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Rosemary Morrow: A Permaculture Pioneer

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Rowe teaching in the field. Photo by Dana Wilson Gaiacraft

Living a committed life of service to humanity and this beautiful planet is natural for Rosemary (Rowe) Morrow. She has been working and supporting people in areas of need for more than four decades through teaching permaculture in places where others don’t go. Without permaculture, the needs of people and the land would be less adequately met.

Her work has helped establish permaculture as a globally relevant, accessible and practical way for addressing pressing planetary problems. Rowe’s career in permaculture has been dedicated to helping people in the greatest need. She has journeyed to meet and learn from farmers and villagers in some of the most challenged places. She seeks to offer information that makes a difference in places affected by worsening climate change, and countries facing the impacts of financial crises.

As climate change impacts become more extreme, Rowe has offered courses on local resilience and designing for disasters. She has trained and empowered other people around the globe to do aid work and offer service. She often teaches low-cost or free Permaculture Design Certificate courses for communities, then assists in implementing their designs. This reflects permaculture’s ethics of care.

Together with co-founder Lis Bastian, Rowe established the Blue Mountains Permaculture Institute, which offers diplomas to people who have done outstanding work yet cannot access or afford accreditations through other pathways.

Rowe has always been on the earth trail in some way. In her childhood she played in the bush and climbed trees. ‘Luckily I had parents who didn’t feel the need to supervise children,’ Rowe says. ‘I grew up on farms and around 11 years old I decided I wanted to go and live on a huge cattle station. I said that regularly and it became my mantra. When I was 15 I got a job with a travel agent, earning 45 pounds and two shillings, and bought a plane ticket from Sydney to Darwin.’

In Darwin she worked with Qantas before heading into the outback. ‘It was 80 miles to the next-door neighbour and the rivers flooded five miles wide. The droughts and the heat were awful, as were the mosquitoes and flies, but I loved it. There were thousands of head of cattle and five hundred head of horses. After about five years, family circumstances took me back to Sydney but I always thought I would return.’

Agricultural science studies came next, but Rowe found the course to be ‘reductionist, boring and poorly taught’. She decided to travel to Paris to take up a scholarship at the Sorbonne to study rural sociology. ‘I started doing a PhD but left and volunteered at L’Arche in northern France for a year, working with people with intellectual disabilities,’ she says. ‘I learned so much that year. I learnt respect for everyone. I began to learn how to communicate when you don’t have words.’

After completing a Masters in Rural Development in Reading, UK, Rowe was sent to Lesotho in southern Africa, where she lived for four years. ‘I was engaged in the politics of South Africa – it was the time of the Soweto uprising and apartheid, and I got caught up in all of that,’ she says. ‘Desmond Tutu was the bishop of Lesotho and you’d see him around town every day. However I was confronted because I did not know where to start in feeding people. Agricultural science had taught me to grow commodities and do research, but when faced with hunger I was helpless.

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Garden classroom. Photo by Dana Wilson Gaiacraft

‘I had a transformative moment when I went into the market and saw a woman sitting there selling her three tomatoes and four onions. I wondered why she wasn’t eating them, then I realised that she needs energy so she had to sell her meagre harvest to buy maize for her family. I understood that when it comes to hunger, the first thing about nutrition is energy, then protein and finally minerals. If you follow that in situations of hunger, people stay alive and function. I thought, “I’m going to learn how to grow food now.”

Rowe returned to Australia and completed a TAFE horticulture certificate. Her next five years were spent working in Sydney, designing gardens and incorporating them into schools. ‘I learnt a lot about soil, water and all the basics of actually growing food,’ she says. ‘I didn’t see the size of the environmental problems then, but I knew we had to be able to restore and protect the forests. Restoration became my preoccupation. I realised that if we could grow abundant food in small spaces, we could give the earth back its natural systems which support life processes.

‘I studied some environmental subjects and wanted to learn how to design,’ Rowe says. ‘I ended up as a landscape architect in the Department of Environment and Planning, working in the Sydney Green Space Program, taking areas that had been trashed or overgrown and rehabilitating them. While I was doing this a friend said to me, “I think you should do permaculture”. I thought, “I’m not doing that new age stuff – I am scientific, pragmatic, sceptical, tough and I’m not doing that…well, maybe I should since I’m so prejudiced”. It became a rule in my life; if I hear myself being prejudiced to try it despite myself.’

Rowe attended Robyn Francis’ PDC and it proved to be a new beginning. ‘Six months later I was running my own course up in the Blue Mountains,’ Rowe recalls. ‘All my past experiences enabled me to take the essentials of permaculture and redesign the course structure. I realised that if I was going to be a teacher then I’d better learn about teaching, so I learned about non-formal education in the community.

‘Then I was invited to Vietnam by the Quaker Service Australia (QSA), who had money from the Australian Government. It was post-war and the Vietnamese wanted me to teach them industrial coffee production. I looked around and saw that the people had a poor diet and were suffering from malnutrition, so I moved the project toward food security. I taught people permaculture.’

Rowe found that the best way to make an impact was to teach through a government organisation or horticultural service. ‘I taught the Vietnamese Women’s Union, which had 15 million members, and they then taught it through to their members. I taught through the Horticultural Society, which had 14 million members. I also taught NGO counterpart staff who then used it in their work. I taught half the provinces in Vietnam and the FAO took over and taught the rest. It might not be the most pure permaculture they were teaching, but the essence of design and site analysis was sound.’

She spent nine of the next 13 years in Vietnam and Cambodia, teaching all the way from the mouth of the Mekong to the Chinese border in the north. ‘I learnt never to set up demonstration model gardens because they always end up being taken over by corruption,’ Rowe says. ‘I wasted time and money setting up over 30 gardens throughout Vietnam. They were all corrupted and one was even turned into a brothel, with condoms floating in the fish ponds.

‘After Vietnam, I was in Cambodia where everyone was toothpick thin and starving. Then I taught on the Thai–Burmese border where Burmese refugees swam the river to attend the course. East Timor was another very sad postwar situation. I was in Albania after the dictatorship collapsed and the country was almost totally wrecked. I looked it up recently and found around half of the people I taught there are still in Permaculture Albania doing interesting work.’

Rowe next travelled to Ethiopia. ‘After the famine I worked with the Konso people in the southwest and did two courses there. One man from that course started teaching women in villages, showing them how to grow enough food to feed the people in their compound. Suddenly there were intense lush gardens growing throughout these villages.’ She also went to Malawi, Zambia and the Solomon Islands, where she supported villagers coming to terms with the reality of sea levels rising and the prospect of entire village relocation away from their ancestral burial grounds.

Recently Rowe has been spending time with peace volunteers in Kabul and she’s just returned from five weeks in a refugee camp in Kurdistan. ‘It shocks you to the core, seeing these people who were living peaceful rural lives, having to pack everything up into two suitcases and go, with no future and no hope,’ she says. ‘When I go to a community, I like to spend a decent amount of time with them. In fact I love being there and don’t like to hurry away; I want to take the time to build relationships. Five weeks is a good stint. It’s usually anything from four to eight weeks up to three months.

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Working on designs with students in India. Supplied by Rosemary Morrow
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Rowe teaching reading the landscape on a PDC in Greece. Photo by Dana Wilson Gaiacraft

‘Working in refugee camps is my absolute driving force at the moment,’ says Rowe. ‘Refugees are owed more, and have experience and potential to lead generous lives. It is immoral to lock them up and feed them with food aid; it destroys people. If they can learn permaculture in the camps they can use it when they go home or if they stay they can use it. Learning in refugee camps can only be a win-win situation.

‘Permaculture needs to reach these people. Growing and caring for plants and animals gives people’s lives meaning, even small-scale gardening in tin cans! To put a seed in the soil and then have a tomato is very important for the future, because many people don’t see a future or it’s terrifying and uncertain.’

What keeps Rowe going is her belief that everyone should have the right to information. ‘In Australia you can access the knowledge if you need to; I go to places where people can’t get information,’ she says. ‘It is everyone’s right to have the tools to feed yourself and your family. I move on once permaculture is fairly embedded in a place.

‘I would like to see a world where the earth is restored in such a way that natural systems are understood and respected for what they do for us, and we are seen as givers and not takers. Permaculture can help create the world I want to see by setting up a range of alternatives that people will be able to be a part of,’ says Rowe. ‘The way permaculture addresses issues around quality of life, pace of living and occupations is so compelling that people will want to be a part of it.

‘We consider it a right to be literate and numerate; we must consider it a right to know how to live with care and how to solve future problems. Any individual equipped with the relevant knowledge and skills for an uncertain future is going to be empowered and part of the solutions.’

As well as writing countless articles, Rowe is the author of such books as Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture (Permanent Publications 1993) and Earth User’s Guide to Teaching Permaculture (Melliodora Publishing 2014), both of which are available from the Pip shop. Her latest book, Permaculture Teaching Matters (2015), can be downloaded for free from her website. The website is also where you can find out about her appearances, teacher trainings and permaculture courses. www.bluemountainspermacultureinstitute.com.au.

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