Part V — Transition Joshua Tree Permaculture Meeting

Jill Giegerich, Permaculture designer and co-catalyst of the TJT Permaculture Group

V. Interview with Jill Giegerich

Jill and I pulled out of the driveway and onto the dirt road, cutting through the night, staring at the city lights kicking out the ladder to dark matter, and talking about ecological approaches to predicament we are in.

K: What is the overall idea with the Transition Town movement? 

J: It’s a global grassroots, community building organization that helps the community transition through peak oil, climate change and economic crisis—which Transition sees as completely intertwined. The situation it came out of was a class in Ireland that Rob Hopkins ran. He is a permaculturist. Permaculture is the underpinning of what we are attempting to transition to: creating a regenerative paradigm instead of an extractive one.

K: What is your analysis about capitalism?

J: (Laughter) It hasn’t worked very well. In its current form it is an extractive endeavor. It uses up resources and is very short sighted. 

K: Does the Transition Movement try to work within capitalism or in a different system?

J: There is a lot of discussion about economy because an important part of Transition is building a resilient local economy as the current economy collapses. The current economy is having a little bit of regeneration right now due to the bump up from the ecologically devastating tar sands and shale oil extraction process, but if you follow peak oil and really research it, then you see that the entire economy is driven by oil and we are reaching its end. Peak oil is the point at which the easy sources of oil are exhausted and the extraction becomes less and less economically viable. Something has to happen as we come over the curb of peak oil. Transition is such a grassroots, localized idea, because every ecosystem is different, every economy needs to be different as well, so I don’t think there is a one size fits all. In this town, in this place, what kind of economy can become a resilient one? What kind of economy can we have if food is no longer trucked in? If peak oil destroys the ability to import food into this area, what kind of economy can we build? There is a lot of talk within Transition about bartering, bit coins—all different kinds of ways of building resilience economically. 

K: Why are you out here in the desert trying this?

J: Because I like a challenge. (Laughter) We have all thought a lot about that. 

K: This is one of the driest places in the United States, right? 2-4 inches of rain per year?

J: It’s dry enough. I have a lot of thoughts about that. One being that the amount of population here cannot be sustained if the general economy collapses and peak oil hits. If you look to the indigenous cultures that were here before, they were very small groups and they were located around a few ground-level water sources, the oases that were here, which are dropping.

K: Does the dropping have to do with the fact that people have been taking so much water out? I read that between the 1950s and 1990s the water table dropped 35 feet. 

J: Yes, we are overdrafting our aquifers. It is an ongoing ethical problem for me—whether we should be here or not. The Southwest is running out of water. Climate change is also having an impact: as the mountain snow packs diminish so does the water recharge source for the aquifers. On the other hand, the things we are learning here and the systems we are putting into place: these are going to benefit the entire world. This water issue and climate change, these are going to affect everyone. I feel like I am on the cutting edge of permaculture here and that really interests me. 

K: Earlier, we were talking you said when you came out here you re-evaluated everything. How did you come to this conclusion of stopping your traditional art practice and instead working on permaculture? 

J: It just kind of happened. I still had some shows when I was up here and had a gallery in LA, but I just found myself more and more unable to get any satisfaction out of standing in front of a canvas and painting on it. There is an urgency building and I can’t justify doing that right now. It doesn’t mean I will never paint again, but I have bigger ambitions than that, in a way. To me, a collaboration with nature, working with my community and being part of a regenerative process is the deepest satisfaction that I am experiencing right now—which used to be comparable to the kind of satisfaction I would get making a painting. I don’t get that kind of satisfaction anymore. 

K: What is this regenerative process? How does it happen within your daily life? What is the process you are working with and going through?

J: I am constantly assessing the natural systems around me. I am constantly aware of the patterns around me. I am constantly thinking, feeling and implementing my collaboration with those patterns to help generate growth. That happens in many different ways. It could be a certain kind of working with the environment to understand that a certain kind of garden should be put in, planting food producing native trees and understanding exactly how to plant them and exactly where to plant them for maximum water harvesting. That is what I mean by regeneration. It is understanding how to help things flourish by understanding patterns. That is the crossover to art making. That is why I am good at it, because I am trained as an artist to understand patterns. To take huge, wide ranging interests of mine and see that this thing over here is actually exhibiting a pattern that is similar to this thing over there and that the pattern that is flowing between them is a pattern that generates consciousness. It increases consciousness. I think that is what artists are trained to do. It is not what everybody is trained to do.

K: So what is your vision?

J: My ambition is to help make things better. To help undo the damage we’ve done. To be one of many helping undo the damage we have brought on the planet. 

K: And where does it stand now?

J: Oh, I think it is anyone’s guess. All bets are off. It may be too late and it may not. That was one of the deciding factors to me. I am not interested in living out the rest of my life in some kind of despair over what I see around me. I am going to give it my best shot. It may be too late, but just in case it is not, that seems really worthwhile. A really worthwhile human endeavor to be spending my time on this planet while I am here. 

And I really like permaculture people too. I have a great fondness for artists and I spent most of my life around them, but there is a gloom that hangs over artists that is not hanging over permaculture people. I like being around that energy.

K: Why do you think that is?

J: Because I think artists have to deal with the very corrupted art world and it is kind of soul killing. They do this thing in their studio that they probably thought was very much about the soul and then come into conflict with the world. Which, like everything in American culture, has been completely infected by money. It has caused a lot of despair for artists. Whereas permaculture people don’t have that going on. They are just growing stuff.