Permanence and Permaculture 🦆

October 19, 2021

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

Saturday was supposed to be rainy, which is the norm for this time of year. I thought we’d do indoor house projects, like organize the garage or get to some painting touch-ups. Then, the weather cleared except for a brisk wind that was perceptibly warmer than it had been in days. 

Sachi decided to head to the grocery store and we loaded up the car with trash and recycling for a trip to the transfer station on the way. I couldn’t help but think of the connection between her trips. Old food containers would become full again. My plan was to walk to a nearby nursery that was having a plant sale and she asked twice about dropping me off. I wanted to walk and she relented.

Not far from home is a wetland area that is often flanked with birders in the summer, who park on the side of the county road and lug long lenses along the shore. The wetland and its views are so commonplace to us that we don’t notice it often. But on this walk, I did. 

Across the road from the wetland, I noticed a little trail leading up the hill that I’d never seen before. Long branches were arranged lengthwise on the sides of the trail, which I took as an invitation. After a short hike, I found a bench overlooking the wetland and a sign that marked it as public property. 

bench overlooking wetland

I stayed on the hill for a while and took in the view. The wetland below has a story. In the 1970s, a neighbor, who was a professor of ornithology, noticed that the area was attracting a variety of birds. He worked with several neighbors, who owned the land, to create a conservation easement with the aim to establish a waterfowl preserve. They flooded the former fields and the fowl came in droves. Today, the preserve is managed by the county and is a permanent part of the island that is open to the public. 

On an island like Orcas, there is always pressure to develop. Over time, much of the island, and especially the properties with shorelines, have been purchased and developed. But there are exceptions. Multiple organizations like the San Juan Preservation Trust work with property owners to preserve wild spaces so that the island can continue to offer access to the public and provide homes to wildlife. The waterfowl preserve is one of those spaces; a permanent slice of wildlife. 

I walked back down the hill and by the preserve and eventually arrived at my destination: the nursery. Bullock’s Permaculture Homestead and Nursery is no typical nursery. It’s a destination that’s known around the world for expertise in the field of permaculture. They have been developing the property for over 35 years to be an example of a permaculture system at work. People arrive from all over to attend their design courses, become farm interns, and experience the homestead. 

Bullocks Sign

If you’re like me, you’re asking: perma-what? It’s a good question and one that seems more difficult to answer the more you learn about it. Any attempt to explain it is a risk and I’m sure some may take exception.

Permaculture is an approach to agriculture and lifestyle that is focused on sustainability, self-reliance and working within natural systems. In part, this means designing farms and gardens to work as a system that includes livestock, water, waste, energy, and vegetables. A common example is a chicken, which not only produces meat and eggs but consumes plant waste and produces manure that serves to fertilize the ground. Reduce, reuse, recycle. 

Visiting the nursery is a cultural experience. A number of people live and work on the homestead, which is a maze of houses, gardens, greenhouses, and farming equipment. The people who work there are amazingly knowledgeable and very friendly. They all seem to adhere to what seems like a standard style: dirt-encrusted farmer, and proud of it. 

I browsed one of the nurseries by the entry and considered a couple of trees that were priced at 50% off, but I was walking. Trees are popular among permaculturists, as they represent a permanent part of the garden that can produce fruit and shade, and be enjoyed by both humans and livestock. That’s part of the idea. Instead of constantly pulling plants in and out of the soil, it’s better to plant something permanent.   

At the side of the nursery, there was a tent where a couple was managing the transactions. I approached and asked about garden design services. A friendly worker said I should talk to Doug, who was further back in the property. She said, “He looks like a crusty permaculture dude.” Message sent. 

I wandered into the maze to potentially find Doug, but also see what was there. Permaculture gardens are rarely the manicured gardens you might expect at a normal nursery. Instead it feels more laissez-faire and unkempt. Weeds mingle with plants, grass grows everywhere, and the property is dotted with pile after pile of decomposing plants. This is all intentional and part of the idea. Nature is messy and unkempt and that’s how the plants like it.

compost bin
trailer on dirt trail

I finally saw Doug who was deep in conversation among the rows, so I kept walking. I could have stayed at Bullock’s much longer, but the rain was coming back, so I made my way home.  It is a fascinating place.  

That evening the rain arrived on time and I heard the now-familiar pitter-patter of it on our skylights and metal roof. I had been anticipating it all summer and wondered how the rain would sound, especially at night when it’s time to sleep. Listening that night, I thought about permanence and entropy. Try as we might to establish wetlands, gardens, and homes to be permanent, the universe eventually has its way with human projects.

But I didn’t want to think too deeply about that while sitting in a new house. To me, Flattop is permanent. It will be here longer than me and in between, all the things that we see, hear, and do, are permanent parts of our lives. The sound of rain on the roof was one of them; a bit of gentle percussion on a permanent drum that’s perfect for sleeping.

Bonus:

My friend Justin Cox is a talented musician that performs under the name Routine Layup. He lives on Orcas and wrote a song that might just get stuck in your head. Not Everyone Has to be a Permaculture Gardener. Listen below:

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On most Tuesdays, I share a story from my life on Orcas Island and a recommendation for something I love. I'm interested in how to design work and home for lifestyle, livability, and fluffy dogs. Learn more.

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