This article is based on our conversation with Meg and Patrick of Artist as Family for Episode 1 of the Happen Films Podcast.
Those who’ve already made the transition to a permaculture-based life are beacons of hope for a more sustainable way of life. Featured in our short film ‘Creatures of Place’, Meg Ulman and Patrick Jones are a great example of what’s possible. They were 15 days into self-isolation at the time of our interview and, like many of us, had experienced a wide range of emotions during that time.
“The first day I was very excited. Just the prospect of everybody staying home and just what that might look like,” Meg explained. “The next day was panic and fear, and what living in a pandemic means to the broader communities of the world.”
Concern for family and friends, and for people further afield who are either very isolated or unable to isolate themselves, has been coupled with questions around how best to support themselves and their community.
“Resilience is community sufficiency, it’s not self sufficiency,” states Patrick. “To be shut off so radically from community at the moment, I feel a sense of vulnerability with that. We’re infants in this new world.”
Separation from community
The impact on their ability to both give to the community and receive has been substantially affected. The regular stream of seedlings and sourdough starter going into the post have continued, as have gifts of vegetables dropped off by neighbours, but it’s not enough.
“I’m finding it really frustrating because we’re so used to having volunteers here and running free monthly workshops in various things,” Meg says. “Yes, it was giving a lot of energy out, and yes it was exhausting, but it was very satisfying and very nurturing.”
It’s highlighted the importance of self care too, and that includes being careful with exposure to social media. The amplifying effect it can have on feelings of anxiety, fear and panic has been considerable.
“Social media is a place of high anxiety, high drama,” Patrick continues. “While it’s incredibly useful in getting information out there that’s important or marginal, we have a lot of growing up to do.”
And it appears that the opportunity we’re currently being presented with as a culture is, indeed, to grow up. Describing measures taken to build resilience in the face of the increasing threat from bush fire and drought, Patrick notes that Australia has really stepped up in such areas.
Preparing for transition
Yet when it comes to something less immediately obvious, such as the threat of a global pandemic, much less preparation has been done. The same criticism applies to the broader aspects of climate change, and to the many ecological crises currently being faced around the world.
“Up until now, we’ve been preparing for each season ahead, just for the foreseeable future, and I feel like that has completely changed now,” says Meg.
“We can only do so much in our own households – self sufficiency is very vulnerable unless there’s a whole core,” Patrick adds. “Now’s the time to transition, while there’s affluence. This is the time to think through all the different ways of living.
“Do we want to keep contributing to a system that is really just going to bring more very loud and screaming feedback into our ears? It’s a crazy, crazy society.”
The trouble is that as a society, we’re getting further and further away from what makes life possible – soil, sun, rain, interspecies generosity and a general state of mutualism. We’ve been living a competitive state of economy and completely disconnected.
“There are no opportunities for children to deeply honour that which makes life possible. We’re not here because of some latest technological advancement of humans, we’re here because of these fundamentals: earth, sun, rain, soil, microbes, fungi, trees.
“Children are raised with much fear. Parents don’t want them to do anything or to learn anything because they might hurt themselves,” Patrick continues. “Paternalistic or nanny state culture has not done us any favours in terms of preparing. Rather than safety, we need to re-cultivate old common sense.”
Returning to resilience
One potential starting point is to encourage our children to take small calculated risks, rather than be ‘safe’ all the time. Because it’s in risk and in failure, and also in small accidents, that we learn.
As a society, it’s not just the lack of feedback to that which makes life possible that’s missing. What’s also missing is a lack of feedback in using tools or doing processes, and those skills are essential when it comes to creating a resilient culture and resilient communities.
“If permaculture is about mimicking ecological systems and community is forest ecology, then if we are individual trees we have so much to learn just from being quiet and watching,” states Meg.
“How each individual tree creatively adapts in situ, how all of the trees are connected underneath the ground with their mycelial networks, communicating, sharing sugars – how do we learn from that and take those lessons on?
“When we were in the beginning process of living this kind of way we didn’t know where we were going. We didn’t know that we would end up here, we didn’t have this moment, these skills, this way of living and relating with the world in mind.”
Living life differently
What Meg and Patrick did know, however, was how they didn’t want to live, and that the way to reclaim their time, reverence, love, energy and health was by changing. It meant giving up a whole lot of things, but that was achieved by changing habits and behaviours just one item at a time.
And by asking a lot of questions. What are the alternatives? What does a vacation look like without flying? What is available to eat if you’re not going to buy something in a packet?
“For me personally, there was lots of breaking down and lots of crying,” Meg explains. “And lots of ‘but what do you mean the governments are choosing economics over our wellbeing and happiness?’
“I still have those thoughts, but they no longer crack me open like they did. Turning towards a permacultural way of life was a huge stepping-towards a very different, very empowering, very exciting way of life.
“A visiting permaculturalist, Roberto Perez from Cuba, said there are three [important] things: catch your own water, grow your own food, say hello to your neighbour. Everybody has something to offer, whether they’re able bodied or not, we’ve all got gifts to share.”
“People think of permaculture as swinging an axe or fermenting skills or digging,” adds Patrick. “But it’s whole culture. It could be writing songs, it’s not just about veggie gardening. What is that gift that you can bring in exchange?
“This is why really, I can’t stand that word self-sufficiency, because it’s like bolting yourself off from the world. Community sufficiency means everybody has a role, everyone has a place to contribute.”