by Andrew Lim
by Andrew Lim
by Denise Eng
by Huiying Ng
1. Nearly a billion tonnes of topsoil was lost during the 1930s dust bowl in America. It wasn’t just blown away, to be put back. Because an inch of topsoil can take 500 years to form, the loss was catastrophic. It changed the way agriculture, soil science and national security was developed in America.
Did you know that soil science used to consider the history and genetics of soil? Soil genealogy (i.e. where it comes from) was once the bedrock of soil science–it went hand in hand with geology. Today, soil science primarily considers and assesses soil based on morphology–soil structure, the way it looks, but not its biological life — the way it grows, spreads, and ages. As a result of this evaluation criteria, soil is evaluated as a purely natural, physical phenomenon, and human effects on soil are not measured. The US, which began intensive work mapping its soils after the dust bowl, has soil maps — with urban “blackholes” where the science does not reach. This is explored in detail here.
2. We are connected to soil in more ways than we realize. Just think: a third of the earth is covered in soil! That’s approximately 2344 Gigatons (1 Gt = 1 billion tonnes) of organic carbon, making it the world’s largest terrestrial pool of organic carbon. Unfortunately, this giant potential carbon sink is also becoming increasingly polluted by industrial and household products, wastes, and runoff —everything that goes into our daily lifestyles and consumption habits. We like to think of it sitting quietly in plots of land or getting carted around between nations, but soil is really a single body of continuous work that stretches between all our worlds. Metaphorically and literally, soils grant us nurturing space as much as space to stretch, but is often left on the wayside as dirt. Loose soils grant access to nutrients, access to other plants and beings, and the soils in our immediate spaces stretch us away from ourselves: feeding mosses and ferns, wayside plants and overlooked shrubs, they grow the arcades and facades that we humans move through. How do we attend more to soil?
3. Soil organic carbon is the basis of soil fertility. It is the amount of carbon stored in soil, and a component of total soil organic matter. Carbon kept in soil stays away from the atmosphere; and circulating carbon fuels life as plants grow, producing food. In 1990 a Global Assessment of Soil Degradation was made, combining maps from 21 areas of the world—the transnational efforts of soil scientists reaching across nation-states. This produced a World Map of the Status of Human-induced Soil Degradation . Reading the description of the map, you might be struck by the way soils move as a composite body on the planet, through natural and manmade structures. The map describes 12 forms of soil degradation caused through various agricultural activities, irrigation, land reclamation, acidification due to over-application of fertilizers and drainage of pyrite-containing soils. Soil is compacted and waterlogged through human intervention in natural drainage systems (though this doesn’t include paddy fields), and terrain is deformed as soils become exposed through overgrazing, removal of vegetation for monoculture agricultural purposes, riverbank destruction and mass movement.
4. Zooming in to Southeast Asia, did you know the tropics stand to lose more from deforestation and agriculture than temperate countries? Each plot of land deforested in the tropics emits three times the carbon emitted by the same activities in temperate areas (West et al., 2010; open access). Put another way, saving tropical forests from deforestation, and reforesting already deforested ones, has the greatest impact on keeping our global carbon bank safe. The tropics also hold divisive, regulatory and symbolically rich layers laid on through centuries of conquest, the inheritance of colonial law, and social categorization in pursuit of their natural resources.
5. Soil, as land, was once deeply connected to people’s sense of identity. “In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, [the English] Parliament authorized 4,000 acts of enclosure on behalf of the rising class of gentry, allowing them to expropriate about 15% of all of English common lands for their private use. These enclosures destroyed many commoners’ deep connection to the soil and destroyed their culture and traditions, paving the way for industrialization. A new class of people were created: wage-earners, consumers and paupers. People dispossessed of their commons who had no choice but to try to find a place for themselves in the new capitalist order.”
6. The loss of English commons took place over two centuries — the loss of commons in Southeast Asia today are happening in a matter of years through land enclosures in Yogyakarta, Kalimantan, Papua, and Sulawesi in Indonesia, and across Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos. (Land enclosures in Singapore are a story for another time.) From 4,000 acts of enclosure in the seventeenth and eighteenth Century over 15% of all English common lands, global land enclosures now number in the millions of hectares, with wealthy countries investing in overseas land for food and biofuel production.
Soil, ownership and culture are tightly woven. The Diggers are a group of agrarian communists who flourished in England in 1649-50. From 20 poor men in April 1649 who gathered at St. George’s Hill, Surrey, and began to cultivate the common land, they more than doubled in the same year. “The Diggers held that the English Civil Wars had been fought against the king and the great landowners; now that Charles I had been executed, land should be made available for the very poor to cultivate. (Food prices had reached record heights in the late 1640s.)” (1994, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.)
The English Diggers inspired the San Francisco Diggers, who took the streets of 1960s counterculture SF as their stage across two brief years (1966-1968). The Diggers published pamphlets about their vision of the Free City, including one on Free Bread made only from whole wheat flour (a republished version shown here), and their money manifesto.
7. Once privatized, land is used for commercial development. Soil pollution has become a leading cause of environmental and social problems in many parts of the world, leading to human chronic illnesses from direct or indirect exposure, in agriculture, industrial runoff, and emerging causes such as micro-plastics. While Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring first raised the call for alarm in 1962, even today, scientists are continuing to find dangerous levels of contamination in the soils of villages and homes near industrial factories. Thankfully, some countries are beginning to take steps—China, the site of some of these studies, passed a law on 2 January 2019 giving its environmental authority the power to set national standards for soil pollution control, setting safeguards for one of its greatest assets—soil. This is more than just environmental policy: securing nitrogen reserves has long been a matter of food and national security. The protection of soils from pollution goes a step further to distinguish and carve out harmful practices, providing a resource to reject environmentally and socially unjust practices.
8. The Land Matrix is a global and independent land monitoring initiative that keeps track of land deals. It estimates a rise in failed and concluded land deals from 62 million hectares in August 2015 to 72 million hectares in October 2016 (http://www.landmatrix.org/en/). This does not include the oceans and air, also commons under threat of enclosure.
9. Did you know that soil is a global body that we literally and gastronomically stand on? Soil supports a majority of food and taste production—phytonutrients are made by plants in soil and contribute to taste. The more we create good soil, the better our food will taste and the lower the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
Huiying is a geographer with a background in psychological research, with a love for synthesis, ideation and exploration. She writes and develops action research methodologies relevant to agroecological futures, and enjoys creating and working with people across disciplines. She will continue her research on agroecology and its learning networks in Southeast Asia, and their abilities to respond to infrastructural development in late 2020 as a doctoral researcher at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. She’s on Twitter and Instagram @fuiin and writes about food and agriculture on hynng.substack.com. You can also find her thoughts on research at anomalousitch.tumblr.com.
by Toh Han Jing
Comes with a menu of
Chickpea salad with mayo, black pepper and that peppery thing that has been in the cupboard for so long, I can’t even remember what it is
Banh Xeo, as a meagre attempt to recreate memories of eating this crispy pancake in the Vietnamese street stall in Brisbane. The bag of pre-mixed flour that you bought from the stall has been sitting in the storeroom for 3 years now but I have never actually opened it — because how else am I supposed to relinquish the taste of adventures in a foreign land when I am, here?
Sliced fish beehoon soup, except that there are no fishes in here, but fried tofu patties because I don’t eat meat. The smell of ginger, lemongrass and coconut brings me back to my childhood. Mama’s cooking is always the best. Silver lining of COVID-19.
Bread, from the local bakery that has just started a few months ago. How else are they going to survive? They make good bread. But everyone’s making bread at home now.
Bananas, oranges and apples. My family eats 28 oranges, 14 apples and a bunch of bananas a week. That is a lot of oranges, a lot of apples and an ok amount of bananas. But I don’t feel too bad about it, because we finish everything, and all the fruit peels are composted in my garden. It would be better if I grew oranges, apples and bananas though. Then my oranges and apples wouldn’t need to take the plane. I know my bananas took the lorry, or at least I think it took the lorry.
Food in times of COVID-19,
is slightly different, but not so different as well.
We still buy from the supermarkets, which receives their food from the wholesale centre, which in turn, receives the food from another distributor in a foreign land, from a farmer in a foreign land who doesn’t eat what he sells.
Food in the modern world, 21st century.
Han Jing is a living being that grows, cooks and compost food along her HDB corridor. She grew up frolicking in her grandma’s garden with sun-kissed skin and dirt in her nails. She started her composting and growing journey along her HDB corridor 6 years ago after she learnt about the terrors of food waste when she was studying. As an educator at heart, Han Jing believes in teaching and guiding everyone, young and old, to grow food with kindness and intention. Han Jing is an Educator at Foodscape and shares her green journey on Instagram at @littlegreenchef
(Featured image from Unsplash)
by Megan Sin
by Christiane Büssgen
Day X in collective solitude during this global pandemic:
Being isolated on my own I have been thinking a lot about being alone,
the fine line between solitude and loneliness,
the power of both to pull you down or uplift you –
in all those weeks
I have been feeling both at the same time.
I love to be by myself,
NY can be, has been isolating in normal times –
I have fallen in love with the city more once I stopped feeling lonely and instead understood that
living in NY means being on my own a lot just like everyone else
surrounded by all the choices and opportunities the city offers.
Being alone is my independence, my balance to the many art events,
gallery openings and decadent dinner parties.
Just that now, there are no more choices.
With quarantine in effect,
I was excited to be working from my apartment for a change.
Grateful to have a routine, lucky for having a job
as opposed to many of my friends in the fashion and restaurant industry.
My silver bistro table at the
kitchen window is my favourite spot
to eat when I’m home– it is now
also my only place to have a meal.
Nevertheless, I soon came to realize that I wasn’t at ease at all,
my sleep pattern was a mess, my adrenaline high.
But, as we were rotating through the weeks, losing track of time,
I came to a point where I realized that I did not want the quarantine to end just yet –
I had found some weird kind of comfort in the daily monotony;
what initially was mentally challenging
evolved into methodical resilience.
Knowing that there is no ‘going back to Normal’
until late May the now seemed temporary, still unreal and therefore bearable.
With a reopening in sight,
I felt I had not used all this time efficiently,
I should have really accomplished something,
being more productive and creative; working on my book.
NY has taught me to embrace solo dining like no other place I have lived before,
sitting at a restaurant bar changed my view of experiencing a meal.
Ingredient-focused, small dishes, meant to be shared, are also perfect for eating alone.
I tend to go back to the same places; where the waiter knows my favorite wine,
chefs have become friends;
this is being a local in NYC.
It is those loose connections that make the city what it stands for, essential for the individual;
as a regular you become part of a family of strangers.
My silver bistro table at the kitchen window is my favourite spot to eat when I’m home
– it is now also my only place to have a meal.
Preparing food my way is what keeps me balanced in normal times
this daily moment to myself is always special,
it has become my routine over the past year to take a picture of my bowl of food
with my morning coffee or a glass of wine in the evening.
What was I going to do with all those pictures?
I had asked myself this question many times.
Other than a short-lived appearance on my IG stories,
my photo scroll would probably be longer than the NY marathon.
I did not see myself making a cookbook, there are no recipes,
I’m also not a photographer; so, what was my message?
It was Julien who had been following my ‘stories’ for a while
who wrote me on March 16th when the world was turning up-side down.
I would love to make a book of your pictures, he wrote.
He was fascinated by the constant repetition in my pictures.
The Silver Table, the bowl, ‘the personal and raw’, my signature.
What has evolved into a beautiful, creative exchange since then,
not knowing each other, him being isolated in Rotterdam, me in Brooklyn,
started on a random Monday I will never forget.
Just to remind myself that
this isn’t the purpose at all
I get back to my flow,
creating images that I eat.
My meals are my creative outlet where I focus on flavor,
color and texture that goes beyond making something nourishing and delicious;
the part of taking the picture from that moment is equally important to me.
It is often that I create a dish visually in my mind
with the ingredients I have or feel go well together that day, just like choosing my outfit.
While my cooking and preparation of food is very simple,
using mostly not much else other than olive oil, salt and pepper as condiments,
for me ingredients are components of colors and textures
that come into play with the flavors to create a dish.
Too many elements visually confuse me,
using only the minimum of ingredients is what gives me comfort,
making each one shine is what excites me.
This may sound like the opposite to comfort food in a common sense,
but it is the aesthetic process that is equally nurturing my mind.
During quarantine, as we are all cooking more than ever without much choice,
for most of us, preparing food has become a way to compensate for the stress and anxiety.
I did not try any of the recipes which soon became quarantine trends;
instead I focused on my routine to be more constant than ever:
my table, where I create and express myself every day,
the bowl, my companion, embracing my food.
At times the self-imposed constraint felt like an extension of lockdown in my own terms.
While most meals are little celebrations,
random or ordinary,
beautiful to me,
on some days pleasure is also pressure;
forcing myself to be creative, to come up with an interesting dish
to get the best picture,
losing the immediate, spontaneous approach.
Just to remind myself that this isn’t the purpose at all
I get back to my flow,
combining ingredients, creating images that I eat.
Changing my focus quietly, looking
at things from a new perspective that is uncomfortable and confusing
I try to find peace and joy
in this moment in history
where the world is weaving itself
together in a new way.
The times are racing – yesterday’s news feels old in an instant.
We all have changed, going through this crisis together, separately;
it still was a distant thought to return to the city that sure will be different;
just when things took another turn with the killing of George Floyd,
after weeks of silence people are taking over the streets,
united more than ever, showing up for each other in solidarity.
The air is charged with a new energy, NYC has transformed into a city of protesters
– the pandemic seems forgotten although we are still living in quarantine.
With NY and the rest of the world in a state of civil unrest
I took a break from posting my food pictures on social media.
While I kept my usual routine of taking the picture for the book I noticed a change in myself:
After being alone for all this time but virtually sharing every meal
I suddenly was more relaxed, simply enjoying my meal.
Changing my focus quietly,
looking at things from a new perspective that is uncomfortable and confusing
I try to find peace and joy in this moment in history
where the world is weaving itself together in a new way.
Dedicated to this time in NYC,
my images are a collection of moments, meant to inspire, to see beauty in my very personal way.
(First published on thispandemicthing.com, curated by Christiane Büssgen and Stas Ginzburg, sharing creative stories from the times during pandemic; all images author’s own).
Christiane Büssgen is a designer based in Brooklyn, NY, working as a manager for Property, a high end furniture showroom in Tribeca. Originally from Germany she has lived in several countries before moving to NYC in 2016. She is currently working on her first publication The Silver Table Book with Julien Baiamonte, a graphic designer based in Rotterdam – a collaboration which started during the pandemic.
The Sauce (TS): Chun Yeow, I understand that you began learning to grow edibles for your own consumption almost ten years ago. Can you share how you got started on this journey?
CY: It was 2012 and I got really inspired after attending a workshop on how to grow vegetables. The trainer taught us her tried-and-tested “secret” formula soil mix of 30% sand and 70% compost that will work for growing a vegetable plant in a plastic cup. The cup is the size of a normal bubble tea cup. She also taught us the soil-less growing method of using an ‘A’ and ‘B’ solution which I then first got to know as hydroponics.
All the information given was so interesting and I got to know about soil mixes and growing methods for different types of plants (e.g. roots, leaves, fruits, etc). I went on to teach my mum the methods and started growing edibles along her apartment corridor while using the space for making compost.
2013 is a year of great “soil realisations” as it provided me with more opportunities and interesting projects on farming and urban gardening. With Ground-Up Initiative (GUI), we visited green places like Bollywood Veggies, a countryside organic farm with educational activities and an eatery using local herbs and plants. The team also went on a field trip to Thailand where we learnt about the uses of EM (effective microorganisms) in agriculture, water treatment and composting. In addition, for the first time, I experienced how the locals compost leftover cooked meat with wood vinegar, which is a by-product from charcoal-making.
Together with Edible Garden City, we started a community garden at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) for heritage and community. With much fanfare, we recruited a team of volunteers to help clear spaces for growing edibles, learn to set up trellises and do propagation. I had the opportunity to learn about soil substrate and soil fertilization.
TS: Having been exposed to different techniques of growing, and after almost ten years, do you have a tried and tested method, or how would you describe your growing methods today?
CY: Interestingly, my growing methods are still evolving, changing and adapting all the time! 🙂 As much as I am leaning towards a preference that plants should be grown in the soil as naturally provided by Nature, I also appreciate that there are different schools of thoughts and growing methods which can be quite extreme while adapting to spaces of vast differences (i.e. rural vs suburban vs urban). Most importantly, I believe in eating natural and fresh, so I choose to avoid methods that go against this principle, or to have constructive discussions that might show me otherwise. In conclusion, grow in a way that will nourish your body, heart, mind and soul.
TS: What were some of the big moments of learning and challenges you’ve experienced on this journey?
CY: By end of 2013, I took urban farming up another notch. My family and I decided to rent a plot of land at Green Valley to start growing our own vegetables. With a friend, John, we shared the land and worked on our spaces with different planting and growing methods. I learnt a lot about farming from the gardeners and old-timers there especially in amending the poor clayey soil with cocopeat, chicken manure and even burning or sunning it to clear pests. However, due to high maintenance and lack of time to commit to the farming chores, we gave up the plot before end 2014. Without more new spaces to grow edibles, I stopped working with the soil until the fateful moment of getting my own place at the end of 2015.
TS: How has getting your own place changed your access to space for growing edibles?
CY: Having my own HDB flat means that I can start growing in pots along the corridor. Also nearby is a community garden on a multi-storey carpark rooftop where residents could bid for a plot in sizes of small (approx. 1m x 4m), medium (approx. 1.5m x 3m) and large (approx. 1.5m x 4m). In early 2016, I successfully balloted for a small plot, where I have since planted and grown many edible plants like an assorted variety of Asian greens (e.g. kai lan, nai bai, bok choy, kang kong, mani cai, bayam, sweet potato leaves, Malabar spinach), moringas, okras, long and flat beans, radishes, brinjals, types of gourd (bitter gourd, pumpkin, hairy gourd), gingers and sunflowers!
At times, I would harvest close to 3kg of turmeric, dehydrate them, making that into a jar of 250g turmeric powder. I was not familiar with this plant until given some to grow by a really nice fellow gardener, and as I continued to grow more, I got to learn about its amazing properties. That is part of the joy of having a garden — no matter how small, you’re always learning.
So up till now, I feel that the journey has only just begun and am still learning a lot from this miraculous, and so important matter of life known as soil. And I am always grateful to those who share their knowledge selflessly (worth mentioning is the nature farming expert, Mr Tang) in creating regenerative good soil that is both important for growing healthy food and also good for the environment.
TS: As a staff of the National Heritage Board, you’ve had the opportunity to set up a staff garden at the National Museum of Singapore (NMS). Can you tell us how this came about, what is growing there, how is it maintained and has creating this garden space change anything for the staff?
CY: The staff garden was created in April 2017 as a form of recreation engagement and interest from some of the NMS staff. I was recommended to be part of the committee as some knew I have green fingers and been maintaining quite a few green edible spaces. We started building the deck garden with a small team of enthusiastic staff, planting mostly edibles which replicate those grown in my own gardens. Subsequently, as a few cleaners and new gardeners join, a variety of ornamental plants like orchids, flowering and indoor plants were introduced.
However, after a year and a half, due to low participation and unable to recruit more staff to maintain the garden, it was closed for renovation and re-designated for other museum purposes. Generally, it was a fantastic experience as I get to enjoy gardening in a museum with, people who really like gardening or wanted to learn new skills, even though that was with only a small handful of staff. Moreover, I got to collaborate with a restaurant within the museum for weekly kitchen waste and used coffee grounds to make into compost. The restaurant staff were very friendly and so helpful that one of the chefs even attended my composting workshop for the museum staff.
Editor’s note: This interview was conducted in 2019. As of 2020, Chun Yeow has ventured further into his eco journey to look into sustainability. He has founded Ecolititude and now puts his heart into it full-time; he is no longer a staff of the National Heritage Board (NHB).
Ong Chun Yeow is an urban farmer who grows edible produce along the corridor and on a rooftop garden. He works in the public sector as a professional specialising in cultural heritage technology. As a nature lover turned farmer turned environmental advocate, Chun Yeow has been involved in the green community in Singapore for much of the past decade.
The Sauce (TS): Perhaps we can start with sharing about your journey or experiences in farming so far?
Derrick (DR): I was kinda thrown into farming because of a car accident after a Biodynamics conference in Namibia. I was a co-worker (volunteer) with the children/School community of Camphill Hermanus (South Africa) but for my recuperation and therapeutic healing I moved to the adult/Farm community and became part of the food garden team. I dove into gardening work even with my body mould on. When I moved back to be with the children, I was no longer in the garden. Only in 2011, when I joined Camphill Ballybay (Ireland) adult community did I request to be fully in the garden. For three years, I was involved in the day-to-day work of a three-acre veg and fruit garden and I helped out a little in the farm side of things, for example the milking of cows.
At the turn of the millennium, I was convinced we can have agriculture that treats the land and everything on it holistically and really honours the Earth like “we borrowed it from our children”.
TS: How did you get into Biodynamics practices and what have been your experiences with this approach?
DR: I was introduced to Biodynamic rice and products when I was helping out at Brown Rice Paradise (Singapore) and finally curiosity got the better of us and the directors of Brown Rice Paradise invited Terry Forman to give some lectures and conduct a backyard gardening workshop. I helped out with registration and got to attend all the events. Through Terry, I found the radical holism of Anthroposophy which I have been longing for since I was 14. Three years later in 1999, I was in New Zealand and attended a Biodynamic workshop as part of my study. Our college land was maintained in a Biodynamic way and I tasted Kiwi fruits bursting with flavours. Through that year, I encountered both saline land and wasteland turned into fully fertile gardens and farms. At the turn of the millennium, I was convinced we can have agriculture that treats the land and everything on it holistically and really honours the Earth like “we borrowed it from our children”.
It is called Regenerative agriculture now and it has been part of Biodynamics since the 1920s. I looked for communities practising Biodynamic gardening and farming even though I was training to work with children and education. I joined Camphill Hermanus (South Africa), living and working with children with special needs and I cooked for the children using ingredients directly from the garden a stone’s throw away. When the children were on winter holidays, I found myself at a Biodynamic conference in Namibia. I was amazed by the different ways of practicing Biodynamic and some have roaming wild animals as part of their agriculture landscape. This has been my experience of Biodynamics; expanding the circles of care and consideration.
TS: What inspires you?
DR: That we are on a living Earth and both the world and cosmos are wise. There is so much to learn and to know deeply in this world. The many people who work tirelessly to bring connections between people, and between people and the world. People who care – those who stack stones on a path; those who grow and/or collect seeds, those who feed strays, those who smile at strangers or just smile.
TS: What are some of your experiences working with soil?
DR: An important aspect of Biodynamics is recognising the aliveness of soil so looking after the welfare of the soil is part of gardening. We also work with the moon, planets and zodiac influences on the soil so we are also informed on the times for different kinds of landwork. Working with the Biodynamics preparations made from cow manure, quartz and herbs also give a boost to the soil, plants and compost, allowing them to be more sensitive to the other elements of the environment and promote communication and sharing.
TS: How do you see farming with soil and other soil-less techniques?
DR: Soil is known now to be home to most varieties of life and it is mirrored in our gut. Latest research has shown that our gut microbiome are an indicator of health and illness: not just physical but also psychological. Good soil produces nutrient-dense food which is what we need for our well-being and if I may add, it is what we need to being truly connected to this Earth we call Home. Industrial, intensive and chemical agriculture are already producing nutrient-starved food.
Are we willing to sacrifice even more quality for the sake of quantity that could spell irreversible changes to our genetic makeup?
…we are on a living Earth; both the world and cosmos are wise. There is so much to learn and to know deeply in this world.
Derrick Lim is born and bred in Singapore, starving Ethiopian children woke Derrick’s wondering heart and led to his involvement in different aspects of civil society. At 30, Derrick sojourned further to live and work with people of various abilities in intentional communities from New Zealand to South Africa, U.K. to Ireland. There, he experienced different roles – from caring for a child, to running a household, being a shopkeeper to a full-time gardener. After 15 years, he’s settling back into Singapore with his spouse, hoping to contribute in her becoming. Together, they share the realisation that each person can improve self and society; with each step, we are all being moved along.
by Thomas Lim
I don’t remember when it was that I first came across permaculture. Perhaps, like the conception of a human, there was never an exact moment. Perhaps the point when the sperm entered the egg was in 2011, when I took up a five square metre allotment plot at an organic farm in Hong Kong. I was working weekdays and come weekend, would jump on my white Vespa for the one-hour ride to my tiny garden in the mountains bordering China. I was clueless about farming then, but Nature was forgiving enough to spare me among the weeds some choy sum, French beans, and one strawberry. The point when the baby popped out was when I spent my 2013 Christmas and New Year holidays at the foothills of Genting Highlands, building a bamboo hut and digging canals to irrigate a paddy field as part of a permaculture course. Since then, it has been a bit of an obsession, practicing at the farms in the day and reading the same in the evenings.
Yet, five years since its birth, I still stumble whenever someone asks me, “What is permaculture?” The answer varies, always. This difficulty is not unique to me; ask most permaculturalists and you might get responses ranging from well-memorized standard definitions to a blank-eyed ‘hmm’. The difficulty lies in the all-embracing scope of permaculture and what permaculture means personally to each practitioner. Try asking a loving elderly couple ‘What is love?’ and you’ll get an idea. On top of that, we try to customize the answer to the enquirer. A budding gardener and a corporate executive might go home with different answers after a conversation about permaculture with me. To be honest, I don’t think I will get better at answering this question even with another five years of practice. But I take consolation in the first verse of the classic text Tao Te Ching: ‘The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao’.
It all started when…
In mid-1970s in Australia, Bill Mollison and his graduate student David Holmgren couldn’t find a term to describe a sustainable agriculture system that integrated perennial plants and animals useful to man. Mollison, who had left school at 15 and witnessed the world as a baker, shark fisherman, forester, trapper, tractor-driver, naturalist, field biologist, felt that modern industrial agriculture was wrecking our planet. Sick of protesting against faceless governments and institutions, he wanted something positive that anyone can do to make a difference. Eventually, they came up with the term ‘permaculture’ by marrying ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’. Today, forty-odd years on, ‘permaculture’ has expanded to include anything that is related to designing sustainable human settlements.
A more current but still evolving definition of permaculture would be: a way to integrate people and land harmoniously. Adopting a permaculture approach, a practitioner would strive to provide for his/her material needs (food, energy, shelter, etc.) and non-material needs in a sustainable way. With such a lofty goal, permaculture covers many disciplines to get us there. Like a Swiss Army knife, the permaculture toolbox includes agriculture, water use, energy, natural building, forestry, waste management, animal systems, aquaculture, appropriate technology, economics and community development.
While the individual disciplines are important, how they cross and relate to one another is equally, if not more, important. For example, instead of segregating the orchard and chicken yard, one can free-range chickens under the fruit trees. The chickens eat up the damaged fruits, weed, and provide manure to fertilize the trees. The trees shade the chickens from the sun and offer protection from aerial predators.
Permaculture does not dictate rules and laws. Rather, it is guided by ethics and principles. The three ethics are straightforward:
The absence of clear rules and laws can make it confusing and frustrating, especially for some of us habituated to a predictable and precise modern life. However, the very lack of rigid rules opens up possibilities for permaculture to be applied anywhere. From balcony gardens to hundred-acre farms to entire towns, from deserts to the humid tropics.
Like myself, most people first hear of permaculture through farming. But surprising to some, you don’t need to do organic farming, or even farming, to be practicing permaculture. On the other hand, an organic farm that exploits workers and is only concerned about profits runs against the ethics of permaculture. The principles can be readily applied outside of farming. A friend of mine, an organic farmer in Thailand, recently wrote about joining her community of farming neighbours (who do not run their farms organically). “Make friends, not fence,” she said. That’s number eight of the twelve principles of permaculture: Integrate rather than segregate. Farming is but a part of permaculture, like body postures are but a part of yoga.
Another common misconception is that permaculture invented a variety of farming techniques, like mulching, green manure, and food forest. These, and many other methods, might have been made popular by permaculture but are in fact taken from century-old farming practices of indigenous or tribal cultures. Almost always, these methods mimic Nature.
After all the verbiage…
How does one start to practice permaculture? Here goes:
Your garden can be a few pots along the corridor; even better if you manage to wrangle a few square meters of soil below your HDB block. Small-scale gardening remains one of the more accessible ways of allowing urbanites to catch a glimpse of how Nature works her wonders.
Books, courses, and certifications are extremely useful, but only as a supplement to practical experience. We live in an age of abstraction and have enough problems being disconnected from the earth.
After all, there have been many people and cultures practicing what we call permaculture without even knowing it. One doesn’t need to know what happiness is to be happy, or what love is to love. Really, like me, you don’t need to know ‘what is permaculture’ to be a permaculturalist!
Thomas Lim’s interest in farming and permaculture stems from a belief that they can solve many of the global issues and crisis in humanity we are witnessing today. He wants to farm in a way that creates abundance without depleting natural resources like the soil, water, fossil fuel, and biodiversity. He hopes to change our relationship with land, from that of owner-property to steward-home. In this way, we can tread lightly on our earth and share her abundance with other lives. Thomas practices permaculture at Ulu Permaculture, a permaculture and farming consultancy based in Malaysia and Singapore.