Sometimes, all it takes is a one-word prompt to get us writing. Today’s Daily Post writing prompt: TREE

That’s the hashtag applied by people planting a tree in memory of the late Bill Mollison, who passed away just a couple weeks ago. It was Bill himself who made the suggestion to do this.

But this is less the story of people planting trees than the story of a kind of leadership… an informal leadership… a natural leadership stemming from life experience, knowledge and the courage to get out there, ruffle feathers and propose ideas that some found uncomfortable, others find exhilarating.

From backblock to prominence

For a man whose early life was spent in forestry, fishing and in the backblocks of the Tasmanian bush, Bill moved on in life into natural systems research, developed a genealogy of the Tasmanian Aborigines when the state government said that they were extinct, and invented the permaculture design system. That latter accomplishment was with David Holmgren, then a student of landscape design at Tasmania’s College of Advanced Education in Hobart. At the time Bill was lecturer in environmental psychology at the University of Tasmania.

In the years that followed the late seventies, the permaculture Bill and David unleashed would spread worldwide. It was — and is — an approach to designing the settlements we inhabit, the homes, the communities… and of securing those basic human needs such as good food, climate-appropriate building design, clean water, access to land and the conviviality of the company of creative people.

Small town

Stanley is a small town on a rocky outcrop in north-west Tasmania that juts out into the often stormy waters of Bass Strait. Once a fishing town, Stanley today attracts tourists with its quaint houses and maritime setting.

The town is also noted as the birthplace of two prominent people. The first was Joseph Lyons. He became Australia’s prime minister during the 1930s. Go to Stanley and find the small plaque that identifies his modest house on one of the few streets that make up this town. The second prominent person is Bill Mollison. It was not far from his Stanley birthplace where Bill died this last September. He was 88 years of age.

Drive east from Stanley along the Bass Highway and in only a short time you pass the sign notifying you that you have reached Sisters Creek. Don’t take the turnoff to Sisters Beach, take instead the narrow asphalt that heads inland towards the hills. Don’t drive too far because you soon encounter the property that Bill and wife, Lisa, occupied over his later years.

Bill and wife Lisa had moved onto the Sisters Creek smallholding when they brought the Permaculture Institute back from the northern NSW subtropics. There, the Institute had for more than a decade been based at a farm below the rainforest-clad escarpment of the Border Ranges. And there it had attracted permaculture designers, educators and the curious to travel that long, dusty gravel road to see what was something new in the making.

With the help of WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms, a work-for-keep farmstay scheme), over the years the Mollisons turned the Sisters Creek property into a model of rural permaculture design.

Bill was quieter in his later years that he had been earlier. He was an iconoclast, an intellectual provocateur, a maker of bold statements, a challenger of established, tired and expired ideas. Intellectually astute, Bill would draw on his encyclopaedic knowledge to respond to questions and to get his ideas across.

Different journeys, same destination

David Holmgren travelled after the publication of the first two books on permaculture in the late seventies, the first of which — Permaculture One — was based on his college thesis and co-written with Bill. His focus then fell on developing his own smallholding near the town of Hepburn in Central Victoria, Melliodora (named after a local plant), where he lives today with partner, Sue Dennett.

Bill, though, quit academia and set out to propagate the permaculture design system, first in Australia then around the world. Of the two, David was the maker while Bill was the salesman when it came to permaculture.


The last I saw Bill was in 2008 in Sydney. We were at a permaculture convergence, the national permaculture gatherings held every two years. I walked with him across the field to a session in the building on the far side, Bill taking hold of my arm to negotiate a shallow ditch. I understand he was recovering from an illness at the time and I noticed an unsteadiness that wasn’t there in previous years.

Not long after he passed away I wondered why some people leave a lasting impression in our minds. I sat down to make a hurried list of those who had left just such an impression in my life. My list included the writers Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway, the explorer Thor Heyerdahl, mountaineer Eric Shipton, author and builder Lloyd Kahn, polymath Buckminster Fuller. Then there was Bill Mollison.


Somehow, the image of the high prominence of The Nut along the eastern base of which Bill’s hometown of Stanley spreads, serves as a metaphor for the man. It is rugged. It is weatherbeaten. It projects forth bravely into the turmoil of Bass Strait. It stands out from the landmass. It is visible for some distance around. In its solitary boldness it attracts people from far away, like a welcoming beacon.

I don’t know how all those planting a tree for Bill remember him. But I do know that it could be summed up in that soft-sounding word ‘fondly’. So it is that we join them this Friday when we join others to plant a number of trees near the Permaculture Interpretive Garden at Randwick, here in Sydney’s coastal eastern suburbs. As we do so we will remember Bill and the good he brought to the world and, in planting, say our final farewell.


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