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EP 4. David Holmgren: The needle in the haystack

They day was ending as I drove back to Meg & Patrick's place in Daylesford. I was thinking in roundabouts about what David and I had talked about. I was having doubts about whether I had enough content to explain Permaculture in a way that I believe would be truly compelling. See previous post here. Once an interview is all done and dusted, usually you just feel it and you know you've got what you need, but this time it was fuzzy and I was unsure.

I got back to 'The Permie Love Shack' at Meg and Patrick's and began dumping all the footage onto a hard drive and watched it back for some clarity on the events of the day. It is always much different watching it back than being there while you're interviewing. You don't have have time to analyse and study reactions and the context of what was said, so everything is in the moment. When you watch it back, you realise what was actually said and you listen more carefully. Things that felt awkward can turn out to be very powerful later on and things that I thought were 'gold', were sometimes less powerful. In this case, I didn't have something I was really excited about, but I had a moment during the interview where something sparked my interest. David was talking about how nature was the most efficient thing that exists in the known universe, "If we look at how nature does things and then how we do things, we haven't come close to being able to be as efficient, resourceful and in harmony with our surroundings as nature has, we've just had more energy than we've ever had". On it's own the statement didn't feel that strong, but my memory of the interview was still very raw and my creative mind was firing. Ideas sparked together and I bound together ideas and the concept David brought up earlier about ecology. For those playing at home, ecology is looking at the whole system of something in its natural environment and observing how it and other things interact with each other so you can discover its purpose in the natural world. David was looking at the world through ecology and had somewhere discovered nature's purpose. What did he see, that I didn't see, that some how drove people to be excited about Permaculture? If I could unearth how David discovered the ecology of nature, this could give a deep understanding of not only how nature itself works, but also of what essentially Permaculture is, so people can really understand it. I wrote down some new questions to expand on, hit the lights and went to bed.

The next day I woke early. I was excited and nervous all over again. My new found motivation to find the answers was stirring and I was still unsure how David might take to my new questions. He was already wary of the first session and this was going even deeper, how would he respond? Would he close up or open up?

I got to David's as the sun crept over the gully. It was a bright sunny day and you could feel the warm change in the air. I hadn't yet shot much of the B-roll shots of Melliodora and as much as the interview was important, it was essential to fill the story with beautiful visuals, so I took the drone up for a higher perspective before meeting with David.

David Holmgren's house
Melliodora Farm from above, VIC Australia

Just a slight cool breeze brushed over the farm which was still. I quietly rigged the camera and lighting to continue the interview. I wanted to make sure everything was seamless and I was ready, as I learned from the previous days to be prepared. I heard some movement from within the house, so opened the side door and David was in the kitchen with Sue making cheese.

Usually the office was filled with staff and people organising things, but today no one was there. I greeted David and he seemed spritely and more focussed, "Hi, we can shoot the outside things today, in the garden and what you need," said David. But, I was already prepared, "I was hoping we could continue the interview this morning as there were some things we touched on, but it'd be great to talk about a bit more. We can spend the last day shooting the B-roll, if you like?" David thought for a second as we walked outside. He saw the camera, lights and everything already in place, "Let's just check out some of the other ideas I had, that might relate to what you're filming," David said as he wandered off down the side of the house.

He took me out to the front of the property where the massive Melliodora Eucalyptus trees stood, "Here, you can see where we chopped one of these, we planted, down for building materials and firewood. This would be a great example of the principles." We ventured down the side driveway to two large logs laying side by side, "I'll do some chopping with the chain saw and you can get the the full cycle, from planting, chopping, burning and reusing. This is a great example of 'Use Renewables'." It was fantastic. It was obvious he had thought a lot about what would best represent the principles and I was really excited to capture this visually. "The lighting isn't as good as it is earlier in the morning, so maybe you can shoot this tomorrow?" David said. "Sure, sounds good," I responded. For the first time, I felt like we were on the same page and today was looking good.

We walked back up and David agreed to shoot another interview for the day. He got changed back into the clothes from yesterday and I fiddled with the camera trying to replicate the framing from the previous shoot. I hit record and we continued. I started by re-iterating that I'd really like to go over some more things that we touched on yesterday and really wanted to understand his motivation as he and Bill created Permaculture. I wanted to know more behind how they created it, what thing or realisation sparked this? I asked David about what inspired them, "There were numerous workings of ideas and things happening all across the globe. We'd look for published journals before the 40's in the 50's and 60's about what findings others had made and brought together those concepts. So a lot of the ideas and things already existed we were just looking at consolidating it," David explained. I pressed him a little, "But, I guess what I am eluding to, what is the fundamental thing that Permaculture gets inspiration from?"

"All of these ideas are reflecting models from nature. Those design patterns that are reoccurring. When you go back to working with nature or dealing with it, you either end up fighting it all the time, or, if you do something away from it, you no longer have to deal with it, so you stop acknowledging it, but then consequences follow. So, why not work with it, nature being that constant inspiration."

He was dancing around the rabbit hole and I knew it and I wanted to burrow, "So, why did you choose nature as your inspiration?"

David Holmgren in Interview with Dogs Go Woof Productions as part of Permaculture The Documentary
David explaining what fundamental thing inspired Permaculture.

"The question; why would you choose nature as an inspiration, comes from a mindset that the world is so big and there are so many things in it and nature is just one little thing, but actually that's part of the mistaken view, because nature is actually everything and humans are just a subset of that. All the technology, everything we've done is actually a product of nature anyway. So, the question is; why wouldn't you choose nature? It is what all of our ancestors would just see as so fundamental," David explained. My pupils have have dilated as the energy builds between you and the interviewee when things become intriguing and we were well and truly on the right path.

David continued, "Every culture on the planet has used nature as a model, except ours. When I say ours I mean, industrial modernity which is now everywhere in the world. And, the reason that evolved is because we tapped fossil fuels. We got access to thousands of millions of years of stored sunlight. It appeared to give us so much power that we could override the constraints of nature and remove ourselves outside of nature. You know, you could say, well why don't we just go back to times before we found fossil fuels and get things back into balance, but the world has changed and is forever changing, so you need to constantly redesign." I contemplated what he said as he spoke, I was imagining scenarios and had to bring myself back before connecting too many thoughts together as I was losing track of his point. I told myself, remember you need to understand why nature is his inspiration.

A honey bee taking flight. Even this simple phenomena is driven by a pattern of design.

"Design is actually a hard thing to describe, but it is fundamental to any creation. When you want to create something, you have to design it, whether that's on paper or just imagining what it is. When I studied 'Systems Ecology', I realised that ecosystems have a design pattern in them, that all the bits actually have to fit into. An ecosystem is not just a constituent of all the little bits, all the players, different species and cells all coming together and creating this big whole, but the whole is sort of there at the start and constrains all its constituent parts to fit into all the niches. There's a big pattern there, right from the beginning. So, nature doesn't just work as an assembly process, to create an ecosystem, it works the other way. In a way, it sort of has, if you like, a mind of its own. It functions as if it is alive. So, that aspect of trying to find out how nature designs things is what Permaculture's initial concept was based upon. One of the greatest resources we can all learn from on how nature works is from indigenous cultures, as they did it from understanding the design from nature in the first place."

Permaculture, patterns to details
From Pattern to Details, a Permaculture Principle inspired by Systems Ecology.

I was thrilled to hear David's thoughts behind the complexities of the Permaculture lens and why he and Bill chose nature as their muse. I asked David about what motivated him to find out a bit more behind his own passions. David thinks back, "It is being able to shape your own life and be self employed and live according to your values that is really my motivation. The idea of saving the world, I have a very nuanced view on that, because I come from a family of people who were setting out to change the world as social activists. Those things are really important, but they are very complicated. I believe you change the world by changing yourself." I thought about what David had said. It made a lot of sense to change yourself, but I also thought about my own journey to create this film. I was on a path of discovery as well as creating a film that others would learn from. I was hoping to inspire people. Our views on how to evoke change were different in that I was like Bill Mollison; on a path to motivate people and share the knowledge Permaculture to create a world where we could live sustainably, but David believed showing was a way forward by 'living the change'. In my mind I agreed, that if everyone did live this way then the world would change, but I questioned how people would learn and become inspired without the spark to motivate them. It was deja vu back to the first interview when we spoke about his concerns with the film, but I was starting to understand his point of view. There was something in this though, it related to his parents and I wanted to understand how his thought process had been shifted and this would give me a better understanding of his motivation behind Permaculture.

David picking from a Mexican variety of corn especially grown for Tortillas.

David explained that his parents were part of the communist party in Australia before he was born, because it was offering a better brighter solution to the current turmoils going on in the world. He saw how it lured his parents who were once devoted Catholic and Jewish followers, offering gestures of change. He related it back to his concerns with Permaculture, "It's like people rejecting the environmental destruction of the current world and saying that Permaculture is the solution and it would turn into an eco-fascism in some crisis ridden world." David continued, "The other problem with an ideological movement, is it often still leaves the same system in place, because it relies on getting all the people together to demand the elites do something different and it takes a lot of energy, resources and usually is quite ineffective strategy to change the world, compared with; walking away and withdrawing one's work, one's consumption and to the degree that we have any savings; one's investment in those destructive systems and saying, 'no, we're going to do something else'. If 10-20% of the global middle-class did that, that would cause a huge structural change. So, Permaculture as a political strategy makes it possible for people to say, we're gonna do it anyway. It is positive activism and an approach of 'how do we create something better?'."

What David was saying started to make sense and I understood where he was coming from. I too, had seen many activist movements come and go and create some sort of change, but I didn't agree with the way they went about it. It was often fuelled by anger and I felt like it's meaning burnt bright, but fizzled quickly. I didn't like the activist movement, and never really had, but the yearning for a way to live better was always there. That's basically what lead me to find Permaculture in the first place and I believed I could help others find a better solution with this film. Besides David's concerns, I believed it would be able to achieve both a passive and active message without becoming lecture-like or too passive that people would not be able to connect with. I was curious to explore David's motivation towards changing the world, as if it was not activism, what was the thing driving him?

David Holmgren, roasting chestnuts, Melliodora
David toasting chestnuts over a rocket stove on the last night I was with them.

We paused as I contemplated my next question. "See the thing is, you ask such deep fundamental questions", David said, "little simple things, but I can't answer them in a simple way." I was taken back by what David had said. I apologised for my pressing questions, but it was nice to have it out in the open, "Sorry, this is just my thing." David laughed and made a comment that he knew what I eluding to. I was impressed with how perceptive he was for picking up on my threads and it brought up a subject I really was eager to discover and turned out to be a perfect segue to ask deeper questions that were lingering in my mind, "We spoke about how everyone is trying to save nature through activism and how in reality nature will be fine and it doesn't really need saving as it will just re-sprout and evolve into something else, and that it's actually us humans who will become extinct; like the dinosaurs, so really its us who need saving. So, I'm really curious then, what is motivating you to save people?"

David contemplated for a moment and said, "I feel I've had an incredibly privileged life and there is a huge feeling of responsibility to give back to the things that give you so much. I see that truly looking after ourselves is actually the core part of People Care, the second principle of Permaculture. If we don't look after ourselves then we are vulnerable to all the predatory messages and advertising that is based on preying on people's weaknesses to fuel the growth economy. Rather than being a selfish thing, that is actually how we look after each other and the earth, because you are rewarded for your actions. You know, I see those things (the growth economy) as part of a lost world. That we need to move on into another place and that comes from connection to nature, recognising our small, but important part in contributing to that and having a sense of the abundance of nature. So, in having those ideas, I don't see any point in just talking about them. You've got to model it, you've got to live it; you have to be the change you want to see in the world. To change the here and now and the now and the here is ourselves. It's similar to how you connect to your instincts, like the need for food and things, because we are not seperate to those things. That is our deep heritage that comes through in our indigenous ancestors. You know, we were once all aboriginal people connected to land, connected to nature and nature is still in us. So, connecting to those things, actually makes us feel good. It's in my being. So, those things then become motivations. I definitely want to see less pain and suffering for humanity and nature in the larger term, but I believe that to stop the thing that needs to be stopped, the suffering will increase in the short term. So, lifting the veil so to speak, so everyone has the opportunity to live the way they want, that's what motivates me. And, Permaculture is a way to create a world you want to live in."

"Annnd... Cut," I hit the stop button and helped David unbuckle his mic for the last time.

It was still and the sun was setting and as David summed up his thoughts. I was buzzing thinking about what we had talked about. Such energy was generated from talking with David and I had that feeling once again that I was onto something great. I packed up my gear and was about to head back to my shack, when Su asked if I'd stay for dinner. Without question she had fed me every lunch for the last three days and I didn't want to put her out any further, but she insisted. We sat and laughed over a scrambled eggs with fresh greens from the garden and I grabbed a quick snap while we were all together.

After dinner, we all walked out to the car. As I hugged Su, she pulled out some sour dough starter, as I told her I was having trouble at some point or another making my bread at home. It was such a beautiful and thoughtful gift. I told her if she ever wanted more WA honey she knew where to find me, just a quick dial and I'd send it over. I shook Mick's hand and wished him good luck. I hugged David and thanked him dearly for his time,"It's been an absolute privilege to be a part of the journey of Permaculture and giving your time to document this with you, I'm so greatly appreciative of that, so thank you." David shook my hand, "No one has ever recorded in such detail before the origins of Permaculture and that personal journey. It'd be fantastic to have a copy of that if I could." It was a really humbling thing to hear that and it made me feel like the time we had spent talking and shooting, was something special and was on the right path.

The next phase of the documentary is to start shooting the scenes of stories of other people who have transitioned to being able to live sustainably, where you can learn how you can also. We need to raise funds to travel and shoot the next scenes, so if you'd like to get this film made sooner, please donate and share.


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