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12 Jan 2009

Book Review: Permaculture, a beginner’s guide

Permaculture: a beginner’s guide (second edition). Graham Burnett. Spiralseed Publications.

I have had a copy of the initial edition of this small book for many years.  Graham both wrote and illustrated the book, and it has a very distinctive look and feel which are particular to his work.  His particular background and his perspective on permaculture emerges from a long background in anarchism, veganism, and a more urban, communitarian approach than some more rural-focused writers such as Patrick Whitefield.  He is also active in Transition Westcliffe-on-Sea

The book is a clear and information-packed, and it covers most of what you would expect a short introduction to permaculture to cover.  It covers the ethics and principles of permaculture, opting for Mollison’s original ones, rather than Holmgren’s revised principles.  This dilemma presents an interesting choice for permaculture teachers and writers, which to use?  Personally, I tend to see Mollison’s as the GCSE ones, more accessible for beginners, and Holmgren’s as the A’Level ones, for those already grounded in the basic ideas.  In this regard, I think Graham gets it right opting for Mollison’s, they certainly work very well in the context of this book.

He then explores the permaculture design process and how to apply permaculture in a range of settings, the garden, the farm, and within the urban community.  Like any good primer, or introductory text, ‘A Beginner’s Guide’ does lots of signposting.  Of course it can’t tell you, in its 74 pages, how to coppice a woodland and create a roof garden, but references are provided to those who can.  Some of the tables are very useful, offering a quick guide to edible weeds and reading a landscape, among other things.

More nice things?

I have only two grumbles, one small and one larger one.  I was a bit disappointed, having had my original copy of this for many years, to find that the ‘second edition’ is almost exactly the same as the first.  So far as I can tell, all that has been added has been a colour cover and some (albeit useful) colour pictures at the back with accompanying case studies.  In spite of all the advances in permaculture since, and in the world around it, what you get it still a version of permaculture from 10 years or so ago.  The opportunity for a more substantial updating of the original seems to have been missed.

The other thing is the presentation.  In the world of permaculture such as it is presented graphically by Graham’s accomplished illustrations, everyone is a member of some minority group or other.  You would think that the only people who practice permaculture are punks, hippies, people who wear T-Shirts with radical slogans printed on them, people of colour, people with a penchant for going to the toilet with no clothes on, people with mohicans. dreadlocks and 3 day-old stubble.  While that may have been the case when this book was originally written (although it wasn’t my experience of most of the people I met practicising permaculture at that time) I was reminded, as I read the book, of a copy of ‘Spiritual Midwifery’, that classic 60’s guide to holistic birthing, owned by my wife.

‘Spiritual Midwifery’ was produced at The Farm in Tennessee and was a classic, selling millions of copies.  In the original, all the men have beards and long hair, and all the women have long hair, with head scarves and long dresses, and most women report giving birth as being like one long orgasm.  When my wife bought a copy about 10 years ago, on the cover was a banner boldly proclaiming “Updated and Revised for the 1990s!”  I opened the book, intrigued.  Had they airbrushed out the beards?  Did all the men now have trainers on and Timberland jackets?  Were all the women dressed in the finest Prada and have their bellybuttons pierced?  No.  The photos were exactly the same, leaving me wondering in what sense the book had been brought up to date.

Similarly, ‘A Beginners Guide’ feels, graphically at least, stuck in some 1980s version of radical change, where the only people really pursuing change of any value are small minority groups, not anyone who carries even a whiff of the mainstream.  In this world, most change of any value comes from punks, rastas, animal rights activists, anarchists and squatters.  I would have loved to see, in a second edition of this highly useful book, a more up to date look at who might actually be implementing this stuff, given the degree to which it has subsequently moved on (if, indeed, it was ever like this).

What I see as I travel up and down the country meeting Transition groups, is a distinct absence of mohicans and dreadlocks (not that there’s anything wrong with those, its just that the vast majority of people don’t have them).  In that sense, there is something in this book which somehow encapsulates why it is that permaculture has struggled to escape from a ghetto of its own making.

Who would I give this book to?  I think as an introduction to permaculture for someone already immersed in ‘alternative’ culture, it is excellent.  It certainly was a big influence on me at the time in my life when it first emerged.  People with a background in campaigning and in activism will find this an easy-to-follow, rousing introduction to permaculture, a very useful and important tool.

Would I give this to my local councillor, my MP, my next-door neighbours, or to my sister, in an attempt to convince them that permaculture has a role to play in transitioning their very conventional lifestyles/workplaces?  I don’t think I would.  In that case I’d opt for Patrick Whitefield’s ‘Permaculture in a Nutshell’, but acknowledging that even that may well not have a universal appeal.  Feels to me like with the world heading headlong into financial meltdown and energy famine, and with permaculture, as Holmgren so passionately argues, being the design system of a post-oil world, we need ways to broaden, mainstream and deepen its appeal as quickly as possible.  While this book is a passionate, powerful and information rich guide to permaculture principles for those already amenable to alternative ways of looking at the world, it is not, by a long way, the book that will bridge across to the mainstream.

Categories: General

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1 Comment

13 Jan 10:16am

I’ve always liked Graham’s very accessible writing style and distinct drawings – I have several of his booklets going back 10+ years.

I guess what he’s trying to show with his illustrations are groups of people who are normally excluded, not only from the mainstream ‘society’ but also from many environmental activities too.

I’m not an anarchist (or am I?), a punk or a squatter, I have never been offended or threatened by Graham’s illustrations – quite the opposite – everybody looks like they are having a great time.

I will concede that to some people (those who are a little judgemental and have preconceived ideas) it could be off-putting, so maybe Graham can incorporate people in shirts and ties, councillors and other everyday folk.

Maybe this book isn’t the one to give to your local MP, but I strongly recommend buying it for yourself – it’s really accessible.

Thanks, Martin