Permaculture’s Unexpected Lessons for Pandemic Parenting

Ecosystems have a lot to teach us about how connection builds resilience.

Photo by Brianna Sharpe

When my kids crawled into my bed this morning, they felt feral and fragile; we became foxes denning from a storm, and only unfurled when the wrestling began. The wilder ways of this time in general are comforting, as we explore the land, plant seeds, and watch robins. By nightfall, however, I’m often flooded by the very human anxiety I push aside through the day.

Anxious people are told we need to find calming strategies, but self-regulating in a pandemic feels impossible. Instead, like the foxes we started the day as, my family is learning to lean on one another and the land to get us through this. No element of an ecosystem is resilient on its own — connection is survival.

When we bought our mini-acreage, we imagined solar panels, a food forest, herb spirals. Five years and two kids later, we still have none of these things; but in this more isolated time, we’re digging into those dreams again. When the kids are finally in bed, we nerd out on permaculture videos. A method of growing things based on ecological patterns and human-nature harmony, permaculture also holds some surprising parenting truths.

Permaculture (a mash-up of “permanent agriculture”) is more than just gardening; it’s a practice that honours the connections between all elements of an agricultural system. Although the term permaculture itself is relatively new, these principles have often-unacknowledged roots in Indigenous understandings of ecology, which I’m committed to learning more about. In words attributed to Oren Lyons, faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation of the Haudenosaunee: “The environment isn’t over here, the environment isn’t over there. You are the environment.”

Permaculture helps us remember that we’re not a neutral presence in the garden. Whether we’re growing balcony tomatoes or farming our yard, permaculture offers principles that make growing systems sustainable by mimicking nature. While a conventional gardener might plant flowers they like the look of, a permaculturist would choose species similar to their area’s native plants that will both thrive and benefit the local ecosystem.

By treating kids’ tough emotions like dandelions, and making the effort to understand them, we can ride them out together.

Permaculture is reminding me of parenting truths I knew in some distant pre-pandemic time. Many call dandelion, nettle, and vetch “weeds,” but permaculture teaches that their job is to tell us what’s going on beneath the surface. Our berry patch is full of dandelions this year; our neighbour sprays his, but we listen to ours. Alright, we still pull them sometimes, but first we listen. Dandelions restore soil health, particularly in disturbed areas — they’re telling us that the earth needs care. By treating Little Grey and Mini Ewe’s tough emotions like dandelions, and making the effort to understand them, we can ride them out together. And, actually, that goes for my tough emotions too.

On day 25 of self-isolation, Little Grey Lamb kicked me in the face in a fit of (mostly) well-intentioned energy. Keeping my feelings inside felt too hard, so I wept. In front of my kids. And they held me and said lovely things. It didn’t scar them — in fact, they were fantastic. When I cried that day, I told them tears are safe, I’m okay even though I’m sad. We don’t pulverize our dandelions, we feed the need that brought them forward.

Since then, we’ve started naming our emotions more frequently. Grey and I made a feelings chart out of fairy cards; after a tough time, I either lead him over to it or he asks me to take him. We look at the pictures, and he points to one or two. I never blame or shame him, but instead help him move through discomfort.

Recently, Little Grey spent the morning zooming around the yard yelling “Look out! I’m… Goshawk Man!” in honour of the bird we just identified. It’s hard to express how excited I am that this imaginary winged superhero has replaced Paw Patrol. Like many other Canadians, we’ve become amateur birders. We love naming birds, but the principles of permaculture also remind me to help the kids see how birds fit into the big picture. How are the wolf willows, waxwings, and wild strawberries connected?

Sometimes it’s hard to see. “Flowers are futile,” Eric said last summer. “They’re pretty, but pricey, so what’s the point?” I side-eyed him at the time, but he’s since come to love that the lupines we plant will fix nitrogen in the soil that will feed future plantings, and attract butterflies and bees that will pollinate our elderberry bushes. These in turn provide medicine for us, and food for cedar waxwings, who will distribute their seeds through poop (which is good for us, as we need more productive vegetation).

I’ve even read that elderberry bushes can lure bugs that would otherwise eat our nearby raspberries and haskaps by tempting them with a readily available food source — without even hurting the elderberries. The bushes’ leaves build the soil in the fall, which will help us grow more flowers and food. Relationships are essential to building healthy natural systems; the more interconnections, the better.

Teaching ecological literacy to my kids has felt amazing. But between the flowers and the foxes, my anxiety still sprouts. Will my dad’s cancer treatment be impacted? How do I hold on to my career without childcare? Will I ever pee alone again? The kids ask when they’ll see granny and grandpa again, how long isolation will last, why other kids are allowed to play with one another and they aren’t. These questions consume me. As a way of processing all this, I ask another: What if my family were an ecosystem?

Like ecosystems, humans grow stronger through connection. In fact, the concept of co-regulation is foundational to child development: Infants lack the capacity to regulate their own emotions, so ideally they’re soothed by their caregivers’ voices, touch, attentiveness. Over time, they learn that help does come, and calm is within reach. Co-regulation also models what a mature nervous system looks like. My kids still need a lot of co-regulation. But in this time of fried nerves and hundred-mile stares, my own emotional regulation is far from robust, and I need it too. Just as our garden needs interrelationships to thrive, my family’s connection will help us through this time.

Like ecosystems, humans grow stronger through connection.

Ecosystems look messy; they’re teeming with life, colourful, and loud. Eric and I recently watched a video from Calgary’s Verge Permaculture, in which co-owner Rob Avis explained the difference between order and organization. Organization, he said, is a tree nursery: there are few relationships between species, and it’s dependent on human input. Order is a forest: if a human walks away from an orderly natural system, the system will continue to thrive.

The journey through this pandemic has been wild. I’m not going to pretend that Covid-19 is just some simple weed we need to find the beauty in. A pandemic is a global threat — it has no dandelion sheen. At first, I thought I could organize it away with schedules and Zoom classes. Instead, my feral little family needs to embrace the mess of the forest, stay connected, and tap into the order of things.

Asparagus depends on readers.

Support our work by subscribing, donating, or buying sustainable swag.