Watershed Songs. Interview with Erik Ohlsen, Owner, Permaculture Artisans by Willi Paul, Publisher, PlanetShifter.com Magazine
“There have been many mythologies and stories that flow through permaculture. My own story is used by many for inspiration. Tales of ‘the Diggers’, ‘battle of the beanfield’ ‘tony wrench’s roundhouse’ ‘greenham common camp’ ‘lammas community’ ‘transition movement’ ‘roundwood timber framing’….festivals, environmental art performance/poets/songs…….it’s all in there being passed from campfire to campfire from one traveler to another, our stories are forming, our lives are the history of hope for those yet to come.”
From Ben Law’s Camp Fire Mythology – Interview by Willi Paul
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Interview with Erik by Willi -
How is your design process and result different than a traditional landscape firm?
At Permaculture Artisans, one of our ultimate goals of design is to regenerate natural ecosystem functions while at the same time accomplishing our client’s goals. To achieve this outcome in design we first have to listen, learn and interact with the land and ecology we would be influencing (we call this our assessment phase). In this assessment phase we look to the existing natural patterns of the landscape, water flows, soil health, plant indicators, wildlife pathways and more to fully understand how the ecosystem is currently functioning. From that process we discover the systems that are failing and systems that are thriving. These illuminations guide our design at all times as we work to support the ecological systems regeneration and learn from and integrate the models being provided by the thriving systems observed.
Often the outcome of our assessment phase will highlight constraints and resources that will typically lead our clients in a certain direction. While we are identifying the constraints and resources of a land we are also looking at how to best achieve the goals of our clients. Clients may be siting a new house development, an agricultural endeavor, a grazing plan, etc. and our job is to find ways to make our client’s dreams a reality while working within the ecological boundaries of a landscape. The result is always magnificent. Often the outcome of our design process results in a plan that far exceeds what a client could have imagined and sometimes will actually catalyze clients in ways they never thought possible.
It’s a process of working within nature rather than against it that is the premise for our entire design process and leads to healthy communities, healthy ecosystems and happy clients.
A point that we always stress to all our clients is that the design is never complete. It is impossible to have a master plan that will actually look like what it does on paper in the end. It is important for us to educate our clients in realizing that they are in a long-term partnership with the land that will require adaptation, flexibility and will change over time, no matter what. We also stress that not only will the land change but so will the people in partnership with it, further illustrating the incredible importance of creating designs that mature and evolve.
Is there a recurring permaculture principle that seems to standout in your work – more than others?
It is difficult to cull one principle out over others as they are all in play at all times. Often it is the synergy of applying multiple principles that have the most incredible, energy efficient, and simple outcomes. Some prominent principles used in our process that do seem highlighted more than others are relative location, stacking functions, waste as a resource, and work within nature. These principles are paramount to the basic way in which we observe, interact, and design systems. The big principle I will say more about, which can be more difficult for clients to understand, is the succession of evolution. Personally, this principle is one of the most important for understanding process, outcomes, and what is possible through time. In the practice of ecosystem regeneration (sustainable forestry, grassland regeneration, etc.) this is one of the key principles that guide our work. From my experience and observation of nature, the most energy efficient, stable, abundant and exciting systems are those that form after various stages and processes of an ecosystem evolve. Since our culture is largely built on short-term gain, it is no wonder that ecosystems continue to be degraded even when efforts for restoration are applied.
I’ve observed local government cave to decisions about how we manage our shared watershed by the fact that they could not make a case for the feasibility of a long-term solution. There is a myth that long-term ecosystem health can be accomplished with short-term investment and almost surgical type disturbance. For example, in our watershed there is an invasive plant called Ludwigia. Ludwigia has proliferated from the excess nutrients and warm water that our Laguna has become. Rather than focus on overall system health and regeneration of the Laguna (mitigating pollution, shading, etc.) the government decided to spend millions of dollars on spraying and mechanical removal. Today, there is as much Ludwigia in the Laguna as ever. If the powers that make decisions have the courage and foresight to invest in long-term strategies applying the principle of working within a Succession of Evolution we would most undoubtedly experience a different Laguna at this present time.
My point in this is that as we have been implementing the principle “Succession of Evolution” at Permaculture Artisans in our projects, and we have seen the positive outcome of creating a long term plan and then phasing it in incrementally. Systems designed and managed in this way can then provide stable and surplus abundance for all living things for generations into the future.
What are your key marketing messages at permacultureartisans.com?
At Permaculture Artisans we are in the business of healing the land. What we strive to provide as messaging for our clientele is that you can have your dream experience of living with the land and the land can be better off for it! We encourage and emphasize the need to work within the constraints of an ecosystem and to see ourselves as part of a dynamic community of living and non-living elements we call an ecosystem.
The simple way of saying this is that we design, build and manage to create:
- Sustainable homesteads
- Broadacre land regeneration
- Erosion control and water harvesting on all scales
- Soil building and carbon sequestration
- Sustainable forestry
- Ecological landscapes and farms
Do you implement any localization strategies for Permaculture Artisans’ clients? Any examples?
Many of our clients are focused on producing sustainable homesteads to provide for their own or the community’s food security, water security, and in some cases local economic stimulation. Some examples include:
- Suburban scale perennial food forest production
- Small organic farms
- Rain water harvest and storage systems
- Market gardens
- Sustainable harvesting and milling of forest products
Please critique the permaculture Guilds in general. Are they leading the way? How could they improve?
I’m a co-founder of the first Sonoma County Permaculture Guild about 9 years ago. It was a great experience and we learned much about what we could accomplish through the structure of a Permaculture Guild. The first thing to know is that every guild is going to be different based on the geographical and demographical characteristics of the guild community. Some guilds function like organizations, some just networking hubs, but all are a representation of the community and ecology the guild is based in. For a time I felt that Permaculture guilds had the potential to be a leading organizing tool for Permaculture. I still think they have that potential but I feel it is more realistic to see them as networking hubs, places to learn from each other and be inspired.
In my experience more organized work gets done when a few guild members have an idea and then create a business or organization to fulfill this idea. The guild members can then support a member’s project if they have affinity with it, but usually these endeavors do not represent the guild as a whole. The reason I have come to this conclusion is because guilds are usually and appropriately set up as open groups for anyone inspired about Permaculture to participate, which results in a lack of focus in any one area. The true focus of a guild is to connect, network and inspire, and to have a sounding board for new ideas.
From my point of view improvement would be to embrace the idea of a network and create guilds to highlight and support the work their members are doing, whether they are new businesses, school gardens, non-profits or other projects. I feel they will flow into the natural function for which they are inherently patterned for by becoming regional hubs to support and network all the going ons in a community related to Permaculture. This is not to say that creating educational and business or project based enterprises that are solely representative of the efforts of the guild are not possible nor desired. When and if a guild can organize in this way it has an amazing potential for creating positive change in the community and becoming a sound voice for what is possible with Permaculture. The problems we personally have faced with that model has been the out casting of members who just want the networking function and the result of what becomes just a few inspired folks keeping the “guild” going with projects while others fall away.
In Sonoma County, we at one point had over 150 members to our guild and often 40 or so people showing up every month to our potlucks and meetings. Our demise happened when we tried to create a set of working groups that would actualize work in the community. Inevitably, the membership shrank and the active members got together and created organizations that were inspired by the guild but not representative of the guild itself. Once the core organizers stop planning the meetings the guild collapsed.
Can permaculture gain by extending its reach into the political system? What strategies would be worth trying?
This is an interesting question. I’m personally on the fence about how much positive change can happen when we enter the political arena. We have to remember that the political system is designed more as a negative feedback loop (self constraining cycle) in our society than a force for change. Meaning that our governance structures are set up more for maintaining the system for how it is and dealing with the basic accounting and basic needs. Basically, working through the political system the way it is set up is usually really slow.
There are however many examples where a government body has made some great changes for its community and started a new pattern for which the future of the community can thrive with. Permaculture can certainly inform and directly give input to all aspects of the governance processes. When we look to general plans, maintenance of the physical commons like the roads, watersheds, open space etc, a Permaculture approach can be crucial to enacting new ways to manage our shared common wealth.
Great examples of this exist within the new California grey water codes, new standards for storm water infiltration, city scale public energy systems and the like. These amazing changes in policy are the outcome of years and decades of activists and environmentalist chinking away at the political process to achieve these goals. The current state of ecological and energy crisis have also had its affect on political policy and processes, as our governments can no longer turn a blind eye to the catastrophes that are upon us.
In my opinion, the most powerful way to state a case and therefore influence government policy for positive change is through economics. Increasingly (and finally!), people are waking up to the fact that the health of our economy is directly affected by the health of our ecosystems and our communities. In fact, if we take an ecological-economic model we will see that all things (human communities, economies, industry and capital) are WITHIN the ecosystem and in the end all human systems will have to come into alignment with the constraints and tipping points of ecosystems. This is not theory it is fact! As Permaculturists, we know that the problem is the solution and if we implement solutions to our economic and community disasters by implementing ecological regenerative design technologies we will reintegrate humanity with nature and humanity will experience more peace, shared abundance and happiness. Again, the health of our communities reflects the health of our ecosystems.
So how do we move from talk to action? One of the great gifts of Permaculture principles and design is how we diagnose and cure disease in systems. The yield of a system is limited only by our creativity and resources. If we step out of our boxes of the way things are and stop focusing and fighting to change problems, we enable ourselves to see that problems are indicators and not causal to the issues we face. With this in mind, it is systemic change we can then put our energy toward to achieve our goals.
In terms of our economy and political systems, we can have much more effect by building a new economy based on ecological principles than influencing government. The time is absolutely ripe for our communities to use our creativity and envision the world we want to live in while acknowledging the resources and constraints of the ecosystems we live in. With those aspects of design in place we can start actively building a world that provides for people and ecologies at the same time. We do not have to ask permission, we do not need to wait on others, and we do not even need to succumb to our fears of failure. What we need to do (urgently!) is empower ourselves to heal ourselves! It happens everyday on this planet earth, people are taking care of each other and the earth. We can and are creating businesses, organizations, transition towns, community gardens, neighborhood assemblies, etc., to enact a vision of humanity and the world that will realize health and happiness for all living things.
This power of building models and creating successful systems that prove our ability to have a strong economy and a reliant ecology are some of the biggest leverage points for changing the political system. The more we are able to train and grow within this eco-culture, the more able minded people we can put on planning commissions, design review boards, city councils, and state and congressional establishments. As we get people who hold a holistic paradigm in their hearts and minds on into politics it is IMPERATIVE that we pressure, support, and hold them accountable for new work we are creating.
To realistically achieve a goal of an ecologically sustainable culture for all people and all living things we have to make change from all angles and at all scales. Nothing is too small or too big and no type or class of people is left out. It can only be done by all of us together. Let us embrace each others creativities and gifts. Let us let go of judgment and hatred of each other and humble ourselves to the work that needs doing. It is time to regenerate humanity and our political and ecological systems. Everything is possible!
What is sacred to you?
Open hearted unconditional Love! My family, and our shared mother earth. Our ancestors, our ecological brothers and sisters, hope, peace, forests, grasslands, watersheds, the future generations….
What songs, poems, symbols and/or Heroes come to mind when you think about permaculture mythology?
Don’t have time for this one now, sorry!
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Erik Ohlsen Bio -
Erik Ohlsen is a licensed contractor, Founder and owner of Permaculture Artisans (Ecological farm and landscape company).
Erik is a renowned Certified Permaculture designer, and Certified Permaculture teacher and has been practicing permaculture and ecological design since 1998 when he co-founded his first non-profit called Planting Earth Activation, PEA. This charitable organization designed and installed community gardens in northern California for public and private use from 1998-2001.
In the field of ecological land development and management Erik has extensive experience with projects that range from small urban lots to 100+ broad acre design and implementation. His many years of experience, observation and listening of landscape patterns, managing installation crews and design teams, and his understanding of ecology make Erik a leader in the field of ecological landscape development.
Erik’s design and field experience comprise of a huge variety of skills including, farm design and implementation, water harvesting/storm water management, erosion control, extensive earthwork operations, heavy machine operating, irrigation systems, ponds, food forests/orcharding systems, native plant systems, wildlife habitat enhancement, integrated pest management, microclimate moderation, roof water catchment systems, sustainable forestry, soil building, vermaculture, hardscape design and implementation, client relations specialist, project management, and much, much more.
Erik has an innate ability to integrate a variety of disciplines into a holistic framework through facilitation of diverse groups of individuals and professionals. This skill is why many organizations and professionals in related fields to permaculture want to work closely with Permaculture Artisans to achieve excellence in their projects while benefiting entire ecological systems and communities.
Erik has been teaching Permaculture design and implementation since 2001 and is known in Northern California as a premier teacher of Permaculture. His engaging, energetic, do it yourself teaching style has captivated hundreds of permaculture students from all over the world.
Erik has taught courses in Permaculture and related subjects throughout the US, Canada, and the UK. He currently teaches with the Earth Activist Training, the Regenerative Design Institute and with The Occidental Arts and Ecology Center.
Erik Ohlsen, Owner
Ecological Landscapes and Farms
erik at permacultureartisans.com