I remember my mother swatting a spider out of my hand when I was a little girl. It was that age of unquenchable curiosity, and at that moment I was wondering what a spider tasted like. I never found out, although I am deeply amused now to find out that I can buy candied crickets and fried scorpions as a protein-rich snack. (But I did learn early on why grass isn’t an ingredient in even the most exotic salad.)
Many would say that I’ve lived a sheltered life. We didn’t see hardships when I was growing up, although my parents argued as most do and grandpa told me stories about living in Kansas during the Dust Bowl years. We had a few chickens and bees and cows, but we lived within ten minutes of town. I didn’t even have a job until I was eighteen and in that awkward stage of life where we don’t know what we really want, but we’re sure we don’t want to be around our parents. That job led me to realize that I much preferred to go back to school as tell people what aisle the capers were on for the rest of my life.
Then I discovered that I love the planet I live on and all of the intricacies that make life possible, and I love learning about it. I became so much of an academic during my later years of college that I never socialized. I didn’t make any friends or go to any parties or have much to do with social media. In fact, I think if the human race communicated only through written word - well-thought essays, logical debate, humorous autobiographies and friendly critique – the world would be a much happier place.
But as it happens the “real world” introduces itself eventually with all the politeness of a child throwing a tantrum, through bills and complaints and rejection letters. The world after school became a land of broken promises, a post-apocalyptic wasteland of corporate greed and corruption. The career path seemed only to lead to the ever-churning meat grinder of the modern industrialized world. I began to wonder, as we all do at some point in our lives, about my purpose. About my niche. Was it possible that some of us simply had no niche?
Permaculture people know that everything in an ecosystem has a niche. Everything has something to offer. It may not always be what a gardener wants, but everything living has a role to play. Why? Because everything finds a place that can sustain and nurture their being. Humans aren’t in essence different than any other animal. We have needs, and we have wants. Both a human and a cat will gladly find a nice sunny spot to lounge around in on a nice day. The amazing thing that we can do that is different than many other non-social animals is that we can create our own niche. It isn’t something that’s handed to us… it shouldn’t be. How can anyone else know exactly what makes us happy? I love to play music, but there are many people who’d rather fix a car or build a birdhouse. By our personality traits, we have already begun to create our niche in the world. And the world is a much bigger and more amazing place than we have been taught by society.
Modern society has tried very hard to enclose us in our own tiny boxes. We are told that there isn’t anything outside of the box, nothing to be concerned about anyway. Meanwhile we’re constantly bombarded by violence, fear, anger and hatred from all sources of media. We have to protect our families. We have to protect what’s inside our box. The only way to do that is to do everything we’re told. Our niche is whatever society dictates we can do, so long as we remain the loyal consumer. Why aren't we all just happy little campers then?
Consumer is a funny word. Consumers play a vital role in stable ecosystems. Consider the humble robin; robins consume insects for energy and thus help curb insect populations so they don't explode out of control. They also become food for larger birds of prey. They transfer the energy from the insects they’ve eaten to organisms higher in the food chain. However, the consumer cannot exist without a diversity of producers – the plants that the insects eat for their energy. None of them can exist without decomposers that recycle nutrients back into the soil. It's a beautiful system that most of us don't think about much day-to-day although we are intimately involved in it.
If I compare, as a laywoman, the economy to an ecosystem, I immediately realize that this ecosystem is in serious trouble. There is a very large number of consumers compared to a very small amount of producers (manufacturing, farms etc.), and hardly any decomposers (recycling). The number of consumers is growing each day, while the diversity of producers is shrinking as large corporations devour smaller competition. I might compare this scenario to a plague of locusts, which doesn’t leave a very pleasant future for our planet. Yes, I am comparing myself to an "icky bug". Some mornings I really believe it.
Here’s where our free will becomes relevant again. We can create our own niche, which means we don’t have to simply be a consumer. We can also be a producer. We can be a decomposer. Many people already fill these roles by having their own gardens, buying and selling locally, recycling, using natural and re-usable materials, and of course teaching these habits to the next generation. These people are doing more than simply filling a niche though, and that’s what’s truly amazing. Or to use my husband’s favorite word, fascinazing. These people are finding healthy relationships, personal happiness and a sense of purpose and pride in a society that so often degrades these values. What I would give to have those things in my life. But how can we attain something we can’t simply buy from a retailer?
The funny thing about that moment when you finally have those stars in your eyes about something, when you think this is what I want to do is that usually you don’t have the slightest idea of where to start. As a hobby academic and introvert I generally start with books, but even I realize that you can’t learn everything from books. Some things require a more hands-on approach. Permaculture is one of them. I’ve only found that my curiosity has grown from my reading, starting with Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden through Jacke and Toensmeier’s Edible Forest Gardens and even into more specialized topics like Jessi Bloom’s Free-Range Chicken Gardens. I immediately wanted to meet these authors and the people they wrote about, ask them questions and learn from them. I wanted to walk around in an ecovillage and see how life could be different than I ever imagined.
You’d think that I’d started this journey of self-discovery years ago. In reality, it's only been about six months since I took five minutes to look up what the unknown word permaculture meant. Since then I have plunged fully into a new world of personal and ecological regeneration, self-sufficiency, worldly wisdom, native genius, hope and cooperation. It sounds too good to be true, but only because we have been taught to question happiness and doubt ourselves.
I have much to learn and a long journey to make still, but I much prefer the garden path to the sidewalk.