Urban Re-Ruralization: An Interview With Marisha Aeurbach Part 1

PMNA recently did an interview with Marisha Auerbach on how she is helping people live a more bioregional lifestyle in Portland, Oregon.




PMNA: How did you first get introduced to permaculture?

MA: I first heard about permaculture as an ecological agricultural student at the Evergreen State College in 1996. Prior to hearing about permaculture, I would tell people that I wanted to study “positive environmental futures”. When I learned the term permaculture, I was thrilled that it included so many of the topics that I was interested in studying and my future goals. I immediately decided that I was going to devote my life to the study of permaculture.


PMNA: Who were some of your early teachers and mentors?

MA: My earliest mentor in permaculture was Kirk Hanson and John Henrikson, who I worked with at the Wild Thyme Farm. Through Kirk, I met many other people involved in the permaculture scene, including Michael “Skeeter” Pilarski, Jude Hobbs, Rick Valley, Simon Henderson, Forest Shomer, Larry Santoyo, Michael Broiley, and Sego Jackson. I worked with Kirk for a year when I first moved to Wild Thyme Farm as his intern. He later left to further his work in forestry and I became the caretaker of the farm. My work with John continues as I am still involved with the farm to this day. Skeeter asked me to teach with him back in 2004. We have since taught together many times and developed a strong friendship. Rick and Jude extended an invitation to teach the Winter Permaculture Design Course at Lost Valley Education Center in 2005. We have been friends ever since and continue to teach in the winter together most every year as well as collaborate on other projects. My passion for seeds was encouraged through working with Forest Shomer.

My initial permaculture design course was via correspondence with April Sampson-Kelly and Leisure Coast Permaculture Visions in Australia. This was in the beginnings of email, before the internet is what we know it to be today. I needed to find a course that I could do for credit while I was at The Evergreen State College. My design project was of my rental home in Olympia.


PMNA: What was the transition like from a big rural farm in Washington to an urban farm in Portland?

MA: While I loved living on the farm, I decided to move to the city to develop a visible and approachable permaculture demonstration site. Since most people in the world live in the cities, I wanted to trick out a typical urban lot permaculture style and provide a passive example to neighbors walking by as well as an active educational site for my students and extended community. As a single woman, living in the country was a type one error that was preventing me from saving money, finding a partner to collaborate with, and gaining more professional experience.

When I lived in Washington, I began growing all my own produce. I first started on a 1 acre rental property in the south end of Olympia, WA. After my teaching schedule picked up, I found that I was traveling frequently. Often, I was taking around my presentation called “How to Grow All Your Own Produce in 2.5 Years: A (r)Evolution Disguised as Organic Gardening.” I often heard the comment that it was easier to accomplish on 1 acre, rather than on a small city lot. Demonstrating how a family could meet their produce needs on an urban lot was a primary goal for my move to the city.

When Zane and I reconnected at the Village Building Convergence in 2009, we shared the same vision. Zane and I got together shortly after that. We’ve been working on the “urban re-ruralization movement” ever since. While I miss having the space of rural life, I am relieved to not be as invested (with time and money) in my car.

Although my primary interest is in producing food for my household, the design process is about efficiency and resiliency. A big part of that is energy consumption. By living in a urban area, I have the opportunity to influence the lifestyle choices of others around me. Our homesite is more of a demonstration site than an urban farm. When we offer tours, participants see ways that we are saving energy through our choices in home design and enhancing habitat for wildlife, while also meeting our needs for food and medicine onsite.

Opportunities for collaboration have been exponential in Portland. Professionally, I now teach permaculture design at Oregon State University (with Andrew Millison), Pacific University (with Deke Gunderson), and at Portland Community College. I maintain a consultation practice for both urban and rural clients. I also teach a once a month workshop series at our local food coop on what to do in the garden each month, designed to help participants meet their goals in the garden. While I miss living at the farm, I am grateful for this shift in my life.


PMNA: Part of your work has to do with connecting people to the plants and food of the area they life. Can you expand on that concept?

MA: I find it amazing that everywhere around the world, nature meets human needs. By living a bioregional life, we deepen our awareness of the seasons, the climate, the other species (plant and animal) that live in our community, and the natural resources that are intrinsic to our place. We slow down to observe our surroundings and this informs our life. We can learn how things change within the seasons. This can inform our eating habits. I find great satisfaction in eating what is in season throughout the year. By deepening our understanding of the seasons, we can design our lives to be more energy efficient. Zane and I have redesigned our home to meet our activities and the sun’s path throughout the year

In a bioregional life, one uses medicines that come from their bioregion. In every place in the world, the medicinal herbs that are from that place are best for treating the common ailments from that place. As new illnesses arise, I have been amazed to learn of new healers in each locale.

As we become more tuned in to the intrinsic qualities of our place, this new understanding helps us to be better stewards. We learn more about the needs of the other inhabitants of our place. We practice a conservation ethic. We care about the survival of each species as we realize that we are all connected.

As humans, we need to be actively engaged in positive stewardship of our bioregion. With good stewardship and engaged management, we can enhance our local natural resources to support the future population.

I think of it this way: If all energy comes from the sun, then the true way to create yield is to maximize those solar panels that we call leaves, to collect as much sunlight as we can within each day. We stack plants in polyculture and provide habitat in the form of food and shelter for other species. We enhance the biological systems on earth. As we are able to find yields (such as food, medicine, fiber, building materials, etc) from this model, we can build the wealth of our households and communities while tending to the needs of the other inhabitants of our place.


PMNA: What are you doing to help strengthen this bioregional connection?

MA:Teaching permaculture is a great way to strengthen this bioregional connection with others. On a personal level, I grow most of my own food on my city lot. Zane and I strive to produce as much as we can at home to meet our needs. We have retrofitted our house with this in mind. We chose to live without a refrigerator. I have adapted my food preservation techniques to save energy by doing more fermenting than canning. I strive to localize my transportation choices and use my bicycle as much as possible. My social and entertainment choices are localized.

In my community, I offer support to help people eat more locally. I do this through my monthly workshop series on how to “Grow Your Own Produce.” I am on the radio once a month talking about this too. My workshops are seasonal based. Each one offers participants the opportunity to deepen into something that is best done at the specific time of year. My nursery provides edible and useful plants as well as medicine made locally. In the past, I have organized a monthly potluck series on “Living a Bioregional Life.”  My seasonal planting calendar has a phrase for the various times of the year that is relevant both to the landscape as well as to way that we might feel during the passing season.

Internationally, I am fortunate to teach in Belize each year. I treasure my invitation to join Christopher Nesbitt and Celini at the Maya Mountain Research Farm in Southern Belize in February. Each year, I deepen my relationship with this place and learn more about a bioregional lifestyle there. It is exciting to bring my perspectives on living a bioregional life and apply it in a completely new climate. Together, we explore what this looks like. The same strategies do not work everywhere. Strategies for permaculture and a bioregional life are based in the unique resources, climate, and seasonal change within the place. Each year, it is a joy to be able to deepen my understanding of a place that grows the crops that I miss most by eating locally. When I am in Belize, I develop relationships with people who grow these crops so I can support them.

A lack of connection to where our food and resources come from leads to environmental destruction. By having a relationship with all of the resources that support our lives, we can ensure that these things are produced in a good way, leaving a positive impact on the environment in its wake.


PMNA: How many different plants are you growing at your place, and on how big a lot?

MA: It’s very difficult to say how many plants we are growing at our place. Our lot is about 6800 sq feet. The house and the hardscape is about 1400 square feet. I try to grow just about everything I can. We probably have at least 50 different types of vegetables. We have 23 fruit trees with multiple grafts to obtain a yield throughout the growing season. Some have multiple grafts on them. We have a wide apothecary of medicinal herbs, probably at least 50. I tend to collect useful plants that provide yields for humans and ecosystem functions. If I don’t have something, I try to get it. I am particularly interested in rare plants and unique cultural plants.

We have a shotgun approach to what plants we grow.  The climate within the city is different from neighborhood to neighborhood and it is changing. We have a 1400 sq foot green roof. This enhances our microclimate possibilities. We are trying to grow as many staple crops as we can. We also experiment with new crops such as Yuzu citrus and Sweet Potatoes.

In addition, we have planted many fruit trees throughout the neighborhood. We help our neighbors tend to them and they share in the yield. We help to tend older established fruit trees in the neighborhood through our work with the Portland Fruit Tree Project, a local gleaning organization.

This interview is continued in Part 2