As children, we’re shaped by the communities we’re born into. A community can be labeled through different perspectives such as socioeconomics, race, nationality, ideology, etc. The community that shaped my perspective originates from a small-town middle-class family, with a heavy focus on physical labor and long hours of work. 

Many people born into this situation are told specific stories… 

Go to college and get a good education… 

Get a higher paying comfy office job…

Escape this small town and make something of yourself…

I heard this story on repeat throughout my childhood in different ways from different people in my community every single day. Even if some people never mentioned this story directly, you would easily run into it indirectly through their actions or side comments. This constant barrage of the same story comes from a loving place… Most parents wish for their kids to have a “better” life than their own, that’s why they are working so hard – They’re trying to set their kids up for a “better” life in the future. 

After many years of hearing this, I promised myself that I would “escape” my small hometown, pursue a “worthy” college degree, and get into a “prestigious” comfy office job. This path led me deep into the world of technology removing myself as far away from physical labor as possible. … But… Who says this is any “better” than other skill sets? Why did I feel the need to “escape” to achieve this lifestyle? And what unconscious tradeoff did I make by pursuing this life?

These are the questions I’ve begun to ask myself and I’m amazed by how some of the most important decisions in my life are based on false assumptions. By accepting these stories, I’m assuming…

  • Smaller towns are deadends and are places that we should try to “escape”
  • That the people in these locations aren’t “somebody” and that I need to go make a name for myself
  • That getting an education in technology is more “worthy”, than gaining knowledge in physical work such as gardening or building. 

This is a dangerous story, one that can lead to a life full of artificial progress with nothing meaningful to show for it. Buried deep within this story is a hidden tradeoff, a tradeoff that can impact a person’s psychology and quality of life. Some of us are willing to accept this tradeoff and continue on, but for me, the trade being made isn’t worth it.

I miss the calm feeling that comes with living in a smaller place, where the fear of missing out  (FOMO) almost disappears. I miss the beautiful nature and the feeling that comes from being a part of nature, instead of separated from it. I miss the small-town priorities of focusing on the intangibles of strong relationships, instead of always chasing superficial objectives like money or title. 

With all that said, I’m starting to rethink my approach to life – My priorities, goals, knowledge, and social circles are all being questioned. This deeper reflection has convinced me that moving closer to nature and further away from people is worth trying. Sadly, most of the knowledge I’ve labeled as “worthy” isn’t very practical when it comes to the essentials of life – food, shelter, and water. I’m basically an infant when tossed into the wilderness… 

And no, I’m not trying to be a survivalist, but it would be nice to understand the basics of growing food and building stuff.

I decided to start with food this week and not just growing food in the traditional way, but in a more sustainable way via Permaculture. 

Our book of choice  – “Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture”… If the book is too much of a commitment, I’d recommend the author’s lecture series

“Perma” what? 

When researching the different ways of growing food, I discovered that “permaculture” gives you the biggest bang for your buck (for the business folks – it yields the highest ROI)… 

Permaculture stands for “permanent culture” and once you dig into this community, you’ll quickly realize this is much more than a simple technique for growing food… It’s an entirely different way of thinking. 

The main idea behind permaculture is to work with nature, instead of against it… Most food growing techniques revolve around monoculture (“mono” meaning a single crop) or annual crops (e.g. most veggies), but these kinds of approaches take constant work, money, and energy to maintain their production. For example, in traditional gardens (imagine rows of veggies all spaced out) you’re constantly tilling the soil, adding compost, spraying herbicides, and replanting every single year (that’s why they’re called “annuals”). 

With permaculture, there’s plenty of work upfront to design your landscape and ensure you’re planting the “right” kind of crops, but over time the garden becomes more sustainable and less reliant on a farmer. The purpose of permaculture is to mimic nature’s function and form, I’m not sure about you, but I’ve not seen many farmers tending to the wilderness… It seems to do just fine without us humans intervening. Now imagine designing your own food forest, where its ability to produce food grows while relying on you less, this is the idea of permaculture. 

Methodical observation and smart design sit at the center of a strong permaculture garden. There are many different principles, but I’m only going to mention those that jumped out to me. 

  • Needs and Yields – For a garden (or anything else in life) to become self-sufficient each component’s needs should be satisfied by the yields of another component. For example, if plants need nitrogen, then putting “nitrogen-fixing” plants (plants that pull nitrogen from the air and place it into the soil) next to them starts that needs/yields cycle. Another way to word this is – Every component in a system has an input, process, and output… Our goal in permaculture is to make sure that each output goes into another component’s input, creating a cycle. 
  • No Problems, only deficiencies – When growing a garden, problems always come up, but instead of looking at these as problems that need to be stomped out… The permaculture folks see every problem as a deficiency. For example, if slugs are eating your garden, that’s not a problem, it’s a duck or chicken deficiency (e.g. slug killers). 

Function Stacking

“Function Stacking” might be one of my favorite takeaways from my journey into permaculture. The idea here is to make sure everything you have is used for multiple purposes. Depending on how creative and resourceful you are, this whole “function stacking” thing can really change the way you look at the world. 

Some examples of “function stacking”

  • Appletrees – An apple tree feeds humans, insects, improves soil, removes carbon from the atmosphere, creates shade, and a long list of other things. 
  • Kitchens – It can mainly serve as a place to make food, wash dishes, and store food, but I actually use mine as an office too. 
  • Chairs – You can use them for sitting down, working out, or even a standing desk.
  • Roofs – A roof can provide energy to a home via solar panels, it can collect water for watering a garden, or provide shade for humans/plants that don’t like being too hot.

There are thousands of examples, but I’m sure you get the point. 

The idea of taking almost any item and turning it into a multi-purpose Swiss army knife is amazing… I’ve found myself looking at all the items around my house, trying to figure out other weird uses I could come up with. – It’s a silly game you should try. 😉

The TLDR of Permaculture

I’m not going to regurgitate all the details from this book, attempting to teach permaculture in a single post… Instead, I’ll butcher the hard work of this author and all the other sources I’ve come across (here, here, and here) – By shoving everything into a few vague sentences. 

  • Step 1 – Bring out your inner Pocahontas – Observe mother nature all around you. Understand where and when most of the sun, wind, water, and predators show up (e.g. sectors), then design your landscape to protect against and leverage these natural forces (e.g. edges). 
  • Step 2 – Start small and build out in concentric circles (e.g. zones) – When creating a garden, start at your front door with the plants that need the most attention, then slowly over time build outward… Each concentric circle (or zone) will need less attention as you move away from your home, this helps reduce your workload. 
  • Step 3 – Feed yourself today and tomorrow – Plant more annual crops (e.g. veggies) at first, so you can eat… Over time replace these annual plants with as many perennials as possible (e.g. plants that last longer than 2 years) – These longer-lasting plants need less maintenance and produce more food the longer they live. 
  • Step 4 – Start a (plant) family – Plant little tribes of plants that work well with each other (e.g. Guilds or super guilds). Each plant will protect and feed each other, creating a positive feedback loop into itself, reducing the amount of work, and producing more food. 
  • Step 5 – Capture Energy – When designing the overall landscape make sure to leverage as much energy as possible, without having to bring it in yourself. Some obvious examples… Capture the sun to warm and electrify your home + Reuse and capture water from your house and when it rains (e.g. swales & greywater). 

There… I’ve officially shoved an entire field of research and industry into a few sentences. You’re welcome! 

The journey back “home”

Throughout this process of learning more about nature, off-grid living, and the development of sustainable gardens and homes, my inner Bear Grills is spiking. The more I dig into each topic, the more interested I become… This curiosity is a “pull and push” motion. 

The “pull” originates from the content itself and how fascinating, as well as complex the world is outside of my tiny tech/business bubble… But more importantly, I’m being “pushed” by an extremely strong urge for independence – Let me try to explain… 

If it’s not obvious yet, let me be clear… I’m completely ignorant of all things essential to sustaining life – growing food, building shelter, basic survival, etc. This ignorance has made me completely reliant on the outside world for these essentials. I’m currently stuck in a world where it’s normal to give away one’s life (e.g. time) for money to spend on mortgages, car loans, unnecessary objects, fancy vacations, food, water, electricity, and many other things… This is not ok, at least not for me. 

Constructing a life where my essentials are completely independent of society is the goal and that’s not to say I want to be separated from society… But ensuring my essentials are no longer reliant on others feels like the right direction. So the labor-intensive skills I deemed as not “worthy” when escaping my small town have found their way back into my life with a vengeance. Ha! 🙂

This train of thought is an ongoing process of learning and reflection, so I hope that you’ve got something from this my fellow Wanderers. Until next time!