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.

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