I want to go and ask the mountains: How to start a garden? From permaculture to overcoming stories of invisibility.

Lea Ostendorf

Mountain! How do I start a garden?

Mountains do not speak, but we can listen to what they say. I personally learned this through a permaculture project in Aotearoa (New Zealand), which was managed by a Maori named Lisa. What I learned there was gained through experience, and I continued learning about permaculture in Austria (although more through my mind than my body). The following are questions that made sense to me regarding overcoming invisibility, along with answers from a permaculture perspective. I took a walk through the landscape, which is not a garden yet, and interviewed myself. This is an initial inquiry, involving questioning, contemplating possible answers, making mistakes, underlining, and using exclamation and question marks in the hope of sparking some answers or good questions.

Could you explain briefly what permaculture is?

I would say that permaculture is a way of thinking. The idea is to create self-sustaining systems. The term “permaculture” was coined by Bill Mollison, but the principles behind it have indigenous origins. Mollison asked, “How can we survive on this planet?” and then looked at indigenous cultures, as well as patterns of nature to understand how they sustain themselves[1]. In short, I would describe permaculture as a truly circular economy, most commonly seen in permaculture gardens that are built to provide food for people.

How is knowledge obtained in a permaculture system?

Permaculture first takes a long look at what is actually present in the system and what it needs. Then comes the “how.” With permaculture, I have learned to think in circles, considering relationships and seeing the bigger picture. I’ve learned a lot about plants and animals, but the most valuable thing was learning how to ask questions. I begin with the assumption that I know nothing about the system I want to change. I consult all the people, animals, wind, and soil. Permaculture asks questions like, “How is the mouse? How does it move through this particular piece of land?” As we know, diversity makes a system resilient; we want to have as many different beings in this system as possible. To achieve this, we need to ask: “What are the needs of these beings? And what are these beings giving back to the system? And which gifts and needs align?” A huge part is understanding the relationships between the beings in the system, strengthen them and creating new ones. What permaculture also adds is a timeframe which goes beyond what we usually think of. We ask: “How does this element change over the years, and by years, I mean a time frame of 10 to 20 to 50 to 100, 200 years? Can I build it in a way that is adjustable to change? What happens if we take the humans out of the system?”

I would like to talk about how value is defined in a permaculture system.

In permaculture, value is defined differently. Changes are made only when necessary and after careful consideration. We may question whether something is useful, but the crucial point is that in a balanced ecosystem, many things are useful that may not directly benefit humans. When we ask this question, we are fully aware that something may not be useful to us, but it plays a vital role in sustaining the ecosystem we inhabit. For instance, a flower may hold value for a different being in the system, and therefore, it has value to me. Since humans are a part of the systems we create and we want humans to stay in this system, live and thrive in it, we also give value to things humans like. Here comes a curtail point to me, because we also value energy a lot (in order to be sustainable we want the system to be as much self-reliant as possible), we do not want to create things that are not going to add to a sustained joy or not going to add to adequately fulfill the needs of the humans in the system. To achieve this, we must honestly address questions related to needs, desires, wishes, wants, can-dos, and cannot-dos. If our answers are not truthful, the system will not work. It is as simple as that. Or complex actually.

What answers does permaculture have to the question: How can we overcome stories of invisibility?

It might seem like nothing novel, but I think learning to listen is the answer permaculture holds for us. Also, learning to take things slow in order to give the complexity of our reality its space. Giving space to ask a lot of questions and then giving space to be confused. We simply ask everything in the system, “What do you need, and where do you have overflow you can share?” Thinking of the complexity of our social systems and stories of invisibility, permaculture does not translate so easily. On a human level, I have had very different experiences in systems (mostly gardens or households) that used permaculture techniques in cultivating food. In some, I and the other humans involved got to be freer versions of ourselves, got to discover ourselves, each other, and life, and be held by the community and the land around us at the same time. In some, I met homophobic and racist people believing in conspiracy ideology. And still, what I have experienced opened up a lot for me, and I know it has for others as well. Living in a system where you get to experience the interconnectedness of your own life with the ecosystem around you changed how I think and feel in the world. I think in terms of species invisibility, economy, and sustainability, permaculture holds a lot of answers. In terms of social systems it is not so clear. As I said at the beginning, this is a first inquiry, so I will leave not completely satisfied with my answer, knowing I can come back anytime.

And maybe we have to ask some more mountains.


[1] Simmons, I. G. (1980). Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlement, by B. Mollison & David Holmgren

Lea Ostendorf is a yoga teacher, youth sex educator, permaculture designer and has a bachelor’s degree in psychology. The central theme of her work is the question how we can enter into healthier relationships with ourselves, others and our environment.