Permaculture is often mistakenly thought of as being a set of organic gardening techniques, or maybe something vaguely mystical and ‘new age’, or perhaps an option open only to those who can afford to ‘buy land’. In reality it is more about positive answers to the question “How do I want to live my life?”, and finding real ways to be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem. The word permaculture was coined during the 1970s by two Australians, David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, and indeed some critics have said that permaculture is all very well and good for tropical or desert conditions, but isn’t suitable for a cool temperate country such as the UK. Indeed, many of the major permaculture texts have contained large sections that have been at best irrelevant or even misleading to us Brits. However, all that is set to change with the publication of The Earth Care Manual, the first fully comprehensive permaculture designers handbook specifically written for British conditions.
And what a phenomenal work it is... seven years in the making, experienced permaculturalist Patrick Whitefield has assembled a truly encyclopaedic work covering virtually every aspect of the physical design of the world around us. He leads in with two chapters defining permaculture ethics (Earthcare, Peoplecare and Fairshares) and elements and then focuses on application. In his very readable yet highly knowledgeable style he covers gardens, buildings, woodland, orchards, farms, local food links (box schemes, food co-ops, CSA, farmers markets, etc) and biodiversity. Using copious amounts of facts, figures, tables, diagrams, photos and case studies Whitefield illustrates solutions for every situation whether urban or rural, looking at mulching, rainwater harvesting, windbreaks, perennial vegetables, pond construction, biotecture, forest gardening, coppicing and wildlife gardening to name but a few examples. The last section of the book is devoted to design skills, providing a step by step guide to actually putting all this wonderful knowledge together in our own homes, gardens and landscapes. In the chapter on farming and food links, Whitefield looks at the keeping of livestock within permaculture systems, clarifying that animal husbandry within a permaculture context is a million light years away from industrialised factory farming. He also looks at green manure based stockless systems and explores the possibilities of leaf curd as a protein source for vegans that avoids importing pulses.
The section on fruit and nuts recognises the enormous potential as a staple food crop - “...there’s no reason why tree crops should not replace annual field crops as our main food source... that would revolutionise not just our agriculture but our landscape too...[it would] become an imitation of what it was before we turned it upside down: woodland”. For my money the book is worth the admission price for this chapter alone.
Where the book is less strong is in the area of what in permaculture circles are sometimes called the ‘invisible structures’. In other words, the fabric of social interactions and human connections that will need to be redesigned if we are to create truly sustainable future societies. Whitefield does acknowledge that economics (the ‘fairshares’ ethic of permaculture) is not his forte, instead directing readers to Richard Douthwaite’s excellent ‘Short Circuit’. I would have liked to have seen a section going into some more depth regarding ‘peoplecare’ -or how we are to look after both ourselves and each other properly. To my mind the real challenge for the 21st century permaculture movement is how to create the ‘social glues’ that are needed to effectively bind together our communities. But I’m probably quibbling- the title of this book is after all the ‘Earth Care Manual1, and maybe as time goes on we will see equally mature works addressing these other aspects of permaculture design. In fact I should be grateful, for if this were any bigger than it already is it would only cause my bookshelf to collapse...
Permanent Publications, The Sustainability Centre, East Meon, Hampshire GU32 1HR, UK ISBN: 1 85623 021 X 480pp