Cultivating the revolution

Nicole Vosper uncovers the gentle rebel inside permaculture practitioner, designer and teacher, Graham Burnett

Poking about in ants’ nests as a child and looking under old logs to find toads and newts with his grandad, Graham Burnett’s interest in ecology was seeded at an early age. But it was discovering permaculture that really changed the way he looked at the world.

“For me, permaculture was a big switch in thinking that enabled me to work towards, rather than against something,” says Graham, an Essex lad who spent his early days in protest and campaigning activities through the punk movement.

“Paradoxically, it seems that the more we focus our positive energies and time on the things in our lives that we can affect directly, rather than on those where we can make no real difference, the greater and wider our circles of influence actually become, expanding outwards and creating opportunities to make even bigger changes.”

Graham now runs Spiralseed, an enterprise through which he publishes books – including his illustrated, Permaculture, a Beginners Guide – and leads courses teaching others the principles and pleasures of ecological systems. Also a trustee of the Permaculture Association, key to Graham’s approach is the importance he places on people working together.

“Permaculture is all about undertstanding the ‘edges’ where ecosystems meet – where woodland meets grassland or where the water meets the land. These are the places that are the most abundant and productive,” he says.

“But perhaps the most valuable ‘edge’ of all is the synergy that happens when people come together, combining and sharing our skills, knowledge, energy and strength to give support to each other in these times of ecological and social difficulty.”

Graham is currently working with Southend in Transition, helping the group to apply permaculture principles to strengthen their efforts to develop an ‘energy descent action plan’ in order to survive and thrive in response to the challenges of climate change and shrinking supplies of cheap energy.

He is also helping local organisation Milton Community Partnership to put on forest gardening and permaculture workshops. The group has recently launched Nurturing Health, a project that is making fruit trees and bushes available to local schools, as well as providing basic training in food-growing skills to local people.

Graham believes that work such as this addresses what he sees as the biggest challenge we face: how to learn to work together effectively to build real communities.

“Permaculture is as much about conflict resolution and consensus as it is about sheet mulching or making swales. Anybody can design a herb spiral or a forest garden, but the vital work at this moment in time is in finding the ways to collectively design and maintain the social networks that will help us to live abundantly yet within our resources.”

To this end, Graham likes to describe permaculture as “creating sustainable human habitats by following nature’s patterns.” He sees his work as part of a worldwide movement that encompasses all aspects of learning to live harmoniously in relation to our Earth and its finite resources.

But when asked to name his favourite permaculture definition, Graham smiles and replies: “Revolution disguised as organic gardening.”