It All Starts with the Living Land

A conversation with Kareen Erbe, Permaculture Designer
Vegetables growing in a garden

Kareen Erbe joins us from her home in Bozeman, MT. Kareen has a BSc. in Environmental Science from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada and is an experienced permaculture practitioner. She is certified in Permaculture Design and completed an advanced permaculture program taught by renowned designer Geoff Lawton, at the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia. Kareen was also trained in teaching permaculture by Rosemary Morrow, author of The Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture. She has also worked as a permaculture consultant for the sustainability organization Good to China in Shanghai, China, and volunteered on numerous organic farms in Australia, New Zealand, Western Massachusetts, and Montana. Kareen is currently one of 40 teachers involved in the Online Women’s Permaculture Design Course and is a regular contributor to Rocky Mountain Gardening Magazine and Permaculture Women Magazine.

Whether we live on a farm, an animal sanctuary, or an apartment in the city, permaculture teaches us to live in right relation with the Earth. In this episode, Kareen and Susan discuss the many opportunities that open up when we incorporate permaculture principles into our daily living.

Learn more about Kareen’s work at


Susan: So, Kareen, one of the reasons I wanted to have this conversation is because of the times we’re in. The understanding of how we have to work with the Earth in a regenerative capacity rather than a using capacity is really critical. One of the ways to do this is through something called permaculture, which some people know about and others don’t. But I think there’s an increasing awareness of it. Could you tell us a little bit about what permaculture is? I’d also really like to hear about why you are spending your life committed to it. What is it about it that speaks to you?

Kareen: So permaculture, for those of your audience that have never heard the term, permaculture stands for permanent agriculture or permanent culture. And it’s a design approach for sustainable living and land use that’s rooted in the observation of natural systems. So how can we look to natural systems as a guide for designing anything from our backyard gardens to our larger scale landscapes, to our neighborhoods and our communities and our lives. Basically, it’s life design through mimicking natural systems.

I started on this journey probably about fifteen plus years ago by taking an initial permaculture design course and then deciding that I really wanted to experiment by myself in terms of being more self-reliant in general and growing more of my own food, but also in encouraging others to do the same. I think that permaculture has a lot to offer people now, not only because it encourages self-reliance, but also because it encourages people to connect to natural systems. We are so disconnected from the natural world right now, and it’s one of the reasons why we’re in the crisis that we’re in. People aren’t paying attention to their place. People aren’t respecting the earth. They’re not taking care of people. They’re not connected to the ecosystem that supports them.

Susan: What is it about it that makes you so passionate and committed?

Kareen: I think it’s because I spent a lot of time as a human rights activist being against a lot of things and against the ways in which we’re doing things, and always pointing out what we’re doing wrong. And I quickly got burned out of that approach. If you tell people what you’re doing wrong, you better have a better way of doing it.

I ran across permaculture in the early 2000s, and I just felt like it provided creative, positive solutions to a lot of the ecological crises that we’re facing. So it was a way to step into a solutions-based approach to life, rather than one where you’re constantly just dwelling on all of the problems. I think it’s a very hopeful space to be in—especially, I found, during this time, where on a daily basis, I get to interact with people who want to grow more of their own food. I get to interact with people who want to put in wildlife habitat and pollinator habitat. I get to interact with people like yourselves who are committed to something higher than just the bottom line of making money or being more efficient or participating in this kind of capitalist machine that we’ve created for ourselves. So I think in that way, this career that I’ve made for myself kind of cultivates outer resilience in terms of growing more food, creating more habitat, but also inner resilience in terms of being able to not only physically feed myself, but also feed myself through connecting with the natural world and connecting with people that are thinking in that same realm.

Susan: So it’s a way of interacting with land and the earth.

Kareen: Yeah, absolutely. One of the main principles in permaculture is “observe and interact with nature.” And I think that we don’t do that enough anymore. There’s that book called The Last Child in the Woods. These days, kids are spending less and less time in the natural world and playing outside and more time on screens, on their phones, on computers. And while technology, in some ways, has been really beneficial in terms of connecting people, it’s also been a huge detriment in terms of not having children playing outside anymore. Or just people in general not spending enough time outdoors.

Susan: One of the things I like about permaculture is that you start from a philosophy of observing, respecting, honoring nature. That’s where you start, if I’m right. And from there, you understand principles of how nature works. And then we try to imitate them as best as possible when we create a human impact on the earth—as in agriculture and gardening—so we’re working with more than against, or just in complete ignorance. One of the things I like so much about is it starts from that larger, philosophical, almost spiritual thing of observe and relate to, and it comes down to something really practical as in growing food and eating—and growing food in a way that works with nature. Therefore, the food is more delicious. The food is more nutritious. The earth is more nutritious. It’s only a win-win to do it.

Kareen: Yeah.

Susan: Ultimately, it’s practical. But I can imagine a lot of people living in a city or elsewhere saying, “Well, what does that have to do with me?” But I imagine you could do permaculture in a window box if you needed to. I called you and said, “We’re an animal sanctuary. Can you help us?” I didn’t know if you’d say yes or not. But you did. Why did you say yes?

Kareen: Well, I think, like everyone that seems to work for Earthfire, a connection to animals is one reason why I said yes. And also an opportunity to bring permaculture into a different realm. To apply permaculture thinking to a wildlife sanctuary. I don’t know of any other example of that. The great thing about permaculture is that permaculture thinking should be applied to all of these different fields. It shouldn’t be that permaculture is its own specific field over here. You can apply permaculture thinking to architecture, to urban design, to running a nonprofit, to a wildlife sanctuary. I think that that’s how we can get permaculture thinking infused more in our culture: by introducing it into things that we might not normally associate it with. Earthfire’s mission was also something that appealed to me. I’ve always loved animals from a very young age, so being able to be in service to them in addition to just stretching the boundaries of where permaculture thinking has been applied.

A lot of people come to permaculture through organic gardening, but it’s way broader than that. It’s a design framework of how to design your life that’s in right relation with the planet, essentially. And that can come in several different forms. So if it is that you want to build more self-reliance and you’re in a city, then maybe you have a community garden plot. Or maybe you do have some herbs on a balcony garden. You figure out the things that you might be able to do in your apartment or on your balcony to meet some of your needs. And then you figure out other local ways in which to meet those needs. So, is it supporting a farmer? Is it supporting someone who is a small business that’s producing local food? Now, a lot of it is about re-localizing our economies.

Part of the issue that we have now—which has come to the fore even before this pandemic happened—was, of course, that our economies are out of scale and our agriculture is out of scale. And the whole invitation in permaculture is to re-localize. That’s ultimately how you build resilience in a community. If you can be growing more of your own food within a hundred miles of where you live, if you can be supporting local businesses that are going to reinvest back into your community, all of that is a very healthy way of doing things ecologically—closed loop systems. So within a small community, you’re trying to create closed loop systems as well. The problem with, say, large corporations coming into cities is that most of that money is taken out of that community. Whereas if I support a local grower here in this community, they’re reinvesting their dollars back into this community. Their kids are going to schools in this community. And so it becomes this positive feedback loop. What we’ve created in our society is this very linear extractive economy, and there aren’t very many closed loop systems.

So there’s so many different ways that you can practice permaculture, from growing a little bit of your own food to helping with community organizing and connecting people, to hosting gatherings and potlucks at your place to bring like-minded people together, to helping small businesses be successful in that particular city. There’s definitely more than just growing your own food, and I know that for a lot of people, land access is an issue. They’re like, “I can’t practice permaculture because I don’t have land.” Over 50% of the world’s population is in an urban environment, so we really have to think about better ways to design those environments. There’s a lot of urban agriculture that’s happening. But then there are all these other supportive things in a community that help a community thrive, that are related to taking care of people. It is this much broader understanding than just putting a few peas or carrots in the ground.

Susan: So do you feel that this idea is spreading, about permaculture and its principles?

Kareen: Yes—whether it’s the word permaculture itself that’s spreading or whether it’s just this whole concept of being more self-reliant. That’s definitely coming back especially now. In moments of crisis, people pay more attention—which is fine. You wish they’d pay attention more just in general. But you have seed companies that are backordered right now. You have way, way more interest in gardening and growing food because there’s this understanding of, yeah, what if our transportation system shuts down? It is not resilient at all to rely on food that comes from California if you’re living in Montana, if you’re living in New York.

I think that this is a real opportunity to get people more connected to what’s important. I know that our neighborhood right now—because families are home more during this pandemic—it’s come to life. We’re in the suburbs. Both my husband and I work from home. When we go out on a walk, we don’t see many people, but now there are people everywhere. I think there are a lot of benefits to home-based economies where people have backyard gardens and they’re producing more food. A lot of benefits to working from home. And I hope that people take this opportunity to actually evaluate what is important and what gives them meaning and fulfillment. Gardening is definitely very meaningful, very fulfilling—and not to mention, very practical. So it’s like a win-win-win.

Susan: How does permaculture relate to the regenerative farming movement?

Kareen: Regenerative farming is a tool in permaculture’s toolbox. So one way to look at permaculture is as a design framework or a design toolbox. Depending on the climate and the culture that you’re in, you take out different tools for different circumstances. Regenerative farming is just another tool. If you have acreage and you’re in a particular ranching, farming location, regenerative farming is an option that helps sequester carbon, that builds soil, that gives the animals a more humane way of living. That, again, is an appropriate design to meet human needs, while at the same time, respecting the earth and respecting the animals.

Susan: But regenerative farming is a big movement, and you hear that a lot more than you hear permaculture.

Kareen: Yes.

Susan: How come?

Kareen: Because permaculture is an un-relatable term.

Susan: Basically, it’s the same, except permaculture is regenerative plus more.

Kareen: Right. Permaculture is a larger design framework, whereas regenerative agriculture is more like a strategy technique that you can use. Things like agroecology, agroforestry, ecological farming—maybe people have heard of those things more than they have permaculture because one of the problems with permaculture is the term itself.

Susan: Yeah. So I run a wildlife sanctuary. Why would I be interested in permaculture? Because I wanted to work with the land. I wanted to build the animal enclosures in consultation with the land and the wind and the sun, for practical reasons, philosophical reasons, spiritual reasons. To have a sense of place because all of our animals are native to here. I explored and then understood that the principles are much wider than just agriculture, which is why I actually invited you to come down here and help us design the entire property with the animal enclosures as part of the land, as part of the plantings, as one unit. Another way of saying what you’ve been saying is that it’s essential to have a sense of place. We’re such a peripatetic, moving, restless society and world. That’s one of the reasons we’ve lost a connection. You can’t have a connection if you don’t spend time somewhere—and it really doesn’t even matter if it is an apartment. You still have the wind and the air and the sun and the sense of place on the earth. And you have the parks and the trees. It’s an understanding of how to relate to your land and your place, whatever it is. You could use permaculture principles related to architecture, I imagine.

Kareen: Oh yeah.

Susan: And how you want to build your home.

Kareen: I think that’s exactly right. Ultimately, our goal in permaculture is to connect people to place—to have them take a relationship to a place and to spend some time there. That’s what happens when you start to garden, you learn patience, you learn what it takes, you learn that you have to pay attention to the temperatures. You have to pay attention to when it’s going to rain, or if it’s going to snow, or if there’s going to be a frost, or if there isn’t. Those are things that we’ve lost because we’re able to be in climate-controlled environments where that doesn’t necessarily matter. That’s why permaculture is such an invitation to really be more in tune with natural systems. And the easiest way to be in tune with natural systems is to have a garden.

Susan: But it’s not the only one.

Kareen: But it’s not the only one. I think it’s a really easy gateway through it. The same way connecting with animals is a really easy gateway to connecting with something outside of ourselves. Those are tools that we use in order to teach a fundamental philosophy around knowing your place.

And, yeah, that can happen anywhere. People just don’t pay attention. I especially think in this online world, that is tough. On the one hand, you’re like, “Oh, it’s a global community.” But a community, as Wendell Berry likes to say, is a group of people that lives in a geographic location. A community is a group of people that has a culture that’s connected to their place.

My parents encouraged me to leave home. There’s this narrative that you grow up, you go away, and you leave home. You find your home elsewhere. There’s never an encouragement to stay where you are. I’m not sure why that is, exactly. But it has definitely created a situation where human beings are super transient and don’t connect to a particular area—and get impatient when they’re like, “I’ve been here two years and I don’t feel a sense of community.” Well, a sense of community takes way more than two years to cultivate. Just like an apple tree takes four to seven years to yield fruit. You’ve got to be patient, and we’ve created a culture that’s not patient.

Susan: Another thing that I like about permaculture is the sense of flow, that one thing flows into another, into another, and then goes back and supports another. And that’s how life works. My own particular interest is in the flow for wildlife and the necessity of migration and wildlife corridors. If we cut off that flow, the animals cannot thrive. And in general, what we’ve done is cut off flow in almost every single way. You go to a doctor for your head and then your stomach and then your heart as if they’re not related. You fly across the country, you see the states divided into squares—as if that’s how nature works. Everything we’ve done has imposed boxes on things that naturally flow, and we need to reverse that.

Kareen: I think that’s about, again, this whole idea of whole systems design vs. the reductionist approach of considering every little thing without considering the whole. You can see that in a human being—if you’re not dealing with the underlying issues, then you’ll continue to get sick. And then you can see that in a garden, too. If you have a pest or disease in the garden, the tendency is to kill that particular pest—rather than understanding that it’s connected to a whole system, that something is off with your soil or something is off with the ecosystem surrounding it. It’s not just that particular issue, it’s connected to a bigger thing.

The same could be said with what we’re going through right now. It’s not that this virus has suddenly appeared out of nowhere. It’s connected to larger issues around climate change and around ecosystem collapse. We keep on getting that same message that things are connected. We are interconnected. And the sooner that we can understand that, the better we can live in right relation with the planet.

It’s about building resilience. But we’re building a resilient future or whole systems design. It’s all about integrating rather than segregating. What it hits is what they call the inner landscape and the outer landscape. But there’s so many parallels that you can see. Human beings as natural systems reflected on the landscape.

Susan: Could you explain that a little more?

Kareen: Yeah. So, like the branching pattern in our lungs, we see that in the rivers. That dendritic pattern that’s in our lungs is the same pattern that we see in a natural system. Or the fact that we are 70% water and our planet is about the same amount. Everything is kind of reflected in a natural system outside of yourself, as well.

Susan: Or we are a reflection of the larger systems.

Kareen: Right. I think it’s constant—like you see it in yourself, you see it in animals, you see it in natural systems. Trees are perfect examples. You can feel rooted in the ground just like a tree. Our circulatory systems are the most efficient way to move blood through our bodies. The leaf patterns that you see, that’s the most efficient way to move nutrient out to the leaves. And maybe that’s also the most efficient way that you have a pattern of pathways that run through your garden, because it’s the most efficient way to distribute resources out to an area.

Susan: But efficient, not in human thinking way.

Kareen: No, in a nutrient cycling way.

Susan: We have to be careful of the word “efficient.” Earlier, you talked about how we thought it was efficient to outsource our food.

Kareen: Yes. That’s a good point. There is efficiency in natural systems that makes them good design, and then there’s efficiency in a capitalist system that’s about making more profit. But natural systems are constantly obtaining some sort of yield—either it’s nutrients or it’s sugars or they’re doing the whole photosynthesis thing or it’s carbon, so that they can cycle that back into the system. Or it’s food or it’s oxygen or it’s carbon dioxide. Natural systems are obtaining yields. There’s nothing wrong with making money. It’s that that question of flow again. Currency. Current. Money is supposed to flow in a system. And what’s happened in our economy is that people have started to accumulate vast quantities of wealth, so it’s stagnated and it’s no longer flowing in the system. And that’s where you have people that are uber wealthy and people that have nothing, because that wealth is not being redistributed.

Susan: So you could apply permaculture principles to our financial system.

Kareen: For sure! Yeah, and understanding that it’s really badly designed. And it doesn’t go by the three permaculture ethics. Earth care? Linear extractive economy where profit is the bottom line—well, that doesn’t care for the earth. People care? Again, you have some people who are uber wealthy and get their needs met while a good portion of the world’s population lives in poverty. And then the fair share ethic of sharing the surplus. A lot of people are not sharing their surplus. So if you did look at the economic system and wanted to apply permaculture ethics and principles, you’d soon break that whole system down because it doesn’t adhere to that. And that’s why it doesn’t support the earth, and it doesn’t regenerate the earth, and it doesn’t regenerate communities. It’s about stagnation. It’s about accumulation. There’s no people care or earth care ethic in there. It’s just about making as much money as you can in as little time. It’s very short-term thinking. People connecting to place and understand not only the patterns that happen through a season, but the patterns that happen through a year, and the patterns that happen over a decade. I’m sure you have seen changes and been able to observe things on your site that no one else has because you’ve been there for 20 years.

Susan: Another thing that’s so wonderful is that it’s so calming to go out onto the land—whatever the land is. It could be a little square of grass. And to pay attention to the wind and the clouds and the sun and the seasons and the birds. It just starts to connect us and calm us down. It’s so particularly important now, but it’s just a very lovely, rich, satisfying way to live while you’re doing whatever you need to keep yourself sustained.

Kareen: I think that the reason it’s so calming is that it’s about being present. A self-reliant life forces you to be present to what needs to be done in those days. You have to water the garden. You have to plant the seeds. You have to feed the chickens.

Susan: As opposed to just going to the grocery store and being unconnected and unrooted, and unrooted is what causes us anxiety.

Kareen: And of course, I’m still susceptible to that, having grown up in that world. In those moments, the directive is to be present and to breathe and to meditate. We’ve kind of outsourced those things rather than realizing that we can just get it by going outside.

Susan: We’ve outsourced everything, instead of insourcing.

Kareen: Well, I mean that’s the thing, right? We’ve outsourced our childcare; we’ve outsourced our schooling.

Susan: And then we have to raise the money to pay for all of that. We have to have jobs we don’t really care about in order to pay for all the things that we could have done ourselves to begin with if we’d done it in a community.

Kareen: Exactly. And there’s the dumb design, right? That’s what permaculture talks about, that we have a lack of design, a really dumb design to our society. And in outsourcing all these things, we have lost, basically, our human connection to place and our human connection to other people.

Susan: And ourselves.

Kareen: And ourselves.

Susan: So I didn’t expect to go here. That was interesting.

Kareen: That’s what happens.

Susan: Following flow. Is there anything you’d like to summarize before we finish?

Kareen: Only that I often teach this: permaculture is just an invitation. It’s an invitation to connect to the natural world and it’s an invitation to be more present in it.

Susan: Well, I think it’s good. Thank you, Kareen.

Kareen: Yes. You’re welcome.

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