Black Soil Tribe: Interview with 2013 Northwest Permaculture Convergence Presenter Eric McCool by Willi Paul, Magazine


In the Cow Creek Valley of Southern Oregon, we are making preparations for the shifting paradigm, striving for independence from industrial systems. With resilience and self-reliance as our guiding principles, we are growing food and growing neighborly networks into tribe. The process of localization relates to the underlying ethic of permaculture: care of Earth, care of people. We’ve found that the best way to get to know each other is to work together, and we’ve combined the labor of localizing with potlucks, parties, and seasonal gatherings. Together we build fences, plant gardens, chop firewood, preserve food, make music, and go on adventures. In three years we’ve created a farming cooperative, a community garden, a seed bank, and a regional network that’s beginning to feel like tribe.”


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Interview with Eric by Willi


Which permaculture principles best activate your vision and every day?


Use of small intensive systems, probably.  My impulse when I first started cultivating land was to fill up as much space as possible with as many plants as I could.  I found myself quickly overwhelmed, not only by the work involved, but also by the amount of knowledge from experience required to plant and harvest at the right time, not to mention keep things alive.  So from that I’ve learned to expand in small increments, and only plant in small numbers when dealing with plants I’ve not grown before. 


And that’s just with the gardens and food forest.  Small and intensive systems also applies to our localization tribe, where we’re finding that building strong relationships with a handful of people is more important that making a big push to reach out to lots of people in the community at large all at once.


What do you mean by “building a Tribe?”


For most of our history, tribe was inherent to human culture.  Since civilization took over, tribes have been replaced by other social constructions and humans have almost forgotten how to relate to each other in a natural way.   Building tribe is about remembering our pre-civilization heritage and consciously creating a different kind of social atmosphere in which relationships are valued over material wealth, and in which we strive to harmonize with the natural world, not conquer and control it.  We are building our tribe around the notion that we must trust each other and work together, sharing the difficulties and joys of life on the land as if we are all family.  Because, really, we are!


Talk in more detail about what you mean by “shifting the paradigm?” Shifting from where to where; with whom?


Shifting from centralized coercion-based authority to localized consensus decision making.  Shifting from phony fiat debt money issued by a cartel of usurers to barter, time banking, and currency backed by hard assets. Shifting from industrial import consumerism to local production and consumption; shifting from the notion that we are separate from nature to the idea of interconnectivity.  Shifting from the use of aggression and force to the practice of peace, cooperation, and respect. 


Most of the problems we face in this world, I believe, are the result of our cultural philosophy.  Our assumptions about who we are, what our role on this planet is, and how we should best live, must be re-examined.


With whom?  With any and all who are willing to let go of the entitlements of the current paradigm and work towards a healthier world, starting with themselves.


What role do new songs & myths play in your community building?


In our tribe, we haven’t strongly developed the practice of crafting and telling stories to help reinforce our vision, though we do make lots of music, and we have a few songwriters who promote the images of our intentions.   I think myth and song are of utmost importance when it comes to reshaping culture, so that’s clearly something for us to put more energy into.


What is localization? Can you share some of the ups and downs from Cow Creek Valley of Southern Oregon?


Localization means reducing our dependence on outside producers, with the goal being community self-reliance.  On the upside, numerous people in our valley see the importance of localizing, and we have quite a few producers of various goods.  Lately we have begun to organize and coordinate our efforts, and we are developing a local product line along with a buy local campaign to promote to the general population.   


The downside is that you can’t really make much money selling produce or hand crafted goods in a small town, and it’s still cheaper to buy industrially produced goods from abroad than it is to produce them for yourself.  For most people in our area, local production is a hobby.  Most are too busy trying to eek out a living to put serious time into developing resilient local systems.


Another downside is that we have accustomed ourselves to a way of life that simply would not be possible without global industrial production, and most people “need” far more than could ever be produced locally.  So another aspect of localizing (and a difficult one) involves weaning off of things that are not essential to survival, even if they have become standard entitlements of our current way of life. 


Are there forces acting against the Permaculture movement?


I just mentioned a big one: entitlements. Another is ignorance. I believe permaculture would all the rage if people understood how dire our situation is, ecologically and culturally.  The more people accept that our current system cannot work and that we have no choice but to reevaluate our strategy, the more the principles of permaculture will be applied in the mainstream world, whether it gets called permaculture or not.

Even calling what we are doing permaculture can be an obstacle to the goals of the movement.  I’ll be talking about this on the Friday night panel.  I’ve met many people who are offended by the notion that a bunch of intellectuals with some fancy system are going to tell them how they could be doing things better by learning permaculture.  I don’t mean to say that this is what permaculture is about, but in my experiences, this is often how it is perceived by old time farmers and rural working class folks.  Hence the development of what I call undercover permaculture, in which we attempt to spread the good ideas inherent to permaculture subtly, introducing concepts and strategies in ways that are digestible for people who still operate within conventional culture.


Who are some of the presenters that you will seek-out at the Convergence this year? Why?


Paul Cienfuegos is one.  I sat in his Sunday discussion at the convergence in 2011, and I was very inspired by some of the things he said.  The phrase municipal civil disobedience stuck with me, and I’m glad to see that he will be talking about community rights, which I think are of utmost importance in the struggle to restore our society starting at the local level. 


I’m also very interested in talking with Carol Deppe, because it’s challenging to envision the scale of food production necessary to sustain a whole community without the use of heavy machinery, which I don’t count on having available to us forever.  Figuring out ways to produce food and basic goods with less machinery and less reliance on fossil fuels and grid power is a big step in reclaiming our culture and restoring the health of the planet.


Don Tipping has long been an inspiration to me, and Charlotte Anthony has been one of my primary permaculture teachers over the last few years, so I’ll also be looking for both of them. 


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Eric’s Bio


I was born in Texas. I went to Baylor University, Boston University, and University of Texas San Antonio, studying philosophy.  I took a year off between the latter two to travel.  I didn't graduate.  I spent the next four years traveling, vagabonding, and backpacking, and seeking a spiritual path.  I worked all manner of low paying jobs, only for long enough to get some money to hit the road again.  Eventually I began to feel a strong calling to do something more for the planet and for the future, but it took me a while to figure out how to do that.  Through the writings of William Kotke, I learned about permaculture and moved up to Oregon to join an ecovillage project, which ultimately dissolved, but which got me in connection with the people I'm now working within the Glendale area, localizing and building tribe. Eric took his PDC course in 2010 under Tom Ward. 


Connect with Eric

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  • Your question: "Are there forces acting against the Permaculture movement?" - I have mentioned timing in one of my previous comments. There is a difference whether your "enemy" is getting stronger and more arrogant or weaker and more confused. The cash (and power) flow from those who produce and protect food, water, and "good enough" products to those who have money, technology, and marketing on their side is enormous. Especially if people in general are brainwashed (especially after industrial revolutions) to perceive financially poorer people as lazy, stupid, and inferior exemplars of our species.

    • Nice. I look at the situation in spiritual terms; we are the enemy and the solution.

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