Toby Hemenway

Our sixth nominee for the Living on the Earth Award is Toby Hemenway, author of the permaculture classic Gaia’s Garden, and urban permaculture classic The Permaculture City, as well as numerous articles on, and teacher of workshops on, permaculture and sustainability.

I met Toby when I performed a Living on the Earth: The Musical show at Center of Conscious Oneness, a beautiful performance space at the Pangaia commune in Puna, on the Big Island. Toby was on the island to teach a permaculture course at La’akea Gardens, and he invited me to perform the show for his students a week later. Toby and I traded books, and I became an instant fan of Gaia’s Garden. At La’akea Gardens I met permaculture teachers Ryan Holt and Tara Robinson, who came to my home in Kea’au, and planted a food forest and perennial vegetables for me, bringing the permaculture principles to life right in my own back yard, and remaining my friends ever after (I sang at their wedding!)

Toby’s book Gaia’s Garden surrounds the reader with rich and instructive images from his country farm in Oregon and from others he knows. My favorite story in his book is of two brothers who remove a cement sea wall from their land, causing a natural wetlands to return. Soon cattails grow, and the brothers enjoy cooking with them. Then the cattails disappear, and the brothers realize the abundant cattails have attracted muskrats. Instead of fighting off the the muskrats, they wait and observe, and eventually the cattails return, along with a population of sea otters who are feeding on the muskrats. Later, they see an eagle hunting for muskrats and otters, a sight unknown for decades in those parts. By removing the cement sea wall they unleashed a cascade of bio-diversity.

In Toby’s gardens, plants radiate from the home in zones, with those that require the most supervision closest to the doors, and those requiring the least farthest away. Plants are grouped together in “guilds” to benefit one another, planted not only to benefit people, but also to feed the local wildlife, including insects and birds, to fix nitrogen and minerals in the soil, and to provide beauty and shade.

Toby’s gardens begin with sheet mulching, which is layering soil-building materials and leaving them to disintegrate naturally, so that the small denizens of the soil will live undisturbed by metal blades and better do their part in enriching the soil. All creatures, including insects and other arthropods, have their rightful place in a permaculture garden, and a job to do in building the biomass from which gardens and orchards grow.

Last year, Toby wrote about the fantasy versus the reality of sustainable living in the country. He realized that when petroleum becomes scarce and super-expensive, farming will not be a better way to survive, since farmers actually drive farther than urban dwellers, and use products that must be delivered far from the central distribution centers in cities. He noticed that his rural neighbors did not share his beliefs about preserving the environment and interacting peacefully. So Toby and his wife moved to Portland, and have been enjoying an urban permaculture environment as well as goodhearted neighbors who share their ideals.  He later wrote the book, The Permaculture City, about these discoveries.

Back in the 1960’s, Paolo Soleri had much the same idea: that the ecological footprint of a city dweller is much smaller than that of a country dweller, and that vertical cities save horizontal open spaces from being paved.