Tribute to the Life and Legacy of Bill Mollison
From Permaculture Magazine, North America, Issue 03
Australian educator, author, and co-founder of Permaculture, Bruce Charles ‘Bill’ Mollison, died on September 24, 2016 in Sisters Creek, Tasmania, and has been praised across the world for his visionary work.
Born 1928 in the Bass Strait fishing village of Stanley, Tasmania, Bill’s colorful life story included backwoodsman, academic, storyteller, lady’s man, and to many just ‘Uncle Bill’, doing all these things par excellence. Bill was co-founder, with David Holmgren, of the permaculture movement – a worldwide network of remarkable resilience, with organizations now operating in 126 countries and projects in at least 140, inspiring individuals and communities to take initiatives in fields as diverse as food production, building design, community economics, and community development.
Bill left much useful information and numerous words of guidance and encouragement for those who will miss him most: “The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”
Growing up in Stanley, Tasmania he left school at fifteen to help run the family bakery and before 26 went through the occupations of shark fisherman and seaman (bringing vessels from post-war disposals to southern ports), forester, mill- worker, trapper, snarer, tractor-driver, and naturalist. His lack of formal education gave him many learning opportunities in how the real world works.
Bill joined the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO, Wildlife Survey Section) in 1954 and gained extensive research knowledge. His time in the Tasmanian rainforests gave him the founding structure for what became his life’s passion, Permaculture, the idea that we could consciously design sustainable systems which enabled human beings to live within their means and for all wildlife to flourish with us. After a spell at the Tasmanian Museum in curatorial duties, a return to field work with the Inland Fisheries Commission took him back to college in 1966 living on his wits running cattle, security bouncing at dances, shark fishing, and teaching part-time at an exclusive girls’ school. Upon receiving his degree in bio-geography, he was appointed to the University of Tasmania where he later developed the unit of Environmental Psychology. During his university period (which lasted for 10 years), Bill independently researched and published a three-volume treatise on the history and genealogies of the descendants of the Tasmanian aborigines.
In 1974, he with David Holmgren developed the beginning of the permaculture concept, leading to the publication of the book, Permaculture One. He became fixated on proving and promulgating what he saw as a world renewing concept.
Leaving the University in 1978, abandoning a secure academic tenure at the age of 50 (an unheard of move) Bill devoted all his energies to furthering the system of permaculture and spreading the idea and principles worldwide. He founded the Permaculture Institute in 1978, his ideas influencing hundreds of thousands students worldwide. As
a prolific teacher, Bill taught thousands of students directly, and contributed to many articles, curricula, reports, and recommendations for farm projects, urban clusters, and local government bodies.
In 1981, he received the Right Livelihood Award (sometimes called the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’) for his work in environmental design. In recent years, he established
a ‘Trust in Aid’ fund to enable permaculture teachers to reach groups in need, particularly in poorer parts of the world, with the aim of leaving a core of teachers locally to continue appropriate educational work.
Of all the accolades he received, however, the one he was most proud of was the Vavilov Medal, in large part due to the tenacity, courage, and contributions of the award’s namesake, who Bill considered a personal hero. Bill was also the first foreigner invited and admitted to the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
We are helped in remembering Bill by his 1996 autobiography Travels in Dreams. Typically he laughs at himself: “This book is a work of fiction: most if not all of it is lies. Even the lies are imprecise reports of old lies overheard.” He wasn’t universally liked. One reason being he was committed to disrupting the status quo in its misguided and unfeeling management. “First feel fear, then get angry. Then go with your life into the fight.” He was eloquent about the need for peaceful ‘warriors,’ as he called them, to challenge the stupidity of ill-governance on a global scale. Despite, or perhaps because, he was an iconoclast, he engendered a global respect which will endure and grow as others develop his foundational thinking.
He authored a number of books on the permaculture design system, the best known being Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual, published in 1988, and often cited as his most outstanding work. Bill collected solutions and his Permaculture Book of Ferment and Human Nutrition, is an outstanding compendium of traditional food storage systems from across the world. Few could match his intellectual vigor or ability to recount stories that thrilled and taught deeper lessons about our relationship with each other and nature.
Bill asked: “Are we the public or the private person?” The truth of the matter is that for all seasons we are both. Perceived as challenging, a huge harvester of great ideas from around the world (and not always crediting their sources), Bill was also a sensitive man, eloquent raconteur, poet, and appreciative of the poetry of others. He knew how to provoke others to action, but also when to withdraw and let others carry on the work. He paraphrased Lao Tzu: “True change is to so change things that it seems natural to everybody but no-one knows who thought of it.”
Bill Mollison could be called the Grandfather of Permaculture and will be missed around the world. And: “Our best will not be our children’s best.” Bill’s legacy is that hundreds of thousands of past students have created a worldwide network to take his concept forward. In a world in which we are acutely aware of our environment, its capacity and limitations, permaculture design offers a systemic approach to meeting human needs which respect those limitations and provide strategies to actively repair ecosystems. The effect of Bill’s legacy will only grow as the world recognizes the urgent need to work together on environmental solutions.
By Permaculture Association (Britain) and Permaculture Magazine, International
You started a quiet revolution. You have sown the seeds of change, and you will live in the bounties of nature, in every flower, in every tree, in the soil and the water, and in every hand that nurtures nature.
– Vani Bahl, Building Designer and Permaculture Practitioner
Bigger than life…biogeographer, story teller, inspiration for sustainable design practice. From the backyard to the “Global” gardener. Bill wasn’t perfect (who is?), but we loved him, and the worms will too. – John Valenzuela May his words and teachings of permaculture continue to spread like chickweed in our gardens.
– Women Who Farm Facebook Page
From the Patterns of Life to the Details of Death – thanks Bill for helping so many around the world to keep the Circles Unbroken, and inspire so many to repair the ones that are.
– Brock Dolman
His complex character, his genius, and ability to synthesise knowledge from so many places – and above all his uncompromising commitment to the survival of our beautiful planet Earth – has left me both awed and with a real sense of loss.
– Maddy Harland, Editor & Co-Founder, Permaculture Magazine, International
Dear Bill: Your life was like a bright light. You have gone to another dimension before us … we who remain must carry the light forward … until we too pass the torch to the next generation and they to the next, forever. Thank you for your wisdom … the road is visible because of your life and leadership. You will be remembered and honored for sharing your vision. See you soon.
– John Dennis Lui
Bill Mollison was a dear friend, mentor, and uncle to me. I was blessed to get to host him at my home many times, hang out, learn, and teach with him. I got to know the real Bill. His idea of a good time was going to good books stores (especially if they had a good used book section), learning new amazing things, cooking fresh seafood, enjoying friends, and sharing stories. I will deeply miss him. He now gets to be in the deep mystery that he loved. I share the gratitude of many for a man who truly changed the world for the better and empowered others to do so as well.
– Penny Livingston
In honor of Bill, thousands of people have planted trees around the world to commemorate how he touched their lives. Some people come into our lives, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never the same.
– Yongo Otieno Wycliffe
A Cup of Tea For Grandpa
Grandpa (Bill) meant a lot of things to a lot of people. I was just a baby when I first spent time with grandpa in Stanley (TAS) then Tayalgum (N.S.W) with mum, dad and my brothers (Jack and Jerome). Experiencing many of the same things he did around Stanley, such as rolling rocks down the nut, fishing, spearing around the coast, and searching around the rock pools. Grandpa was quite the mystic not being present for much of my childhood and suddenly appearing out of no where laden with gifts (like father Christmas) with his great salt and pepper beard.
It was not until I was 12 when he moved back to North West Tasmania, with his wife Lisa to establish their property in Sisters Creek, North West Tasmania. My brothers Jack and Jerome and I grew up working on the farm with grandpa and Lisa with as many mates as we could muster for tree planting, mulching, pruning, and editorial work. Transforming 17 acres of pasture to what is now a complex ecology of forests abundant in wildlife. We all grew up completely oblivious to the global impact our grandfather had made. To us he was just our wizard of a grandfather that told us stories from far away lands and tales that would captivate an audience. Often set against the background of storm on the farm, told over great big pots of roibus tea (with local honey and soya milk). Stanley in Tasmania, is set in a district much like the shire from lord of the rings. With me and my brothers being the Hobbits and grandpa being Gandalf. Luring us into great adventures, with stories over the great sea to the north (Bass Strait). He popped my bubble (and many others) of ignorance as a young child with tales, stories and lessons only a true mystic, adventure, pioneer, and ecological warrior could muster. Inspiring my imagination and lust for adventure.
For me personally he was a mentor, mate, pioneer, warrior, bushman, botanist, story teller, mystic, and writer which is all held in the form of grandpa. His favorite comedian was Bill Bailey, with his sense of humor that related to bewilderment, jazz, inter- dimensional travel, and ad hock humor. His favorite joke being the Take 5 song (accidentally played at a funeral), which would always cause grandpa to bellow with laughter. The underling esoteric wisdom, dimensional thinking, disguised with his sense of humor, lessons, stories, and mate ship is how I will remember grandpa.
If there is a heaven, I am sure grandpa will be planting and mulching a forest before moving onto the next dimension…
His last wish was that people could plant a tree to remember him.
Bill Mollison is survived by his wife Lisa, 4 daughters 2 sons, 7 grandchildren, and 2 great grand children.
Warmest regards, Stuart Muir Wilson
Bill’s brilliance was in gathering together the ecological insights, principles, strategies, and techniques that could be applied to create the world we do want rather than fighting against the world we reject.
– Co-Founder of Permaculture, David Holmgren
I met Bill for the first time on one of his visits to Tagari Farm some time in 1999, I guess. He stayed for a few days on that visit and spent quite a bit of that time sitting on the verandah of the Teahouse “talking story” with whoever happened to be around. At that time we had quite a few trees beginning to outgrow their pots in the ad hoc nursery around the edges of the Teahouse verandah. Not wanting to just sit around and fawn over the great man, I decided that I might as well pot some of the nursery trees while I sat around fawning over the great man…
After a while I’d potted up most of the trees that were worth potting – the few that remained were pretty badly pot-bound I reckon. During a lull in the conversation
I wondered out loud if it was worth trying to save the tree that I had just pulled out of its undersized pot. Bill immediately barked at me, “Give it a bigger pot!” in a slightly admonishing tone. I looked over at him quizzically and meekly asked, “Don’t you reckon it’s a bit too pot- bound?” Again, he just barked, “Go on, give it a bigger pot!”
I had given up hope for the little tree, and here was the bloke who’d done more than anyone else to inspire me to have hope in the future, refusing to give up hope for the future of this one little tree. So, I gave the tree a bigger pot! Good on you, Bill!
– Richard Foster
Bill Mollison is no more in a physical way with us, but he was right as usual, “If you hear that I am dead tell them they lie.” He can’t die, the transformational concepts and design science he defined has grown far more than his material presence. So Bill, you did it again you blew your knowledge in the wind and those words continue to swirl and be understood in any language, and will continue indefinitely. Thank you Bill. – Lorenzo Costa
Fall is an auspicious time – when the veil between worlds is thinnest – for such a nature connected spirit to pass on. May we all find our gifts and deliver them as fully – in service of our beautiful living world – as our elder Bill Mollison. – David Shaw
The greatest honour was to work with you old fella, saved my life, thanks mate.. – David Spicer
Pictured here planting is Speedy (aka Paul Ward ) who did his PDC with Bill Mollison, and following that, moved in with him for about 18 months and did work on his property. Speedy selected what he called an “ecology bomb” to plant in Memory of Mollison. This contained an English oak, violets, bladder campion (Silene vulgaris). If you look closely you’ll see the hessian pot, which was full of life such as worms, mycelium, and other soil biota which was giving the oak a head start to life. (In the hessian pot, the roots had formed, but you could just see the oak sprouting above the soil, so you will have to look close to see it!)
– Kirsty Bishop-fox
Bill’s work seriously influenced my life beyond most of my schooling and years of work experience. When I found permaculture, it was as if everything I had been looking for, everything I had wanted to do to make the world a better place, was right there in this toolkit of strategies. Although I never was able to meet him, a piece of him is with me and all of us in the community and in every design.
– Ian Johnson
I was just commenting to Narsanna at NAPC how much Bill meant to me, and how even with all his imperfections, his rascally nature, he was my hero. He made such
a difference in my life, I am so grateful he shared his immense knowledge with us all, I don’t think I would have gotten permaculture from another teacher the same way I did from him, he literally changed my brain, it shifted.
I’m hoping at IPC India there can be a special remembrance, in detail about how he first came to India, all he shared. Also something that honors the other pioneers in the movement like Tony Andersen, Declan Kennedy, Ali Sharif, others that made sure, almost like missionaries, that Permaculture went out around the world in those earliest days.
– Margie Bushman
Like so many others, we would not be where we are without the work Bill did. Our lives are forever changed due to his contributions to the world, and we will work to carry on his legacy of caring for this planet and all who inhabit it.
– Permaculture Magazine, North America
Timeless Wisdom From Bill
“I can’t change the world by myself, it will take at least 3 of us.”
“The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence, and that of our children.”
“Sitting at our back doorsteps, all we need to live a good life lies about us. Sun, wind, people, buildings, stones, sea, birds, and plants surround us. Cooperation with all these things brings harmony.”
“Each… cycle is a unique event; diet, choice, selection, season, weather, digestion, decomposition, and regeneration differ each time it happens. Thus, it is the number of such cycles, great and small, that decide the potential for diversity. We should feel ourselves privileged to be part of such eternal renewal. Just by living we have achieved immortality – as grass, grasshoppers, gulls, geese and other people. We are of the diversity we experience in every real sense.”
“If we lose the forests, we lose our only teachers.”
“If, as physical scientists assure us, we all contain a few molecules of Einstein, and if the atomic particles of our physical body reach to the outermost bounds of the universe, then we are all de facto components of all things. There is nowhere left for us to go if we are already everywhere, and this is, in truth, all we will ever have or need. If we love ourselves at all, we should respect all things equally, and not claim any superiority over what are, in effect, our other parts. Is the hand superior to the eye? The bishop to the goose? The son to the mother?”
“There are a thousand lessons to learn, some so obvious that we could pinch ourselves for failing to notice them.”
“Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems.
It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. Without permanent agriculture there is no possibility of a stable social order.”
“I teach self-reliance, the world’s most subversive practice. I teach people how to grow their own food, which is shockingly subversive. So, yes, it’s seditious. But it’s peaceful sedition.”
“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”
“Permaculture principles focus on thoughtful designs for small-scale intensive systems which are labor efficient and which use biological resources instead of fossil fuels. Designs stress ecological connections and closed energy and material loops. The core of permaculture is design and the working relationships and connections between all things.”
“We’re only truly secure when we can look out our kitchen window and see our food growing and our friends working nearby.”
“In microcosm and macrocosm, we can learn from the world, and these are the very best lessons to adopt. There are a thousand lessons to learn, some so obvious that we could pinch ourselves for failing to notice them. Such an experiential system of design, in broad and in detail, is almost obliterated by the classroom, the sterile playground, toys, and didactic education. The huge information store that is nature is a primary reason for its preservation. We can never afford such a fine teacher or an equivalent education system that operates without cost or bureaucratic involvement.”
“The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves.”
“It’s a revolution. But it’s the sort of revolution that no one will notice. It might get a little shadier. Buildings might function better. You might have less money to earn because your food is all around you and you don’t have any energy costs. Giant amounts of money might be freed up in society so that we can provide for ourselves better… So it’s a revolution. But permaculture is anti-political. There is no room for politicians or administrators or priests. And there are no laws either. The only ethics we obey are: care of the earth, care of people, and reinvestment in those ends.”
“Although the problems are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.”
“The important thing is not to do any agriculture whatsoever, and particularly to make the modern agricultural sciences a forbidden area – they’re worse than witchcraft, really.”
“Permaculture is something with a million heads. It’s a way of thinking which is already loose, and you can’t put a way of thinking back in the box.”
“Anyone who ever studied mankind by listening to them was self-deluded. The first thing they should have done was to answer the question, “Can they report to you correctly on their behavior?” And the answer is, “No, the poor bastards cannot.”
“If you you hear that I am dead tell them they lie.”