On urban permaculture, eco-activism and co-creation of space with non-human animals — a conversation with Becky Ellis
by Gosia Rokicka.
A conversation about urban permaculture, social justice and space for non-human animals with Becky Ellis.
You’re a permaculture practitioner and teacher and at the same time a city dweller. What would you say to people who see permaculture as a land-based design system for growing food and sustainable living on a large scale?
I would say that permaculture is a way to design your life, a way of thinking about how you want to live in balance with non-human nature and with other people as well. It doesn’t require owning private property. While doing my own Permaculture Design Course I lived in a co-op with a communal space and for the following few years I was renting apartments so I didn’t have access to my own piece of land. I got involved in a lot of community projects instead, including a community garden which had certain rules that got in the way of some of the permaculture practices I wanted to do. But learning how to work with other people and how to convince them that some things are worth changing constitutes a part of social permaculture. I was also volunteering for gardening projects for children where I tried to incorporate as much permaculture as possible and it turned out that many people were really interested in the stuff I was so passionate about. Some things I’ve done over the past few years were not related to gardening, such as Mantis Arts & Eco Festival which I put together in my neighborhood, but I still consider them a part of permaculture — bringing people together, helping them to connect and be in community with each other.
The Permaculture Women Guild’s online PDC you’re currently involved in has additional modules on social and emotional permaculture which are not common in other PDCs (both in person and online). Do you reckon this is something women in particular bring to permaculture?
I think women are definitely raised to have more skills for this kind of interpersonal work with other people. We also tend to take on more of the burden it entails — in our relationships, workplaces, communities.
But knowing how to work cooperatively with others is actually a valuable and important skill. I don’t think our biology has anything to do with it but definitely there is something about the way women are raised in most cultures. Social permaculture is something all people need to practice, especially in an urban setting. Even if you have your own backyard most of your surroundings, even if privately owned, are visible to other people.
Speaking of visible… You’ve written about your neighbors worried your “hippie ways” would devalue their properties and about the fact you’re not allowed to keep chickens in your suburban backyard in London, Canada. Do by-laws make it more difficult to practice sustainable living in some places around the world? Are we heading towards the “war on lawns”?
Some people in North American cities are really attached to lawns and to the lawn aesthetic. I think to them it’s more than just an aesthetic. It’s tied to issues of race and class, so challenging it can be really complicated, especially in predominantly white, middle class neighborhoods where such aesthetic can be a part of someone’s identity. There is a really interesting book on that subject, “Lawn People”, written by Paul Robbins, a geographer.
For some, having a well kept, visually attractive lawn can be an expression of what they think a good neighbor and a good citizen is. Disrupting this aesthetic can be contentious but it’s important as it highlights the issue of neighborhood segregation.
And neighborhoods in North America are very segregated by class and also by race.
Another thing worth mentioning is suburban mentality — everybody seems to be self-enclosed in their life. “I’ve got my backyard, maybe even a pool in it, I can get everywhere in my car, I don’t need to go out into the community and do stuff with other people”. I see it as a negative thing — in North America we don’t really know how to work together with other people in a cooperative way.
Urban permaculture is promoting community projects in spaces that are public or open to the public. It can be messy, there can be disagreements but working through that is a really important part of learning how to live together with other people. Some big cities like Toronto, Montreal or New York City have diverse and vibrant neighborhoods. But suburbia are harder to reach in that way.
That may come from the fact that in crowded cities people live close to each other, in apartments and townhouses so they are more likely to go out and actually want to share activities with their neighbors.
Absolutely. They also move around by means of walking and biking. But the further out from the center you go, the more people are using their cars. There is this movement to get people on their bicycles more but it requires a shift in attitude. If the only cyclists that are seen are those that do it for fitness reasons, everyday people won’t get inspired.
We need to see more people doing things as a part of a different way of living with other people and with the world. Probably there are some significant cultural attitudes and ideas that prevent people from doing that and also by-laws that seem to be more prevalent in North America than for example in Europe.
There are some communities in Canada where the rules of housing development ban outdoor clotheslines. It’s just this weird idea what belongs in a city and what doesn’t. I think a great aspect of the PDC I’ve done and also the Permaculture Women Guild’s PDC is the part about activism. We can’t change ridiculous by-laws on our own so it’s crucial to know how to get together with other people to work towards a cause.
And another great aspect of the online PDC is that the teachers live in quite a few different countries so it’s a good opportunity to learn how permaculture can adapt to various conditions — no only climate-wise but also society-wise.
People in our society right now are lacking imagination — we can’t see how the world could look like from a different perspective and how we could build it and live in it collectively.
Dystopian visions usually concentrate on quite a grim future but what I love about permaculture is the idea that people don’t necessarily have to be disastrous for the environment.
There are positive ways in which we can engage with non-human nature. As Arundhati Roy wrote: “Another world is possible”. It’s great to see how people live in other places in the world because sometimes North America feels like it’s the center of the universe. The fact that our continent is a superpower that overshadows the world is problematic, so it’s particularly important for us here to be able to imagine different ways of living — and getting there through social movements.
Even if those other places and different perspectives belong to some parts of the world that seem to be completely detached from us — or us from them, I guess? You’ve written about Zone 5 seen as a wilderness from a social rather than environmental perspective. Can you tell us more about it?
One of co-teachers on my PDC, Rain Crowe, came up with the idea of Zone 5 as the wild we have a responsibility towards, whether we visit it or not. And if you are a North American, you would certainly impact those parts of the world you would probably never see. They are a part of your everyday life. In capitalism we are in relationships with people all the time — even if we’re drinking coffee for example. There were people who grew it and people who picked it and people who were involved in the whole process of production and sale. There were animals that were involved in the development of the plant itself. All of this has become invisible in our consumerist society but to me it’s important to highlight these relationships, to make people think about Zone 5. We are a global international community and we have responsibilities to each other: to people and to non-human animals as well.
Animals seem to be quite an important part of your life and work: your Ph.D. thesis is about honeybees, recently you took part in the Minding Animals conference.
I grew up on a small family farm. When I was 15 I moved to a city and have been living in cities since then but I always felt connected to the different animals that lived on the farm with us — both wild and domestic. Early on in my life, at about 11, I became a vegetarian, partly because I did feel a real connection to the animals. I particularly bonded with lambs who quite early were going away to a slaughterhouse.
When I started doing permaculture I wanted to incorporate animals into my design but as a vegetarian on a mostly vegan diet I wanted to do it in a way that wouldn’t involve harm or exploitation. And then animals came into my academic life as well. My Ph.D. in geography was meant to pertain to a completely different subject but as I have honeybees and I garden in a way to cater for other pollinators, my supervisor suggested switching to bees because for a Ph.D. you have to be completely obsessed with the topic to stay with it for years.
At the time when I re-entered academia the area of critical animal studies was gaining momentum. It aims to bring together animal activism and academic theory to think differently about the way we live alongside non-human animals.
There are some challenges to be tackled, I touched on one of them in my article about backyard hens.
There are animals that have lived with humans for thousands of years. We have very dramatically altered their genetics and we co-evolved with them in many ways. Chickens are a good example of that and to a certain extent honeybees, although honeybees can go feral without people quite fine. Dogs are another obvious example. We can live in community with these animals benefiting and enriching each other’s lives. I don’t eat animal products but I don’t see why chickens wouldn’t enjoy living alongside a human who provides them with nutritious food and safety from predators, while in return the chickens would help to break down compost and eat some of the insects and slugs which people don’t necessarily want in their gardens in large quantities.
I know not every animal rights activist or vegan would be won over by this idea but that’s how I feel, especially with bees. There are ways to create some really fantastic habitats for bees where they can thrive and flourish. Climate change is a reality and native wild bees are really going to suffer as a result. They need people to create habitats and places for them to forage. On the other hand, we can get honey from honeybees in a way that is not harmful to them. The movement for gentle beekeeping is growing. There are many ways we can live with non-human animals in mutually beneficial ways and that include wild animals. I’m not sure exactly what wild animals visit London, England…
In London, Ontario we’ve got skunks and raccoons. Many people, even those who are into organic gardening, spend a lot of their time going about how to keep animals away, maybe even by killing them — how to get rid of the animals instead of how to live with them. But permaculture spaces are wonderful opportunities to live in relationship with other animals — the domesticated and the wild ones as well. Some of them really thrive in cities, alongside humans.
I like the concept of co-creation with the animals. I try to start to break down this idea that I own my outdoor space and that it’s only mine. Other animals live there and it’s their space too.
We have skunks under our deck. It’s their home, they live with me and we co-create our space together.
In my urban backyard I’m not growing all the food for my family. I understand farmers might have different struggles but in my case I’m happy to share with any animal that visits my backyard. Some of them, like native pollinators, really do need help and cities are actually sanctuaries for them because North American countryside is full of monocrop fields of corn and soy. Honeybees are unhealthy in America, but beekeepers manage the population. But solitary bees are in decline. They have a special relationship with specific plants or they don’t go very far from their nests to get food so monocrops are terrible for them. Cities with their diversity of native perennial and annual plants, trees and shrubs in people’s backyards come really useful, especially for native bees. All the honeybees in North America are non-native.
I’m originally from Poland and in Poland more and more boars are coming into cities to look for food.
We’ve got coyotes here. They thrive in cities but people see them as scary. They don’t really pose a risk to humans but they do to cats and small dogs so people get really upset with them. But this is their home too! And in order to have a balanced healthy ecosystem we need predators like coyotes and wasps. People keep complaining about shrews and moles and voles… Foxes are their natural predators so if you wish the population of rodents was kept under control, create a safe space for these predator animals. Foxes sometimes can make a den in your backyard — for a mama fox it could be safer to stay close to humans than out in the wild where coyotes may prey on her babies. My neighbors try to get rid of the skunks, while I hope “my” skunk will have babies this year. It’s hard to convince people to have that kind of a different relationship with non-human animals but I keep trying.
People seem to be happier to care for endangered species, such as hedgehogs for example in Europe, than for those they see as vermin.
I absolutely agree and I think humans really have to learn how to live with non-human nature in a way that’s not completely destructive but they seem to be resistant to this knowledge. Again: this is about these strange concepts what belongs in the city and what doesn’t and what private property really means.
We put up fences to mark what’s ours and what we want to keep out but it doesn’t work for non-human nature.
But I see a glimpse of change in attitude: theoretically front yards are private but in a way they are a pseudo-public space. Sometimes you can even engage with your neighbors over what they don’t like in your front yard! In mine we put up a little free library. In the spring we put seeds in there as well. There is a bus stop just outside so we built a bench where people can sit and relax while waiting for a bus. They use it a lot! There are many ways to break down boundaries that have been put up.
That brings us to another issue: in North America we are a settler society, created out of violent colonialism, which continues in many ways in Canada and the United States. So the whole idea of property ownership here is… problematic at least. I’ve been trying to get people to think differently about being a steward of land rather than its owner. In cities some people say: “I don’t have a piece of land, I can’t do anything” but that’s not true. Think about your local park: it’s yours. It belongs to people in the neighborhood as a collective. This is what makes permaculture quite revolutionary in cities. There could also be a link to movements against racism and injustice. You don’t need to own a backyard in the city. And even if you do, you should also engage in other community undertakings because this is a really impactful way to make a huge difference. This is permaculture activism.
#urbanpermaculture #foodnotlawns #permaculturewomen
Becky Ellis teaches the Urban Permaculture module in the Permaculture Women’s Guild online permaculture design course. Learn more from her there or catch up with her at her website, www.permacultureforthepeople.org.
Pollinators — the special group of animals that assist plants in reproduction by moving pollen from the male part of the plant to the female part of the plant, are in decline around the world. Non-insect pollinators, such as some birds and fruit-eating bats, are declining alarmingly. Many species of insect pollinators, including bees, butterflies, beetles, wasps, and flies, are also in decline (or in the case of managed bees, declining health) although the data is incomplete. Recent studies on insects as a group, point to serious declines.
However the news is not completely grim. There is a growing body of evidence that engaging in pollinator gardening can help to increase the diversity and abundance of insect pollinators in localized areas. You can help to boost the population of insects pollinators in your neighbourhood and region. I like to think of it as bee-centred gardening, since wild and managed bees are some of the best pollinators in the animal kingdom.
How to Plant a Permaculture Pollinator Garden
Plant a wide diversity of plants. Bees need a polyculture not the monoculture of endless fields of corn or lawns of grass. I am in favour of reverting as much lawn to gardens as possible. I use the sheet-mulch method to create a new garden bed and recommend seeding white clover into the lawn you can’t convert to garden. Try to mimic how plants grow in the wild. Often species grow in a patches together.
Plant flowers that bloom in all seasons (well, not winter in the Northern hemisphere).
Spring and fall are the times in which bees are especially in need of good sources of nectar and pollen. Surprisingly there can also be nectar dearths in the summer. Try to make sure you have blooming flowers in spring, early summer, late summer, and fall.
Plant native plants.
Native plants have co-evolved with wild bees, many (but not all) who are specialists,, preferring the nectar and pollen of specific groups of plants. Many native plants are perennials and, once established, can flourish almost on their own. Native plants have also been used for thousands of years by people and many are edible or medicinal. Buy the plants species not the cultivar. For example, you can buy Echinacea purpurea or you can buy a variety of cultivars of E. Purpurea that have been bred for specific characteristics (double blooms, different colours, etc). When you have a choice buy the species.
The first food for many species of bees in the spring is the pollen of trees. Many trees are crucial larval hosts for butterflies. Be very reluctant to ever cut down a tree and raise a stink when trees are cut down in your neighbourhood.
Create habitat for wild bees.
Wild bees nest in pithy or hollow stems and the ground. Leave patches of bare ground and don’t cut the dead stems of perennials until mid-spring. You should do a lazy fall garden clean-up, leaving dead standing stems and lightly mulching garden beds with dried leaves. Bee hotels and nesting boxes are great but it’s even better to give them a habitat in which they can make their own nest.
Leave a source of water.
All animals need water to live, insects included. Leave saucers with rocks throughout your garden and fill it daily with water. It will not attract mosquitoes because it is too shallow and the water evaporates quickly.
Do not use pesticides.
‘Pesticide’ is a catchall term that includes insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Completely stop using them and be careful before using organic insecticides. My best defense against “pests” is biodiversity, particularly wasps and toads. My best defense against weeds are my own two hands. Buy organic seeds and plants whenever possible.
Make peace with wasps and ‘weeds’.
Many weeds are medicinal and edible. My favourite way to get rid of them is to eat them. Wasps are an extremely important group of insects that do a little pollinating but work to keep the populations of other insects in check. Social wasps like yellow jackets can be aggressive when you go near their nest and at certain times of the year (late August) as they prepare for winter. Be respectful of them. Solitary wasps, on the other hand, are very gentle and beautiful.
My favourite native plants for bees
This is specific to North-Eastern North America, especially Southern Ontario, Michigan, etc.
Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis
Wild Strawberry, Fragaria virginiana
Prairie Smoke, Geum triflorum
Joe Pye Weed, Eutrochium maculatum (and others)
Goldenrod, Solidago spp (this means multiple species within the genus). Please note: goldenrod is NOT responsible for hay fever. Wind-pollinated plants cause seasonal allergies, goldenrod is animal pollinated. A couple of species of goldenrod are opportunistic but many others are well-behaved.
Please note: I still plant opportunist native plants, it is not a moral judgement on the plant, merely a description of their behaviour.
Milkweed, Asclepias spp. Common milkweed is opportunistic but other species such as butterfly milkweed are well-behaved.
Elderberry, Sambucus canadensis. Delicious for bees and people and the stems make great nesting spots for solitary bees.
Raspberry, Rubus idaeus, see elderberry
Asters, Symphyotrichum spp.
Rose, Rosa spp. There are multiple native rose species. I like smooth rose (Rosa blanda).
Hyssops, Agastache spp. Anise hyssop makes a lovely tea.
Coneflowers, Echinacea spp. Remember, with this group of flowers, buy the species not the cultivar. There are many different species of coneflower but don’t be fooled by the hybrids/cultivars in nurseries.
Sunflowers, and sunflower-like plants such as Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus), Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum), False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoide), etc. Sunflowers have been heavily bred by people as a culinary food so it may be hard to find the native species (Helianthus Annuus).
Planting a cultivar is just fine, in my opinion, but you may want to seek out similar native flowers that have the added bonus of being perennials. Jerusalem Artichoke is also edible as it is a delicious root vegetable. Many species of bees absolutely love these types of flower.
My favourite non-native plants for bees
These plants are ideal for planting in your vegetable garden to increase pollination and most have multiple functions.
Catnip and/or cat mint. I am very confused about whether these are the same plant. I think they are different species of plants within the same genus. Regardless, bees love them, cats love them, and they make a calming tea for people. I regularly see native bees on my catnip.
Borage. Borage is loved by bumble bees and the flowers are edible (they taste like cucumbers).
Mullein or Lambs’ Ear. Bees like the flowers but one species of bee, Anthidium manicatum, or the Wool Carder Bee likes to use the soft leaves for their nest. This bee, interestingly, is not native to North America but it has naturalized. Mullein has been used for centuries (maybe millennia) to treat bronchial infections.
Lovage. Lovage tastes like very strong celery and is loved by pollinators.
Valerian. Loved by bees, butterflies, and other insects. Has been used medicinally as a calming herb.
Sweet Cicely, Spring flower, loved by pollinators with a sweet anise taste in the leaves, flowers, and seeds.
So go forth and be an enemy of lawns and spread organic flowers where ever you go (I am only slightly joking). Leave out water for insects of all kinds and engage in lazy fall gardening so native bees and butterflies can find spots to overwinter. Support small-scale, organic farmers especially those that also treat their human workers with respect. The most important aspect of being a bee-centred gardener is to consider yourself in relationship with bees.
I don’t mean this in some sort of deep spiritual sense (although that is good as well). We are embedded in an entangled relationship with bees. One of the biggest tricks of capitalism is that it hides the relationships that we are in with each other in every single aspect of our lives. These relationships include non-human animals. Bees work hard to pollinate our food and they co-habitat and co-create ‘our’ landscapes. If you are spraying pesticides and only have grass in your backyard, you are in a harmful relationship with bees. However, you can move towards a mutually beneficial relationship with bees and the amazing thing is that it is as easy as planting a patch of flowers and leaving out a saucer of water.
My garden, which is about to erupt in a riot of colour!
Originally published at permacultureforthepeople.org on June 30, 2018.
I am a permaculture educator and feminist, anti-racist activist in London, ON, Canada. I am currently a PhD candidate in Geography at Western University, where I study the relationship between people and bees in cities. My M.A. in Anthropology, also at Western University, focused on gentrification and belonging in a community garden in Toronto. I live in a suburban permaculture sanctuary with my family, two dogs, three cats, two bunnies, and thousands of gorgeous, busy bees. I maintain the blog Permaculture for the People.
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I am so excited to be teaching urban permaculture as part of the first online Permaculture Design Certificate taught exclusively by women. If you would like to know more or would like to have me as your permaculture design reviewer, please check out my blog and get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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