The Seneca Treehouse Project has recently become a part, or maybe I should call it a fold or a region, in a larger organism: Treehouse Internatural, Inc. This is a newly-registered benefit corporation devoted to growing the promise of Permaculture. What do we mean by this metamorphosis? What’s with that unusual name? Why not Treehouse International? In this post I hope to offer some brief answers to these questions. (But stay tuned! The book I'm working on with Scott Bunn, Steps to Sustainable, aims to distill the purpose of Treehouse Internatural into portable and practical form!)
First I should say that the transition is not like that miraculous exchange of the caterpillar for the butterfly, in which a beautiful, slow-and-steady, place-bound creature is lost and replaced with something larger but lighter, destined to leave behind its birthplace and fly after abstractions like distant flowers. The first principle of Permaculture, which co-founder David Holmgren calls "Observe and Interact," insists that we pay meticulous and respectful attention to the specificity of place. This applies in building our homes, in living our lives and in growing our work and businesses. The Seneca Treehouse is still there, in the same place as ever, serving and attending to its community and folding its practices around the climate and contour of the lake country of upstate South Carolina.
Its Project is still at the heart of Treehouse Internatural, which we hope will serve as a bridge between all the methods (Treehouse Tools and Training, eco-tourism, internships, etc.) and all the places (Seneca and beyond!) in which the example of the first Treehouse might contribute to local and regional communities elsewhere. We hope it will also help us communicate and share knowledge with global partners in the work of permaculture and ecological restoration. Finally, we hope it will help us build capital to expand.
These goals have everything to do with why we chose the term “Internatural,” which was created by Scott Bunn independently of a handful of other groups and organizations that have discovered the felicitous compound over the years. It was Latin that provided the opportunity for grafting the prefix inter- “among, between” onto the fruitful stock of the adjective naturalis, “natural.” The punning swerve away from the expected “international” is not only intentional; it is actually a crucial part of the point. The word “international” first came into use in the 18th century as part of the vocabulary of colonial laws imposed on South Asian and New World peoples by British imperial enterprises. Part of the role of Permaculture has been to resist and subvert the top-down neo-colonial imposition of methods and practices that pay no consideration and no respect to local circumstances. Developers, for instance, see a tract of forest or field and rather than responding to the opportunities of the place, only ponder the “problem” of first having to flatten it, geometricize the acreage, then re-build artificial (and usually soil-ruining) drainage before the strip mall, the subdivision, the monoculture farm, or the business “campus” can be raised on the grave of the naturally stable wildness that was there beforehand.
Hence the at first topsy-turvy (but on-second-thought perfectly appropriate) feel of “Internatural.” It is, in a word, a useful revolution of the expected, business-as-usual top-down approach enshrined in the motto “Think globally, act locally.” (In a way, the Treehouse demonstrates the need to revise that phrasing: “Think, live, and act locally in order to make your global contribution.”)
The Roman natural historian Pliny once or twice combined inter- with the verb nascor, “to be born, to grow,” from which our concept of “nature” ultimately derives. Internascor thus means “to grow or be born in between.” The Treehouse Project, just like the concept of “treehouse,” is itself “internatural.” Humans, especially in South Carolina, build homes among trees, with trees, and often in the place of trees. Respect for the materials and place of our home—houses, yes, but also the local and global world we inhabit—is only natural. The next step, which Treehouse Internatural was “grown” to facilitate, is learning how to live here and use nature’s resources responsibly and sustainably. Sharing this empowering know-how is fundamental to the mission of Treehouse Internatural. It would be hard to say—and many thoughtful people have tried to say—what it means "to live naturally.” Are we a part of or apart from Nature? Might it not be “only natural” for humans to exhaust the resources of the world and to impose a very disrespectful, monocultural rule upon it? These questions have troubled philosophers for millennia. What we hope to do is simpler: to help people, wherever and whoever they are, learn from their place how to thrive within its natural order—in short, how to live internaturally.