Exploring permaculture projects in Scotland - setting out

Rapeseed fields and the river TweedMy name is Julie, I am currently travelling in Scotland, visiting different permaculture projects in various places. This is part of a research project on the interactions between principles, values, and concrete practices in permaculture.

I plan on visiting six or seven projects before the end of June, and to write a blog article on each of them, to tell you more about my experience, and to highlight some of my key findings and/or thoughts on different subjects. It is meant to be personal, and you may disagree with some of my opinions – I am looking forward to having feedback!

My first stop in this journey was at Graham Bell’s Red Shed – where better to start my research than by visiting the oldest intentional forest garden in the UK? Only one mile away from England, Graham and his wife Nancy live in Coldstream, a small Scottish town following the river Tweed, with its pub, its chippy, and its community centre. The region is very famous for salmon fishing, hunting pheasants, and for its gorgeous hills from which you can see up to the Highlands on a clear day. It is also a highly agricultural area, and Graham and Nancy’s house is only a few metres away from large, monocultural crops.

The weather was beautiful all week long, and I was able to do lots of things in the garden – potting, seeding, planting, making friends with worms, watering, and enjoying the beauty of the blossoming trees and the birdsong.

I was also lucky to participate in one of the Permaculture Design Courses that Graham hosts. I met his students and heard more about their projects. I was blessed with Graham and Nancy’s kindness, and I have learned so much in the past week. I still cannot remember most of the salads’ names, but hey, there are more than sixty different kinds!

And because cooking is the natural continuation of gardening, we also made delicious food such as Kimchi (you will find the recipe underneath). Kimchi is a Korean dish made of fermented Chinese cabbage, and turmeric paste (a great joint pain reliever!).

A few days ago, a couple from Newcastle visited the nursery to buy plants for their forest garden. As always, we started off with some coffee and a chat. As Graham would say, permaculture is about people, not plants, and it is part of the process to get to know the people you’re selling plants to. We would probably all be better off if we applied this philosophy to our daily life more often: take time to know the people in front of you a bit more, be curious, and open-minded to what they have to offer. Anyway, as we were sipping our coffee, one of the guests asked Graham what his motivation was for the garden. The garden is only 800m², but it is so full of life, bustling with projects, creativity, and beauty, and it has been there for 27 years now. So it is a really good question: how do you keep on being so motivated, despite all the challenges this kind of project entails, whether they are physical, mental, or financial.  Graham’s reply - ‘I’m trying to save humanity’.

It was a weird moment for me. On the one hand, there was this man, a renowned writer and international permaculture teacher, who had devoted his entire life, along with his wife Nancy, to trying to make the world a better place, trying to demonstrate how productive such a small parcel could be, how fruitful it was to live in a more sustainable way. On the other hand, it was surrounded by massive wheat and rapeseed fields, typical of industrial farming.

And what astonished me is that this was the kind of landscape I had come to expect from rural areas: a desert in term of biodiversity, a heresy in term of health, and an absolute nonsense in term of sustainability. A research was done a few years back, comparing Graham’s soil and these fields’ soil: whilst Graham’s was full of life, the other ones were basically dead – the only way they were still being productive was because of all the inputs that were added to the soil. How is that in any way sustainable? And yet, this is the kind of agriculture that is supported and that is productive economically at the moment – for big landowners at least: what incentive do they have to shift to a more ecological way of farming?

I thought about all the people I knew, who also wanted to save humanity and make it a better place, one in which everyone could eat healthy food, one in which no farmer would die of cancer caused by his own inputs, one in which food sovereignty was a reality and social justice existed, and wondered: can we really save humanity? Sure, more and more people are aware of the dangers of our model of consumption, but is it not too late already? Is it worth the effort – is it worth trying? Worth the harsh questioning on our own model of behaviour, worth stepping away from our current economic and political system to think and to act? 

I believe part of our human experience is based on hoping for something better, so my answer would be yes. The question is: what do we think could make our human experience more enjoyable in the long term? What could provide sustainable joy, for us as individuals and for humanity in general?

This is what I find so interesting in permaculture principles – they encompass all aspects of human life and human experience, and are, in themselves, a political proposition (I hope to come back on the political aspects of permaculture in a future blog post).

One of Graham’s permaculture design’s student was highlighting the other day that permaculture is not ‘part of life’, it is not something subsidiary – it is life itself, it is a paradigm through which to see the world. Yes, permaculture means gardening, but it also (overall?) means taking care of each other, being inclusive, being open-minded, and having faith in progress and in our future, that is to say, believing humans can change for the better. It also means accepting the dangers we are facing, and fighting them in a positive manner – by using our energy to build rather than destroy.

What I will try to do throughout my journey is to see to what extent these principles can be applied, and what are the existing challenges – financial, moral, physical – to creating sustainable projects. This week has raised more questions than given me any clear answers, as you can see, but I guess it has put forward one very important notion, on which I will hopefully come back. Permaculture is based on the idea of progress, despite what some may say, (arguments stating that permaculture will only lead us back to times of famine because of its refusal to use chemical entrants and machinery are not uncommon); faith in the ability for humanity to develop better ways of living together and within our environment – that do not necessarily always require more machines and technologies. It would be worth investigating the nature of the relationship, and the possible tensions, between permaculture natural inclination towards “common sense”, traditional/ancient farming methods, and modern research and technologies, and I will keep that in mind for future blog posts.

As I was sitting outside, potting raspberries, blackcurrants, worcesterberries and other sweet delicacies alongside my new friends the birds and the worms, I thought: maybe this is what saving humanity is, after all. Providing a safe space for people to experience, create, paint, garden, communicate, love, cook, fight, eat, walk, touch, hear...
And if this is not saving humanity, then it is at least a very important first step.

That’s all for now! My next stop is to Hidden Mill, where the Scottish Permaculture Gathering will take place in a couple of months, and where I hope to discover many more things about permaculture.

If you want to know more about what Graham does or if you’re interested in attending one of his course, you will find more information here:
http://grahambell.org

https://scotland.permaculture.org.uk/node/1913
 

Graham Bell’s kimchi recipe

Ingredients

Chinese Cabbage
Radish (Daikon/Mooli)
Garlic
Chili Powder
Ginger
Onion
Spring Onions/Chives
Apple
Pear
Carrots
Salt & Sugar
Facultative: Oyster Sauce, Prawn extract, fish sauce.​

Method

  1. Slice the cabbage and salt it

  2. Grate the radishes, the carrots, the ginger, the apples and the pears. Cut the spring onions, the onion, and the garlic. Add to the bowl with the salted cabbage.

 

 

  1. Add sugar, chili powder and the fish sauce, oyster sauce, prawn extract (it can be omitted for a vegetarian/vegan version)

  2. Pack the kimchi into a jar. If you have a chippy next to your house, it is worth going there and ask for one of their pickle jar, which has a great size and can contain quite a lot of kimchi. Tried and approved! Otherwise, any jar will do.

The Kimchi then has to stay in the jar for about 9 months to ferment. You can also make sweet kimchi (only with radishes), which only needs about 6 weeks in a jar!

The great thing with Kimchi, other than being a healthy and delicious food, is that you can make it with anything – basically, any sort of cabbage, associated with ginger, garlic, and any fruits or root vegetables of your liking will do!