From the rainy coast of British Columbia to the Texas desert to the snows of Sweden, these die-hard off-the-gridders test the limits of complete sustainability.
Photography by Gary Seronik, Sara Allen, and Rikkenstorp
It’s only a white plastic bucket, but I’m sitting on the first phase of a system that takes the concept of sustainability out of most people’s comfort zone. “Humanure” is a low-tech but effective reuse of what even the most committed composter would consider too hot to handle: bodily waste. Not Herb and Barbara Jones.
Homesteaders on Denman Island off the coast of British Columbia, the couple grow most of their own food, collect rainwater, power their home with solar energy, and compost everything. Everything.
Proud outliers in today’s consumer-driven, mechanized, fossil-fueled economy, Herb and Barbara’s place is my first stop on a journey to discover what it means to take permaculture to an extreme and find out whether it’s even possible anymore to live in a way that’s completely sustainable.
With humanity straining Earth’s natural resources, the question is no longer rhetorical. “Every civilization runs up against limits imposed by nature,” says the ecologist David Holmgren, a co-originator of the permaculture movement. “People must change—or disappear if they don’t change.”
Holmgren, along with the naturalist and author Bill Mollison, coined the term in the late 1970s, blending the words permanent and agriculture to describe a system of design and land use that works in harmony with nature to achieve a state of perpetual sustainability. Some call it common sense.
“Except,” Holmgren says, “it’s no longer common.”
Then again, neither is a bucket of humanure.
Keeping Up with the Joneses
Herb and Barbara’s compost system begins in a shed strewn with tools, wood, jars, and buckets of all sizes—including the one we are now standing before. Herb proffers a scoop of wood shavings and some toilet paper, and matter-of-factly issues instructions for taking a poop: Place toilet seat on chair; sit; do your business; wipe; cover your deposit with the shavings.
The shed does not stink. Not even a little bit.
My duty done, Herb and Barbara show me the rest of their 108-acre homestead, a recovering clear-cut parcel Barbara fell for in 2003. A former clergyman and retired teacher, Herb, 67, saunters along the dirt track edged with salal, bracken ferns, young alders, pine—his lanky youthfulness undiminished by time. Barbara, 64, has the toned skin and slim frame that might make other women think about adopting a regimen of eating homegrown food, taking regular baths in the ocean, and building their own house with hand tools. Her long brown hair, woven with strands of silver, flows out from under a groovy cap.
The couple first came to Denman Island over 10 years ago to volunteer on organic farms with the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program. “We were thinking: What do we want to do for the rest of our lives?” Herb says, with Barbara adding, “We might as well heal something.”
Barbara built their first home—the whimsical imaginings of a child come to life, now materializing through the trees in front of us. The little house is stone-floored and reflects a mishmash of building techniques: walls of wattle and daub between hemlock and fir branches, cordwood, and cob.
But look twice and you notice not everything’s hand-hewn. A loft uses wood flooring from Home Depot. “There are so many compromises,” Barbara concedes. An electric drill helped, as did, occasionally, a chainsaw. A window, placed askew, is the only hint of a worrisome tilt Barbara had to fix with a slanting brace. “We liked it so much, we put a diagonal window in our big house,” she says. A guttered green metal roof drains into a rainwater barrel, 30-year-old solar panels hauled from a cabin in Ontario provide electricity, and they prepare food outdoors. They lived here for five years while they watched the land and planned their gardens.
We wander to the “big” house (300 square feet). Romaine lettuce peeks out from under the bracken ferns that were left in the garden to shade the greens, kale pops up unpredictably, and bird-egg pole beans fix nitrogen into the soil near the strawberries. Apples crowd the limbs of a semicircle of slender trees. It’s no coincidence the fruit looks full and fetching; the Joneses’ humanure completes its cycle at the roots of this orchard.
After a lunch of homegrown veggie soup, we circle the rest of the property, an eccentric compound of cob-construction houses, sheds, and sauna, outfitted with scavenged windows and other materials sourced from the local recycling center. Rain barrels, human-dug ponds, and cisterns dot the property. Fences, and the skeletons of plastic-draped greenhouses, are built of deadwood.
To the uninitiated, permaculture homesteads may look “like junkyards,” Holmgren says—nothing gets thrown away. But focusing on the clutter misses the point.
Permaculture, he says, blends old and new, using modern tools to solve ancient problems in a sustainable way, whether it’s water storage, fending off rodents and other food thieves, or sheltering tomatoes.
I follow Herb and Barbara into the brush, picking our way through the bracken until we come upon a heap of dark humus. A mature humanure pile. Herb sticks the soil with his pitchfork, gives it a turn.
“Now,” Barbara says with a smile, “you’ve seen all our shit.”
It’s important to note that homesteaders like the Joneses have methodically pursued self-reliance, not complete autonomy. Permaculture is, after all, also about relationships. No one could make it without outside help—for simple things like stashing food in a friend’s freezer, or relying on neighbors for potable water, as the Joneses do. Or buying the things they can’t grow, like the seeds and nuts they order from a Canadian wholesaler.
Holmgren, whose own passive solar, wood-warmed house is still plugged in to Australia’s electrical grid, suggests thinking of permaculture not as living in a bubble of self-contained sustainability, but as a revival of the home-based economy, aiming for self-sufficiency within a strong network. The life, he says, seems easier for people with an entrepreneurial spirit. “Permaculture activists are people who’ve done a lot to minimize what they need to get by, mixing little bits of livelihoods to make it work. Monetizing the lifestyle in one way or another is part of the process,” he says.
That’s a lesson Sara Allen and Casey Colando learned early. The couple, both 26 and from New Jersey, started their life as Texas permaculturists by starting a business installing photovoltaic systems. It’s still their main source of income—subsidizing their dream of living off the grid.
At their homestead near Terlingua, Texas, an old mercury-mining town, Sara laughs as she recounts their arrival in the Chihuahuan Desert four years ago. For the first six months they lived in a tent—a sauna by day, an icebox by night. “Nothing makes you want to build a roof more than not having one,” she says.
To build the 300-square-foot home they now live in, they sank their bathroom into the ground to stabilize the temperature, while the rest of the house is a traditional dwelling made of wood, foam insulation, and a metal roof. Solar panels power computers, telephone, water pump, power tools, refrigerator, and lights, consuming about three kilowatt-hours of energy a day—a tenth of what the average American household burns through. On a hot summer day, the temperature can get as high as 120 degrees—indoors.
Outside, the couple surveys a sunbaked, treeless landscape. “Obviously, we’re not gardening yet,” says Casey, his dark hair cut short, T-shirt revealing a laborer’s physique.
For every inch of rain that falls, their roofs harvest about 144 gallons of water, carefully saved in a collection tank. But monotonously clear skies—including one 18-month stretch without a single drop of rain—means that water is still a commodity, purchased gallon by expensive gallon.
Sponge baths go a long way toward conservation, as does a set of metal nipples their 15 chickens have to peck for a drink. “It’s not evaporating, not getting yucky and dirty. They’re not leaving their droppings in it,” says Sara. “We’re finding little ways to conserve as much water as possible.” The average American family of four easily splashes through 400 gallons of water every day; Sara and Casey use only about 300—in a month.
Undeterred by the heat, and the predators that have thinned their flock of chickens, they have plans: a herd of goats, a greenhouse, solar shower, a porch. They are unflappable, committed problem solvers, kids who grew up reading Mother Earth News, daydreaming about growing their own food. And that’s the other permaculture ingredient: the DIY mind-set, an inheritance from the back-to-the-land, alienated hippie generation that modeled self-reliance for their kids.
“I see some of the most empowered people in permaculture from that second generation,” Holmgren says. “My parents were political radicals in the 1930s and ’40s, so I took it for granted that I determined my own future. I regard my son, who is 26, as third-generation alienated, an element of genuine counterculture that’s maybe one of the seeds for cultural renewal.”
That’s what happened in Grängesberg, Sweden, 6.5 degrees from the Arctic Circle, when Joel Holmdahl quit school and moved back to the family farm, Rikkenstorp, in 2009. His parents, Nils, 62, and Hélène, 57, had purchased the 74-acre farm in the early 1970s, raising Joel and his older brother, Johan, 31, in the city of Uppsala a few hours away.
Studying political science at Uppsala University, Joel was writing a paper on Russia’s strategic use of its fossil fuel supply when something clicked. “The politics of it are so naive,” he says. “It was my peak-oil moment.” Permaculture seemed like a solution to an uncertain energy future. “And knowing that this farm was puttering along and that it had such potential—well, I just went with it.”
I follow the blond, slender 30-year-old across the grass, wet from newly melted snow. Like his permaculture peers, Joel is undaunted by conditions that would give most amateur gardeners pause, cheerfully planting and harvesting crops in a climate that runs from chilly to frigid.
Summer is short and spring sudden here.
“This far north, everything happens at the same time,” he says. “Everything comes to life in 30 days.”
Also like the others, he monetizes the lifestyle—renting cabins, offering the farm for meetings and retreats, hosting permaculture workshops, and running a small sawmill.
We stop at a garden, exchanging the Swedish and English names for his bounty: garlic, onion, potatoes, cabbage, spinach, wild strawberries, mint, roses. White, red, and black currants. Plums. Apple trees. We move on, down a south-facing slope toward Lambitjärn—translated as “Small Lake Lake” in Finnish, the language of the region’s farming pioneers. A glance back up the slope is like gazing into a classical landscape painting—paths branch out from the red farmhouse like spokes from a hub, disappearing into fields, forest, and a tidy complex of barns, cabins, and sheds.
“Your plan has to be flexible; there is always something you haven’t accounted for,” Joel says, waving toward an enclosure of heritage ducks. “Like the hawk that popped out of nowhere and almost wiped out 2 percent of the male Swedish yellow duck population in the world.” Five birds remain in the flock, now protected by a veil of netting over their pen.
Joined by Axel, a farm volunteer, and Maria, Joel’s girlfriend, we head to the house for lunch: savory pies of farm-raised lamb along with vegetables brought up from the 400-year-old root cellar. Back in the Pacific Northwest, Herb and Barbara Jones may still be eating from their garden, but October is long past harvest time in Sweden.
The house is cozy. When their brawny, wood-chopping sons first moved away, Nils and Hélène installed a geothermal heating system, a common renewable energy source in Sweden. Yet further investments in Rikkenstorp’s green energy infrastructure will have to wait. Joel calculates that he has a five- to 10-year window to make the farm economically sustainable.
“You mean I can’t retire?” jokes Nils, an exercise physiologist. We laugh, but Nils and Hélène, an artist, pay the bills while Joel refashions Rikkenstorp into his vision of a sustainable, postcapitalist operation.
For a moment, with the Arctic winter almost at our doorstep, and that hungry hawk still circling overhead, it seems like a lovely but impossible dream. Then I look around. Here we are, sharing a meal in the warm kitchen of a farm that has been feeding and sheltering people since 1607—almost 200 years before Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations. Rikkenstorp’s resiliency over centuries of change suddenly seems to take on a life of its own, with the Holmdahls only the latest in a line of caretakers.
Not unlike our resilient planet.
Jude Isabella covers science, the environment, and health for publications including Archaeology Magazine, New Scientist, and the Medical Post. Her fifth science book aimed at kids, Chit Chat: A Celebration of the World’s Languages, will be released this fall from Kids Can Press.
Try these books to bring permaculture into your home now.
Permaculture Design. The permaculture teacher Aranya takes you step by step through the process of designing and setting up your own system.
Paradise Lot. The self-described “plant nerds” Eric Toensmeir and Jonathan Bates create the ultimate permaculture urban garden on a 10th of an acre behind their duplex apartment.
The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture. If you’re already into organic gardening, the permaculture expert Christopher Shein offers simple tips to take the next step.
Gaia’s Garden. The second edition of Toby Hemenway’s popular guidebook includes a new chapter on urban permaculture.
For a slideshow with more permaculture images, click here.