“When first exposed to Permaculture I thought … ‘this is just common sense’ ”: Jed Walker on community gardens, community advocacy and the legacy of the bushfires.
Jed Walker is a member of PA’s Permafund subcommittee. Based in the Blue Mountains, which has been a Transition Town since 2008, Jed follows the Transition movement and works as part of the Mid Mountains community gardens in Lawson. In February 2019, Jed, along with Rowe Morrow and Ruth Harvey, taught a PDC in Cox’s Bazaar refugee camp in Bangladesh near the Myanmar border where more than 800,000 people reside.
We asked Jed about his permaculture journey and how it has informed his community advocacy around sustainability and bush regeneration after the bushfires.
Photo: Jed Walker at home in the Blue Mountains, Australia. Photo credit: supplied by Jed Walker.
When and where was your first brush with permaculture?
Back in the 80s I was involved in the community garden at West End in Brisbane. Around that time I got my hands on Mollison’s Designers Manual, the ‘Bible’. What can I say? Permaculture and community gardens, a match made in heaven! Like many people when first exposed to Permaculture I thought ‘wow’, and also ‘this is just common sense’. I was also into ecology and anarchism at the time, so certainly it made sense to me.
I see you’re working at the Mid Mountains community gardens, what are your aims there for this year and how is it looking like at the moment.
When I moved down the mountains to Hazelbrook, I moved to the Mid Mountains community gardens in the spirit of keeping things local. Our focus there is to truly rely on locally sourced inputs, we don’t want to import much more than material for propagation. The horse next door, grass clippings and trees on site provide for most of our compost.
This site is on the grounds of a beautiful old mansion run as a kind of Christian camp setup, and we have held workshops there. The Blue Mountains Permaculture Institute have had some international attendees for their teacher training and Precarious Places workshops. It’s such a treat for these visitors because it looks out over an endless expanse of native bush.
At the moment we are looking at doing some terraforming of the site to maximise the water retention and access for people who can’t manage steps. The site performed very well in the recent heatwaves, with our water strategy, which includes automated irrigation and wicking beds, doing its job.
This is a while ago now, but I was really taken by an article written about the Heritage Apple Walk in the Katoomba community garden. The aim was to “create a living museum, rather than heaps of apples”. Could you elaborate on what this means? What else should we be getting out of gardening other than produce?
The living Museum aspect refers to the many heirloom varieties of apples in the gardens at Katoomba. Even if apple seed were to grow true, it won’t last forever, so we need these trees to supply stock for future grafting. Any plant variety needs to be kept extant, even plants that grow true have a use-by date for seed viability, Egyptian pyramid seeds notwithstanding.
Community gardens also provide a microcosm of how a healthy society should operate. Our needs for food, exercise, social contact, participation in decision making and getting down and dirty can all be met at the same time, locally! I know it’s not for everyone, but when the robot wars start it just might have to be.
As apartments go up and green space goes down, we nowadays find it hard to make people care about our environment and our communities. Do you see community gardens as a solution?
Well actually real estate developers have caught on to putting community gardens into new apartment projects. Apparently doing so raises the prices of the units so people must be beginning to value them. It should be a no-brainer that community gardens offer all sorts of solutions. But then again it should be a no-brainer for people to take climate change seriously, to stop mining coal, to stop having overseas holidays. I don’t have that much faith that modern humans will take advantage of such obvious solutions as community gardens. Not until the supermarket shelves are empty, as they were in some seaside towns this summer.
I’m wondering if the recent fires might cause the kind of consciousness shift required for us to really value nature, collectively, and to respond with behaviour change. I know Extinction Rebellion were hoping to shock governments into change by blocking a few city streets. How much more disruptive are roaring great bushfires? No more boiling frog syndrome, we really have touched the hot stove now. 2020 could be the new 9/11, but in a good way.
I hope all is well in the Blue Mountains after the bushfires. Do you see permaculture principles filling a need in the Blue Mountains for fire-safe homes and gardens?
The Blue Mountains had huge areas burnt, but it could have been much worse in the townships. Permaculture is all about design and working with nature, so of course you use housing materials, water storage and plantings with fire in mind. The forest is adapted to burning the crap out of everything else so it isn’t really that sensible to build here in the first place. Interestingly I’ve noticed native trees dying in the heatwaves, whereas juicy deciduous exotics often fare better and don’t burn as readily either. In the longer term though, as things get even hotter, I don’t think much short of a deep hole in the ground will protect us from bushfires. What will future versions of ‘unprecedented’ look like? Yikes!
The social connections were crucial. Blackheath formed up a sprinkler network; everywhere there are stories of community level responses to the disaster, which aligns with permaculture thinking. In contrast, the response at the top levels of government was abysmal. I haven’t remained such an anarchist, however, to think the community has all the answers. We need laws, enacted fast, to halt the emissions and land management practices that caused the fires.
I see you’re also working in the Transition movement, which aims to address and respond to climate change and fossil fuel dependence. How is your work here informed by your knowledge of permaculture?
I think the ideas of Transition Towns and permaculture have converged now. David Holmgren’s Retrosuburbia pretty much captures the spirit of Transition. Any decent PDC will cover the Transition Towns focus areas of things like energy and transport.
Anything else you’d like to let our members know about?
There’s tons more I’d like people to know about, if they don’t already. Just this year I’m inspired by: Permafund, Cal Champagne and the Green Connect Farm in Wollongong, Permaculture for Refugee’s next project in Bangladesh with the Rohingya, Gambian Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou’s actions bringing Aung San Suu Kyi to The Hague, The Mulloon Institute and natural sequence farming, the Australian Holistic Management Co-operative Conference in Albury this March, the APC in Brisbane, Colin Seis and his regenerative agriculture property Winona, to name a few.
Permafund, a charity that funds small-scale permaculture projects worldwide, is looking at researching for disaster prevention and management by interviewing people impacted by the recent fires. I’m thinking ‘Forged by Fire’ as the project title, but I’d better check with the group first, so don’t tell everyone! People touched by the fires who wish to share their experience and learnings please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: PDC activity in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp on planting in small spaces. Photo credit: Jed Walker.