Permaculture Philosophy for Beginners with Lindsay Napolitano of Fields Without Fences
Lindsay Napolitano is an educator, herbalist and the co-founder of Fields Without Fences, a farm and permaculture design service that cultivates fruits, nuts, medicinal herbs and more. By applying permaculture philosophy and principles, Fields Without Fences extends their practice through consulting services to farmers, landowners, and organizations. In turn, they build awareness and educate others on the holistic approach and realization that all is interconnected.
The term “permaculture” was first coined by Bill Mollison in 1978. Mollison described it as, “The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”
In short, permaculture interweaves conscious human interaction with the earth through a sustainable approach. As you’ll read below, Lindsay describes permaculture and its applications in an eloquent, digestible way. Ultimately, the relationship we form with our land has the potential to alter the way we interact with others and ourselves whether it be on a personal level or large-scale. Permaculture philosophy is a great tool in looking at various obstacles from both a detailed point of view as well as the abstract for harmonious solutions.
How would you describe permaculture to someone who isn’t familiar with it?
Lindsay: Permaculture is an approach to landscape design and management that aims to mimic natural systems and create harmony in the process. That is, not just harmony amongst the components of the ecology from a plant and animal perspective, but also includes the human being(s) within the ecosystem.
What permaculture does is provide a foundation and framework to work with any landscape. It doesn’t have to be here in New Jersey, it can be in volcanic areas, or urban plots in NYC. You take these basic, foundational approaches and principles, and you begin to apply a site-specific design that is appropriate for both the functionality of the ecosystem and the desires of the human stewarding the landscape.
Indeed. Permaculture philosophy and design are made up of specific principles and ethics that can be tailored to individual areas, climates, etc… It really enhances and encourages a symbiotic relationship between the internal and the external world. What have you learned from the field that you can apply to your life?
Lindsay: One of the major components within permaculture design is the process of goal articulation. Goal articulation really seeks to distill down motivations past the details into the more abstract desires of what you want to see manifest in the landscape. This is what we are constantly doing throughout life. For example, someone might say I really want to start a vegetable CSA, but this person doesn’t want to work on the weekends, or maybe this person isn’t that great with interpersonal skills. You have to go back and ask questions to determine what the ultimate motivation is. Maybe what they really want to do is just be outside more and grow food for their home and neighbors. This motivation is what needs to be at the foundation of the landscape design and life design.
You want to focus on patterns before moving onto details.
In my own life, I’ve been a number of people. I’ve had different ideas of what I wanted to do in my life and different ideas of what I wanted my days to look like. Something that ecology shows us, particularly within perennial or wild ecosystems, is there is a constant evolution going on. So your perspective is changing as a tree’s perspective changes based where you are in the growth process. Permaculture teaches us to circle back and reassess. You make modifications to your life and to your ability to maintain harmony and alignment.
While everything is in a constant flux, it is key to flow with our ever-changing landscapes—both internal and external. Is permaculture something anyone can do? Or are there any educational requirements?
Lindsay: There’s a joke within permaculture where you ask a question and the answer is always, “it depends.”
For someone who has a small deck, I think that you can very easily watch some videos on YouTube, read some incredible books, and begin experimenting with utilizing permaculture in a way that, you know, if you have a small deck, maybe you are planting some species for pollinators, maybe you’re utilizing a certain amount of water catchment off your roof, and storing it to be used.
If you have a larger yard, perhaps you might want to take a course before you begin applying a full design schematic.
At Fields Without Fences, we offer a weekend course that introduces people to principles and guidelines for design, and that’s a good introductory way to start experimenting on a larger level. On the other hand, if you are not interested in a DIY approach, there are eco-landscapers who can fill that need, whether it is edible landscaping or a backyard food forest.
It gets more tricky when you start to scale up from there. If you’re talking about large acreage the stakes get a bit more high in terms of energy and cost. You can experiment but there is potential for things to go wrong, so be prepared for that. If you’re a novice, you don’t necessarily want to put a large pond on your site that has the potential for failure if it is in proximity to neighbors or infrastructure.
It’s worthwhile to work with a professional as you scale up. My partner works with farms in NJ and farms across the region to create water systems across large acreage land holdings.
In this context, we also work with Mark Shepard, author of Restoration Agriculture, on installing land management systems, water systems, and plant installations. We connected with him because his approach very much mirrors our approach to landscape regeneration where we want to hybridize ecological restoration with agricultural production for broad scale renewal.
How do you see permaculture growing in our country, in our world?
Lindsay: We’re dealing increasingly with degraded ecosystems and dysfunctional landscapes that are not able to support a diversity of life, including human life. We are resourceful and may be able to find a way to survive, but other species may not. As the environment changes in response to this, we are going to have to turn toward regenerative approaches like permaculture if we want to restore the diversity of life as we know it.
One way people come to permaculture is that you are drawn to the beauty and potential of it. Another way is that nothing else works. That’s initially where it started for us because of what we were experiencing on our degraded farm site.
It pushed us into exploring other ways of working with the landscape… What’s important to us in terms of what the future holds, is that the more people become educated in permaculture, ecological restoration, and regenerative agriculture, the more of a knowledge base and momentum we’ll have to really do the repair work. This is something we should do, and ultimately, have to do.
We have a lot of knowledge as the human species. With that comes an immense responsibility to look out for the well-being of our surroundings. What is an important factor to keep in mind as we continue to progress?
Lindsay: What’s important to mention is that we can’t necessarily talk about permaculture in monolithic terms. People have different ideas about different permaculture techniques and different design approaches. There is a lot of debate about how to implement regenerative techniques. That dialogue is wonderful and vibrant, and robust and it’s worthwhile in pushing the conversation forward.
But the one thing we have to ask ourselves, and this is something I truly love about permaculture is—is it rooted in the ethics of earth care, people care, and fair share?
If you don’t have these ethics as a compass, then you’re not doing permaculture. On the other hand, if what you’re doing is rooted in these three ethics, that is permaculture, with or without the name.
Permaculture is made up of 12 design principles and rules to living that can be applied to not just the land, but our own lives and relationships.
- Observe and interact.
- Catch and store energy.
- Obtain a yield.
- Apply self-regulation and accept feedback.
- Use and value renewable resources and services.
- Produce no waste.
- Design from patterns to details.
- Integrate rather than segregate.
- Use small and slow solutions.
- Use and value diversity.
- Use edges and value the marginal.
- Creatively use and respond to change.
Through the understanding and utilization of permaculture philosophy and its principles, we experience a win-win by mimicking what nature already does.
Captivated by change as the only constant, Michelle covers topics including consciousness, sustainability, art, and the imagination. Founder of Flux Air, a conscious website, she navigates through narratives that propel evolution.