Bringing Zone 5 Back to Permaculture


I’ve been reading into the ideas of the feralculture folks. I think they are much more on-point. I think that falling in love with a place, learning the members of the natural community there, and recognizing patterns in ecological gradients and species arrangements are all crucial to evolving beyond the ideas of permaculture. When we stay with a particular place long enough and value the ecological and traditional wisdom that resides there, permaculture will become superfluous. Its a great tool for introducing folks to sustainability and natural systems, but it really can be just a shadow of the real world. The real world is wild - perhaps human-influenced, but not human-created.

Regarding the use of annuals: They do have their place in all ecological systems. For example, disturbance is essential for the maintenance of certain communities, and annuals thrive in disturbed areas (like, say, after a fire or flood). Also, annuals tend to seed prolifically, and can move about the landscape finding a niche from year to year. There are really important annual plants that can be used for food, medicine, and materials that are typically growing amongst perennials in just about any place.


I’m also interested in using the feralculture model here in the Willamette Valley. I especially like the land trust idea. I think its very difficult to recreate that scenario west of the Cascades, however. There are just limited places where people could be based that would allow them to be semi- or seasonally nomadic. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and am leaning more toward the idea of establishing a land trust that would have at its core a mission to reincorporate traditional management and food-collecting activities. I think this would be well-recieved. However, I also think it would be a very within-the-system organization if it were located in a highly populated area. Not nearly the rewilding experience folks are getting in Alaska.


I’d like to hang out with any Feralculture/Egalitarian Land Trust interested folks in the Willamette Valley. Feel free to contact me, or maybe I’ll see you at Echoes in Time?


Well yeah, that’s a good point. I guess my intended meaning was that they have to be used according to the patterns of succession, just as all plants do. It seems like succession can be simulated to produce useful plant species (e.g. fire) but the problem just comes when people are trying to simulate yearly succession for annuals by tilling. I didn’t mean to discount them out of hand. Definitely lots of biennials that are great as well. The ideas about the land trust are exciting, land really does seem to be the limiting factor, especially west of the Cascades where so much of the land is developed or used for agriculture. But also, larger cities means more people interested in these things. Definitely interesting to think about.


I’m interested in meeting local folks as well. Unfortunately, right now I have virtually no time to work on these projects. My partner and I have a multi-year plan for getting some money together and potentially starting a non-profit that could facilitate some of this work. But it involves finishing up our graduate degrees and being semi-“normal” people for a while. :slightly_smiling: I’ll be finished this summer and hope to have all kinds of time, energy, and perhaps $ to take a run at this.

I’ve never been to Echoes in Time. Perhaps I’ll look into attending this year. If I do, I’ll definitely let you know. I think this is a conversation that should continue in some form.

I’m especially interested in discussing ideas regarding remaining non-hierarchical while still having some leadership. I think that both will be crucial, especially given how much collaboration would need to take place in a highly developed area. But perhaps that is getting a bit off-topic for this thread.

Leadership vs Ruling

This all sounds great (Feralculture) . My only obstacle is the name. It’s clearly derived from permaculture, so why not call it permaculture? It adheres to all the principles, so why let the compromisers take over? Let them explain how their deviations from the principles can still be called permaculture.

It reminds me of vegetarianism.

Originally vegetarians didn’t eat any animal products. Eggs are not veg, nor is milk. I don’t have a dog in that fight, but the dishonesty bugs me. Why should people who only eat vegetable matter have to change their name to accommodate the lacto-vergetarians, the ovo-vegetarians and the pesco-vegetarians?

I’m a carno-vegetarian, I guess by their logic I’m a vegetarian too. It’s the same as with so many words, once we allow the weak to change our perception of meaning to suit them, we all become weaker. Spells have power.


To be fair, I was only using the term to respond to Dennis’ post. I personally don’t care for it. I don’t think you can sum up the sorts of transitions we need to make in either term. The folks who do use the term have some interesting ideas, though. So I suppose I was allowing myself to use their language.

I personally don’t care for the permaculture mentality, and have not been inspired by folks who use it to “rewild”. Honestly all of these terms (including “rewild”) are a bit silly to me. The ways in which we make a living in this world are fluid and transient over both long and short intervals of time. But regardless of terms or personalities or ideologies or movements, what works in the long-run is what works for your particular place. That sentiment is constantly co-opted by permaculture folks who don’t have a deep enough knowledge of what works for their place to make that call for the greater community. It really becomes a cult of personality in which gurus mislead well-intentioned folks into believing that there is a feel-good solution. I do think that some of the undercurrents in rewilding and “Feralculture” diverge from that model, and I appreciate that. But I agree that disposing of certain language would be a good start in clearly redefining what place-based wild living would look like.


This all sounds great (Feralculture) . My only obstacle is the name. It’s clearly derived from permaculture, so why not call it permaculture? It adheres to all the principles, so why let the compromisers take over? Let them explain how their deviations from the principles can still be called permaculture.

Here’s one example: Permaculturists can create neo-Feudalism and still call it Permaculture. See Paul Wheaton, Joel Salatin (who openly uses “fiefdom”), Mark Shepard. See the many Permaculture land projects that offer “internships” that people have to pay $$$$ for. Feralculture land projects would attempt to avoid the rigged power games of: gifts with expectation of return, debt, barter, work trade, and land ownership. I’d rather not relate personal stories (that might end up personal attacks) of living on permaculture “communities”, but they were not egalitarian. Those who “owned” the land had the final say. Egalitarian cultures would not put up with such silliness.

For background on the difference between egalitarian/human economics and modern economics see Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber (PDF). In contrast, see “Stacking Fiefdoms” lecture from Permaculture Voices by Joel Salatin on YouTube (or don’t if you get queasy easy). Or, rather, just go outside and remember the lines of “properties” are not there. They are imaginary. People who create imaginary power relationships based on Roman laws are encouraging violence and abuse plain and simple. Many hunter/gatherer groups transitioned back and forth between hierarchy and egalitarian relationships (see “Paleolithic Politics and Why It Still Matters”). In my experience, Permaculture has been all Feudalism. I want to emphasize Joel Salatin gave that lecture at Permaculture Voices, which is an attempt to make Permaculture mainstream. No thanks. Bye Permaculture.

I would love to hear where Permaculture folks criticize landlords/benevolent dictators, and advocate for egalitarian relationships with everything. I’d like to think that’s Toby Hemenway’s intention (maybe), who also spoke at Permaculture Voices. More what I see in Permaculture are people creating “compounds” like the Bullock Brothers homestead for “interns” to pay to work at. Permaculturists love expensive workshops! This not the experience I had at semi-open rewilding land projects I’ve been apart of or visited in the PNW and elsewhere: no rent, no work trade, etc.

No Gods, No Landlords! All Masters, No Interns! Free the Land! :slightly_smiling:


I agree 100%. And to add to that, folks like Joel Salatin do little to restore non-human natural relationships. In other words, their interactions with the natural world make about as much sense to me as their interactions with the humans of whom they take advantage.


Here’s an essay from Black Seed #1 called “Uncivilizing Permaculture” that seems relevant to this discussion.

From the essay: “If then, the aim is the wild, and not simply the garden, then
permaculture is a step in the right direction. Though, to be honest, it
never seemed that many permaculturists I encountered ever seemed to see
the forest for the trees – they only ever saw a garden.”


I read that, in Belgium and the Netherlands (where I live), the native oak is a possible habitat for about 300 organisms (fungi, moss, insects, birds and bats) but the imported American oak (300 years ago) is less than 10 % of that amount. I also read that when you let potatoes in the ground during winter they get eaten by a native fungus.

I guess as native as possible is more resilient. To what degree do you think that a system of diverse, native and mostly anthropocentric perennials + gardens with native species and wild spices will survive? To what degree should you incorporate non anthropocentric trees?

Where I live there is only 10% forest and 50% agricultural land and I want to plant a huge food forest because I’m very new age. I even made a design for a post apocalypse mp3-player to save digital music :stuck_out_tongue:


Thanks for the link, looks like there will be more to read in there too.


Good discussion, thanks all. Especially enjoyed that Graeber/Wengrow talk. Interesting to consider that hierarchy and egalitarianism were both present at different times in the lifecycles of many cultures. Maybe they kept a few hierarchical aspects in the mix just to inoculate themselves from it - to remind themselves what they weren’t missing - as well as for the pleasure of utterly dismantling it after a set period of time :slightly_smiling:

Tend to agree about the quasi-feudal nature of many permaculture projects, especially when using volunteer labour. I remember wwoofing at a place in Wales many years ago (with wwoof you exchange labour for food and lodging) and the guy expected us to work a full 9-5 day five days a week, with a bell going off for start and finish times and lunch break. I had a good time there over all but that strict daily routine didn’t sit right with me. I thought that if they expected me to treat it like a job they should pay me a f’ing wage, otherwise it’s just exploitation at the end of the day. Still, maybe you’re just stuck having to do things like that at first when you’re knowledge is limited. I remember summing it up to myself along the lines of: ‘It might be feudalism, but it’s about 100x better than anything else currently on offer’. Some people say that Feudalism actually has a lot to recommend it when you compare it to the hyper-insecurity we experience today under free-market capitalism. Yes, you were basically a slave to your lord, who would siphon off as much excess wealth as you could produce, but he was at least obligated to house you, ensure you were well fed, cared for in your old age or when you got sick etc. (though I’m sure it didn’t work out like this in all cases). These days you’ve got to shoulder all those responsibilities yourself, paying out of your own pocket every time, albeit indirectly via taxation.

I tracked down this article on ‘Mons Angelorum’ which made an impression on me a while ago by discussing permaculture in the context of a country where there is no genuine wilderness and what this implies for a design system that attempts to leave space for nonhuman life. I recommend the whole article, but here’s a pertinent excerpt:

Zone 5 is, theoretically, the area where humans don’t intervene. The words ‘wilderness’ or ‘left to nature’ are frequently used. But what does this mean, in practical terms? I’m thinking now of the British Isles, where I live and farm. And in the British Isles, unlike some other parts of the world, there are no genuinely wild or natural areas.

Some people dispute this, so, it is necessary to consider the definition of terms. By ‘natural’ I mean the opposite of ‘artificially created by humans’. An example might be an island discovered by a voyager, which had never previously been visited or populated by homo sapiens. That would be pristine, virgin nature. The condition of fauna, flora and geology in the absence of human interference.

That is what we do not have in the UK or Ireland. Every square inch has suffered the effects of human activity over the last nine or ten thousand years since the glaciers retreated and the sea level rose. Even remote hilltops, although not covered in obvious stuff like plastic, tarmac, concrete, fields or streetlights, have been subjected to air pollution and soot, radioactive fallout, acid rain, and now altered weather due to manmade climate change.

The only people who appear to have lived in anything like harmony with the original wild landscape and its natural features were the mesolithic hunter-gatherers, who can be thought of as a component of their ecosystem, like bears, wolves, beavers and aurochs. When the neolithic farmers arrived, the first thing they did was to cut down the wildwood and begin killing off the competing species. Strictly speaking, wild, pristine nature began its retreat, its defeat, at that time – around ten thousand years ago – and the speed and degree of destruction has increased ever since.

So, although it may suit some Romantic city dwellers to imagine that there must be, out there somewhere, a truly remote patch of untamed wilderness, where they can commune with Nature as she once was, this is a fanciful illusion. Of course, Glen Affric is closer to true wilderness than is central London or Leeds. But Glen Affric is, despite the remnants of ancient forest, not anything like an original intact ecosystem. Most of the original forest cover is long gone. Bears, wolves, lynx, eagles and many other species which would have made for a different ecology if they had remained have been wiped out by humans. People have lived there, grazed their animals, encouraged deer for hunting and much more over millennia. The semblance of wild nature remains, but not the real thing.

In most of the rest of the British Isles, not even the semblance remains. What we have is pastiche, ‘mock-natural’, a faux idea of the wild which convinces those who know no better. Our beautiful rolling mountains were denuded of trees during the stone age and the bronze age and the iron age, the soil was washed away, and they’ve remained bare ever since because of the grazing of goats, sheep and cattle. The landscape is Manmade. If Britain had never seen people, it would be unrecognisable – a lost world.

Where is my Zone five? There is no Zone five. […]

Depressing but kindof undeniable. I like to think I’m discovering a pristine wilderness every time I climb a tree or spend some time watching insects, but somehow it doesn’t seem like the real thing if it depends on a deliberate focus of attention and a denial of everything that lies beyond that. On the sub-atomic level it’s all wilderness, but does that mean domestication hasn’t in fact run rampant across the face of the world, immensely simplifying and impoverishing the diversity of life wherever it has gone? I don’t think you can get away with that…



Hi, thanks for such an extensive and interesting text. At great risk of sounding like a new-age hippy, here’s my own take on what wildness is.

It’s not something “out there”, it’s in everything, including us. In a way, there is no zone 5, because it’s all zone 5. It’s either sick or healthy. We mostly make it sick. Permaculture can be used to learn how to keep it healthy while getting what we need to survive from it.

For sure, it can also be used to bolster arrogant people’s mistaken ideas about the universe and our place in it. It seems to me that’s the predominant use at the moment.

In a way, also, it’s true that there’s no “wilderness” left in Europe, except perhaps that bit in Poland, but that’s hardly surprising because we made up the word to specifically exclude any human intervention. We set ourselves up to remain in a language trap of our own making.

I tend to use “wilderness” as synonymous with “a wild place”. I guess I’m wrong, technically, but it’s hard to write or think of the concepts rationally when the only word we have is a thought-trap. “The Wild” might be a better term. I think "wilderness is not much use in the lexicon of rewilders, because all we can do is leave a place alone, and if every inch of where we are has already been tampered with, it’s “impure” already and thus, as some authors imply, there is no hope.

I think that realizing the true nature of wildness, and implementing that into our philosophies, can help remove the hurdles imposed by the ideas behind “wilderness”. There is no way to separate us from the wilderness, except by dying out. Wildness exists wherever humans exist, and anything else (i.e. separate from) is only a figment of our civilized imaginations.

Thinking this way leads to intelligent manipulation, just like every other species manipulates its habitat to make it a more conducive environment. Our unintelligent manipulations make it sick, but just like a slave is still a human, domesticated wildlife is still wild. Wheat may be domesticated and sick, yet if we left it alone over some generations it would become strong and healthy again. I may be forced to do certain things against my will, but that doesn’t mean I have no will. I am still wild. I am “self-willed”.

Our language deeply affects our thinking, so we need to throw off the bad thinking caused by limitations imposed by language. Zone 5 is wild, not interfered with by us, and we do that in order to learn from it what our place is in it. We don’t need a piece of pristine land never interfered with by humans, all we need to to stop interfering with a patch and observe what happens there. Then we can compare it to our observations of interfered with areas in order to see what we are doing wrong.

Perhaps it’s necessary to live somewhere where there is no wilderness before you can see that wildness is everywhere. Words like wilderness obscure the truth because they were defined by people who saw themselves as separate from the rest of life. We don’t need to work to bring back wildness, any more than we would need to work to bring humanity back to a slave. All we need to is to release our slaves from their bondage.

Gradually, one side of my garden has become almost completely wild, and the other is on the way. Each year I need to do less and less, yet still it has things I can eat. It’s a learning process.

The universe is “one change”. Don;t listen to people who believe you have to go back to some previous time (which is impossible). We made a big change, and wildness will adapt to that, just like any other. Even if Fukushima turns out to be an extinction level event, or some other human stupidity does, it’s unlikely to make earth Mars-like. Something else will happen, like with the previous ELEs and wildness will continue, with or without us. It’s arrogant to believe that humans could destroy wildness.


Reading all these personal views has helped me formulate mine. :slight_smile:

Indeed, in the sense of “undisturbed by humans”, very few places will qualify as wild. At least, when we look at our human scale, which more or less matches that of lion, bear, bison and other large animals. When we look at much smaller scales, the world of shrews for instance, there may actually be still a lot of places that are out of our reach and sight, while our influence is small enough to make it a place for shrews.

Shrews too have their own well-traveled paths and areas, and places where they never venture. Some of their habitat and paths will overlap with ours, but most do not (or we’d see them all the time). For them, what lies outside their reach and sight is very different than for us.
So it is for all species. (Or maybe not for the domesticated ones, which have adapted to living in realms overlapping largely with the human realm).

When we stop using an area or a path, other species will start to make use of it. Some sooner, some later. One not wilder than the other. Whether they move in or not just depends how much their and our realms can overlap.

On one level I see how much wildness we as a species have left (in more sense than one). On a personal level, I may see different things than others, which teaches me about their personal realms (and of the species they see, or not) as well.

With which I try to say that zone five lives just beyond our reach. In order to let it grow and invite more species we just need to decrease our personal (and species) disturbance. Doing so, it will get wilder every day. And we will not know how - for when we go in to find out, wilderness retreats again.


For me, its important to define wilderness and wildness so that they are meaningful terms that guide our decisions. I don’t like to get too caught up in the idea that everything is wild and that humans are wild regardless of which decisions we make; there certainly are actions (and I think they’ve become overwhelmingly predominant) that decrease wildness in both individuals and ecosystems. I also don’t accept that once humans act in a space it inherently becomes un-wild. Attempting to reconcile those seemingly conflicting thoughts in a single definition of wildness is difficult.

I think a wild place is one that whose individual components (species, rivers, climates, etc.) AND ecological communities (forests, prairies, trophic relationships, etc.) are allowed to adapt and evolve over time according to complex and multi-directional influences - including, but not limited to, human involvement. By that definition, the broad-scale movement of species, domestication, climate change, deforestation, etc. all occuring along a single gradient (human activity) is not wild. However, human INFLUENCE does not make a place not wild.


Human intervention to help heal land destroyed by neglect is one example of people bridging the wild/domesticated divide in a healthy way. In the context of restoration, having your hands tied by fears of further damage may not help anyone.

I’ve lived at a rural location where an old logging bridge had fallen into an active salmon creek. During high water periods the creek, influenced by the bridge, started eroding the banks and just creating a huge mess that was destroying the creek and filling it with sediment. Recently a salmon restoration team came in a took out the bridge, secured the banks of the creek, and put in a new bridge that should last a lot longer. Now the salmon can spawn in peace in a restored creek bed, even though the stupid logging bridge was brought back (though if I was a bat I would hang out under that bridge…).

I think a lot of rural land projects will face similar issues and I can’t pretend to know whether permaculture will help or harm those places. Land projects may end up in a clearcut for example and then have to decide how to proceed (Wild Roots in NC was started in a clearcut, for example). In this context, human intervention to me makes sense and goes beyond “wild vs. domesticated”. To even get to a “tending the wild” situation, a lot of restoration may need to happen first.