By Arty Mangan, Restorative Food Systems Director at Bioneers
Toby Hemenway, the wonderful permaculture author and design teacher, sadly passed away December 20th after suffering from pancreatic cancer. Toby died very close to winter solstice, a symbolic coincidence for someone who dedicated his life to understanding and working with nature’s patterns and cycles. Intellectually and emotionally Toby was more summer solstice - a warm bright light. His intelligence and ability to synthesize and express the ethos as well as the practical skills of Permaculture are brilliantly on display in his book Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Homescale Permaculture, the world’s best-selling permaculture book and an essential operating manual for the beginner as well as the seasoned practitioner.
Peter Bane, publisher of the Permaculture Design Magazine, wrote that Toby was “a prodigious and gifted teacher, blogger, speaker, and author…. Toby brought an inquiring, patient, and thoughtful mind to all the subjects toward which he turned his attention.”
Some years ago, I organized a Bioneers 2-day workshop: Natural Patterns and Permaculture Design at the beautiful 250-acre Tunitas Creek Ranch in Pesacadero, CA. I had the pleasure of working with Toby who, along with Larry Santoyo, were the lead instructors. Larry, the spirited trickster, and Toby, the inquisitive scientist, made for a delightful and enriching experience.
Trained as a biologist, Toby came to permaculture as a refugee from the early days of biotechnology working at Harvard University and Immunex, a major medical biotech company. As he became disillusioned by the industry’s attempts to manipulate, control and exploit life, he discovered permaculture and was drawn to its brilliant, low-tech, practical and skillful ways of working with the energies and intelligence of nature to produce long-term regenerative results. He made a lifelong commitment to partner with nature, and in doing so he educated countless others to help renew degraded landscapes to a condition that embodied what he referred to as, “the aliveness of many interlocking pieces clicking together into a living and dynamic whole.”
At one point Toby turned his attention to what some may be consider an oxymoron, but what is in fact an important and overlooked concept considering more than half the world’s population live in cities: the urban ecosystem.
Toby and his wife Kiel left their tricked-out rural permaculture homestead and moved to Portland where Toby explored and worked in the urban environment and then wrote The Permaculture City, Regenerative Design for Urban, Suburban, and Town Resilience, which applies permaculture principles to design solutions for a variety of humanity’s needs. In an interview with Adam Taggart of Peak Prosperity Toby said,
“Once you have these principles you can apply them to almost any dynamic system. You just have to understand what patterns apply to, say, a justice system or an economic system as opposed to an ecologically designed farm, but the rules turn out to be very similar. The fascinating and exciting work now in permaculture is being done in social permaculture and financial permaculture — looking at human systems.”
I have this notion that all government officials should be required to take a permaculture design course to inform how they approach solving problems and how they govern. May my pipe dream someday come true. If it does those elected officials, unfortunately, will not have the benefit of Toby’s mentorship.
I extend my condolences to Toby’s family and friends. Someone wiser than I said that gratitude can be a useful balm to soothe grief. I, as countless others are, am immensely grateful to the important work that Toby Hemenway accomplished in his life in partnership with Nature.
Arty Mangan, Bioneers’ Restorative Food Systems Director, joined Bioneers in 1998 as Project Manager for the Restorative Development Initiative. A former board president of the Ecological Farming Association and member of the Santa Cruz GE Subcommittee that banned GMOs, Arty has worked with farmers and agriculture since 1978, first as a partner in Live Juice and later with Odwalla, where he was in charge of fruit sourcing.