I take a level course along a steep north-facing slope, the bag of acorns tied to my belt slapping against my outer thigh. Every three strides, I jam the shovel down through ash, open a crack in the brown loam, and push in an acorn. Then I press the soil down with my boot and walk on. Someday, I imagine, these slopes will be forested in fire-resistant oaks and a new chapter in the ecological history of Lama Mountain will begin. I switchback up to the ridgeline, planting the entire hillside in an hour. Then I head north to repeat the process on another ridge.

I first came to the mountain nine years ago as a retreatant at the Lama Foundation, a spiritual community sitting on the toes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico. I was immediately taken by the place, its pretechnological lifestyle, hippie-era buildings, earthy food. Everything showed the touch of human hands and the aspirations of spirit. What it lacked, I sensed, was a clear vision of how to be sustainable. I offered to engage the community in a discussion of permaculture. Since that time I have taught permaculture courses at Lama, worked with residents and long-term members on master planning, and lived and worked in the community. Permaculture became the language through which my love affair with Lama was conducted.

Permaculture is both my professional and my spiritual discipline. The word was coined more than twenty years ago by two Australian ecologists, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, looking for a way to describe human settlements, agricultures, behaviors, and cultures modeled on natural ecosystems. If, they reasoned, we could make our cities, farms, schools, parks, or businesses as rich, diverse, resilient, and productive as a forest or estuary, and if we could do this in a way that actually protected and enhanced the vitality of the living systems around us, then human beings might have some chance of surviving the ecological crises they have generated. So they developed a design process based on close observation of nature and utilization of simple, practical, and often very traditional techniques. Because it emphasizes effective actions that ordinary people can take to better their lives and regenerate their ecosystems, permaculture rapidly became a worldwide movement.

By calling permaculture my spiritual discipline, I risk violating its nature. Permaculture has always been a meta-discipline. It crosses national, cultural, religious, and professional borders. It describes a way of thinking based on discerning and establishing relationships among dynamic elements in a dynamic world. Everything is in flow—all matter, thought, energy changes continually. The objects we perceive are momentary traces of the flows moving through them. I could not exist as a living being if air, water, and food (not to mention gravity and a stable temperature range) were not continually flowing through me. In what sense am I and the air I breathe different? We are continuous.

Water flows through the branching conduits of a river as part of the planet’s hydrologic cycles. It climbs the sap lines of a tree and is breathed back to the air through leaf stomata. Water enters my body through my digestive tract and the pores of my skin. It pulses through veins and arteries, bathes each living tissue, exits through urine, feces, sweat, and breath. The river, the tree, the human body are each knots or eddies in the flow of water. These knots are characterized by order, organization, what permaculturalists call pattern. Take a snapshot of a flow, or look at the traces where it has been (the flotsam cast up by a flood), and you will be looking at a pattern. Learning to recognize, interpret, and apply pattern is the core practice of permaculture.

Vista from the top of the Lama Foundation's land just days after the 1996 fire: Charred trees form the view in all directions. Liam Rutan, courtesy of Lama Foundation.
Vista from the top of the Lama Foundation’s land just days after the 1996 fire: Charred trees form the view in all directions. Liam Rutan, courtesy of Lama Foundation.

Over time, I discovered many significant patterns at Lama Foundation. It had been built at the joint between the tolerable slopes of the foothills and the steep slopes of the mountain itself. This placed it at the interface of several ecosystems and soil types and contributed to the geologic features that made possible a year-round spring, source of plentiful water for a residential community and the retreatants it serves. However, much of the site is steep, posing a variety of challenges. Because the placement of the buildings did not fully take into account the implications of slope, and because buildings were spread out over much of the foundation’s 100 acres, a network of trails and roads crisscross the site, creating erosion problems and eyesores. The worst of these turned out to be a logging road, built fifty years ago when the center of the property was clear-cut. The clear-cutting left an open meadow where the main community facilities are clustered. It also left an open wound, running straight down the mountainside, where water, soil, and the vitality of the land and people regularly leaked out.

This road became a metaphor for everything I thought wasn’t working at Lama. The community envisioned itself as low impact and ecologically responsible. Yet it was entirely dependent on that road for its food, energy, and income, as constant traffic proved. The community described itself as a sane alternative to a dehumanizing American way of life. Why then did residents regularly leave burnt-out, impoverished, and suffering the consequences of inadequate basic health care? In what sense, I wondered, is this sustainable? Doesn’t it depend on a constant stream of new, idealistic blood? How could anyone grow old here, raise a family, make this a way of life? We agreed to explore these questions as part of a mutual teaching and learning process.

A consensus-based community takes a long time to change its mind. For the next four years I visited occasionally, taught a course each summer, and assisted with a master planning process. We were developing a common language. Then Lama retained my colleague Tim Murphy to devise a conceptual plan for a more appropriate development of the site’s development. He recommended replacing most of the existing residences with centrally located, clustered, solar housing. He described the agricultural potential of the site (including forestry) and encouraged the community to diversify its sources of income and begin to self-provide some of its basic needs. And he suggested rerouting the old logging road as a switchback following the contour lines. Its new placement would halt erosion, provide sheet runoff to support shelterbelt tree plantings, create a simple and centralized access to the proposed new development (allowing inappropriate roads and trails to be reclaimed), and act as a firebreak to protect the core buildings of the community.

Practicing permaculture: The author at work. Courtesy of Seth Friedman.
Practicing permaculture: The author at work. Courtesy of Seth Friedman.

All hell broke loose. “A new religion is being snuck into Lama.” “This is a spiritual community, not an agricultural community.” “The existing buildings give this place its character—they resonate with the love and prayer that has gone into them over decades.” “New roads and new construction will only create further damage to the land.” “This landscape is natural and beautiful—it’s wrong to intervene.” The Lama community had begun the serious and passionate debate needed to envision a future. Within two years, hundreds of current and former residents had come to agreement about redeveloping their beloved home. The power of such a group, once aligned, is nearly unstoppable.

In 1995, the new road was built and construction began on a passive solar kitchen and dining facility. In 1996, Lama Foundation burned down in a 7000-acre forest fire. With one exception, only the buildings protected by the new road survived. Residences, offices, workshops, retreat facilities, and basic infrastructure were all destroyed in minutes by the firestorm.

By the time the fire came, I had moved to Lama to become a resident and participate in the new building program. Overnight I saw my dreams and the dreams of the community reduced to ash. Everywhere I turned I saw the traces of an awesome power: rubble, smoking ash, thousands of standing black trunks, the faces of my friends stripped of their personas, shaking and weeping and laughing from the shock. Even the television crews were visibly affected by the eerie silence of this smoking devastation and the strange miracle of the main dome untouched and the cotton prayer flags flying in the hot wind.

I stop my tree planting for a moment to take a breath and see where I’ve been. The trees and branches we laid down earlier in the summer to prevent all the soil from washing away in the monsoons have all silted up with black, ash-enriched soil. Scrub oaks, aspens, and grasses push up out of the ground in June and July, stimulated by fire, nutrients from the ash, and all those live roots with no leaves to support them. Now they’re going dormant as the early winter of high elevations approaches. The dead ponderosa pines are mostly gone, some cut for lumber to rebuild and firewood for the long winter ahead, some laid down to protect soil and the new saplings to come, some left standing as wildlife habitat. By next year, this place will be buzzing with new life as the pioneers move in. But it will be a while before we see a forest again.

Ten millennia ago, the first people to settle here used fire to manage and direct these forests to become more productive for people and wildlife. I’m using species selection to do the same thing, since I’m not sure fire is the best way to build soils in our brittle climate. I don’t know if I’ll succeed—it’ll take generations to find out, and I’ve learned to give in to the mountain. She’s huge, violent, beautiful, and I love her, for all my feelings of betrayal and loss. So I read her patterns, plant my acorns, scatter grass seeds, lay down brush dams and hope for the best.

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