It 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.)
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.