Growing up in a tin shed with a veggie garden, a composting toilet and one solar panel in south-west WA, Charlie lived the low-impact lifestyle from a young age. In 2011, he completed a PDC at Djanbung Gardens and soon after, formed Formidable Vegetable – with the hope of inspiring people to grow food, keep chickens and make the world a better place. Formidable Vegetable have performed at global festivals including Glastonbury and at the United Nations, and were described by Vandana Shiva as “connecting the creativity of nature with the creativity of music”.
PA’s staff member Kym spoke to Charlie about living at Melliodora, creative collaborations that promote permaculture action, and ‘Climate Movement’, their new song with “a serious vibe and message of hope.”
For those who may not be familiar – tell us a bit about yourself – and how you ended up living at Melliodora?
I’m just a guy from South West WA who did a permaculture course with Robyn Francis once and instead of becoming a designer, started a band called Formidable Vegetable instead! During the session on patterns in the PDC, I had this ‘Aha!’ moment around the possibility of using music as a knowledge system for permaculture and next minute, I found myself on stage at Glastonbury! How did that happen!? After finishing my first album, Permaculture: A Rhymer’s Manual (which is an adaptation of the 12 permaculture principles in song), I sent it to David Holmgren and Su Dennett to see what they thought. I was so nervous showing my work to the very co-originator of permaculture, but when David told me that he’d listened to the whole thing and ‘didn’t cringe once’, I took that as a good sign! After nearly a decade of crazy gigging and international touring, a bizarre chain of events (involving a certain pandemic), has led me to lockdown at their place, which is proving to be the most wonderfully symbiotic situation!
It can be really tricky trying to describe permaculture to new folks – and convincing them it’s more than organic gardening. What’s your elevator pitch on what it is and why it’s important?
OK, I’ll cheat and quote my song, Earth People Fair:
“See yourself as a part of the whole.
Grow some food for your family food-bowl.
Stand your ground, but give up control.
Know the boundaries, but tear down all the walls.
Don’t give up or give in to apathy.
Plant a tree, then plant another three-thousand.
Now’s the time to start feeding the soul, feeding the soil,
believing anything is possible.”
You’ve been involved in lots of projects of late – designing permaculture resources, helping launch the Retrosuburbia e-book, and making global news for turning down Glastonbury & choosing to be ‘Flight free’ [well before Covid-19 stopped the planes].
What does a typical ‘week in the life’ look like – and has it changed much since Covid-19?
Life at Melliodora is wonderfully organic (pun intended, as always) and way less stressful than touring constantly. The pandemic lockdown has turned my life from a hectic never-ending roadtrip (and prior to giving up air travel a year ago – a never ending World tour) into a healthier, more grounded permaculture co-creation opportunity. Apart from joining our community farm-days – where everyone is out in the garden or doing work specifically for the common good of the land and the people here – I pretty much spend the rest of my time dreaming up ideas that inspire me and flinging them out at everyone to see if they’re interested (“Hey Dave, what do you reckon about a livestreamed launch party with Formidable Vegetable for the RetroSuburbia ebook?”, “Hey Brenna, how about I write a rap song about Permaculture Climate Action and we make a clip with your illustrations?”. It’s a daily exploration into the principle ‘Integrate, rather than Segregate‘, which is a dream situation for a collaborative creative like me. I feel incredibly privileged to be here!
You’ve been a long term supporter and donor to PA’s Permafund (thank you!). Why did you choose Permafund to support – and how important is the ethic of ‘Fair Share’ to you?
For the first few years after starting the band, I channeled every bit of income I made back into producing more albums and touring in order to keep spreading the permaculture message. When I started making a small surplus from my music, it seemed like the obvious thing to do was to tithe some of my income to Permafund, so that the music could also directly benefit people practicing permaculture on-the-ground. Just singing and waving my arms around about how great permaculture is, without ever being in one place long enough to have a garden of my own started to feel a bit abstract and disconnected. So for me, Permafund was a great way that I could give back to the community and adhere a bit more to the ethics of Earth Care and Fair Share, while not having much of a built or biological environment available for me to work on at the time.
What do you think is the most important issue(s) we are facing at present – and how is permaculture positioned to respond?
Aside from the inevitable fallout from Covid, I still see climate change and biodiversity loss as being the number one issues of our time. I keep trying to remind myself and others around me that pandemics come and go, but the impacts humans have on our ecological systems is a far greater threat in the long run. I truly believe that permaculture movement (and the incredibly diverse range of people within it) has all of the solutions we need to deal with these problems. We just need to galvanise and integrate more as a whole so that we can take these solutions to the rest of the world, in both a top-down and a bottom-up way.
You launched a fabulous new song ‘Climate Movement’ this week which you’ve described as having a “serious vibe, but with a message of hope”. tell us more, including about the track and how folks can sing/dance along and get involved.
I’m pretty excited about this one! It’s a Call to Permaculture Action on Climate and a collaboration between Formidable Vegetable and our amazing producer, Spoonbill (who’s well-known in the world of dancy electronic beats) as well as renowned animator, Dropbear (who made our first clip for the song, Yield) and the amazing Brenna Quinlan, who has been taking permaculture into the stratosphere with her beautiful illustrations. I’ve been tweaking the words over the past few years as a bit of an ‘introduction to permaculture’, but it all came to a head last year, after reading the IPCC 1.5˚ report, which estimated that we have only one decade left to sort ourselves out, if we want the World to remain a habitable place. I thought ‘damn, we really need to take permaculture to the next level. NOW!’ and the rap turned into a bit of an anthemic manifesto calling for permies everywhere to unite, collaborate and collectively take their message, skills and solutions up the chains of command (in whichever areas they are active) so that we can make some meaningful change as soon as possible.
After brainstorming ideas with Brenna, we decided the best thing we could offer would be a video that we could hopefully send viral around the internet to inspire, motivate and activate people to go out and use what they have to bring the change. So, here’s your opportunity folks! Get sharing! Click here to see on YouTube and Facebook.
What does 2020 have in store for you?
Well, until Covid is over, I’m not planning to venture far from Melliodora, but it would be good to reconnect with the rest of the band (who are down in Melbourne) once things ease up a bit. I think local action with a global focus is the theme of the year, so I’m pretty happy here collaborating with world-famous permie rockstars on educational materials, music, art and gardening until something else calls me! Brenna and I have also been working on creating a deck of permaculture action cards for teaching the principles. There are a few packs left! Check them out and grab a copy here
Photo: Brenna Quinlan and Charlie Mgee with the deck of permaculture action cards designed as a joint collaboration. Photo credit: supplied by Charlie McGee
Fair Share and how to support further:
Permafund provides small grants to permaculture projects across Australia and internationally, and the next grant round will be opening soon. To make a tax deductible donation before the end of financial year, or set up a regular tithe like Charlie Mgee please click here.