Weeds or Wisdom? Latvian Eco-Health Farmers on the Road to Resilience

by Guntra A. Aistara, Central European University

July 4, 2014

Condensed summary of chapter published in Environmental
Anthropology Engaging Ecotopian Imaginaries: Bioregionalism, Permaculture, and Ecovillages for a Sustainable Future,
Berghahn Books, 2013.

On a tour of organic farms in Austria in 2006, one farmer proudly showed off her raised garden beds brimming with a diversity of herbs, medicinal plants and vegetables, explaining that these were permaculture beds, whereby plants reseeded themselves, grew where they “felt best,” and worked in ecological systems with neighboring plants. Some of the Latvian organic farmers on the tour were shocked and amused, however, by their first encounter with permaculture, and what they described as “farming amidst weeds.” “Well, in that case I have permaculture everywhere in my farm…” muttered one farmer. Another commented that it all depends on how you present things to visitors: “When you come visit me, and I explain to you that this is permakultūra…don’t criticize it, because it comes from Eiropa (Europe).” Others insisted that permaculture meant farming as wisely as nature does, and that we might learn from it.

The Latvian farmers’ identification of what they saw in Austria as “lazy farming” may have been accuratei, but the interpretation of whether this is a positive or negative characteristic is a matter of opinion. What the Austrian permaculture farmer saw as wisdom was to some Latvian observers just too many weeds. This chapter traces Latvian farmers’ reactions to permaculture principles and the articulation of their own practices with those principles. It is based on a participatory research project with the Vides un veselības saime, (Latvian Eco-Health Farm Network; henceforth EHF) in the summer of 2010. Latvia’s EHF network is a group of approximately fifty certified organic farms that have been working since 2000 to integrate healthy agro-ecosystems and human health, rural tourism, and community environmental education. The founders of the EHF network describe their approach as “recuperating our ancestor’s knowledge, wisdom, and traditions, and enhancing these with knowledge from contemporary doctors and scientists both in Latvia and abroad.” This has proven an effective strategy in the prolonged transition of Latvia from a Soviet Republic to a new EU member State, where farmers have faced a string of political and economic changes and challenges over the past 20 years that have now culminated in the current global economic crisis. The eco-health farmers have embraced these changes through a process of constant learning and adapting new techniques to their conditions. As one farmer put it, this has allowed them to “choose to ignore the economic crisis.”

These organic farmers promote their way of life as a site for environmental education and community building, catering mostly to educational excursions for local schoolchildren; residents of the capital city, Riga, escaping city life for a weekend; and some foreign tourists. Every year the group invites guest lecturers to lead discussions about a variety of topics, such as nutrition, massage, or eco-tourism. In 2010 I helped organize a series of on-farm permaculture workshops.ii As all of the participants had a wealth of experience in trying to construct systems of alternative living and farming in Latvia, our collective discussions were aimed at discovering the “edge” of where permaculture complements local efforts. Together we explored how Latvian eco-health farm practices contribute to their social-ecological resilience, and how these practices articulate with permaculture principles and practices.

Many Latvian EHF farmers actively engaged aspects of permaculture that relate to biodiversity conservation, yet some remained unconvinced of a few field crop management techniques. This is in part because farmers in post-socialist Latvia are facing multiple pressures negotiating the mingling of EU dictates regarding farm modernization with the revival of traditional practices, and permaculture represents a new hybrid which thus far fits neither scenario. I reflect on how farmers might take advantage of this permaculture “edge” to form alternative modernities.

I first give a brief overview of two key concepts in permaculture, edges and diversity, and show how they articulate with theories of socio-ecological resilience. The second section shows how Latvian EHF farmers have been working towards diversity and resilience through a revival of traditional herbal sauna practices, and how these practices line up with permaculture principles. The third section discusses the barriers of acceptance by Latvian EHF farmers of some permaculture practices. Finally, I reflect on what these barriers show about the relationship between permaculture’s ideals and the realities of the Latvian countryside, as well as what we can learn from the Latvian example about how farmers integrate new ideas with traditional practices to create new hybrid forms.


Permaculture versus “Modern” Agriculture

The term permaculture – a contraction of the words “permanent” and “agriculture” – was coined in the 1970s in Australia by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren as a response to the environmental crisis. The authors originally defined it as “an integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man” (Mollison and Holmgren 1990 [1978]:1). Now the concept has been expanded to include not just agriculture, but also a sense of ethics for sustainability and a conscious mingling of social and ecological responsibility. Explaining the evolution of the term in the 1990s, Mollison and Slay (1990, quoted in Whitefield 2004:5) emphasize that, “the word itself is a contraction not only of permanent agriculture but also of permanent culture, as cultures cannot survive for long without a sustainable agricultural base and landuse ethic.” Permaculture is operationalized using Holmgren’s (2002) twelve permaculture principles, which are designed to be adapted and implemented in diverse climates and cultures.

Exploring two permaculture principles in particular, “use edges and value the marginal” and “use and value diversity” (Holmgren 2002) can help us understand the sometimes contradictory responses of the Latvian eco-health farmers to some permaculture practices, as well as evaluate the future potential for articulation between Latvian practices and permaculture principles.

Permaculture can be understood as a practice of consciously and explicitly creating nature-culture hybrids. The very idea of “cultivated ecology” (Mollison and Holmgren 1990 [1978]:3), essentially designing an ecosystem, is the quintessential hybrid of nature and culture. Permaculture is conceived as a conscious alternative to modern industrial agriculture, in which growing dependence on technology increasingly separates people from their environments. Mollison and Holmgren had noticed that issues such as soil fertility and weeds are not problems in natural ecosystems, thus resolved to create a system that works with nature rather than against it. Permaculture practitioners aim to design agro-ecosystems that integrate natural and cultural systems, rather than continue segregation (Holmgren 2002).

One example of nature-culture hybrids in permaculture is the concept of “edges.” Permaculture practitioners note that the margin between two ecosystems is often thirty percent more diverse than either ecosystem on its own, a phenomenon known as “the edge effect” (Whitefield 2004:24). One goal is to design farms using patterns that maximize edges, in order to increase diversity on the farm, and edges in permaculture are seen as “the place where the most interesting events take place” (Holmgren 2002:223). In a practical sense, much of the biodiversity in such edges is, from the point of view of farmers, weeds. And while permaculture practitioners often quote the Ralph Waldo Emerson’s statement that “a weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered,” in conventional and organic agriculture alike, weeds are often the bane of farmers’ existence, and organic farmers often expend much effort eliminating them mechanically.

The constant incursion of weeds into the cultivated field is the proliferation of hybrids between nature and culture, whereas the creation of neat, weed-free fields represents an act of purification. This act places the farmer unquestionably on the side of culture, having dominated over nature. As Michael Pollan has noted: “To weed is to apply culture to nature—which is why we say, when we are weeding, that we are cultivating the soil” (Pollan 1989). Having individual crops in separate fields or rows is also a way of maintaining order and neatness, or the “legibility” that is also associated with what Scott (1998) calls high-modernism in agriculture.

Weeds are an ideal example of non-human actors that influence human realtions. “Plants act, and can be considered actors of a kind. This is perhaps most obviously the case with weeds, which grow fast, adapt quickly to changing conditions, cause problems and induce emotional reactions…they stir things up by trespassing across otherwise carefully tended edges and boundaries. They do not know their place, and they disregard human design” (Despard 2008:91). Tsing (2005:174) notes that “weeds have been of little interest to conservationists; we think of them only as indicators of disturbance.” Yet she notes that it is exactly such “weedy, mixed forest landscapes” that make up a large part of what we consider biodiversity. She argues that with a change in perspective such weedy, messy areas, or “gaps,” that exist between two systems can also become the spaces of creativity and potential. Other scholars have also extended the notion of edges to understanding cultural interactions and their effects on social-ecological resilience (Henfrey In press, Turner, Davidson-Hunt, and O’Flaherty 2003), as well as cultural barriers.iii Permaculture practitioners encourage edges and acknowledge the agency of weeds, but try to transform barriers into productive “gaps” by discovering the virtues of useful and edible perennial plants, leaving less room for “weeds” with as yet undiscovered virtues.

Thus, taking edges, and the weeds that grow in them, as an important part of the landscape also means taking also a different view of diversity. In permaculture, specialists emphasize that diversity should not be understood just as having more “things” on the farm, but rather as increasing the number of relationships between elements on the farm, as well as in the wider community. “Some people see the emphasis on diversity in permaculture as meaning that a random mix of species makes a system stable. In response, Bill Mollison suggests that it is the number of functional connections between species, rather than the number of species, which makes for stability” (Holmgren 2002:213). Therefore choosing the relative location of each element becomes a key design feature in permaculture, because this enables relationships to form and function. In this understanding, diversity is also a social network of connections, rather than a mere count of species, and edges are the spaces for connection.

The creative potential for change, as represented in edges, and the integration of social and ecological networks are also key elements in the concept of social- ecological resilience. Folke (2006:259) notes that while we typically think about resilience as the “capacity to absorb shocks and still maintain function,” resilience “is not simply about resistance to change and conservation of existing structures…It is also about the opportunities that disturbance opens up in terms of recombination of evolved structures and processes, renewal of the system and emergence of new trajectories.” Biodiversity is of central importance for resilience. Folke (2006:258) notes thatwhile some species may seem “redundant” they can actually be the most valuable for regenerating the system after disturbance and disruption. If we consider the definition of biodiversity as a network of social and ecological connections, not just the count of species, it may become even more important for responding to crisis.

Permaculture’s innovative approach to edges and understanding diversity reveals some of the tensions between modern agriculture and conservation. First, modern agriculture tries to eliminate edges and interactions rather than promote them. It is though this separation, in fact, that modern agriculture is placed in opposition to conservation, while in permaculture they are integrated into one whole. The separation between nature and culture in modernity promotes a static view of diversity. Attention to biodiversity at the species or gene level as countable objects allows our biodiversity monitoring to fixate on a calculation of perpetual loss. A reevaluation of biodiversity as built upon relationships allows for the possibility to actively identify and promote new connections, among both human and non-human actors, thus potentially increasing diversity. This is in fact what permaculture is attempting to do, in the process increasing social, ecological and economic resilience. I will now turn to how Latvian eco-health farmers have utilized edges and imagined connections and networks of diversity on their farms, and how this has contributed to their resilience.

Sweating for Sustainability

It is often commented that the philospohy and practices of permaculture are not new, but rather a recombination of traditional and ecological knowledge from various cultures presented in a systematic, holistic fashion (Whitefield 2004:4). Indeed, Latvian EHF farmers found that much of the “wisdom” of permaculture resonated with traditional practices that they have already been connecting with modern practices into their own hybrid forms. Thus many practices used by Latvian EHF-farms are already a good reflection of permaculture principles, though they were not necessarily formed by design. Farmers’ initial reaction to the principles was often “ah, we already do that” or “that’s a good reminder.” One woman even noted that it is not so far off from the basics of agricultural training: “We are taught all of this in classical agronomy as well. It’s just that when people are taught about chemicals and fertilizers, they forget the rest.”

As we toured farmers’ land, participants began to see their own and their neighbors’ farms through different eyes, and identified ways in which Latvian farmers are already using practices in line with permaculture principles. In one farm we found a small greenhouse on the South-facing wall of the sauna building that looked almost exactly like an illustration of permaculture design seen in books where the sauna, greenhouse, compost pile and chicken coop are all grouped together to create a warm microclimate. On this farm, the grape vine growing next to the sauna attested to the warm microclimate that was indeed created. Participants in the seminars sometimes pointed out elements that the farmers themselves took for granted, such as the “stacking effect” of having medicinal herbs growing in front of apple trees, or a line of tall trees bracing the far Northern edge of the farm acting as a sun-trap, even though the trees’ size testified that they were planted generations before the term “permaculture design” came to Latvia.

Perhaps the most striking example of how Latvian EHF farmers are weaving webs of connections and diversity, both social and ecological, is through the revival of the Latvian traditional zāļupirts (wood-fired herbal steam sauna or bathhouse). The pirts was the traditional place for washing in a Latvian farmstead, as well as a place for relaxation after a week of hard work on the farm. The traditional Saturday evening bathing ritual was also connected with spiritual purification, and the pirts is even likened to a church in historic literature (Virza 1989 [1933]). Although many farmers today have indoor plumbing, the pirts remains a central ritual to country life, and one of the main attractions for city residents who escape for a country weekend.

Below I elaborate on how the pirts functions as a node where several permaculture principles meet, in particular the concepts of edges and diversity. I will use the example of Anta’s farm, where she grazes beef cattle and sheep, and grows potatoes, a selection of vegetables, fruit trees, and herbs. In recent years her specialization has become medicinal herbs, although it was not her original plan. “It all started with the pirts,” she told me. She decided to build the pirts after going to a seminar though the EHF network and attending pirts courses, and within a few years her pirts had become a popular spot for locals and tourists from Riga and an integral part of her farm.

The traditional pirts ritual includes various rounds of heating up in the sauna, cooling off in a pond, and a pēriens- a gentle beating with a brush of birch branches tied together into a soft slota (broom) that acts as an exfoliation technique. In recent years, however, herbal specialists have been reviving and reconfiguring traditional knowledge and folk beliefs about the medicinal properties of various other trees, herbs, and medicinal plants that can be used in a pirts, depending on the desired health effects. A full herbal pirts procedure at Anta’s farm can take up to four hours, and includes various stages of gradually warming up; an exfoliating rub with baking soda and salt; an energizing and then a warming pēriens with different types of pirtsslotas; a honey mask; and a final massage. Each round in the pirts is followed by dips in a cold-water pond or rolling in the snow or dew, and copious amounts of herbal teas that promote sweating and increase the metabolism beforehand, and help replenish liquids, vitamins and minerals afterwards. A light meal of home-grown organic food and overnight lodging on aromatic straw mattresses in a loft above the pirts are also available. In the way Anta’s pirts connects with other elements on her farm, we can identify the interaction of several of Holmgren’s permaculture principles, as I show below.

Use Edges and Value the Marginal

Anta’s farm is unique in that the diversity on her farm is maintained partially by the grazing of wild horses and wild cattle that she introduced to recreate historical herbivore-grassland ecological relationships (Schwartz 2005). This practice has gained popularity in recent years to help prevent forestation of grassland areas. Reforestation results in the loss of the “edge effect,” because one ecosystem outcompetes the other when a crucial component (herbivores) is missing. Anta explained, “It’s a wall of alders now; these aren’t the traditional forest edges of the Latvian landscape.” Thus the wild horses help promote the diversity of grasses, as well as the intermingling edges of forest and meadow ecosystems through their uneven grazing. These edges are important for the pirts, because, as one seminar participant noted, forest edges are the place where the best birch trees grow to be cut for the pirtsslotas. Indeed, Anta’s natural grazing meadows have been recognized by a number of experts for their high levels of diversity and rare species.

Use and Value Diversity

Anta collects a great variety of wild herbs and flowers in her meadows and grows others for use in pirtsslotas and herbal teas. Plants are combined for their aromatic and healing properties. For example in one pirts procedure she used slotas from birch, currant and mugwort leaves in the first round, yarrow, oregano, and celery in the second round, and maple, birch, chamomile, plum, clover, and ash leaves in the third. She says she wants to demonstrate that everything she uses in the pirts can be obtained from the farm, and that everything is natural (Tooma 2005). Thus, the diversity on her farm is maintained through connections between the wild horses, meadow grasses, and humans who collect them for various uses.

Within permaculture, networks of diversity refer not only to ecological relationships on the farm, but also to a broader web of social relations. Indeed the connections stemming out from Anta’s pirts reach far beyond the farm into the community as well. As her pirts became more popular, Anta began employing local assistants to collect wild plants, and began making herbal balms and rubs. She now sells some plants to a local organic cosmetic company that makes upscale lotions for local sale and export within Europe. The pirts also serves as a central node for environmental education activities on the farm. The pirts is often what attracts visitors to the farm, but in the process they learn more about the diversity of herbs and grasses and their uses, about sustainable local food production and rural living, and to see the landscape with different eyes through observing the wild horses in the meadows.

Anta’s pirts has also served as a node for integration of a variety of local organizations besides the EHF network. As we sat around her picnic table discussing permaculture principles, other participants were from at least three different active networks that intersect on Anta’s farm. The wool yarn from her sheep attracts a circle of craftspeople who sell some of their final products to tourists through Anta’s farm. She is also part of a Heifer International project on livestock management, and of a local tourism development foundation that is co-operating with Estonian organizations to promote bioregional cultural exchanges. As we discussed these multiple connections at the seminar, the women gathered around the picnic table joked that they themselves were like the “beneficial insects” attracted by Anta’s pirts and innovative farming practices.

Design from Patterns to Details

In analyzing Anta’s farm, it is also noteworthy to mention another permaculture design feature, according to which the elements of farms are arranged in five zones imagined as concentric circles going out from the house, Zone One being the closest and most frequently accessed. Anta’s natural grazing areas on the outskirts of the farm serve as an ideal example of Zone Five, which is meant to be the wildlife zone furthest from the house, with limited or no human interference. Anta also commented on the multi-functionality of the bushes in that zone, which serve as browsing fodder for the horses during the winter when the snow is covering grasses, but as firewood after the snow melts.

Within permaculture design, plantings are often arranged in patterns that maximize edges, such as spirals and mandalas. As we were discussing her farm’s arrangement, one participant suddenly observed, “We are talking here about mandala gardens, but really if we were to look from above, the whole farm is arranged like a mandala, with paths going out from the house in different directions to all parts of the farm…” This mandala represents how attention to diversity and productive edges in Anta’s meadows has given rise to a range of other products and processes, serving to form hybrids of local and global, ecological and economic activities – in short, of nature and culture. At the end of the seminar Anta noted, “You see how a very permacultural spider’s web has formed here, all on its own…”

Permaculture on the “Edges” of Modernity

Despite the examples above, where permaculture principles can be identified as already working in the realm of biodiversity conservation, other practices seemed to remain on the borders of acceptability by EHF farms. In field crops and soil management permaculture involves some relatively unconventional practices, and this is where there was more skepticism. In permaculture, soil fertility is not managed through yearly tilling and cultivating of the soil, because digging and turning the soil disturbs soil structure. And while turning the soil liberates nutrients, it does so more quickly than the plants can use, thus leading to soil degradation (Whitefield 2004). Thus nutrients are added using techniques such as sheet mulching, rather than digging.iv In larger areas, cash crops are integrated with hedges and trees, or planted directly into clover, to help maintain soil fertility (Whitefield 2004).

At one seminar, where the hosting farm was already using permanent beds prepared by sheet mulching, cultivated only with a flat hoe and the addition of compost and mulch in place of tilling, a long discussion emerged among participants about whether the garden paths and beds should be inverted the next year, or at least after a few years. Some farmers saw the clover-covered paths as good land left fallow, which when turned over would lead to healthy soil for cultivation. According to permaculture methods, however, the soil under the paths is compacted and thus should always remain a path, while in the garden beds the addition of organic matter and growing of leguminous crops builds soil and a healthy population of microorganisms. Disturbing it even every few years would destroy several years worth of biological activity. As opinions clashed about whether or not the soil in the beds would get “tired” from constant cultivation or “disturbed” by digging, one older farmer said, “I would just work this land as one piece…dig it up, have several larger fields and rotate them…but I guess that’s the old agronomy school…”

The integration of various crops also met with mixed reactions. Some traditional combinations like oats and peas, or onions and carrots, were taken for granted, but going beyond two or so crops was seen by some as going too far: “This is for you younger generations – it is psychologically not acceptable to us… having everything mixed up like that…”

Perhaps most universal was the dislike of weeds. Although it was often the object of good-natured joking, this seemed to constitute the real barrier where permaculture ceased to be an acceptable alternative. While it is a myth that permaculture necessarily implies weed-infested fields, the half-wild perennial combinations often have a “messier” look. Some farmers had recently visited some permaculture farms in Germany and commented that they, personally, would be ashamed to bring visitors to their farms if they were so unkempt. One farmer objected very emphatically, “On the issue of weeds I disagree!” She liked having her potato fields clean and clear so she didn’t have to “search for her potatoes.”

This skepticism by some Latvian EHF farmers to field crop management practices is rooted in the fact that these practices seem to fall into a “gap,” neither traditional or modern, and this is exactly the “edge” that Latvian farmers are still negotiating in their prolonged post-Soviet transition to managing their regained family farmsteads in a new European modernity.

Traditional farming practices include crop rotation and tilling of soil after letting it lie fallow for some time, as suggested in the comment by the older farmer. On the other hand, the most visible embodiment of the norms of modern agriculture in Latvia, the EU regulations, are constantly encouraging upgrades of farming technology and modernization of practices toward greater industrialization. Land consolidation is increasing, often in the hands of foreign companies and farmers. For example, many Danish farmers now manage farmland in Latvia and are expanding the use of herbicides and pesticides, large machinery and modern infrastructure. Thus, if for the past twenty years Latvian organic farmers were constantly explaining how they differed from their conventional neighbors, who also didn’t use pesticides for lack of income, they are now becoming a much more striking contrast to their neighbors. In one county I visited, fifty percent of the farmland is owned or managed by only a few Danish companies. There are only two organic farmers in the county, however, and an extension agent reported that they are now increasingly hassled by their neighbors about their “untidy” fields. These new permaculture methods were perplexing to some, however, because on the one hand, they brought more weeds, which were for others a sign of backwardness. On the other hand, they encountered these practices in Western Europe, which is itself representative of modernity.

This also relates to a second issue – the cultural values of tīrība, kārtība, sakoptība (cleanliness, order, tidiness) in the Latvian countryside. Even the Latvian word for a cultivated field is tīrums signifying a clean or tidy place. Thus, the perception of weeds in the countryside as contradictory to these values is not surprising. In fact, much of the post-decollectivization history has been one of returning the countryside to its romanticized independence-era tidiness (Eglitis 2002, Schwartz 2006). There are even regular competitions for the most tidy farmsteads and counties (Berķis, Hānbergs, and Ziedonis 2001). Thus, these norms of tidiness and order also have a deeper cultural significance.

Because permaculture’s soil management practices don’t really fit any existing categories of Latvian farmers, either traditional or modern, they also don’t immediately fit as an option for “serious farming.” Rather, permaculture practices sometimes get relegated to the margins of the main income-generating activities. They are seen as very appropriate for Zone One by the house, such as an herb spiral by the door, or for Zone Five, such as Anta’s grassland meadows, yet are not considered feasible – at least not without more information and experimenting – for large-scale production of cash crops. For the Latvian farmers, this is as much an economic issue as one of aesthetics or modernity. It is seen as cheaper and more efficient to work one field with a tractor (especially with fuel tax exemptions) than to work in smaller beds without technology and more manual labor. Labor is not only expensive, but hard to find given large-scale out-migration from the countryside to Ireland and other EU countries. The current global financial crisis has also hit Latvia harder than many other countries, so a large-scale reorganization of farming might indeed be a risky endeavor.

Finally, the Latvian EHF farmers’ reactions are related to current EU regulations. Even for EHF farmers who are disillusioned with the push to modern agriculture, there is one final, practical hurdle, institutionalized in the regulations for receiving support from the EU agri-environmental support payment program. Those farmers most interested in integrating biodiversity conservation practices with food production are the ones having the most trouble with the regulations (Aistara 2009). For example, the regulations do not allow trees and shrubs in grazing areas or agricultural fields, and require a minimum size of 0.3 ha of one type of crop. Such norms are contrary to the formation of edges and encouraging biodiversity. In the reality of the Latvian countryside, EU regulations impose “modernity” with all of its implied segregation.

Thus, it seems permaculture will for now remain on the edges of Latvian farms, that are themselves perceived to be on the far edges of modernity, given historic constructions of Eastern Europe as the backwards “other” to Western Europe (Wolff 1994). As the EHF farmers attempt to turn that edge into one that is full of potential, diversity, and connections, they must continue to evaluate how permaculture and other new practices fit with their own productive new hybrids.


What can we learn from the Latvian examples of how their practices articulate with permaculture principles? These examples raise interesting questions about what constitute both the productive “edges” and the divisive “frontiers” of permaculture practices and acceptance by some Latvian EHF farmers. We can analyze what these margins signify about the acceptability of permaculture as an alternative way of organizing rural livelihoods in Latvia and elsewhere.

In my opinion, the jury is still out on how the farmers’ initial skepticism about these practices will play out and affect the diversity, networks, and resilience of these farms. The pessimistic view would be that farmers’ doubts reveal a separation between ideas of “living” and “farming,” where the use of more conventional farming techniques for “serious production” serves to reinforce segregation between nature and culture as a form of purification. Traditional values of tidiness combined with EU regulations and pressures for modernization would thus translate into limiting diversity and innovative networks on these farms.

On the other hand, it is noteworthy that the types of connections that the permaculture principles are intended to promote have happened in Latvia not by design, but rather as an almost accidental outgrowth of combining traditional cultural practices like the pirts with new knowledge and an ecological sensibility. This can serve as a reminder that networks based on existing cultural traditions, rather than completely new elements, may be the most appropriate, as what Holmgren calls “small and slow solutions” (Holmgren 2002). It shows how EHF farmers are turning their location on the margins of Europe into a productive “edge,” and using their innovative integration of human and eco-system health issues to enrich permaculture practices in new ways.

This brings us back to theories about resilience. Folke (2006:259) discusses the productive tension between continuity and innovation in resilience: “Memory is the accumulated experience and history of the system, and it provides context and sources for renewal, recombination, innovation, novelty, and self-organization following disturbance.” This suggests that perhaps farmers’ initial skepticism is only the first step, to be followed by experimentation, analysis, and the slow intermingling of new practices with local, traditional ones. If so, then this approach may in fact be vital to promoting both cultural and ecological resilience in the future.

The Latvian case also exposes some noteworthy contradictions. First, it shows that in the European project of modernity, even regulations that are intended to support agri-environmental integration sometimes prevent the creation of hybrid systems that may actually lead to greater economic and ecological resilience.

Second, the Latvian farmers’ careful evaluation of the practicality of permaculture solutions for their circumstances also holds a lesson for promoters of permaculture. I expect that there are a great many farmers in the world who might accept permaculture as a wise solution for the borders of their home and the outskirts of their farms, but who may not be swayed for a large-scale redesign of their main productive activities, for economic as well as cultural reasons. Permaculture texts emphasize that more people should be involved in small-scale food production rather than society relying on large-scale farms producing monocrops, but this division leaves out a whole range of medium-sized, diverse farms that are struggling to make a living and protect the environment in the modernized world of food production. This should make those interested in advocating permaculture as a wide-scale model for sustainable living, and a step towards ecotopia, consider how better to engage not only growing numbers of urban environmentalists and suburban gardeners, but also the populations who are currently producing our food.

Works Cited

Aistara, Guntra. 2009. “Maps from Space: Latvian Organic Farmers Negotiate Their Place in the European Union.” Sociologia Ruralis 49, no. 2:132-150.

Berķis, Aivars, Ēriks Hānbergs, and Imants Ziedonis. 2001. Lauku Sēta Ir Gudra. Rīga: Jumava.

Despard, Erin. 2008. “Creative Weeding and Other Everyday Experiments in the Garden.” The Brock Review 10, no. 86-96.

Eglitis, Daina. 2002. Imagining the Nation: History, Modernity and Revolution in Latvia. University Park, PA: Penn State Press.

Folke, Carl. 2006. “Resilience: The Emergence of a Perspective for Social-Ecological Systems Analyses.” Global Environmental Change 16, no. 253-267.

Henfrey, Thomas. In press. Edges, Frontiers, and Fringes. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

Holmgren, David. 2002. Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Hepburn, Victoria: Holmgren Design Services.

Mollison, Bill, and David Holmgren. 1990 [1978]. Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements. Tyalgum, Australia: Tagari.

Pollan, Michael. 1989. “Weeds Are Us.” New York Times Magazine November 5 1989, no.

Schwartz, Katrina Z S. 2005. “Wild Horses in a ‘European Wilderness’: Imagining Sustainable Development in the Post-Communist Countryside.” Cultural Geographies 12, no. 3:292-320.

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Scott, James. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Tooma, Anitra. 2005. “Medains Pēriens Nekurzemē.” Vides vēstis 78, no. 3:42-45.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2005. Friction : An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, [N.J.]: Princeton University Press.

Turner, Nancy, Iain Davidson-Hunt, and Michael O’Flaherty. 2003. “Living on the Edge: Ecological and Cultural Edges as Sources of Diversity for Social-Ecological Resilience.” Human Ecology 31, no. 3:439-461.

Virza, Edvarts. 1989 [1933]. Straumēni: Vecā Zemgales Māja Gada Gaitās. Rīga: Liesma.

Whitefield, Patrick. 2004. The Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Handbook for Britain and Other Temperate Climates. Hampshire: Permanent Publications.

Wolff, Larry. 1994. Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.


iPermaculture is referred to as “lazy faming” to emphasize the fact that once ecological processes are established through proper design, they require less intervention.

ii I shared my knowledge about permaculture principles gained from permaculture design courses, while farmers shared their practical experience of local farming conditions and practices, and analysis of how permaculture principles align with their farm design.

iii Tom Henfrey has differentiated between “fringes” as zones of human enhancement of biodiversity, “cultural edges” as areas of social and cultural exchange of ideas and objects, and “cultural and ecological frontiers” where intercultural interactions lead to a loss of diversity (Oxford and New York, In press).

iv In sheet mulching layers sheets of cardboard or newspaper are topped with manure, compost or other organic matter and used for planting. These materials block out weeds and gradually break down to add nutrients to the soil. See for example, Whitefield , p. 195