A primitive approach to permaculture: Can we close the loop?

Mark Boyle
Wednesday, 26th June 2013

Mark Boyle, author of The Moneyless Manifesto, explores the idea of primitive permaculture, and why he believes it is a vital component of the economy of the future.

The concept of creating a closed loop system is central to any serious permaculturalist's thinking when designing a habitat. Yet whilst some loops are more complete than others, not one of the many permaculture projects I have experienced over the years have managed to fully apply this most fundamental of principles. At even the most cutting edge of these, a range of bought-in metal blades were employed in various parts of the system, imported complex technologies were utilised to at least a minimal - yet integral - degree, and pollutants of one form or another were embodied throughout.

This is in no way intended to be a criticism of these very inspiring enterprises, but as an observation that is both striking and telling in terms of the challenges our communities face, our loss of ancestral knowledge and skills, and our level of commitment to building truly resilient systems. The realisation also provided me with a challenge: how do you close the loop, 100%?

Enter people such as Will Lord, founder of Beyond2000BC. I first met Will whilst writing The Moneyless Manifesto, during research on truly localised forms of cutting implements which would provide either tools or weapons fundamental to even the most harmonious forms of crop cultivation and food acquisition.

The main reason most people don't usually consider such fine detail is because knives, secateurs and the like are unsustainably cheap in financial terms. We have to ask ourselves this, however: If our entire designs involve components – shears, trowels, pruning saws, airguns, cogs, ball bearings, fibreglass fishing rods, a dab of superglue, sewing needles and thread – that are dependent on mass-produced processes that are inherently linear, destructive and polluting, is it a resilient position to adopt, considering the certain fact that The Machine Economy that gives birth to them will eventually fall like every other Empire before it?

A £7.99 pair of secateurs or a 99p spool of cotton thread may form an essential part of a short-term creative energy descent plan, but it is far from a serious long-term option. Not only that, their purchase certainly doesn't in itself connect us to place, to the land under our feet.

One of the many skills that Will both practices and teaches is the ancient art of flint-knapping. In contrast to a frugal pair of secateurs, flint-knapping requires zero reliance on the military-industrial complex, and reconnects us to our landscape. To knap successfully, you cannot just learn a set of skills that you then apply mechanically. You have to sit with the stone, speak with it, understand its personality, observe what it wants to do – in short, you have to develop a relationship with it.

I recently stayed with Will to learn flint-knapping, along with a host of primitive – read truly sustainable – skills: I made my own longbow and arrows through a process that I can describe as nothing short of art, we embarked on the two day process of making glue from deer toes, we made cordage and thread from sinews, bone and antler needles and tools, and we were catapulted forward into an 'advanced' era through a couple of bronze casting evenings, for those who would prefer to stay in the Age of Shiny Things.

To watch Will at play – or was it work, I couldn't quite tell – was a pleasure in itself. As a group we made tools that would have been crucial to our ancestors, to whom permaculture wasn't a radical concept, but their unspoken, unconceptualised common sense approach to life.

Asking uncomfortable questions.

As someone who has dangerously labelled themselves either vegetarian or vegan for eleven years, the use of animal parts raised challenging questions for me, but questions that needed to be asked. Lets get honest here: importing food or tools from all over the world, using processes that destroy huge swaths of habitat and which are making the planet uninhabitable for tens of thousands of species a year, is not vegan. Mass produced soya from the US is not vegan. Industrial scale knives are not vegan. Cars, lorries and planes, and their fuels and lubricants, are not vegan. Even local veggies produced with fossil fuels embedded into them are not vegan. As absurd as it sounds, I now believe that cordage made from the tendons of a wild animal, whose life you took using weapons you fashioned from the land under your feet (or ideally, from the sad abundance of roadkill that line our roads), is 'more vegan' than polyester cord produced through the mechanisms of a global industrialised economy that unashamedly destroys habitat and life as a matter of course.

I should emphasise that by saying this I am not personally encouraging everyone to go out and buy organic meat from your local butcher. The domestication of animals, regardless of whether it has the Soil Association stamp on it or not, is no less sad to me than the domestication of ourselves, as is the end they come to at slaughterhouses, to which both organic and non-organic animals are brutally subjected to.

What I am encouraging you to do is to fully close the loop, and I mean fully, however you choose to do that. If we don't, there won't be much of any form of life left by the time The Machine Economy flatpacks the entire Earth.

During his courses Will does use some basic machinery, otherwise a two day course would have to be a potentially unaffordable two week course, as without every machine a new skill would have to be learned, skills which he is also willing to teach if you then want to dig another layer deeper. With each new skill learned, you become one degree closer to the land your life is interdependent upon and one degree closer to completing the loop.

Keeping ancient skills alive.

This is an approach to learning shared by other proponents of the primitive arts, such as bushcraft teacher Paul Kirtley of Frontier Bushcraft, who on their expeditions advise you to take whatever good quality equipment you need to survive, but to remember that the entire point of learning bushcraft is not to acquire more expensive kit, but to get to a level of skill and competency where ideally you can survive solely from the materials the woods provide.

Whereas Lord shows you how to close the loop in terms of tools and weapons, Kirtley helps you replace cigarette lighters with bow drills, Sat Navs with the stars, along with many other vital skills for a post-industrial society. Others, such as wild food expert Fergus Drennan, who has embarked on a fascinating experiment where he aims to live on 100% wild food for a year, can teach us the ancient art of foraging, so that we can minimise the amount of cultivation tools we depend on in the first place.

The solutions to many of the challenges we face are already being pioneered. Permaculture is certainly one of them. The only tried and trusted form of household management – the Gift economy – is another. But unless we keep alive the archaic skills that constitute the fine detail at the margins of all of these grand ideas, then we will never close the loop, and we will remain dependent on an industrial-scale infrastrucuture until it is, in all likelihood, much too late. The acid test of permaculture design should be this: how long can our systems serve us if the economic models we pay lip-service to opposing collapse? The more you close the loop, the longer that will be.


For more information about Will Lord, Beyond2000BC and his courses and products, visit www.beyond2000bc.co.uk. He is contactable at [email protected] or 07843 019994.

Mark Boyle lived without money for almost three years. His new book, The Moneyless Manifesto, is out now, published by Permanent Publications under a Creative Commons licence. Naturally, a free online version of the book is also available from: www.moneylessmanifesto.org
The Moneyless Manifesto (e-book edition also available) is available from www.green-shopping.co.uk

Read more about Fergus Drennan's experiment to live on 100% foraged food for an entire year

rodney |
Wed, 26/06/2013 - 17:10
People are naturally born ignorant, you could go back to the origins of first dwellers before fire, hard to erase accumulative knowledge, The ability to adapt and adopt will always be there, there is also the process of rubbing up against infinity, the infinite one, part of the natural to nature world and experiencing that still invokes change. The difference between old and new will always be ignorance. The one ideal idea that no one teaches the first common denominator of all people is ignorance even in reverse to the point of simple tool making you will find your ignorances. That is what your after, that is what a few are seeking for there answers. The one aspect of simple "KISS" keep it simple silly there is no wrong or right view, were born into a time line, we accept the ideal idea that is present we inherent and adapt and adopt, without the knowledge in ignorances as a study, a written book, a scholastic class. People will continue to rinse and repeat unknowing in a pattern in a cycle of continuances. Real change begins with understanding self ignorances within one's self, not the world, not society, and not the community. than apply that knowledge of ignorance to accumulative knowledge of information without getting to the root, your applying conditions to conditions out of ignorance, and you still in the process of rinsing and repeating a cycle of a habit from a condition. I'm a death experiencer and rubbed up against infinity, the infinite one. I now know of a difference and a better way to live.
Mick Mack |
Wed, 26/06/2013 - 20:12
Hi Mark, this piece just resonates so much with where I'm at atm. I recently read most of Daniel Quinn's output - Ishmael and so forth - and I'm now reading lots of anthro/paleo writings as well as stuff around 'primitive' skills and this piece is right on the button for me and I align with this article so resolutely. We don't know how all of this is going to transpire but these skills of which you write I would say will be very useful to say the least. Thank you. I'm with you on all this. Mick
petefree |
Tue, 02/07/2013 - 04:02
petefree |
Tue, 02/07/2013 - 04:59
The largest part of the human diet was raw vegetables in the form of root veg, leaves, fruit and nuts, and then the smaller part was raw fish. Meat only came to be eaten because it came to be cooked as a processed replacement for the raw fish. A vegan diet of raw food is the closest resembling our original diet and just like the original diet it sustains the human for the longest life time with the least illness. This is what the statistics show. And also what the high veg diets of simple living long lived peoples show. The vitamin b12 missing from the lack of fish can be made up from fermented foods and on soil particles left on organic veg and fruit, and on any unwashed foraging from the garden, and the omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids missing from the diet from raw fish is gotten from seed sources. The diet can be vegan, and it is not necessary to go all the back to the technology of the primitive. Prior to the start of Empire at the end of Henry 8ths reign and prior to the start of the rise of the merchant class in 1750 there was no runaway detrimental growth. For thousands of years in the UK, and I presume many other parts of the world, coal wasnt anything special, coal was always used in those localities that it existed, used in small amounts because it was easier in most places to use the wood which was ordinarily abundant. Coal started to be used seriously roughly 263 years ago 1750, with the rise and expansion of the merchant class and when the new energy efficient inventions of technology started to be created and increasingly used. thats when the problems of runaway technology and shopping for the sake of the merchant class capitalism seriously started. So before that time the technology that existed would have been closed loop as far as damage to the earth was concerned. Communities were smaller. Trade was less and for the most part local before the increase of empire. Thats 250 (industrial rev)to 500 ( Henry 8th, start of Empire). The technology wasnt flint and bone. Though I appreciate that the different technology of middle ages to 1750s would take more people, more organisation. Charcoal to make glass etc. And I appreciate that the further back you go in technology the more human scale it is because their is less separation of skill, less division therefore less separation between skills that people have. (that may be the main important factor in favour of your whole story) So, to get back to my point, you dont have to go all the way back to the beginnings of technology. Because it is fossil fuel, and fossil fuelled increasing technology that is causing the exhaustion of Earth resource. The throwing away of the Earth, the throwing away of ourselves. Fossil fuels are the cause and of course advances in other unsustainable energy sources, fuels fueling this age of stupid, such as nuclear,. Patrick Whitefield is right to point out that we have a valuable window of opportunity to create the infrastructure of closed loop steady state Earth permaculture now. So lets get excited, its exciting! (and primitive is very interesting) So as well as not having to start with the original technology, the point made about closed loop is so so relavent as we do need people to form serious groups that understand the full importance of what your trying to say and get at, which is that of going back to create human scale technology and living systems always by closed loop. As for the vegan aspect of what you talked about, I have strong feelings about it as I know about killing. My passion when younger was fishing, at every opportunity I lived for that sea wildness and community and I killed many many fish. The first killings, you may have to ask others how to kill the fish, you feel wrong about it, and sorry for the fish when you bash its head on the deck. But you get over that "squeamishness", same as you do when threading the worm onto the hook right down through its body from head to tail, eventually they are just material things you have the same feelings for that you may have for carrots and you dont really become cold and callous its more the case that you dont feel at all like when you become a mini psychopath using animals, kicking the crabs that you catch into the annoying yachties yachts who are always getting in the way of your line. So, becoming more aware, making connections between things, I eventually came to listen to my sensitive feelings for my cousin animals, those feelings were right, and valuable and all that fishing kit, the boat rods, the rods I made, the hand lines, the Penn reels and the ambassador reels, they went for free on our first free stalls. Here I live with pheasants and this year we have started to have rabbits which is ok as I know rabbits arent too much of a problem in a forest garden and part of me is excited that we have this new wild animal around. No I wouldnt kill any of my freinds. They are like pets but they have their own families! The birds, the rodents, all the animals here, and the lizards, my favourite which I used to keep when young, they have the run of the polytunnel. Who needs to keep animals when they can live for free. And when they become freinds. Now I have my heart back. If I can live and they can also live, that is best. I can find other substitutes and I am lucky that I can, as I am human I only have to find the substitute for the real human "meat", the raw fish. The main need , my main need too on this localised Gift economy transition to moneyless permaculture farm that our coop is developing is for serious committed people to work on closing the loop. Not to start mid way as with "ose" öpen source hardware, but to start at the land resource base as you propose but it does not have to start as far back as you are proposing.
jdaviescoates |
Wed, 10/07/2013 - 12:17
Someone shared this post with me on facebook. This was the comment I posted there, which I thought I'd re-post here for good measure too: "read that already, I agree and disagree almost in equal measure know and love Mark Boyle but think a bit too deterministic (yes, crafts and real practical skills very important, but the stuff industrial society makes isn't going to completely disappear nor are there any inherent reasons why much of it, if not all, of it can be re-engineered along genuinely sustainable lines). "For me, his most important message is essentially this: if one lives inline with ones values (whatever they are), one's life is better."
ccm |
Wed, 07/08/2013 - 16:04
Fallen Idol!!!! Stupid boys making bows and arrows, Just William books come to mind, I will scream and scream until I am sick.. think the deer was more connected to the land than you will ever be until you took it's life...