Category Archives: Philosophy

Let There Be Flowers

Richie inspects the overgrown kitchen garden upon our return from England

Richie inspects the overgrown kitchen garden upon our return from England

It has come to my attention this spring how important it is to let annual vegetable plants flower and go to seed. It’s a common habit among kitchen gardeners to remove plants after produce has been harvested, that is, before the plants flower and set seed. The reason being that most of us have limited space in our kitchen gardens and would rather see the precious space devoted to new planting (which represents new yields), as opposed to ‘unproductive plants’ that are past their best.

I write this post with one of mine and Richie’s own kitchen garden beds in mind – the one closest the back door. Because Richie and I weren’t here to harvest the plants during peak productivity this particular bed of mixed lettuce, broccoli, bok choi, kale and rocket has gone to flower.

A  few mature cabbages are the only things that haven't gone to flower in this particular garden bed

A few mature cabbages are the only things that haven’t gone to flower in this particular garden bed

It has been three weeks now since we returned from England. Every day I wake thinking that today will be the day I remove the flowering plants, add them to the compost heap and sew some new vegetable seeds in their place: radish, lettuce, carrot, fennel and basil all do well at this time of year.

But when I step outside and lay eyes on the blossoming tumble-down brassica plants I invariably can’t bring myself to do it. Why? Because the plants are literally humming with bees. Hundreds of them! European honeybees (Apis mellifera) as well as Australian native bees (Tetragonula – previously called Trigona). It’s such a joy to see and hear them at work that so far I have stayed my hand, allowing the plants (and bees) to keep on doing what they’re doing. At various time throughout the day I pause in my work to watch the native bees queuing at the entrance to the yellow broccoli flowers, one waiting for another to exit before making its own way inside.

What harm will it do, I ask, to leave the bed another couple of weeks until the flowers have faded and the seed heads – which have already formed – go crisp, brown and mature? Normally I’d make some attempt to save the seeds, but Richie tells me brassicas cross-pollinate promiscuously, so I’m reluctant to save seeds that might not grow true to type. What bastard children might these inter-species brassica unions beget?

Rocket-broccoli: brocket?

Bok-choi-kale: kak-choi?

Which brings me back to the ethics of the matter. Is it best to replant the flowering brassica-bed ASAP? This would ensure a steady supply of garden produce and would mean we don’t have to succumb to buying produce off the supermarket shelf. Or, should I leave the bed in question alone until all the plants in it have flowered and are dead? Perhaps I could go part-way, removing, say, half of the flowering plants, thereby freeing-up half the space in the bed for new plantings?

Keeping a steady supply of fresh produce coming from the garden into the kitchen is one of the priorities of kitchen gardeners

Keeping a steady supply of fresh garden produce coming into the kitchen is one of the priorities of kitchen gardeners – here’s one of Richie’s famous multi-leaf and herb salads

When I find myself in one of my more compassionate moods I wonder if removing plants before they’ve reached the natural conclusion of their lives is ‘right’ under any circumstances? Is killing a plant mid-cycle in any way similar to slaughtering an underage animal – a yearling cow or a calf raised for veal? And just as importantly, don’t we have an obligation, as gardeners, as human-animals, to share our garden produce with other non-human animals once we’ve received our ‘fair share’ of the produce – with bees for instance?

I suppose what I am saying is that I don’t rightly know the answer to any of these pesky questions. But more than ever, I feel there should be a place in Richie’s and my garden for vegetables that are flowering and setting seed – for them to stay in the ground until they effectively ‘die’.

The more wrinkles I get and the more grey hairs appear on my head the more I think it’s artificial (dare I say ‘unnatural’) to see a garden full of plants in their prime – no ‘unsightly’ or ‘old’ plants in view. To me, it’s the garden-equivalent of going to a party or a club where  over-thirties aren’t permitted entry. What fun is that?

In the name of diversity, I reckon it’s nice to nurture garden beds where babies, adolescents and geriatrics are crammed in together: creating pleasing variations in texture, colour, size. Inclusive multi-generational gardens serve a spiritual as well as an ecological function – seeing plants growing old and dying reminds me in a gentle way that I too will gradually stiffen, grow old and die. My body, like the bodies of the elderly plants in my garden, will return eventually to the soil, replenishing the earth, providing fertility for something else to grow.

The beautiful and decorate casings of dried poppy seed heads peak through the fence in a Norfolk churchyard, England

The beautiful and decorate casings of dried poppy seed heads peeking through the fence in a Norfolk churchyard, England – isn’t it time to live in the presence of death and dying, both in our gardens and in our own minds?

Personally, I think it’s time to live in the presence of visual evidence of death and dying, and to celebrate the entire life-cycle of plants, human-animals and non-human animals from birth to death, start to finish, AND that we should grow food not only for ourselves but for other beings who have lives and minds and bodies of their own to sustain, for instance, bees. Which is why the flowering lettuce, rocket, broccoli and kale plants persist in our garden and are flowering right now as I write, and why the bees continue to be their favourite customers.

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Filed under Doctoral Research, Earth Care, Food, Permaculture, Philosophy, Travel

Home & Away Part 1

Is it me, or are the desire to travel and the desire to garden at odds?

The reason I ask is that I find myself faced with the quandary of wanting to travel and wanting to settle (literally cultivate a home and garden).

Inside me, the hunter/gather and farmer/settler archetypes coexist in uneasy, sometimes antagonistic relation.

Me: the muddy boots of a permie (permaculture gardener) and the worn backpack of a bona-fide traveller. Eeck. A walking contradiction?

Me: the muddy boots of a permie (permaculture gardener) and the worn backpack of a bona-fide traveller. Eeck. A walking contradiction?

Not an ideal scenario, right?

Over the past few years I’ve attempted (with varying degrees of success) to harmonise my desire to travel with my desire to garden: I’ve gardened whilst dreaming of travel, and have even gardened whilst travelling, albeit in other peoples’ gardens (if the latter appeals to you I suggest you look into becoming a WWOOFer – a Willing Worker on Organic Farms).

Me WWOOFing in Central Italy - labors spent in service of anthers' garden

Me WWOOFing in Central Italy – labours spent in service of anothers’ garden

Although my heady months of WWOOFing during my overland odyssey from England to Australia in 2012-2013 were extraordinary and deeply rewarding, there was something that dissatisfied me, generally, about my experience:

I never stuck ’round long enough to reap what I had sewn.

The nature and manner of the type of travel in which I was engaged (long-term, multiple-country, terrestrial, low budget, low carbon) was such that no sooner had I settled down and begun to develop feelings for a place, than it was time to move on.

And on…

And on…

And on.

By threading one WWOOF to the next I finally made my way overland from England to Australia, via twenty-one countries. The entire journey took seventeen months to complete and is remembered as a series of falling in love with places, and then having to leave – learning gradually, and with distance, to let them go.

The good news, I discovered, is that as a species we’re admirably well-adapted to love broadly and widely, deeply and long. The understanding that I have cultivated over the course of my hybrid travel-gardening adventures is that humans are polyamorous in terms of their relationship to place: that they can belong to many places (and cultures) at once.

Mine and Richie’s beloved first-ever kitchen garden at The Patch, England

As I write, it occurs to me that one of the reasons I regard travelling and gardening as incongruous (and I admit, I haven’t decided outright that this is truly the case) is that gardening is something you do at home. Traveling, on the other hand is a practice you practice ‘away’ from home. Insofar as practices go, gardening and travelling share the characteristic of being place-specific. It just so happens that the places in which they occur are thoroughly incompatible, even opposite: home & away respectively. Continue reading

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Filed under Culture, Doctoral Research, Earth Care, Food, Literature, Permaculture, Philosophy, Travel, Writing

Designer as recliner (defining permaculture…)

IMG_5965 This week I’m working on my confirmation presentation: a 15-20 minute ‘lecture’ I will be giving in about two-weeks’ time to my USC peers, supervisors, faculty, the Office of Research and any one else who wants to come along (do you?). The presentation will be a summary of my proposed research, including methods and methodologies, relevant literature, significance and innovation and the nature and purpose of the creative artefact.


Note: ‘Confirmation’ (in terms of higher degree research (HDR) does not entail donning white or attending church. It’s a process whereby a ‘probationary’ candidate becomes a fully-fledged (‘confirmed’) candidate. After completing one’s ‘confirmation’ the researcher gets the red, orange or green light from the Office of Research in regard completing their research. Confirmation takes place one-year after commencement for full-time candidates, or two-years for part-time candidates.


I’m anxious about providing my audience – early on in the presentation – with a simple definition of permaculture. The definition of permaculture with which I provided my audience this week during a test-run was Bill Mollison’s classic definition of permaculture from Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual:

Permaculture (permanent agriculture) 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.  Mollison, B 2012, Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual, Tagari Publications: Sisters Creek, Tasmania, p. ix.

Earlier today I was reading Eric Toensmeier’s Paradise Lot and came across this definition of permaculture, which I like:

Meeting human needs while improving ecosystem health. Ferguson in Toensmeier, E 2013, Paradise Lot, Chelsea Green Publishing: White River Junction, Vermont, p. 3.

How simple is that! Here’s another:

Permaculture is a design system for creating sustainable human environments.’ Mollison, B & Slay, R M  2011, Introduction to Permaculture, Tagari Publications, Sisters Creek, Tasmania, p. 1.

In Paradise Lot (a fun, enthusiast permaculture memoir that’s well worth a squizz) Toensmeier explains permaculture thusly:

Permaculture (short for “permanent agriculture” or “permanent culture”) is a movement that began in Australia in the 1970s. It brings together traditional indigenous land management practices, ecological design, and sustainable practices to create landscapes that are more than the sum of their parts. Permaculture is not so much about having a greenhouse, chickens, and an annual vegetable garden as it is about how those elements are tied together to create functional interconnections that work like a natural ecosystem. Low maintenance is the holy grail of permaculture – a food forest with a hammock hidden beneath fruit trees, where, as permaculture codeveloper Bill Mollison famously quipped, “the designer turns into the recliner. (Toensmeier, E 2013, Paradise Lot, Chelsea Green Publishing: White River Junction, Vermont, p. 2)

Recently, in my own life, the permaculture designers (me and Richie) turned into permaculture recliners. Here’s a picture of Richie chilling-out in a hammock during a recent camping trip to Booloumba Creek, Kenilworth. IMG_3317 Seeing Richie hanging out got me thinking how little of this we’ve done lately. Continue reading

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Filed under Books, Doctoral Research, Earth Care, Permaculture, Philosophy, Writing

marine-induced-semiotic-delirium

IMG_5359 Oh, ye! who have your eyeballs vexed and tired,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea
– Keats ‘On the Sea’

Kupang is not Kupang: it is Tangier, Barcelona, Venice, Castellorizo, Istanbul, Kas rolled into one. Day 500. Day 9 at sea. Nothing is itself anymore. Under the solvent influence of the sea memories and vistas are breaking apart, dissolving. They’ve lost their crystalline objective quality. Physical form is detached from meaning. Signifiers bear no relation to signified. Places have lost their peculiarity. Everything is the same.

To my eyes, vexed and tired as they are, everything is composed of common attributes. Nothing is unique. Even the people I meet are not themselves anymore, they remind me of people I’ve met in other places. I glance about me at the boats, the shops, the cars lining the foreshore of Kupang and I’m confronted by a queer sensation. Places have lost their unique aspect. One is the other. One stands for all. Everything is familiar and strange. I’m neither here nor there.

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75 nautical miles northwest of Kupang we pass a village in the Solor Archipelago that, for all appearances, could be my Yiayia’s birthplace on Castellorizo. The Solor village convenes in a crowded fashion around the nucleus of mosque and marina, but substitute mosque for cathedral, coconut palm for plane tree, satay for soutzoukakia, and it could be Castellorizo, could be Istanbul, could be Tangier. The configuration is different but the elements are the same: trees, shops, houses, roads, parks, schools.

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The outcrop of rocks on the foreshore of Kupang is to my eyes, Sydney Cove. The sinuous camel-hump profile of Banta Island is the Olgas. 9 days prior , off the East coast of Lombok, we passed the Wallace line, the ‘faunal boundary’ between Asia and Australia, so it’s conceivable that the coastline here was once part of the Kimberley, part of the landmass I call home. None of us are strangers. All of us are kin.

Approaching a city from the water smooths out the differences. Buildings, objects and people come into focus slowly. There’s time to recollect. As Lea steers the boat headlong into the breeze and Keith drops the pick I hold on to Richie, hoping his presence will anchor me to the moment, preventing me from drifting 14,000km to Tangier, where 16 months ago we strolled along a seafront promenade not unlike the one here at Kupang and found ourselves seduced for the first time by the grace of mosques, palms, and the heady piquancy of anonymity.

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3 Pagodas, Dali

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The Many Temptations of Dali Old Town

Dali, in China’s Yunnan province, is a pleasant place to connect and re-root. There’s plenty of sunshine, good food and a multitude of comforts: hot showers, western loos, pizza, cake and coffee. Invasive foreign species like Brits, Aussies, Japanese and Canadians have long found a toehold in Dali, grafting themselves onto the cultural landscape. Yunnan is, after all, China’s most biodiverse province.

The melange of east and west, old and new works magic on Chinese tourists, who flock from all over the country to experience a neat and palatable version of their history. Trailing like unruly schoolchildren behind garishly dressed Bai cheerleaders, they traverse the city form south to north, parting enthusiastically with money for broiled Dali cheese, roast chestnuts and bolts of blue and white hand-dyed batik. Chinese tourists with oversized Nikon cameras startle hippy travellers, who make faces behind cocked pints of beer. “5 kwai a photo,” the reluctant models joke.

Bai tour guides, representatives of one of the region's ethnic minorities

Bai tour guides, representatives of one of the region’s ethnic minorities

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Breaking crust

The farmhouse, Momavlis Mitsa

Saturday morning in Argokhi. There is work to be done: water butts to fill; pigs to feed; floors to sweep; tea to brew – but there’s no hurry. I sit on the steps cracking hazelnuts, listening to the sounds passing up and down the lane on the opposite side of the above-head-high metal fence. I hear ducks squawking, the lazy turning of cartwheels, neighbours fussing, the crank of the timber grape press, and the occasional sound of apples falling from the tree. It’s mid-autumn. Every warm day between now and Christmas is worth its weight in gold.

Working on Momavlis Mitsa (Future Earth) farm in Argokhi has ameliorated the discomfort of waiting for visas in Tbilisi. Instead of sitting like ghosts in some disembodying hostel, milking the wifi and kicking stones down Marjainishvili on the way to the Metro, we’re working outdoors, using our lungs and hands to lift things, fix things, bake things, grow things.

Creating new raised beds

Richie and Sam adding rotted compost to the soil

In the garden we’re asked to do things we’d never do at home, in our own garden: pull weeds, hoe earth, turn soil, plant monocultures and raise new beds without mulching them. I bite my lip as Inken, the 18-year-old longterm German volunteer, instructs me on how to break the ‘crust’ that has formed on the surface of the soil due to successive phases of watering and sunshine. We work the hoe forward while simultaneously walking backwards down the aisles. I wonder if I’m disturbing the roots of the small plants, and why there are no bugs or worms in the soil.

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