In 1993, Paul Wheaton planted a garden in his Missoula yardbut everything died. At the time, Wheaton was making money writing computer software, pre-internet explosion. But after his garden withered, he couldn't stop thinking about it. He started going to the Missoula Public Library and checking out gardening books, which he consumed. "That summer my software was doing great," he recalls. "I should have paid attention to that, but instead I was obsessed with gardening."
His garden got better and better. In 1996, he took a master gardener class at the University of Montana. Since then, Wheaton's become one of the most knowledgeable people in the U.S. about permaculture, a branch of ecological design that creates human settlements and agriculture by modeling them from ecosystems. In fact, he's not really a fan of conventional growing methods, mainly because, historically, agriculture has not struck a good balance with the natural world.
"I used to explain permaculture with the story of the Sahara," Wheaton says. "The Sahara used to be jungle and savannah. Then people learned about this new, hip thing. ... It's called agriculture. And you just pull the seeds out of your food and stick them in the ground right next to your house and then, boing! The food leaps out of the ground. And that's so much closer than walking out to the woods."
But, in time, the cleared soil loses nutrients. So they cut down more trees. "And then the rain doesn't fall as much. And what the hell? It was falling great last year. Why isn't it falling great this year? And the rain falls less and less and less, and then—desertification. And permaculture is the reversal of that."
If you ask Wheaton what permaculture is exactly, he says, "Permaculture is a more symbiotic relationship with nature so that I can be even lazier."
He's not really joking. Permaculture is all about letting nature take the reins. And one of its most important principles is no irrigation—which, in a place like the West, where water is a major source of contention, has enormous implications.
How can humans meet their basic needs for food, warmth and shelter while preserving nature's riches, such as forest cover, good topsoil and clean water? A food forest. You can make a jungle that mimics woodland ecosystems by putting together plant and tree species selected for edible and medicinal properties, plus plants that provide benefits to those plants. The goal is often a no-till, no-irrigation grove of diverse, abundant species—trees, bushes, ground cover, flowers, vegetables, fruits, insects, birds—that provide benefits to humans but don't require damaging inputs such as synthetic fertilizers or pesticides or fossil fuels. It's a wild Eden.
Wheaton is a big personality within the permaculture world. He's a tall, large bear of a guy who always wears overalls. ("Except when I sleep and shower.") He loves pie. He has a mad-scientist look: a salt-and-pepper beard with bushy dark eyebrows. He also has a kind smile. Don't let that fool you. Wheaton's sharp-witted and sarcastic. He's opinionated about the way the world works and especially about permaculture. And sometimes he sounds a little crazy. He likes to give this example: Suppose you're a farmer and Wheaton tells you that you should have plants in your pasture that are poisonous to your livestock. Wouldn't you think he was crazy?
"But have you noticed that deer don't die even though they have access to mountains of poisonous plants?" he says. "Because, think about it. If I take a piece of rotting roadkill and hold it up to your face, does your instinct say, 'Yum, put that in my mouth'? No, your instinct says, 'Take that away from my face, definitely don't put it in my mouth; in fact, I think I have to puke a little bit.' You're not designed to eat it. Animals have that instinct also, but it's far more sensitive."
Still, why would you put poisonous plants in a pasture even if the animals know not to eat them?
"This day comes along, and your animal's stomach's not feeling good," he continues. He's talking about livestock. "Suddenly, that plant, which yesterday was poison, today is, you know, 'I want to eat a little bit of that and I don't really know why.' And it turns out to be their medicine." He smiles. "So now, it started out crazy and it ended up making sense, didn't it?"
Wheaton's obsession with the magic of ecosystems has turned into an empire. He now runs the largest internet forum on permaculture, permies.com, which offers discussion on topics such as energy, building, "growies," critters and homesteading. Its tagline is "goofballs that are nuts about permaculture." His other site, richsoil.com, houses podcasts about everything from organic lawn care to bees, raw milk, tree bogs, knapweed and rocket mass heaters.
After his initial immersion in Missoula gardening but before he'd ever heard the term "permaculture," Wheaton moved to Mount Spokane, just outside of Spokane, which is where he started really experimenting with farming techniques. He had 80 acres to play with: trees, gardens, pigs, fish, chickens, cows—even bamboo. He raised earthworms and meal worms in the winter to feed the chickens. Chickens' ancestors, Wheaton says, are "from the jungle and if you're raising them here, what are you feeding them to replace that? That's their natural food, and it's like, if you're going to keep them in a cage and they can't get out, then don't you take on the responsibility of making their life at least as good as if they were in nature, in the jungle?"
His farm system was a loop. When he harvested chickens, the parts he didn't eat went to the pigs. And then, when the pigs were harvested, the extra hog parts went to the chickens. He was also recycling crop waste. One day, someone told him what he was doing was called permaculture. "He brought me the big black book and I looked through it and thought, 'There's a lot of stuff in here that I'm doing and there's a lot of stuff I didn't even know existed.'"
The black book is the original bible of permaculture, Bill Mollison's Permaculture: A Designer's Manual. Mollison dubbed the practice "permaculture," but there are pioneers who had been practicing it before it had the name. Masanobu Fukuoka, a farmer who wrote the book The One Straw Revolution, experimented with his south Japan farm to the point where he needed no chemicals and no machines and did very little weeding, but his yields were as high as other Japanese farmers'. Fukuoka learned, for instance, to sow his rice seeds in the fall rather than the spring to let them germinate naturally over time. He used white clover to keep out weeds and barley straw for mulch. He let plants and animals do their thing, which meant he did very little work to maintain his design other than to harvest.
Other pioneers and big names in permaculture include Sepp Holzer in Austria; Ben Law, who works specifically with woodlands and rewilding; and Geoff Lawton, who is most famous for his work greening the desert in Jordan. All of them seem to have their own specialties and take different routes to get to the same goal.
Wheaton returned to Missoula in 2009because, he says, it's the best place in the world to live. Ironically, he's living in a place with no spot for gardening. Meanwhile, he's consulting on other people's gardens, making his podcasts and taking video of special permaculture-esque projects.