I’m seated around a table carved of recycled celery top pine hundreds years old, feeling a little star-struck. Next to me is David Holgrem, the pioneer of permaculture, looking a little weary from an overnight ferry journey across the Bass Strait where he was attending a national conference on the subject. Still, he shakes my hand warmly, welcoming me to his home. Soon my plate is piled high with produce gleaned from the garden I see out the window – summer vegetable salads, goats cheese, home-baked bread, pickled walnuts, olive oil. The topic of conversation is, unsurprisingly, permaculture.
Once considered a radical experiment in gardening, permaculture is now a household name. From Costa to Cundall, Canberra to Cape Town, everyone, it seems is doing it. Yet few know that the vibrant movement that is reshaping food production worldwide was borne in an Aussie backyard.
David Holmgren was a young research student when his ground-breaking paper Permaculture One was published back in 1978. The concept, co-originated with his research supervisor Bill Mollison, describes ‘consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for the provision of local needs.’
Not just about food; people, their buildings and the ways in which they organise themselves are central to permaculture, the word pointing to a vision of permanent or sustainable cultures.
While Bill took the concept on the road, David decided to test his theories in practice, buying a property with his partner Su Dennett outside Victoria’s Daylesford in 1985. Melliodora is now one of the best-documented and well known permaculture demonstration sites in the world; the on ground lab for one of Australia’s most significant intellectual exports.
It was therefore with some excitement that I visited last weekend to meet the permaculture pioneers in their natural habitat.
I find Su knee deep in blackberry, the morning sun glinting off her silver hair as she attacks the vine with a homemade brush hook.
“It’s my green gym - an hour a day keeps me fit,” she smiles without pause.
Nearby three goats devour wild apples fallen on the ground. I’ve missed milking hour, and Su explains how along with the geese and chooks, the goats are vital for manure.
“It’s harvesting, bottling and preserving time,” says Su, as I devour figs, nashi pear and new season apples so crunchy they crackle. The chickpeas have not fared so well – decimated by rats.
The warmest place on this chilly autumn morning is the solarium on the northern side of the house that creates a microclimate for extending the season for vegetables, while also mediating the house temperature.
It’s hard to believe the one-hectare property, abundant with mixed food gardens and orchards, dams, livestock, revegetated creeksand two mud-brick passive solar designed houses was once a blackberry-covered wasteland.
“Living simply doesn’t mean sacrifice – I can’t imagine anything more satisfying,” Su says.
“It’s all about equity for me. How can people live material and consumer lives while the rest of the world survives on almost nothing?”
Immersed in a super-productive, beautiful and energy efficient permaculture system at harvest time makes it hard to leave.
Su’s pep talk to my imagined readers feels in part directed to me.
“Why wait to have the lifestyle you aspire to? You can have it now. Just start working slowly, one step at a time to change what you do. And when you stop going to the supermarket that’s a milestone to celebrate.”