It was 2008, and the economy was crashing. I was scared about peak oil, climate change, and economic instability, and grasping for answers. A group of women in Ann Arbor were starting a new organization, and had heard about some of the community work I had done around sustainability. Through Transition Ann Arbor, I first hear the word “permaculture.” It sounded interesting, complex, and like a beautiful solution all at the same. Having a background in solar photovoltaics, I was sure that renewable energy systems would solve all of our problems, but here was a group of people talking about a return to ecological based agricultural practices as a systemic solution. My curiosity was piqued, and in 2009, I went out to California to undertake a Permaculture Design Course (PDC).
The permaculture approach addresses our most pressing issues. Sustainable food and energy production, carbon sequestration, new economic models based on resource sharing, social justice — all through a return to ecological principles and ethics. What impressed me most was permaculture’s approach to systems thinking — creating solutions for food, energy, water, building, transportation, and waste. This is ultimately a return to source, integrating human needs with the rhythms and cycles of nature. We set limits to growth, and accept the feedback that our natural systems give us. It is a design science for creating long-term, seven-generation solutions.
Start where you are, use what you’ve got, and do what you can.
I returned from California and made the decision to get our Ann Arbor home off of fossil fuels, and make the transition from being a consumer, to being a producer. I resigned from my public school position and started a small company — Chiwara Permaculture Research & Education.
We started teaching classes out of my house — I used the food installations and energy efficiency improvements as hands-on, problem-based learning courses with grade schools. Our first pilot project with Summer’s Knoll looked at how we could grow and harvest pokeberry ink to increase the efficiency of solar panels. We now work with Ann Arbor and Detroit public schools — and utilize permaculture as a vehicle for a K-12 science curriculum. In 2012, I won the first ever “A2 Awesome Award” for the Permacycle — a pedal powered unit that grows food with L.E.D. lights in a closed loop system.
In 2011, we began teaching two-day permaculture intensive courses through Washtenaw Community College from Chiwara House. Through my work, I’m so fortunate to meet and help people start their own permaculture journey, as they transition from being consumers to small-scale producers.
In 2012, we initiated permaculture-based research with the University of Michigan, which has led to the creation of the U-M Permaculture Design Team, a student learning organization that’s part of the University’s Sustainable Food Program.
Chiwara House is now a community R&D lab where we are a model for other homes in the state, taking on students and clients, helping homes and business owners implement the permaculture principles in their communities.
Most excitingly, other permaculture projects have begun to flourish all over southeast Michigan. Jesse Tack and his Abundant Michigan Permaculture Ypsilanti project recently installed an eight-acre food forest at Dawn Farms. There are many permaculture projects in Detroit’s urban farming renaissance. And 2013 saw the first ever Michigan Permaculture Convergence, where over 150 participants gathered at Camp Talahi in Brighton to share experiences, lessons, and skills.
The future is small and local, with community based education and economic development combined with restorative ecology. Through permaculture’s tenets of resiliency, regeneration and bio-mimicry, we can empower a new generation of nature based problem solvers.
Nathan Ayers is founder and director of Chiwara Permaculture Research & Education L3C. He is certified in permaculture design and solar photovoltaics, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.