by Kathy Litchfield
PHILADELPHIA, PA -- Melissa Miles shared one word when describing her first job out of college – “awful!”
An environmental engineer at an oil refinery, she spent hours after work freeing geese stuck in oil pits that weren't supposed to be left open and driving them to a bird rescue in Delaware.
“It was perhaps the best example of the worst we've done, but a really good experience for me to see that first hand,” said the Philly native who has dedicated her life’s work to permaculture design, ecological restoration, green building and environmental activism.
“For awhile after that job people would shy away from me at cocktail parties, worrying and saying ‘watch out, she’s the one who’ll talk to you about beached whales and pollution . . .’ There’s a lot of bad stuff in the world but brow beating people isn’t going to get them there. Empowering other people as I was empowered through other people is my philosophy. And it’s fun!”
Miles has degrees in animal science and biology, green building and sustainable design and is presently working towards a Ph.D. in ecovillage design through the San Francisco Institute of Architecture. Her advisor was the architect for the Biosphere II in the 1980’s.
Miles loves studying the ways we as humans “construct our built environment and site our communities and how intentional (or not) that is.”
For years she worked on conservation easements and public outreach for a land trust, managed a horse farm and managed an urban micro-farm selling organically grown produce to farm markets and restaurants.
She lived in southern Florida before returning to her native Philadelphia, where she has evolved the engineering consulting company her father founded in 1979 (focused on the petrochemical industry), into the permaculture design and consulting firm known as the Permanent Future Institute, that she manages today.
She also teaches a series of sustainable living courses at the Bucks County Community College and at Longwood Gardens in Philadelphia. She’s a certified master composter and volunteer director of the Eastern Pennsylvania Permaculture Guild, which has grown to include over 1,000 members in the last five years.
But ask Miles why she spends her time educating and advocating for ecologically sustainable alternatives to conventional methodologies and she said the answer is very simple: “It’s common sense. Aside from the labels we put on everything, the ethics and principles are aligned with the natural world.”
Miles is passionate about employing the “common sense principles” of permaculture and organic land care in every aspect of her life and work, finding parallels in much of her education and working to bring them together in sustainable ways, something she experienced up close while visiting her mother and stepfather where they live in Central America.
“I’d been an organic gardener for years, with the standard rectangular bed in my backyard where no one would see it and the dirty secrets of compost were hidden,” she laughed, “but people in many other countries don’t have the luxuries that we have here to do it this way. They can’t afford to waste anything, and naturally are integrating the principles that are labeled as permaculture in this country.”
Instead of rectangular raised beds with vegetables separated in rows, Miles for instance designs herb spirals in patterns replicating the natural spiral of a nautilus shell; or mandala shaped gardens with paths lined with flowers, herbs, vegetables and good pollinators, she said.
“No one property calls for the same treatment, so when people call me for a landscape design, I work with them to not rip things out and redo the whole yard, but to work with what’s already there and reconfigure things. Often it’s just a matter of managing the water and soil on a site, and then everything falls into place,” said Miles, who was delighted to discover in taking the NOFA Accreditation Course in December 2013 that so many of the principles of organic land care parallel those she loves in permaculture.
“Right plant, right place, site analysis principles, lawn alternatives, business management, the information published for homeowners . . . I was in heaven,” she said. “I’m so grateful for the NOFA program, that the OLC Program exists. It’s a huge stride forward. It’s very basic on one hand and approachable, but also very in depth and really gives a great picture of what the organic landscape can be like and why you should want to have one, for health reasons and environmental reasons and the bigger picture too. The training was just phenomenal.”
As the director of the Permanent Future Institute, Miles spends her days designing plans for client’s properties, teaching and speaking. She said word of mouth has been her best advertising, and that her public speaking has brought many new clients. She often finds herself looking for organic land care professionals to implement and install her designs on clients’ properties, often including applying her home brewed compost teas.
She gives talks including “Eat Your Lawn,” “Make Room for Mushrooms,” “Backyard Chicken Keeping,” and “The Dirty Secrets of Compost.” She keeps four heritage breed chickens in her suburban backyard and teaches farming segments at her son’s Waldorf school.
When she first returned to Philly, she said she was thrilled to find people who had even heard of permaculture. While living in southern Florida, she was part of a diverse cultural community that brought techniques employed in permaculture from the islands and countries where they were the norm, and Miles “had a blast” learning and working with them.
Today she teaches her own permaculture course to audiences of usually around 24 people, inviting guest speakers on topics such as beekeeping, native plants and perennial vegetables. She holds the courses at the Kimberton Waldorf School campus, where the green committee she serves on there recently restored a riparian buffer in four phases over several years. All of the native plants have a purpose and the site proves a great demonstration of the permaculture aspects of restoration work, she said.
The benefits of teaching transcend principles of land design and restoration for Miles – what she finds most rewarding is seeing the changes people make in their lives upon learning about permaculture.
One student who came to the course uncertain of herself and worried about doing things incorrectly, “became a dynamo by the end of the course, building an herb spiral in her backyard by herself with lemongrasses that were five feet tall,” Miles said. That woman also sewed a quilt with the permaculture design principles on it. Another student quit her full-time office job for an internship at Stone Barns in New York.
“In permaculture we encourage people to make mistakes. That’s the best way human beings learn. You do your best, observe, and practice principles. Don’t let fear paralyze you,” she said. “I lug all of my ‘traveling circus’ to the school on weekends to do this teaching, but it’s so well worth it when I get emails back from people who are changing their lives and taking a positivistic approach to all the doom and gloom out there. I love to see that I’m helping people to make a difference.”
In terms of a more permanent future, Miles sees intentionally designed green buildings and communities, multi-disciplinary land use designs and thoughtful resource management as key.
“While I’m fiercely independent, I think human beings are weak in terms of survival. Most people don’t know their next door neighbors. I think we need to work together and help each other and establish trust. These human connections, the older I get, become more important to me,” said Miles, who has two sons, 13 and 16. Her eldest son is helping in her business as an editor and mechanical drawer.
In her spare time, Miles hopes to finish the book she is co-authoring titled “Dragon Husbandry: The Why & Wherefore of Biogas Systems,” slated for publishing by Chelsea Green.
For more information, contact Miles at firstname.lastname@example.org.