Category Archives: permaculture

Permaculture and the Psyche 4: The Problem is the Solution!

imageWhen events grow uncomfortable enough to permeate the boundaries of what I know to be true; when the discomfort of encountering a perspective that doesn’t quite fit my current worldview encroaches upon my awareness, I have a choice: I can view the new information as a problem, or I can view it as a solution.


How can a problem be a solution? Because discomfort engages the awareness. For the first time, I can see there is something wrong. And that means I can change it.
Bear with me here: I am going to take a brief field trip away from permaculture and into neurology. Recently my sweetheart let me borrow his book on neurochemicals and it jumpstarted a whole new way of thinking about this permaculture principle.

Long ago, back in California, I attended UCLA evening classes to obtain psychology prerequisites. I sat in a huge arena-style classroom and listened as the tiny professor, audible only through the speakers behind me, expounded upon the development of the human brain. He explained that the brain “prunes”, hugely, when we are very young; a vast amount of neural circuitry is deemed unnecessary and mercilessly cut from the brain. We do this for efficient and speedy processing of information.


But thereafter, whenever we take in information that doesn’t fit our previous experience, the brain simply disregards it. It is only when this information reaches a critical mass, or induces a certain level of emotional discomfort, that our brain is willing to even “see” it at all.


This is how a person can continue to hold on to a worldview that is utterly disproved by information all around her—her brain just can’t “see” it yet, because it doesn’t match her prior experience. She hasn’t yet developed the critical mass of internal or external discomfort to create a new pathway in her brain, one that would enable her to see the information that has been there all along.


The language I learned in later counseling classes for this process, when we got into Piaget and development, was that all of us have “schemas”—ideas about how the world works—and any time we receive new information, we try to plug it into an existing schema. We really, really don’t want to have to create new schemas. It’s hard.



So we’ll cram new information into our old schemas any which way, however awkward the results: “oh, lacrosse? That’s kind of like soccer, but with squishy tennis rackets!” “Oh, a moose? That’s basically a big cow, with antlers.” We try to relate any new information to old information we already have, because those circuits are already there, greased with myelin for speedy processing.



We would rather believe our schemas than integrate information that disproves them. So, imagine I had a loud dog as a child, and had therefore developed the schema that “dogs are loud animals”. If I were to meet a dog that did not bark I would be likely, at first, to assume that this animal is not a dog. Dogs are loud, this animal is not loud, therefore this animal is not a dog. (This sounds silly, but I squirm when I think of how many times a day I make similar, if more subtle, errors!) I would have to be exposed to many different quiet dogs before my brain could be persuaded to adapt my schema to include both loud and quiet animals into the schema “dog”.



Similarly, if I grew up in America and never met anyone from the Middle East; if my only exposure to Middle Eastern folks was in news of terrorism, I might well develop the schema that “Middle Eastern people are terrorists.” It would take many conversations with Middle Eastern people, perhaps even a journey to experience the Middle East through my own eyes, before my brain would take the risk of altering that schema.


Our brains aren’t bad—they do this to protect us. It’s important to be able to process information quickly, and we, as animals that develop our brains through experience rather than instinct, can actually equip them to process current information, true information about the world around us AS IT IS TODAY, rather than working with instincts and ideas that were developed in a much different world, as reptiles do.

But to do that, we have to be able to feel discomfort, the discomfort of being WRONG. We have to be able to notice and face the information that tells us we are incorrect, rather than avoiding it. We have to be willing to revise our opinions of experiences that have felt  true in the past.

In short: we have to have PROBLEMS!


There are so many examples of problem-as-solution. Nettle juice heals its own sting. Couch grass, world’s WORST weed, choking and starving out whatever you’ve planted (sorry, not altering that schema, don’t care what godawful weeds you think you’ve discovered) makes the most incredible bio-accessible fertilizer for your garden when brewed into weed tea. Ever heard of the wounded healer? Folks who have been through terrible things and have gone through their own healing process make incredibly compassionate, informed healers. Think of vaccines: disease healing disease.

My sweetheart’s neurochemistry book says that there are two ways you can make new circuits as an adult. One is through overwhelming emotion. For example, if you have always loved chocolate cake, and then one night  as you are eating a piece of chocolate cake you learn that your best friend has died, your schema for chocolate cake is going to change. You won’t associate it with happiness anymore, you’ll associate it with grief. Overwhelming emotion can rewire our circuits instantaneously.

The other way to make new circuits as an adult is through repetition. This entails  laboriously repeating a behavior again and again until the brain takes to it. I am getting married in two weeks, and as a form of purification and ritual readiness, my honey and I decided to do thirty days of clean eating.


notice how there is no toast with jam. 😦

We’re two weeks in, eating only whole foods, no sugar, dairy, alcohol, or grains, and boy is the repetition grueling. I want my tea with milk and sugar every morning. But EVERY MORNING, I don’t have it. And slowly, my brain is building a circuit that says “black coffee is an acceptable substitute for milky, sugary tea in the morning.”



Did I say slowly? It’s SLOOOOOOOOOOOW. I WANT MY TEA WITH MILK AND SUGAR! But this morning, I didn’t even reach for the teapot. I automatically took down the coffee beans. It is slow, but it is happening.

imageOn Wednesday night, we had the magical experience of using both deep emotion and intermodal artistic repetition to build new circuits in the brain. It felt AMAZING in that room.


Maeve had found live musicians, at the last minute, and as we engaged in our kundalini kriyas, they drummed and played for us. We could feel, tangibly, the problems resolving to solutions in our bodies, the ways physical stress can lead to joy.

We used co-counseling to explore the self-critical and maladaptive voices that repeatedly shut us down. We identified these voices, gave them names, and then embodied them in a role play that led to terrible, stagnant feelings. Hooray! Deep emotion activated!

Then we spent some time on art, using color and shape and line and symbol to discern what was behind these voices, what unmet needs they represented. The unmet needs told us the desire these voices were hiding. Perfectionism can be a desire for acceptance, for example, and unworthiness can be a desire to feel valid.

We embodied the desires, this time, and the joy in the room was palpable. Hooray! More deep emotion!

And then the art we had made about critical voices became seeds for paintings of our desires, and the room filled with extraordinary color and swirling light. Problems transformed into solutions right before our eyes. There was silence and laughter and a deep sense of creation.

This is what I so love about the Expressive Arts. If you want your life to transform, deep emotion and repetition have to be engaged. When the emotion is evoked by lovely music, by delicious motion, by moving and heartfelt words, by brilliant colors and lines and brushstrokes and shapes; when the repetition is engaged by exploring a theme first through art, then poetry, then movement, then music; the transformation happens seamlessly. And it is passionate and powerful and safe and lasting.

I love this about permaculture too. Yes, the world is full of terrifying and desperate problems. But as we learn from nature and repetitively, with deep passion and emotion, apply her solutions to the land around us, we gain agency and hope. As we transform problems into solutions, again and again, we find that we are transforming not only ourselves, but also the world around us.


This workshop series has been a source of great delight for me over the past month. I am so grateful to Maeve for co-facilitating with me, and so grateful to all who attended the workshops, responded to these written reflections, and gave me feedback on the concepts and ideas we explored.

I am by no means finished playing with this ecotone of permaculture and psyche….I will continue to wonder and write and inquire into all of the interesting interfaces between ecology and psychology. Stay tuned for the BOOK! ❤️



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September 3, 2016 · 1:25 am

talking to people

imageRecently my son and I attended a week of surf camp.  We had an incredible time swimming all day, gathering seashells, meeting with old friends and new, and yes, even catching some waves. In the afternoons we learned about the wider ecosystem of the beach we were surfing on, attending talks by the Cape Fear Riverkeeper and the founder of the Plastic Oceans Project and participating in rain garden maintenance with the Coastal Federation.

The Plastic Ocean Project slideshow affected my son profoundly.  After showing us some of the damaging effects plastics have on the turtles, fish, mammals, and birds of the ocean, and reminding us that the ocean is ‘downhill from everywhere’, Bonnie explained that one simple way to take action is to refuse a plastic straw at restaurants.

My son became an anti-straw zealot on the spot. And since we’ve been on the road visiting family for the past week, he’s had plenty of restaurants to practice his policy on. At first I was pleased and proud of his new social conscience, though I know that straws are quite literally the tip of the iceberg-sized plastics problem, but lately I’ve been noticing something disturbing. Every time we enter a restaurant he not only refuses a straw, but then proceeds to judge everyone who DOES use one. “Look at that man”, he’ll whisper. “He used TWO straws, one for his water and one for his tea.  He doesn’t care about the sea turtles at ALL.”

And it struck me that this is the same subtle ‘othering’ that can lead one population to kill another simply because it has unfamiliar values, or an unintelligible language, or a different skin tone.  It’s the same ‘othering’ that can make us view the children of ‘others’ not as laughing, vivid, crazy-making-straw-refusing humans, but as collateral damage.

Bonnie’s work with the Plastic Ocean Project is all about collaboration:  building bridges between the soft and hard sciences, between academics and puppeteers, between chemistry and biology students, in the name of rethinking our concept of garbage. I was especially struck by the tone of positivity and enthusiasm she brought into the room, the excitement engendered by this collaborative solution-building.

Which made it all the more glaring when my son took this message of inclusiveness and turned it into divisiveness. Most painful of all, however, was awakening to a pervasive tendency of divisiveness in myself. This family-visiting road trip has been incredibly instructive for me. Extended family members who had dwindled to nothing more than a few political sound bites and snapshots on Facebook have become flesh-and-blood humans again. I’ve been forced to step away from my comfortable little tribe of like-mindeds and associate with ‘others’.  And I’ve been reminded of something very important. Fear and hatred are powerful motivators, to be sure. When I see stats on what my country’s policies are doing to oceans and children, I am galvanized into action. But the actions I am galvanized into doing tend to promote the same kind of ‘othering’ that allows us to deport children and destroy entire species without compunction. I get fanned into a furor of me vs. them. ‘Them’ being anyone whose sound bites do not match my own.

This is why I tend not to post political articles or opinions on Facebook–I’ve learned that if my little sound bite is going to change someone’s opinion, then the next sound bite that comes along is just as likely to change it back. All I’m doing is preaching to the choir or being inflammatory, and the last thing I want to be doing is engendering more divisiveness.  But I have noticed that I judge other people by their sound bites. I make snap judgments, I dismiss whole humans or assign them into ‘my’ or ‘their’ camp, based on a skimming of my newsfeed.

I’ve been reading a book called mindwise by Nicholas Epley, a psychologist who studies the way we read people.  Turns out, when we try to take the perspective of others, we are often wrong. Turns out, if you want to know what someone is thinking or feeling, the most accurate way to find out is to ask them. Which requires us to talk to people.  It’s a lot harder to dismiss someone you’re eating dinner with than it is to dismiss them over Facebook from several hundred miles away

Last month I learned that during the deadly 1854 cholera outbreak in London, when the disease kept spreading and people kept dying and no one could figure out why people were getting sick, one man, Dr. John Snow, thought to interview the sick families to discover what they had in common. He discovered, through talking to people, that all of the sick people were drinking water from a single pump on Broad Street. And then he performed an elegantly simple behavioral intervention: he broke off the pump handle. And thus ended the deadly cholera outbreak of 1854.

So I’ve been thinking about John Snow and political sound bites and plastic straws and extended family. And it seems to me that any lasting, effective change any of us hope to make will have to be rooted in a different paradigm than the reigning one of us vs. them. The kind of change we need is planetary, because the mistakes we’ve made are planetary in scope. We can’t afford to be divisive anymore. We need to talk to people. We need to figure out where they’re coming from, what needs and hopes and desires their actions rise from. We’re going to have to see even the most inflammatory of the ‘others’ as human, and we’re going to have to be smart enough to come up with ideas that make it easy, even desirable, to change.

Another collaborative solution Bonnie mentioned besides foregoing straws was incentivizing the return of plastics for upcycling into fuel. Apparently, there remain a few companies whose patents haven’t been bought out by big oil (see the othering I did there? Betcha there are families in ‘big oil’ that love to surf and care about sea turtles too, whose employment choices were the complicated result of circumstances I can’t even begin to fathom) who recycle used plastic into usable fuel. Imagine if there were plastic-return centers where anyone could bring waste plastics in for conversion to fuel and be paid by the pound for their efforts–if waste plastic were worth something I doubt there’d be so much of it lying around waiting to float out to sea. That’s a pretty great breaking-the-pump-handle intervention right there–making it easy to do the ‘right’ thing.

It reminds me of desire lines in Permaculture design. We have a species-wide instinct-driven inclination to take the easy route.  Parks the world over have bare patches worn into the grass where hordes of people have ignored the visually appealing, curving pathways to take the shortest distance between points. If the pump handle is broken, you’ll get your water elsewhere. But we won’t know what the desire lines are, which pump handle to target, why the behaviors exist, until we talk to people.

I heard an interview with the amazing Israeli musician Idan Raichel recently. He spoke about the heartbreaking situation in the Middle East in terms I’d never heard before. He spoke about exposing Israelis to the music and theater and art of the Palestinian people. To paraphrase: ‘If everyone is clamoring to open the borders so that they can hear their favorite musician perform, if art-lovers petition for checkpoints to open so the artists they’ve been hearing so much about can come through from Lebanon and Jordan and Palestine and Syria, the rigid lines of politics will soften and we’ll all just be humans, making change on a human scale.’  In other words, if we learn to see the people we fear and hate as people, if we learn by interacting and listening and talking with them that they are similar to, even valuable to us, our behavior toward them will change.

Which is is why we can’t afford fear- and anger-based interventions. If we want to build change on the level that change is required, we need to talk to people–the way that Bonnie does, the way Dr. Snow did, the way Idan Raichel proposes.  We simply can’t afford to ‘other’ each other any more.



July 27, 2014 · 2:34 pm

permaculture, psychology, and cancer

photograph by lori fernald khamala

sugar maple on my street…photograph by lori fernald khamala

I began my studies in clinical mental health counseling this fall.  I’ve been learning dozens of theories, from Freudian psychodynamics to Rogerian person-centered therapy.  But long before I began my studies in counseling, I studied botany and ecology, herbal medicine and permaculture. I can’t help myself; my understanding of people as ecological beings filters through and colors everything I am learning.

Permaculture, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, is the study of ecological systems and their application to human designs.  Many think of it as a gardening system, and it is: a wonderful design-based system for the creation of self-tending perennial food forests.  But permaculture principles, based as they are on years of studying ecology, apply to most of human behavior–from the way we grow our food to the way we build our cities and shape our lives.

I’ve found myself quietly ignoring psychological theory and applying permaculture principles to my studies instead.  It seems to me that there is only one system we know of that is entirely self-sustaining and functional under all conditions, only one that accounts for every life and death and galaxy and virus. Why not study that, instead of a man from Vienna, if I want to know how the mind works? Continue reading


November 2, 2013 · 3:25 am

desire lines

leavesThis study I am undertaking now, the study of how we construct the mental worlds in which we think and breathe and act, the study of how to listen, the study of being creative, the study of being human: it seems to unite all that I have learned before and cast that knowledge into a new light.  It seems to remind me why I have learned all that I have learned, how to braid it all together even.  Above all it asks me to stop and observe, to notice patterns. Continue reading


October 1, 2013 · 1:11 am

permaculture and parenting: the problem is the solution

cobIt struck me today that permaculture (the study of applying natural principles to life design) might be a useful framework for approaching the thorniest, most gutwrenchingly complex aspect of my life. Namely parenting.

There are several basic principles of permaculture:  among them stacking functions (making sure that every vital job in your system is covered by more than one element), using vertical space, working with nature,  ‘everything gardens’ (noticing the ways in which other species naturally modify their environment, and using them to your advantage), and my favorite, ‘the problem is the solution’.  Now clearly all of these have some very interesting applications to parenting (using vertical space?) , but I’m going to focus on ‘the problem is the solution’ right now and perhaps return to the others in later posts.

The way this principle was described to me requires a bit of backstory.  See, I got my original permaculture certification in Scotland. (I was woefully oblivious to the bioregion-specific nature of permaculture design, and shocked to discover upon my return to North Carolina that my newfound in-depth training in  a) sheep and their ways, b) rocky soil, and c) managing heavy winds did precious little to advance the health of my animal-free, red clay, zephyrless plot of land.)

English: Old Scots Pine and Trees For Life vol...

Trees for Life volunteers

So. Scotland is actually temperate rainforest.  The land there is always yearning to return to a forested state, still holds the seedbank in the soil to accomplish this, and is prevented from it only by the incessant grazing of sheep.

An incredible group in Scotland called Trees for Life, wishing to regenerate Scotland’s forests, identified sheep as their primary obstruction.  Having done so, the solution presented itself: build fences.  Testing this theory, they surrounded an acre of land with sheep-proof fencing, the dormant seeds already present in the soil sprouted, and soon a diverse woodland stood where once there had been only grass.

Had they not identified sheep as the problem, this elegant solution would never have presented itself.

This story jumped into my mind today as I biked my younger son home from his school, where we’d spent a few extra hours digging out grass and preparing garden beds for carrots and wildflowers.  He was hot from the exertion, crabby from the change in schedule, and generally whiny.  Every communication was a complaint.  We got frustrated with each other, there were tantrums and tears, and the whole afternoon began to fall apart.

I took a deep breath and stopped the train. If complaining was the problem, then surely, if permaculture principles are worth their salt, complaining would also be the key to solving it.

As a student of the womanly arts, I have learned that complaints are simply blocked desires. A complaint about the inattentiveness of a mate is simply a desire for deep attention.  A complaint about the mess in the house is a desire for sacred, clear space. It is far more effective to state, say, “there is something super hot about a man with a trowel in a garden full of scented flowers” than “geez, would you get off your butt and help me do the weeding?”

It’s a little embarrassing to admit that I’ve never once considered applying EVERYTHING I’VE LEARNED IN EVERY OTHER ASPECT OF MY LIFE to the most important job I’ve ever had, but what can I say?  I’m an expert compartmentalizer.  If that’s a word.

So it finally struck me that behind Yvar’s complaints were desires.  And I began to listen to the desires instead of the whining.  In this way, “I hate all of the itchy stuff all over and I hate being here!” became “I need to feel clean and comfortable, and to get out of the sun.”  And  “everything is too bright and awful and these pants are wrong!” became “I need someplace cool and calm, and to get out of these clothes.”  And that’s how Yvar ended up in a candlelit sea-salt-and-lavender bath, giggling, singing, telling me stories.  And that’s how the stress of a sunburnt afternoon turned to ocean-scented magic.

One of my favorite problem-is-the-solution stories involves both gardening and parenting.  Back in California, I adopted a small earth berm at the Learning Garden.  It was choked with couch grass and the fruit trees planted there were straggly and malnourished. I would take Aiden, then about four years old, with me a few afternoons a week to try and rehabilitate it. There was a five-gallon bucket I’d throw the couch grass into, and it was Aiden’s job to empty it into the green waste bin once it was full (no way was I putting couch grass roots into the compost.)


One afternoon, we arrived to work and I saw that the five gallon bucket was still sitting there, still full of last week’s couch grass, unemptied.  To make matters worse, it had rained, and now the thing was full to the brim and slimy with rainwater. I was frustrated with Aiden for neglecting his responsibility, but I needed the bucket and didn’t want to waste the water, so I slogged it onto the dying fruit trees before throwing the decomposing grasses away and commencing to weed.

The week after, we returned to find the fruit trees thriving.  You guessed it—couch grass tea is a phenomenal fertilizer.  The problem is the solution.


April 27, 2013 · 2:37 am

famine and feast


fallen cherry petals on the herb spiral

Oh, the abandoned abundance of nature.  Autumn does not scatter leaves artfully here and there, but strews them in an eight-inch-deep blanket all the way to horizon.  Spring is not a few petals drifting on the wind, it’s a snowstorm of color that lasts for weeks.  Until it’s gone.  And then, sometimes, there is nothing at all.  For days, weeks, months on end.  For all that we cleave to the storied ‘balance’ of nature, there is nothing moderate or balanced in the least about natural systems.

Right now there are violets clustered everywhere, their drooping heads hidden beneath their rapidly greening heart-shaped leaves. I gather them by the fistful, walking by the stream, and when I turn to go home I see that I have made not the slightest dent in the wash of purple. Next week, they will all be gone.

Last year a friend had a particularly productive winter squash patch and we feasted on squash all winter.  Now our compost pile is overrun with squash seedlings, deep green and veined and beautiful, but doomed.  They are competing for sun, water, space, and most will not survive.  Beside the compost pile is a small mountain of grass clippings; I stalk the neighborhood with my wheelbarrow and cart them away.  There is always more than I can carry this time of year.  But a few months ago—nothing.


I’ve been letting this sink in today.  Could it be that there is nothing wrong with me?  Could it be that is is natural to have periods of deep, flowering, intense productivity followed by a fallow season?  Could it be that there is no such thing as life balance?   Continue reading


April 26, 2013 · 1:44 am

the perfect is the enemy of the good

English: Photo of Bee Balm Plant (Monarda)

It has taken me so long to plant my little garden here.  There was far too much information coursing through my mind—ecotones and hedges, guilds, layered food forests, medicinal companion plants, swales and ponds and microclimates.  I would gaze out at the muddy clay of this unfamiliar soil and feel too overwhelmed to start.

Or, more truthfully, too fearful of making a mistake.  Of not building a garden complex enough, beautiful enough, after all of these years of landscape design and permaculture  training.  Garden after garden that I’ve designed, labored over, loved, and left behind.  After a while it hurts.  So I built no garden here.

But somewhere I read this, or heard this—I forget now where— “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”  And I realized that I was doing what I have done far too often in my life, letting my desire for perfection inhibit me from acting at all. Continue reading


April 13, 2013 · 12:50 am

on time

English: The white-lipped snail (Cepaea horten...

I have noticed a disturbing tendency in myself lately.  I am “moving through” things.  You know what I mean, right?  You’re reading a book to your kid and flipping over two pages at a time hoping they won’t notice, because it’s a repetitive f-ing book anyway and you’ve got things to do.  You’re eating yogurt while standing up and simultaneously reading because it takes too long to stirfry burdock and wild greens. You’re internally rolling your eyes when your child takes up an interest in quilting, because oh my god, are you kidding? Do you have any idea WHAT A TIME-CONSUMING PROJECT THAT IS?

But, at the same time, you have no idea what you’re cutting all of these corners for.  At the end of the day you’re just napping, or reading, or checking facebook.  What was the point of all the hurrying? And wait just a second, isn’t it freaking AWESOME that my eight-year-old wants to QUILT?  What happened to me?  Because I say “you”, but I mean “me”.  Me, the one who used to live in a hut made of twigs I’d built myself heated by a lard-can-stove I’d made myself, writing my college papers on a manual typewriter because I didn’t have electricity, eating groundnuts I’d painstakingly dug and sipping tea made with water tapped from trees because I didn’t trust the cleanliness of the stream.  Now I somehow don’t have time to read the even-numbered  pages of Green Eggs and Ham?

Continue reading


March 6, 2013 · 3:40 am

Women’s Joy Circle: Celebrating Beauty

Henna design at 36 hours

self-decoration with henna

Every Monday, the Greensboro Women’s Joy Circle meets to share stories, sip tea, brag, write, stretch, dance, and meditate…every week it is a different constellation of women, and every week we explore a new theme as we continue to build daring, joyful lives.  On Tuesdays, I share what we’ve learned with you.

Okay, disclaimer:  the women’s joy circle didn’t actually meet this week.  My wonderfully intelligent body kicked the crap out of me because I had decided to take a trip that my spirit, mind, and intuition were all warning me against.  (“Just try to go NOW” purred my body from its supine position, too feverish to allow me even to pick up the phone and cancel my airplane ticket.)  There is a treatment when sickness has progressed this far: it is called SHUT UP AND LISTEN.  As in, put your echinacea tincture down, girl, get some sleep, and next time your intuition kicks in PAY ATTENTION.  All right, all right.  Sheesh.  Anyway, what follows is a description of a women’s circle from last month.

We congregated to celebrate beauty.  We stood in that circle and took each others’ hands and looked in each others’ eyes and decided that we would make our own definitions of beauty that night; that we would love and celebrate and affirm what we saw.  And then I passed out bellydance scarves and put on this song and we were off.  We practiced hip circles, and rib circles; we learned to flutter our bellies and shimmy like fiends.  Some of us had never bellydanced before.  It didn’t matter.  This is a female dance form, sinuous and cyclical.  It comes pretty naturally and feels wonderful.  It is felt beauty, moving like this, letting the body spiral and shake, and laughter bubbled out naturally from all of us.

Bodies warm and loved, hearts full, we sat on the floor and I brought out my little bags of prepared hennaContinue reading


March 5, 2013 · 3:11 am