If we are to continue some form of civilized life, we must rapidly reorganize our economic activities and life patterns… Our job from here on is to plant forests, build soil, store water and to save seed, and other forms of life.”
— Peter Bane, The Permaculture Handbook
Permaculture is a systematic, holistic approach to creating and maintaining integrated human settlements going with the flow of nature. It is an extension of the empirical practices of scientific and indigenous ways of knowing which preceded it and a holistic approach which recognizes that nature is more than a resource to be tended: it is an alive entity we are part of. When we apply permaculture principles to the realm of psychoactive plants that help awaken human connection to the Divine, we enter a new paradigm of “entheogenic permaculture” uniting the natural world with energetic realms beyond.
What are entheogens?
Permaculture principles can provide us with guidance and insight into how to integrate with these higher dimensions that are part of nature’s ecology. Nowhere is this spiritual aspect of plants more apparent than in the traditional and indigenous usage of sacred plant medicines – or as they have come to be called, entheogens. An entheogen is a psychoactive substance, commonly plant derived, that induces a spiritual, mystical or religious experience.
Many traditions see the experiences which manifest in and around the intentional and sacred use of these sacraments – and particularly that knowledge which comes with them – as revelations of the greater-then-human realm, rather than ordinary natural processes. These are real encounters with divinity, in its numerous forms, or contact with other consciousness, or higher-order realities of which humans are not ordinarily aware. Recent science has been examining the potential of plant consciousness itself; in the indigenous world they believe everything has a spirit in it, and that the energetic web of life continues to spread in these unseen dimensions that entheogenic plants can reveal.
These sacred plants dissolve the sense of separateness from physical nature (duality), and can unite to Source energy and independent consciousnesses in these unseen dimensions. With appropriate and curated cultural use, enthogens can act as guides and teachers, informing us directly in our individual and communal abilities, to become more aware of, and to integrate the flows of energy that are going on all around us and within us. Which is where the permacultural approach can be useful.
Culture is embedded in Nature
The many unseen, or unrecognized connections in the energetic web of life make up what we have come to externalize and call “nature”, while the parts which are considered human in origin have become know as “civilization” or “culture”. However the two are not separtate, as indigenous wisdom has long known, and Western science is now coming to fully realize. Permaculture can be a bridge between these two worlds, and when factoring in the entheogenic nature of reality permaculture can be an integrative paradigm.
The term “Permaculture” (“permanent agriculture”) was coined in the late 1970’s by Bill Mollison, and David Holmgren. Mollison was an Australian ecologist and University of Tasmania professor who spent many years in nature as a wildlife biologist observing how natural systems work, and how society and communities relate to the environment of which they are part. He and others were becoming very distressed at the destruction that they observed going on around them, fueled by capitalist culture.
Culture is alive as it’s own meta-organism. It is the collective strategy for maintaining the community, its legacy, and the relationships which make it viable, most especially a steady, reliable and significant flow of water, nutrition, fuel, fiber, building material and medicines. As many studies have recently been showing, perhaps we could also factor in a sense of spiritual connection to the meaning and purposes that bring value to the cultural hierachy of needs?
Culture is the information that accumulates wherever communities interact with their environment long enough to gain insight into survival strategies. The content of the information reflects the specificity of the life and history of the relationships, and information is passed on to the next generation by cultural transmission. So how do we acknowledge and integrate the indigenous and the entheogenic dimensions into the Western cultural survival strategies? What do the plants say about our current ecological crisis?
Permaculture as a planetary survival strategy
Permaculture provides a responsive and robust system to quickly teach or often, re-teach culture, in manageable, measurable ways. These small ways can change outcomes significantly over a surprising short time, even a single generation or less. With the consideration of enthogens as a medium and method for the conferrence of information, permaculture becomes a living, conscious system, in which we are co-creators.
Bill Mollison wrote, “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.” (1979. “Permaculture Two: Practical Design for Town and Country in Permanent Agriculture”)
That holistic understanding is a whole-systems approach that perfectly aligns with the enthoegneic revelation of nature as an intelligent, conscious “Great Being” we are embedded in and part of. Without that fundamental approach – mirrored in indigenous wisdom – the West cannot truly move beyond the capitalist, extractive model of the planet as a separate resource.
If we truly want to include not only the physical functions of providing food, or fuel or fiber, or the usefulness in healing of plants, then we must also include their spirit, conciousness, culture and co-evolution with human cultures and human consciousness. This includes more than their history of cultivation and all of their varied uses, but also the spiritual relationships which they invoke and invite.
A sacred environment
Entheogens provide us with a lens to extend this into the spiritual and energetic aspects of our “sacred environment”, and in a medium in which the system itself can communicate directly to us a range of information about organisms and relationships in our ecosystem. The planet speaks and can be heard and understood with the aid of entheogens, creating an informational feedback loop that must be factored into our cultural trajectory.
Information arises in ecosystems as feedback, and is stored within the landscape in two ways, 1) genetically and 2) culturally. It is through these two energy flows that you begin to form a picture of the connections, and ultimately a story of the events unfolding in a particular place. The more that this information diversifies, and becomes refined and customized to the particulars of a specific local, the more localization of culture and cultivation has occurred.
By observing nature and learning from indigenous traditions, we can gain significant insight into the patterning of effective strategies for cultural survival and transmission, the results of time on those traditions, customs and technologies and how we might apply similar solutions to other communities.
However, this does not discount in any way the need to respect and maintain the integrity and continuity of separate cultures, traditions or lineages. Permaculture recognizes that the diversity of approaches and multitude of in-depth insights from differing ways of knowing is the strength and robustness of the collective human potential.
Integrating spirit into the ecological template
Ultimately, all human culture can be seen as but one culture in the larger global community of lifeforms and ecological systems. This ‘eco-centric’ perspective is one often expressed by those reporting entheogenic experiences.
Entheogenic traditions represent a framework of effective adaptations or strategies in building connections with other forms of consciousness, which ultimately inform us of our human consciousness and its relationships. Permaculture provides people who have been cut off from their own traditions, and land bases, and from basic contact with nature access to principles and pathways as a means to restore a healthy and productive relationship with nature.
Entheogenic permaculture goes beyond economic or material sustainability, it also provides the means to connect our individual and collective lives and lifestyles back with spirit, and to integrate, or re-integrate, with existing cultural traditions and to expand our collective potential.
Cultural and genetic diversity is what makes systems, and humanity, as resilient and adaptable as they are. The different relationships within the different communites, just as with differing entheogenic traditions, are to be honored and respected, and to be cultivated.
This is because diversity of life strategies are needed, and the redundancy of energy flows provides the means to the stability of the complete system. In the same way, a diversity of medicines, application methods and integration styles are necessary for a complete system of health and wellbeing that can address the full range of human needs.
And, because permaculture also provides a code of ethics which respect and acknowledges the vital contributions of indigenous nations and established traditions, it provides not only frameworks for things like food and medicine production, or designing community building layouts, but also for the “invisible structures” of community social networks.
These are some of the intangibles that provide value, purpose and meaning to life and livelihood, like the sacred aspects of ecology, the spiritual dimensions of community, and even into the realms of self-cultivation of the individual and group consciousness.
Permaculture can provide guidance and insight into how to integrate with divinity, nature, ancestral medicine traditions, indigenous and scientific ways of knowing, and with earth based spirituality.
This is the great work of our day and age: to find solutions to the many individual, societal and ecological crises of our time. We can utilize the tools, principles, and practices of permaculture to reconnect or re-integrate people who are inherently disconnected from themselves, from nature, from a sense of culture, and from their role in society at large.
Jonathan Peeblson is an herbalist, permaculture designer, plant spirit medicine practitioner and writer. He writes from Hummingbird Lodge Healing Arts Centre, outside Missoula, Montana, on behalf of the community there and online, at Genesthai.org.