Soil turns death to life: reflections on Toby Hemenway, from a distance

Yesterday evening was a memorial service for dear Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden and Permaculture City. Hearing from so many elders and practitioners from our Northern California community was profound. There’s a particular feel to a room full of those who’ve come to be sad together, like soaking your bones in thick salty water. 

What struck me most was everyone’s account of Toby’s spirit. Gentle, yet brave; warm, understated, thoughtful, listening. 

This resonates with my memory of Toby, too. My first exposure to his work was the assigned reading for my permaculture class with Will Hooker back in college in North Carolina. Will was a tenured design professor who remains a stalwart member of the Southeastern permaculture contingent. It’s his urban homestead that graced the first edition of Gaia’s Garden.

When I first met Toby, it was at a book signing. I told him I was one of Will’s students garden and that I'd tromped around that Kirby Street garden.  Since then, we occupied many of the same spaces at the same time, but I never engaged him much. I sometimes fall into shyness around those I most respect.

Like many of my friends, I first heard Toby discuss his view of an anarchist horticulture society at Permaculture Voices conference in the spring of 2015. I was moved. Actually, I sat there deeply skeptical, frustrated with the seeming naïveté of it, and remember ranting to my friend Grant about how much more complicated all of this is.

But in reality, that frustration stemmed in part from recognizing Toby as one I wanted to argue with directly—wanted to forge an intellectual bond with, to hammer out the problems in my own ideas, not his—and didn’t know how to do this. Looking back, my energy surrounding it was so comically immature that I have to laugh about it now.

That talk catalyzed a lot of thoughts in me, as it did in others. It inspired an ongoing fictional world I play in called Circle A Cattle Company (set in a post-climate-apocalypse planet where a rat tailed band of graziers struggle with the internal dynamics of restoring their ecology through subsistence herding… of course!). He’s a part of why I named my beef Circle A Beef. He drew me to the work of James C Scott, which has overturned my understanding of the mechanics of governance, people, and how ecosystems are shaped and managed. 

Toby’s talk irritated me, and provoked me. That’s so much more a gift than seamless agreement. He was a gentle  provocateur.

One day some months later, an online discussion examining the intersection of Permaculture and feminism had us rubbing virtual shoulders, and addressing one another directly. It led to my reaching out to him to spend time with me at Pepperwood, and his saying he would love to join, and to bring his wife Kiel. I flattered myself to believe that I had qualified myself in that discussion as consideration as a peer.

But as I age and review pivotal relationships in my life, I realize that some of the ones I considered mutual mentorships were actually my flailing about with the consternation of an awakening conscience within view of someone more calm and collected, who then invited me into their perspective with such deftness that I did not realize it. So perhaps more accurately, I struck him as someone worth investing in. 

Alas, I’ll never know. I was overwhelmed with sadness and regret last night, snotty and red-faced--true marks of someone not at peace with the situation, for I’d never managed to prioritize having Toby out.  

I think about what it would have been like—what paths we’d walk, what views of the contentedly grazing herd I might have chosen, from what rock nestled against some live oak or California bay tree.

What has struck me about Toby in his writing, in person, and especially in his friend’s accounts of him after he died is something like this: he led with an invitation. Rather than broadcasting his views with bravado, he expressed them lucidly but remained open to being wrong, and available to the feedback that would suggest as much. He was attentive to the minds of others, and not just those who viewed him as a thought-leader. He managed to negotiate a simultaneous softness and resolve, gesturing at the same twinkle on the horizon that we recognize from our own hearts. 

 How many revolutions are incited with flame and burn their own scaffolding before the old ways can be ascended to see a new dawn? There are many ways to lead, but I’m attuned of late to the leadership of those who invite an inevitable tomorrow rather than charge against the gates of this day.

I'm not writhing this because I knew Toby well. I'm writing because I didn't. My last post about the loss of my father gives context to my view of the world lately – I am hungry for wisdom, for mentorship, for eldership. I am beginning to seek it out—to get over the fear that those sitting on years of wisdom and knowledge don’t want to be bothered by some young spit of a thing.

It's easy for me to feel that our global epoch is so urgent that there's no time to reach into the past. But really, the situation we're in has a lot to do with our failure to learn lessons. So I'll retain my sadness for Toby’s loss as a thread stitched into my heart—a reminder to craft a life with some room to be filled only by the wisdom of wiser souls.