Patrick Whitefield - An Appreciation.

Caroline Aitken remembers the leading light of British permaculture.

Patrick Whitefield was a pioneer of temperate permaculture. He died in February this year and left us with a great legacy of books, films, articles and courses. Since he began teaching over 25 years ago, permaculture has gone from being a very marginal movement to becoming a respected part of mainstream debate, particularly that of sustainable food production. Patrick's was one of the leading voices in the debate and his contributions have helped to create that shift.

Patrick's great love of the landscape, plants and animals came to him through growing up on a smallholding in Somerset. As a child he always wanted to be a farmer, so after school he went on to agricultural college. He recalled that his fellow agricultural students would never allow him to drive the car on trips, because he 'farmed as he drove'. This traditional use of the word to 'farm' (meaning to read and analyse) was the kind of farmer Patrick really was – constantly observing the land, seeing the signs, patterns and systems at work and having a deep and natural understanding of them. After spending several years working on farms in the Middle East and Africa he realised that it was his love of nature that had drawn him to agriculture, but he would never be content as a farmer. 'My boredom threshold is far too low' he said later, referring to the unvaried and repetitive nature of mechanised modern farming. He returned to his beloved Somerset and bought 'The White Field' hay meadow from which he later took his name.

When he first became involved in the environmental movement in the early 1980s, Patrick embodied 'the simple life' he was living in this flower-rich meadow near Glastonbury in a tipi he'd made himself. He had bought the meadow to save it from development and spent eight years there earning a living making tipis and thatching spars. This was an important time in his life, when his closeness to nature deepened his respect for it. He became involved in The Ecology Party which later became The Green Party, and wrote his first book Tipi Living (1987) in which he shared his personal experiences and practical tips. Around the same time he became aware of a radical new approach to agriculture from Australia, and took part in one of the first Permaculture Design Courses in the UK, taught by Andy Langford.

Patrick said that when he discovered permaculture it seemed to tie together all of his experience and interests. The principles of permaculture resonated with his understanding of the world. He was a man of nature – he lived it, breathed it and understood it. Some of us have had to relearn the ways of the natural world, and adjust our focus to see the patterns and the order in the apparent chaos. Patrick could always see it, and so his gift as a permaculture teacher was not just his warmth and charisma, but that clarity which conveyed his understanding to the mind of the listener.

As he said, "People often think that there are two ways of doing things. One is by returning to a life of drudgery, the other is by throwing fossil fuels at it. Permaculture offers a third way of doing things and that is by design."

Patrick was a big-hearted, affectionate person who laughed easily and gave great bear-like hugs. He enjoyed telling stories and jokes around the campfire and would sometimes play his penny whistle or sing folksongs. He became known for his trademark red neckerchief and allowed himself to be caricatured with good humour. He had a brilliant sense of the absurd and his sharp, mischievous humour made him great fun to be with. But when it came to his work he was rigorous and conscientious. His only concern was passing on good knowledge, clear understanding and useful practice. He would go to great lengths to ensure that participants fully understood the principles of permaculture and were able to apply them well rather than taking away a handful of unconnected and novel ideas to implement at random. Some permaculture ideas can be taken in isolation and used effectively, but many, like the species in an ecosystem, work best when placed together in exactly the right way. This is what we learn from observing nature – natural systems function because of a web of beneficial relationships which make best use of the resources available while increasing those resources, not depleting them. He was keen to get these key over-arching principles across while also arming people with good practical skills with which to apply them. It is all about asking the right questions.

Or, as he put it, "The need to make wise decisions in complex situations is part of what it is to be human. The idea of a simple set of rules which we can obey without having to think is attractive but unrealistic." Our students have sometimes referred to Simon Fairlie's feisty interview with Patrick in The Land 14. Fairlie's questions about the merits of modern British permaculture were provocative but Patrick was not a defensive man and answered with his characteristic rationality. He had no interest in defending ideas or practices which made no sense. If there was anything he worked against it was dogmatism and thoughtless actions.

SF: Is there a need for a back to basics movement, reinventing permaculture with the defined purpose of feeding ourselves (in a planet-friendly fashion of course) in perilous times? If so, how might this be accomplished?
PW: What you describe here is exactly what I endeavour to teach. One former course participant refers to me as 'Mr Patrick Reality-check Whitefield'. There has been a tendency in permaculture towards over-enthusiasm, to take wild claims at face value and believe that things on the page of a book will necessarily work on the ground. I do my best to correct that. I don't see it as the reinventing of permaculture but as winnowing the chaff to lay bare the golden grain."

At a time when most permaculture literature still came from Australia and the limitations of a 72-hour Permaculture Design Course made it difficult to give people the detailed information they might need to practice permaculture in our climate, Patrick produced two essential guides: Permaculture in a Nutshell (1993) and How to Make a Forest Garden (1996), These later came together in The Earth Care Manual; A Permaculture Handbook for Britain and other Temperate Climates. (2004) which continues to be used by teachers and students alike as the text book for temperate permaculture. Two later books, The Living Landscape, How to Read it and Understand it (2010) and its abridged field-guide How to Read the Landscape(2014) convey his endless curiosity, encyclopaedic knowledge and love of the land, and add new dimensions to a walk in the country.

I met Patrick in 2007 as a student on his Permaculture Design Course. By that time he had made his name as an accomplished teacher and author but it was his humility, warmth and integrity that most struck me and led to what became a great friendship and working relationship. Since then my initial impressions of him have been confirmed many times over, and when he retired in September last year leaving me at the helm of Patrick Whitefield Associates I felt inspired to continue teaching with the same conscientious care and enthusiasm as he did.

Through his books, his public speaking, his films, documentary interviews and teaching Patrick has inspired and empowered thousands of individuals all over the world to take care of themselves, their communities, their environment and our collective future. His comment in the introduction to The Earth Care Manual: "I want to be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem" is a worthy motto for us all. He certainly achieved his aim, and in this vein I and other permaculturists will do our best to keep up the good work. 

This article originally appeared as '' in The Land Issue 18 Summer 2015