Of the sea of endless possibilities and the yearning for meaning

Permaculture. A narrative.


The sea of possibilities seems infinite, just as our yearning for meaning. We are a generation on a quest for true significance; true encounters; inner peace and inspiration. We are tired of the folderol or modernity and want to touch life in its essence again. En mass, we board planes in search for our true selves on a voluntary service or a world travel. We go to yoga seminars and are always on the hunt for the hippest happening in the city. Yet, the true meaning of our lives always seems a whiff ahead. With our yearning, a certain ambivalence steals itself into our routines. The door leading to the emergency exit from our not quite satisfying reality keeps standing ajar.

Quite recently, this yearning knocked on my door again. A friend and former employee at a permaculture project in El Salvador (IPES), where I spent three intense months, was visiting Berlin. On the bus journey from the airport, my past overcame me and, without warning, let tears well into my eyes. The experience of being deeply ingrained into a natural cycle touched me deeply, so that the memories became sharp and present again, all of a sudden:

Mangos and limes are hanging from the trees in abundance; rice, corn, sugar cane and pineapple grow in a play of colours on the steep fields. Like a piece of paradise, the farm extends up the hill, in a country marked by GMO corn and civil war. When plunging into the warm green of the place, one can feel it: Everything, and everyone, here has its place. Instead of harvesters, one sees volunteers and Salvadorian men and women traversing through the green fields, still illuminated by the red early morning sun. Work is hard, but the mood is light. Weeding, planting and harvesting are done with a lot of laughter, philosophic discussions or in meditative concentration. The highly productive area is bursting with biodiversity and invites one to play, dream and climb. With its perfect chaos, it creates a strong contrast to the accurately calculated monoculture fields, which also in Germany became an emblem of modern agriculture. The overgrown paths here however are soaked in a worldview, in which humans are physically and spiritually deeply rooted in our Madre Tierra.


Memories about this time only rarely come to my mind, now – probably, because contrast to the present becomes too apparent then. Arriving back in Europe was hard, I remember. It was the small things that seemed so absurd and almost painful, after my return. Flushing the toilet with drinking water, for example! The human urge, which one is mostly ashamed of or disgusted by in our culture, is turned into a much-appreciated fertiliser, at IPES. I missed inviting embarrassed visitors to donate their digested lunch to one of our compost toilets. At IPES, life is appreciated as a cycle; problems are understood as challenges for our creativity and as part of a whole. Instead of wanting to erase them, occurrences that first might seem inconvenient are observed and, with much patience, natural mechanisms are applied to transform the problem to the farmer’s advantage.

What is practised at IPES is called permaculture: A holistic design concept, through which harmonious cycles are designed with much planning, attention and love, to fulfil the needs of humans and nature – a stark contrast to a deeply rooted culture of domineering and “disciplining” nature. In permaculture design, everything has its purpose: Pineapples withstand soil erosion, which often rampages the fields over the streets in form of read mud, since storms have become more frequent. Rice and corn are not grown as the monocultures familiar to our eyes, but in combination with beans, which balance the nitrogen in the soil. With the help of garlic, pests are kept under control.

Far from my idealistic view on the project, most farmers on the project are ex-guerrillas, who have seen much more cruelty in their lives than any one of us would ever dare to guess. Ramirez is one of these farmers. In spite of his irreversible leg injury, he is working with strength and persistence, for which he is deeply admired by volunteers. His gaze reveals more than a thousand words: Pain, disappointment – but also a deep connection to nature, courage and the unbroken will to live according to his convictions: “As guerrillas, we tried to fight for a more just world with weapons. Now we offer resistance through our relation to agriculture, through what we eat. We work hand in hand with nature and recollect traditional wisdom, which our ancestors were bereft of by the cruelties of colonialism.”


Following a complex colonial history, civil war, massacres, gang violence and death squads, supported by the US, rioted throughout the country. With the election of a conservative government after the Peace Accords in 1992, market liberalisation was on the rise. Imported vegetables from Guatemala, GM seeds from Monsanto and powder milk from Nestle now fill the shelves in shops and market stalls. Despite the fertile soil and the tropical climate, many Salvadorians are malnourished. GM seeds and fertilisers have their price, so that a missing harvest often plunges farmers into to ruin. Although these seeds need to be bought over and over again and cannot be saved for the next harvest, many see the progress in the GM corn, stressed over and over in the training of “agrarian experts”. A vicious cycle is created: Land is farmed with GM crops, chemicals deplete the soil and storms carry it away, missing harvest let the debts of farmers rise. A life far away from our life of infinite possibilities!


When I look more closely it is not just the holistic nature of the project that fascinated me so deeply, but more the way it came to life. The courage to decide on the right path – despite all obstacles, stigma and improbability. Is this not the thing we are yearning for? Are we not yearning for our own courage, which, despite of all doubts, obstacles and setbacks, allows us to take the right path? Once we find our courage, the sea of possibilities quickly turns into a narrow, serpentine. Societal conventions, the need to fit in, and an awry understanding of success are the hurdles for those spoiled with choice. No wonder it is so much easier to wallow in our dreams, rather than following them. And yet: our thirst for meaning will only be quenched once we start our journey – with much patience, persistence and drive. When, if not now, in this twisted moment in the history of humanity, is it advisable to turn a crazy vision into action? Let us follow the example of the farmers in El Salvador and the many other pioneers. When we follow our yearnings despite all obstacles, they will one day, amidst the craziness in this world, be able to come home to us.


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