Simply Lush: A Guide to Permaculture

By working with nature’s cycles, James Stark and Penny Livingston have created a veritable Eden in the heart of Point Reyes, California.

| July/August 2001

  • The cob face of the sleeping hut sits firmly on a stone foundation.
    Photography By Paul Bousquet

  • Photography By Paul Bousquet
  • Outside the salvaged window of the meeting room, James and Penny prepare their winter beds for planting.
    Photography By Paul Bousquet
  • Salvaged windows and a window seat incorporated into the straw bale meeting room look out toward the pond and a Balinese sleeping structure known as a bale.
    Photography By Paul Bousquet
  • Penny prepares walnuts for a pizza that will be baked in the dragon, once James gets it stoked.
    Photography By Paul Bousquet
  • Excess corn is put to use as a bird feeder.
    Photography By Paul Bousquet
  • Straw bale and cob provide sculptural opportunities for niches and alcoves.
    Photography By Paul Bousquet
  • James and Penny’s chickens are kept in a portable pen known as a “chicken tractor.” Once they’ve weeded, fertilized, and rototilled one bed, they can be moved to another.
    Photography By Paul Bousquet
  • Roses climb bamboo support poles outside of the sleeping hut.
    Photography By Paul Bousquet

The aim is to create systems that are ecologically sound and economically viable, which provide for their own needs, do not exploit or pollute, and are therefore sustainable in the long term. Permaculture uses the inherent qualities of plants and animals combined with the natural characteristics of landscapes and structures to produce a life-supporting system for city and country, using the smallest practical area.

Introduction to Permaculture, by Bill Mollison with Reny Mia Slay, Tagari Publications, 1991.

It’s immediately apparent upon entering the thriving acre just a quarter mile east of the San Andreas Fault in Point Reyes, California, that something extraordinary is happening here. Apple, pear, and peach trees laden with fruit beckon wild birds. Ducks play duck-duck-goose on the pond just a stone’s throw from an arched-roof straw bale cottage. Rainbow-hued chard grows along a path laden with mulch over cardboard and newspaper that discourages weeds. Squash plants, interbreeding to create delightful new hybrids, have taken over one corner. Chickens feed on bugs in another, scratching and fertilizing the soil with their droppings.

To the traditional gardener, this chaos may seem unsettling, undisciplined. To James Stark and Penny Livingston, who live on and from this Garden of Eden, the untamed acre is evidence of a grand experiment gone right: permaculture at its finest. “Here, plants are being allowed to grow instead of being made to grow,” Penny explains. “We don’t coddle plants.”

Penny, a landscape designer, discovered permaculture during a meaning-of-life crisis nine years ago. “I was doing organic, native plant landscapes, but what I was missing was a relationship between people and the land,” she says. “I went through a questioning period about being more effective in transforming the human relationship with the natural environment.” Her questions led her to enroll in a permaculture course at the Lost Valley Educational Center in Eugene, Oregon, where she became a disciple of working with, rather than against, nature. “I realized that’s almost the exact opposite of what’s being done,” she adds.

Introduced in the mid-1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, permaculture addresses the relationships between sustainable agriculture, architecture, forestry, and animal husbandry—all with the goal of self-sufficiency. “I think harmony with nature is possible only if we abandon the idea of superiority over the natural world,” Mollison states in Introduction to Permaculture (Tagari Publications, 1991). His philosophy of “using food and natural resources that are abundant in such a way that we don’t continually destroy life on earth” encompasses energy efficiency, sustainable building, water use, and food production. The key to this approach is that the energy needs of each system are provided by that system.

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