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The permaculture life

By George Bovell

With 2014 looming in just a few days, the end of this year becomes a time of reflection. Another year of our precious finite time on this earth gone and our limited energy spent. Have we made progress or are we just running in circles like a hamster in a wheel, getting increasingly tired while struggling to stay in the same place? Does 2014 hold the promise of a better life and more importantly can we keep pushing and sustain our all-out efforts for another year?  Please allow me to share a unique insight into those questions.

I used to throw around the phrase “grinding for that shine”  frequently as it summed up my feelings about being tough, enduring, and training hard for hopeful glory in the future. The beginning of 2013 found me exhausted both physically and mentally, a new level of exhaustion I had never reached before, on track for a burnout. 

The prospects of another year of similar intensity in the crucible that is the top of the top level of sport had me wondering if I simply had enough life energy to keep pushing.

It had been a continual uphill battle all year; to bounce back from a brain injury, the build-up to the Olympics, getting to the finals in London, competing in the Tiburon Sprint, garnering 16 medals around the world in the eight competitions of the FINA World Cup, then winning a medal at the World Champs in Istanbul, before finally heading all the way to St Petersburg, Russia to win two more medals at the Salnikov Cup at the end of December, then doing my part to give back by bringing down top international swimming stars to help me host four free swim clinics for our local age group swimmers in early January. I get tired just thinking about it. So after all that I had to take a break.

As an athlete it is impossible to sustain maximum effort and intensity all the time. 

After a certain point, the body will begin to break down leading to injuries, the law of diminishing returns kicks in leading to frustration and burnout. 

It is necessary to take a few steps back from our struggle to see how we are fitting into the grand scheme of things much in the same way an artist painting a small part of a massive canvas must step back to assess how it fits into the larger painting as a whole. 

This step back allows one to really be objective and to reflect on what is being done well, what areas need improvement and most importantly, to realign our efforts with our goals and to be deliberate in setting new ones. As any athlete will attest, it usually doesn’t take very long before one starts to miss the sweet struggle and that feeling of making progress. 

While on such a break in February, I came across some very profound ideas that pertain to enriching and creating a sustainable life. 

By sustainable, I do not mean in terms of the environment, but rather in sustaining your own output of energy, enriching your life and making it more fun and enjoyable. I was in a Maui visiting my cousin who lives and grew up there, and was in a new-age smoothie place when it hit me. I stumbled upon a book entitled Introduction To Permaculture by Bill Mollison. I had no idea what permaculture was, so being intrigued I casually picked it up and started browsing and quickly became captivated by this beautiful idea.

In brief, permaculture was invented by Bill Mollison and is a revolutionary concept, philosophy and method of carefully designing and creating self-sustaining agricultural systems that are extremely productive and require very low maintenance. If done right, the farmer is no longer a farmer but rather a gatherer. 

Permaculture emphasises allowing nature to do what it does best and aims to create as many symbiotic relationships as possible while minimising waste. It is not about how many plants are in the garden but how many ways can the plants that are growing there help each other.

This idea really resonated with me with the ancient adage of “as below so above” I applied it to the greater context of my life. To create a very rich and productive life that is self-sustaining and low maintenance, it becomes not about how many things you have in your life, but rather in how many ways can the things in your life compliment and help each other, shifting the emphasis from the elements themselves to the number of symbiotic connections between them.

While in Maui, I was staying with my cousin who enjoyed an incredibly rich life, not in a material sense but in terms of enjoyment and progress. I realised that without intending to do so, she was fortunate that many of the elements in her life all complimented each other in multiple ways. Maui where she lived facilitated the photography that she did for a living, it also facilitated her passion for surfing, there was a nexus between her surfing and her photography work, her husband had a similar passion for surfing and photography, liked what she did for fun and understood what she did for a living. 

She worked with some of her friends and they too enjoyed surfing with her and were always sharing wild meat and fresh fish that they caught hunting and fishing. There was also very little time wasted.  

As an outsider looking in, it seemed like a very rich and happy life in a beautiful place where just about all the elements in her life were mutually symbiotic.

I then applied the concept of permaculture to my own life and realised the sad truth of why it was so tiring and was requiring so much effort on my part. Where I live, Trinidad, did not facilitate what I did for a living as I trained alone in less  Third World facilities, forcing me to expend energy to travel often to train abroad in sometimes bleak and lonely places, the women I had been going for did not understand what I did for a living, nor the challenges I faced. They didn’t really enjoy what I did for fun either, not many of my swimming friends shared my passions outside the pool, and it was difficult for my friends outside the pool to relate to the demands of my swimming. 

I was wasting too much precious time in traffic. Instead of having a productive permaculture garden at home it seemed as if I had been attempting to grow my garden way down a highway full of traffic with much labour, tonnes of fertiliser and pesticide to reap a meagre harvest. 

I had just two mutually beneficial elements in my life;  swimming, which is more than just what I do for a living, greatly complimented my passion for freediving, allowing me to dive deeper for longer in the ocean and my passion for freediving greatly improved my fitness and I believe provided me with an edge over all my competitors in the pool.

Now, my case as a professional swimmer may be somewhat unusual and challenging, but the concepts of permaculture can apply to everyone’s lifestyle, because we all want to live like healthy, flourishing and productive permaculture food forests, with minimal perceived effort. 

There are three main tenets of permaculture concerning gardens that we can apply to our lives to help guide us. In layman’s terms—the first: Is it good for the garden?  Which we can adapt to mean “Will having this in my life be good for me, and will it compliment other things in my life?”  

The second tenet is do I want it in my garden?  

Would you prefer to grow pumpkin in the limited space of your garden instead of say green peppers? Would you enjoy playing guitar for example with your limited time and energy instead of painting perhaps?   

The third tenet of permaculture is will it return a surplus? Will growing this in your garden give more back to the garden than it takes, which in the greater context of life would mean would doing this with your life return more to you and to others than you put into it? If something meets those three criteria it surely will enrich your life and make it easier. 

In my case take for example my swimming. Swimming is intrinsically good, it is good for my health, it allows me to travel, provides excitement, I enjoy it, it returns a surplus in that it allows me to make a modest living and now I am trying to use it to help others, one big recent case being the Initiative against Malaria in Uganda in April and the free swim clinics to help those coming up behind me and hopefully, articles like this.

I may not have the ideal permaculture life yet, but I believe that my stumbling across Bill Mollison’s philosophy and adapting it to the greater context of my life has made 2013 for me more successful and more enjoyable with less perceived effort than 2012. As I continue to learn, adapt and implement permaculture life, I look forward to whatever 2014 has in store for me. 

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