How I Got Started in Permaculture

How I Got Started in Permaculture

In 2004 I worked as an assistant to the industrial hygienist at Brigham Young University.  We would put on Hazmat suits and scour some of the buildings on university campus for hazardous materials that could get out while the building underwent construction.  Mostly this was to make sure that there was no asbestos, no electric or plumbing hazards, or calcification of the systems.  It exposed me to the underlying infrastructure that allowed everything else in the university to work.

Remove all the right angles and you can save a ton of money.

All those buildings’ basements looked like an older version of this.

That exposure got me thinking about building materials and building efficiency, and I found a few books that really resonated with me:  RMI’s Natural Capitalism, William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle, and Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big House.

Paul Hawken’s Natural Capitalism connected directly with what I was seeing at my job–miles of pipes bending all at right angles over and over again to fit the layout of the building.  And I realized if you could eliminate 50% of all those bends, they could probably buy a pump half the size as the one they had, and reduce their operating costs for all that pumping by at least 50% if not a lot more (smaller pumps are less capital up front, and typically need less maintenance, plus fewer turns in the pipes means less chances of things getting stuck).   It also introduced me to the concept of initial capital vs. operating costs–a building constructed to last 100 years and to operate very efficiently might cost more up front to build, but will cost a lot less in the long run, when compared with a cheap building with a 30 year shelf life.

Cradle to Cradle was a bit of a cultural smash as well–McDonough, the author, became a bit of a celebrity because his ideas were seen as so essential and yet so radical.  In a nutshell (as I interpret it), he says that everything we build needs to be deconstructable or biodegradable–so that we are cycling the components of things we manufacture and build–either because they biodegrade and go back into the soil, or because they are designed to be reused over and over again.

The Not So Big House introduced me to the concept of stacking functions–it said that if we design spaces in a house to perform multiple functions, then we don’t have to build as much house, and therefore can either build a much cheaper house, or a much nicer one (depending on which way you want to go with it).

All of those principles–thinking in cycles, eliminating inefficiencies, stacking functions in space, resonated with me on a gut level, and were all pushing me toward thinking like a permaculturalist.

From there over the next couple years I delved into Natural building styles–earthbag, cob, compressed earth, drystone, and found a gem in Ianto Evans’ The Hand-Sculpted House.

I still dream of building a cob house one day.

I still dream of building a cob house one day.

Source:  Naturalbuildingblog.com

By the time I read Ianto Evans it was 2006, I was graduating from BYU and moving on to a cubicle farm in Virginia.  Over those couple years, i developed a real desire to one day build my own house.   Ianto’s book may have been the first one I read that mentioned permaculture.  He does work with beans and cultivating certain selections specific to his home in Oregon.  I didn’t know what permaculture was when I read the word.  But it lead me to what is probably one of the most common introductory books in permaculture, Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden.

After two years at the cubicle farm, I was looking for a way out.  Corporate America was not the place for me.  I felt cheated by the narrative that to be a good citizen, you go to school, work hard, graduate, and then get a job to pay off your student loans.  I felt like a cog and wanted out.  I continued to study and read about building and permaculture gardening in my spare time.  We had a daughter in 2007, and then a son in 2009, and I felt more and more trapped by a job I hated.  In 2010, I was prepping to quit that job, go do a 6 month internship at Ianto’s Cob Cottage Company and from there on try to make it as a natural builder.  Instead, I was given the chance to join the Al Baydha Project in Saudi Arabia. I signed up for a permaculture design course with Geoff Lawton in Jordan, and  moved to Saudi Arabia in October 2010.

Hiking Wadi Rum during my PDC in October, 2010.

Hiking Wadi Rum during my PDC in October, 2010.

Since then, I’ve been a leader for one of the most ambitious and challenging permaculture projects I know of–one that seeks to use ephemeral flash floods to convert areas of the Saudi Desert into productive forest, as a new economic basis for the settled bedou living in the area.  So far it has been a tremendous learning experience, and I count myself very blessed to have the opportunity to work with the bedou, and to test if permaculture really can do what I think it can.

Permaculture has changed how I perceive the world around me, and how I think.  It gave me hope that we can tackle the enormous environmental problems that we have been creating for the last 200 years, and that we can feed the world without destroying the planet, and that is the vision I am pursuing in my work and with this blog.

My friend Abd al Rizaq and I drink Camel's milk near Makkah.

My friend Abd al Rizaq and I drink Camel’s milk near Makkah.

4 Comments

  1. Neal, you are an amazing example of vision and drive. Thanks for sharing this part of your story.

    Reply
  2. Hi Neal, I came to know you through my dear friend Kate in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. I am so grateful. Your work, has inspired me so much and given me hope that things can get better. That the degraded environment we live in, can be reversed and people can live with dignity. Thank you for showing me what permaculture is.

    Reply
  3. Hi Mr.Neal. Do you know of any permaculture projects in Riyadh where I could volunteer in during the weekends. Im on the learning curve for permaculture, Regards

    Reply
    • Hello Christopher–I don’t know of any ongoing projects in Riyadh but your best hope is to check the maps page on permacultureglobal.com

      Reply

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