Permaculture experts and radical homemakers Scott and Arina Pittman live a bounteously full life—on their own terms.
Arina Pittman’s life moves in circles with the grand repeating rhythm of the seasons. From a satellite photo you can actually see the pattern etched lightly on the earth in her round vegetable garden. Inside those nested wheels of time and tilled land, she lives her life.
With her husband, Scott Pittman, and their 5-year-old son, Sasha, close at hand, Arina intensively gardens an acre or so in the high desert community of Jacona, New Mexico, near Santa Fe. She and Scott produce much of what they eat while maintaining—even improving—the ecological balance of the land.
Calling what they do “gardening” is missing the point. They practice permaculture: a holistic, science-based system for living in harmony with the earth, whether on a farm or in a suburban yard.
Although Scott has taught permaculture worldwide for 30 years, even he will tell you that the Pittmans’ lush, jungle-thick, absurdly bounteous home plot is mostly Arina’s doing. At an elevation of more than 6,000 feet, the place has a strong four-season climate with cold winters and hot, often dry summers. The Pittmans irrigate from a 300-year-old hand-dug canal or, in drought years, a drip system from the well.
“We have a perennial polyculture going,” Arina says, referring to the wide variety of plants that feed the family, along with four goats and nine chickens, and help sustain each other in a living web.
“We’re not trying to be self-sufficient. There are things you do well and things you don’t. We focus on things we do well. We’re really good at onions, tomatoes, producing milk, making honey…”
She’s being modest. Here’s an undoubtedly incomplete list of the food they produce: “an embarrassment of apples,” according to Scott; cherries; peaches; pears; native plums; currants; grapes; raspberries; potatoes; onions; chard; zucchini; pumpkins; melons; squash; asparagus; chives; beets; basil; turnips; honey (from a neighbor’s bees); goat milk; and greens of all kinds, from salad to cooking greens, from the greenhouse inside their home. Then you have the products they create from what they grow, ranging from candles to fruit leather.
Considering the riotous garden area in front of the house, with its grapes clambering over a rail fence, an apple tree poking above the shrubs, Sasha burrowing under the roses, and the unkempt goat pasture going feral across the fence, Arina says, “Instead of a tidy monoculture”—meaning rows of a single plant—“it’s a very untidy polyculture. It’s orderly chaos. Ecologically, it’s very orderly because it has all the key animal and plant players present.”
It’s all part of a grand scheme. Everything the Pittmans do here demonstrates some facet of permaculture, which is—what, now?
Permaculture centers on the physical interconnections among all things. In Bill Mollison’s 1978 book Permaculture One, he laid out a land-use philosophy reflecting his observations of the beneficial communities that plants form in the wild.
“Permaculture is not a gardening technique,” Arina says. It’s far bigger—“an ecological design system for sustainability in all aspects of human endeavor,” she says. “Permaculture can include everything, and everyone responds to it from a different space. It’s a lifestyle and a profession.”
The art and science of it dwell in the details and the doing. Often when people first encounter it, they’re lightning-struck. Scott, who learned by teaching with Mollison in the 1980s, now teaches 13-day certification courses worldwide, with Arina often joining him in instruction. “Scott touches people,” Arina says. “They come out of class and say, ‘My life is changed.’”
Arina should know. The couple met in 1997 when Scott was teaching in Belarus, Arina’s homeland. She worked in technology transfer with a nonprofit organization focused on sustainable construction. One thing led to another, and she moved to the U.S. to study straw-bale building methods and married Scott a year later. Together, they cofounded the Permaculture Institute.
On the Pittman farm, permaculture shapes every square inch of soil. Instead of ruler-straight rows of, say, squash, kale and corn, they encourage a looser confederation of veggies. The Pittmans also establish “guilds”—clusters of mutually beneficial plants. “What does this plant need to be healthy?” Scott asks rhetorically. Find out and plant it. Who needs fertilizer or other bagged plant food? Let plants supply it to their guild.
“In permaculture, one mantra is, ‘Every element should serve at least three functions,’” Scott says. So the Pittmans let Siberian elms, notorious New Mexico “weed trees,” flourish. Scott explains that their shade cuts down on harmful ultraviolet sunlight for plants below them. Plus, the goats love elm leaves and the Pittmans stack the leftover twigs for the fireplace. Thus the elm provides shade, food and fuel.
Scott was once a solar home builder—among other past careers that include toy maker. This experience not only prepared him mentally for permaculture, but also for building the Pittmans’ own home. This mud-plastered house with straw-bale walls is a marvel of low-tech construction, heating, cooling and wastewater recycling.
And it has two hearts. First there’s the roomy kitchen that accommodates food preparation, canning, goat-milk processing and other tasks associated with growing food. Scott’s carpentry skills show in the lovely wood cabinetry, the butcher-block countertops and the large harvest table. The deep sink hints at the major food processing that happens here. Natural clays tint the interior plaster a variety of subtle shades.
To one side, the Pittmans store things like potatoes and onions in a naturally temperature-controlled mudroom. The living room on the other side basks in sun from large south windows—with no electronic gaming system in sight.
The other heart beats in the adjacent two-story greenhouse room. Tropical plants such as bananas, Monstera deliciosa and Surinam cherries provide occasional snack food. The musical burble of running water hints at the greenhouse’s secret job: purifying graywater. Pipes route it from showers, laundry and sinks to an underground bed of pumice stones, where the plants root. Biological action cleans the water.
The greenhouse also provides solar heat, augmented by a superefficient Russian masonry fireplace Scott designed, which burns small logs and those elm twigs. With its efficient combustion aided by tons of mass in adobe and stone, the fireplace holds heat all day. And in the summertime, all that mass helps keep the house cool.
Bedrooms flank the greenhouse and stairs ascend to a storage area and playroom. Outside, a deep north-side portal shades the summer patio. Nearby a rope swing dangles from an apricot tree by the irrigation canal that snakes through the yard.
Considering the thorough attention given to every aspect of their home, it’s no surprise when Arina says, “We’re not a market farm, so we don’t function with the pressures of production and uniformity and planting on cycles like that. It’s a big distinction. We have an eye for self-sufficiency. We live within our own comfort zones and natural cycles. Our days are lazy.”
Daily chores might occupy the Pittmans until 10:30 in the morning—milking, cleaning the goat shed, harvesting and so on. When the fruit is ripe, they can it or freeze it in Mason jars. They also dry herbs (for tea) and fruit.
“We live with the life forces of the seasons, the animals and the land,” Arina says. “They define our activities. The celestial elements of the equinoxes, of dark and light, are felt very strongly here because they affect everything.”
These rhythms inform Arina’s parenting, too. Sasha hews close to her around the farm. She calls it a child-inclusive rather than child-centered life. “The story of life in this world is already woven into our son’s life in a way he might not be able to articulate, but he embodies it.”
When Arina says permaculture is “a lifestyle and a profession,” she includes homemaking in her professional realm. Having recently left a day job as a designer for a landscaping company, she has deepened her commitment to homemaking. “There’s a stigma to it, but there shouldn’t be,” she says. “Everyone is a homemaker—men, women—we all cook, clean, raise children, cultivate the land. To me, it’s really blending all this knowledge that’s almost technical, but it also has the element of heart and soul. It’s running your home so you see your daily actions making a difference. The ecological revolution is truly taking place in your own kitchen, garden or clothesline!”
Balance and resilience are the warp and woof of permaculture. Arina emphasizes that it’s not just an agrarian ideal. It’s a way to make a home.
“The way we’ve designed it, we can maintain a normal life. So I run it exactly to the point that I can sustain. I’m not jumping any higher than I can reach. I’ve been here 16 years, and year after year, we’ve added layers. Right now, we’re functioning at a pleasant capacity.”
Asked what she finds most satisfying, Arina laughs abruptly and blurts, “Everything. It’s so delicious, so delightful—the life.” She pauses a moment. “And there are moments of utter irritation and anger. Sometimes I feel scared. Is this a form of craziness, to live so differently from other people? But this is my expression of living a full life. There are so many ways to do it. I just happen to be harvesting apples.”
What does homemaking mean to you?
Home is where our truth, aesthetics, harmony and goodwill are lived out. Home is the place of production, not the place of consumption. It is the epicenter of the culture of our family, the place where we manifest our value system. Homemaking is the intricate interweaving of all these elements of warmth, beauty, nourishing of the senses, care of the land—and goodness in our will.
How can someone with very little land practice permaculture at home?
Permaculture is not only about land, it is also about resource use and returning to the community—and to what degree you are involved in the most basic aspects of your life. What do you subcontract to others? Is it childcare, food growing or making things? What aspects of your life are overmechanized? Is it cleaning, or home-keeping or even dish washing? Claim some of those activities in your life as your own, participate with abandon and that would be the first step toward sustainability, toward the revolution of the home and heart.
Do you ever need to get away from the farm and if so, where do you go for renewal?
We camp with an eye for mushrooming opportunities or travel to other farms and ranches. Our permaculture engagement never stops, it seems. We inevitably end up visiting some permaculture sites no matter where we go.
How did you two work out the division of labor both on the farm and between outside careers and working on the farm/home?
Scott teaches a lot—that is his song—and he travels a lot, too. I like the dailyness of it all, the animal care, the raspberry harvest, the goat visits. We both assist each other when needed, but also work solo quite a bit.
What advice would you give someone who’s interested in permaculture and growing food but daunted by the prospect?
Start small! Let your success carry you forward. Let your mistakes be the compost for the next round. Join a local organic farm as a volunteer to cut down on steep learning curves. But remember that growing annuals is not what we are after in permaculture. We are looking at the resilience and diversity of perennial polyculture—and hopefully you get there after a few missteps and many successes!
In books and articles, Charles C. Poling often writes about people with deep connections to captivating places. While researching a book, Poling met Scott and Arina Pittman. Their mastery of permaculture and their commitment to “backyard farming”—they’ve got a really big backyard—along an ancient irrigation ditch in northern New Mexico inspired him to share their story with others. “They’re on a mission to spread the word about a way of life that’s more integrated with the natural world,” Poling says. “Their little slice of cultivated nature makes that philosophy seem attainable. It’s like a private Eden they never have to leave.”