The Dirt: Nick Ritar

If David Suzuki was right when he said that what permaculturists are doing is the most important activity of any group on the planet, then Nick Ritar is one important man. Powerful even. As one half of Milkwood Permaculture, Nick spends most of his life immersed in the philosophy, ethics, and practicalities of living and working with, rather than against, the natural environment. He shares his passion and knowledge with hundreds of students each year, keen to explore another way of living.

I wanted to write a story about Nick and his thoughts on people, plants and power but soon realized it’s impossible to do so without delving into the realms of permaculture. It’s now become a story of the man, framed by the movement.

The word permaculture was coined in 1978, by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Mollison defines it as ‘a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system’.

Holmgren describes permaculture as ‘consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs.’ More than just a way of farming or gardening, it’s a set of ethics that can be applied to all spheres of life, from vast farms to inner city balconies, and corporate organizations to community groups.

Nick and his partner Kirsten Bradley started Milkwood Permaculture around seven years ago, upon moving to a farm near Mudgee in central NSW. The property became an experiment in creating a rural permaculture community, and a classroom for their permaculture design courses. The business grew rapidly and Milkwood has since outgrown its rural base. Nick and Kirsten have recently moved to the NSW South Coast, to be closer to Sydney and family, and are now building a rooftop permaculture demonstration garden in Redfern.

My first thought regarding Nick Ritar and the word power is about his work as a teacher – empowering people to engage with plants. I ask Nick about this and, as I soon discover is his way, he approaches the subject from a slightly different direction…

‘I could use the word oppression to describe our relationship with plants. Clearly their sentience is not at the same level as a farm animal but there is a complexity to plants, they’re not a machine; they’re more than that. We are completely dominant over them yet they’re at the root of all energy transactions on this planet. It’s an interesting prospect to look at these organisms which are completely subjugated, yet the basis of our civilization.’

However violently permaculturists kill plants, the approach is focused on respect and taking only what is needed, which is quite a contrast to conventional approaches to natural systems management, I suggest. We agree. Nick asserts that the practices involved in permaculture are an attempt to remove the line of disconnection between humans and the wider environment, an effort to develop a more holistic way of thinking about plants and nature. He says, ‘One of the main things we stress in our teaching is that there is no disconnection between us and the natural systems we utilize and engage with. It’s the pretend separation from nature that allows us to get away with all kinds of horrific things.’

‘For me there is no cut off point where we can disassociate and say “that’s the other’”  Everything down to the bacteria in our gut or soil is part of the incredible construct of nature, which has evolved on this planet to such a level of complexity that to deny our part in that complex ballet is the root of our destructive behaviour.’

Our conversation, like all good ones, comes around to food. In so many ways, this is where the power lies in the exploration of our relationship to the natural world. We eat three times a day, and (hopefully) much of this comes from either a plant or animal. It is for many people the most obvious and regular way of interacting with the natural world. And an ethical minefield.

To Nick, the most important thing about eating is finding the story behind the food systems you are supporting with your mouth.

‘Every bite of food is a reflection of your ethics. That doesn’t mean becoming a food snob who is a pain in the arse at every dinner party, but it does mean that when you buy something, you exercise your power by taking the time to understand what you are giving your money to. The more you learn the stories behind your food the less black and white you become. Often this means sacrificing convenience. Ethics and convenience don’t always go together.’

So, what does the bread you buy from the supermarket have to do with coal seam gas mining? As Nick suggests, everything is connected, in both positive and negative ways. He says, ‘If you are giving your money to commodified food you are supporting fracking. Fracking is producing gas which is used in the fertilizer industry. If you are buying food from producers using that fertilizer you are supporting coal seam gas. It’s a simple as that. So many things we don’t support, we end up implicitly supporting through our food choices. It’s probably the easiest way to exercise your power in this world.’

Nothing exists in isolation, huh?!

Permaculture has often been described as ‘revolution disguised as gardening’. I buy this. And Nick Ritar, with his close cropped head, not a hippy-ish dreadlock to be seen, could well be the leader. Or the pin-up boy. Whatever. The important thing, and what I feel Milkwood has done particularly well, is the way the messages found within the principles of permaculture are framed. Nick has done a brilliant job of sharing these in an intelligent, accessible and practical way, appealing to a wide range of people looking for reconnection with the natural world.

Nick is also, quite obviously, a questioner. The concept of lines in the sand, and thinking in greyscale rather than black and white, came up a number of times in our conversation. No one knows the answers, and god damn it gets rather boring when people assume they do. But questioning, pondering, exploring, this is where the good stuff is found, and this is where Nick exists.

This story was first published in 2014. Updated 2022.