Friday, 27 February 2015

Patrick Whitefield: Friend and Mentor

This morning my dear friend, colleague and mentor Patrick Whitefield passed away in his sleep following several months of illness.

Patrick Whitefield 1949 - 2015

I could write pages about Patrick's achievements, and I probably will in other places, but here I will share who Patrick was to me, and the deep and lasting influence he has had on my life.

I first heard Patrick's name when I returned from my travels around Australia in 2003 with a head full of WWOOFing experiences and strange new concepts like 'permaculture'. I got back and immediately began to research permaculture, and there was one name that stood out - Patrick Whitefield. I can still remember the excitement of holding my very own copy of The Earth Care Manual in my hands - a heavy tome of a book with a striking cover - our beautiful green planet in an inky blue space. I confess that like many I was somewhat intimidated by the sheer size of it, but reading the introduction was enough to have me hooked.

"Every eco-system is composed of a vast web of beneficial relationships...This web of relationships is the fundamental principle which enables natural ecosystems to be highly productive without the [same] level of inputs [as a] wheat field. It's also the central idea of permaculture, and it can be applied to both food production and a wide range of other human activities."

Patrick's writing is non-academic, clear and easy to absorb - he was writing for everyone. His manner is light and humorous while clearly communicating his heart-felt belief in the permaculture ethics: earth care, people care and fair shares. There was no doubt in my mind that he was the teacher for me. I booked onto a full residential Permaculture Design course that he and his wife Cathy were running at Ragmans Lane Farm in Gloucesterhire. I was only able to do so because of Patrick's incredible generosity - allowing me a concession of almost 50% off the full course price because of my low income at the time. I already knew that this was a man who really walked his talk!

I am certainly not the first person to say that a PDC changed my life. Spending 2 weeks in a beautiful place with like-minded people and inspiring teachers who are changing the way you look at the world is bound to have a big impact, especially if you are at a turning point in life as I was. But this experience also gave me a mentor who would become a very great friend. During the course I had the chance to help with the cooking and it was then that I really connected with Patrick and Cathy and they invited me to be their course cook. I was delighted to oblige, and spent four very happy years working in the bunkhouse kitchen for their Design Courses and Sustainable Land Use Course (now run as an online course - The Land Course Online). I was also working as a food grower and gardener at the time, so it wasn't long before Patrick asked if I'd like to do a bit of teaching. Just practical demonstrations at first, but leading eventually to him offering me a teaching apprenticeship.

Me (front left) with Cathy's dog Luna, on my first PDC with Patrick and Cathy
(centre left) and fellow students in 2007.

Patrick knew that at some time he would need to retire - although I could never see him wanting to stop teaching, so he needed a co-teacher to take on more of the teaching as he would gradually do less. By the time he received his diagnosis in June, I was just about ready to run the course alone - although I didn't know it until I suddenly had to do so with very little warning when Patrick became ill. Now, thanks to Patrick's guidance I will continue to run his courses and continue his good work.

In my time working so closely with Patrick I was bowled over by his patience and generosity in sharing his knowledge and experience. He was incredibly humble and always open to discussion. It would make me laugh the way he would sometimes state something as a fact before having a 'thinking-out-loud' debate with himself and finally debunking his own statement. If someone asked a question he didn't know the answer to, he was happy to say so. On the rare occasions he made a mistake, he would happily be corrected.

'Permaculture is not about dogma. It's not about knowing the right answers, but asking the right questions, the answers to which will be different for each person and each place."

It was this lack of ego and the need to be 'right', which I found so inspiring in Patrick, and that he taught me is so essential in a good teacher. He is often referred to as a Permaculture Guru, but he hated that because while he loved being at the front of the room, enthusing about what he was teaching - it was the subject he loved, and the opportunity to pass it on, rather than the lime light itself.

He wasn't afraid to say what he really thought either, and he didn't mind if he fell out of favour for doing do. But I knew that if he praised my work, he really meant it. Equally I had to be prepared to take criticism, but he would deliver it gently and constructively, and always finish by telling me

"There are some people who teach who would be best advised to use their talents elsewhere. Then there are those who were born to teach, and you are one of them."

Patrick most certainly was. Behind our great working relationship we were kindred spirits and the time we spent together was a rich mix of deep conversation, a love of nature, shared ideals and a lot of laughter. He was an affectionate and caring person who laughed easily, infecting those around him with his warmth and humour. I loved his matter-of-factness, political astuteness and sense of the comic. He just had a way of putting things. On that note I will leave you with one of my favourite little snippets from The Earth Care Manual which sums up the Patrick I knew and loved.


Stating the ecological ethic can lead to rather silly debates around subjects like 'Does the smallpox virus have the right to exist?'

Certainly there is a conflict between our natural desire to defend our species against others which harm us and a belief in the right of all species to exist. It's much the same as the conflict between my desire to do the best I can for myself and my family and my belief in equal rights for all human beings. Sometimes these things will be in conflict and I will have to try to make a wise decision. 

The need to make wise decisions in complex situations is part of what it is to be human. The idea of a simple set of rules which we can obey without having to think is attractive but unrealistic.