Toby Hemenway, leading permaculture promoter, dies at 64

The Sebastopol resident, a former genetics and immunology researcher, wrote a best-selling guide to permaculture, a type of eco-conscious agriculture.|

Toby Hemenway, a leading writer, teacher and crusader for permaculture, died Tuesday at his Sebastopol home because of complications from pancreatic cancer.

Hemenway, 64, wrote a top seller on permaculture, a term coined in the late 1970s mixing “permanent” and “agriculture” to describe a new approach to agriculture and community design bringing together elements that sustain and support each other.

“He was really a big deal,” said Kellen Watson, senior programs coordinator with Daily Acts, a Petaluma-based sustainability education program. “He wrote the top-selling permaculture book in the world,” for many people their first introduction to the subject.

That book, 2009’s “Gaia’s Garden - A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture,” was considered the most easily understandable book on the topic, presenting basic permaculture concepts and principles with clarity and elegance, as well as detailed how-to tips for implementing them in a garden.

It was named by the Washington Post as one of the 10 best gardening books of 2010 and has sold more than 250,000 copies.

Hemenway could talk about soil from a cosmic perspective - how the elements of life were molded during the Big Bang, inside stars, and in explosive supernovae.

Then he would bring it down to earth.

“Soil is miraculous,” he wrote in “Gaia’s Garden.” “It is where the dead are brought back to life.”

In the thin, earthy boundary between inanimate rock and the planet’s green carpet, he described in the book how “lifeless minerals are weathered from stones or decomposed from organic debris. Plants and microscopic animals eat these dead particles and recast them as living matter. In the soil, matter recrosses the boundary between living and dead. ...”

Watson said Hemenway’s knowledge, eloquence, and devotion to sharing the patterns of nature were the torch that sparked a lifelong permaculture passion for many people.

“He played a huge part in moving our little community and the whole world towards greater balance,” she said. “He did a good job of marrying a greater mysticism and sacredness with good, hard science, practicality and facts.”

Hemenway, born in 1952, earned a degree in biology from Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1974 and, according to his website, worked for many years as a researcher in genetics and immunology, first in academic laboratories including Harvard and the University of Washington in Seattle, then at Immunex, a major medical biotech company.

In 1990, Hemenway said he was “playing hooky” from an unsatisfying biotech job, browsing the shelves in the Seattle public library, when he came across a book “Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual.”

The field brought together pieces of seemingly disconnected disciplines that had fascinated him for many years including ecology, economics, gardening, evolution, construction and energy systems.

“What a relief to find that a whole-systems approach could tie together the many disparate pieces of my life,” he wrote in an article on his website. “This is, I know, a familiar and exalting experience for many when they first encounter permaculture.”

Hemenway had a love for reading and writing that manifested in grade school when he would entertain his fellow students with a series of short stories about the adventures of a boy genius, according to his sister, Ann Hemenway of Chicago.

“He studied a lot and read on his own,” she said of his early days growing up in the Detroit and Chicago areas where his father was in marketing and sales for General Electric and auto companies.

“He was a busy kid, a brilliant, busy child, always doing science experiments. Things were blowing up in the basement a lot,” she said.

She said her brother was good at teaching himself and synthesizing information.

Hemenway was the editor of Permaculture Activist, a journal of ecological design and sustainable culture, from 1999 to 2004, before moving to Portland, Oregon, where he spent six years developing urban sustainability resources there, according to his website.

In 2010, he and his wife, Kiel Hemenway, moved to Sebastopol.

In a 2013 interview with The Press Democrat, Hemenway said permaculture is a science “that is all about designing and creating sustainable human habitat and infrastructure that takes care of the environment.”

The original intent was permanent, sustainable agriculture. “Now we think about it as permanent culture because the design lessons from the garden can be used in the design of houses and businesses and communities. The garden is where we start,” he said.

Evan Wiig, director of the Sebastopol-based Farmer’s Guild, said Hemenway was “an incredibly prolific writer” who led workshops dealing with the relationship of humanity to the land and natural resources.

Instead of thinking of ourselves as trying to manipulate or dominate nature to grow food, he said Hemenway was about understanding humans as part of the natural world and working with processes developed over millions of years of evolution.

“He had a deep impact on the community I serve,” Wiig said, adding that Hemenway was someone who challenged the foundations of agriculture, so it wasn’t about extracting, but regenerating,

In addition to his sister and wife, Hemenway is survived by a brother, David Hemenway of Chicago.

Watson suggested people honor his memory by planting a tree or spending 10 minutes in nature.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 707-521-5214 or On Twitter @clarkmas.

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