Article originally published on May 6, 2021 by Doris Zuur

A permaculture approach to landscaping your life!


Have you ever felt like you were at a crossroads in your life? Or are you standing at one right now? And did you arrive there by your own choice or because of something that life has thrown at you? Perhaps you’ve just left school or finished your studies? Embarked on a new personal relationship, new job or a new community living situation? Just separated from a relationship? Had a health scare? An accident? Made redundant? Retired?

Times of transition can be a crisis and can create a gap, which can feel like an empty void where one feels lost, maybe full of grief over what has just been. However, it can also represent unlimited potential. Like an empty canvas that creates a chance for a new painting — like a freshly ploughed piece of land! This may sound more romantic than the many realities that we experience in such moments. I believe that in times of such ‘weightlessness’, it can be supportive to have a framework that brings structure into how to plant and landscape this new piece of land, this next phase of your life, replacing what the previous given rhythms and routines provided.

I was at such a crossroads after I chose to complete my very full-time job as a principal of a primary school after 25 year of committed involvement since its foundation. It was at the same time as our three daughters were reaching adulthood and beginning to spread their wings. Some of my identities of many years (such as ‘Mum’ and ‘Principal’) were changing or disappearing. Many other ‘structures’ around me stayed the same. I was still married to the same charming man and still living in the same lovely township, and I felt well supported by a rich network of family and friends. I was also healthy and young enough to adapt to this change. And still, I didn’t find it easy or straightforward.

I was given many suggestions and sent many job descriptions of other jobs I could ‘jump into’. However, I gave myself a year off, trying hard not to feel any pressure to give answers to the question of ‘what’s next?’ I pushed a pause button, taking and making time. I loved getting my hands dirty and working in a practical manner, and ‘get out of my head’….! I built many compost heaps!

It’s amazing what you notice when you take time! In yourself, in others and in your environment, in your garden and beyond.

A number of ‘coincidences’ lead me to the 15 day residential permaculture course in Otaki, at Gary and Emily Williams’ place. The definition of permaculture attracted me enough to enrol. The course began with following quote:

Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect. — Chief Seattle.

Photo Credit Bob Zuur

And it hit home! ‘All things connect’! Just like Stephen Hawkins tried to achieve, with his ‘Theory of Everything.’ That is what I’d always been after! (But not by way of a formula from physics).

I loved the many practical workshops, the participants becoming a community of practice over the days, the depth of conversations, the delicious food and all the fun time in between all the experiential learning.

What I loved most is that it wasn’t a ‘fixed thing’! I don’t respond well to rules, to dogma, to strict ‘and this is how you do it!’ messages. I am not a recipe person, not in cooking and not in life. I believe there is no recipe for life. I immediately made ‘fast friends’ with the permaculture ethics and principles and its approach of acknowledging each situation to be unique and requiring different responses.

The last three days of the permaculture course are dedicated to a personal project. Participants are asked to demonstrate an understanding of the permaculture design process embracing the ethics and principles as a powerful (but flexible!) design and problem-solving tool. My permaculture project was called ‘What’s next?’

The framework of permaculture was developed by two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the eighties out of their huge concern for what post-war agricultural revolution was doing to our ecosystems and our communities. For most of its short history, practitioners applied this approach within the realms of food production and land stewardships but over the last ten years, more and more often these same principles get applied to many other realms of life such as health, education, business, economy, communication, culture, change processes, start-ups.., well just about anything.

My interest lies in the application of these principles to our own specific personal life situations. In other words, landscaping our lives using a permaculture approach!

Design process

We can use the same process as a permaculture consultant would for a piece of land:

1. Questions:

What is your situation? What is the problem or the question? What are your overall goals? What are your core values?

Photo Credit Bob Zuur

You may have an ‘in your face’ crossroads question described above, such as ‘Where will I live for the next month?’ ‘How do I pay all my bills?’ or more profound ones such as ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is my responsibility and contribution with the skills and talents I have?’ Alternatively, you may be in a settled life situation, wishing to review/assess your current phase, without much immediate pressure. You can apply the next steps to both situations.

2. Observations:

What is currently going on? In a land-based project, you create a base map of what there is as of now, the given ecology of the place, its challenges and its opportunities. This phase would involve a land walk-through and a thorough interview with all stake-holders of that particular property. So what is the ‘base map’ of your current life? What are your current resources? Ingredients? What is in your ‘pantry?’ By way of social networks, relationships, skills, talents, passions, qualification, money, assets and so on. There are so many methods to do this sort of ‘stock-take’ of your own life. It may work for you to do this with someone close to you, or it can work well to engage someone more removed who can ask objective questions. It may help to do an observation diary for a week, observing your life as objectively as you can, without jumping to analysis. You could record how you spend your time using a ‘time diary’. Time is the most equitably fairly shared and most renewable resource we have. We all get the same 24 hours! Every day! How do we spend it! Is it balanced? Between inner and outer, giving and taking, between your various relationships? Or you could record how you feel throughout the day, what type of activity or situation throughout the week makes you feel ‘alive’ and in ‘flow’.

3. Analysis:

What does it all mean? What is going well, what needs tweaking? The principles can be a great framework at this stage, to do a more systematic assessment of your current situation. Put it through the filter of the permaculture principles and ethics. For example: ‘Am I getting a good yield for my efforts?’ ‘Is my life a monoculture or has it enough diversity to create resilience?’ ‘Does what I am striving for make sense and match my core values?’ ‘Is it caring for people and the planet?’ ‘Is it a fair share of all resources?’ ‘Is the goal still realistic, does it need adjusting?’ ‘Am I in balance between optimism, idealism and realism?’

Photo Credit Bob Zuur

4. Ideas:

This is the creative phase of design, creating conceptual plans. In a land situation, you would now come up with various options, overlaying various transparent pieces of paper on top of the base map, laying out various options. This phase includes prototyping small ideas. If you are city based and you are dreaming of/imagining a land-based life style, you had better try it for a weekend, and observe how you feel about it. Is it what you think you SHOULD wish for, or is this genuinely YOU? Or is it what someone else is trying to convince you that this is what you should wish for?

5. Implementation:

How to make it real? Possibly by adjusting the goal. And by implementing the principle of ‘One small practical step at a time!’

6. Feedback, adjustments and MAINTENANCE!

Are you truly able to maintain the anticipated changes? Does it require a radical change of habits, rhythm or routines? It is relatively easy to start something new! A new garden, initiative or relationship… much harder to maintain it when the honey-moon is over!! That is where the principles of ‘small and slow’, to be able to adjust for scaling up.

And remember it is always situational and ‘well, it depends’ is a common answer to the big questions! As flexible as this suggested framework is, it may be too rigid for you. You might be the intuitive sort, who floats through life, following your gut feeling. If all is well, all good. However, if you notice that this approach may be a bit tough on your partner, you could challenge yourself with a more objective and left-brain design approach when facing complex life decisions. It all goes back to ‘Know yourself!’ and being kind and realistic about what works best for your type of ecology!

Photo Credit Bob Zuur