about upfront & beautiful.
Looking back on the early years of my life, and of the people and experiences that informed who I became as an adult, I can see that my maternal grandparents first influenced my connection to the natural world.
I spent most Sundays on the farm, helping my grandmother bake bread and make jam, nut butter and applesauce, and clean her century farmhouse with little more than vinegar and water.
Mid-morning or so, I would search the fields and barns for my grandfather, a true grit, silent type cowboy in every sense, and together or apart we would quietly do what needed doing, until the dinner cowbell rang and it was time to call it a day.
It was status quo for me to pull newborn calves from (out of) distressed heifers (I pulled hundreds over the years), de-horn cattle, castrate bull calves, butcher and clean chickens, assist in the covering of purebred horses, and all the many other fascinating circle-of-farmlife chores that needed doing. Mucking stalls was a daily necessity, a way to care for and commune with the animals. To this day, the smell of a manure pile brings with it a curious kind of comfort.
When my chores were done, I could steal away to a dyke or a pond and, using my grandmother’s aluminum applesauce mill as a net, catch frogs and sticklebacks to take home in a jar to our cement pond. It never occurred to me that swimming alongside muskrats wasn’t something that everyone did, or that frog and tadpole silt might offend my grandmother, or her applesauce.
Me, age 2, at my grandparent's ranch.
I now live with my family in a modest post-war rancher, on the forested edge of a small seaside community, between Vancouver and the truly wild mountains that stretch for hundreds of miles north and east.
My husband and I raised our family of three here happily and peacefully, for two decades. But, over the course of the last several years, our quiet rural neighborhood has seen huge social and environmental change, as several large treed lots and lovely old smallish homes fell in the wake of huge homes, artificial turf, acres of paving, fleets of gas-powered toys, and much more unwelcome, unnatural noise.
My initial response was to concede defeat and relocate to acreage on a nearby Gulf Island, but serendipity, my husband’s love for the city, and a need to remain close to our family and friends and philanthropic work, made us reconsider our choices.
I dove headfirst into what I knew best instinctively and through years of intense, obsessive study and observation, eventually earning certification as a Permaculture Designer. I studied at UBC and Cornell, and in fields, forests and farms close to and far from home. I studied soil biology, weather systems and hydrology, animal husbandry, regenerative farming and forestry, mushroom farming, and culinary anthropology. Soon, the disconnect between the organic patterns and resilient systems found in nature, and the chaos and unresilient systems typical of urban environments, became apparent. Along the way, we quite naturally adopted a primarily plant-based diet.
I came to understand that my five-decade long love affair with nature was telling me to stay put in the neighborhood and fight softly, by example, and demonstrate ways in which we can live sustainably and in harmony with nature beautifully, outside and inside our own urban and suburban homes. I could see clearly that, we could maintain or increase our property value without devastating it, and also critically, that we shouldn’t expect rural permaculture methodologies and materials to win friends and influence urban neighbours.
Ultimately, I understood that, the path forward would have to be forged anew — with one foot in the past, one in the future, but both planted firmly in the realities of human nature and contemporary society.
Duly inspired then just last spring, at the onset of the panademic lockdown, we began turning our urban front yard - a relatively large expanse of nothing but soccer-worn grass - into an urban permaculture demonstration project. A beautiful, cultured, semi-classical style production and recreational space complete with trellises, potager, berry patch and mini orchard. By mimicking nature wherever we could and were permitted, the project evolved unbelievably quickly, feeding and protecting itself intuitively. It’s been remarkable.
A long-distance friendship with a fellow nature and sustainable-food-systems loving woman named Susan McKenna Grant, inpired in large part, the creation of my 'urban orto'. Susan and her husband Michael restored an ancient and beautiful 165-acre property called La Petraia, in the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany, Italy, and through reading and re-reading Susan's fabulous books (Piano, Piano, Pieno: Authentic Food from a Tuscan Farm, and Dinamica: La Petraia Cucina Sistemica at KM 0), my belief in and commitment to moving forward while looking back, was affirmed.
To be sure, my urban permaculture project is an experimental work-in-progress, and by necessity it deviates wildly in places from the zones and design principles of textbook permaculture, But, piece by piece I am applying and re-imagining traditional permaculture design ideas in what I think are beautful new ways to improve the quality of life for my family and our community, and the value of our property. It is my hope that people notice and take an idea or two home to try out in the smallest of ways, and that together our collective intentions and actions make a positive dent.
I believe that in the space that lies between today and an unsustainable future, there exists huge possibility to learn from a time not so long ago when the concept of charming sideyard vegetable and fruit gardens, and even grand potagers enjoyed an enviable commonplace.
I believe that, regardless of where we live, we absolutely can and are obliged to create on our windowsills and balconies, backyards or frontyards, schoolyards and vacant lots — beautiful, productive, sustainable, righteous gardens, based on urbanized permaculture principles, that are nothing short of up front and beautiful.
I believe too that I, and thousands like me will succeed, and that together we can not only change the course of catastrophic climate change, but we can teach our children by example, to honour nature and live sustainably with her. We can feed ourselves and our families, physically and spiritually, and we should.
If we don’t we change our ways, our ways will fail us… and our children. We have no choice.
I invite you to subscribe to my weekly(ish) newsletter, and also to join me in Modern Farmer Magazine's 'Million Gardens Movement'. My urban permaculture articles and videos can be found on the milliongardensmovement website and also within their weekly newsletter. Also, I write a bi-weekly 'Garden to Table' urban column in the North Shore News and other Glacier Media Group papers.
Laura Marie Neubert, Certified Permaculture Designer
It should be noted that I spent three decades building a boutique communications firm and paying too little attention to the supply chain of prosperity. Like millions of my contemporaries, I prospered during the '90s and the early part of the new millenium, enjoying the spoils of a modest but privileged life. While I never strayed too far from my inner hippie farm girl, and I initiated many important environmental projects over the years, I did indeed contribute to the world-on-fire. I will do what I can over these next three decades, sharing and teaching what I know about permaculture, sustainable food systems, culinary anthropology, cooking and preserving home-grown food, and doing well without.