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Ep 3: Interview with David Holmgren

Updated: Apr 19, 2019

When we started the interview, I didn't expect it to turn out the how it did.

After meeting with David (see previous post) he agreed to begin the interview that same day. I was a bit concerned as we had a lot to talk about and I didn't want him to become too fatigued with only half the day left. I knew some of my questions would be personal and thought provoking and can take time to flesh out, so I wanted to allow enough time for it to unravel naturally, but time was not in my favour.

I started grabbing the lights, tripod and sound gear out from the car and building the scene. I wanted this to reflect David and everything he spent his life building. It needed to show somewhere close to him and also showed, 'Permaculture'. After scouring around the backyard I decided right under his patio facing out towards the line of fruit trees on the left and veggie patch on the right was a winner. It gave depth, a sense of place, sheltered from too much external light and was filled with rich greenery of where he lived. This would symbolise Permaculture, even though Permaculture is much more than just growing things, its foundations are about nature.

It took a while to get everything ready as I wasn't initially prepared for a straight-up interview. I was more expecting to follow him around his property and shoot some things before delving into the nitty gritty. David was getting changed into a clean shirt and came out, so I mic'ed him up. He sat for a bit as I fiddled with the lights, "Do you have a set of questions you want to talk about?", he asked. I replied, "It's more of a conversation, but centred around subjects, but it's not really structured through set questions." I could see the concern on David's face as I muttered the words 'not structured'. I had got the gist from reading David's publications, he had spent his whole life thinking in structure and of systems for things. After-all, this is one of the concepts Permaculture was built upon; a way in which you look and think about everything so that it works within the laws of nature. But, this would be foreign to him; talking about himself, his feelings, his experiences, because there is no structure. It is about your experiences and they depend on how you feel in that moment.

I hit record and we begin with a location and name line to have something verbally that states who and where we are and what David does. He sits back for five seconds to go over my three questions and says, "Hi I'm David Holmgren and we are at my home Melliodora in central Victoria and I'm best known as the Co-Originator of the Permaculture concept in the 1970's." I ask him about why he called his farm Melliodora and what it means, he continued, "Melliodora means the smell of honey and comes from the Eucalyptus Melliodora tree, as it is one of Australia's most important honey trees in terms of bee fodder. This is the coolest climate this species grows across its huge range across the Murray Darling Basin. So, we are right on the edge or ecotone where it grows and they are the trees that surround us, so its quite a special fitting place so we named it after that". It makes me smile that he named his farm after the honey Eucalypt as quite strangely fitting, I also brought some honey over as a gift from my own backyard where there is native Banksia trees that I planned to give to him later.

We continue on, talking about his place and what he enjoys about living off the land and what that has done for his own wellbeing. He mentions that he's never been above the low income threshold and that many people would see that as poverty, but he's happy and fulfilled with what he has and he has everything he needs. It is a humbling statement, that in that moment grounded me. I contemplated my engrained voice that constantly nags you, the need to earn the dollar and thought, wow, he's been doing this for 30 years and he's done it. It is defiantly possible. David continues on.

David working in his veggie patch

One of the things I quickly learned with David, is his answers were very thought out and he would touch on all of the possible influences that helped form his decision or his point. A simple question would easily turn into a 10 minute answer and cover a variety of possible pathways to explore. It was tough to keep up and stay on track as he easily digested away and then back again to reaffirm his point through a reference from somewhere else, but I needed to understand more of his own experiences, rather than from what he learned through others. I decided it would be worth hunting the root of where Permaculture began. Somewhere in there lay the reason why it was created and would give meaning to its early existence. I was hoping this would explain it much better than any text book or definition I had come across before had. Leading up to making this film I had often saw this as problematic with Permaculture; trying to define what it is, as our language seemed to struggle to define it. Like defining emotion through language, it was near impossible. Permaculture it seemed, triggered something deep in people and connected to our primal instincts. That nature somehow connects us in a force that is unknown to us like gravity.

I ask David if we can go back and if he can describe what his childhood was like. What was his relationship to the natural world? He takes five seconds to think over my questions and responds, "I grew up in suburbs of Western Australia and had a fairly typical upbringing, but my parent were quite different in a sense that they were avid activists who stood up for what they believed in and spent a lot of my childhood standing up to the Vietnam War. In that sense, I also saw a lot of changes happening around me with wild spaces being cleared for housing and rubbish tips were being created and with my parents being quite sceptics; instilled these environmental ideas in me about where are we going, what are we doing to nature?"

I prompted him to share an experience where he realised nature was something significant to him, but David can't recall anything of significance. Only some moments here and there; seeing bizarre fruits in abandoned orchards as a kid, but nothing substantial of influence. I tried digging further asking in other ways, "You seemed to have a lot of external influence becoming aware of the natural world, but what personal experience lead you on that journey?". David seemed slightly jaunted by my insistent probing. I could see the gears spinning in his eyes, what does he mean? what is he getting at? I could see these questions were difficult for him to unearth, but I didn't want to skip past such important moments. It is these moments many filmmakers breeze over or avoid as soon as something becomes uncomfortable. After all, you are invited into this person's life, to hear their story and the last thing you want to do is make them feel put-off or uncomfortable. It goes against all your hairs on your body. Normally in an everyday conversation we shy away from anything remotely vulnerable about ourselves or of someone we speak to. That awkwardness feels contagious. School and culture has brought us up to be confident and confidence is being resilient, strong and courageous! But as I learned through a book by Brenè Brown, by doing that, we never show our true selves... Courage is standing up to something we are afraid of. There's nothing more authentic and true than understanding and hearing someone's true feelings about what shaped them to become who they are today. David didn't know all this, nor could I explain the idiosyncrasies of the psychology behind it all. So, we had to continue on, through the awkward and beyond!

He thought for a long moment and recalled his hitchhiking trip in his late teens. He hopped across Australia to Tasmania an island that hangs off the bottom of Australia in the south east and thats where things really took a turning point. David explains how he contemplated what he would do as a career and considered architecture, but really was hard-set on not studying at uni. He couldn't stand that thought of studying the way in which a conventional degree is studied for the next 3-4 years. At this same time, he happened to bump into some people who were study this course called Environmental Design. It was a radical experimental course that attracted radicals and dissidents from landscape, architecture and planning schools from around Australia setup by Barry McNeil. It was radical in that undergraduates worked with post-graduates, there was a self assessment at each level all the way up to a submission of a thesis and you got to choose who assessed your thesis and a third of the curriculum's budget was for visiting outside lectures and professionals. Barry setup this design course with the notion, "There's no point teaching design professionals a specific set of skills, because by the time they begin to practice them, the world would have changed so much that those skills would be irrelevant." David was blown away with this idea and decided this would be the course for him.

After David dabbled around in a variety of fields through his first year of his Environmental Design Course in 1974, his interests lead him to focus on ecology and agriculture, "...and how the design process could relate to agriculture, using the principles of ecology; how natural systems work to influence that. That was my area of interest in this free-wheeling course where I could do anything I liked.", Davids eyes lit up. This was where the design principles and everything that strung together Permaculture's ethos's originated from and I could see it in David as he retold the story. I made a note to explore this further; the idea of ecology that influenced so much of his work and Permaculture's roots. I needed to understand why he became so fascinated.

He continued, "At a seminar I went to, there was a guy who was participating in a land tenure workshop about how land is owned and controlled and whether that has an influence if the resources are used sustainably and was saying things that were way outside the normal realm of thinking. He said, "The rabbit problem in Australia could have been solved by rabbit trappers, particularly in Tasmania, because they could have easily controlled the rabbit populations, but had no incentive to do so, because they had no land rights. They didn't benefit from the land being in better condition, from there being less rabbits, so what did they do? They farmed the rabbits on the farmer's land". He was pointing out that the tenure system, the ownership of the land had this really adverse effect on the sustainability of the land. I got chatting to him afterwards and I thought, this guy thinks like an ecologist and is completely different to most academics. Most academics who are reductionists, they break everything down and find out what makes it tick, rather than taking a step back and seeing its environment, how it interacts with its surroundings, but this guy was doing that and I was on that same path and saw him as a potential mentor and that turned out to be Bill Mollison". This was the origin story of Permaculture. How and where. But we were still missing why and something I was eager to explore.

We snapped back to reality and an hour and half passed. David and I are sitting facing one another as Su creeps out behind the backdoor and whispers, "Lunch is ready". I hit stop on recording and David jumps up and fiddles around with his mic on his shirt trying to unbuckle it, "My concern is, if we keep talking about the origins in this way, we will be here forever and I do have a meeting this arvo I need to get to". I can understand where he's coming from, these are tougher questions than probably what he's usually used to and I was trying to not slide past these uncomfortable moments as respectfully as I could, but I knew how important they were. I replied, "Ok, I understand if it's better to continue tomorrow I'm happy to". I help David remove the mic and as says, "No its probably best we get it done as I'd prefer to have it finalised sooner than later. I think it's just the questions you are asking are quite deep and it is a long thought process to answer as there are more than just one influences and I'm conscious of time". I acknowledged his concerns and we went for lunch with Su, Mick and some others who were working in the office.

It is only day 1 of the interviews and a part of me sinks as we walk inside. I've put so much into formalising the idea of this film in the hopes to share the philosophy of Permaculture to the world. My biggest concern is if I can't tell its story, I don't believe it could reach people so profoundly. I was on the end of this tether. I was pressing David and I had to rethink how and what I was doing. There was still so much unknown that needed to be said, yet could we come to a compromise where it would work?

Find out in the next blog >>

I am continuing to shoot Permaculture The Documentary and still have a way to go before we can complete it. If you'd like to support the film you can help in a massive way by donating, or sharing.


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