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The kittens, ranging in color and shape from a pair of emaciated black runts to a plump, white-faced tabby, had been dumped at the Cross Timbers Permaculture Institute near Glen Rose--presumably with the expectation that they'd land in the kindly home of some soft-headed, all-embracing nature lover.
Unfortunately for the kittens, they had not.
Kirby Fry looked down at one of the screaming black runts--the other one was so weak it could only sit in the sun and look pitiful--then declared, matter-of-factly: "We're not going to feed them. We're going to let nature take its course."
I picked up the squealing runt, which vibrated from tip to tail with a mighty purr. I rubbed his knobby head. I looked at Kirby, who'd steeled his face, giving me a standing-before-the-relentless-force-of-nature look--consistent, of course, with the deeply held principles of the Permaculture Institute.
Then I looked at Inger, Kirby's girlfriend. "Yes, we're going to let nature take its course," she said, somewhat weakly.
There was a bit of a plaint in her eyes.
In the day-to-day struggle between conventional human sentiment and their new notions of natural order, Inger looked as though she were about to take a woman-sized step backward.
It's been a year and half since Kirby and Inger rejected the world of consumerism and emigrated from Houston to their refuge, a two-room wooden house beside the grounds of Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in rural Somervell County, some 75 miles southwest of Dallas.
The young lovers had decided to put into practice the principles of Permaculture Design, an increasingly popular discipline that encourages a self-sustaining, ecologically sound lifestyle. Like many other adherents in Texas and around the world, they were attracted by the common-sense ethos of Permaculture. Going back to nature didn't have to mean giving up the Internet, becoming one with dirt, and growing anemic from a diet of brown rice and Brussels sprouts.
Instead, Permaculture allows its disciples to do "whatever works," as Kirby puts it--adopting a principle here, such as collecting rainwater for drinking, but opting out of others--while forgiving small departures from the goal of total self-sustenance. Unlike many organized back-to-nature movements, it is compromising: flexible, sensible, and practical.
But Kirby and Inger were determined to shed the wastefulness of their past lives, and live in harmony with nature as much as they could. That meant making some sacrifices and enduring some tough choices.
Like refusing to intervene in the lives of hungry feral kittens.
After setting up their refuge at Cross Timbers, the couple endured two horrendously hot summers, forgoing air-conditioning and other seemingly necessary comforts. They planted an elaborate edible garden, harvesting much of their own food supply; dug up swales to protect the soil in their pasture from erosion; erected a 6,500-gallon cistern to hold rainwater; and began building a structure that summed up all they knew and believed about the future of a distressed planet--a straw-bale house, constructed almost entirely from earth and plant materials. Their few manufactured supplies were mostly salvaged from a fallen house and recycled.
The couple signed on three "apprentices" who shared their vision (two more will arrive next year), and set about running their non-profit Cross Timbers Permaculture Institute as an educational model of a lifestyle that presumed nature knew best.
For Kirby and Inger, Permaculture was the stuffing for an empty life.
"What we see happening is that we will actually develop a sustainable community where more is produced here than we consume," says Kirby, a 28-year-old Texas A&M graduate and former Air Force pilot-trainee. "Permaculture is really any sustainable activity--it's the science of arranging beneficial relationships between anything."
"Sustainable is fulfilling your needs without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to meet theirs," adds 25-year-old Inger, who, with her shaved head, looks like a smiling SinŽad O'Connor. "It's popular all over because it's really what makes sense."
Today, Kirby and Inger reckon they've only traveled 20 percent of the distance to their goal. But they're satisfied with their progress. "We've lowered our consumption," Inger says. "We don't produce nearly as much waste as your average household."
The stress of living and working in the city, she adds, is entirely gone.
They're not on a mission, Kirby hastens to say. But to them, living the Permaculture way is the only means to a responsible, fulfilling life. "We're doing it because it feels good to us now--it fills us," Kirby says. "It fills the void where society left the void--a hollow way of living. It's satisfying for the present, but it's also good to know that what we're doing is not going to have negative repercussions for the future generations."
Permaculture isn't new, but its principles have only recently gained popular currency.
Bill Mollison, the white-bearded Australian who came up with the concept, coined its name in 1972 from the words "permanent" and "agriculture." In the mid-1970s, he gathered environmentally kind principles for harvesting food, producing energy, and raising useful animals from all over the world. He eventually compiled what he'd learned in a massive, extraordinarily detailed volume called Permaculture: A Practical Guide for a Sensible Future. It serves as a bible for the movement's adherents, with its complex diagrams and exhaustive lists of edible flora and fauna ("Cockroaches are edible," Mollison declares) pertaining to all of the world's climates.
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