Table of Contents

Urban Feathers

Urban Feathers, by Natalie Kelsey


by Kate Petre

There’s this trend going on these days, at least it’s pretty hip down in the jungles of southern Mexico where I’ve been hiding out. It’s called Permaculture. This Tazmanian guy, Bill Mollison, has written a book called "Introduction to Permaculture," the philosophy of which is more or less this: instead of focusing on the elements in your world, try to focus on the relationships that these elements have with each other and with you. For example, don’t think about the TV itself, think about what the TV can do for you and the table it’s sitting on. That may sound weird, but if you go with me here, you will find that everything that surrounds you has many more uses that you realize. This philosophy is a way to make the most out of things you already have, instead of wasting energy on getting more. In other words, work smarter, not harder. As a disclaimer, Permaculture as a catchword generally applies to an agricultural design (to help those of you who want to take the plunge and change your life into a semi-agrarian wonderland of soil mixing and handy crafts). I understand that this is not the ideal lifestyle for a lot of people, perhaps not even very many. That’s why in this little essay I'll be making my own adjustments to Permaculture to make it more accessible to whom I consider to be the average individual living in Western society circa early 21st century, because, well, nobody’s perfect.

I’m not, certainly. Mostly I’m lazy and I don’t see the point in working other than for the purposes of food, shelter and a ration of cold XX Ambar (that’s a Mexican beer for those of you not living in the Southwestern region of the United States). That’s why, when I started looking into Permaculture I knew it was for me. I do have these agrarian aspirations, but I have also spent my life until recently living in an urban, consumerist environment and understand well the expectations of most of you out there reading this. Many of you are interested in alternative, efficient living styles to a certain degree and I’m hear to tell you that Permaculture as a philosophy applies far beyond the farm and enters easily into our metropolitan and sometimes horribly superfluous everyday lives. Added to that, there’s this idea about alternative living that says it’s harder and that you have to give up stuff. I find that the reality is quite the opposite.

Part I

More or less, the essence of Permaculture is efficiency that comes from using everything around you in as many ways as possible, even yourself. Take, for example, my yoga mat (god, yoga and Permaculture, what am I a hippie?) which also moonlights as a door jam and a mop.  Rolled up it’s perfect for disciplining children and maneuvering object closer or farther away from you. I can hang it over the rod above my window and it blocks the morning sun better than the curtain - perfect for mid-day movies or hangovers. Yoga mat becomes super yoga-matic with 1-2-3-4-5, count ‘em, five different uses apart from the obvious. Let’s continue, this is fun!

CD and DVD cases turn into picture frames. Old CDs you’ve already down loaded onto your computer can be glued back to back and hung in aesthetically pleasing ways by a window where they reflect light and color. You can arrange them on walls to make a mirror. You can also do the same thing with broken mirrors.

Newsflash, you can buy one soap for your dishes, clothes, and to use for cleaning the bathroom and kitchen. You can also use certain soaps for lots of other things. (We all know about Dr. Brommer’s.)

If you can think of an efficient way to deal with plastic waste you would probably win a Nobel Prize (or if you were Obama you would have already won it). You can reuse water bottles a couple of times, but if it spends anytime in the sun it’s best not to ingest whatever is floating around in there or else your babies' balls will come out the size of raisins. The most direct way to use any size plastic bottle is cut off the top, poke a couple of holes in the bottom and stick a plant in it. The tops can be turned upside down and are perfect for hanging plants. Roommate or family driving you nuts? You can fill plastic bottles full of other plastic trash or earth and build a small isolation box for yourself on the patio, or a partition between your side of the couch and your roommate’s. These structures can also be used as surfaces on which to rest your XX Ambar, or the like. You can basically build anything with plastic bottles if you convert them into eco-bricks ( You can also do this with your collection of beer and/or wine bottles. If you’re not into the raw plastic bottle look, paint it. Everything looks better with a nice coat of paint.

Placement is important too. My guitar is always by my bed and can be used as a weapon against intruders or my boyfriend (as can almost anything long or heavy). My earrings hung close together on a line by the window sound like tiny wind chimes when the breeze drifts through them just so. Clothes, shawls, and jewelry can be displayed in such a way so that they are both easy to access and look like decoration: scarves look nice hung on nails over windows and doors, sun glasses lined up on a table look down right funky. Old clothes can be cut and thrown over table tops for a bohemian look, or sewn together and filled with helium to make a small hot-air balloon.

The greatest household decoration, of course, is the plant. Get useful ones like herbs or teas and your meals and health with shine like newly capped teeth. Plants also control odors and make the air fresher. With strategically placed lights (generally low-lighted) you can turn a white wall into a beautiful canvas of leaf shadows. Another great thing about plants is that they are cheap. Before you go to a nursery I am sure your parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors, and that hyperactive secretary that always wears leggings and has an obsession with purple that few people understand will be more than happy to give you clippings and/or entire potters of plants from their garden. I would, if you want to transport the things from Chiapas. You can also poach plants that are growing in untended lots or in the cracks of sidewalks. There are a whole slew of succulents that are virtually impossible to kill and need very little water. You can just break off a piece of this amazing foliage, stick it in water for a couple of days until it grows roots and then plant it in not-even-that-fertile soil. If you go to a nursery, the smaller the plant the cheaper it is, plus you get to watch it grow. If you keep a big bucket by your sink you can save the water you soak your dirty pans in to water these plants (no soap).

I’m sure there are a gazillion more ideas and to be honest I just didn’t spend enough time on this to give you a good enough list that would properly gain your respect. I’m lazy, remember. I’m sure you understand. But the idea is there. Look around you, and think. Just because the label says use only as directed doesn’t mean you have to.

Part II

Here’s where I take the essence of Permaculture and square it, that is to say, I’m using this philosophy in as many ways as I can. I’ve noticed that once I started to use the stuff I’ve got to its highest potential, there was suddenly a lot of stuff I didn’t need anymore.

First of all, you don’t need a specific appliance for everything: A big wooden spoon is good for cooking just about anything so give away all the streamline, custom designed, bejeweled stirring utensils you’ve got in that bin next to your stove. This saves space and cuts down on the work you would have to do to make the money to pay for the gas to take you to the mall and then to buy all those stirrers, not to mention the various stresses you’d encounter in the process. Even if you order on the internet, that stuff doesn’t materialize on your door step. You’re paying that cheese slicer’s ticket from China, which is probably the entire price of the thing cuz you know 5-year-old Wang who assembled it with his tiny, agile hands ain’t getting paid shit. It’s not that hard to cut cheese with a knife. Those of you who give cheese slicers as gifts, you can get out of your ticket straight to hell by switching to money. Everybody likes money. It’s not impersonal and thoughtless, it’s great. Give money.

If it’s actually the buying that makes you happy then I just feel sorry for you. That’s dismissive, but it’s true. Ladies and gentlemen, grab your proverbial balls—that is if you haven’t already bought something that automatically chopped them off for you.

For those that are interested, there is a huge urban Permaculture (and this time I’m talking about agrarian) movement (, are two I found really quick) based on simple compost-based potted gardens and local exchange communities. You’ve heard about buying local. You’d be surprised how much stuff is being made with love by your neighbors, and it’s not more expensive. You just have to be open to it and I think that’s the hardest thing. But I promise you, people that make things are really interesting. Kooky maybe, but interesting.

Hopefully I have inspired you even just a little to think about what you’ve got and make the most of it, appreciate it to its fullest. I would recommend you doing this with your girlfriend and/or boyfriend too but maybe we shouldn't get into that. The greatest thing is, you actually don’t have to give up anything (although it might be a good idea, just because you and I both know we are fast becoming a world of gluttonous guzzlers). You just need to look at all the things you are using (or guzzling) and notice what else you can do with it. Guzzle efficiently.



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