A Letter to Toby Hemenway
“Permaculture gives us a toolkit for moving from a culture of fear and scarcity to one of love and abundance.”
Toby Hemenway (1952 – 2016) was an American writer, gardener, and teacher, best known for his groundbreaking work Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. After a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer, Mr. Hemenway passed away on December 20, 2016.
I didn’t know him personally, but his work had such a profound impact on my life that I felt compelled to write him a letter when I heard that he was entering hospice care; less than a day later, I found out that he had already passed.
It’s very rare for me to be sad when I hear that a public figure has died, but I felt a pang of grief upon hearing this news not unlike what I might’ve felt for an old friend or relative with whom I’d lost touch. I decided that the most productive course of action I could take would be to funnel those emotions into the letter that I never got to send to Mr. Hemenway. Here goes.
When I heard the news that you were battling cancer and entering hospice care, I immediately felt that I needed to write to you. We’ve never met, but I want you to know how important your work has been to me.
You changed the course of my life on the day that I picked up Gaia’s Garden on a whim at my college library six years ago and first encountered the word “permaculture.” I can say now, in retrospect, that I became a better version of myself as a direct result of your work.
I studied ecology in college, which means that I spent several years grinding my teeth and pulling my hair out contemplating various climate-change doomsday scenarios. Your writing introduced me to the concept of “top-down thinking and bottom-up solutions,” empowering me to take charge of my own life and change the world by changing myself and my habits.
Years later, after completing college and setting off to develop a humble homestead for myself, I still felt pretty helpless when I observed the world around me, lost adrift in a sea of corrupted culture and disingenuous political ideologies that I couldn’t relate to but believed I had to choose between.
Through your visionary talks on the idea of “liberation permaculture,” you showed me that the way forward was not apathy but proactive anarchy, and that the reason I never really agreed with any politician was because I was opposed to politicians as a whole – talk about liberating!
I admire your bravery in stepping far outside the comfort zone of the status quo and returning with challenging, insightful perspectives that nobody else out there has really articulated. I applaud your efforts in expanding the literature of permaculture to include more nuanced, historical viewpoints on social organization and the relationship between self-reliance and self-governance. I believe that this work will be foundational to the next generation of permaculture practitioners.
We share a deep fondness for the ethics of permaculture and their implications for how we ought to organize ourselves and interact with our environment. Your shadow looms large over the writings that my wife and I publish through our blog, Permaculture Lifestyle – not to mention our actual, day-to-day life. I hope that our contributions to this conversation might have even a fraction of the impact that yours have – I’d consider that a roaring success.
You have deeply enriched us all in a way that is completely illegible to the state. What a gift! Please know that your life’s work does not end with your passing: there are countless individuals just like me who are ready to build the lifestyle for ourselves that you so deftly designed ahead of us. We will carry your torch through the darkness of the modern era so that one day our children’s children may take your ideas for granted.
From the bottom of my heart, Mr. Hemenway, I thank you for helping to show me how to live in accordance with my values.
About the Author
Sam Sycamore is a writer and homesteader located in Simpsonville, Kentucky. He helps tend to a small-scale market garden alongside his wife Brooke, while propagating edible perennials and raising chickens in their backyard. To learn more about Sam and Brooke's story, click here. Contact Sam here, and keep up with his daily adventures on Instagram @doityoursammy.