“A Love for Creation” – Invite & Interview with Permaculturist Penny Livingston - Commonweal Garden, Bolinas, CA

by Willi Paul, Magazine

Penny Livingston presents: 
“Discover how permaculture design can play a central role in building strong communities.”
Register for her Evolver Talk 
Monday, March 31
5:00 p.m. PST

Program Description -

“Focusing on healthy solutions for people and the planet, permaculture is a method of design that builds both healthy ecosystems and supports human settlements. Permaculture has made a powerful global impact, finding deep resonance and acceptance in parts of the world in the direst condition. It is in alignment with the beliefs and practices of indigenous traditions, and a forward looking answer to the questions that consume the health of our planet and its inhabitants. There is a growing community committed to finding solutions to living and benefiting the earth, developing tools and skills to grow food, build homes, harvest water, and design human settlements. As a movement focused on positive solutions, permaculture practitioners are profoundly serving the world and providing solutions to world leaders.

Join us for an Evolver Talk with Penny Livingston, founder of the Regenerative Design Institute and one of the world's leading permaculture practitioners. In this live, interactive video session, you will be introduced to the design principles, methods and strategies of permaculture. Learn practical ways to bring the wisdom of permaculture into your own life, and into the life of your community -- the neighbors you engage with, the networks you are a part of, the organizations you participate in. This 90 minute session will give you the overview of what is commonly covered in a two-week permaculture course. You will be part of the discussion, able to ask your questions on camera, just like a Skype call. If you happen to miss it live, you can view a video recording at any time.”

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Interview with Penny by Willi -

Do you see a link between permaculture and transition movement? Can we integrate the two?

There is a direct link between the transition movement and permaculture. The transition concept was originally conceived as a design project for a PDC Rob Hopkins, a British permaculture teacher, was conducting in Kinsale Ireland. He replicated it with in Totnes England with Raven Grey, who now lives here in West Marin, and who also brought it to Cornwall. It’s important for us to remember our lineages. This is the “culture” part of permaculture.

Can you practice permaculture without access to land? Examples please?

Yes, There are many examples as permaculture is a design system, it’s not about gardening tips, as Bill Mollison would say. You can use permaculture design to design your business or livelihood. There are people doing business consulting using permaculture design. I used it to create stability for myself by having a number of different businesses, so when one was slow, I had others to fall back on. I did landscape design and construction, I had a bed and breakfast cottage, I was a weaver and sold woven items at craft fairs and stores; I did consulting and teaching. Also there have been some investment companies started by permaculturists to help people put their money where their mouth is, so to speak. Writers, telling the story about permaculture or film makers, artists and musicians all play a role in the permaculture world.

Stories, Songs, New Mythologies! Are you listening to folk / rock bands lauding the power and might of permaculture?

There are some folk musicians that are singing the story in a wonderful way. Diane Patterson comes to mind. Travis Knapp and Charlie McGee are great.

What are your organizational strategies when combating climate change?

My organizational strategy is to walk the talk, work in my community, manifest and be the example by creating a place people can come to experience a permacultural life directly. To have a place where people can experience eating healthy food in a non-toxic environment, utilizing permaculture practices and adaptive strategies for an unstable climate is very powerful. Even before it started raining our cisterns were full and we were good for the year here because we have been putting in water harvesting and storage systems at Commonweal Garden, using the methods we teach in our courses, for the last 10 years.

We have been working in our community for 25 years. We decided we wanted to start a group 20 years ago called “Friends of the Farmers”. The plan was to find about 2000 people in the community what would support local initiatives including businesses, farmers, and political issues relating to our sustainability in West Marin. When we had our first meeting it turned out everyone wanted to be a farmer so we started West Marin Growers Group which is now Marin Organic a fabulous advocacy and educational organization. Within West Marin Growers group we organized (inspired by one of our members, Janet Brown) the first community meal where everything (I mean everything) was produces in Marin. If the salt wasn’t produced in Marin, there was no salt in the meal. It was delicious and started the conversation around local food in our community.

West Marin Growers group started the first farmers market. When there was no media coverage we (my husband James Stark mainly) started the first radio station in West Marin. It’s now broadcasting on the web and has won some awards. This all has brought the community together to create our own Transition initiate even though our “official” Transition group isn’t very active at the moment. Perhaps it isn’t necessary here because we are all living it anyway. All of the emergency systems are on Solar.

We have a constructed wetland for the village sewage. We are surrounded by our food and have protected our water systems. Our village runs our own public utility. This has taken vision and community involvement for many years. Personally, I have been serving on an advisory board where we were giving away about $350,000 a year toward climate solutions. We have funded, Indigenous Environmental Network, Marin Permaculture, United Roots, Bay Localize, Black Mesa Water Coalition, Blue Climate Solutions, Marin Carbon Project to name just a few. It’s a very long list (see

We gave all the money away because we believe it’s more important to use it and make it available now rather than dole it out over time.

What is the status of teaching permaculture in public / private schools in NorCal?

It seems to be growing. We have school groups that come to our farm on a regular basis. High school kids especially are really lit up about it. There needs to be more.

In my experience, it is fair to say that a small cadre of teachers (“experts?”) have dominated the PDC scene. Do you see any danger in this?

All I know is that I’ve been doing my best to train a lot of teachers who are now teaching actively from Sonoma to Santa Cruz and beyond. I don’t believe there is such a thing as a permaculture “expert”. I’ve been called that and it makes me cringe. I teach 1 course a year in the US at our farm in Bolinas. It’s coming up May 30- June 14. Most of the courses I see offered in California are being taught by my students so I’m not sure what you mean by a “small cadre of teachers”. Anyone who wants to organize and teach a course can if they have a certificate and the skills.

Where is capitalism and permaculture headed at Commonweal Garden?

Wierd question. We’re a non-profit. Yes we need money because it costs us money to maintain this place and we want to keep it nice for people to come here to experience this living example. This is my home and I open it up to the public. I make a fraction of the money doing this compared to what I make when I consult or work on projects. I love this garden. It means more to me than money.

Do you agree that permaculture (and Transition!) could benefit from new, formalized celebrations, annual events and holidays?

Yes, everyone can... regardless if they are involved with permaculture or Transition.

Can you identify any “traditions” in the permaculture movement?

No, as permaculture is a design system and it shows up differently in every culture and community. Hopefully the traditions that are showing up are based within the local culture. I don’t see any specific traditions that cross cultural lines. Permaculture practices look very different everywhere I go.

Water; compost; in what ways does permaculture benefit from the labor of animals?

I’m not sure I understand. Animals are important for our compost if that’s what you mean. We have goats and chickens that contribute to that. They also help maintain the land by eating invasive plants. Goats LOVE poison hemlock and yes, we can drink the milk. Chickens eat bugs.

Permaculture training (PDC) is without a doubt a highly competitive marketplace. How do you market yourself and your organizations to get students?

Most of it is through word of mouth, and we use the internet.

Some see permaculture without a real chance to form a unified global movement, even calling it just ‘intellectual babble.’ Thoughts?

Don’t know about that. Haven’t heard that in my circles as we don’t talk about it we are too busy doing it.

Do we need more cob benches?

Are you being sarcastic? [Willi – No! ]

Are there issues in the permaculture listservs that do not belong in the mix?

I don’t belong to any of the list serves except the Bay Area ones so I can’t speak to that.

What are the current full-time (with benefits) jobs that are available in the permaculture sector now?

Most permaculture people I know are free lancers as they don’t want to be tied down to a “job”. There are some landscaping companies and design firm (permaculture IS about design) that are pretty successful and offer benefits.

Are online PDC course really valid experiences?

If done well, I think they can be. There needs to be a human presence, with opportunities to ask questions and get feedback. Just watching videos is not a PDC. Also a PDC requires a certificate and to do that the instructor needs to have some relationship with the student. Any online “PDC” that is not offering a certificate with feedback from the instructor is not a valid PDC.

Are you a spiritual being? If yes, how is this expressed in your class and consulting work?

Of course I am a spiritual being. There is a spiritual component in my life. It’s not something I speak about publicly. It dwells within my inner landscape. We lead people to connect deeply with nature and creation here at our garden. This leads to people having their own spiritual experiences. Permaculture design, if taught correctly, can lead to a profound growth in awareness to the natural world and love of creation. It is what makes permaculture so effective for restoration. One needs to understand and connect with what they are trying to restore. Some people may consider this spiritual.

Please critique the general idea of the “permaculture convergence.” Any recent positive or negative experiences to share?

I like the idea of people coming together for face time and meeting each other’s humanness. I like more networking and schmoozing rather than talking heads and structural presentations. That’s just me… Others may like it. I prefer to use the convergences to meet people. Much better than email ;)

Do permaculturists need to take seats in local City administrations to advance the movement?

I think that is a fantastic idea. I’m currently sitting on the Building Appeals Board for the County of Marin. Great way to get your voice heard and make policy changes.

How is permaculture addressing the hardest hit communities in this country? Any success stories?

It is helping to revitalize Oakland. The people who started Planting Justice, Ecoliteracy program for United RootsPeoples Grocery and others have come through our programs and are doing great work in the East Bay. There is a great project Starhawk has been working on in Bayview Hunters Point in San Francisco. Detroit has some great things happening that is very hard to keep up with. The story is still unfolding. The success lies in the hearts of the people who are energized with hope and inspiration doing good work, whatever it is, in their communities and abroad.

Can you give us some recent examples of difficulties project teams had in satisfying the permaculture ethics and principles?


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Penny Livingston’s Bio –

Ms. Livingston is an internationally recognized as a prominent permaculture teacher, designer, and speaker. Penny has been teaching internationally and working professionally in the land management, regenerative design, and permaculture development field for 25 years and has extensive experience in all phases of ecologically sound design and construction as well as the use of natural non-toxic building materials. She specializes in site planning and the design of resource-rich landscapes integrating, rainwater collection, edible and medicinal planting, spring development, pond and water systems, habitat development and watershed restoration for homes, co-housing communities, businesses, and diverse yield perennial farms.

With her husband James Stark, and in collaboration with Commonweal — a cancer health research and retreat center — Penny co-manages Commonweal Garden, a 17-acre organic and certified salmon-safe farm in Bolinas, California. In addition, Penny and James are stewarding and working to restore 200 acres of land in Trinity County, California. Penny co-created the Ecological Design Program and its curriculum at the San Francisco Institute of Architecture, and she co-founded the West Marin Grower’s Group, the West Marin Farmer’s Market, and the Community Land Trust Association of Marin. Penny has also worked with the Marin County Community Development Agency and Planning Department to develop recommendations on sustainability for updating the Community Plan. Penny is a founding member of the Natural Building Colloquium, a national consortium of professional natural builders, creating innovations in straw bale, cob, timber frame, light clay, natural non-toxic interior finishes and other methods using natural and bio-regionally appropriate materials for construction.

Connections –
Penny Livingston
penny at
Commonweal Garden
Regenerative Design Institute
PO Box 923
Bolinas, CA 94924

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