Growing society by Arthur Owen
garden buzzed as William Mutch reached for another sunflower seed from the box in front of him. And not just any seeds - certainly not storebought - these were straight from the sunflower. As he popped another seed into his mouth, William explained his thoughts on the imminent need for a major shift in society, pausing to examine the birds behind me: “Bill Mollison also made a comment about urban perma-
culture and how it’s really easy to look at a city and think ‘oh my god we’ll never get the soil clean, all these toxins buried in the ground, … and you’d just get so caught up in red tape and would never get it done’. But if every person who had access to a piece of land grew a garden, those people are not going to tolerate there being toxics in the ground that are getting into their vegetables, and you could have that
entire city cleaned up within 5 years without having to cut one piece of red tape” (Mutch). He reached for another seed. We’re sitting on a wooden picnic bench in the garden at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula in Mountain View, where William is an assistant gardening teacher. Besides teaching Waldorf students anything from how to mow with scythes to how to sharpen tools, William is a permaculture designer. A permaculture, in the context of gardening, is an agricultural ecosystem that is sustainable, with the ultimate goal that it “meets all the needs of its inhabitants” (An Introduction to Permaculture). Permaculture gardens often incorporate native plants with practicality to create a polyculture (a garden with many species) that is hardy and fulfilling. More generally, a permaculture applies to all aspects of human behavior, like building sustainable houses. As a permaculture designer, these are the kind of food systems that William tries to create. To the everyday individual this may seem like a throwback to hippy ideas of self-sufficiency; to others William may even be a peasant who insists on growing his own food and can’t accept supermarket food like ‘normal’ people. However, the reality is that the ideas William works with deserve more serious attention in a culture that is at times blind to interacting with the planet consciously, particularly as we continue to hurtle towards looming unknowns like overpopulation and environmental contamination. “I became passionate
about it through both watching my parents cultivating their garden, and just time spent sitting out there,” replies William when I ask how he developed his passion for gardening, “You know during the summer the wind blows through and the basil leaves and the tomato leaves rub against each other and you get this incredible infusion of smells, and I used to go out and get handfuls of parsley, and just like eat handfuls of parsley. And when you have this garden where everything is alive and interacting with each other - because my mom did polycultures even before we knew the word - and so yeah, that was the yard, and we had the insects buzzing and you just, you know - ah it was amazing” (Mutch).
The wonder in William’s voice is evident as he describes a garden not unlike the one next to us, which is full of any edible plant you can name: cabbage, sunflowers, wheat, barley, beans, squash, tomatoes, pumpkins, amaranth, quinoa, corn, and cucumbers, to name a small fraction of the cornucopia. The garden is the embodiment of a polyculture, with insects buzzing and leaves rustling, it is the picture of harmony. The beauty is that it is not the product of some genius gardeners or scientists, but rather the hard work of those returning to old methods of farming. This garden is without a doubt possible in any front or back yard with the right work put into it, and William himself has had a gar-
den on every property he’s lived in. However, society doesn’t always openly accept home gardens, or ‘homesteading’. As William explains, “[When] gardens are in the front yard, some of the neighbors love it and some of the neighbors are like, ‘property values, need to respect the property values’. The [suburban] homeowner society says that you must have a lawn” (Mutch). This stems from a stigma in our culture against growing your own food, based on the misguided notion that producing for yourself is inferior to paying someone to do it for you. This stigma is unfortunate, having distanced a huge portion of the population from the simple power of being able to grow their own produce.
Roughly 4.6 million people - less than 2% of the US population actually work on the farms that grow the vast majority of domestic produce in the US (General Facts About Agriculture). William, on the other hand, has maintained a close relationship with gardening throughout his life. He grew up in Oregon with home-grown food always present. In addition to working on the garden at home, William also helped a friend with a community-garden plot at UC Davis, and in the summers would work the fields at Hidden Villa, a local community garden in Los Altos Hills. Later on he became involved with Hidden Villa’s summer camps and naturalist programs, focusing on educating kids through working the garden and fields with them. Influenced by the permaculture community at Hidden Villa, William obtained his certificate to teach permaculture design in 2005. Since then he has mixed learning about permacultures by applying it in his own garden with teaching what he finds. As he says, “more or less just about every aspect of my life has been tied in some way into learning and teaching stuff that I’m learning” (Mutch). Back in the garden at Waldorf, I’m struck by how much the garden has changed - when I saw it just two years ago it was an unremarkable dirt area - the sheer beauty of it is undeniable. A cultural transformation akin to the change this garden has undergone could also bring out the same beauty. There is certainly potential for this same effect around the county. According to a survey of urban
areas, Chicago has 70,000 vacant lots and Philadelphia has 31,000 (Urban Agriculture). The benefits to a society in which produce is grown in local gardens are compelling: a resilient food system resistant to natural disasters and other misfortune, a transparent production process (everyone knows exactly what goes into their food), better quality, locally grown food, and a greater individual connection to a necessity of life being just a few. “I think that people must know how to grow their own food,” William replied when I asked why gardening should be taught in school. “There was a group of high school students in LA who had the realization that an earthquake in the right place would deprive them of their food, it would cut off the supply lines that their food came in on, and that wasn’t okay with them, so they started growing food downtown. A lot of it’s resiliency, a lot of it’s being in contact with the soil and how health-giving that is for
humans” (Mutch). In fact that last comment isn’t just psychological health - as William explained to me, the bacteria in home grown gardening soil interacts with the human nervous system to calm the body and serve as an antidepressant (Lowry). Natural wisdom seems to be the key in a world that has run rampant with technological knowledge. A return to what was natural and existed because it simply worked is critical more than ever. To William, designing permacultures by teaching groups to grow their own gardens is “just re-empowering people and re-skilling people and getting people more in control of their own destinies. And if you get it into people’s heads and people’s muscle memory at an early age then it starts to seem normal and natural to them, rather than ‘oh my god that’s something that the peasants do’ you know it’s like ‘no! that’s something that I do’” (Mutch).