Thursday, January 10, 2008

Permaculture at La'akea Gardens

What is permaculture? It’s a term Bill Mollison, founder of the Permaculture Institute in Australia, coined from the words permanent agriculture. In a nutshell, it means living off the land in a way that mimics natural ecosystems. Mollison’s website provides this definition:

Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. Without permanent agriculture there is no possibility of a stable social order.

The La'akea Community in Puna, Hawai'i, is an intentional community based upon these ideas, and more. Read about their vision here.

I recently visited La'akea Gardens as part of an educational tour with the Hawai’i Island Master Gardeners. Tracy was our enthusiastic, upbeat host for this 2 and 1/2 hour foray into life in a Hawaiian forest of native and nonnative plants and immersed in experimentation with an off-grid, sustainable tropical lifestyle.

Tracy showed us many interesting plants and guided us through the landscape, pointing out the pavilion and meadow used for events, the solar panels used for electricity and hot water, the composting toilet we could use during our visit. Or, as she cheerfully and earnestly put it, instead we could make a “donation” and pee right in the banana trees to fertilize them, which, judging by the tiny fruit, could have used the help. No one took her up on that offer on this tour, however -- either no one had enough to drink at lunch or no one was brave enough to truly answer nature's call.


An unusual bell-shapped pepper…

...the betel vine that had leaves that tasted like pepperoni when chewed. (Sunnye checked it out for herself.)

....Patchouli. Of course…

A greenhouse…

...Shin and Carol sampling some starchy bananas

...Tracy demonstrating the bright coloring of the seeds of the Lipstick Plant or Achiote. Cheaper than the MAC counter at Macy’s, more fun, and 100% naturally staining. This is used as seasoning in Mexican, Puerto Rican and Filipino cuisine, especially in rice dishes. Here's a recipe.

...Composting. Note the free-range chicken – there are about 36 Bantam/Rhode Island Red mixes. At night they are contained in a wire pen where their manure is collected and saved for fertilizer, and they are safe from predatory mongoose.

Not all workers at La'akea are vegetarian, but all are "opportunistic localists." Some of them eat eggs, the occasional rooster, and fish from the ocean. La'akea keeps sheep to keep grasses mowed in the citrus grove, and once in a while mutton is served. Even the wayward wild pig that wanders on campus to feed is fair game for the La’akea community every now and then...

...An apiary (beehive) where La'akea collects honey under a grove of peach palms, which have a tasty edible nut. When they get too tall, the workers cut them down and eat the heart. A new tree can grow from the trunk....

...At the end of our tour, some of us sampled some mulberries.

While traditionalists might find La'akea a bit far-out and puzzling, progressive types might enjoy its “beginner’s mind” approach to solving problems. In this world there are preservationists and innovators, and sometimes these viewpoints clash. At other times some remarkable outcomes result when the two meet and mingle. Meanwhile, increased human population and activity continues to have an impact globally. How will the way we live evolve in the coming decades? La’akea means “light in the mist"; that aptly sums up the hope of this intentional community in their pursuit of understanding sustainability of Hawai’i.

1 comment:

Tracy said...


Thank you so much for this tremendous gift. I had fun giving your group the tour, and now I feel happy about being so clearly seen by you. We deeply appreciate your representation of our community here at La'akea.