In the global forest of permaculture and kindred networks, a giant has fallen. Dan Palmer is dead. Rather than old growth, he was in his prime at 47 with deep roots and spreading canopy. From the days facilitating Permablitz, which helped inexperienced permies and householders try their hand at designing and doing together, to co-creating the Very Edible Garden (VEG) consultancy, construction and education business with colleague Adam Grubb, and beyond into Making Permaculture Stronger with Holistic Decision Making and Living Design Process, Dan was, to maintain the metaphor, forever reaching for the sun while maintaining mycelial connections to old growth mentors and emergent saplings, supporting all in his warm embrace.
I first met Dan at mutual friend’s 30th birthday party in 2002*. I recall him as a young bright eyed academic from Monash who made a strong impression on my teenage son. But it was some years later, well after he caught the passion for permaculture through a PDC with Mollison and Lawton, that I got to know him more. I already had a fun, productive and deep partnership with Adam Grubb focused around retrofitting the suburbs and future scenarios, so it was amazing to find another such relationship with Adam’s closest business partner and friend.
As well as being a deep thinker and conceptual explorer, Dan’s boyish enthusiasm for everything and everyone drew people together and brought out the best in them, whether that was on a course or at a party. I felt the exhilaration of seeing the network connections he was building in our bioregional community, something I hadn’t felt so intensely since the 1990s when permaculture colleague Ian Lillington was doing the same. That Dan and so many others in those networks were a generation younger than the permaculture pioneers spoke to a maturation of the movement that included the children of the pioneers.
Quite early on I saw how Dan was constantly searching for the next insight on a road to continuous improvement and innovation. While VEG was the vehicle for much of that insight and energy, once experimentation and innovation transitioned into proven practise and productivity, Dan’s dissatisfaction with his design process keep driving him forward. In the process of working with Rowe Morrow in Uganda he met Amanda, his life partner. Their marriage under a giant oak tree in Castlemaine and children born at home seemed to cement their connection to Central Victoria, but the pull of Dan’s fertile (and moist) home territory (and family) in Aotearoa was a strong one that saw them move back and forth several times.
Through Darren Doherty, Dan took on and dove deep into Allan Savory’s Holistic Decision Making and then, with rediscovering Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language, he became increasingly critical of what he saw as the mechanistic nature of most permaculture design. As he wrestled with whether to dump permaculture as a failed paradigm, we spent more time together discussing design process as the weak link when it should be the strong trunk of permaculture. That tree metaphor again because, tempering all the abstraction that both of us loved, there were always the trees to plant, prune, nurture, love and care for in the garden, on the farm, out in forest and down the creek.
Perhaps because I was so interested, rather than offended, by his critique of permaculture, and never tried to hold him to the “noble cause”, he started to ask more questions, read and reread my work to gain a deeper understanding of the origin and evolution of permaculture design process. While this attention was heartening I saw this as just how Dan threw himself whole heartedly into everything and his genuine interest in what everyone has to offer. What was best of all was that he wasn’t guru hunting. It seemed the deeper his understanding of my work, the more it drove forward his own theory and practise.
Following my own experience of master-apprentice relationships, especially Mollison and Tane, I had several close, productive and heart-felt collaborations with mostly younger colleagues, but my relationship with Dan Palmer was unique. We crafted new iterations of the 4-day Advanced Permaculture Design course, documented my reading of landscapes, (which grew organically into the film currently still in production), and interviews that kicked off his recording of design process with leading permaculturists on Making Permaculture Stronger. Through these and other discussions I realised that Dan not only grasped my work more completely than most, but that his own work had the potential to well exceed the import of my own struggles with design process. I was aware that not all colleagues were as excited by what Dan was unearthing, and some of their critiques resonated with my own doubts. But overall I was mesmerised by his journey and how many people he helped through both Holistic Decision Making and Living Design Process.
But with all of this, Dan was juggling an awful lot of balls including the ones he recognised and articulated as glass ones, such as family. Rough living conditions through a very wet winter, Covid and its discontents and the state of the world were all weighing him down even though he always presented an optimistic face.
Even though I saw Dan as a close colleague and friend, I never pushed beyond that persona to see the troubled soul and, by all reports from those closer to him, it was hard to get beyond it. The Dan Palmer persona was too good to be true, with depression and internal contradictions just part of the story of another fallible human, like the rest of us. That he got to a point where all the pressures and expectations closing in on him (mostly of his own making) were too much and he took his own life, was staggering to come to terms with for so many who thought we knew him well. That he helped so many to make better decisions, and yet couldn’t use the tools he taught to avoid the abyss, might seem to undermine the value of those tools. In life Dan Palmer taught us so much about how to live a full life. In death he continues to do the same by showing the fragility of life, reinforcing the necessity to live each day as if it were our last – and best. Beyond that we are learning not to be hard on ourselves when we fail. Those of us who were inspired and nourished by him feel diverse obligations to both support those closest loved ones left behind, and to help maintain, curate and extend his legacy through permaculture and kindred networks.
* I found this email from Dan that suggests our first meeting was some time earlier. Memory is a tricky beast.