When I met Dan Palmer in Melbourne in the early/mid 2000s, he was an idiot. In the best sense of the word, if that’s a thing. He was a philosophy PhD with two book deals and a teaching position to return to in New York – so he wasn’t objectively stupid by any reasonable standard. But he grinned and saw the best in people a lot. He was that kind of magical idiot with a personality so open and generous that people became the best version of themselves in the glow of his expectations.
I’d definitely heard about Dan before I met him, maybe even read a zine he’d written about the ideas of the philosopher John Dewey. (An archive of his website from the time – transactionalview.org – survives, as well as academic publications, with content anticipating some of his later obsessions.) His Australian friends had knighted this Kiwi with an honorary local moniker: “Chook”. Who was this mysterious philosopher called Chook my mates were often talking about?
Our mutual friend Dino (above) documents a hilarious exchange between him and Dan ambushing an unexpecting walkerby in the early 2000s:
So while I had some good mutual friends with Dan, we mostly knew each other by reputation. Semi-coincidentally however we both attended a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) in 2005, run by Geoff Lawton and Bill Mollison. We sat in the front row together each day, and by the time that course ended, we were good mates.
At the time Dan was doing some kind of corporate consulting job I think connected to Monash University, which required him to don a suit. He wasn’t loving the job, and simultaneously he’d been feeling disenchanted by the academic philosophy scene, because most of his colleagues seemed to live very orthodox middle class consumer lifestyles, with little evidence that their ideas had changed them or the world around them in any tangible way.
At this point, still studying, he’d been in formal education for 30 unbroken years.
He began learning to make sourdough bread, a simple thing, but it forced him to work to the rhythms of the cycles of fermentation, and to knead and reacquaint himself with the fact that he had a body, and that it too could do work, not just his head. This process was even more effective than he had hoped, when he baked a loaf of bread so dense that when he dropped it, it hit his bare toes and drew blood – and at this point he claims he discovered his feet.
So when he did the PDC he was ready for ideas that promised tangible change in the world. I’m paraphrasing, but he said he learnt more of local and global relevance in those two weeks than he had in his 30 years of schooling. I should asterix this point to say something about being wary of thinking you’ve learned something broadly applicable in two weeks, but in a pattern that would repeat over the period I knew Dan, he would embrace something fully and generously before later seeing its limitations or flaws, and would get to work refining and improving the whole project.
He decided to never don a suit and do the consulting job again, and after a couple of financially necessary relapses, he succeeded. He never wrote those books, and over time paid back the advance he’d received on one. Instead, he helped build a hugely productive edible garden in his sharehouse backyard in Thomas St, Clayton and worked on edible food growing aid projects in India and later Uganda. He sought out mentors, and befriended many of the most prominent elders and teachers of permaculture in Australia.
Parties at Dan’s house in Clayton were shockingly-to-me-at-the-time unpretentious. Half the people there were people he’d met while walking around, from any walk of life, smiling his credulous smile, poking his head over fences, and pulling them into his orbit. Occasionally one or two might be people he met that day that looked a bit sketchy to me, but at Dan’s parties everyone was good to each other.
One night while out jogging – and feeling a little bit saddened by the lack of street life in suburbia – he heard happy noises coming out of a community centre in Springvale and stuck his smile inside. There were a few people drinking beer and playing card games. In this way he befriended the people of a South American community group called Codemo. He started hanging out there regularly, practising his Spanish. One of the group’s key organisers (with personal experiences in El Salvador to justify some latent paranoia) later admitted to me that he at first wondered if this overenthusiastic outsider, who was taking home DNA-laden vegetable scraps for his ‘compost’, might be a CIA agent! But despite this initial suspicion, great friendships soon developed.
One Saturday in 2006 at Vilma from El Salvador’s house in Dandenong North a group of about 20 friends of Dan from inside and outside Codemo got together and created a near zero budget garden. After making a pond and veggie garden and planting a tree or two, we BBQed together and danced the salsa (or some horrific approximation of it in my case probably). While Vilma’s micro pupusa business soon began benefitting from all the subsequent veggies that grew there, we had had such a good time that we did it again at Codemo president Nelson’s house two weeks later, then another, then another; and then people who had attended a couple started facilitating similar events themselves.
We distinguished a ‘permablitz’ (the word coined by Asha Bee) from a simple working bee by the fact that it must have a permaculture design behind it, that there were always free workshops, and that it was a reciprocity based network (i.e. if you come to three or so you can have one at your house). A local and international movement was born which you can read about the beginnings of in this 2007 article in The Age. In order to supply the designs, a network of PDC graduates was formed, The Permablitz Designers’ Guild, each willing to volunteer to cut their teeth with real world design.
There have since been hundreds of permablitzes in Melbourne and many more all around the world. I feel like each one is imbued with Dan’s original idiot optimism. Only again, it isn’t idiot at all, because time and time again, in ways that erode at my cynicism, strangers come to work together, usually for nothing more than the experience, and we consistently problem-solve well together, encourage each other, and see and bring out the best in each other just like Dan was so amazing at doing.
In 2006, a routine rental inspection at Dan’s house resulted in the real estate agent freezing with their foot hung in mid air, as they went to step out the backdoor and were confronted by the extensive garden. The housemates had received permission to make a ‘veggie patch’ but their interpretation of this did not match the agent’s.
A ‘reverse’ permablitz was eventually held to distribute plants out to other gardeners, and much of the lawn restored.
While his forward momentum and generosity of spirit was impressive it could turn the other way, at least in terms of generosity towards himself. In 2008, Dan fell into a deep depression. It was triggered by setbacks of his most ambitious permaculture design project to date on a rural property. As far as I can tell Dan wasn’t someone who was able to readily hide depression behind masks of humour and charisma. At least I know that when it hit him in 2008 it seemed like a brutally acute, almost physical affliction. When he recovered from it, many months later, it was equally palpable.
I can’t say I know for sure he wasn’t hiding deep pain at other times, but I do think the Dan we knew the rest of the time – someone so spontaneous and engaged with everyone around him – was very real. I’d like to thank future VEG founder Paul Fogarty and his partner Claire Moore in particular who helped him so much in this time, and ultimately coaxed him off their couch eating nothing but dumpstered peanut butter, and onto an aeroplane to Uganda, where permaculture luminary Rosemary Morrow had invited him to come teach with her.
It was here at the Sabina project in Uganda that Dan met his wife-to-be Amanda. It’s a beautiful story, told by Rowe at their wedding, and you can read a truncated version in her lovely eulogy to Dan. He lured Amanda, or she lured herself, back to Melbourne.
Amanda (aka Manda, aka Pooh) is a spirited force of positivity, skills and entrepreneurial ideas, cheeky and empathic understatement, and amuses herself and others with her rich and antiquated exclamations and alternatives to swearing. I’d say it would also be hard to understate her contribution to Dan’s happiness, and her support and often behind-the-scenes enabling of Dan’s productive life in the years that followed.
A generation of permaculture teachers emerged out of the Sabina project. When Dan passed, there was a memorial service to him there. Mugarura Charles, a student at the time and now a prominent permaculture teacher and practitioner in Uganda, gives a powerful tribute to Dan here:
On the other side of the depression the beautiful naive (aka idiot) energy I had originally known in him was mostly gone. He had grown some semblance of protective mechanisms maybe. Something like an ego even. And it wasn’t bad. He had a different kind of drive now. He seemed both more nuanced and more decisive, more grounded and more reaching, a little competitive, actually very competitive, but also just more adult. He became someone I not only liked, but someone I also deeply respected.
I was getting to know this new Dan as we started the business Very Edible Gardens (VEG) together in 2009, alongside all singing all dancing Nathan Edwards and the aforementioned DTE legend Paul Fogarty, both of whom we’d met through permablitzing. It seems so strange now, but at the time the idea of growing food at home was considered unusual enough that the current affairs show Today Tonight actually did a prime time national TV segment about us, devoid of any real story other than we, and veggie gardening, existed. We were also featured around the same time facilitating a permablitz on Costa’s Garden Odyssey.
Nathe and Paul left Melbourne in the year or two following to start families and pursue their lives in the country (see Claire and Paul’s wonderful Good Life Farm Co and Claire’s Sweet Justice social enterprise) but Dan and I stayed around and ran the business in Melbourne, doing designs, building gardens and teaching workshops.
Dan tells VEG’s origin story from his point of view in this charming history from 2014.
When we taught together either Dan or I would lead, and the other would sit back, and at the end we’d compare notes. We both became pretty adept at giving and receiving pretty frank feedback. The relationship we built through this we took into the rest of our working lives. We had some profoundly different perspectives and this led to some decent disagreements, but Dan was always so good natured about them. It felt like there wasn’t anything we couldn’t discuss and it still be okay afterwards, and I think we both acknowledged how special was.
On a side note, while we were drinking beer in a Preston beer garden after working together in 2009, I sketched something on paper which evolved to become our VEG wicking bed system. I’m almost certain the idea was Dan’s though. The crucial bit of plumbing allows users to more easily see when to fill, to lower the maximum water level on the bed for winter, and drain it entirely if ever needed – a big improvement over previous systems. “Is this patentable?” we wrote, which of course we didn’t, and the idea has since become widely adopted, by our competition in Victoria at least(!), and I’m sure Dan’s idea will in time become the standard around the world.
When he was at his best, he may have been the most engaging and effective teacher I’ve ever known. His philosopher’s mind helped him organise, nest and systematise his thinking, so there was an unusual clarity. And he dropped in examples to illustrate and illuminate at just the right moment to make it all ‘click’. (He’d disapprove of the inference of Lego coming together though, as much of his later work was about getting away from ‘design as assembly’!)
He was driven to make complex ideas as digestible, accessible and as relevant as possible. His humour ranged from sneaky dry, think-about-it comments that he’d look at you with a raised eyebrow and cheeky smirk until you got it, to unashamed dad jokes, and he was not afraid to be the butt of his own humour. Although we’d try to get the better of each other too. But the thing that made him the best was that he was always so present, engaging with and bouncing off people, and thinking of new ways to conceptualise and communicate something – right there in the moment.
Dan never stopped being fascinated by new ideas. The type that fascinated him post discovering permaculture were ones that had tangible, applicable uses, while remaining broad enough to be totally transformative. He’d have romances with fields of work, fall for them hard, and only later begin to see limitations in them. But he never failed to leave them in better shape than when he found them. He’d take the best bits, put them into practice, rework them, expand them, make them more legible (often diagrammatically), more shareable. He had a great ability to think for weeks and months or even years about an idea, its implications, and how to reshape it. He did this with permaculture design processes, holistic decision making, and the ideas of Christopher Alexander among others.
Dan discovered the later tomes of the author–philosopher-architect Christopher Alexander in the mid 2010s and these resonated with the themes of his pre-permaculture philosophical leanings, and it became the latest thing to really light him up. I always got something out of Dan’s obsessions, and some of his Alexander-inspired work (which he went on to call his ‘living design process’) has been very useful in framing design for me, but I was less into some of the assumptions and metaphysical aspects. At some point in 2016 we reflected that we had spent more time talking and arguing about philosophy, than we had dealing with the day to day running of VEG – a very fine thing actually! But ultimately he said his new insights couldn’t be expressed verbally – and it was hard to know where to go from there, so we let the philosophy discourse fade off. I’d recently been reading over parts of our conversation from that time because he’d invited me to record an episode of his podcast Making Permaculture Stronger with him – and after almost six years, I was looking forward to picking up where we left off. Unfortunately, I had to cancel our first date. But I’d listened to a couple of recent episodes and been reminded what a warm, relaxed and insightful interviewer he was.
Dan and I developed, practised and taught our own VEG permaculture design process (one much inspired by the work of David Jacke). We ran our first VEG PDC in 2013, based on a curriculum developed by Dan while teaching on other PDCs. We really emphasised the ‘D’ (design) as the central skill and focus of our course, something which (often through Dan’s crosspollination of teaching with them) other organisations running PDCs have picked up widely too.
However, through his exploration of Christopher Alexander’s work, Dan began to feel there were deep problems with any existing articulated permaculture design process – including ours, as much as we iteratively developed it. He thought there was something too mechanistic about a staged process, that even the design process itself had to emerge anew from each fresh design context. He considered leaving the permaculture name behind altogether in his own work – but before he did that, he approached many of his friends and mentors within permaculture and was surprised and gladdened that many were receptive, at least to self-reflection and discussion. Iconically of this, in 2017 he and David Holmgren began to teach regular Advanced Permaculture Design Process courses together, in which Dan shared these ideas.
Here’s a video filmed of them at the end of their first one:
(He’d also begun facilitating the production of a documentary (filmed and directed by David Meagher) about David’s reading landscape skills called Reading Landscape – which the two Davids are going to finish.)
So rather than turn his back on permaculture, Dan decided to share his thoughts through blogging, teaching and the podcast Making Permaculture Stronger. While permablitz introduced permaculture to tens of thousands around the world, and VEG has built hundreds of gardens and taught many thousands of people, his podcast was probably the way he had the most significant reach in recent years.
Dan designed for, I think, hundreds of people and landscapes, ranging from suburban, small acreage, farm and community garden. One thing potentially slowing him down was that the clients often became his friends, such as his first ever professional design clients Kim and Clive, who became godparents to his children.
One of the designs Dan was most invested in and proud of was with his own parents, Susan and Keith.
Here’s a lovely video of them working together in 2015.
You can see beautiful patterns emerging in the landscape in this early drone footage of another important design process for Dan: the Mayberry project in Woodend.
He took on a large-scale housing development project with East Brunswick Village (EBV) in 2019. I thought it could be greenwash, or that we’d get steamrolled by the multimillion dollar processes, but he formed a friendship with Mario, the Director of the company, who let Dan move walls and buildings around in the design phase (to the discomfort of the architects), and accommodated Dan’s unconventional iterative approaches — and some beautiful and productive rooftop gardens resulted.
Dan’s development of Allan Savory’s Holistic Management™️ into his own Holistic Decision Making framework took him out of purely garden (and farm) oriented work.
After a couple of years in VEG where we were trying to bootstrap ourselves into a functional business, and working long long hours, I was on the verge of leaving.
Dan discovered and brought HM to VEG in 2010, which helped turn things around, and after a while became second nature for us, operating at many levels inside the business. After a few years, Dan began teaching workshops on it, and facilitating a process for families, community groups and businesses (in which he’d sometimes throw himself into the middle of a conflict and help steer people towards common goals).
I spoke to one person who participated in one of his workshops and then had three follow up phone calls, who said that through these interactions Dan became the nearest thing to an elder he’d ever had in his life. I think he affected many people like that. Dan’s introductory articles to Holistic Management introduced tens of thousands of people to this system of how to articulate your situation, sense of purpose, and tools to steer towards it. It influenced how permaculture design is practised too, providing an approach to tune into the context, stories and desires of clients. All in all, it is a significant legacy.
Later he was also inspired by The Regenerative Business author and business consultant Carol Sanford from which he took even more tools and perspectives to apply outside of gardening contexts.
Although Dan lost some of his seeming naivety after 2008, that doesn’t mean he lost his optimism. Dan was keen to take on projects at the edge of – and occasionally beyond – our capabilities, and I was by necessity often the restraining force; sometimes talking him down, and other times being dragged along as we figured out what we were doing as we went. But together – along with the amazing team of people we surrounded ourselves with in VEG – we were a remarkably functional team. I think we shaped our personalities around each other, leaned into our roles.
Dan seemed to thrive on challenges. He brought an expectation of inevitable positive outcomes to difficult situations and decisions. It’s really hard to understate what a useful energy it is to have in the mix in a business. On the odd occasion that we had an upset client, he actually wanted to be the one to call them, and then go above and beyond to make it right. He actually got a few of us to listen to a phone call one time so we could hear him turn a somewhat disgruntled patron into a loyal friend of the business and Dan fan.
On our PDCs, we throw the students into a stressful situation: real world clients, and Dan would always lead a group attempting a farm scale project. A group of amateurs have to not only get to know each other but the clients and landscape too, and deliver a design in a couple of weeks. Dan would guide the process gently, and knowingly smile as a sense of chaos and overwhelm inevitably emerged within the students, and intervene just enough to bring out the best in people and some structure to their efforts. It always worked out great, just like he knew it would.
While all this was happening Dan and Manda started a family. They moved to Castlemaine a little over an hour out of Melbourne and had two wonderful daughters, Robin and Nikka. They were married under one of the largest oaks in Australia, in their own rental backyard in 2013.
Dan, Manda and the girls moved to rural Whakatāne in Aotearoa in 2020, not too far to Dan’s sister Mel, and just over the road from his parents and their co-designed property. Dan remained a co-owner and Director of VEG, but was putting most of his working energy into his own projects: online consultancies in Holistic Decision Making and teaching courses on the same as well as Living Design Process, while making the podcast and writing two books.
Although they were living in a small leaky house-bus in a cold wet winter while home-schooling, Dan’s attitude was typically positive. Six weeks before he passed, he wrote to a mutual friend of his life there:
We’ve been living in NZ for a year and half, though it still feels like we’re transitioning. We moved up to our new house site about two months ago. It is incredibly beautiful and we’re living in a kind of organically-emerging community of now four families. After months of fire baths I finally got our shower working again yesterday. It dumps any surplus from the solar system into hot water – very satisfying! We’re in our house bus and we’ll start building our house on the top terrace here in the next year and we’re all looking forward. [He writes with love about Manda and his kids and what they’re up to but I won’t share that bit.] I’m still part of VEG as well as podcasting, book writing, film making, online courses etc – the usual guff. Life is a busy complex yet somehow despite it all a beautiful mess.
About three weeks before Dan passed, he came down with a bad case of covid, on the back of a rough flu, and this apparently coincided with him falling into a deep depression again. These three weeks also coincided exactly with me travelling and us being in the least amount of communication in years, no weekly video call, no messages. I’d begun reaching out though, and on the final Tuesday he got in touch, and we texted while I was on a train in Spain, and he told me he’d “been knocked around a fair bit and ended up in a rut of flatness on the same scale as VEG early days”. I told him I remembered how full on that was and to “take care legend” as we arranged to have a proper talk on the phone the same time the next day, when I could be somewhere quiet. The last thing I heard from him was “wow!” as I sent pictures out the train window of endless century-old olive trees growing in the near-desert. On the Wednesday he was gone.
I was looking forward to reminding him what an idiot he used to be – before the last time he went through something like this. I think I could have got a laugh out of him. And reminded him of how he changed, and became something even better afterwards. But depression is a different, delusional kind of idiocy. He loved his family so much but he thought they, and the world, were better off without him. He left us in a deranged act of kindness so misguided as to be almost unfathomable. But he gave so much real value while he was here, he left a huge legacy. My life is just one of I think tens of thousands better off for having had him in it, and thanks to the ongoing influence of his work and energy, that number will continue to grow.
Take care legend.
If you would like to help Manda and the kids financially there is a GoFundMe here.
If you’d like to explore Dan’s legacy, information about his books, film, podcast and main projects (and various associated websites) can be found here: www.danpalmer.life
There’s a facebook page in his honour and memory with tributes from friends from around the world.
Kassie, a friend of Dan’s put together some mental health resources for Australia and NZ here.