Robyn Francis – Power of Community

Robyn Francis has been involved in many community permaculture projects and is a strong permaculture leader. She has witnessed the power of community and building trust.

In our recent interview, Robyn thinks it’s interesting that just so much of social permaculture is being driven by women. And it’s not just social permaculture. “When I look at a lot of social movements like those in my village here. The sustainability initiatives here women are the key drivers of almost everything. And building community is a really big part of it. That’s one of the areas of social permaculture that I’m most passionate about is community building and creating resilient communities. I was involved in the whole intentional community movement for a long time from 1979.

On the front foot

When Lismore council threatened to bulldoze all the illegal dwellings on the illegal multiple occupancies and communities that were setting up up and down the coast. We had a cluster of them around Wauchope. We set up multiple occupancy associations and looking at you know the social, economic and governance issues. Land management and design the human dynamics.

Gated Communities Are Shut In

It’s not just about intentional communities or gated communities. We need to work on that wider community level. Little enclaves of like-minded people need to embrace the wider community. And learn to communicate with people who are different to ourselves with different values.

Finding Common Ground in Our Community

We find common ground and and build on that. And so, I’ve been really fascinated with and involved in effective consultation processes. These bring people together and find common ground that we can build on. Then we start to envisage where we want to go to. And what are the baby steps of things that are highly attainable that we can actually act on now. Because I think so often with visioning the visions are so big that people then feel overwhelmed. and of how do we ever get there you know so breaking things down to actually you know bite size chunks and uh doable steps so what can we actually do now with with without you know big injections of money or resources you know what have we actually got the resources to do right here and now and start to make small improvements and then you know the momentum can build from there and and if we’ve got the big vision.

Keep the Big Vision

I’m not saying don’t have a big vision we need the big vision because then opportunities arise. And suddenly when a big opportunity comes up – hey we can harness that!

We can get a little bit off with the off with the fairies and it can get stuck in unrealistic optimism. Yes we’ve got to work on ourselves. But some of the ways that we can work on ourselves is also through working in the outside world.

Learn From Nature

We can learn so much from nature on a spiritual, intellectual and practical level. Nature is naturally generous. It’s not conditional. We’ve got a lot to learn from that. We’ve become a self-focused society and people are afraid to reach out. They are afraid of difference. And afraid of being generous.

Driven By Love, Not Fear

I’m fearful of climate change and what’s happening to our beautiful planet. But it’s not fear that motivates me. It’s the the love of life, it’s the love of the species. And trying to save what we can of planet earth. Also I have a love of humanity. What I am interested in is and how can we come together and express this in a meaningful, creative and convivial way.

Here in our community we’ve done a lot of work in terms of coming together and buying community assets. This is quite an unusual thing. Most communities, including ours in the early 90s, complain about lack of government funding.

Building Community Bridges and Networks.

When the new school was built the old school went on the market, the department of education if it goes to public ownership it’ll be half the price. So, we had a series of community meetings to buy the old school.  Because we desperately need housing for all our community organizations and initiatives. So, we approached council and they said if the community can raise half the money and develop a watertight business plan to pay off the rest we’ll look at a low to low interest loan. In 18 months the community raised 118 000 (And it’s not a community with much disposable income).  

This meant building a lot of bridges in a divided community. We had to come together to achieve this aim. It was so empowering. On the tale of achieving this, we had a visit from Robert Theobald a Canadian futurist. But it takes somebody from the outside, coming in, talking to a community. It was the right time and the right message. It resonated with everybody.

Community Forums

So, we set up a community forum that met once a month. No one organization controlled it. The wider community set the agenda. It focused on solutions. It wasn’t a soapbox for people to indulge in complaining. And we solved a lot of community and social issues.

Even local government councillors used to come and get input from these forums in terms of decisions that they were making that impacted on Nimbin and developing new development control plans for the village and things like that.

Food Security, Renewable Energy and Transport

After seven or eight years we started to run out of issues. This was really good. Then in 2008 I facilitated a transition town processes. We created a number of working groups. The three big priorities were food security, renewable energy and transport (which is still an issue).

Farmers Markets

On the food security front, we got two local farmers markets going. We had Robina McCurdy. She was in Australia from New Zealand. So we invited her to conduct a series of workshops. One was with land holders, farmers and producers. It was seeing who was producing what, who had the potential to produce and what were the impediments to producing more of our food needs locally. And then we had one with  the retail sector: shops, cafes and so forth. Then one workshop with the two groups together so we could start to build links.

Wow! ‘What’s come out of that?’ Prior to the food security group  we probably  I know  I might have managed if  I was lucky to see like maybe 40 to 50 percent of my diet would come from the garden. and the local area now it’s sort of around 80 to 90 percent within a 30 kilometre radius of Nimbin and that feels so good and it’s been  I mean these seem like so like practical outside things but they also have a direct impact on people they’re also social systems they’re not just food systems they are social systems and they’re ones that are meeting real human needs  I mean we need farmers we need food three times a day at least and  there’s nothing more personal than what we put in our mouth to become us we are what we eat.


Over the years, doing these projects together as a community starts to build up a degree of community trust. We had a devastating event happen around 2011. The rainbow cafe and the Nimbin museum and a couple of shops burnt down. They were in the heart of the village. Those buildings had a rich history. Those businesses did too, They were a big part of the community and our sense of place and identity. It was pretty devastating.

Then hot on the heels of that, our local organic shop of nearly 20 years, said that they were closing their doors at the end of the week. So we organized a meeting in the hall within 24 hours. 80 people turned up. Including the owners of the of the shop. And we decided unanimously to take over the organic shop as a food co-op. The owners said they would support that community process.

Governance Bodies

We had a legal entity in place for managing the community for the farmers markets. So, that became the umbrella organization to take on the leasing accounts until we could actually incorporate our cooperative.

So, we had a meeting on Monday night. The shop closed down on Friday night. And on the following Monday morning it opened up as community food co-op. Everybody was buzzing. But you see, 10 years earlier it wouldn’t have happened like that. People working together, and making things happen as a community, builds a degree of trust.

Building Trust

To me, being able to just say ‘yes’, we’re going to form a food co-op was the mark of  a maturity in terms of community trust and functionality.

We’ve seen how the community responds to disasters when we had the fires here. Then when we got cut off by the floods. And even with the lockdown with the pandemic last year. People really look after each other. There’s all these different community groups that just automatically assume different roles. Each is complementary. They’re not treading on each other’s toes. So, all bases are covered.

This is a community that looks after it’s vulnerable. ‘It’s really easy for highly educated, middle class people to create their own little scene’. But, what about the vulnerable in our society? What about the disenfranchised? The unemployed? Problems of addiction stem from unresolved social and economic issues.

Community is Gold

A community that has compassion is gold. I love to share the story of what we’re doing here because people find it really empowering. As communities we can start to do a lot more than as individuals. But we need to be able to facilitate. We need good methods of governance and we need to build trust structures. We do through meeting needs and showing compassion. And being empathetic. But also being real.

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This is How I want to Live – I Choose Hope

Spoof on the poster for Avatar the movie

Hope fuels our quest for more sustainable, resilient, and permanent culture. Permaculture leader with experience as a facilitator and spiritual coach. She takes us on a journey of questioning, observing and building gratitude and hope.

Bonita says “Trying to live my life in a good way, live my life with meaning and purpose. And for me that’s about taking care of the life around me.

‘Embers of Hope’ is for those who really care. And it takes some measure of courage and strength and some sort of faith. And that’s not about religion that’s just about
some sort of connection to something bigger and more powerful than ourselves. In the book I share a lot about my relationship with death. And also my perspective on ecological collapse, how I’m dealing with it emotionally. And how I’ve learnt to deal with it.”

Dead butterfly in spider’s larder

The Dying World

“One of the earlier pieces in the book is how much denial I was in around death. I didn’t really have much of a relationship with death. I didn’t grow up with the celebration of death.”

Bonita recalls “I learned about death in a very pragmatic and in a very spiritual way through the garden, through compost. And it was that experience of putting something into the compost. And then coming back a week later and it being transformed. Whether that was food scraps or a dead animal that we had found in the garden. What we perceive as the end transforms nourishment for the next cycle of life.

It wasn’t as a young person that I learnt about death until I really began to garden. And learned that, oh well plants do have their natural life cycles. And as we return nutrients to the compost. As we return nutrients to the soil, we’re being part of that natural cycle.

spoof on whistlers mother

Balance Through Understanding

What I bring through the book is this renewed relationship with death. My relationship with death now is it’s so much more balanced and so much more equanimous. Having spent few years raising animals and having worked on different farms. And connecting with friends who are traditional hunters or non-traditional hunters. Or finding an animal on the side of the road that was killed by a car. And trying to honour that animal.

I’ve learned through the natural world, the living world and the dying world that there is a sacredness. And a sense of harmony from accepting and learning to find some peace in that wholeness which includes life and it includes death.

It includes birthing and it includes loss and dying. Also how I try to live with the climate crisis. The ecological crisis that we are all facing. It’s easy to be in denial and I know that
in that part of my life when I really denied death and though that I was just invincible,
and I hadn’t lost anyone close to me yet and I didn’t have any pets except for goldfish. And it wasn’t a big deal to lose a goldfish. Because I couldn’t hold that gold fish, or cuddle it, or kiss it.

Hope Builds as Hearts Open

As my life opened up, my heart opened up to the reality that I will die at some point. That opened me in a whole other way giving me so much more depth and richness in my life.

So I started this book. And I thought that maybe it was going to be a book on social permaculture. And non-violent communication which I also practice and teach. I started the book a few times. I started the introduction, had a table of contents and the structure in it. It looked interesting. But it didn’t really come together, it didn’t gel, it didn’t grab me.

Then a very close friend was diagnosed with ALS with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Being with her through that process, in what she chose for herself, was a powerful, enlivening experience.

This chick is full of hope

Focus on Healing

She chose to focus on healing. She didn’t know if the diagnosis was correct…she didn’t know if she would have one year. Or five years or ten years. So she focused on her healing. Living each day to its fullest. And in trying to give back to all of the people in her life, her loved ones, her community. And at some point she also said, “Okay well just in case I’m wrong. Just in case I’m not going to have the outcome that I’m really hoping for, I’ve redone my will. Here is my power of attorney for health. And here are the papers and let’s not dwell on it because ‘I’m feeling well. I feel great. My life is still amazing’, and with so much vitality right up until the end.

Forest of Tranquility, NSW, Australia

Making Choices. Choosing Hope.

And so for me that became such a powerful metaphor for how I want to live in these times. We know that there is so much that is off balance in our world politically, economically, ecologically. And there is already so much change and there is already so much loss. We also don’ t know the outcome. We are all co-creating this as we go along. So my friend, Katherine’s, journey became such a powerful metaphor for me of how I can live in this time.

We can look towards the future and not know. Because as human beings we don’t know if we will if we’ll die tomorrow. If we’ll die in five years, if we’ll die of old age or if we’ll get struck by lightning. Or hit by a car.. We don’t know.

“Wisdom enables us to work with the unknown and known.” Prof. Stuart B Hill.

Embrace Not Knowing

For me the journey with this book has been learning to embrace this not knowing. And learning to live well while doing so. And for me that comes back to permaculture. Trying to live my life in a good way, live my life with meaning and purpose,

For me that’s about taking care of the life round me. That’s about making, creating more beauty around me. And that is in the garden, that is on the land and that is also in community as well.

To brave that painful life-threatening reality will fuel the fires of us taking the action that we need to take.

It’s not just about positive thinking. It’s about making peace with these painful realities, with this possibility of tremendous loss. And having that be what fuels us. Having that be what makes us choose intentionally.

Seedlings live in hope

Use Energy to Make a Better World

This is how I want to live the rest of my life. I want to use my life energy to make this garden, this land, this community healthier, stronger, more resilient.”

By intentionally choosing hope, we gather energy and find positive actions. Learn more about Permaculture with our personal mentor.

Bonita Ford’s excellent book Embers of Hope provides practical ideas on how to act for a better future.

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Saving Seed for Climate Adaptability

Saving seed helps us maintain genetic diversity, and we can enjoy a culinary adventure along the way. We can encourage locally adapted foods by conserving the genes of animal plants. Then we propagate the plants that do well in our area. We get to select for ourselves by tasting the new varieties and keep the seed.

Buy Seed. Grow. Reap, Sell. Repeat?

 In the conventional system, the seed selector influences what the farmer will grow, and then the produce goes to market, and then the cook and the diner are parts of the chain. But certainly the waste does not go back to the garden. The home has a very short close plot to plate cycle. We plant, tend, harvest, share, cook, taste it, and then select the seeds from the best tasting plants, save the seeds and the next year plant again. 

Got enough bananas?

Bang for Your Buck

Vilda Figueroa in Cuba with her husband Jose Lama dedicated their life to re-educating people about what could grow in Cuba. Because for 600 years the Cubans have been eating white bread, and yet they can’t grow wheat. So here’s the challenge we can ask the soil and the environment to keep growing what we like to eat, or we could change what we eat to suit the site. If you want big bang for your buck, you want a lot of yield for a minimum effort then spend that effort on annual plants. But if you want a sustainable system, if you want a food forest, then start looking for perennial plants. 

Difference between annuals and perennials

The big difference between annual and perennial is that the annuals spend some of their energy, and some of your energy, building up their structure. That structure sustains the plant through the off season. And help them get through winter. So, their yield comes in two parts: part for you in edible fruits, and part for them in sustaining their life.

Let’s spend a moment thinking like a plant. What are the goals of the plants? A perennial plant needs to work towards the long-term survival, it’s going to spend less energy on reproduction in those early years because it needs to grow. It is slower to grow because it’s spending time on its structure, but the extra yields of a perennial plant can be harvested for  people such as timber shade and habitat for the wildlife. They do need to be managed after 10  years or so, you will need to be able to cut the trees. 

The Perennial Seed Plans Beyond Short-term

On the other hand, animal plants have got a short-term survival plan they only need to last a couple of months, and they can die off in winter. They’re quick, and they’re lightweight in their structure so they’re a little bit easier to handle. They’ve got a higher reproduction drive, they really want to pump out seeds. They have a greater edible yield for humans because most of what they grow we can eat the leaves, the roots, the seeds. They do need to be managed yearly but the management is usually less heavy lifting. So that management involves preparation of the soil, the seed selection, keeping records, planting it, protecting it, watering it, weeding and pruning. The sad thing is if you skip a year because of a drought, then you can lose that genetic material. Generally speaking perennial plants will out-compete annuals because they’re stronger.

Judith explains how her pigs propagate the pumpkins for her

Long-Term Perrenials

So whilst you can have animals early in the system, the perennials will live on. In a food forest, you design so that there’s some open areas to continue to grow annual plants. Annual plants optimize the use of energy, they get in there they use the sun and water, and they grow quickly. So they give you a useful yield quickly. In this example from our site in Mount Kembla New South Wales Australia, we converted a paddock, actually a paddock of weeds, into annual gardens and then into perennial food forest. That gave the site much more drought resilience, and a varied microclimate.

Tamarillo – better than tomato sauce. An umbrella shaped small tree that lasts for only a couple of years. It has savoury fruit that ripens in Autumn.

In the early years we grew sorghum on our site, which was a great fodder for the chickens. and we planted tomato, lettuce, silver beet, parsley and other common herbs for us.

Then and now. Boys thrive in sandpit 1995 – Mango, avocado, shrubs and grapevines mature 2021

The young trees were hidden amongst the herbs. They started to grow taller, and finally shade out the annual plants. Then eventually that whole lower area became shaded out. But it turned into a good refuge for the chickens. The main trees now in the first vegetable patch are: avocado, mango, Mulberry and Tamarillo which is Biennial plant. And grapevines and kiwi fruit wind amongst the trees. 

Your First Seed

So if you’re going to start saving seed, concentrate on the common plants as you build your skills. And then move into some uncommon plants for a bit of a culinary adventure. Traditional culinary knowledge is being lost on those uncommon plants. So, it’d be great to seek out people who can help you there. Start small. Focus on the plants that you really love.

Kang Kong growing in Bathroom

I love Kang Kong. It is such a delicious green, and so I’m happy to spend time and energy learning how to grow that in my climate. You will find some new foods grow really well in your climate maybe even better than the common foods that you once grew. But the new foods require research, they require some deeper understanding. You will be pioneering this. 

You’re Our New World Pioneer

You can pioneer new foods for your area. The easiest way to do this is to save the first fruit. And the best looking fruit. Don’t eat that seed, save it for the next season. Talk to your neighbours, especially older gardeners, to find out what grows really well in your climate. And to try to find some old varieties.

Try to find some out-of-climate varieties so foods that grow in warmer areas or cooler areas. That will build the biodiversity of the food plants that you’re growing. And then have a look around at some multicultural foods. You might be surprised at what will grow. 

restorative lunch at Consciousground near Byron Bay NSW

Looking Forward

We know we are living through a period of rapid climate change, the best way to help humanity and to help the food plants to adapt, is to diversify and gather cultural knowledge. There are heritage varieties of nearly every food that you know, and the forgotten foods include bitter lettuce or Monstera deliciosa fruits, and there are also native foods these include indigenous nuts and grasses. Saving rare varieties requires a lot of responsibility especially in record keeping and isolating the different strains. But, on the plus side, we know that this conservation will help maintain  genetic diversity. That is key to humanities adaptation.

“The most powerful natural species are those that adapt to environmental change without losing their fundamental identity which gives them their competitive advantage” Charles Darwin

 What are your plans for yourself and for your garden’s future? In our Permaculture Design course notes we offer useful resources and methods for saving seed. Enrol today to design your new future.

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Permaqueer – Isn’t They Lovely

Guy Ritani knows permaculture design is limited only by the imagination of the designer and our society. That’s how Permaqueer enriches us. Guy runs Permaqueer with their partner to facilitate access for lesbian, gay bisexual transsexual, asexual LGBTQIA plus and bipod communities.

Our interview with Guy Ritani of Permaqueer

‘The Edge Is Where It’s At’

Guy has discovered that the queer community “sits on the fringe, on the edge of society” with unique perspectives. “And a lot of the systems don’t necessarily cater to our ways of being.. our ways of knowing… our ways of relating. The spaces that our community sits in is typically in the cracks and the edges of the system. What we’ve realized is that getting feedback and designing from the cracks manages to close those cracks”. Inclusivity makes that system more resilient and makes the society more resilient.

‘We know in permaculture that we need a vast diversity of organisms interacting in a rich ecosystem. And that’s the same in social spheres’ says Guy. Yet, we are conditioned in our society to have certain beliefs and understandings about how society should work.

Pink, Blue or Rainbow?

Permaqueer call these sets of expectation Binaries. “so it’s one or the other – it’s hot or cold… it’s rich or poor, when in reality there’s a whole spectrum of how things exist, as you know. It’s not just a top canopy and ground cover. But we see many things in between and all the insects and animals that interact within the forest.

A lot of assumptions exist in our society predicated from these binaries. They are as restrictive as monocultures in agriculture. There is cross-pollination, growth, diversity and resilience. To gain abundance we need complexity. If we stay rigid in social ‘monocultures of thought’ we miss opportunities for growth.

Beyond Our Binaries

Permaqueer explores the binaries. Firstly, and most obvious is the binary of gender. This about the individual unit that’s about our personal zone. That’s about how we relate to ourselves and it’s about how we relate to others. We know this horrific history of gendered roles and rights to women and there’s also horrific implications of toxic patriarchy. Above all, we see this binary in horrible roles and ideals of how women and men should be. Yet, in reality, we’re all just people with inherent qualities.

We need to shed a lot more light on this gender issue because it drives our culture of destruction and extraction. At the core of this we need to start inspecting our culture on a systemic level.

It takes education initially to understand you know what are these queers talking about. They’re wearing makeup and earrings and women’s dresses and maybe that appears a bit ridiculous. But, we see a lot of the systems aren’t working. We know how damaging they are.


Making of A Non-Violent Culture

We’re seeing a younger generation not wanting to identify with any of that. And actually, they’re discovering an exciting, beautiful and amazing space of love and expression. They feel accepted by others in a space that doesn’t align to toxic behaviors and simplified ‘monocultures of thought’.

On one hand, it’s about personal identity. But it’s also about disassociating with damaging behaviours that are causing climate change and violence against women and children.

Dragon of climate change

Honesty and Integrity

After is the issue of personal identification comes the concept of sex and gender. This is something widely misunderstood. Gender and sex are different you know how we choose to identify and express ourselves. Guy is gender-fluid. at one stage Guy was Sarah with supportive parents saying “you do you sarah”. Throughout Guy’s life gender never really mattered. “I’ve never run into issues until I come across people that are very set in this binary. And they think ‘hey! you’re not doing the things that you’re meant to do’. They go “I need to bully you. I need you to change.” To Guy, they are being the weird ones. Because there’s no reason to be nasty or horrible to people.

Gender appears in whichever way people want it to. But a lot of people are uncomfortable with that. Also, if people choose to identify differently this doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with them. However, it is when we start policing how other people choose to be that we start running into problems.

Biological not always logical

Then we have the other side of that – sex. That’s the binary of ‘man and woman’ but we’ve understood for ages that’s not biologically correct, says Guy. There are many different expressions of sex: chromosomal, hormonal and chemical. We even see unwanted changes brought about by toxic chemicals.

Guy Ritani & Toad Dell presenting at recent Australasian Permaculture Convergence

There’s actually a gigantic spectrum of sexual diversity from a biological perspective. So, the social norm of what is a man and what is a woman is scientifically inaccurate. “What are we actually dealing with here?” asks Guy. If we’ve got this whole spectrum of of what sex is – why do we have such a problem with it? why is it so difficult?

This binary is behind a lot of really damaging behaviour. It’s behind a lot of trauma. There’s a weird conditioning that creates a gendered attitude towards nature.

Ethics in Practice

Social permaculture is about culture. It’s about how we relate to each other. And, it’s about how our behaviors and actions are manifest in the world. We can create practical and ethical structures of social relating.

Guy supports permaculture’s aim to combine ethics and practical solutions. We need this to address the compounding cascades of catastrophe and crisis.

Why I value the queer community is because there’s there’s no linear genealogy of queer people. They just appear randomly. And there’s no specific culture of queer people. There’s no specific race of queer people. Queer people have to relate to each other. You just have to have this predisposed sense of sort of love and communication. And safety. Because you don’t know what’s coming. You don’t know which random queer magical being is going to appear in your space. And, you have to know how to respect that and deal with that. Being able to observe and interact with queer people’s ways of being with models of justice is revolutionary.

Queer Issues

One of the biggest issues in the queer community, is access to good quality food. We all need nutrient dense food. But also access to housing. Permaculture co-housing models shown in David Holmgren’s Retrosuburbia are a great pragmatic solution. “I do really value the trade-off between these two spaces. Initially I believe there will be a weird sort of cultural ‘side-eye’. We’ll be asking “ah, how do we both feel comfortable in this space?”. And being able to have that perspective is is a way that you can get further feedback from a system. That’s why I’m really wanting to have queers come into permaculture. To be like “oh okay, how are the different ways that we can do this?” smiles Guy.

The Queer Perspective

The perspectives of queer people erupting into viable solutions, not only benefit Queer people. It benefits society as a whole. Because there are different, maybe better ways to do things. Historically, queer people had to challenge systems. They’ve learnt to become creative yet still true to themselves. They have maintained their gender integrity. A queer person is regularly challenged. As a result, their bravery and honesty makes them stronger. Strength, creativity and adaption are powerful assets to every community.

Better For All

Through understanding our biases we get better social relating and will design better systems. The benefits include getting more people to work with you. Because we desperately need to work together to solve the big issues of climate abuse.

“From permaculture and grassroots movement we know the change has grown from the bottom up. We need to be the change that we want to see in the world. And I’ve I haven’t seen that done any better than in permaculture spaces.

Learn more about Permaculture with us to build a more peaceful and nourishing future.