It takes a village.

By Simrit Malhi   | Jun 26, 2020

Like a new mother bound at home with her baby, the realization that it takes a village is hitting us all squarely in the face. It’s already made us nicer; we reach out to our neighbours, ask how the other is– and mean it, show up for that Zoom baby shower, share what we know for free; we seem to be learning because this is community at work. This is how villages are made.

When I was asked to write about what we can learn from permaculture during these times, my first thoughts were about growing food, going off-grid; becoming self-sustainable. But I found myself distressed by the word -- self-sustainable. When I initially moved out of city life (Bombay and Chennai), my perspective was binary; city = evil, farm = good.  But I quickly realized the benefits of living within an intensely social environment; less transportation, more resources (including ‘waste’ and knowledge) and honestly, more fun. 

As a farmer living in a pretty remote part of South India; I grow food, collect rainwater and live in a house I’ve built, but there is no way I could survive  without a community around me.  We share food, seeds, knowledge and often our time and labour with each other but equally importantly: laughs, good whisky and...I’ll just say it – love.  I depend on my community for my emotional and spiritual wellbeing. As do we all. How much more of the ‘self’ do we want to sustain, anyway? The capitalist notion of ‘each one for themselves’ created through competition in an atmosphere of lack, completely denies the existence of the intricate web of life that we are all a part of and connected by.  

Eric Klinenberg, author and reigning expert on urban studies, culture, and media, predicts this global lockdown will put an end to an era of hyper-individualism. Covid-19 has forced us to look inside this ‘web’ - from New Delhi to New York,  people are now able to see how our fates are linked. A restaurant that denies paid sick leave to their staff, is ultimately harmful to you. This is information that will become more and more necessary for the public; forcing companies to establish humane practices that support the larger community. 

And as much as we should scrutinize companies and larger organisations, it might be time to look at our own relationships as well. Tested through time, we know this: our relationships are our mirrors. If we are open enough to accept our own misconceptions and failings, we grow through relating with others...much like the plants we cultivate. Rising evidence proves that the botanical world is constantly relating with each other – in ways that help the whole. Patrick Whitefield says “permaculture is the art of designing beneficial relationships” – and it works between both people and plants. 

As a design philosophy, permaculture uses principles learnt through observing nature to design systems. The system could be for cleaning grey water, growing a vegetable garden, starting a business or organizing a wedding – using the principles of permaculture will ensure that the design is close-looped or circular (with no waste or external input), sustainable and highly abundant.
 NorBlack NorWhite, Permaculture, Simrit Mahi
I’ll take one principle as an example to illustrate how we can use permaculture not only in the garden, but also within a community. 

‘Use and Value Diversity’

Look at a pristine rainforest (permaculture always begins with observation); every tree is a different species and there is a cornucopia of shapes, sizes, smells, and fruit. It is this diversity that keeps a forest strong – if one species catches a disease, there will be another to provide food or shelter. Or in a diverse community of people, it ensures that if one can’t step up, there will be someone who will. Even within the large variety of species in a forest, there are none that suffer - instead, each plant supports the other. Like in a healthy community where decisions are made by hearing every voice; keeping the community resilient by deterring possible conflict. Diversity in race, gender, age, or even opinion or art, ensures that a collaboration of the many parts will create something larger than the whole. 

A forest becomes an ecosystem; neighbours become a community. 

I often like to say that while other growing techniques focus on
how to grow your plants, permaculture deals with where and what to plant together. Just like us, plants also have their own crews they grow well together with. Plant guilds are groups (or communities ☺) of plants that grow better when they are together. They help each other out by exchanging nutrients, having complementary root structures and deterring pests. The Three Sisters of the Americas must be the most famous guild in the world – Corn, Beans and Squash. Inquois Native Americans believed the guild to be a precious gift from the Great Spirit and the sisters were worshipped every year. It’s so genius, it could come from nowhere but  the Great Spirit: the Corn is the Beans’ upright support system, the Bean provides nitrogen to the soil for the others and the Squash spreads below the Corn, deterring weeds and providing ground cover to help retain moisture in the soil. When grown together the Sisters produce nearly 50% more than when grown separately. 

We grow into our best (or most productive) selves within a mutually supportive community.  

In a permaculture garden, diversity also means security – if one crop fails, you have another to fall back on. But everyone is welcome, really. In a typical vegetable permaculture garden, you will always find more than just veggies -there’ll be bushy herbs, ground cover, maybe a tree, some weeds, wild plants and flowers. Always flowers. 

For beauty, for bees, for fragrance (for love). One of my favourite permaculturalists, Cecilia Macaulay, once said, “Beauty is a renewable source of energy.” And it is! Love and beauty make us want to go out into the garden, get the work done, and do it with a smile. And maybe that’s what we need in our workplaces now, in our decision-making or brainstorming sessions – more smiles, more room for the fun, the beautiful and the young. We must appreciate them as the vibrant sources of energy they are; maybe break out of this notion of productivity – not everyone’s contribution is ‘tangible’. 

And it is this ‘intangible’ that we are face to face with right now. Sitting at home, watching Nature recuperate Herself overnight; we can see ourselves for the disease that we have been on this planet. All the problems we have avoided for so long, are now staring at us – it isn’t like we were unaware of them; we were just too busy treading that endless mill.  As Julio Vincent Gambuto in this great piece [2] says “The greatest misconception among us, which causes deep and painful social and political tension every day…is that we somehow don’t care about each other. Men don’t care about women’s rights…Cops don’t care about the communities they serve. Humans don’t care about the environment. These couldn’t be further from the truth. We do care. We just didn’t have the time to do anything about it.”
And now here we are, with nothing to do. We, as a society, are vulnerable for the first time, in a way that the trappings of capitalism have not allowed space for, before. Lets try sitting with this vulnerability for a little. Instead of filling up our time with more activity, more learning- let’s instead look closely at the pain that sits within all of us. The trauma of our separation from nature in favour of trade has been brutal. We’ve perfected the art of many glossy, very sophisticated band-aids to help us forget – but many of those have also dropped away now (well, viva Netflix).  

Let’s use this time instead, to ask the difficult questions – Do I really value my work more than I do my relationships? How does my perspective change when I realize that I am an intrinsic part of nature...just as this virus? Let's push further, into the ways the current systems have denied us our humanity. Would we prefer dying alone, in a hospital, living on machines for a few extra months? Or would we rather die at home, surrounded by our loved ones, albeit a few months earlier? What is the template of a future we can accept? Or maybe more important than asking questions is to give ourselves some time to dream. To dream up new ways of living, of loving, of relating. 

Because this will not be our last pandemic – if not a virus, there will be climatic calamities; emergencies of all kinds. Is this the model we want to follow for the future? We could choose to go further into isolation and separation, to relinquish our humanity (and nature given autonomy) in favour of being ‘safe’ or we could use this time to choose inclusion, restore connections, and rejoin that web of life- no matter how uncertain our future is. Maybe everything is going to end in a shit show...but atleast we’ll have each other. And maybe that will make us stronger. 

Like the plant world shows us, this resilience is born through healthy relationships. So, let’s learn the skills and tools to work things through when conflict arises. Let’s deepen our relationship with our inner selves. Befriend the intangible. And as we face our own shadows, we reveal a strength that mirrors that of Nature – where self-worth is not associated with currency or productivity or status; where we see that abundance is only a matter of perspective. So grow that vegetable patch or plant that tomato; just do it with the love, commitment and respect any other relationship in your life deserves and I can guarantee it will be the  most fulfilling relationship of all.

Simrit Malhi lives on her permaculture paradise - Roundstone Farms - where she conducts courses on sustainable living and permaculture. She also runs a fair-trade farmer co-op and writes regularly on food and ecology. She likes hanging at the intersection of good design and kindness. 

Learn more about Roundstone Farms on their Facebook or Instagram


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