This Tuesday, permaculture expert Paul Wheaton will visit Oregon. Wheaton will deliver a talk on the subject of “Eco Footprint: Urban vs. Rural” at Heidi Tunnell Catering Company (HTCC) in Creswell. Started by Heidi Tunnell in 2005, HTCC not only offers gourmet catering for events but also weekly family-style dinners featuring food that is fresh, local, and straight from the farms.
From programming to permaculture
Born in Moscow, Idaho, Wheaton has spent time growing up in Northeastern Oregon and has lived the last 12 years in Missoula, Montana. He originally achieved fame as a computer programmer. In 1998 Wheaton created a website for Java programming called Java Ranch. The site became a massive hit. Now called Code Ranch, the site exists to this day and 30 volunteers help keep it running. Technology has always been near and dear to Wheaton’s heart and he has many projects under his belt. Most interestingly, Wheaton says,
“I was one of the lead architects for the ground systems for the spacecraft that takes the pictures for Google Earth.”
But it is not just technology that fascinates Wheaton. He also has a keen interest in gardening. And it is his interest in gardening — and his initial failure at it — that eventually led him to being a renowned permaculture expert. Wheaton explains,
“In 1993 I planted a garden and everything died. I became obsessed with gardening. In 1994 I read a hundred gardening books because I had to know how to have a garden that did not die. In 1996 I got my Master Gardener work done. In 2000 I bought a farm out on Mount Spokane. A neighbor stopped by and I called it a ‘full farm system’ where ‘systems feed systems feed systems.’ I thought a farm that raised one or two things was not a farm. I believed it had to raise everything. This neighbor shows up and says, ‘Oh you’re doing permaculture.’ I hadn’t heard of that before. He lent me the big black book [Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual]. And next thing you know I had read everything about permaculture.”
Combining his experience with programming and his fascination with gardening, Wheaton began his foray into permaculture. He says,
“I had a website at the time for my gardening and farming and I started adding my permaculture experience to it.”
From that simple beginning arose Permies.com, the largest permaculture website in the world. Wheaton is now all about permaculture.
“I am bonkers about permaculture. I travel around visiting farms and I observe what they are doing and I like to visit farms that are aligned with the things I advocate. I make videos — I have over 150 — and almost 200 podcasts.”
Wheaton is currently on a tour of the West Coast, sharing his knowledge and meeting fellow permaculture enthusiasts. The tour will go through Battleground, Washington; then Beaverton, Silver Creek Falls, Newport, and Eugene; then onto Northern California, including San Francisco, and end up in Santa Barbara and San Diego. Then Wheaton will travel back to Montana through Phoenix, Arizona and Salt Lake City, Utah.
Permaculture is a branch of ecological design and engineering that emphasizes sustainability, whether through agricultural systems or human spaces of living. Often times it models its projects after natural ecosystems. Chicken tractors are an example of permaculture. These tractors recycle chickens and their excrement back into gardens, reducing the need for unnatural fertilizers. The idea is that, since the fertilization in many natural ecosystems would normatively come from animal excrement, it is more natural to recreate that cycle than to use chemical pesticides.
Wheaton has his own style when it comes to defining the term:
“Everyone defines it differently. I currently define permaculture as a more symbiotic relationship with nature so that you can be even lazier. If you set it up just right, all you have to do is harvest. You don’t have to plant seeds, fight pests, etc. It’s using Mother Nature’s lessons for our horticultural advantage. It’s the opposite of credit card debt — it’s giving a gift to your future self.”
As permaculture is a call to go back to more natural methods of living and farming, the idea itself is not “new,” per se, but old as agriculture itself. Nonetheless, the term “permaculture” is itself contemporary and did not come about until the 1970s in Tasmania, Australia. David Holmgren, a college student at the time, and Bill Mollison, a professor at an Australian university, worked together to father permaculture, which they defined as “consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs.”
To meet these ends, permaculture draws from several different agendas. It integrates organic farming, agroforestry, sustainable development, and applied ecology — just to name a few. The emphasis is on taking care of the environment and enabling humans to become self-reliant by means of local gardens and farms. The values underlying this movement, set forth by Bill Mollison in his 1988 book Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual, are: (1) taking care of the earth, by providing for all life systems; (2) taking care of the people, by enabling humans to access the resources necessary to live; and (3) sharing the surplus, by exercising self-government in such a way that resources are saved for the future care of both the earth and the people.
While permaculture can involve organic farming, Wheaton personally believes it is fundamentally different. To him, organic farming can still involve unnatural means of production.
“I think I am pretty famous for being critical, very critical, of even organic techniques. Organic techniques to me are toxic and disrespectful to the earth. Organic farmers tend to not want me to come by. I want to focus not on who is screwing things up but where things are really good and then project those examples of good-i-tude.”
Wheaton will be speaking this Tuesday, August 28, at 6:30 pm at HTCC. The event is free and open to the public. HTCC’s website says, “Come on down to Creswell, have a wood fired pizza and visit the Farmers’ Market before Paul begins at 6:30pm.” HTCC is located at 182 South 2nd St. Creswell, OR 97426.
For more information about permaculture and Paul Wheaton, visit Wheaton’s blog at http://www.richsoil.com/permaculture/ or his website Permies at http://www.permies.com/. For more information about HTCC, visit the company website at http://heiditunnellcatering.com/.