Join me this week for a Permaculture Writer’s special in conversation with amazing permaculture educator and doer, author and grower Kirsten Bradley from Milkwood Permaculture.
As this podcast is going live, Kirsten has just released her new book -> ‘The Milkwood Permaculture Living Handbook: Habits for Hope in a Changing World‘. You can find it in your local library, bookstore, online and maybe even in your street library!
It was so great to catch up with Kirsten, chatting about everything from her writing process and the importance of books to how to find a belonging to place when you’re renting and practice ‘active hope’.
I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I enjoyed making it!
For those who were interested in Kirsten’s reference to the book ‘It’s Not That Radical:
Climate Action to Transform Our World’ by Mikaela Loach, here it is!
To listen to this episode, head to any of your podcast streaming platforms for the Sense Making in a Changing World podcast.
Read the full transcript here:
Kirsten, it’s an absolute pleasure that you accepted my invitation to be here today to talk about your new book. But I’d also love to talk in more general terms about your permaculture world and how permaculture has infiltrated and shaped your life and way of being. Also in informing your book that’s coming out very soon! So firstly, congratulations! I am so in awe of you getting your books out. I know what it’s like, you know, running courses, family and your place and everything that’s going on, so I actually don’t know how you managed to do that. So that’s going to be a question I might ask you later. But anyway, welcome to the Sense Making in a Changing World show.
Thank you so much, Morag. Lovely to be here!
Just to begin with, maybe we could take people right back to your very beginning. Like where did you first catch the permaculture bug? Where did your life and the permaculture world intersect?
I’m trying to remember how many years ago, maybe 16. Yeah, permaculture completely smashed into my life and sent me over sideways. It was not a subtle and evolving situation at all. My partner, Nick and I, were getting ready to move to Nick’s parents farm at the Mudgee in New South Wales. I had in my head, if you’re going to move to the country you had to do a permaculture course first. We were living in the city and were visual artists making lots of stuff in a city context. But we were really keen to move to this family farm and do the thing where you build a quick, tiny home, because that’s really cheap and easy, and grow some of your own food then keep making up from that base. That was a lot cheaper than living in Melbourne. So yeah, so that was the context.
I took myself off to a two week PDC, the full permaculture design course, because I’m a bit of a don’t-do-anything-by-half sort of person, then went off to welding here in Adelaide and did a PDC there and came back to Nick, who knew a lot more about permaculture than I did at that point. I was like, ‘oh my god, we have to change everything. We gotta admit to the country, we’re going to do this permaculture stuff.’ And I was completely bitten by the bug in terms of a lot of the art I was making at the time was about our relationship to nature, the end of wilderness and climate change.
All of a sudden there was this framework and this design system that gave you permission to be a much more functional part of nature and be part of the solutions, it just completely rocked my boat. I was so into it. So then I forced Nick to go and do a PDC as well. Then we moved to the country, going to do all the permaculture we could. That sort of snowballed from there and turned into us getting experts to come to our family’s watershed and teach classes there so that we could learn and the farmers and lots of folk in the valley could learn about these regenerative techniques. It just went from there and here we are 16 years later, that’s our main game and main love still.
What a wonderful story! What I see through the things that you put out, you’re still creating art, you’re still creating beautiful pieces of work, whether it be your posts, or your films, or whatever you do, you infuse it with that artistic… There’s something very visceral about how you share permaculture.
Thank you! I love communicating good ideas and these are such worthy ideas. They’re such worthy thinking tools and I think we need as many people communicating, and teaching and practising and doing this stuff as possible. It’s a bit like science, communication, you’ve got this incredible information. Once you get all the funky kids saying it and all the different ways, you can resonate with different parts of the community and bring everybody along with you. I just love getting to be a part of it.
There’s something that you’ve always said in any of the messaging that you’re putting out is start where you are with what you have. It’s that step by step approach, really bringing it home into your own life. I know that in this new book that you’ve just released, you’re also saying that there’s more than that as well. Or it’s that doorway to more than that there’s something about this ramp between the small and the slow and the steady and this urgent situation that we’re facing, and really trying to bring that conversation together saying that permaculture action is active hope. Permaculture action is climate action. Permaculture action is action for social justice. It’s all of those things from right here right now, right where you are.
Maybe we could just speak about that. Because I know we’ve had conversations before about this, how permaculture can show up in that way. It’s not like something separate, it is woven together with all of that. I wonder where you are with that thinking now and what you suggest to people when you see people feeling overwhelmed with the enormity of the situation that we’re facing?
Yeah, the book, the Permaculture Living Handbook (it’s just coming out), was very much about where you are in the face of overwhelm. Partly because we’ve got 16 years of teaching and hosting students in permaculture and quite often people come in, wanting to change everything right now. They understand that we’re living in an age of overlapping crises, there’s so much urgency and that is all completely true and the frontline work is absolutely essential, the urgent work is super, super essential. But time and time again, we were seeing students sort of burn out or fall over or get quite despondent because they couldn’t do it all at once. Whether that was because stress got the better of them, or whether that was because they’re juggling jobs, kids, varied abilities and privileges and all these different things.
I really wanted to share permaculture tools in a way that made them as accessible as humanly possible to everyone and also allowed for that ‘I’m not good enough, I don’t know how to garden, I don’t know how to do this. This is far too smart.’ I can figure this out and meet people exactly where they are. Celebrating and helping people get back in touch with how much intelligence lives in our body, how much intelligence lives within us, when we start interacting with our ecosystem, even if it’s a jar of sauerkraut on our bench or our back garden or the weeds in the cracks in our street. We deserve to be back in our ecosystems as useful celebratory life forms. You don’t need to have designed a permaculture farm or move to the country to interact with your ecosystem or these world shifting ideas and habits.
It was very much coming from that place and wanting to flip the script, which is not a static script, within the regenerative movement – there’s a fair bit of ‘the big thing will save the world.’ And we do need urgent frontline action, we do need big solutions. But we need the small solutions, as well and they both need to coexist all the time. I really wanted to get away from that binary of things like ‘this thing counts and this other thing doesn’t.’ Even though it’s true that greenwashing has a lot to answer for, and the whole carbon footprint concept brought up by BP to give individuals the majority of the guilt for what was happening, that’s all true, but actions can still matter. The way we live our lives can nurture both us and our ecosystems. And we get to contribute something. That’s beautiful.
It’s absolutely beautiful. And I wanted to ask you, as you were speaking there, because I just imagine, for you, how does it personally feel to be able to know that you can walk out your door and harvest food and have abundance? Like, it’s really that abundant thinking? Like, how does that help your personal well being?
Yeah, hugely. We are extremely lucky, extremely privileged to be stewarding half an acre down here in Southern Tasmania these days. We’re no longer renting, which is amazing, and really good for our nervous systems in terms of safe harbour and putting down roots and having a home. But a lot of this book, and a lot of what we’ve been teaching has been during the years where we were renting here or renting there, managing someone else’s farm or on a family farm, and these situations were all a bit temporary, potentially.
I love finding ways to feel at home, in my ecosystem, that didn’t rely on me going, ‘this is my backyard forever and ever’, because that wasn’t possible for me. Most of my friends didn’t own anything, because we’re the first generation of the people that even in Australia, quite often don’t own where they live and have that housing insecurity. Which means that feeling like you’re in place, living in place, and part of an ecosystem, sometimes feels a bit harder. But at the same time learning the weeds on your street, learning your waterways, doing all these other things, cultivating community and all the ways that do not require us to own land or steward land, became a really important part of how I felt about what safety and home meant.
Finding how to motivate communities and to help people feel like they had a place, even if they didn’t have a backyard, or they didn’t own a farm. There’s so many ways to interact with these beautiful ecosystems that we get to be a part of, and expand some of the ideas like, ‘you need this, you need to build that, you need to grow this and it has to be grown like that.’ That’s all super true and really excellent if you’re a land steward and you have access to land, structure, energy, funds and abilities that allow you to do those things. I really wanted to emphasise with this book, and how we teach intro to permaculture courses, that there’s a million ways to have relationships with your ecosystem, community and yourself. Things that aren’t necessarily tied to having the perfect backyard or the abundant veggie patch.
Yeah. Just looking inside your book that I’ve had that little sneak peek of, what I love about it is it’s looking at the habits, behaviours, practices, our ways of showing up and connecting. There’s lots of practical tips all throughout, but it’s that lens really, that we’ve looked through. Where did those habits come from? Because it’s peppered all the way through the whole book. It’s basically a whole series of habits that you can change, all structured around the permaculture principles. Where did that idea come from? Because it’s just brilliant, so simple, so clear, and really is a new framework to put all of those different strategies, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, whatever place you’re in – to start just look differently at things and interact differently, build different relationships, and cultivate different deeper connections with things. I think that relationality is so beautiful.
I’m so glad you like it, Morag. That means a lot to me. It was this structure that had been teaching our Intro to Permaculture Courses through a few years. So it’s been a work in progress. It was probably Nick that came up with the actual structure of like ‘let’s plunk all these permaculture tools, skills ideas and can be used within a permaculture framework that belonged to permaculture but framing them within the 12 principles. It allows people to use them as thinking tools, dive in wherever they want and appreciate how nonlinear making change can be. You don’t need to start at this point and progress forwards, you can pick any habit, anything that speaks to you. Get good at it, make that just really normal and then pick another one.
I think as someone who has had a lot of anxiety and depression, a whole lot of other things throughout my life, overwhelm is a huge thing and it can really sabotage all sorts of things for sometimes really long periods of time. I really appreciate being able to offer people one tiny little thing which has huge implications. For example, if you’re walking somewhere, instead of taking your car, you’re just choosing one place that’s 10 minutes away from you that you go to fairly regularly and you just walk there instead. That’s your role and you try to do that as much as possible. It’s such a simple action, it’s such a simple habit to get into. But the implications for both your relationship with your ecosystem and your neighbours in your community are huge. It’s also this collectivism of these little habits.
The idea that one person walking to the store, instead of using their car, will not save the planet is abundantly clear. But we’re all only ever individuals, we can only ever do individual acts and the idea of this sort of decentralised collective action is as true and as valid as many of the huge actions that we all need to be involved in and committed to. It’s not at all saying take your reusable cups and save the world, we all know that. That doesn’t mean that getting into the habit of taking your reusable cup is anything other than a good idea. You can do both.
Basically, you can join your local climate action group, you can protect your waterways, you can get involved in all the things, you can pay the rent to your traditional owners, and you can do everything at all the levels or even just a few things that are at other levels. But we need to act and live in a way that nurtures ourselves and the wider landscape. There’s just so many roads into that debate.
It’s really important that those choices that we make are the ones that resonate, the ones that speak to us, the ones that move us into action. When we open that door, a whole other series of things start to become visible and possible. Once we step through that metaphorical door, it’s not actually even a door! You take that step into that direction, all of these other things start to happen. Sometimes there’s amazing epiphanies, other times, it’s just another step and all of those things are good.
What I love, and this relates so much to what you’re saying is that just that simple act of walking there, you might end up with a conversation along the way, which then that person tells someone. You never actually know the ripple effect of an action that you do. But just showing up in a way that has meaning, purpose and is demonstrating your commitment to it and sharing with the world, not going out and telling people you must do this, you must do that. Just showing up in that way with your authentic self. It’s so magnetic, I think…
Nourishing, it helps you keep going. We’re in an age of many crises. We need to nourish ourselves in order to keep going. We need to keep our hearts whole however that looks, our families, our loved ones, all those little nurturing things that will help us get there as much as everything else.
So you use the term active hope, I was reading. Do you want to describe what active hope means to you through a permaculture lens?
So there’s a wonderful writer/educator called Joanna Macy, who is of an advanced age now and isn’t actively teaching anymore. But she articulated the idea of active hope, although it comes from many traditional practices, being a goal and a practice. So it’s not a kind of hope, where you go, ‘Oh, I hope that happens. It didn’t happen.’ It’s this very robust practice – it’s goal setting, in a sense, living in a way where you’ve got the thing that you hope will come to pass, you identify it, you get it clear with yourself, then you solidly take little steps towards that goal. It’s not to say that you will get to that goal. It’s not a ‘if Step Two doesn’t work, then the end goal of whatever it is, will never come to pass.’ But it’s a practice of moving towards the world that we want.
In that practice, and in that process of taking steps that are positive, and that are downright blindingly useful towards that world that we want, we create that world that we want, in our every day, a little bit more and a little bit more. Again, in a time when hope is fairly scarce and there’s a lot to be upset and worried about. I find active hope a really excellent way of keeping your head up. But also just taking solid steps towards a useful future for now, as you do that.
Yeah, I really appreciate Joanna’s work and feel that it’s so relevant, something that we can really bring more into the permaculture education that we’re offering in all different dimensions, from short workshops to permaculture design courses, and open up those conversations. I think that’s why a lot of people do end up on the door of permaculture courses, because they’re looking for something else, looking for a new way of imagining the future.
You also talk about permaculture being quite radical, or maybe that we need radical change. So what is radical to you? Sometimes I get a bit frightened of using the word radical. Whereas in actual fact, what we need is a radical change in the way we think and the way that we show up. So how are you using that word? I know that you’re always very conscious about bringing people along on the journey. It’s not about ‘okay, this is something that’s over here’. This is something right in the middle that we can all participate in. So how can we layer the radical? How can we weigh the radical term into that kind of concept? Bring it into something that we can learn with and work with every day?
I mean, it makes me think of Rebecca Solnit, who talks a lot about radical hope, which is pretty much the same as active hope, but coming from a slightly different perspective. Radical hope as a concept comes from a book by Jonathan Lear, who was researching First Nations American indigenous cultures who were behaving in these extraordinarily excellent ways, even though there seemed to be very little chance that there was much future for their people. It was this investigation into how, as a people, one might keep behaving in a way that would benefit future generations, even if you weren’t even sure anymore if there would be future generations, whether that was culture stewardship or land stewardship, all those things entirely.
It’s an intense and wonderful book, looking at that in one specific group within a traditional culture, but we see that across indigenous and traditional practices, we’re also seeing it within our communities. Now, people are choosing to act in a radical way, the sort of way that we need to behave and live in order to create goodness and livability for future generations.
It feels quite radical now, but it’s actually not. It’s just one step at a time, one foot in front of the other, behaviour to get us towards the world that our communities need and deserve. So that’s the whole radical skill that I think almost all of us use intuitively. But we know it’s not actually radical at all. It’s just common sense that there’s got to be a lot of gumption attached to that action.
In some ways that’s what people term as radical, although it also reminds me of Michaela Loach who is this incredible British author and their recent book is called, ‘It’s Not That Radical: Climate Justice To Transform Our World’ and it is very good. It is a really, really excellent book, laying out the climate crisis, solutions, responsibilities and considerations in terms of climate justice. It is an extremely radical book for some I would think, but at the same time, again, it’s common sense. Once you look at it, well articulated, it’s like, ‘oh, it’s not radical at all.’ That’s bloody obvious. That’s what we need to do.
Those of you who are listening, I’ll put the links to the books in the show notes as well as to where you can find the books from Milkwood. Now though, I wanted to come back to your book and maybe ask you a bit about that writing process. I was alluding to this before, how I interview people about writing as part of this series of podcasts and talking with permaculture authors.
I always like to ask about your process of writing. Someone once told me how they go walking with the woods in the woods with their microphone on, dictating notes, then they download it and transcribe it when they get back and edit it. Someone else’s, they just mind map it all out, and then sit down at their child’s tennis lesson and bang out a chapter while they’re sitting in the car watching. And it’s like, oh my gosh, how do you do that? What’s your process?
The process for this book was quite different to the first book. The first book was me having a lovely time, writing about seaweed and tomatoes and collating many years of knowledge from experts that I knew and getting to call them up and going, ‘Hey, I just want to check this bit about tomato seed starting.’ And that book was a tribute to the generosity of many teachers that we worked with, and beautiful folks sharing their knowledge. Then I got to collate that knowledge into five delicious chapters, which I had so much fun doing. This particular book, The Milkwood Permaculture Living Handbook, took a lot longer than it was meant to take, about two and a half years longer than it was meant to. I had a few health crises along the way and had to slow right down.
Truth be told, I did use some of the days when everyone thought I was writing a book to just sit in the sun on the floor, because that’s what my body required at the time. But funnily enough, I couldn’t actually share that with anyone. I couldn’t just go, ‘Hey, I need to rest and need to put this book off.’ I had to sort of hide and sit in the sun on the floor and pretend I was writing a book. But that said, that was part of the process, I guess.
Once I was feeling better, and got more into it, I went for the whole, I call it a flatlay. But it’s like a big document/spreadsheet. Basically that goes this is page one, this on page two, there’s that on page three. Although that sounds extremely uncreative, I found that fantastic. Can’t remember who told me to do that. But yeah, so I took a spreadsheet and laid everything out.
The reason that was so important for me, was because I could write about weeds for a very long time. I like them very much. But I knew I couldn’t from my last book and the ruthlessness of a book editor who quite reasonably has to cut you down to size in terms of word count. Because this book was so late, I didn’t have time to just write as much as I wanted to about weeds and then figure out how to fit that into four pages. So all of a sudden, it was like, right, we’ve got four pages for weeds and need two pages of images. That means there’s only two pages of text. How do you want to convey these concepts in only two pages of text? Then I figured it out from there, which I found really creative.
I love those constraints, although they’re quite annoying sometimes when you want to write more, because this book has 60 habits for hope in a changing world. There’s a lot of bits in there so there isn’t the space to go super deep on any subject. It’s more a handbook of suggestions. Have you thought of this or have you thought of that? Have you thought about how buying local affects food security and pollinators and watersheds and food justice and equity and all these other things. Using these really cool concepts, practices and habits as more of a ‘Have you thought about doing this’, I had to approach it like that.
Once I had a structure, I didn’t have tennis lessons to bang them out in, but it got a lot easier to bang things out. And I should say, we had this online course called Permaculture Living and the book is based loosely on that course. I was pulling things out of the course and going, ‘everyone really gets into this subject for whatever reason, I’m going to make sure that’s in the book.’ So we’d had the feedback of a few years of students passing through this course to go on and you could tell what lit people up, you could tell what things people didn’t understand. You tell what things people went, ‘Oh, I never thought about that.’ So we used that community knowledge to craft the book.
Yeah, fantastic. Having that structured start feels somehow liberating. Once you’ve got the thinking of the pattern, then you can get into the details. It is that design from patterns to detail, isn’t it? You don’t have to think about all the things you’ve got to include and then to get them slashed?
Yeah, it’s so great.
That’s wonderful. Yeah. How do you feel now that it’s finished and going out in the world?
It’s so good. It’s a little surreal as I’m sure anyone who’s been involved in a long term project feels like. There’s also the sense of the last time you got to write anything, and it was well over six months ago, longer, a book is not a blog post. Fortunately, unfortunately, you can’t go back and change anything. So it leads to all this pressure when you hand in your manuscript. I kept changing what I wanted to say about the subjects. I’m such a tweaker, that I was like, ‘Oh, I just want to change that a little bit more’, until my publisher said, ‘No more!’
So yeah, and I got to live with it and it’s this lovely life with it. It’s a lovely, amazing, useful handbook. But it’s also a little bit of a time capsule for how you felt about this subject, or how you were writing about this, in my case, the spring of 2022, because that’s where things are at. There’s a beautiful sort of solidity, it’s interesting how most of our world can be updated. Most of the writing we read, most of the writing we write, can be very easily updated these days. So it’s really interesting to have that permanence. It’s a snapshot in time for you.
You also have all the digital media as well. What do you feel is the importance of having that book? What is that difference in the media world for you?
Well, I mean, like many of us, I’m trying to find a balance between screen time and not screen time. I love the fact that a book is the thing you can take outside in the sunlight with a cup of tea and you don’t have to plug it in, it still works. There’s a resilience to books that I think is obvious and also, crucial. At this point in time, a book is handed from hand to hand, you lend books, you don’t lend an Ipad with an article on it, you send it to your friend, but you don’t know if they’re going to read it. The lending of the book, the holding of the book, the underlining of bits and pieces in a book, I just think the information goes into your brain differently, or at least it does for me.
The same way that if I really need to get some creative thoughts down I write them down in my notebook. I can type obviously and do a fair bit of it. But the way my brain comes out through the pencil is quite different to the way my brain comes out through the keyboard and making the most of that is sort of similar to the different parts of life. It’s wonderful to have a bookshelf full of really cool information and useful stuff that if the power goes out for a week, no worries, you can just get on with it.
That’s right. I have a bookshelf over there that’s full of wonderful information I’ve been collecting for decades now and I wouldn’t part with it for the world. I also think it’s something my dad used to say and he’s 86 now. He says ‘I would like to be able to read a newspaper rather than reading it online, because I’ll be opening the newspaper and all of a sudden I’ll see something that I’ve never thought about before!’ Whereas if I’m online, I would choose it and then the algorithm tells me what I should read next. I don’t get to see all the context like in a book, I have that possibility. I might have been interested in the composting pump, and then all of a sudden I start to see the other suggestions that come through. So I really love that broadening.
Yeah, the author gets to create their own algorithm, I guess! You get to decide what they’re going to think about and see next but you’re right, like the distraction engine that is any online world, any online device. That’s literally what it’s built for, to distract you. A book is, in some ways, an antithesis to that. This is what’s on the next page. Let’s sit down and read that as well.
Yeah. Wonderful. Oh, gosh, look, I’m so glad we’ve had this chat. I think this whole point of really embracing a permaculture way of life, it feels like to me, I can’t imagine living any other way. I mean, I haven’t really had many other experiences, because my life has pretty much been entirely permacultural. But I do speak to a lot of people all the time who’ve kind of smashed into it but use it. There’s the hope and the possibility, feeling grounded or connected wherever we are, whether it be a community garden, backyard or balcony. The possibilities of connecting and deepening our relationships with community, feeling held like creating a sense of home.
I was asking the other day I was on Country up the road with some Gamilaraay folk, a local indigenous group here, working on a project to restore a piece of land that they’ve been able to access. I asked this question about the feeling you get when you’re deeply connected to a place and it’s not biophilia. Because it’s more than that. It’s about knowing where your food comes from, and you’re feeling held in that state of abundance of the place, and it’s not about ownership of land or anything like that. I’m really searching for a word to describe that feeling.
I said ‘I don’t know if you know, but is there anything from your language that might say that,’ and he just looked at me and he thought for a minute and he said, ‘Oh, well, I have a word. But it translates as home.’ And my mind initially went to ‘oh, that’s just like the house home.’ But then I just paused for a bit longer and realised, ‘yeah, that’s it, our home is like that.’
We were talking about that before about coming home and creating a place of belonging, where we understand we can read the landscape, where we know our region, we have a sense of what’s edible, what’s not, and how to interact and be in relationship with that place. That deep sense of home is so important and these habits that you’re describing is a way to find our way back home. So thank you for writing a sense of home that we all need and deserve. Thank you so much for being here.
Thank you so much, Morag. That’s great!