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Finding a Niche

When I discovered Goddess, I felt that I had come home. Now that I have “discovered” permaculture, I have had a similar feeling of coming home that I once had with neopaganism. As I learn more about permaculture, I know that I no longer dive into new ventures with total joy, acceptance, and naiveté. I wonder what I’ll need to do to find a balanced approach to embracing permaculture concepts, at the same time knowing that these concepts are aspects of who I have always been.

For instance, I spent more than a decade “living off the land” in southeastern Minnesota — part of a movement in the sixties and seventies of mostly young people who eschewed their city education and ways and moved to very rural areas in an attempt to be as self-sufficient as possible. I learned so much in those years. One of the most compelling truths was that I don’t want to live in the middle of nowhere. I am an urban creature who loves the best of human creativity.

In my last column, I spoke of the permaculture principle of “observe and interact.” I initially thought that discussing each permaculture principle would be a good way to structure this column as it unfolds. Yet I found that different sources listed different — though related — principles. That’s because the principles differ depending on who defines them. So I don’t have a tidy, linear map to structure my writing. Instead, I find myself wandering through an emerging landscape, observing, interacting, and seeking to understand the whole. Into that seeking come past, present, and future.

Before my “back to the land” adventures, I had never grown anything. But my grandmother was an amazing gardener.[1] And although I don’t recall actually seeing her gardening — just how she did things and why — I remember she was in the garden all the time. To me, gardening was just a part of the Gam-infused experience. My impressions of Gam’s gardening are similar to the idea quoted by Starhawk: that I don’t worship Goddess so much as simply experience her in all I do.

Gam had a sun-dial in the middle of a mass of snapdragons, radishes, and lettuce, and that ancient instrument seemed almost mystical as it followed the sun around the sky. Those radishes would show up on the table, cut into the shape of a rose, echoing the fragrant roses that also grew in abundance in Gam’s garden. The deep, narrow lot was guarded by two huge Colorado blue spruce, and plum and apple trees kept those towering giants company.

She wrote poetry, painted watercolors of indigenous mountain flowers, and listened to classical music on a trusty radio. She haunted the library and favored books about history and gardening. She always kept a cat or two — inside-outside felines who slept in either the house or the shed.

Not a warm, soft, round, unconditional love kind of woman, she was a remarkable contrast to that particular grandmother archetype. No, Gam was tiny, wiry, intellectual, acerbic, and immensely creative. And she remains for me the most constant familial strand in a tattered weave. Now that I have become a grandmother and have entered firmly into my second Saturn return, I finally accept the title of Crone. I wonder how I will influence and be remembered by my grandson and hope that I can teach him some of my love for the land.

As I dive into a deeper study of permaculture while preparing for this August’s permaculture design course[2], I see that I’ve dabbled, but I’m far from grasping the systems approach for which permaculture is known. For instance, I have become deeply interested in establishing perennial vegetables and medicinal herbs, most of which I have grown from seed, adding new species each year. This, however, was the least successful year I’ve ever had for starting seeds, and in some ways that barrenness mirrored the stress in my life in the early spring. As a person with few living relatives, I have always carefully cultivated a family of friends and taken my role in community as a sacred obligation. This year, however, I found myself drained by needy family members as I watched forms and structures — relationships, groups, and stories — unraveling before me. When I became so drained that I became ill, I realized the necessity of Saturn work.

In mythology, Saturn’s tool is the sickle, and I see Saturn cycles as a time to cull.

Astrologer/mythologist Caroline Casey[3] speaks of Saturn as being a god of boundaries, and I found myself challenged to invoke Saturn as a way of creating and maintaining boundaries to keep myself sane in the midst of chaos. I needed to say NO to some people, to stop giving unconditionally, and to let some group interactions go. My helper Saturn is also associated, along with his consort Opis[4], with agriculture, which seems to connect with my permaculture musings.

Statistics show that more people die in April than any other month, and the passing of Amazon showed that to be true in my life. She was my black cat who came to live with us 17 years ago when my daughter was just entering middle school. Over the years, my feminist friends all assumed that I named the cat as part of my dykely duty, and in the last decade, countless people have cleverly asked if Amazon’s last name was dot com. In the real story, however, my daughter and I drove out to a rural town and Jess picked the tiniest, most feisty kitten out of the litter. On the way back to our house, the kitten insisted on climbing onto the headrests of the car, upon which Jessica declared something to the effect that the kitten was so brave and daring, a real amazon! The great name stuck.

Amazon was a sleek and beautiful animal, always the picture of health and formidable attitude. I was immeasurably saddened when she got thyroid disease two years ago, and I witnessed this formerly magnificent creature become emaciated and bug-eyed. I was surprised to see her survive the winter only to cross over in April, just a few days before the Wild Hunt of Walpurgisnacht.

So, completing the cycle, I buried Amazon in my yard and now enjoy the presence of the Divine Twins — two identical sister tiger kittens. I have always liked cats in pairs and was most surprised at the mischief and destruction that two young and healthy felines (with claws!) can create. Knowing that I could not continue to call them Pink Nose and Black Nose and being influenced by attending some powerful kirtans (call-and-response chanting performed in India's devotional traditions),[5] I named the kittens Kali and Durga. My daring (or maybe my cultural appropriation) surprised two friends, one Indian and the other Nepali. Kali and Durga are complex goddesses — blood of life, blood of death, protection and destruction — the Divine Twins. Indeed, and I am big enough to invoke this fierceness at this time in my life. Permaculture principles stress incorporating into our landscape and homes plants, animals, and structures with a purpose. I see no purpose for these kittens except to delight me and the dog.

“In Nature plants are grouped in small, reocurring [sic] but loosely defined communities that are often referred to as guilds.”[6] As I ponder permaculture and learn its emphasis on community interactions rather than self-reliance, I remember how most of the young people who had attempted the “back to the land” experiment returned to city life. We “homesteaders” got together and partied and helped one another with some of our more onerous chores (the mobile chicken-butchering get-togethers stand out in my mind), but I remember an underlying current of competition between us. We were geographically isolated and unaccepted by most of the people native to the area. I wonder now how much the lack of community contributed to the broken marriages and seeming failures of us would-be homesteaders.

Thinking about communities, I find myself wondering how permaculture principles apply outside of my garden. If permaculture is systems thinking, then these principles must apply everywhere all the time, and I can use them as ideas with which to view my life and spirituality.

“Abundance arises from complex webs of association and cooperation. In nature, no species grows entirely alone. Plants grow in community, in association with other plants. And in those communities, each fulfills certain roles.”[7]

At a permaculture guild meeting this winter, we watched a fascinating movie about Sepp Holzer, an Austrian rebel farmer and permaculturalist who is successfully growing fruit trees in an Alpine environment.[8] Through ingenious ideas and permaculture principles, Holzer has created a paradise in a not-so-friendly environment. Permaculture principles instruct us to plant diverse crops, and as the film pointed out, monocultures invite disease and pests. We all like to say in the twenty-first century that we value diversity, but upon musing about Holzer in the days following the movie viewing, I know how difficult it can be to achieve that value. I remember the year after I moved to Madison. I found myself a part of a clique — a group of acquaintances whom I gradually discovered to have values very different than my own. As time unfolded, I learned that these women were not who I thought they were and they learned that I was most definitely who or what they assumed me to be.

In her wonderful essay, “The Field of Belonging,” Tara Brach talks about our deep need to belong: “The longing for intimacy is a gravitational force that draws us together. We long to connect; to belong to our world. As Zen master Dogen writes, ‘To be enlightened is to be intimate with all of life.’”[9]

Ruminating on my first year in a new town, I see that although I held very different values from those of the clique, I still was the new person and I wanted to belong somewhere. Because I tried so hard to be something I was not, I suffered greatly before breaking free of these women. Looking back upon this experience, I feel that I was a species that blew into a monoculture of thought where I could not survive. My present communities are more like polycultures, and I am by far the happier for that.

Rather than monocultures or even the traditional straight-lined vegetable gardens we grow here in the Midwest, “The horticultural techniques used by permaculturists rely heavily on plant combinations. A guild is a harmonious assembly of plants (but it could be plants and animals) the essential characteristic being a diverse mixture (polyculture) whose elements all have a purpose.”[10]

Through long and careful observation, permaculturalists create guilds that mimic Nature. We observe the conditions that a plant naturally thrives in, and use that information to create beneficial relationships among plants.

Obtain a Yield
One permaculture principle is to obtain a yield, which according to one permaculture founder, David Holmgren, is to “Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.”[11] I have just witnessed the most amazing yield of my lifetime — being present at the birth of my grandson, Beckett. I had a long conversation with him while we gazed into one another’s eyes (yes, I know he probably didn’t see a whole lot, but I like to think it was soulful gazing). I wonder how the world will change in his lifetime, because we all know it must change tremendously.

In one of the webinars that I am taking in preparation for my permaculture design course, instructor Wayne Weiseman[12] urged us to take down our fences and cooperate with our neighbors. I wish it were so easy, but the neighbors on each side of me wouldn’t know a plant if it bit them. They know I’m doing some kind of weird garden stuff and I got them to give me all of their leaves in the fall (I use them for mulch). I see that as a step toward cooperation. Permaculture also encourages us to take small and slow steps, and even though I am deeply concerned that we humans need to take immediate and drastic action to survive, I try to be aware of approaching solutions with caution.

Ours is a friendly neighborhood, and we’re getting to know and watch out for one another. I like to think about guilds within the neighborhood and how we in those particular guilds cooperate with other guild members — the dog and cat guild, the kid guild, the garden guild. We have a long way to go to take down the fences of our American independence, but I hope that the permaculture philosophy of sharing resources and supportive relationships can work outside the garden too.


  1. See my Samhain 2008 article: "Walking the Hedge — A Hedge Witch’s Musings on Permaculture"
  2. "Midwest Permaculture" <> accessed August 3, 2009.
  3. Coyote Network News <> accessed August 3, 2009.
  4. Opis, (Latin: "Plenty") is more commonly known as Ops.
  5. "Kirtan" <> accessed August 3, 2009.
  6. "A Primer on Guilds" <> accessed August 3, 2009.
  7. Morrow, Rosemary. 2006. Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture. Second edition. Simon and Schuster. p. 178.
  8. I invite readers to do a Google search on Holzer. The videos available on the Web are amazing.
  9. Insight Meditation Community of Washington. The Field of Belonging by Tara Brach. <> accessed August 3, 2009.
  10. "Plant guilds - plant communities with a purpose" <> accessed August 3, 2009.
  11. "Permaculture Principles" <> accessed August 3, 2009.
  12. "About Wayne Weiseman" <> accessed August 3, 2009.

Graphics Credits

  • iris, Divine Twins, strawberries, Beckett, mullein © 2009, Madelon Wise. All rights reserved.
Copyright / Terms of Use: Contributors retain the copyright to their work; please do not take art or words without the author's or artist's permission. Other graphics and reference materials are used and attributed as per the Fair Use Provision of The Copyright Act and individual terms of use.

MatriFocus Cross-Quarterly
is a seasonal web journal (zine) for Goddess Women and others interested in Goddess Lore and Scholarship, Goddess Religion (ancient and contemporary), Feminist Spirituality, Women's Mysteries, Paganism and Neopaganism, Earth-based Religions, Witchcraft, Dianic Wicca and other Wiccan Traditions, the Priestess Path, Goddess Art, Women's Culture, Women's Health, Natural Healing, Mythology, Female Shamanism, Consciousness, Community, Cosmology, and Women's Creativity.

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