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A Tribute To Bill Mollison

Bill Mollison artwork by Martin Bridge; By Martin Bridge

Bill Mollison – the ‘father of permaculture’ – died on 24 September 2016. To imagine and then create a worldwide movement of remarkable resilience is an incredible feat. Permaculture books are printed in many languages, it’s taught and practised in almost every country of the world, and found on websites in at least 110 languages.

Bill didn’t do this alone – his mix of Aussie-gruffness, love for storytelling and massive charisma was just what was needed to create a vision, a design system, and a network of teachers and practitioners who have spread the concept globally.

Bill had a brilliant mind. He observed, he catalogued and used a systems approach to help weave seemingly disparate ideas into the most detailed tapestry. In this sense he was a true visionary. He was also challenging, angry and driven by a deep sense of injustice. He used to say, ‘First feel fear, then get angry, then go with your life into the fight’.

Growing up in Stanley, Tasmania, Bill left school at fifteen to help run the family bakery, and then went on to work as a shark fisherman, seaman, forester, mill-worker, trapper, tractor- driver and naturalist. He joined the CSIRO (Wildlife Survey Section) in 1954, and gained extensive research knowledge. His lack of formal education gave him many learning opportunities in how the real world works.

After ten years at the CSIRO he left to study biogeography at the University of Tasmania in Hobart. He became a lecturer in 1968, and developed the relatively new discipline of Environmental Psychology. His calls for a more interdisciplinary approach were ignored or rejected, so he resigned to allow scope to pursue his studies in combining psychology with the natural world.

While he was still a lecturer at the University he met his co-author and co-originator of permaculture, David Holmgren, an environmental design student. They started to discuss why the agriculture of indigenous peoples had survived the centuries, and why modern agriculture was only good for a relatively short time.

Photo by Russ Grayson
Photo by Trish Allen

Clockwise from below: Dr Venkat and Bill, 1987 during 1st PDC in India; Bill Mollison portrait; Bill, David Holmgren and Steve Cran

Photo by Robyn Francis

Bill and David began to develop the permaculture concept in 1974, and as they grew an experimental garden they also began to design and to write. They drew on the ideas of FH King (an American agricultural scientist) who had observed the highly productive agricultures of Asia1, and the ‘keyline’ concept from PA Yeomans2. And Bill was influenced later by Masanobu Fukuoka3. Together Bill and David created a design concept for landscapes, water systems and forestry, along with permanence in human activities, which they called permaculture.

David’s thesis for his Environmental Design degree was the manuscript that became Permaculture One4 in 1978; Permaculture Two5 followed in 1979. Through the 1980s, Bill travelled, taught and wrote. He worked closely with Andrew Jeeves who illustrated the Designers’ Manual6, and Reny Mia Slay who played a major role in distilling his work into the Introduction to Permaculture7, the first book to codify a set of principles, with help from little-known American John Quinney. These principles offered a framework beyond the three permaculture ethics, and gave a starting point for the development of a more extensive description of principles by Bill, Rosemary Morrow and other permaculture teachers in the 21st century.

Bill wanted to spread his ideas and – rejecting the model of formal education – he decided to teach an informal seventy- two hour course in permaculture, a new discipline that he would offer to anyone who might turn up; a move so audacious that it was laughable to his critics. And yet, even on those early courses, Bill demonstrated to students – with typical force of will – that they were part of an idea that was unstoppable.

Bill’s PDC was intended to inspire self-belief: that ordinary people, without prior knowledge or expertise can reach out and achieve change in their lives. He encouraged insurrection against a prevailing system that he saw as destructive to us and the natural world, by advocating small-scale changes to the way we choose to live our lives. His legacy is an ever-growing mass of over three million permaculture practitioners.

In 1981, Bill received the Right Livelihood Award (sometimes called the Alternative Nobel Prize), and the award he was most proud of – the Vavilov Medal. Bill was also admitted to the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

After his travels in the 1980s Bill was celebrated in the 1991 TV series The Global Gardener as innovative, farsighted and practical. He taught thousands of students but, more significantly, the magic in his message inspired them to teach and to ‘do’ permaculture in a myriad of ways.

From its early days, permaculture appealed to architects, engineers, farmers and community organisers throughout the English speaking world. By the 1990s it was being taught in over half the countries of the world, and it’s now translated into dozens of languages. Bill had started a movement where permaculture was integrated into supposedly unrelated subject areas. Now permaculture serves people who are working in sustainable agriculture, reforestation, natural building and architecture, environmental education and regional economics – and those who simply seek a holistic life.

Bill had put together the architecture for a regenerative design approach that drew on knowledge of traditional cultures, while adapting to the opportunities of new technologies and systems-thinking. Permaculture integrated ecological thinking with landscape design and productive agriculture, and embraced the complexity of life rather than reducing it to disconnected disciplines.

In his autobiography8 Bill wrote: ’The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.’

Bill’s idea that ‘Permaculture is a dance with nature – in which nature leads’, is a lyrical example of his ability to understand and communicate this evolving new approach.

‘Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.’ (Bill Mollison)

Memories Of Bill Mollison

With the passing of Bill Mollison comes the end of an era for many thousands of people around the world whose lives were transformed by the teaching and writing of one of Australia’s most influential ecological pioneers. My two-year student/ mentor relationship with Bill from late 1974 was certainly the defining relationship that set the course for the rest of my life. The following words recall that pivotal moment when I first met Bill:

‘He might have been late forties I supposed, stocky, balding slightly, beard covering protruding chin. Meaty hands and thick nicotine stained fingers; of a working man, I thought. His way of thinking and expression were fascinating; grounded but at same time, holistic. Ecological! I thought, but not like any of the activists who called themselves ecologists, or the academically trained ones, who seemed just as reductionist as most scientists.’(A Chance Meeting, Spring 1974 as featured in Permaculture Diary 2011)

Bill’s brilliance was in gathering together the ecological insights, principles, strategies and techniques that could be applied to create the world we do want rather than fighting against the world we reject. His personal life was as tumultuous as his public persona: at times tragic but always full of the passion and contradiction that the term ‘ecological warrior’ represents. His legacy lives on in all those who were transformed by his teaching.

– David Holmgren, co-originator of permaculture

Bill Mollison and Robyn Francis in Enmore 1986. Phoo by Robyn Francis

Bill was a man of deep compassion; more than once I saw him shed a quiet tear when talking of injustice. In India he went out of his way to meet the ‘invisible people’ – the cooks, cleaners, drivers, lackeys – and know their names. He gave special support and acknowledgement to participants working in difficult circumstances and extreme poverty. He made no attempt to hide his disdain and contempt for the self-important, wealthy and pretentious.

Bill definitely didn’t suffer fools well, and carried a burning rage for the perpetrators of social and environment exploitation. He could be brutally acerbic when rubbed up the wrong way, and was not afraid to offend.

Bill could be exceptionally generous, overwhelmingly humble, or frustratingly arrogant and stubborn. He was a man of extremes. He had a wicked sense of humour and was an engaging storyteller. He knew how to challenge your dogmas and make you think. Most of all he had a knack of inspiring and empowering people to have courage to act and achieve the impossible. These qualities enabled him to inspire a global movement dedicated to building a better world.

– Robyn Francis

Few people are born who are world class heroes to those who know them and unknown to the great majority, until one day their inescapable influence «oats to the surface and is generally recognised for the cream it is. In hindsight, such leaders go on to become household names.

Bill was also a sensitive man, eloquent raconteur, poet and appreciative of the poetry of others. He knew how to provoke others to action, but also when to withdraw and let others carry on the work.

Though often outwardly gruff and challenging, there was real heart to everything he did. ‘If, as physical scientists assure us, we all contain a few molecules of Einstein, and if the atomic particles of our physical body reach to the outermost bounds of the universe, then we are all de facto components of all things. There is nowhere left for us to go if we are already everywhere, and this is, in truth, all we will ever have or need. If we love ourselves at all, we should respect all things equally, and not claim any superiority over what are, in effect, our other parts.’

– Graham Bell

If you never knew Bill Mollison, the founding father of permaculture, you missed out. The Bill Mollison I knew was a cheeky old bastard. Being a cheeky bastard myself, we got on like a house on fire. We became good friends.

The first time I met Bill was on a field trip as a student at the end on my first Permaculture Design Certificate course in 1990. He smoked a lot and swore a lot; I liked him immediately. Touring around his gardens with him, for just a few hours, instantly doubled my understanding of permaculture that day.

When I heard he had died, I thought of all the people I’ve trained in permaculture around the world. In my mind’s eye I saw the legions of permaculture activists, trainers and practitioners doing their thing, quietly creating a massive green wave. All because of Bill Mollison and his permaculture.

It was Bill who saw my potential. Bill saw the warrior in me way back in the day. He convinced me that permaculture can save the world, and I still believe that. I’ve used it to help people in war zones, poverty zones and disaster zones; to rebuild their lives and their lands. Bill told us that the problem is the solution. Bill Mollison’s legacy is still growing.

I’ll miss you Bill. We will all miss you mate.

– Steve Cran

1 Farmers of Forty Centuries: or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan (1911)

2 The Keyline Plan (1954)

3 The One-Straw Revolution: an Introduction to Natural Farming (1975)

4 Permaculture One: a Perennial Agricultural System for Human Settlements (Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, Corgi Books 1978)

5 Permaculture Two: Practical Design for Town and Country in Permanent Agriculture (Bill Mollison, Tagari Publications 1979)

6 Permaculture: a Designers’ Manual (Bill Mollison, Tagari Publications 1988)

7 Introduction to Permaculture (Bill Mollison with Reny Mia Slay, Tagari Publications 1991)

8 Travels in Dreams: an Autobiography (Bill Mollison, Tagari Publications 1997)


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