If you never knew Bill Mollison, the founding father of permaculture, you missed out. The Bill Mollison I knew was a cheeky old bastard. Being a cheeky bastard myself, we got on like a house on fire. We became good friends.
The first time I met Bill was on a field trip as a student at the end on my first Permaculture Design Certificate course in 1990 at his permaculture farm in Tyalgum in northern New South Wales. It’s the farm you see him planting potatoes on in his film “Global Gardener.” He smoked a lot and swore a lot; I liked him immediately. Touring around his gardens with him for just a few hours, instantly doubled my understanding of permaculture that day.
The second time I met him, a couple of years later, he rang me up and invited me down to his farm. I hung up on him, thinking it was a mate playing a joke on me. It was Bill. He wanted to see me. Me?
I had started a permaculture business in Brisbane called New Planet Permaculture specializing in edible landscapes in urban areas. The local newspaper had printed an article about an edible park I’d designed and built with the Lions Club of Redcliffe. Somehow Bill had read the article 200 kilometers away and wanted to offer me a project.
I drove down to Tyalgum for the weekend and stayed at Bills place for a few days. We began talking at 5 in the afternoon and by the time we had finished I realized it was dawn the next day. Holy shit! His amazing practical intelligence just drew me in. Being surrounded by morons most of the time dulls you down, but sitting with Bill for me was like a cold man being warmed by a hot fire.
Bill wanted me to run an Aboriginal project in Australia’s highest crime town somewhere out in the outback. What? I said to him, “Mate, I haven’t much experience in permaculture. I’ve only been doing back yard stuff for 3 years.” He looked into me, with his pale blue eyes. “You’re the one that can do it, Steve. Don’t worry.” I’d never even talked to a Black Fella before that, but somehow, Bill’s words gave me enough confidence to take the job on. Sure enough, he was right. The permaculture project in Wilcannia I led dropped the crime rate by 90% over 2 years. It changed those people and that downtrodden town forever.
During that 2-year project, Bill came to visit my job site on his way to Broken Hill. He walked through the permaculture park I’d co-opted the community into building, and named all the trees and plants including the bush tucker plants we’d brought in from the desert. The Black Fellas I was with took off and went out hunting. They came back with a kangaroo and a couple of emus and we all had a BBQ and listened to Bill tell his famous stories. The Black Fellas loved him.
The next day, we all headed off to Broken Hill to help Brett Pritchard peg out the swales for his Living Desert Project. We had a government bulldozer lined up to do the earthworks. Bill, with his friend and bulldozer driver Doug Durragh, set up the laser level, and Brett Pritchard and I pegged out the site, swale by swale. Brett’s project was to demonstrate how permaculture could green up a desert and restore a dry land ecosystem.
Once we had finished, it was time for the Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM) to doze the site with their D4 bulldozer they had sitting on site. Brett went off and rang them to come and start work. A while later, he returned and said that CALM had gotten cold feet, because all these swales and things weren’t in their technical manual. WTF? I began hissing and spitting about fucking bureaucrats, threatening to give that CALM bastard a pineapple suppository, but Bill just had a quiet word in Doug’s ear. Doug walked off towards the dozer and a few minutes later returned driving the government’s dozer! He’d hotwired it. It had a full tank of fuel too, enough to cut the many swales on the project site that day.
That night, Bill gave a public lecture at the Broken Hill Civic centre. He got a warm welcome. A whole bunch of Broken Hill society types showed up, as well as a heap of us scruffy earth-lover types. The mayor arrived in a limousine and stepped out into the limelight absolutely pissed out of his skull. Good old Broken Hill!
I laughed as Bill told the fine people of Broken Hill the real history of their town, and how the previous generations had destroyed the environment and the Aboriginal people out there with their “cowboy mentality.” A few of the locals tried to counter Bills point of view, but Bill chopped them into small pieces with his intelligence and wit. Classic Bill!
I’d stop off at the Permaculture Institute a few times a year on my way back from different projects and spend a few days catching up with Bill. One time I’d just hopped off my bike and Bill came out to greet me carrying a sickle. “Come and drive the Mango Pram for me, mate” he said. The Mango Pram was an old Toyota Land Cruiser stripped down and turned into a farm beast.
A few minutes later, I was grinding my way up the steep slopes of the back paddocks of Tagari farm chatting away with Bill. He reckoned he’d planted around 1000 mango trees on the farm and he wanted to chop and drop the lab-lab bean that was growing rampantly and choking his trees. I offered to help, but he just wanted me to drive the beast. While Bill was hacking and chopping, I was admiring the green-ridged cliffs of the caldera that ran around the skyline from where I was standing. After the deserts of western New South Wales, the green hills seemed to fill me with energy.
After a while, Bill returned looking pale and sweating. He climbed into the passenger seat and said, “You better take me back, mate.” He didn’t sound too good. I looked down and there was blood all over the floor of the beast. Bill had cut the top of his foot open with his razor sharp sickle. I wrapped his foot up in an old t-shirt and drove him back to the house where a few of the volunteers helped me carry him to his kitchen.
“I’ll take you to the doctors, mate,” I told him. “You’ll need stitches on that wound for sure.” He took a few more puffs on his cigarette and said gruffly, “Fuck the doctor, I’m not going to any fucking doctor. You can sew me up.” I had never sewed up a human before, but for some reason I agreed to do it. The wound was deep and needed a good cleaning. It must have hurt, but Bill just smoked one ciggy after the other, no complaints, while I sewed his foot up using a needle and thread dipped in tea tree oil. I couldn’t believe how tough it was to get the needle through the flesh of his foot. My needle was straight out of his sewing kit. Once I had finished the 8 or 9 stitches, I tied off the end like you do when sewing on a button. Bill told me a few weeks later, when he went to get the stitches out at the local clinic; the doctor asked him who sewed up his foot. Bill told him, “Doctor Cran did the job.” According to Bill, the doctor was impressed with the neatness of the sewing job. Maybe Bill was bullshitting me, but whenever we got together after that, I’d ask him if he needed any further surgery and we would have a laugh.
Another time at Tagari, I got sucked into going hiking with a young Slovenian lady up on the pinnacle, a ridge that overlooks Tagari. To cut a long story short, the girl got stranded hanging off the edge of a cliff, after the ground she was walking on slipped away and fell hundreds of meters into the valley below. I had to play the hero and run several kilometers in the middle of the day in summer to get her a rescue chopper. After I finally got to the Permaculture Institute office and organized the rescue chopper, I passed out from heat exhaustion. When I awoke a while later, Bill was spooning salty porridge into my mouth saying, “This is what we used to feed the refugees in Ethiopia when they came in from the desert.” It brought me back to life sure enough.
In 1998, Geoff Lawton, a team of volunteers and I, took over Tagari Farm for Bill, as he was having health issues. One day, Bill wandered down from his house next door while we were running a PDC. We all got into a discussion about hands-on training verses classroom theory. My view was that hands-on was the best way to drive home the theory in our students. Bill reckoned you didn’t need hands-on work, just good theory and classroom work. I said, “Bullshit Bill! What about Black Fellas? You’ll never get them into a classroom for 2 weeks.” I knew I had him, because we have both worked with Aboriginal people before. He stared off into the distance, and took a few puffs of his cigarette. He then turned to me and said, “When it comes to teaching, if it works, do it! You’ll know how good of a teacher you are by how much permaculture your students do after the course.” With that, he ambled off. Just then, a whole new plan downloaded into my brain. From that moment on, I have always included 50% hands-on training on any of my courses.
When I went to East Timor in 1999, Bill rang me and told me, “Work with the women mate. The men are mostly useless, but give them a project so they don’t get jealous and wreck the women’s work.” It was good advice.
Bill and I didn’t see each other for 9 years after that, because I was constantly in the field. Five years in East Timor, then Aceh in Indonesia after the tsunami and so forth. Bill sent me some money for some of the projects plus a stack of books for our library in East Timor when he could.
At an Australian Permaculture Convergence in Sydney in 2008, I met Bill again. He arrived at the convergence in a car with my East Timorese permaculture counterpart Ego Lemos. Ego had spotted him at the airport and introduced himself. Bill had gone AWOL from the hospital with the help of his wife to make his way to the convergence.
We all had a great reunion with Bill. He wanted to hear all the stories of the field. Ego told him about the “Perma-Scouts” of East Timor and I could see the joy emanating from Bill, even though he had crawled out of his deathbed to get to the convergence. Somehow, all the permaculture energy of that convergence healed Bill during that time. It was amazing to watch Bill transform from somebody that could hardly walk or talk, into close to his old self. During that time, Bill told me he wanted to start some kind of Warrior Wall to list all the best permaculture people that had done 15 years or more work in the field. I thought on this for a while afterwards and realized it would be better for me to create the warriors to go on the wall, rather than create a wall with only a few names on it. Hence, I began building the Green Warrior movement.
A few months after the convergence, I looked after his farm in Tasmania while him and his wife, Lisa, went to South America to look for the birthplace of potatoes. He left me a good supply of mutton-birds in his freezer and a massive library of books to digest over the 6 weeks he was away. That was the last time I saw Bill Mollison.
Somebody e-mailed me a few days ago that Bill Mollison was dead!
Goodbye my old friend and mentor.
I was working with a team of permaculture interns plastering the mud wall of our new Green Warrior barracks here in the Philippines. I looked up from my phone and surveyed the scene. I felt sadness. I could see at least 12 Green Warriors doing different permaculture-related tasks around our Green Warrior Permaculture Field School. These are like Bills grandchildren. These Green Warriors are mostly poor, indigenous people learning how to beat poverty using permaculture. They are totally dedicated to permaculture and spreading the message that we have to care for the earth and care for the people. This is my 36th permaculture field school in 26 years of permaculture fieldwork.
I thought of all the people I’ve trained in permaculture in Australia, the USA, East Timor, Uganda, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and now the Philippines. All the ecosystems I helped repair, all the food produced by previously desperate people in my work. In my minds eye I saw the legions of permaculture activists, trainers and practitioners doing their thing, quietly creating a massive green wave. All because of Bill Mollison and his permaculture. Bill put me in my current role.
It was Bill who saw my potential, just like I see these peoples’ potential. Bill saw the warrior in me way back in the day. He convinced me Permaculture can save the world, and I still believe that. I’ve used it to help people in war zones, poverty zones and disaster zones, to rebuild their lives and their lands. Bill told us that the problem is the solution. Bill Mollison’s legacy is still growing.
I’ll miss you Bill. We will all miss you mate.
I looked down at my phone and punched the buttons with my grubby fingers replying to the e-mail, “Bullshit! Bill Mollison lives!”