Brace yourself. What you are about to read might go against what you think is the general wisdom of conservationists: if it's pee, don't let it be. Now, I'm not advocating that you should flush. What I'm about to suggest emerges from the world of permaculture, and you're about to find out all about it.
Permaculture is an approach to sustainable living that entails close, spiritual observation of nature and its inherent patterns and rhythms. Through contemplation of the land — a backyard, an entire city, Yosemite's wilderness — humans can learn how to interact with the environment in a balanced and harmonious way. According to its adherents, permaculture design can integrate the vast spectrum of biological diversity into a functional system that naturally replenishes what it depletes. It seems fundamental that imitating the cycles of nature would produce a less wasteful way of living, but permaculturists insist that we've strayed so far from that course (for example, by farming miles and miles of wheat and using limited sources of energy) that it's time for a full-on return to basics.
But permaculture is more than just a lesson on the how-tos of composting. And it's more than simply a call to turn back the clock of industrialization. As Guillermo Vásquez, a Mayan from Central America who has been running the Indigenous Permaculture design course around the Bay Area since 2002, puts it, "It's about how local communities can use their resources in the city in a sustainable way."
Though geared to the urban environment, Vásquez's classes use farming techniques drawn from native rural communities in El Salvador, South Dakota, and Guatemala. As a demonstration of how some of these techniques can be applied to everyday situations for the typical city dweller, he talked to me about the patch of bereft soil that is my backyard. Local permaculture courses such as the one Vásquez teaches introduce students to a holistic way of gardening that goes beyond throwing down some dirt, plugging a tomato seedling into the ground, and then turning on the hose. I mentioned that I should probably wait until winter to plant, in order to take advantage of the spring rains, so that I don't have to wastefully water the yard so much, to which he responded, "you're right, but first you have to find out what's in your soil." His classes give practical lessons in such things as testing the soil for lead and rotating crops and adding trees that retain water and recycle nutrients.
Vásquez's class is taught on a shoestring budget. He organizes the course with elders from native communities in Central America and the United States. The staff includes specialists in water, soil, and green business. Employees of local nonprofits and people from underserved communities are invited to take the course for free, so long as they make a solemn commitment to do permaculture work in their communities for at least a year after the training. "We have a really teeny budget. Sometimes we work with nothing. We do this because we believe in hard work. We don't get a salary. We organize the students to work with no money. We prove to them and show them that we can do positive things in our community with no money."
Permaculture courses were developed in Australia in the mid-’70s when it first became obvious to environmentalists that the planet was in serious trouble due to monoculture farming. These environmentalists believed that we should value the earth's bounty and endeavor to not hog all of its resources. Then they looked for ways to draw upon the interconnection between earth, water, and sky. One should meditate upon a site for as long as a year before farming, permaculturists advise, making note of all the connections observed.