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What Working with Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues has Taught me about Teaching Permaculture

 
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I’ve really debated about whether to write this, how to go about writing it, and then whether or not to post it. I’m putting it right into the cider press because I don’t see, unfortunately, how it will stay out of there. But I think the lessons learned and information below are too valuable not to share.


Please don’t turn this thread into a battleground about religion and politics. This thread is about mobilizing existing communities to grow and do good, and to integrate a secular movement (permaculture) into how they operate so they can do better by the world. This is also not a place to debate climate change.

These last couple of years I’ve been volunteering to work with religious groups to include permaculture in their practices and teachings. I’ve since done all sorts of presentations, gardens, and food forests at or near these communities, and even though COVID-19 has set me back in this activism, I hope to continue. I just thought I’d share some thoughts on what I’ve learned. It’s been a really fun, exciting, and fruitful (literally!) process.


Lesson 1: Being patient with pushback.
Whenever I start working with a congregation there’s usually immediate pushback (especially in cities/suburbs). People are afraid. They’re scared that it will look messy, that plants will die, that donors will get angry and leave. They’re afraid of hidden costs. But if you can convince them to try it out, those same detractors almost always become your strongest supporters once they see it works. Planting a food forest almost always revitalizes a congregation, because suddenly they’re connecting with master gardeners, giving talks about permaculture and gardening at the building, and even hosting science classes from local schools. Younger people who have left the community start to come back, and parents with children come back in.

Food forests are also a really nice space to be spiritual in, and they can even do small ceremonies like weddings there

When there’s pushback about aesthetics (of the landscaping) the argument I make is that it represents a pivot in values. Before putting in edible landscaping or a food forest, the values being expressed by the lawn and ornamental planting were values that embodied cleanliness and prosperity. By planting an edible landscape, the congregation is acknowledging the existence of (and its commitment to dealing with) issues such as pollinator collapse, pollution, and inequality (among others).


Lesson 2: You have to connect permaculture with the problems that are important to them.

A lot of these groups really care about certain issues. Freedom and liberty? Well, permaculture can help them become more food secure and self reliant, so, that fits! Migration? Well, a food forest/garden can be used to feed people, bring different groups together (pre-pandemic anyway) and (very importantly) provide food not available in stores to people who are new to the area. Where I live, you just can’t get things like tomatillos, figs, quince, etc from the store--but you can grow them. A lot of congregations do a lot around homelessness and hunger, so food forestry fits right in there.

Lesson 3: You have to scare people.

A lot of pastors and rabbis pleaded with me to soften my presentations. They didn’t want me to leave in the parts about how dire certain things are and how we really need to act now. But people need to hear it--so long as you go on to provide hopeful, realistic, step by step strategies that work. Tell the audience that there are places that are running out of water. Tell them that cheap resources like fossil fuels are running out (regardless of your opinion on climate change). The combination of shocking them but then going on to provide solutions is important. They’re adults. They can (usually) handle it, so long as there’s support.


Lesson 4: There’s relevant scripture and principles backing this up.
Without getting into theology too deeply, I will say that there are TONS of passages in all the world’s major religious books that talk in some way about taking care of community and creation. And many modern denominations have social principles that are easy to find and comb through that can be used as the foundation of an argument for implementing permaculture practices. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel or bring in outside arguments to convince people.


Lesson 5: People want to do good.
Yes, people are often fearful and destructive, but in my experience, they also want to do good, though they may need some healing and coaching. Oftentimes they might also need help redefining what “good” and “bad” practices are (some people have honestly never thought twice about spraying poison, and need someone to teach them).

Lesson 6: Grow things that they ate historically, and tell stories about the plants you’re using.
There are tons of plants that you can introduce to people that seem really weird to them. These plants have a lot of value though. Quince, Medlar, Persimmon, Skirret root, and others are all plants that are valuable in a food forest and do well where I live. Try to make them less weird by reminding people that these are the things that their (or someone’s) grandmother probably grew.

Also, lots of trees and heirloom seeds have neat stories behind them. People love stories, even grownups. Saying that a plum or cherry cultivar has been grown for hundreds of years gets people excited. There’s a butternut tree in Olympia Washington (alive today) that was brought west as a seedling from Missouri in a covered wagon by a free black man in the 1800s. That tree is still thriving and you can get seedlings from it today. It has fed people locally through both world wars, the Depression, and the Cold War, and people love hearing that and feeling connected.

Lesson 7 (finally!): Show, don’t tell.
Lots of people have never been exposed to permaculture or natural gardening/living before. I forget this all the time, and take things like gardening skills for granted. If you can, try to give people access to a site (yours or someone else’s) that they can visit to see what these practices look like. Swales, sheet mulching, food forests, etc are all very foreign to people until they see it. But once they have, they become comfortable with these concepts shockingly quickly and start to practice and spread these cool technologies.

Once a project has been done at or near a religious building, it quickly spreads. Usually they want to start small because of fear, but once they taste success they’ll start doing these things at home or wherever they can.
 
James Landreth
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Do feel free to comment or ask questions! I don't mean to scare people off
 
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James

What has been your intro? Do you "cold call"? I assume you get "references", but say you're eyeing new territory, what kinds of things do you do to initiate contact and move toward getting an audience?

Sounds like something that needs a "right time, right place" moment.


Regards,
Rufus
 
James Landreth
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Rufus Laggren wrote:James

What has been your intro? Do you "cold call"? I assume you get "references", but say you're eyeing new territory, what kinds of things do you do to initiate contact and move toward getting an audience?

Sounds like something that needs a "right time, right place" moment.


Regards,
Rufus



Usually connection by connection. It just varies.

Once I've done a project with one congregation, it's much easier to connect with others in that same denomination (United Methodist, Episcopal, Reform Jewish, etc). And also through secular groups that I'm in, like my bee club (Preservation Beekeeping), which has connected me to new religious groups. I've done a little cold calling and had some success. I think the time is right for a lot of places, especially now with the pandemic and its economic effects. I've done a lot in the United Methodist Church because it's the denomination I grew up in and understand, and I'm well connected there.
 
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This is exciting!  I'm following to learn more.
 
James Landreth
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Anne Pratt wrote:This is exciting!  I'm following to learn more.



Here's a thread where I talk about one of my projects more specifically (and there's pictures!)

https://permies.com/t/127437/Shelton-United-Methodist-Church-Food
 
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To run with this is a slightly different direction, there have been successes in my region with industry supporting and funding such efforts .....even a coal corporation (White Oak) got on board to a significant degree.  Of course, I am aware of their probable motives, but, in the end, I still have to see it as a baby step in the right direction.  Within a 30 mile radius of me I know of at least 2 new parks where dilapidated buildings used to be, a community garden, and a greenhouse added to a school.  There is certainly an increased awareness. All of these efforts were privately funded.
 
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Many folks in urban/suburban neighborhoods may have a conception of a "Community Garden" and what that looks like, rather than a "food Forest."  Have you had better success in convincing folks to start at the community garden level, and work their way up to a food forest, rather than just starting immediately with the forest? Or am I overthinking this?
 
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I really like that you pointed out that permaculture practices are in fact technology. We're applying new understanding to centuries old knowledge and practice, with the help of cultivars nurtured and developed by past generations. We don't have to disrespect tradition in order to implement permaculture-- in fact we are honoring tradition in a much more authentic way than mainstream consumerism does! I think it is definitely easier to sell the idea to people who are part of religious communities, if you help them see how it connects them back to the origin and traditions of their own community. The practice of gardening skills helps illuminate scripture because scripture is so rich in references to agricultural practices and metaphors using cultivars and even weeds. I especially like the part in Genesis which is applicable to Judeo-Christian faiths, where Adam and Eve were placed in a garden consisting of trees, vines, brush and herbs, the perfect environment for them created by God, and were only made to till the soil and grow crops afterwards as a consequence of folly. Clearly people understood that food forests are awesome thousands of years ago!
 
James Landreth
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Dustin Rhodes wrote:Many folks in urban/suburban neighborhoods may have a conception of a "Community Garden" and what that looks like, rather than a "food Forest."  Have you had better success in convincing folks to start at the community garden level, and work their way up to a food forest, rather than just starting immediately with the forest? Or am I overthinking this?




I've done one of two things at each site:

1.Started from scratch. In this case I plant a food forest/forest garden that includes annual gardening in between the trees, so that they get production right away

2. Started at an existing community garden and put in a section of food forest/orchard in an area not currently being used

Either way I would plant at least some perennials ASAP, so they can get established. The most conventional I'd be willing to go to ease people would be planting an orchard to start, instead of a food forest, if that makes sense
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