The Power of Permaculture

Since 1993, the Sonoran Permaculture Guild has taught permaculture design, practice, and big-picture ecological thinking.

May 8, 2017

HomesteadIssue 24: May/June 2017

Standing on the patio at the offices of the Sonoran Permaculture Guild, it’s hard to imagine that this place was once a poster child for urban blight. Today, it’s a living landscape of mature desert shade trees, edible plants, a garden, plus solar and water harvesting systems. But as Dan Dorsey, the manager of the Sonoran Permaculture Guild, leads a pair of visitors through the property, he paints a very different picture of what it was like here a quarter century ago.

Except for a run-down slump-block home, this was a barren lot when Dorsey acquired it in 1993. Nothing grew here except for a few weeds. It didn’t help that the yard had become a neighborhood dumping ground. Some of the soil was so contaminated with discarded motor oil it had to be dug up and removed.

Then there were the two abandoned cars out back, one of them occupied by a neighborhood drug dealer. Dorsey vividly remembers knocking on the window one morning and telling the dealer it was time to take his business elsewhere.

When it rained, water rushed in from the back alley, down a gulch, and all the way to the street out front. The erosion undercut a corner of the house and left it exposed in midair.

Where most of us would see problems, Dorsey saw solutions. “I was thinking, wow, I sure am glad all that water is running in from the alley. It could certainly be put to use to restore the place,” he says. Which is how the future home of the Sonoran Permaculture Guild became one of the group’s earliest projects, a way to demonstrate the transforming powers of permaculture design.

The roots of permaculture were planted in Australia during the 1970s. Founders Bill Mollison and David Holmgren coined the term from the words permanent and agriculture. They were alarmed by modern farming practices, which in their view, inflicted serious damage on the environment. Mollison and Holmgren believed that by studying ecosystems and working with nature instead of against it, they could design a sustainable method of agriculture. Later they expanded the concept to include any human habitat as well as social systems such as finance and zoning.

What makes permaculture different from other approaches to sustainability is that it’s grounded in three ethics: care of the earth, care of people, and fair share, a commitment to recycling and reusing resources for the benefit of everyone.

While solar power, harvesting rainwater, gardening, and other sustainable techniques are part of permaculture design, the goal is something bigger. By studying natural patterns like wind direction and the movement of the sun, students learn how to create a plan that incorporates all these methods so they work together synergistically.

“They’ll hear about solar panels, they’ll hear about gardening, they’ll hear about digging swales. There’s nothing wrong with that,” says Dorsey. “The problem is that a lot of people stop there and they don’t get the big picture. What permaculture has to offer is the big picture based on ecology and how things actually work.

“Nature has had billions of years to work this out. Maybe it’d be a good idea to study these principles and mimic them in our own human settlements.”

Dan Dorsey is the manager of the Sonoran Permaculture Guild, which covers five-week courses on permaculture design twice a year, as well as ongoing workshops.

Over 25 years, the Sonoran Permaculture Guild has grown to include more than a dozen instructors leading workshops on permaculture design, solar power, water harvesting, growing your own food, beekeeping, aquaponics, natural building methods, and introduction to permaculture. Classes are held at locations across Baja Arizona.

Lately, Dorsey says more people, especially young people, are coming out of a sense of despair. He says they see what’s happening in politics, to the environment, and seek tangible solutions.

“It’s an extremely dysfunctional society and I think people feel that somewhere on a deep level,” he says. “To get reconnected to these patterns and to realize you can use them to do an effective design that’s going to save you money, that’s going to make your life more comfortable, that’s going to be a more pleasant place to live. With all these things stacked in it, a light bulb goes on.”

Dorsey shows his visitors the outdoor ramada that serves as a classroom. There’s also a separate office, made from straw bales and adobe, sunk four feet into the ground to moderate Tucson’s extreme differences in temperatures.

When it rains, water still comes pouring in from the alley. But instead of rushing across the property, a series of swales and basins capture the water so that it seeps back into the soil and nurtures the gardens, shrubs, and trees.

Dorsey reminds his guests that this renewal took a long time. It began with a 15-year plan that evolved over the years. His vision for Baja Arizona is that many of us will look to permaculture to transform the places where we live, work, and play.

“We don’t need to invent anything else to take care of our problems,” he says. “The message of permaculture is that you can start right where you are. Start designing and then doing something. It’s a very optimistic message.”

The Sonoran Permaculture Guild offers five-week courses on permaculture design twice a year, during the spring in Tucson and during the fall in Phoenix. One-day workshops are held throughout the year. ✜

Dennis Newman is a freelance writer from Tucson who has written extensively about farming and how crops become food and beverages.

When Dan Dorsey acquired the property that became the headquarters of the Sonoran Permaculture Guild, it was a barren lot. Today, it contains an educational center focusing on permaculture and renewable energy.

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