From Politics to Permaculture:
A Johnnie Finds his Calling Out West
After spontaneously deciding to leave Dartmouth College during his freshman year, Nate Downey (SF91) got a job with Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign. He planned to work for the administration, and skip college altogether, but the campaign folded due to scandal. In that moment, as he and other campaign staffers watched their political dream fizzle on national television, one of his mentors from the campaign’s Issues Department, Mark Steitz (A78), said to him, “So, do you want to have that conversation about St. John’s now?”
Originally from New York City, Downey fell in love with the Western United States while working for the Denver-based campaign. He matriculated at and graduated from St. John’s, Santa Fe, and spent his junior year in Annapolis. “I did the Hegelian thing before we’d read Hegel. I wanted to see myself from the Other, or at least the other campus. I wanted to make sure I was the Western person I believed I’d become.”
Identity confirmed, Nate remained in Santa Fe after graduation. He first worked with the Community Economic and Ecological Development Center, a non-profit on Second Street focused on ecological real estate combined with a retail eco-products store and communal copy-shop. He began hearing the word “permaculture” bandied about as a new frontier in ecological conservation, and decided to take a class.
Permaculture is defined as the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient. The class Nate took was transformative for him. “In a way, it was an extension of my St. John’s experience. There is a great book that should be added to the Program—Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. There’s this deep philosophical component about patterns of nature that speak to our pre-Socratic mindset, patterns that are powerful and make you very efficient and productive if you mimic them. You can copy the branching pattern of nature, or the web pattern, or the fish-scale pattern. You can mimic this in a landscape or even in a business plan.”
Nate is the author of Harvest the Rain (Sunstone Press) and the president of PermaDesign, which he runs with his wife, Melissa McDonald, a landscape architect. In their backyard on Don Gaspar Avenue, a gray water system irrigates native flowers, bushes, fruit trees, and vegetables. A bunny hutch sits over the compost pile, allowing the furry inhabitant to contribute to the composting effort. In the front yard—where the clucking and crowing doesn’t disturb their neighbors—are the chickens. The chickens and the bunny help control weeds by walking in a little tractor that harnesses their skills.
Though Nate and Melissa would like to grow all of their own food, it’s not feasible in the desert, even when you harvest rainwater and recycle as much city water as possible. But Nate is always looking for solutions. “In nature and in permaculture there is a principle of redundancy. We don’t have too many eyes; we don’t have six, but we have two. We have ten fingers; we have two lungs, two kidneys, in case something happens to one of them. We need more than two sources of water. Water is infinitely cleanable. Rain, snowmelt, dew, fog. Gray water, water recycling, wastewater treatment. As water-harvesters out here in the desert, we are on our way to someday being sustainable.”