Balancing Fantasy with Reality

Permaculture is self-proclaimed “positivistic.” I like that about it, it gives us a hopeful way forward in some very discouraging times. But as I’ve come along with thinking and dreaming about my own permaculture site plan, in the context of my soberingly real life, I guess I just feel like I’m hitting a bit of a wall.

It’s easy, when you read the manual, to get some seriously well fueled fantasies of “simple” sustainable living worked up in your mind. You might look around at your suburban house on a flat stretch of grass, and start envisioning your future property like this:

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Or at least, that’s what I’ve been doing. I did my assessment, and now I get to start the big juicy project of designing my perfect future, which looks startlingly like the above random internet “permaculture” image. Yup, I want it all– greenhouses, gardens, chickens, ducks, green roof, alternative energy, plants of every size and shape, jam packed everywhere.

The thing is, turning a regular yard into that feral Eden above represents thousands of hours of work. Or, lots of money. It’s one or the other, and I don’t have either.

I guess I feel like the “positivism” leaks a bit too far for my taste into “utopianism.” Much of the permaculture literature seems to imply a complete and total change of life. It would be appropriate to a young couple just buying a piece of land to farm, with maybe not much money but boundless time and youthful energy. They would make their design and then set out to install it over the course of a year or two. Or, a middle aged couple ready to chuck the corporate life which was sucking their souls, but had nicely lined their pocketbooks and enabled them to buy good land and pay for labour and materials. Or, any one of those “amazing” people, who just always get 12 times more done than the rest of us, happily give up all modern conveniences and don’t mind living off of nothing more than wild greens and duck eggs.

At any rate, it’s other people. I used to be one of those other people (the first and last category) but as the complexities of life and maturity crept up on me, I have been humbled into one of everyone else. And I want to figure out how to make it work, how to continue working at it, without just throwing in the towel.

I do not have even a tenth the time it would take to revolutionize my yard on a short timescale. Having done the assessment, and facing the analysis and planning stages, I can feel my brain filling with lofty ideas. There are so many wonderful things I want to do. But with two little kids, and loads of bills to pay, I simply cannot devote the time, and moreover personal energy (I am in short supply), to do all those things. Even the five year plan which I wrote out hopefully, I know in my rational brain is far too optimistic. Fifteen is more like it.

No doubt it makes sense to create a long term goal, and that goal being idealistic is what helps us strive for greatness, right? But how do you translate that gorgeous permaculture dream picture above onto a typical suburban lot with nothing more than an inefficient house on it, when you are a real person with kids and/or a job and no extra cash?

I mean, seriously, how?????

I am really digging permaculture. I’m really enjoying the synthesis of all the things I am interested in and passionate about into a single, cohesive whole, culminating in an obsessively researched master plan. And I love the focus on the positive, what we can do, rather than bemoaning the End Times. But I want more, I want permaculture to help bridge this gap between the fantasy it peddles and the reality of regular life for an average family or person. There isn’t more than a token mention of how to go about creating something big and beautiful and complex over the realistic DIY timescale of ten, fifteen or even twenty years, while you’re living in the middle of it.

The problem with idealism is not the lofty ideas themselves, it’s what they leave out. The road between here and there. When your resources are limited to a mere fraction of what is necessary, you have to recognize the fact that you cannot have it all in order to clear-headedly determine priorities: what is most important to pursue, what you will have to give up and, bearing strongly in mind that your movement on the path will be achingly slow, where do you start?

I feel like this is important right now, as we finish up assessments, before we get into the next chapter and begin the design process for our properties. Mollison doesn’t discuss this practical translation of our dreams into an overall realistic prioritization, focus and timeline for our design. But as I am finding is often the case with him, he does in fact lay out the principles– work from pattern to detail, do the least work for the greatest effect. So as we start into the design chapter, and your brain gets humming with ideas for your property, try to keep those essentials in mind.

What do you want from your land, and how much time/energy/money would that take? How much of said resources do you realistically have, and therefore what percentage of your desires are practically achievable? What will you have to say no to? Maybe make a list of the main things you want along with an estimate of their time inputs and value output, respectively, to help with these difficult questions. Then as you create your design, keep those priorities in sharp focus. Plan for the eventual realization of all your dreams, but plan out what’s going to happen in the meantime too.

I’m not sure myself what is the best way is from here to there. But I do know that if permaculture is only accessible to those people willing to quit their jobs, move to the country and give up modern
life as the rest of their culture knows it, it just ain’t gonna happen on the scale we need.

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