was published in 2009. Even though the introductory blurb in this years’ says you can compost the thing because the paper is 100% post-consumer pulp and the inks of botanical origin, I doubt composting is the fate of most Permaculture Calendars. I suspect there are collections of them out there, around the nation, and I suggest that is a good thing as it adds to the documentation of this vast permaculture experiment we are engaged in.

The year 2013′s calendar takes a permaculture principle from the set devised by permaculture co-inventor, David Holmgren, as the theme of each month. The theme is illustrated by a colour photograph and, at the bottom of the page, a little story about it. Photo credits and locations are listed on the end page.

So it was, calander unboxed, that I flipped to the first month…

January

January is named for the ancient Roman diety Janus, the diety of the door, for January is truly the doorway to the year.

Opening this doorway, we find ourselves in an image dominated by the colour green, a rural setting seen from the bug’s eye view. The permaculture principle illustrated is that of Observe and Interact and it raises a dilemma in permaculture—is a plant that observation and learning tells us has useful properties really a weed because it is often described as such?

I’m not going to tell you which useful species/weed is described—you can find that out when you open you own copy of the calendar—I don’t want to offer too many spoilers because you might lose that sense of anticipation I spoke of.

Like other themes in the calendar, there is a long story behind the picture. That long story is that of the uneasy relationship between permaculture practitioners and the self-appointed guardians of what belongs in this country’s botany and what does not. The species in the photograph is an exotic, one that originated well beyond Australia’s borders and it is a broadleaf type that is quite common, well trodden on and frequently removed.

The hidden lesson in January’s theme is that of the power of naming. To name something is to weave a framework of meaning around it. And naming something a ‘weed’ carries a heavy load of cultural and ecological baggage with meanings like ‘undesirable’, ‘pest’, ‘must be removed’, ‘has no place here’, ‘kill’, ‘a plant in the wrong place’ and so on. Positioned in the realm of ideas in this way, weed = alien species > remove.

It is important, in my opinion, that we in permaculture recognise the power of naming and name appropriately through thoughtful choice of language, as naming can ensnare the key messages we are trying to convey.

February

Named for a purification ceremony on the occasion of the new moon in the ancient Roman lunar calendar, February can be the hottest month of the year for we southern hemisphere denizens. So it’s fitting that the photo by Richard Telford tells its own story about heat energy and that phenomenon that sometimes brings relief from it—rainfall. February’s theme: Catch and Store Energy.

Why do I like February’s photo? Because it tells little stories within the big story about harvesting and storing renewable energies. It tells of using large areas of glass in a building that face sunward (northward here in the southern hemisphere) to heat a home’s interior in winter, to dry the clothes we see on the verandah, to produce energy from the photovoltaic array we see on the roof. Sunlight’s bombardment of photons  also supplies the energy to split the molocules in the photochemical arrays we see growing on the fruit trees and vegetables in the garden and that we know as ‘leaves’—the site for the process of photosynthesis that is one of those environmental services we rely upon for our continued habitation of our little planet.

Water falling from the sky is the other of those environmental services whose story we find illustrated in Richard’s picture. It’s told by the shiny metal corrugations on the large water tank to the side of the dwelling, a big tank that brings together all the drops falling on the roof and stores them for some useful purpose when needed.

There’s another reason I like this photo is that its ideas are equally at home in our towns and cities. My focus in permaculture has long been on sustainable urbanism and those energies and materials the focus of Richard’s photo story—the energy of sunlight and the harvesting and use of rainfall—are being harnessed in the city. Richard’s example is only a kilometre from the centre of Seymour. That same energies and rainwater will continue to be harnessed in the retrofitting of the urban building stock, as it is here rather than the construction of new buildings that urban resource performance will be improved.

On seeing this photo I thought of how it could be projected as a discussion image in workshops and courses to illustrate the harvesting, storage and use of free environmental services.

March

Summer is ended and March marks the start of the southern hemisphere Autumn. Once again, we can thank those ancient Romans for the practice of creating order in their world by naming what at one stage in their own calendar marked the start of the year, their first month of Spring.

The March theme of Obtain a Yield is illustrated by John Adams with a photograph of builder, Ben Law, and his hand-made house constructed from the yield of a woodlot he manages. It’s a fanciful creation as these sort of buildings often are… more useful works of art and far from the tract housing that cluster the far edges of our cities.

Looking at the photo I was mentally transported back to the 1970s when a youthful cohort deserted the cities to build structures like this out in hidden rural pockets. Some are still there and it’s good to see, in John’s photo, that the tradition continues. Amazement, inspiration and admiration at the builder’s enterprise are tempered by the knowledge that dwellings of this sort are unavailable to most of a time and skill poor populace beset by building codes.

I’ve had the good fortune to enter buildings of this DIY architectural genre and have stood amazed at the craft and patience that built them and the practical art that leads the eye from one amazing detail to another. I haven’t done that for some time, though, and today here in Sydney’s urban, medium density Eastern Suburbs I console myself with photos of such dwellings in the books of Lloyd Kahn of Shelter Publications—books like Shelter that will be familiar to those of a particular cultural experience and age—and more recent books such as The Small House Book-Simple Shelter and Home Work-Handbuilt Shelter. I recommend Kahn’s publications for those seeking inspiration in building or a mental escape from the daily humdrum (available through Amazon online at Kinokinuya bookstores in Australia).

Thanks, John Adams, for a photo that raised good memories and associations and for the idea that a yield is defined by those seeking it rather than some distant economist.

April

Associated with the ancient Roman diety Venus but having an alternative origin in the term ‘to open’, April’s source-name may be a reference to plant buds opening as the northern Springs gets underway.

Here, in our part of the world, April brings increasingly stronger hints that Winter is not all that far off. Travel Tasmania’s Derwent Valley around this time and you find it ablaze in the bright yellows of the deciduous poplar and other introduced trees. Travel into the high mountains and you walk past the first intense yellow of the wiry, native (Tasmania only—sorry mainlanders) Nothofagus gunii, the so-called Deciduous Beech.

I have to admit that when I came to the April pages in the calendar what sprang to mind was not the season but the woman, the permaculture educator of the same name with her internet-based permaculture design course and Flamenco dancing, and whom I last encountered across the Tasman at Australasian Permaculture Convergence 11 in New Zealand.

But it was not particular people or deciduous trees that illustrate the permaculture principle of Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback. It’s a set of animal excavators. The feedback in question is that derived from observing and monitoring the work of these creatures and managing them so they cause no damage. And the excavator animals thats serve as illustration? You’ll find them in your own edition of the 2013 Permaculture Calendar.

The hidden lesson in April is that permaculture is, above all else, applied systems thinking in which feedback loops obtained via observation, monitoring and measurement are the means to the self-regulation that enables in-time change to our designs to make them work better and to correct malfunctions. Without delving into the arcane science of cybernetics or systems dynamics, let’s just say that observation provides the feedback, the information flow which permaculture designers and practitioners make use of to apply self-regulation in their work so as to enact the design thinking philosophy of continual improvement.

May

Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services is the permaculture principle for May and it’s illustrated by those fawn-coloured cows addressing the camera mentioned at the start of this review.

We look to the ancient Greeks for the source of this month’s name that is said to be derived from the Greek diety, Maia, a representation of fertility that passed to the Romans as the fertility diety, Bona Dea, who had a festival around this time of the year. An alternative derivation may have been to do with elders, with the following month being named for youth.

The illustration is about the conversation of matter, in this case of the conversion of grass into animal protein via the intermediatary of a cow, the mobile ecological element in the landscape that has evolved to carry out this conversion.

To refer back to the earlier principle of Obtain a Yield, that fawn-coloured bovine becomes a yield for omnivores when they eat it. In a way the cow is the medium through which omnivores acquire the nutrition in grass.

Both the grass the animals eat and the animals themselves can be regarded as renewable resources—regenerative resources because their stock can be managed to increase their numbers or maintained at a replacement level. And, powering it all, is the thermonuclear energy of sunlight that interacts with plant chemicals via photosynthesis to produce the grass for the cows in the first place. Look at energy and you find a chain of causal and conversion links that we, too, can be part of when intermediated by technologies such as photovoltaics and farming.

The fawn-coloured herbivore reminds me of something the other co-inventor of the permaculture design system, Bill Mollison, said… that animals are a necessary part of any farming or gardening system.

June

It’s June and it’s Winter. Those of the pemaculture clade sequestered in the far tropical north of this continent might not notice, but those of the southern realm surely will. Now is the time to value and use the renewable resource of wood by stacking and igniting it to stay warm (but not in the cities).

For the Permaculture Calendar, June is themed by the principle of Produce No Waste and we see in the accompanying photo by Vitalia Baranyai two males, one standing as if to look busy with a wheelbarrow full of some clumpy substance, in front of what appears to be a well made and somewhat elaborate dual-heap composter.

I doubt local government health inspectors would find all that much by way of inspiration here, more that they would freakout a little, for the material in that barrow and in those compost heaps includes a substance of human origin and it is used to fertilise fruit trees after a long time composting. You can read the caption in your calendar for the details, but it truly represents the permaculture principle of Produce No waste, whatever the origin of the material.

July

Design From Pattern to Detail is the permaculture principle for this mid-winter month named for Julius Ceasar, who was born at this time of year.

It’s an important principle in my opinion because it implies that you have to understand the context of your permaculture design—the pattern—before you think about building it. Applying this principle is an antidote to the act-before-you-look school of permaculture action. Bill Mollison explained it with his own principle that I think is well worth chanting whenever a new design is to be started: Apply Protracted and Thouthtful Observation Rather Than Protracted and Thoughtless Action.

In other words, look before you leap into design. Look for and understand context. Or, as it’s stated in the Action Learning methodology: Look > Think > Act.

Acting is the content of the accompanying photo by Dorothee Perez from the distant lands of Margaret River in Western Australia. She writes that in the Pemablitz approach to mutual assistance in community-based permaculture, the process starts with identifying the needs of the property owners whose place is to be permablitzed to turn a low productivity landscape into a productive one. Looking at how the site is used and the environmental and landscape contexts of the project follow. Out of this you place the detail of the design within the larger scale environmental and social patterns. And that’s just common sense that is, unfortunatley, often uncommon.

August

The emperor Augustus gives us the name of this end-of-winter month and David Holmgren gives us Integrate Rather Than Segregate as its permaculture principle. And Leonie Shannahan from the sweaty clime of the Sunshine Coast gives us her photo to illustrate the principle and its lesson drawn from her Edible School Gardens program.

Her photo makes use the radial pattern made up of a big yellow flower with handfuls of colourful vegetables to illustrate the elements of Leonie’s work in the educational use of food-producing gardens in schools.

Leonie, with Cate Hubmeyer in Adelaide, take further the pioneering work with edible gardens in schools started by Carolyn Nuttall in Brisbane and contributed to by Janet Millington, now in Far North Queensland.

Edible school gardens and linking them into the curriculum is an example of how an idea that started within the permaculture milieu in the mid-1990s—stimulated by training offered by New Zealand permaculture educator, Robina McCurdy and taken on by early adopters like Sally Ramsden and Fiona Campbell, the innovative permaculture crews in Adelaide and Wollongong and Cultivating Community in Melbourne—have moved beyond permaculture’s boundary to become integrated into eduational programs and mainstream practices.

September

I look at the new foliage bursting from the almond trees at Randwick Sustainability Hub to know that this seventh month of the Roman calendar is the start of the southern Spring.

And to celebrate it John Champagne from NSW’s far south coast provides a photo of the Chikukwa permaculture project in Africa to illustrate the principle of Use Small and Slow Solutions. Their 20 years of slow, patient work is restoring the water system.

I have a double attitude to this principle. I see its wisdom in many situations but in some of the big, fast-moving trends at large in the world, like the changing climate, I’m unsure we have the time for small and slow solutions any longer. But, then, it’s a principle, not a law of nature. That means we can choose to apply it fully, only sometimes or not all all. Why? Because principles are negotiable.

October

Tropical fruits in plenty illustrate the principle for this Spring month of Use and Value Diversity and, needless to say, October was the eigth month of ancient Rome’s calendar.

It might have been at a meeting or a course that someone said that too much diversity is not always a good thing. They were taking about the diversity of insect pests in the garden, but I think the principle remains a useful one in general. Even in the garden mentioned by that person, a diversity of insects in general would have the potential to reduce the diversity of pest insects in particular were we to look at the situation through the previously mentioned permaculture principle of working from pattern to detail, the pattern being the insect food web and the floral species that form its basis.

Diversity of elements in both physical and social design provides that necessary back-up service in case one element fails. It’s like building redundancy into our designs in the same way that spacecraft are provided with redundant systems, and, as with spacecraft, it’s a good idea in permaculture.

It’s as Bill Mollison said in his set of principles: Support Important Functions With Many Elements.

November

Use Edges and Value the Marginal—it’s a useful principle for a month that sits on the edge of Summer. ‘Novem’ means ‘nine’ in Latin and its not hard guess that November is the ninth month of their ancient year.

November’s is the only community garden photo in this year’s calendar and it’s of the community garden at Pittwater on Sydney’s northern beaches. I won’t disclose how the chooks in it relate to the permaculture principle so as not to leave calendar buyers with a spoiler.

I don’t want to be discouraging, but using edges is something I have seen gardeners experience difficulty with.

Here’s the story… Full of enthusiasm for their new community garden but not full of knowledge, the gardeners set about the construction of one of those broad circular patches known as mandala gardens. The central herb spiral was built to give a little verticality to an otherwise flat site. A through-path was made and little dead-end paths shaped like keyholes were created so that gardeners could access the crops. It was an impressive structure, a symetrical pattern on the landscape, a geometry amid the surrounding chaos of kikuyu.

And it was that kikuyu lawn that was to become the trouble. In particular, the edge where it made contact with the mandala garden.

We know about edges from our permaculture courses and from the science of ecology. It’s from there that the concept of edges being the interfaces where different ecosystems make contact is drawn… that they are productive zones because they support species from the interfacing ecosystems.

But that’s not what those community gardeners needed in a garden ecosystem interfacing with one dominated by the invasive and aggressive, stolon-creeping kikuyu, but that’s what happened as the invading grass created an ongoing maintenance problem. Rather than a productive edge the gardeners got a productive problem.

The solution was to create a clear and impermeable barrier to what was a clear and present threat. A double line of comfrey proved largely successful in creating a physical barrier along the edge because it comes to dominate wherever it is planted and because it created the density of foliage and shade that discouraged kikuyu weed (that word again). Edge under control.

I don’t want to appear to be arguing against making use of edges, however when it comes to gardens, maintenance is another factor in need of addressing were we to consider making those undulating edges that are popular with gardenmakers in the permaculture clans. Why is that? Where those edges border lawn, mowing that lawn is a design consideration because one of the design principles of permaculture landscaping is ease and low cost of maintenance. Wavy edges can make for difficult mowing. We could still have our wavy edges by thinking laterally and replacing lawn with bark chip to eliminate the need for mowing.

Let’s think creatively about edges… about how we can use the interface zone between orchard and vegetable gardens, where there is plenty of sunlight, to grow a productive fringing edge of fast fruits—the bananas, pawpaw, pepino, tamarillo (sorry Tasmanians, you’ll have to do without most of those) as well as perennial and longer-term, larger vegetables such as yacon, sunflower, Jerusalum artichoke and the like.

Or about how in permaculture social design we can make use of people who inhanit the edges of groups and who are connectors or mavens (those with deep knowledge about something and who are willing to share it) to set up those edge links with other organisations so that we can enable a clear flow of information and mutual assistance.

December

It’s December—the tenth month of the ancient Roman calendar until new months were introduced—and the hot, sticky weather has returned to parts of our continent while the southern climes rejoice in warm weather without excessive humidity. In the garden our plants are in full bloom and you can see the people, their backs bent to their work and their gaze limited by close focus on the patch of soil in front of them, pushing in the seeds of our late-Summer harvest.

For our Permaculture Calendar, December is the month to Cretaively Use and Respond To Change, the operating principle of design for this time of year. Jodie Lane has provided the image of a trailer load of mixed fruits the product of Fair Harvest which grows over 50 varieties of fruit trees—doesn’t that say something about our earlier design principle of Use and Value Diversity? Is Jodie onto something here?

Jodie’s message is to call upon our old permaculture friend, observation, to monitor how crops respond to a changing climate as it unfolds. This is about setting up those feedback loops I mentioned earlier and is directly related to the permaculture design principle of Obtain a Yield, for if we don’t monitor feedback we have no evidential basis for making changes and we cannot apply the principle of continuous improvement.

The hidden lesson in creatively using and responding to change, as the principle proposes, has a great deal to do with the future of our permaculture design system because it is based on a principle evident in the evolution of biological entities. Evolution is a continuum of change to adapt to new circumstances and its failure leads to extinction. That goes for ideas as much as for plants and animals. Unless permaculture continues to change by adapting to social, economic and other change, it too could become trapped in the prison of its own past and in the established ways of doing things.

Outro

I have delved into what are perhaps some arcane ideas in this review of the 2013 edition of the Permaculture Calendar… I have postulated the presence of hidden meanings in a few of the monthly principles (though these are my invention, not the contributors) and I have illustrated the article with a few stories of my own. Like all reviews, this one is a personal appreciation of a publication and it reflects a personal point of view about the product coming from my own learnings and life experience.

The Calendar, of course, can be enjoyed as a collection of photo pages bearing ideas and accompanied by calendar pages with plenty of space to scribble in dates and notes of your own, or as a personal planning tool for the organised or those aspiring to become that.

After the publication of the last Permaculture Calendar, someone in conversation casually suggested that we had seen its final edition. The notion was that calendars are now carried in people’s digital devices, that they synch with calendars on other digital devices and that events can be emailed and wi-fi’d. Paper calendars are incapable of synching with devices or with other paper calendars, yet they remain in publication. I suspect that even users of digital calendars continue to buy the paper Permaculture Calendar in part because in going through the principles of permaculture the calendars are simultaneously instructional devices that educate through their stories and images.

I believe, though, that the Permaculture Diary of past years has given way to the digital deluge and that we have seen the last of it. Unfortunate that might be, I suppose it was inevitable even though Fiona, my partner, continues to lug around a substantial, leather-bound Franklin-Covey diary, not having a smartphone with a planner to replace the weighty thing with. I suspect there are still others out there somewhere who like the heft of a paper diary. Too few, alas, for a viable market in permaculture diaries.

In closing, may I say something about a publication of the past and with digital media? It is this: user-generated content did not originate with the internet. The internet made it simpler, more accessible and more immediate and that, I suggest, is a good thing. User-generated content has its origin (as far as I can ascertain) more than a decade and a half before the publicly useable internet in the form of a series of books that appeared through the 1980s and into the 1990s: the Whole Earth Catalog. Readers would post (the act of using a postal agency to move physical materials, such as letters, over distance) their reviews of tools and books to the publishers and they would appear in the next edition.

That, we know now though we didn’t know at the time, was revolutionary. And that’s the tradition that the 2013 Permaculture Calendar continues to follow… permaculture practitioners sending in their contributions to illustrate permaculture principles and these being compiled through the hard work of Richard Telford into the paper artifact that you will hold in your hands as soon as you order one, or more.

Get your own 2013 Permaculture Calendar: http://permacultureprinciples.com/resources_calendar.php

Get your own 2013 Permaculture Calendar

 

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