'When we design, we are always building for future floods, future fires, future droughts, and planting a tree a few inches tall that will be future forest giants, throw future shadows. Future populations will need future soils and forest resources, shelter, security. So somebody needs to range ahead in time, scout out the next century. We are not daydreaming. We are time scouts. Finding places now for what will be needed then.'
- Bill Mollison, Travels in Dreams
'Although the craftsperson’s saying about “using the correct tool for the job” has merit, the boy scout motto about “being prepared” is more important in a jack-of-all-trades permaculture lifestyle, where one is dealing with changing opportunities, resources and impediments.'
- David Holmgren, Permaculture Pocket Knives (April 2012)
This year the affinities between permaculture and scouting will appear a little clearer, with the UK national convergence of permaculturalists being held at Gilwell Park, the historic home of scouting in the UK, located on the London-Essex border. In 2015 permaculturalists will gather there again for the International Permaculture Convergence, when the UK will host the world
Look up the word scout in the dictionary and you’ll find it referring to persons who are sent out ahead of the majority to gather intelligence and bring it back to inform action. Follow the etymology back and you are led to the Old French escouter 'to listen, heed', from the Latin auscultare 'to listen to, give heed to' – so a scout might be someone who gathers information by paying attention, by taking notice, by observation. As we pilot a course though the uncertain waters of the future we need to pay attention to our changing environments and like good boy scouts we need to be prepared.
I was a third-generation scout. My paternal grandfather was in the scouts in Newcastle and, as a boy of 13 attended the 3rd World Scout Jamboree held in 1929 at Arrowe Park in Upton, Merseyside - the scouting movement's international convergence. It must have been, I imagine, the furthest he'd been from home in his life thus far. The event was attended by 50,000 Scouts and apparently had an additional 300,000 visitors. Those scouts came from across the international scouting movement, the camp was organized in eight subcamps, around a specially built town in the middle, called Midway. My grandad was camped alongside a group of Japanese scouts.
|Japanese scouts showing Swedish and Scottish scouts how to make mats at Gilwell Park, where the troops are in camp on their way to Arrowe Park, Birkenhead (photo taken 22nd July 1929)|
The event closed with an event celebrating and promoting international peace. A hatchet was ceremonially buried and the Chief Scout Baden-Powell addressed the gathered Scouts:
'Here is the hatchet of war, of enmity, of bad feeling, which I now bury in Arrowe. From all corners of the world you came to the call of brotherhood and to Arrowe. Now I send you forth to your homelands bearing the sign of peace, good-will and fellowship to all your fellow men. From now on in Scouting the symbol of peace and goodwill is a golden arrow. Carry that arrow on and on, so that all may know of the brotherhood of men.
I want you all to go back from here to your countries in different parts of the world with a new idea in your minds of having brothers in every country... Go forth from here as ambassadors of goodwill and friendship. Every one of you Scouts, no matter how young or small, can spread a good word about this country and those whom you have met here. Try to make yourselves better Scouts than ever; try to help other boys, especially the poorer boys, to be happy, healthy, and helpful citizens like yourselves. And now, farewell, goodbye, God Bless you all.'
It was a powerful message, but peace and goodwill were very soon overcome in the world. Criticism of Baden-Powell and the scouting movement has often identified in both the same attitudes of militarism and imperialism that would, in the wider world, catalyse global conflict. Eleven years after the World Scout Jamboree my grandad was fighting in the jungles of Malaya, and the next time he found himself in the company of Japanese men he was their prisoner in less friendly camps along the route of the Death Railway between Bangkok and Rangoon.
|My grandad's Japanese POW record, in a collection held in the UK National Archives|
He was fortunate, he survived and was liberated - suffering with dysentry, malnutrition, malaria and a parasitic worm in his blood (that wouldn't be diagnosed until years after) but alive. I wouldn't be here if he hadn't. Back in 1929 I don't expect that he was expecting his future to turn out the way it did, and I don't know if he was any better prepared for it than his fellows. In his own way though, he must have creatively adapted and responded to change, he had a clear goal - survival - and, no doubt with some luck, he successfully found his way of achieving it.
When I was a cub scout and a scout, I didn't really feel any militaristic or imperialistic vibe - although there was 'British bulldog' to be played in an old church hall. There was a uniform, but there was at school too, an established hierarchy, ditto. We pledged allegiance to God and the Queen, but that was also a societal norm. Despite the Sex Pistols' primal tirade against the 'fascist regime' in 1977, in May 1981 - when the monarch and consort visited my town, and as a 'seconder' in the Cubs I stood beside the flag bearer in the welcoming party - I was part of a general spirit of goodwill towards the crown cemented two months later by the marriage of Charles and Diana.
|That's me on the right, shortly before meeting the Q & the DoE in Essex|
So, while right-on lefties might have sent their children into the pagan arms of the Woodcraft Folk, where I lived it was the scouts and looking back now I see that scouting was the only celebration of the natural world legitimized in my early education. I don't remember which badges I got now; in my parents' loft I think there might still be a tiny green jumper with various embroidered marks of activity sewn on my by mum - but it could be my brother's. I do remember camping in the woods, netting newts and frogspawn, carrying a knife - all while my home town tripled in size, trees were felled, fields concreted over and secret dens were lost forever.
I perused a copy of Baden-Powell's Scouting for Boys recently and if you want to find stuff to criticize it's easy enough, but there's also much to celebrate too. I don't know a lot about scouting today but I know the movement has changed, it's for both girls and boys together now for a start and from the beginning of 2014, UK Scouts are no longer required to pledge loyalty to God (the Queen's still there mind). A look at the Activity Badges is certainly more inspiring than the average school curriculum. Many permaculturalists have become interested in 'nature education' recently and the whole tracking school tradition through Jon Young, Tom Brown and mysterious 'Native American' guides - but a lot of what you find there you'll find in Baden-Powell's work too.
|Scout accommodation in Jordan, oddly un-tented in a Bedouin country.|
In 2010 I attended my second PDC (Permaculture Design Course), this one in Jordan in the middle east. The venue was a facility for Jordanian scouts: the Al-Karamah Scout Camp. We didn't share the space with any scouts while we were there, but they were in our mind as we made designs for the camp. They were missing clients, resources and the potential implementers of what we proposed.
The relationship between permaculture and scouting is undeveloped, but it exists. The New York Times has noted that 'permaculture contains enough badges of eco-merit to fill a Girl Scout sash'. Indeed one permaculturalist and former scout has written about creating a permaculture merit badge for scouts. A far from exhaustive trawl of what's made it on to the internet reveals some more of the connections. Permaculture teacher Ludwig Appletans is a former Scout Master. Scouts have helped implement permaculture in places like St. Saviours Edible Garden in Brockley Rise, London; Anglesey, Wales; Paolo Alto, California; and East Timor (also see here).
Recently some American permaculturalists took the Mollison quote used at the start of this article and made a video on the 'Time Scouts' theme/meme:
Back in April this year I joined a Permaculture Association recce to Gilwell Park, scouting it out, looking over the spaces, the buildings, the accommodation. It's a great venue - both for this year's national convergence and next year's international one. One space stood out for me in particular: the 'Swan Centre' which has a relief sign depicting a black swan. Since Nassim Nicholas Taleb's 2007 book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, the image of the black swan has held a totemic power to evoke 'the extreme impact of certain kinds of rare and unpredictable events (outliers) and humans' tendency to find simplistic explanations for these events retrospectively' (thanks wikipedia). So I see that black swan at Gilwell Park as both a further admonition to 'be prepared' and as a warning against trying to find simplistic ways of understanding the complex situation we find ourselves in. At the convergence I expect the conversations to go deeper, around the fire they generally do.
|Firepit at Gilwell Park|
You are invited to the 2014 UK national permaculture convergence, I'd like to see you there.
- Buy your convergence tickets now!
- train tickets for the convergence dates are already on sale - also buy now before the price goes up
- If you are camping then it will be very sunny the whole weekend - but show your friends how resilient you are by being prepared for rain anyway!
- the most interesting things are often at the edges
UK Permaculture Convergence 2014
The UK Permaculture Convergence 2014 will beheld at Gilwell Park from the 12th to 14th September. Details and booking information can be found here. The convergence is open to non-members of the Permaculture Association for the first time this year, but the cost for non members is more than the cost of a year’s membership and the price for association members. So it makes sense to join.
International Permaculture Convergence UK 2015
The UK is hosting the International Permaculture Convergence in 2015, and we will be hosting hundreds of permaculturalists from around the world. The UK Permaculture Conference 2014 is being held at Gilwell Park, which is the same venue as has been chosen for IPC UK 2015. Not only does this give the IPC planners a chance to test out the venue, but it also gives us a chance to get a feel for what it will be like next year.
Funds raised from the 2014 Convergence will help pay for the IPC in 2015, so the more people who attend, the easier it will be to fund the IPC, and the more cash will be left over to help fund IPC 2017, which will be in India.