FIRST EARTH | Uncompromising Ecological Architecture


I'd say today our dominant paradigm is one of exploitation, where we try to control the earth, where we make the earth do what we want it to do, where we exploit the earth. And I want to shift that to a different kind of relationship, where we understand that we are the earth, and what affects the earth affects us. And that when we actually understand the incredible intricacy of the way nature works and the interplay and the cooperation between all the different elements within nature, and start to work with that, then we can actually create worlds of incredible beauty and abundance.

Permaculture is a system of ecological design that is about designing the relationships between things, designing systems that can be self-sustaining in the same way nature designs forests and meadows that are self-sustaining. Patrick Whitefield called it the art of creating beneficial relationships.

In a sense, permaculture is, you could say, the way that we become indigenous to a place, the way we really attune ourselves to what grows there, what lives there, how all the systems of nature work there. And part of that has to become how we inhabit that place, what shelters we build for ourselves, how we actually live on that land. And that's what I love about natural building.

In some ways it's like a bird building a nest. A bird doesn't import a lot of materials from halfway across the world. A bird looks around and grabs what's there. And natural building is kind of like nest-building, in that sense. It's about looking around at what's there, at what's indigenous to a place, how we put those materials together, how we create something that is energy-efficient, that's healthy, that's not full of toxins, that's not adding a lot of toxins to the environment, that's not full of a lot of extraneous energy, in terms of transport and the manufacturing of all the different elements of it. And that's not destroying our forests and destroying our lands.

And it's a challenge! It's not always easy. But I think when it works, it creates buildings and habitats of great aesthetic beauty, as well.

I led a meditation, I let everyone just play with the clay and meditate on our ancestors, and how all of our ancestors knew how to do this, and all of them built with mud and with indigenous materials, and all of them knew how to create beautiful things. At least somewhere in everyone's ancestry, somebody knew! To call those ancestors in, and ask them to help guide our hands.

And then it was like something took possession of my hands, and we start sculpting this oven. And I started sculpting hands around this big belly, and opening being the vulva, and the belly coming back, and head leaning backwards, and it was this amazing experience of really feeling like something else was actually moving my hands, and doing that.

Because I'm not, I don't think of myself as a sculptor, I haven't done any of that kind of thing for years and years and years. And when I did, it wasn't terribly successful! And this really came out. It was almost like I could feel the form emerging from the clay. And it was a really profound experience, a wonderful experience.

The Forest Defence Community had suffered some incredible violence at the hands of the lumber companies and the logging companies. Just horrific stuff. So I had come from that. And then a friend of mine and I drove up the Oregon coast, where I had bicycled thirty years ago. And it just seemed we were going through clearcut after clearcut after clearcut. And at the end of this, we got to Portland.

We drove up to Share-It Square, and here are these beautiful gardens, and here is this gorgeous bench being made by Janell Kapoor and all these other people. All these happy people just working so joyfully, creating these things. There was a beautiful cob oven being built in a woman's driveway, and she came over and was talking to us, and was saying how she wanted the oven to face out, so all the neighbours would feel comfortable using it.

And I just burst into tears! I just sat down on the bench and started weeping! It was like coming out of hell into this incredible vision of beauty and love and community and all these things we like to imagine, here it was, it was actually happening. And that was very, very profound.

I think the stuff City Repair is doing is so inspiring, and I've taken lots of pictures of it, and I show those pictures all over the place when I'm speaking. I had to speak to a group at the Green Festival last year right after the [American federal] elections, and everybody was so depressed. And I thought, what can I possibly do to kind of lift people up a little bit? And one of the things I chose to do was show them pictures of what was going on in Portland. And to be able to say, whatever happens on that national level, we can still create community, we can still create beauty, we can still transform the world!

I just came back from New Orleans, where we were doing a whole bio-remediation project. And over the last few years, one of the things I've worked with is bringing permaculture techniques and ideas into the political actions, into convergences, into emergency situations, and that's one of the things we're hoping to do in the rebuilding efforts in New Orleans.

Well, for me, that issue of City Or Country has always been present. When I wrote The Fifth Sacred Thing, which is kind of a visionary novel, back in the 1990's, I very much intentionally in the city, because I felt it was important for us to have urban visions, not just the We'll-All-Go-To-The-Country-And-Live-Happily-On-The-Land, but How-Do-We-Actually-Make-This-Work-In-The-City. And I think that is very important, because most people live in cities, and particularly, people who have the fewest resources are the ones who are stuck in the cities.

I actually think the city is a tremendously fertile place for permaculture, in everything from urban gardening to bio-remediation of urban land and soil. Cities are great, they're like eco-systems in themselves, because you've got all these different people and all these different enterprises, and all these different things happening, and all the excitement and possibility. So, for me, the cities are a great place to do this.

A harder place to do natural building, just because they often have stricter building codes, and you have to work around that. But in the long term, we'll change those. [Smiles].