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This episode, I am delighted to be speaking with Erik Ohlsen, a well known successful and much loved Sonoma-based ecological designer, permaculture practitioner, educator, author and regenerative entrepreneur. He runs multiple companies deeply grounded in a love of nature of service to the community and based on the permaculture ethics and principles. Erik’s just kind of one of those wonderful people who gets stuff done!
In this conversation I asked Erik about how he’s grown his wildly successful permaculture artisans company that is regenerating landscapes from urban to rural. Even as we spoke in the process of informing the design of permaculture agrihood. It’s a wonderfully inspiring, uplifting and wide ranging conversation spanning from his early volunteering projects giving away gardens while cultivating huge social capital and skill development to his current work. His legacy book, as he calls it, is just about to be released by Synergetic Press, the massive 550 page guide, ‘The Regenerative Landscaper: Design and Build landscapes that Repair the Environment’. This is going to become the go to manual and curriculum for permaculture learners who want to put into practice their learning in permaculture courses. It gets right into the nitty gritty and shows how to make it work.
Towards the end of the conversation, I asked Erik about his process of writing. I now feel entirely liberated and how I can set about writing too. So thanks so much, Erik. So check that out if you’re interested in writing as well.
Erik, welcome to the show. It’s really great to have you here on Sense Making in a Changing World.
Oh, thank you so much for having me. It’s such a pleasure.
Well, across the oceans, I’ve been watching your work for a really long time and been superbly inspired by not just what you do, but where it comes from for you – the heart of what you do, your purpose in this. Before we talk about your book and your work that you do, can we start just there? Where is that kind of fire in the belly for you about the reason that you do permaculture and perhaps how you even discovered permaculture?
I got into permaculture when I was 19. So for me, this has been my entire adult life. I’m 44 now, and this is all I’ve done in my career. What started it for me was you first off to know, I was never very much an academic person. I didn’t go to college, I barely graduated high school and didn’t find a lot of nourishment there. But I got really turned on by learning about some of the terrible things that happened in the world as a teen, which I think a lot of teens are experiencing right now.
It’s hard to look away from climate change, hard to look away from genetic engineering, genetic seeds, industrial agriculture and all these things. As a teen, you’re about to inherit this world. You’re about to come into and be a steward of this world. ‘Here’s the keys to the house. Good luck.’
What first turned me on was learning about Monsanto’s Terminator seed technology. So that was back around 1999. The concept of thinking about technology that could sterilise the biosphere, sterilise the plant world – something inside me clicked and I just became terrified and turned on at the same time. Because coming from a fairly challenging home environment, I’ve been through a lot of challenging things in life and getting through was always about bootstrapping it, get to work, we could do this, we can change things.
When I first discovered permaculture, I found a sense of hope, a sense of belief in what’s possible, that really sings the song of the natural world. I grew up hiking and camping with my parents and being outdoors most of the time. So the natural world is really infused in my life at all times. You know, when you look out into the forest, it’s hard not to see abundance, right? It’s hard not to see beauty and goodness and possibility. So permaculture became that for me, while holding this grief of the world that I was inheriting at a young age.
I came through the ranks of hardcore activism. Going to mobilizations, locking down streets, getting arrested, protesting, organising on all different levels, nonprofits, collectives, activist groups, and everything in permaculture was a thread through all of that. When I hold up, when we contrast, the world that we know is possible that we are creating, you and me and so many of your listeners here. And we look out through the media and we look out and we see through the industrial agriculture lens, the technology complex, the military complex, all these things. When you hold up, what’s what we’re creating out in the garden, it’s like, that’s not all bad.
We don’t have to wallow in how terrible things are. Because we can create beauty, we can create abundance. That’s my drive, you ask what keeps me going, what my drive is, getting out. Listening to frogs and birds and watching the fox, we have a fox family living here that we see everyday, and we engage with every day. So being in a relationship with foxes, these fuel me these relationships, fuel everything I do. Because I know what’s possible. I know abundance is possible.
Thank you for articulating all of that, from the terror to the active hope to being in relationship with the natural world – we’re not apart from it, we’re in daily relationship with other species.
As you were speaking, I find it resonates a lot with my journey, the activist journey. Getting up and trying to find a way to live. I heard another video of you talking about one of your early projects when you were 19. The Great Garden Giveaway. I wonder if you could do some retrospective and tell us about that. Because there’s something about the way that you were saying instead of going to college, ‘I did this and this was my learning.’ Through that you crafted what’s become your career. I think it’s a beautiful inspiration to young people looking for an alternative way forward, a way that we can step into this active hope and make a contribution. I’d love it if you could unravel that story a bit for us.
Yes, the great garden giveaway. Thank you for presenting that into the space here. I think in Australia, you have the Permablitz. So this is almost the same thing. But before I first heard the word Permablitz, we kind of imitated earlier pioneers – all building on much more ancient ways of being. So in 1989, we started an organisation Planting Earth Activation pa like the pea plant. Our mission was to create a seed bank, a seed safety network, in our community. We did that by offering free gardens to anybody that wanted them. We were very idealistic, very powerful and very effective. There was maybe a core of eight to ten of us, but we worked with other collectives, and we grew into about 40 strong at our peak.
What we would do is we’d go into a neighbourhood, we’d walk down the street and say, ‘There’s a lawn. There’s a lawn. There’s a lawn. There’s…Okay, our new target.’ So literally, we would go knock on the door. ‘Hello, we’re Planting Earth Activation. Can we give you a garden for free? Turn your lawn into a garden?’ And you know, it’s hard for people to say no to that. The way that we organise this was usually a neighbourhood weekend volunteer project. We usually wanted to have ~6 gardens we were going to do at one time, but we’ve done up to 10.
We’d organise a whole weekend volunteer effort, we got a lot of the compost, mulch and plants donated. And so we would take over neighbourhoods, sometimes we would even get to literally shut the street down, the city would give us the cones, ‘okay, the street’s shut down for the weekend.’ We would give gardens away through the weekend, and the exchange was that we would come back and save 25% of the garden seeds that we would let go to seed. We would save and process that seed as a community resource.
Wonderful. And as a direct response to that Terminator gene, this whole cycle of the ripple effects of what you were doing that – the closing the streets, building community, bringing food into the urban landscaping, the way that ripples out. And then each of those 30 people and all the hundreds of people who are involved, shifted something in them. So I think the power of these volunteer actions, activating programmes that are so awesome, and then rippled out into your enterprise, and what’s eventually also become your books that you’re writing as well.
Just before we move into that, this role of being a volunteer in permaculture, as a beginning point, as a training ground. Maybe there are ways that you’ve seen as you’ve continued on that you’ve been able to help other people to step into these volunteer roles or internships? Or is there a way that you see in your world that that can continue?
So I’ve spent years, 40 hours a week, volunteering for many years and built my whole career off that. Of course, I had help from my parents, I took side jobs and we fundraised a lot. When you think about being a permanent volunteer, that’s it, that’s a whole thing. I actually even started an organisation once called Adopt an Activist, specifically to fundraise money for people who were volunteering full time. That’s another story, but that, for me, was my college period training ground.
That’s what it was, it was skill, it was about learning skills. It was not just about the skills of transforming a lawn into a garden, saving seed, planting fruit trees, building soil, catching water and all these things that we do. But also the skills of working in a community, building a vision and then doing the work to see it come to fruition. Also working with city politics, city government, and how we engage these civil processes that are there for us to engage in – this was all part of the learning ground.
I think next to skill building, the second greatest harvest of volunteering is social capital. My entire business, my entire career is built on social capital. And I still volunteer, even though I have a successful business, and I will if somebody’s in need. They’ll have funds, depending on who they are, and what the situation is, ‘oh, I’ll go, I’ll spend a month with people who need it to do the work.’ Because we can’t lose track of the gift economy. We can’t lose track of a non-monetary exchange with our people, with our land, with our community. I think it’s social capital that generates relationships.
Sometimes what I like to say is that a lot of the things that I do now don’t have a harvest for another year or maybe five. And that’s how social capital works. You don’t get an immediate return because you’re not doing it for a return. You’re doing it to be of service but inevitably you’ve put energy into a social bank account, and in some way it will come back. At times when you aren’t expecting it and times when you need it, you can lean on that.
It’s a kind of a trust, trust in the process of being part of something larger than yourself. And being in that mind, in that way of being, that ‘I am part of this broader community’ and by giving someone else who gives someone else something – it kind of works out somehow. But it also means that we do need to step in at some point and think, ‘Okay, the things we need to make some money to do concrete things is where your companies come in.
I wonder if you could talk us through the transition from your volunteerism approach to starting to make a good living from permaculture. I also want to sort of talk a little bit about that notion that ‘you can’t make a living out of permaculture’ – I think it’s essential that we can, let’s explore that a bit too. So what was that transition point between being an active volunteer out in the streets into starting a business in permaculture.
One thing we have to kind of present before we dive deep is what’s happening on a mental emotional level for folks when they are going into this activist mode. In all these wonderful things we said about volunteerism, part of the motivation behind that is anger about the world. This destroyed planet that is being inherited. Grief that the generations before me didn’t do more, and a feeling of ‘I need to be worthy somehow.’ And I think this is really important, we have to start here to understand this transition. Because this self identity of how we do the work, who we are and why we’re doing it is fundamental. It’s make or break for the whole process.
I’ll tell you what happened to me – I broke, completely broke. I gave everything I could. My entire identity was wrapped up as being an activist and being this person who volunteers, this person who goes out there. Then I got sick, I got a chronic illness. I literally couldn’t go to meetings, I couldn’t go do the work that I had been doing before. I couldn’t even teach a permaculture course! I’d been teaching permaculture courses since I was 22. And I had to stop doing that at that time. Grief really set in because these were the ways I was finding financial reciprocity – was being an activist, Adopt an Activist and getting fundraised money to care for me, working on projects that had funding behind them. Then I was able to make my ends meet that way, by teaching permaculture and getting paid a paycheck from that.
When I got sick, I totally burned out. I couldn’t do these things and I really had an identity crisis, honestly. That identity crisis was rooted in the fact that I couldn’t go out. I hated money at this time in my life in my early 20s, I literally hated money. The idea that I couldn’t make ends meet through my volunteerism, right? It’s weird to say it that way. But that’s just basically what it was. I couldn’t tap into the fundraising and all of that. I had only one thing to fall back on. And that was my permaculture skills. Something in me had to change in order to say, ‘I’m going to charge for my time.’
I got invited onto my very first project! It was a commercial lavender farm with rainwater harvesting terraces and microclimate moderation, with a stonefruit orchard element. Luckily that that came around, right as this was happening, I said ‘yes, I’ll take this project on.’ That was my very first project for my business, which is still alive today – Permaculture Artisans we’re a design contracting company.
We’ve been around since 2005. And that very first year, when I got on that first project with one wonderful client who mentored me – she was a business woman, very ecologically minded. She helped me kind of get in. The most amazing thing happened on that first project. I’ll never forget it. I hired a bunch of friends to come help me. Within that first year, we planted more fruit trees, built more water harvesting systems, than in two years of nonprofit organising.
All of us were like, ‘we’re able to pay our rent doing that. We were able to put gas in our cars.’ You want to stay away from cars as much as possible, but I live in a rural area and you have to use vehicles to get around. So it kind of blew my mind like, whoa, wait a second. There’s something here that I hadn’t seen before. Now we’re doing the work that builds soil, we’re doing the work that captures and stores water, we’re growing food, we’re growing medicine, and all these people, these guys and gals who are working with me, they get to do this for their job! And I get to do this for my job!
A light bulb went off and all of a sudden, I understood something that had taken me six years in the movement to understand. We can’t be stuck doing this work as a hobby. This can’t be just a hobby thing that people do on the weekends. I mean, that’s lovely. That’s what you do. And you have a job you love and you do great. No judgement, you know, more power to you. But when you look at the scale of the problems, and we want to respond, we have the solutions, right? We have the solutions, the solutions are really not the issue at all. We have so many solutions, it’s almost overwhelming. But how do we implement them?
We live in a society that is money based. Let’s be real, if you’re putting on your permaculture lens and you’re reading the existing social landscape, that’s the system that we’re in. Yes, we can change the monetary system, we can do all these things. But if we base all of our work outside of the system of money right now, we’re essentially not applying basic permaculture principles, we can’t use the existing resources that are moving quickly through all of our families and systems and communities towards that end. So the other piece is the social bit about permaculture.
Yes, volunteering is lovely and wonderful, we should all put our time in it. But not everybody has the privilege to do that. Plenty of families are poor, living in poverty, don’t have adequate housing, don’t have clean water, and don’t have healthy food. They have to work six or seven days a week. That’s just the reality and I work with a lot of these families, I know a lot of these folks. They’re going to just go wherever the job is, people who are that desperate are going to go where the job is.
If the only jobs that are available are spraying roundup at the edges of a lawn, putting chemical fertiliser down and putting in irrigation that they’re going to do that because you don’t when it comes to baseline survival for a lot of people in the world right now. It is about money and access to that.
It’s creating work in this, creating livelihoods – not just for yourself, but for other people is a prime directive. I think this is an enormous piece that we need to understand as a movement that, we have the solutions. You can look at all of the things that are going on. There are so many dimensions that come together through this way of thinking. It’s not a set of recipes, but it’s a way of seeing the world. And we apply that thinking to everything that we look at – then there’s possibilities everywhere.
I think we need to be able to articulate that clearly, step up and speak up – be a little bit more. The word that keeps coming to me at the moment is audacious. We need give ourselves a bit more permission and agency to step up and speak up – to put permaculture in all those different realms. So how did you transition into that? You did your first one, how did you get from making your first garden to creating this hugely successful company that you’ve created?
Well, I had to learn business skills. So that first year was ‘oh, now I have to learn.’ I hate asking for money. I hate charging. But I have to learn these skills and I have to learn project management skills different from when you’re volunteering. You don’t think as much about the logistics and costs of getting a delivery of compost and the timing because that’s usually donated and it’s a resource that just arrives. But when you’re doing this work professionally, you’re managing the flow of material in and out of a project – the timing, the staging, the placement, the costs, the sequencing of the project itself, and how all of these factors play out. That took a while to learn, probably about five years.
Within that five years, I was fortunate enough to barely make it to the end of one project, having no idea what’s on the horizon, asking ‘is this is all about to just collapse under me?’ And then another project comes in and then I would volunteer to initiate a project, because again, this is what I know – how to build social capital through volunteerism.
So I’ll work with a client, I’ll start doing free design, free consultation, and I’ll take them out to lunch. Whatever is needed to build relationship, build trust. Then little by little, ‘oh, we have a project here, and how much is it going to cost?’ We engage, we negotiate and we do that. I was fortunate enough to just have referrals come in at the right moment.
I remember even once I was sitting in the parking lot of a landscape materials vendor, and I was all out of work, this was my last day on the job – I had four people working for me at the time. This is what they were feeding their families with, doing this work – working for me doing this work. If I couldn’t get them work by Monday, then why would they stick around with me? When I’ve trained them with permaculture and the whole thing. Now sitting there, and I was pulling my hair out, and almost prayers to the universe. Just, I don’t want this, we have to keep going. Let’s keep going.
And right at that moment, the phone rings, and I pick up the phone. It’s an old client who says, ‘Hey, I’ve got a project, I need you. Like, how soon can you show up?’ ‘Oh, we can be there Monday, no problem.’ That’s how on edge for five years it was. But what happens is after, it takes about five years for any startup to become an actual viable business. And that’s been my experience with other endeavours as well. At that point, there’s enough word of mouth, enough skills and enough understanding of the industry that now you have more work than you can do.
I had a lot of students, because I teach people how to build landscape companies, ecological permaculture landscape companies. And I find this as the, the crux position for a lot of folks, they can get started, they can get known, they get some establishment, and then there becomes a moment where either they have to go to the next level or they’re going to start losing clients, losing staff and things are going to unravel. It’s a weird little thing that happens around four or five years in, and you have to take a risk.
Usually that risk is hiring people onto your business team who are not billable. That means that you can bill hours out to clients – people in the office, taking phone calls, returning phone calls, doing the bookkeeping, doing administrative stuff. These are vital components of running system. It’s an ecosystem. And this is part of the nourishment that keeps the exchange flowing and moving. But those are hard decisions to make, to hire people.
Often when you get more work than you can handle, then you start thinking what do I do? If I say yes to all these projects, then how do I come through and surface the land and the people in a way that still has integrity. Sometimes that means hiring a bunch more people to try to get them trained. So it takes a bit of time to go through those processes and a lot of risk.
But for me, it was always that seed of seeing the landscape come to life. We’ve transformed asphalt parking lots, we’ve transformed schools, we’ve transformed cities, we’ve transformed congested forests that were about to burn down. When you start to see these landscapes respond to management, seeing food growing in abundance and people actually have too much food. ‘Oh my gosh, this is my big problem!’ If that’s the problem, I want you to have that, it’s game on. This is what we’re doing. And this works.
On Fridays we had a tradition for years, we’d all come back to the ranch where we had our ‘offices’ and have a beer or a barbecue. We’d listen to each other’s stories, talk about each other’s kids, talk about each other’s families. And at one point, this light bulb went off, like, there’s 50 people, not just who worked for me, but all their families, depending on this company right now. Right now, there’s probably 75 to 100 people, depending on this company. And these people are spending their days planting fruit trees and digging swales and putting in roof catchment systems.
That’s so fantastic to hear. I started getting really excited to hear the way you take it from the forest to the city, to schools, to all of these places across your bio region. I wonder, I often look at the suburbs around here in Australia on the Sunshine Coast. It’s one of the fastest growing suburban areas up here in the Hinterland and all the bit between me and the coast is starting to spread out with cities and suburbs. With all the work that I’ve done over the years and all the places that I’ve seen, the possibilities of designing them differently really excites me.
I wonder whether you have any interesting examples of how new suburbs have been transformed and whether you had any influence into that space? I’m trying to find the key. I don’t know if that’s a bit of a random question. But if you’ve got any ideas of how to approach developers…
Yes, I do. I have a project like that right now that we’re working on. We’re working with a developer who’s about to put in around 250 units, it’s a whole neighbourhood building a whole neighbourhood. And they’re very conscious already. So that helps. But one of the things that they and a few other folks I’ve talked with too are doing similar things, is that they are starting to understand instead of building homes to just sell a home, they actually get more value if they’re selling a lifestyle. This is really a change in approach, obviously, it’s part of that money conversation. And we’ve seen places that we’ve transformed into permaculture paradise gardens that look like your garden, that looks like my garden.
Typically in this area, in almost every case, the last few years those houses have been sold for bids around $100,000 over asking price for the garden. People are buying that lifestyle more than they’re buying the house. Because yes, the house is cool. Yeah, we need a house, but what’s gonna happen when the next pandemic hits, what’s going to happen when the next fire hits? What’s going to happen? People are on edge and they want security. I think globally in western industrialised culture, there’s a new understanding that security isn’t just financial, it’s also peace of mind. It’s food, it’s medicine, it’s access to nature. So with this developer I’m working with, they’re on that so we’re designing a 25 acre regenerative farm in the middle of a neighbourhood!
This farm will be a CSA, there’ll be a CSA programme that will provide for the neighbourhood. The farm will be a place for people in the neighbourhood to come in, push your strollers, put your babies and go around the hiking trail that’s going around the edge. Then there’ll be cultural events, harvesting events, music events and maybe even have your wedding there – have your daughter’s wedding there. Whatever it may be, have your Bar Mitzvah here. This that’s how we’re designing the space so there’s cultural relations and honouring of the community as well as food production, as well as connection to the land.
What I’m starting to understand working with this developer and speaking more to this is about selling the lifestyle more than the house. If you’re a developer wanting to make money, that’s going to be a lot more attractive to the millennial generation – the new way of thinking about the world is a different kind of security that you provide. So I think that is one way to look at it and agri-hoods. Essentially, it’s an agri hood. And there’s so many great examples around the world of agri hoods.
That agriculture idea is absolutely fantastic. I’ve seen examples of this across Europe and in the States as well. I keep spruiking it here in Australia, and I’ve just not been able to get an edge in yet. I think it’s possible, when we have the land, we have so many new sorts of suburban developments getting started now. Now is the perfect time for these to get going. I’m looking, maybe I need to go on a bit of a road trip around Australia and talk to different developers with examples to boot and just sharing this out.
Another in is talking with county officials, it’s finding the ones that are also aligned with the permaculture thinking. One of the things that happened in Sonoma County – really building on that earlier conversation about The Great Garden giveaway and what we did 20 years ago – from those members of that original group I worked with, they got elected to the City Council at the age of 24. And went on to become mayor and be on the decision making body for eight years after that. From that point on, our city council has been a progressive majority council for decades, from a base built out of this wellspring of good ecological thinking and planning in the city, from a prior grassroots organisation.
As a 19 year old doing what your heart speaks you to do, you’ll have no idea that that was going to be the ripple effect of your actions. When you ground yourself in, in being in service, and coming from this place of trying to be in service, to do good in the world to regenerate the planet. It’s this myceliation that happens and it brings a kind of a power to the moment that you have no idea when those little new mushrooms are going to start to pop up and be seen. But this rippling going on, this connective thread that’s unseen most of the time.
How many city planner folks or future city planner folks have taken your programmes, listened to your podcast or listen to us right now? Are the ones that will now or in the near future approving these suburban developments? What kinds of parameters are they putting on these developments? Because one of the things that’s been happening a little bit more in Sonoma County, where I live, is the planners. We have permaculture trained people on the board of supervisors, we have permaculture trained people on multiple City Councils, permaculture trained people in the planning departments. And this takes time.
I’m positive that it exists throughout Australia too. Within that, when developers are coming and saying, ‘we want to do this in that project’ we can say, ‘okay, great. We want you to do the project too but we want you to have this much green space, we want you to grow these kinds of trees, we want you to look at all on site water management and these sorts of stipulations.’ And the developer is like, ‘Oh, shoot. Okay. Well, I haven’t done it that way before. Oh, no. I need somebody who knows what to do to help me.’
All right. You’ve been teaching people how to set up these companies and you’ve written a book, as well. A couple of books now, actually. So what’s the latest one that’s about to come out? Tell us about that?
Yeah, so it’s called The Regenerative Landscaper. Honestly, this is 25 years of experience all wrapped up in this book. I would say it’s probably will be of the most comprehensive manuals out there on regenerative design, permaculture and the rest. It’s 520 pages packed with fully-referenced scientific backing of cutting edge ecological science and how to implement them. It’s what I wanted to do with this book, I haven’t seen a lot of this in the ecological design and farming space, getting beyond inspiration. Of course, it’s filled with inspiration, but it’s not just about that. It’s not just about theory and exciting ideas. But how do you go from that to then actually doing stuff, doing the projects?
This is something that a lot of students of permaculture struggle with, as I’m sure you’ve seen. You come out of a permaculture course and you’re so excited. And wow, a lot of folks who come out of these programmes are turned on by the principles and such, they still don’t know how to get the principles in a principled way of thinking to work. It usually ends up being more about technique than bigger strategy. So you go to the land, ‘oh, swales, of course, every land every project should have swales.’ I did the same exact thing. I’m totally guilty of that, without stepping back and looking at what’s there already.
What’s actually the ecological dynamics that are occurring right now? Who are the stakeholders here, human and non human? How do we create an experience of collectively designing, stewarding, managing and moving towards a goal that takes into account all these all these project stakeholders? You know, birds, lizards, foxes, trees – those are all project stakeholders.
So this book is really about how to do it in a very rational way. How to create a project timeline, how to manage a budget, how to implement an agroforestry system from step by step. That’s what I wanted to give to the world. You know, it’s really a legacy book, it’s something that you can take, and you can really dive in and reference it.
And of course, you know, the Permaculture Manual, that was like breakfast, lunch and dinner in my early 20s, just munching up that manual, implementing every single thing that I could. But Bill is a brilliant thinker. And sometimes it’s hard to wrap your mind around what he’s saying. I don’t totally understand it. I would read like a column and then spend a week trying to figure out how to get away, you can’t read it cover to cover that? No, no, I probably do it three, four times, my friends. I would be like, What does your permie book look like? It’s like, ‘I sheet mulch the cover of mine on you, you’re better than us.’ But, there was some struggle in the the realistic side of implementation.
I think that what my book offers is a smoother, more realistic way of doing the work. So for people who want to do this professionally, this book would be a manual for professionals. But that’s just one of the audiences, for anybody who wants to just do it in their own backyard, build their garden, build their homestead, this would be a full scale manual to do that.
Oh, fantastic. I know that it’s taken me years to do this. And it’s kind of like a little bit of growing up with permaculture, that like you’re saying, what Bill did was he grabbed a whole lot of things and put it together. And then here’s an idea. Here’s all the things that I’ve been thinking of, and through the practising, the experimentation, the application and all these different contexts it’s grown up into what you’re now presenting. It’s something that’s super tangible, tested and tried and bringing in all the latest things that’s been going on in the world in the last 40 years. It’s time to really bring those into the fore.
So can you tell us a bit about your writing process? Part of what I do on this podcast, I’m speaking to authors and ask you how do you do it? I’ve always in the back of my mind 10 books all hanging around here. Honestly, I didn’t find the time to start writing the first chapter because I’ve got the charity over here, the teaching over there and I’ve got kids at home. How do you write?
I love that question. Because it’s a process as you are acknowledging here, that can be quite challenging and especially with the businesses. Okay, so the first thing that I tell people who are interested in writing is that you have to get away from having things done right at the beginning. You have to let go of any expectation that what I write today is going to be good at all. That expectation has to go out completely. The most important thing to do is to get words on the page, no matter what quality they are, you have to start with something. So you have an idea, ‘oh, boom,’ right down to notes, just get it down.
I have really honed the art of dictating into my phone. For me, this became a life hack. Because the last thing I wanted to do was sit at a desk, six to eight hours a day. I had a computer, but that’s not a life that I want to live. So what I would do is, ‘I’m going to write a new section in my book. I’m going to go to the beach and I’m gonna hike for hours on the beach, dictating into my phone.’
The night before, I would create a bit of an outline. Let’s say we’re going to talk about water harvesting. Okay, infiltration, rain gardens, swales, terraces. rain catchment, tanks, roofs. I’ll just create a little bit of an outline there, then I would go out and I would just have adventure, dictatating into my phone. I don’t even look at it when I’m doing it, the technology is pretty good. So that’s maybe about 90%. When you go back, there’s some things that I don’t even know what I was saying there. ‘That doesn’t make sense. That doesn’t matter.’ I could do 4000 words in a day that way. That’s a significant amount of words in a day so I created the whole first draft that way of every chapter.
My book has 55 chapters or more, it’s a nine part book. It’s about 200,000 words. I would dictate, then I would go back and I would edit that. That’s the sitting at the desk part. Now I’m editing it. But when I’m editing it, a new little thing clicks in. When you’re editing, people misinterpret about editing, it’s mostly removing stuff. That actually makes the writing so much better. When you go into remove, you’re just like, ‘oh, that paragraph – delete.’ It feels so good to get down and compress it. So that’s how I would do it. I would reward myself.
I would oscillate between these writing adventures, to get myself out in nature. If I want to talk about water, I go for a walk along the river. And then when my brain gets tired, I just stop, sit by the river, watch the Ygritte, listen to the water and look at the willows. Then the next idea comes out. Let’s keep walking.
That is so brilliant, Erik. A book written in that way must have such a different tenor, I think it really is emerging from that. I think you might have just unlocked something in me, telling me that story. Because as an educator, a lot of the way that we communicate the knowledge is through speaking it out. And that articulation of ideas as you’re teaching and as all the ideas sort of flood into your brain you can bring all these things. And it comes. I don’t even know what I say at the end of lots of sessions, because it just kind of comes. Also if you’re walking through a beautiful place and you imagine you have a group of people, you’re explaining what’s going on, maybe that’s just – boom. Exactly. Thank you.
My pleasure. Yes, I was the same exact way as you. I’ve always been good at teaching and public speaking and educating. And I thought, how can I bring my voice into the writing because you know, sitting here doing this, I’m not very good at it. But I will say just to forewarn you that the writer’s voice does have to change, that it does have to become a writer’s voice, not a speaker’s voice, that gets smoothed out in the editorial process. All your little nuggets and gems and how you connect them are all there for you to find. Then you just have to adjust the words.
When we speak sometimes we add things at the end of a sentence that when you write it, you wouldn’t put it at the end, you’d put in the beginning. So those are some of the editorial things that would come up. It’s like, ‘oh, I have to rearrange this for a reader versus the way that a listener would hear it.’
Yeah, great! The other thing I want to ask you about story is, how much story do you use to explain? It’s like the batting about how things happen. But there’s also stories which open up people’s perception of how those bits of information land, where does that fit into your writing?
Well, story must be part of any book for anyone to want to sit through it. You have to ground information, especially scientific information in actual stuff. Real things that happen can’t just be lalalalalala all up here. Then you have a story about actually how it was implemented or what you experienced. I think stories are a journey that a reader gets to go on, where they get to see a lot of your mistakes. I think that’s one of the most important parts of stories, to highlight mistakes. And in learning lessons, my approach is that I want readers to know that I’m human and that they are just as capable as I am doing anything that I talked about or speak about. And I truly believe that 100%.
I was a 19 year old kid, I had absolutely no skills, I barely graduated high school, you know what I mean? But the path, to step on the path and open up and listen, eat, drink, breathe, ecology. To breathe this work into the world, and you learn as you go.
I think how we become learners is probably one of the most important things that we could get from a permaculture course. Honestly, how do you become a learner? How do you listen? How do you observe? What kind of perception do you bring to the land, to a community, to a partner or a client? These are skills that are the most important. And if we can get that, then all the rest will show the secrets of the universe. So this book, these stories are parts of that experience of going out into the world with ideas and perception, either failing or having success.
One of the other aspects of my book is I do feature ten other regenerative designers from around the world, a lot of women, people of colour, indigenous folks to tell their story. I felt like it was vitally important to not have this book be only my voice. Because I’m a white dude in California with a very specific context. And there’s a lot of other contexts when we talk about regenerative design and regenerative landscaping, that are necessary to understand different approaches, ways of beings and cultural emergence that’s happening from different cultural groups. It’s so fun to tell the story of other people and the work that they’ve done because it’s so inspiring. And the possibilities, the things that people are doing.
This is a little bit of an aside, but it just has to be said. There amount of solution oriented projects happening in the world right now, it’s impossible to quantify. When we get into dark conversations about the world ending and out of control climate change, the military, the industrial complex – all these things where you could just give your soul to that and die in your heart. What isn’t able to be told. Because it’s so decentralised on such a massive scale, many ecologically based regenerative systems are happening around the world, millions and millions of them are happening right now.
We’re not quantifying the carbon that they’re capturing, we’re not quantifying the food that they’re producing. We’re not quantifying the community resiliency that’s been developed – because it’s totally decentralised! I just wanted to state that because I don’t think it’s a fair representation in any any media forms that tell us about the state of the world because you it’s hard to quantify the good stuff.
I’m so glad that you said that because when you do put on this lens, you see this dimension of the world of what people are doing. When you notice those things, it fills your heart and your soul with this active hope of possibilities and you know that everywhere around the world are seeds being planted, these ripples that are forming. There’s this mycelial network that connects them all. And what I love about permaculture is that it becomes a language that can connect us. When we speak across the planet, like through the Institute, I speak with people on six continents almost daily and just hearing these snippets of news and stories, they’ll hear that general theme of something over here. It just keeps going and there is no measurement. I wouldn’t have even have a clue of how you’d begin to measure that.
But this is the power of story, when we share the stories and we find a way for those stories to get out. When there’s a manifestation of those stories and maybe a glimpse of it in the city, through the projects that you’ve always been doing or something that’s going on in the refugee settlement, foregrounding these stories and finding a way is why I also run a new programme I started recently called Share permaculture. It’s about how do we share what we’re doing out to the world? How do you blog it, YouTube, podcast it, get into the media, on TV, on radio? What are the skills that we need to tell those stories? And books are always the keeper. That’s the bit that eludes me. And congratulatios for getting that – your second book, is that right?
This is, if I counted all my books, this would be my seventh book.
Some are children’s books and some ecology based colouring books. Another was how I described my path into permaculture. I didn’t go to college, I just got out there learnt that way. Well, that was the same way for writing for me. It’s been seven years now since I wrote the first book. That was part of essentially putting myself through a master’s writing programme, not through any conventional means, but just through podcasts, online programmes, experimentation and reading every single book on writing out there. So experiment, experiment, experiment, write, write, write. I was producing little children’s books, colouring books and things like that as a way to understand the industry, to learn about the production process, and to start to hone my writing skills. This new book that’s coming out, The Regenerative Landscaper, this book for me is more like a masterpiece.
Those other books were more like training grounds. So there’s still value in those and especially, I have a children’s book called the Forest of Fire. That’s a book to help children understand wildfire and living through wildfire and fire ecology. That one has been very well received as we live in the lands of fire, as do you. We’ve been evacuated and have been in the smoke and all of it, the whole experience. So that’s been a really nice book to share with folks, kids in schools and things like that. But it was all part of the learning process, to develop skills and understand the industry. And this new book, The Regenerative Landscaper is the evolution and emergence of all of that.
So when will it be coming out? When can people get their hands on this book?
It’s available for preorder right now through Synergetic Press and other outlets, it’ll be officially sent out and available on August 22. That’s when the printed versions and the Kindle ebook versions will be released.
Fantastic. I can’t wait to see it and to share it, to share this podcast too and encourage absolutely everyone to to get their hands on it. I think it’s going to be a new textbook for permaculture educators. This is a transformation of possibility right here. So thank you so much for taking the time. I know it’s taken you so many years to write, all that knowledge that’s gone into it and the process is the book, how many years has it taken?
Three years of writing to get the book to this part – diligent writing every week for about three years. So it’s a big body of work! Thank you so much for sharing it, talking about it and your enthusiasm. It really is a full curriculum and I’m very excited to share with folks and see how people respond. Then the hope is that it’s a real reference book that people can come back to. One could read it from cover to cover.
I did try to write it with a logical flow of information with stories and inspiration and things that can carry you all the way through. But people who are more experienced and well seasoned could also just jump in & reference the water sections. I think there’s seven or eight chapters on water, things like that. That’s a very robust part of the book.
Well, thank you for taking the time to rigorously document your work and to make it available to the world. I mean, what a gift! Thank you so much. And thank you for joining me today and sharing your story. Absolutely inspiring. I’m going to get my phone to go and start walking, I think.
Oh, it’s truly been a pleasure. I’m so grateful to you for having me and for all the work you do in the world. And thanks.