Hugging the tree gently

They arrived without invitation one fall night, five parcels of fur and bones and screaming lungs, crying desperately and unceasingly for milk and shadowing Kirby Fry and Inger Myhre's every move.

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 Sinad 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.

Since the 1970s, Mollison's ideas have slowly crept to the corners of the earth. Permaculture has gained disciples throughout Europe, Africa, and North America; Vietnam has even proclaimed it its official form of agriculture. In the United States, dozens of Permaculture groups have sprung up, adapting the principles to their own climates. Thousands of adherents keep up with new developments on the Internet and through a trio of journals, of which the most popular is Permaculture Activist.

Those who are serious about the discipline try to attend one of Mollison's rare U.S. workshops, which result in graduates earning a Permaculture Design Certificate. That certificate allows them to teach others under the name Permaculture. (Mollison will be giving a 72-hour, two-week workshop at Cross Timbers in April.)

"Permaculture is about simplicity, really," says Philip Armour, a 26-year-old live-in apprentice at Cross Timbers. "Especially compared to the way Western culture operates--how we think, which is largely dominated by advertising and the consumer way of thinking. All the complexity of our society, and how everything's tied to money, makes for a lot of conflicting priorities between the family and the community and your job.

"But when you get in tune with your local environment," he adds, "things start to slow down and become very simple. You don't need as much to be happy. You don't need as much money, you don't need as much stimulation. Instead of driving 50 miles in my car so I can earn a wage to buy food, I get up and tend my garden and eat."

Days at Cross Timbers move to the rhythms of warmth and sunlight, not alarm clocks and one-hour commutes.

Around 7 a.m. this time of year, Kirby rises from his futon and plants himself in front of a computer, where he checks messages from the Institute's Internet site ( or works on its newsletter, which goes out to 500 addresses, half of which are in Texas. Inger, who is five months pregnant, gets up a bit later and makes herself breakfast.

According to Permaculture theory, the first peep of dawn might find you just outside the front door, where a sprawling Permaculture garden occupies "Zone 1" of the farmstead--the area with edible plants that require the most attention, or that could provide a readily harvested lunch on the way in from the outer zones. "That's one principle--you don't make this monumental effort every morning to reach your livelihood," Kirby says. "Your home is at the center of where you meet your needs."

While appearing unruly and random--shoots of tall plants hovering over scrubby herbs, cauliflowers mingling with collard greens, lettuce heads emerging from mulch, and the white blossoms of carrots vying for sun space with chicory leaves--Permaculture gardens have their own unique symmetry. Herbs may be planted in rock beds with spiraling ledges, a sprinkler situated at the pinnacle--because herbs flourish with good drainage. Most of the plants, in fact, are laid down in circular patterns, with edible plants at the edges for easy harvesting and maximum exposure to the sun. Others are sown together because of natural synergy: beans, for example, winding around the scaffolding of cornstalks. Not a single straight line--the characteristic imprint of "monoculture," in which a farmer plants a single crop in rows--is to be seen anywhere.

Interspersed among the edible plants are other species with precious functions: Mexican butterfly weed, which attracts aphids, thereby serving as a decoy for the tomatoes in another part of the garden; dill weed, cilantro, and carrot plants, all attractive to wasps--which, in turn, devour caterpillars; and other plants, such as the copper canyon daisy, that emit a repellent stench to insects.

Though Cross Timbers hasn't acquired any livestock yet, animals play a major role in Permaculture Design. "They're always working--rooting, scratching, eating insects," Kirby says. "You can take those animal behaviors and plug them in to useful functions. Chickens like to scratch the ground, so if you coop them in what we call a 'chicken tractor,' they'll thoroughly scratch an area of weeds--they'll practically till the ground if you leave them in one place long enough. Then those chickens will turn around and make gravel and insects and dust into an egg for you. Animals will do some pretty amazing things."  

After breakfast, before the sun has reached full potency, Inger and Kirby walk the 50 yards to the straw-bale house, passing their pasture and greenhouse, where one apprentice has camped out. They've poured many hours--but only $2,500 so far--into the three-room structure, which will soon become their home. The straw-bale design originates in America, they say, and is surprisingly durable and resistant to the elements.

At the Cross Timbers site, tightly packed straw bales are stacked and sheathed in mud stucco for walls, and any holes among the bales are stuffed with cob, a mixture of mud and straw. Metal cables are lodged in a cement perimeter, and extend upward to the wood-plank ceiling and tin roof, which is inclined to channel rainwater. The house is oriented to capture the summer breeze, and grape vines shade its west wall.

Although it sounds like the interior of the structure would be dank, musty, and wretchedly hot, straw bales, because of their extraordinary insulative properties, moderate the indoor climate and remain dry. People cracked open the walls of Nebraska straw-bale homes some 50 years after they'd been built in the 1880s and found the straw dry and still edible to animals.

Right now, the straw-bale house is Cross Timbers' main calling card. Several people from around the state have journeyed there to participate in builders' workshops, which attract an odd collection of Permaculture enthusiasts, emu breeders, country folk who don't want to pay for conventional homes, and refugees from the city.

Eventually, the home will be equipped with a composting toilet facility and running water. There will be no electricity; oil lamps will provide light.

In summer, after working on the straw-bale house until around noon, Kirby and Inger follow the cue of wild beasts and take a two- or three-hour siesta.

"An animal in the wild is always aware of efficiency," Kirby says. "It is out at the optimal times for hunting and gathering. It doesn't go out at the hottest time of day because it has an air-conditioned car to drive around in, and it doesn't design homes that don't catch the summer breezes."

After that, well, Kirby and Inger cook, pull a few weeds, play games, strum a guitar, surf the Internet, or make additions to various and sundry compost piles.

Cross Timbers' lovely summer crop of organic vegetables, in fact, was pushed to explosive vigor with a rich diet-supplement of human urine--Kirby's urine, specifically. In the bushes behind the parking lot are his array of composting buckets; human waste is diluted with water and sprinkled in the garden.

Inger, however, admits she has not graduated to the bucket. Their house, which used to be part of Fossil Rim Wildlife Center's facilities, is already equipped with a flush toilet.

There are a few other little compromises that don't look like they're going to change anytime soon. Inger gets cravings for pizza and Chinese food. And both will occasionally venture into town to get a good meal out.

But this is the good life. Enjoying each others' conversation, eating simple meals, and going to sleep amid the eerie quiet of a primitive country home.

Inger remembers when her world began to fray, that day in Houston when she sat in her home in suburbia, surveying the absurdity of her environs.

"The neighbors were barbecuing and people were out weed-eating and mowing, and it was so disconnected," she says. "I was working really hard to make money to buy things to satisfy my needs, and I really felt the urge to grow something--to work and have the direct result of my work be something satisfying."

Inger was in the final stages of earning a law degree from the University of Houston, and was already working at a major Houston law firm. Then she met Kirby, who'd already discovered Permaculture and was beginning to align his urban lifestyle with some of its principles. At the time, he was working for a Houston natural-gas cogeneration firm.

They met through a friend of Kirby's mother who worked at the law firm where Inger was employed.

The source of attraction? Very natural.
"Sex," Kirby says. "She'd pick me up at lunch and get lipstick all over my collar."

"Absolutely," says Inger. "Now we're having a baby together, and that's a commitment--planning to raise a child together. The commitment of marriage doesn't mean anything to me."

Kirby, a city boy who'd always loved the outdoors, drew Inger toward a greater environmental awareness. She would eventually shift the remainder of her studies to environmental law and complete her degree, while Kirby took Mollison's Permaculture course in April 1994 at Fossil Rim. "Permaculture was really like a coming home," he says. "I'd had a grasp of something and was never able to articulate it, and then suddenly you hear it, and it clicks."  

Though Inger says it took about a year for her to wean herself from the lifestyle of an urban consumer, she was ready to make a clean break by the time the couple packed up and moved in August 1994 to Cross Timbers, where Kirby had been offered a small salary as an intern for Fossil Rim. The wildlife center also leased the cabin and surrounding five acres to the Institute in exchange for work.

When Kirby's internship ran out, the couple survived financially through a grant from Earth Promise, a non-profit group affiliated with Fossil Rim. The grant paid their salaries as full-time staff members of Cross Timbers Permaculture Institute, although it ran out last week, leaving the Institute in a financial crisis. The couple has a grant application pending with another foundation, however, and is seeking other sources of funding besides the proceeds from frequent workshops. They're optimistic that they'll be able to keep the Institute going, even if it means picking up some outside work to make ends meet.

Today, Inger insists she's free of her past. She doesn't miss shopping, working--"either to be a man or to please a man so I can succeed in the world"--or Houston traffic. And she certainly doesn't miss high heels and hose.

Instead, she's found new pursuits, in harmony with nature. "I really found cooking. I wasn't in touch with any creative instinct in me whatsoever--I'd really stifled that whole thing to attain what I thought was success. Now I'm cooking and drawing, which is really trippy for me.

"This has been the best year of my life," she adds, before going off to Fossil Rim to help raise money for black rhinos. "Between being in love and being pregnant, those are really good things. But this has been the first time in my life when I've really felt at peace and full."

When I returned to the Institute a few weeks later and walked the 100 feet or so to the house, I was almost afraid to ask about the kittens. They were nowhere to be seen.

Kirby showed off the progress on the straw-bale house, which now had a roof, one stuccoed wall, and fistfuls of cob stuck in every hole.

Then I brought up the kittens.
"Y'know, once we'd fed 'em, we'd really intervened there," Kirby said.
Fed them? Wasn't that an example of excessive intervention in nature's course?

"Well, one day--just a couple days after you'd left--we found one stiff as a board underneath the table. And I was poking it with a piece of rebar--the tiniest little black runt. It didn't move.

"We fed it with a syringe of warm milk and put it in front of the heater. It laid there not responsive to light, its eyes wide open, and it was like totally, nearly dead. But it survived the night."

After that, Inger asked--true feelings bared--whether Kirby was going to let another one turn up "frozen as a board" before they relented and fed the litter.

He gave in. "It was pretty sad," he said. "We were moved by it."
After that, Kirby and Inger "relocated" four of the kittens, meaning they ditched the healthier ones at someone else's barn. "Yeah, it was not a pretty story what we did to them," Kirby admitted.

But the littlest runt, now dubbed "Regrowth," was passed on to a Glen Rose veterinarian, who offered to find a home for the kitten.

The pitiful runt--cruelly pushed from its mother's teat, starved of her life-giving milk, rejected by the fearsome designs of nature--would survive. The meek inherit the earth; the strong are left to struggle.

Now that's good science.
Oh, but that's the beauty of Permaculture, Kirby would say. Flexibility. An allowance for comfort. Even a weak nod to consumerism, when you're really desperate and want a pizza.

Nature had indeed taken its course. Human nature, anyway.

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