It’s impossible to have a conversation with Erik Ohlsen without an abundant smattering of permaculture principles permeating his end: He speaks of niches, edges, stacking functions, least work for greatest gain. Meandering around his barely year-old garden-paths covered in strewn straw, recently rain-fed humus, a cozy pond, cover-crop sprouts (a favorite for hungry birds, he shrugs)—we finally alight upon the hammock and the hot tub. “Sustainable hedonism,” Ohlsen grins.
But Ohlsen’s had little time for self-indulgence. During the past eight years, the 26-year-old has organized direct actions at protests around the globe, planted gardens throughout his native Sebastopol, been arrested five times, helped found three nonprofits, and taught almost a dozen permaculture design workshops, all the while generating the occasional income through landscaping gigs.
His refusal to take, in his words, “the average American isolationist stance,” was spurred fresh out of high school. The upcoming “crisis” of Y2K lurked a couple years ahead, and Monsanto’s Terminator technology sounded a little too Blade Runner for him and his fellow nature-loving friends.
To help counteract a future of lonely bomb shelters and sterile seeds, they began scouting for front yards—the bigger the lawn, the better. Ohlsen’s first nonprofit, Planting Earth Activation, or PEA, landed on the welcome mats of Sebastopol with a simple plan: to give away gardens. He and his friends were door-to-door salespeople with green thumbs, hawking not a product but a free service—Food! Beauty! Ecological diversity!—to willing homeowners and others.
In three years, PEA planted organic heirloom seeds on over 100 plots. And it wasn’t your average geezer garden club: Ohlsen, one of a core team of about ten people, was just 19 when the group took root; of its 40 members most were, he says, between 17 and 20. One Sonoma County landowner thought the crew was doing such stellar work that he rented his Rohnert Park home to six of them at a reduced rate.
Though the majority of the gardens were for single-family homes, PEA was tapped by the city to initiate weed control after Sebastopol adopted a municipal no-spray ordinance. Instead of pulling the unwanted species out, Ohlsen’s team put a replacement landscape in, sheet mulching and planting one site with fig and Asian pear trees, another with pineapple-guava hedges.
Ohlsen says two factors led to the group’s breakup at the end of 2002: ego and finances. “It was the spirit of give-away, but it just wasn’t sustainable,” he reflects, noting that planting over 100 gardens isn’t cheap. For the first half of PEA, the gardeners paid for all the inputs, until they “wised up” and the homeowners funded their projects. “I think we were a little before our time.”
The collapse of one nonprofit led to another: Ohlsen immediately cofounded the RITES Project—Return Intentions Toward Ecological Sustainability—which established five school gardens and three service learning curricula while setting up a system that yielded compost tea, a valuable natural fertilizer for sustainable gardens.
The most unique project involved helping the city of Sebastopol acquire land for a skate park. For the past 14 years, local skaters had attempted to build permanent vert ramps and concrete bowls on three separate sites, all of which were shut down due to neighborhood outcry.
The RITES Project joined the fray, mediating the skater/non-skater divide and providing design and landscaping so the new park would be eligible for open space grants—which enabled the city to buy the land. The result is the Sebastopol Skate Park and Community Garden, as yet unbuilt but with a vision of a two-acre Garden of Eden punctuated by the clickity-clack of metal on metal and well-executed ollies.
“It’s a perfect function stack to have a skate park and a garden,” Ohlsen beams, invoking one of ecological design’s dearest principles—deriving multiple uses from one system. For instance, Ohlsen suggests planting a citrus grove above the concrete park to take advantage of the heat emanating from the thermal mass. A culvert leading from the road will require storm water management and erosion control; a community garden will overlap teenage territory with adults more concerned with soil than telling kids what to do; a model wetland restoration project and model food forest will demonstrate bioremediation and agroecology techniques. And of course, the “rough interface of kids and skateboards” necessitates a quickly accessible educational first-aid garden, advising fallen skaters with signs such as, says Ohlsen, “‘If you’re bleeding from a wound, grab this plant.’”
As the RITES Project continued to evolve, Ohlsen was shifting his energies from the local to the global, comprehending how—with the corporate patenting of genes, the epidemic of small-farmer suicides, and politically induced famine—feeding people is an increasingly radical practice.
PEA was in Seattle in 1999, converting a parking lot median into a potential stew of potatoes, dandelion, and garlic, its first guerrilla-gardened plot. “I looked around and saw every type of person, and I looked ahead and saw this massive police presence representing corporate global empire,” Ohlsen says. “It was this ‘click’ moment when I realized what I was up against. I decided to devote myself to the global justice movement.”
In 2003, Ohlsen launched into full-time organizing by founding a couple more political groups: Adopt-an-Activist, a community-supported program sponsoring activists and their projects, and the Sonoma County Green Bloc. The Green Bloc performs actions meant to make people think: “We felt it was vital to get alternatives out there for the global media to write about other than just street protests and the Black Block ‘breaking the windows,’” Ohlsen says. It was also a way, he explains, to offer seldom-seen solutions to other activists, who can easily burn out after years of hackneyed chants and recycled slogans.
The Sonoma-based eco-activists brought a vision of another world to free trade meetings. At the 2003 USDA-sponsored ministerial on biotechnology in Sacramento, the Green Bloc occupied and replanted the city’s oldest community garden, slated to be razed for condos. When Cancun hosted the WTO meeting, the Green Bloc teamed up with Mexican permaculturalists to create a functional, rock-and-reed, seven-barrel graywater system, a worm compost bin, and a solar oven. Just a couple months later, during the Free Trade Area of the Americas Summit in Miami, Ohlsen brought the protest closer to home, blockading the Santa Rosa-branch Bank of America—a corporation belonging to three lobbying groups that helped draft and fund the free trade agreement—for nearly three hours.
During this same time, Ohlsen was teaching courses in permaculture, a system rooted in observing patterns and principles found in nature. He brought permaculture techniques to his street tactics and gave a dose of protest to these classes, too, in a combination called Earth Activist Training (EAT). At this past July’s G8 conference in Perthshire, Scotland, protestors built a temporary ecovillage to house the international activists based on a design by one of Ohlsen’s EAT classes. Using reclaimed, scavenged materials, they constructed a graywater system, composting toilets, kitchens, and neighborhoods set up to facilitate effective social organizing.
Though his students’ design made a big impression, Ohlsen himself stayed in Sonoma County. The previous summer’s Biotech Conference in San Francisco had been a turning point. For eight days, Ohlsen scrounged for sleep between planting sidewalk gardens in the low-income Bayview and participating in street actions, all the while being trailed by not-so subtle cops. He realized he was tired. These days, from the crescent-shaped strawbale home he shares with his wife, Leyah, in rural Sebastopol, he is coming full-circle, back to the uber-local: their garden. The past year has afforded him some down time to incubate new ideas based on business models rather than the nonprofit.
“One of my greatest lessons from PEA was, ‘How do you sustain a project?’” Ohlsen says. “Activists now need jobs where they’re doing their activism, and it seems easier to offer a service than to write a bunch of grants.” Towards this end, he is designing an educational program that begins with an internship, evolves into the students working with a client on a project that applies permaculture principles, and eventually morphs into a local, green cadre of professionals able to manage their own projects. Called the Permaculture Farm Internship Program, Ohlsen plans to run it (along with a program centered on peak oil and climate change) under an umbrella business with a familiar ring: Permaculture Earth Activation.
Catching and storing energy, deriving the details from the larger patterns, valuing the fertility inherent along the edges, Ohlsen strives to model his actions on his discipline, a personification of permaculture principles. He’s contributed a lifetime’s worth of work—and weathered the ebbs and flows of an activist career—inspired by an unwavering faith in his vision: “It’s possible to live in a just society and a healed environment. It’s within the human potential to design systems like that. The earth wants to be healed more than anything, and so I know she’ll work with us on this.”