Story by Russ Grayson, first appeared in Organic Gardener magazine, written 20 October 2016 for publication early 2017
He was an iconoclast, a provocateur, a visionary and a man whose considerable intellectual powers were balanced by a hands-in-the-dirt practicality. Gardener, author, educator, scientific researcher, university lecturer, one-time forester and fisherman, Bill Mollison, was a man of many parts.
Like the rest of us, Bill was a contradictory personality. He was a walking encyclopaedia, a database of good ideas on legs. Get him talking on some topic and a deluge of knowledge would pour from his mouth. Some of that came from his learning, much from experience because Bill was a practical man who would turn good ideas into physical reality. That became clear to anyone who visited the Permaculture Institute, in the nineties located on a farm in the rural backblocks of the Tweed Valley of northern NSW.
A woman permaculture designer of the time, a landscape architect who worked with Bill at the Institute, described him as a genius. I don’t know if that was true, however I do know that as well as being all of those other things I mention, Bill was also a man of thoughtful compassion.
I don’t recall when I first met Bill. I do recall when I first heard of him, though. That was in Tasmania. I was living there during the late-seventies and I would occasionally hear of this character who was associated with the University of Tasmania, and who had some rather unorthodox ideas. Bill lectured in environmental psychology there.
It was during those years that Bill met David Holmgren. David was doing the environmental design elective of his landscape design course at Hobart’s College of Advanced Education. He got together with Bill in a house on Strickland Avenue, on the lower slopes on Kunanyi-Mt Wellington. I understand the place became known as the Republic of Strickland Avenue. What came out of this Mollisonian-Holmgrenian collaboration was the first book on permaculture, Permaculture One. It was 1977.
Permaculture One was followed by Permaculture Two a year later. This built on permaculture as a synthesis, a bringing together into a single, cohesive system of ideas drawn from sources as diverse as the traditional knowledge of cultures around the world, disciplines like landscape design, horticulture, architecture, ecology and anthropology, and the sciences.
From these beginnings in Tasmania, permaculture started to spread around the world. It was adapted to regional conditions and to both rural and urban environments. It worked out how to maintain and increase natural systems while they continued to provide environmental services like clean water, fresh air, humidity, good soils, wildlife habitat and food as well as energy from sunlight, moving air and running water. Doing this enacted permaculture’s first ethic of care of the Earth.
Originally envisioned as an approach to agriculture based on perennial plants, permaculture has evolved into a comprehensive design system that includes an alternative economics, energy and water efficient building design and, more recently, what has become known as ‘social permaculture’. Add the sharing of surplus resources and information that enacts the design system’s inherent open source approach, and we have the application of permaculture’s two other ethics — care of people and share what’s spare.
Bill came to mainstream notoriety first with the ABC TV production, In Grave Danger of Falling Food, and later with the four-part TV series, Global Gardener, which was broadcast nationally on the ABC in the nineties. The series showed permaculture in different parts of the world and became a major recruitment tool for the design system. The author of a number of books, Bill’s best-known work was the substantial and scholarly volume, Permaculture — A Designers’ Manual.
The last time I saw Bill was in 2008 at the Australasian Permaculture Convergence in Sydney. Bill and I walked across a field at that convergence, making our way to a building on the other side. We came to a shallow ditch and Bill took my arm to steady himself. I realised then that he had become frail.
It was Ian Lillington, the permaculture educator from Castlemaine, who phoned Fiona Campbell and I early one morning in late September 2016 to tell us of Bill’s passing. I didn’t articulate it then but I sensed that a time, an era, had gone. A few of us across the continent emailed and skyped and made the decision to set up the In Memory of Bill Mollison facebook group. Here, people could post their recollections, their photos of Bill and his life.
Many have contributed to Bill’s memory. At Australasian Permaculture Convergence 13 in Perth, in early October 2016, there was a slide show on Bill and a memorial table was set up. On it, an image of Bill produced by Mt Kembla artist, musician and permaculture educator, April Sampson-Kelly, was placed. We remembered Bill, without whom all of us assembled there and probably others reading this story would have remained strangers in life.
On returning to Tasmania when the Permaculture Institute moved from the Tweed Valley, Bill and wife, Lisa, settled on a smallholding at Sisters Creek on the Bass Strait coast. There, Bill lived the latter part of his life only a short distance from where he began it in the small town of Stanley.
It was Bill’s wish that on his passing we plant a tree for him. That’s being done around the world. Now, there are many more trees than there were just a short time ago.
Farewell and thanks, Bill Mollison.
- In Memory of Bill Mollison Facebook group
- A 2007 story by ABC Organic Gardening magazine editor, Steve Payne, and Russ Grayson on permaculture and Bill Mollison
- Permaculture Australia media release on the passing of Bill Mollison
- Permaculture singer-songwriter (Formidable Vegetable Sound System), Charlie McGee’s song for Bill: