In 1981, my wife Margrit (+) and I got to know one of the most important approaches to networking environmental measures – from the individual house or smaller settlements to the planning of entire regions. A year later, we brought Bill Mollison from Australia to Europe. This approach is called “ Permaculture “ (put together from the two word “permanent” and Agriculture) and, for me, it transmits the principles of ‘closed’ ecological cycles in nature to the planning of sustainable human settlements. This was the initial spark for us to invite Bill Mollison to Berlin, on the recommendation of the eco-architect Rudolf Doernach. David Holmgren and Bill Mollison had put together this ecological concept in the 1970’s, in Hobart, Australia. Bill then found more and more followers in the world through his lectures, since the early 80’s.
After about ten years 1982-92 of working very closely with Bill together, to spread the concept in Europe, our paths began to separate in 90’s. Every time I got to Australia, he was somewhere else. But, then, the joy was great, when we met once again in June 2005, n the historic town of Montovun of Istria, Croatia – at the 7. International Permaculture Conference. Along with some other participants at the meeting, I had just been to Sepp Hölzer’s permaculture project in Austria and come through Ljubljana to Istria.
Although I had known Bill for almost 24 years – and Sepp Hölzer just one day, I was really surprised to see a resemblance in their attitude to change and, at the same time, the contrast between these two men. Similar : both as „Agrarian-Rebels „, as creative practitioners, in their “ gardening with nature „, in their discerning gruffness, their love for story-telling and their charisma – two men in completely different climate zones who were innovative, far-sighted and practically at the same time and dedicated to the problems at hand as long as was necessary for a solution to be found. The contrast was for me was in the concentration on his own project by Hölzer who was just then 64 years old, whereas Mollison despite his old age, with 78, had still the same global openness with which he had gotten involved in new projects (over the decades) no matter where they were or how challenged they might be.
I would like to concentrate now, however, on my friendship with Bill and go back to the beginnings of our intensive collaboration – he was very generous in sharing his experience, he was as six year older man immediately both a friend, and teacher. He was an uncomfortable visionary who, for instance, in 1982 in Canada at one of the largest and most successful ecological meetings in North America of that time, coined the the phrase as a motto: „think globally – act locally“.
Born In 1928 in Australia, he lived between his 15th. to 28th. years of age alone in the Australian Bush, and worked as a trapper, lumberjack, fishermen and farmer – often together or in close neighbourly relationship with the Aborigines – the Australian indigenous people. From that time he had a wealth of stories, all of which were received by his listeners with great enthusiasm. From the kangaroo-hunting, where the aborigines made contact with the animals and gave them appreciation, explaining
why they had to have to kill them, so that virtually the animal would lay itself down at the hunter’s feet. Or from the story of the black swans, that Bill was observing – and how they came to him and sat themselves down in a circle around him. The stories were always about man and nature in deep contact and harmony with each other, something that hardly exists in our western civilization.
After Bill found out that this civilization destroyed the territories of the
Aborigines, more and more, he went back to study again in 1955 – in order to stop this development. Already during these studies, he went into research and academic teaching and– as an environmentalist – began to actively participate in the environmental policy of his country. He helped prevent dam projects, fought for the declaration of nature conservation reserves and supported the aboriginal people in their fight for their rights.
As an incorrigible optimist, he wanted to restore the Garden of Eden – for everyone. Furthermore, he tried to create the basics for a concept, which was not only open to new information, but also could integrate the knowledge about sustainable, ecological techniques from all parts of the world.
During the campaign against the dam on the Franklin River in Tasmania in the 1970’s – while he was a lecturer at the University in Hobart – he met his later co-Author David Holmgren, a landscape planning student. They started to discuss why the agriculture of the aborigines had survived the times and why modern agriculture was only good fior a relatively short-term period – a fad. Furthermore, he learned what could be learned from the aboriginal people and how their concepts could be brought into harmony with new technologies and new scientific findings.
Mollison and Holmgren began to experiment, to design and to write. With the help of the Japanese-speaking Aussie, Andrew Jeeves they pulled in the ideas of Masanobu Fukuoka (The One-Straw Revolution, 1975), they took over the key line concept from Ken Yeomans (Water for Every Farm, 1954) and F. H. King’s Observations of the highly productive agricultural concepts of Asia (Farmers of Forty Centuries – Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan, 1911). Out of these, they created a design concept for permancy in human activities with landscapes, water-scapes and forestry, which they called „Permaculture“.
As permaculture has no dogmas or fixed boundaries but rather a series of basic principles which are applicable to everything, he found always new and more contenders – like the architects Ian and Lecki Ord in Melbourne, the engineer and farmer Max Lindegger (designer of Crystal Waters Permaculture Village, Queensland), or Sonja Wallman (with her
productive lean-to greenhouse near Boston, Massachusetts, USA) and many other people in Australia, Europe and North America. The Permaculture-Design System was being defined and integrated into supposedly unrelated subject areas and he began a movement to link these separate sciences and areas of classical university departments.
Now (2016) – more than 40 years later – over thousands of independent permaculture associations and learning institutions have – in almost all languages – all over the world, serve people who are working on sustainable agriculture, reforestation, Bio-Architecture, environmental education and regional economics – and also those who are in search for a holistic concept of loving and life. Bill’s commitment and enthusiasm continuously helped to advance the multidisciplinary quality of the concept and made it to a permaculture system. For me, his most beautiful definition is: „Permaculture is a dance with nature – in which nature leads.“
The first book of Mollison and Holmgren Permaculture One (1978) was soon followed by Bill’s Permaculture Two (1979) and both made a circulation of over 100 000 copies by 1985. The two books have been translated into German, Portuguese and Italian, at my request, in the mid-1980’s. They are based very heavily on the experiences in Tasmania and they had to be transposed too for other climates as some methods were only partially transferable. Spanish and French translations followed later under the collaboration of Emilia Hazelip, soon to be a most well-known permaculture practitioner and teacher on both sides of the Pyennées – as she spoke all three languages.
However, the principles are so good and transferable and innovative, that they are turning established concepts in schools of agriculture and forestry, of rural, water, urban planning and architecture upside down. They are building on the experience in design of holistic ways of life – in different cultures and countries – and take little or no consideration of modern recipés or conventions. For me, and many other world-change messengers, they offered many new pathways and a new lifestyle.
Bill’s first visit to Germany, at the invitation of the students of the
Faculty of Architecture and the British council in Berlin – both of which helped support his travel and lecture fee – happened at the beginning of May 1981. He was supposed to do 7 other lectures in West Germany
organised by Rudolf Dörnach. Due to exceptional circumstances (Persching-Deployment-protests all over Germany) the rest of the lectures were cancelled. So Bill stayed a whole week – yes 10 days – in our house in Berlin-Schlachtensee. He talked continuously – every day from morning to evening – about his theories, his plans and projects in Australia. And since we were both working within the broad theme „Urban Ecology“ – I was in the Technical University as a professor of urban infrastructure – and Margrit in ecological construction as part of the preparation for the International Exhibition (IBA) Berlin 1987, we look off time to listen with full attention to this brilliant man. Our questions showed Bill that, in 1981, we in Europe had very similar problems to his in Australia. From the forests to the climate change, from the poisoning of food; to the wasting of water, etc. etc. – everything was covered. His analysis was brilliant too. Everything that is still going on to-day but maybe even on a larger and/or worse scale. But the most important to us was that we were able to discuss solutions with him, as that was behind ors and his design orientation.
The 5 days were not only fun but also terrifying – especially when Bill’s cited facts and details about the global ecological situation we presented. Until then, these insights were known only by very few decision-makers and mainly being ignored by politicians. But his unusual solutions convinced us both. He started with his statements at 9 o’clock in the morning and pontificated until midnight. We had a concentrated private Permaculture Designer Course (PDC) which usually takes 14 days – with many practical examples, drawings and graphics. The costs were modest: 2 packs of cigarettes and a bottle of Irish whiskey per day.
We started planting our 6 by 12 metres row-house garden with him, gathering plants in the woods around the Schlachtensee, and bringing them back as Bill kept saying that “life starts in your garden”. Margrit was a vegetarian and loved the idea of self-sufficiency in veggies and herbs. He agreed. In the evenings, however, we ate out as Bill was an avid meat-eaters – we would go to a restaurant for lamb or to order a decent steak for him. Once, in the “ Paris Bar “ in the Kantstrasse in Berlin-Charlottenburg, he ordered – as always – a German wine – he was interested in trying out local products. The waiter, slightly embarrassed, said that as we were in a restaurant called Paris Bar, they only served French wine. Quickly Bill replied: “I’ll have a Hardy Wallbanger “ (orange juice with vodka). Then, even the waiter had to laugh. Such cultural contrast-situations Bill loved – and somehow he produced them everywhere.
We went several times with him to Kreuzberg to the rehabilitation areas of the International Building Exhibition, where we both worked with different groups in the squatter scene. Even though he didn’t generally like cities and saw no good reason for their survival, he had immediately creative solutions for the people, who were poor and ill-treated by the authorities: a city-farm; or you can build your herbs and vegetables on balconies; he even wanted to draw up the solutions for them (this was 1981). He loved the energy saving devices that the squatters has thought up and implemented on a shoestring – and their grey-water systems with urban plants. Other interesting models were also good for him to see – and so it was the beginning of years of intense exchange of ecological knowledge across national borders and continents.
In the early 80’s, Mollison tried to write a kind of „Permaculture-Bible“. About half of his Designer s‘ Manual (1988) is brilliant, especially the chapter on patterns and design. There is hardly any other book of which I know that is a “ multidisciplinary design manual for Life”. Other chapters in this manual leave a lot to be desired. It was only in 2009 that Margaret Hölzer and Dr. Marlis Ortner in Austria translated and published it into German.
Another book: Introduction to Permaculture, that Bill together wrote with Reny Slay, illustrated by Andrew Jeeves, was published in 1991 and explains permaculture for the first time in a generally understandable and systematic approach. It also offers practical experience of many permaculture-activists in Australia and other countries. But above all, it is the result of the research carried out by Bill and Reny, in the 1980’s with the Australian Permaculture Institute in northern New South Wales, where Bill and Reny had moved for their work with Marilyn Wade. Also other numerous helpers there experimented with plants, buildings and technical infrastructure, while Bill was often on lecture-travel around the world.
Margrit and I (with the help of many other professionals), translated und edited Permaculture One and Permaculture Two e.g. in the second edition in German. A very good successful article with coloured images was published in 1984 in a Basel Newspaper (no.40, p. 10-15) and contained what we ourselves had developed in environmental planning and building and what we had learned from Bill and David and the movement. I heartily thank both individuals for their ideas, their perseverance and commitment.
It was Bill and Reny, who taught the first European Permaculture Design
course in Jagdschloss Glienicke in Berlin (with me as an assistant teacher and co-ordinator) in the summer of 1982. Because it was held in English, there were 24 participants from 7 countries of Europe and 2 interested participants from Brazil who at the time were studying landscape planning in the then still divided city. It wasn’t easy for these people with English as their second language to understand Bill’s Tasmanian, particularly because half the time he had a pipe in the left corner of his mouth. Antja – our then 21-Year-old daughter – not only did the course as a participant but also did a repetition in the evening in German – 2 hours, for the German, Swiss, Belgian and Austrian participants who hadn’t understood everything.
Over three-quarters of a year immediately after the course, 7 participants met all day, every Saturday to prepare the first 72 hour Permaculture Design Course (PDC) in German which was subsequently held on a farm in Wetzhausen, Bavaria.
After that, I started my new career as a “ Mr. Permaculture Europe “
(East and West) with Bill’s full support. Except for the one course in
Germany and another Brazil in 1983, I held the first and / or two permaculture design courses (from 1983 to 1995) in Denmark, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Croatia, the Netherlands, Norway, Austria, Poland, Russia, Scotland, Switzerland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Each of these courses was partly financed by the Gaia Trust, Denmark (run by Hildur & Ross Jackson, also PDC students of Bill and Margrit).
1993 the book of Bill Mollison about Ferments and 1996 another
entitled Travel in Dreams were published but could not attain the success of the first 3 books. But the international permaculture movement had now grown- on the basis of the first books and because of the numerous two and three-week designer courses, held all over the globe. In Europe, the widening of the concept to suit the northern climate was in full swing. This met – in part – the sharp criticism of the scientific community (partly who felt threatened) and from the conventional farmers because of the unusual ideas and methods, propagated by this growing movement.
I have learned so much from Bill and David. 1985, I was so enthusiastic about the permaculture-vision that I dropped my academic career and decided to go for it – for real, as a practitioner and multiplier of the design system. Many other men and women did the same on many continents. We sold our home in Berlin, I quit my professorship at the Technical University and Margrit her job at the International Building
Exhibition, and we moved to Steyerberg in Lower Saxony in order to build up a permaculture experimental plot on 2.6 hectares (10 acres) of poor quality land but near the ecological community of Lebensgarten. There, in this settlement that had been built in 1939, we renovated two houses according to permaculture principles and got a planning office and a whole series of permaculture experiments going. For a while, I headed the Permaculture Institute for Europe in this budding ecovillage. Bill was so enthusiastic about my work and the development of Lebensgarten that he came each year for more than 11 years – and once brought with him the Community Award of the Permaculture Institute of Australia which he bestowed on me like mediaeval warrior being knighted.
On the whole, the thinking in permaculture-categories has spread wide and bright. I am glad and grateful that I copped on to it relatively early – already in 1981. I was perfect that I came into contact with Bill, and that I had the chance to spread this design concept and to try it out in our climate zones.
Margrit’s work shifted (in the late 80’s) more and more towards the introduction of sustainable money systems, and with her book „Interest and Inflation Free Money“ she became a galeonfigure of the complementary currency movement. These ideas were taken up by me and Bill – and integrated into the permaculture concept. She was asking: “How can we create a permanent culture, if we do not have a permanent money system?” These last few years with the crash on the international financial markets and in the global economy, and the CO2 crisis and other even more pressing environmental problems – show how strong economy and ecology are interwoven. In the permaculture „Bible“, Bill has devoted a chapter on the monetary system, which is built upon and filled to a large extent on Margrit’s theories and writings.
Bill still smoked and drank a bit too much and, a couple of times, he got so sick that he had to break off his lecture tours – and yet he lived to 88 years old. Strong genes, I quess! He was a positive thinker – yet – It hit him more and more to see how the general ecological situation in the world was getting worse and worse, and in spite of the ever-increasing permaculture and organic movement, nothing seemed to change this general negative trend . That is why Bill has been depressed for quite a while, a situation he himself pretty well ignored. In the last 10 years he also felt abandoned by many former allies, because they were ready to make compromises that he felt he couldn’t. In between times, however, he recovered, and found again his sharp critical attitude (which sometimes threatened to turn into cynicism). This brought him back to his original joie de vivre. In Istria in June 2005 with his sarcastic jokes he often lost the younger people in the permaculture movement, who didn’t know him yet. He not very good at diplomacy – but soon with his many stories, jokes and lively contributions, he found his rightful place as a co-Founder, a multiplier and the grandfather of the permaculture movement – then for the final days of the Convergence – the last time I saw him in person – he was celebrated by all those present.
He will be missed by all of us.
Declan Kennedy, Steyerberg, 25.09.2016