Wednesday, March 29, 2006


GANA Speaker Series
Peter Bane and Keith Johnson
Long-time permaculture teachers
Newly relocated to Bloomington

8:00 – 9:15 p.m., March 29, 2006 (after our monthly meeting, see meeting report)

Peter and Keith introduced us to the concept, philosophy and practice of “permaculture.” The group then discussed permaculture in the context of neighborhood concerns — trees and voles.

The Process
Lucille Bertuccio, of Bloomington’s Center for Sustainable Living and our scheduled speaker, unfortunately called to say she was ill. However, it just so happened that Peter Bane and Keith Johnson were in town briefly to sign closing documents for their new home. I had invited the two men to my house for tea, and when they arrived, asked if they would substitute for our friend Lucille. They graciously agreed. (We will schedule Lucille for a later date.)

And what a wonderful synchronicity, to have two knowledgeable and well-known permaculture teachers speak to us just as we begin to get a grip on what it means to envision our fair neighborhood as a sustainable village within the greater Bloomington area. For “permaculture,” as Peter said by way of introduction, or “perma-culture,” means “permanent culture,” i.e., culture that can sustain itself over time. Permaculture, he told us, is “applied ecology.” As we learn to understand the complexity and diversity of natural systems we can put this knowledge into practice to design systems that mimic, utilize and enhance natural laws to encourage abundance for all.

Peter Bane has been a permaculture teacher for over 15 years and publishes the national magazine, “Permaculture Activist” (, now in its 21st year. Keith Johnson has been designing and constructing natural gardens for over 30 years. They now relocate to Bloomington from Earthhaven, an intentional community in North Carolina. Let us welcome them!

The first principle of permaculture, says Peter, is to “observe and interact.” As an example, he spoke of this area of the country as “a former mosaic of prairie and forest” with a vast diversity of native plants. So, in our neighborhood, he suggests, plant fruit and nut and berry bushes and trees, since they naturally grow well here and create food for us and other creatures. He also suggested that as we think about places for the city to plant trees in our neighborhood that we consider locations that will also be people-oriented in some way — for example, where a tree could serve as a gathering place.

Peter mentioned that, since it floods, Green Acres was originally a seasonal wetlands, and that instead of trying to funnel water into expensive storm drains and even more expensive sewage treatment plants, we could start imagining ways to utilize rain water in our neighborhood. Like catchment systems for rain off roofs for gardens and washing needs. Like shared backyard ponds and other water features to attract birds and wildlife.

Over and over the two men talked about how in nature waste for one species becomes food for another, and how we can design systems that take advantage of this fact. Species like to live with one another, said Keith, rather than apart (like in formal gardens), because when together they nourish each other.

And they talked about how, in permacultural understanding, “the edges are where the action is.” Edges — where two or more plant or animal species or ecosystems collide — generate conflict, dynamic unrest, and this in turn attracts new species to create more diversity, and thus stability. So, with a pond, for example, design it to have fingers. That will give it more “edge” and thus encourage nature to allow in more plant and animal species.

Likewise with human culture. Let us design systems in our neighborhood to encourage “edge,” through interactions and exchange of our diverse ages, backgrounds, skills and knowledge. To create stability, encourage diversity. Humans are part of nature. Permaculture principles permeate our lives too, or they can.

At about this point, I looked around the room to see everybody’s jaws dropping, as we began to take in the first glimmers if this new (and very, very ancient) way of understanding the natural world and our place as creators inside it who can use our native intelligence to experiment with different ways to work with nature in order to enhance her capacity to feed and shelter us and all her creatures.

Then Diane Dormant dropped a bomb. “What about voles? she asked, sheepish. As if she felt terrible for bringing us all down to this nagging pesky problem that we all share. Their tunnels create spongy, uneven lawns that are hard to mow and those who are frail or elderly have trouble walking on them without stumbling. What’s more, they eat certain plants from underneath leaving them sitting on air. Diane said she’s tried everything, and nothing works. After $400 of time, energy, and worthless remedies, her little creatures have become bolder, actually running over her feet!

Keith reeled off a number of alternative ways to work with voles. These include planting daffodils to circle plants the critters like; encouraging friendly snakes and shrews that will eat them (no need to bring snakes and shrews in, just allow them when they appear); and laying gravel, about six inches worth, in the primary root zone of their favorite plants (their tender little paws have trouble digging through gravel).

Peter added that, as with anything in nature, we need to start our investigation of how to deal with moles and voles by asking “what is the yield?” i.e., what do these species give us? What is their purpose in nature? And our response to that question can then be the first step towards designing a system that will both include them and help us.

I must admit here to being a total convert to permaculture, since last November when I took the first half of their two week long course. In its breathtakingly philosophical attitude and nitty-gritty practical approach, and in its challenge to use our long-dormant inventive imaginations, I feel that permaculture offers real hope for the future, in that it can galvanize us to re-make our world. In my view, permaculture should be adopted as the curriculum for all U.S. schools — just as it has now been embraced by some Indian tribes for their schools as “Native American science.” What better way to ensure our children’s future? What better way to galvanize the children than for them to realize their own actions can make a huge difference?

I would love you to join us for the second week of the Peter and Keith’s Permaculture Design Practicum, to be held in Spencer, Indiana, May 5-13. Contact: or call 317-259-4417 or 812-336-4486.

I close with a quote from the Permaculture Activist website by one of the founders of permaculture in the '70s, Australian Bill Mollison:

“The ultimate end to a growth economy is the same as an analagous growth: cancer. But for national economies, the victims are nature, soils, forests, people, water, and quality of life. There is one, and only one, solution, and we have almost no time to try it. We must turn all our resources to repairing the natural world, and train all our young people to help. They want to. We need to give them this last chance to create forests, soils, clean waters, clean energies, secure communities, stable regions, and to know how to do it from hands-on experience.”


Ann Kreilkamp
GANA scribe

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