Toby Hemenway, permaculture teacher and one of the movement’s best-selling and best-known authors, died quietly in his sleep Tuesday, December 20, 2016, after a 16-month battle with pancreatic cancer. He is survived by his wife Kiel Hemenway.
A prodigious and gifted teacher, blogger, speaker, and author, Hemenway was best known for the groundbreaking Gaia’s Garden, first published in 2000, and subsequently revised. It remains in print and has sold over 100,000 copies, rivaling the popularity of Introduction to Permaculture by Mollison and Slay. He also contributed essays to more mainstream print collections such as The New American Landscape, and journals such as Natural Home, American Gardener, and publications of the Worldwatch Institute.
Trained as a geneticist, Toby brought an inquiring, patient, and thoughtful mind to all the subjects toward which he turned his attention. Much of his early permaculture work took place in Oregon, where he taught at Lost Valley Educational Center with a first-rate team of colleagues which included Jude Hobbs, Rick Valley, and Tom Ward. In recent years, he travelled widely in the United States and Canada to speak and teach, and served for a time on the board of Permaculture Institute - U.S.A.
I met Toby when he volunteered to contribute to Permaculture Activist, precursor of this magazine, near the turn of the millenium. Caught up in off-grid living at the time and lacking clarity about the needs of the publishing business, I first neglected his offer, but when he insisted, I willingly relented and was delighted at his capable work and his professionalism. He edited various issues from #42 to #55, alternating with myself and guest editors. As well, he contributed numerous feature articles and essays to the Activist including one on the key role of beavers as ecological engineers. In addition to his generosity of spirit, Toby impressed me as one of a very few in our community who could meaningfully reflect (in writing) on permaculture’s big problems and its place in our changing world. He was a philosopher as well as a scientist.
I finally met Toby in the flesh during a prolonged West Coast trip in the fall of 2000, when he was living in rural southern Oregon. As he hosted myself and partner Keith Johnson on our trans-continental odyssey, we delighted in viewing his plantings on a rugged mountain ridge and seeing the comfortable life he had created with Kiel near his in-laws. We also met the pet pot-bellied pig, and laughed together about the wacky nature of his neighborhood with a meth lab just down the road. When the drug-dealing neighbor’s karma caught up with him, and other negative aspects of rural isolation pressed in on Toby and Kiel, they picked themselves up and relocated to Portland, where he began a study of urban opportunities in permaculture such as trading plums for figs over the back fence with his far less psychotic neighbors. While there he also began teaching as adjunct faculty at Portland State University.
Another fruit of their urban sojourn was The Permaculture City, published in 2015. During this prolonged period, with several moves beyond Portland, and through seeing his mother to the end of her life and dealing with her affairs, a matter that took him east repeatedly, Toby was at work on a book on pattern literacy. Sadly, we may not see the results of this effort soon.
In September, 2016, I was glad to meet Toby again at the North American Permaculture Convergence in Hopland, California where he gave a provocative and insightful talk on the historical patterning of cultures with landscapes, a big subject worthy of a big mind. At the previous NAPC in Minnesota in 2014, he had told a funny story on himself: riding in the backseat of the family car, he remarked to his wife Kiel that if he could have his druthers, he would have someone to cook for and carry him around so that he could spend his time in intellectual pursuits. She laughed and replied, “Well honey, it looks like you’ve gotten your wish.” Too handsome and physically impressive to pass as a nerd, and too fluent in teaching and as a public speaker to persuade anyone that he was an introvert, Toby nevertheless seems to have fit both of these unlikely personae well.
In September, despite long months of treatment and obviously having lost a few pounds, Toby looked radiantly healthy, his stamina perhaps reduced but his mind unimpaired. To his friends, his passing brings great sadness. We are privileged to have had him among us for a brief time. The works he leaves behind have paved a pathway to permaculture for multitudes. His gifts to the world shine on.
Peter Bane, Publisher Emeritus
Photo by Art Vargas