In September, 2007, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Keith Johnson and a team of other designers on a 25-acre property near Hamilton, Ontario. Keith and I, together with one other designer, walked a section of property designated to us to design. It was a tremendous learning experience for me. Working with Keith is extremely easy to do – he finds the humour in any situation, making everything more enjoyable. After our preliminary designing was finished, Keith graciously agreed to the following interview.
Douglas: Who are you and what do you do?
Keith: I’m Keith Johnson. I teach permaculture design with Peter Bane. I help him on the Activist mostly as the web guy but occasionally, if I ever get enough energy, I do a little bit of writing maybe a little bit of reviewing. But it’s been a while since I’ve done that now. (Laughs) But I love doing the web-work. And we also design and consult together with our company Patterns for Abundance. And I am the gardener at home. I’ve now got about a half acre garden almost and we’re putting in a forest garden. So we are slowly developing our base in Bloomington where we’ve been for about a year and a half now.
Douglas: You also mentioned some other places earlier as well. California was one.
Keith: Well yeah. Prior to Bloomington, I was 10 years in North Carolina outside of Ashville at Earthhaven Ecovillage where Peter and I lived for six years in a clay straw home we built for ourselves. And prior to that, I was in California teaching permaculture and I had started Sonoma County Permaculture. And I was landscaping for about 10 years all together all through the Bay Area. I had to get away from that. It was too crazy. Although, when I left I cried because I have so many dear friends there. And it was my friends I missed rather than the place itself, although, it’s pretty lovely despite eight months a year of no rain.
Douglas: How did you get your start in permaculture?
Keith: I discovered Permaculture One in about 1978 or 79 when I read about it in the Whole Earth Review which was also known as Co-evolution Quarterly. And also I am pretty hip to gardening and natural things because when I was about five years old I learned via my grandmother, who was doing lots of genealogical research, that I’m related to Johnny Appleseed.
Douglas: Oh wow!
Keith: So, I thought that was cool. And he was always an early inspiration to me.
Douglas: You aren’t dropping seeds out of your pocket as you go around are you?
Keith: I do! Sometimes I drop them into people’s hands but it’s very common for me to have seeds in my pocket. Very, very common. I don’t specialize in Apple’s, by any means. I’ve been a big seed saver for the 34 years I’ve been gardening. I guess I got started gardening really when I was about 25. My first gardening books were Organic Gardening Magazine and Ruth Stout’s book How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back and Gardening Without Work – all about mulch gardening. I am also a big fan of medicinal and edible plants. My dad is one of the last of the hunter gatherers. He grew up in Northern Michigan, where I also grew up for my first nine years. Wild foods were always high on the list of things that got us excited – collecting mushrooms and wild fruit and so on. Any time I go and see my folks my dad always a few places he wants to take me for wild food – get grapes or raspberries or juneberries, or take me fishing on the beaver ponds.
Douglas: It sounds like you didn’t find Permaculture, it found you. It was the thing to come waiting to happen.
Douglas: Maybe about four years ago on the Australian scene, permaculture “tipped” as Malcolm Gladwell would say. It’s basically a mainstream now. How would you say it’s doing in North America?
Keith: It’s coming on a little slower. But in just the last half a decade, there’s been a big shift. More people are tuning into it. More people are writing about it. I have read at least five different science fiction novels in which the word “permaculture” showed up.
Keith: In one case, it was permaculture in an artificial environment in orbit around the earth. Kim Stanley Robinson recently wrote a trilogy of books about climate change. In one of the books, he used the word permaculture at least a dozen times. So, word is getting out.
Douglas: I hadn’t heard anything about that!
Keith: Read Kim Stanley Robinson, anything he’s written is very, very good.
Douglas: I’d love to but there’s so many things I need to know, and I guess I’ve always been like this, but I always read nonfiction almost exclusively. People always ask me why, and I always say “It’s not real.”
Keith: Well, you watch television don’t you?
Douglas: (Awkward silence.)
Douglas: (laughing) No. (laughing)
Keith: I’ve never owned a television. My parents have television, people I visit have television. When I meet them in front of one, it’s sort of like an anthropological study, really. (Laughs) Cause I’m just kind of curious because seeing what people are watching is interesting feedback about the culture. And so, that’s always intriguing to me.
Douglas: I’m having flashbacks of Japan now and the culture of there. Anyway, that’s another story.
So, what we’ve been working on this site, Ian Graham’s property – designing it up with a whole bunch of people together – I’ve found it to be extremely productive to bring people together. It’s a great learning experience. There’s so many things I’ve learned, and I hope other people maybe picked up something from me as well. What advice do you have for people who are getting their feet wet with permaculture?
Keith: Read a lot. Start collecting the seed and plant catalogues. Study them. They are an enormous source of data. Get yourself a good library. Shop at the Permaculture Activist catalogue online.
Douglas: Of course. (laughs)
Keith: (Laughs) Permaculture Activist dot net. You’ve gotta put in a plug there.
Douglas: (Laughing) Of course!
Keith: And don’t waste any time is the next thing I’d say. And get help. Don’t try to do this by yourself. Start small, gain some mastery. Take care of zone 1 – that area 50 feet from your kitchen door all around the house. Get some greens and herbs going and start seeing what it takes to take care of oneself and family. Learn to live on things that don’t travel a great distance. Find your entertainment nearby so you don’t have to travel all around. And then when you do travel, it’s all the more valuable. You’ll make much more out of it. And when you do travel, go to people who are doing something intelligent – people who have gained some kind of mastery –and learn from those people. And they are all over the place, you just have to start looking for them. Start connecting yourself up to them and help them connect with others. Basically, we just have to let each other know we are there. This is one of the reasons why for the last 10 years, I have emphasized the Planetary Permaculture Directory where I try to keep track of all the permaculture contacts that I can, so that others can be found.
Douglas: Excellent advice. Thank you very much!
Keith: You are very welcome!