First and foremost, Lisa, Isaebella, Pearl, Zane, Andreas and myself wanted to send our love to Amanda Cuyler and her children Robin and Nikka—all stars in the constellation that included the late Daniel Keith Palmer (1974-2022). We also wanted to send our love to Dan’s blood family, his Very Edible Garden family, the global Permablitz family and all of the other family’s that Dan was a part of—Dan after all was very much a family man.
Dan and I first came across each other’s company during the 2005 Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course that Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton led at the University of Melbourne. My memories of him at that time are pretty sketchy but it was in the following year that Dan reached out to me (then using the anagrammatic email address of ‘darnample@…’!) about a project he, Adam Grubb and our mutual friend Cam Wilson were working on in Gippsland (Victoria, Australia), seeking my feedback on its layout and about accessing a Yeomans Keyline Plow to do some cultivation there.
Image: VEG Email (2010)
Amanda and Dan’s best man, Adam Grubb did a Gravel Hills Gardens PDC in Bendigo with David Holmgren and myself in 2004. and soon after that he and Dan (and others) developed the ‘Permablitz’ movement and the ‘Very Edible Gardens’ (VEG) design and development company. It was very clear that these two incredible young men were going to do some great work. Together they joined us on many of the ‘RegenAG® Workshop Series’ and ‘Regenerative Agriculture workshops we ran at the Falloon family’s ‘Taranaki Farm’ over 2010-12 (at the last of which they helped to build a double wheelie bin toilet and compost shower complex), and were always keen to learn, contribute and collaborate—including helping us set up and pack down. It was during this series that Dan had his first training in Holistic Management® with our friend Kirk Gadzia, who was also my first teacher and mentor on the topic.
From that period on Dan and I started to shift our relationship from my being one of his teachers to being one of his friends, and to collaborating more closely together as he started to field more rural projects through VEG. That was especially the case as he became more interested in my functional nexus between Holistic Management® and Permaculture Design. And so became a familiar pattern of my professional relationship with Dan. He wanted to learn how to use MapInfo Professional and so we held a workshop (in 2010). He’d invite me to do some courses for VEG on Holistic Decision Making (2012+2013) and then he’d do them himself. He’d brought me in to design the Water, Access, Ecosystem (Forestry), and Fencing layers of Lisa and Michael Jackson’s ‘Yandoit Farm’ in 2013, and then VEG organised a workshop to install the earthworks and then he was off doing it himself.
Dan was one of the brightest people that I have ever come across. Brightness when it came to Dan started with his eyes. I recall well during the speeches at Amanda and Dan’s beautiful wedding (2013) two stories. Under the bows of that most amazing oak tree, one story was from Amanda’s father about his hilarious queries of an immigration officer on coming into Australia*, and the other was from Amanda of how the legendary Rowe Morrow spoke of Dan’s eyes when they were in Uganda working on a project where Amanda and Dan met and fell in love. His eyes were also those that listened and made you the only person in the room (or in the field!). They were also those that were emotional and that were excited and that encouraged you to be the same.
Dan’s brightness also extended to how he often self-deprecated. At a local ceremony on the morning after he died, a group of Amanda, Dan, Robin and Nikka’s friends from the Castlemaine district gathered at Moonlight Flat, below the home of another of Dan’s friends and colleagues—Joel Meadows. These friends joined arm-in-arm, and formed a close circle on a brisk, frosty and breezy morning broken with occasional sunlight, the lightest of rain and rainbows. Our mutual friends, Su Dennett and David Holmgren were amongst us, and David tearfully announced that, “…Dan was one of the younger people that he looked up to the most…”. Immediately after David said this, a heron flew overhead honking away, and we all agreed and let out a collective laugh that this was Dan saying ‘…bullshit, bullshit…”. Another person gathered with us observed that it is part of some Aboriginal people’s story that a heron flying overhead is carrying away the spirit of someone who has recently passed. We ended our circle with those words.
In going over the digital memories of Dan I came across another great example of his learn-by-doing, self-deprecation and humour. In 2012 Adam and Dan reached out to me to see if they could bring the VEG crew down to George Howson’s ‘Dalpura’ farm near Moriac (in the Otway Ranges of southern Victoria) for the purpose of training this group in forestry and tree crop pruning and thinning. Since 1998 George had our company plant 40,000 trees in various configurations and with over 140 species—including a LOT of tagasaste (Cytisus palmensis). And so the crew descended on Dalpura and Lisa catered and we enjoyed a fire, food and drink before hitting the fields the next day—all equipped with secateurs, loppers and hand saws. It was amazing to see the impact that this kind of ‘Farmblitz’ could have and continues to. Some of that crew continued to work at managing the forests of Dalpura over the years that have followed.
Anyone who has been to Dalpura in the wetter months (winter/spring) would know that the duplex soils are such that you can get bogged anywhere, anytime, and Dan did just that in his much loved VEG Toyota Hilux (2WD!!) ute. True to form he gave someone his always-close-at-hand video camera, and had them film me pull him out of the bog with the farm’s tractor.
Our collaborations were also without me even being really involved. VEG would often use what was then our 10ha rural block (called ‘Dehesa Felix’ outside of Bendigo, Victoria, AU) to host days and nights during their PDC’s, mainly to focus on water and access infrastructure design and development. Eventually VEG also used our old 22’ Viscount food van for catering at their courses around the region. VEG got much more use out of that van than we did! It was great when we’d be overseas somewhere and Dan would tag us on Facebook with some photos of their latest visit and of all the fun they were having while learning.
“…Those who want to leave are the one’s who are the most important to stay…”,
pers. comm. Warren Brush (2007) quoting the advice given to him by one of his mentors, an American first nations elder.
Dan’s creation of the ‘Making Permaculture Stronger’ project in 2016 was ultimately a testament to him as a professional and his commitment to the Permaculture concept and movement. It was also a coming of age, and where his voice became internationally known and widely respected. I recall that around this time a change had come over him, and for the first time I saw a more strident and confident, (but not cocky) version of Dan. While I had functionally departed from Permaculture the year before (for some of the same reasons which we’d discussed many times leading up to my change of direction), he decided to stay and use his wide array of skills to do what he could to turn it around. This had him become closer in his friendship and work with another Permaculture intellectual (and arguably its most prominent) in the concept’s co-founder David Holmgren. They in some ways sought to arrest some of Permaculture’s wilding—building back its integrity, efficacy and indeed validity as a design science—no mean feat. Their work extended to running Advanced Permaculture Design courses, and in the ‘Reading Landscape’ film project—something that was kicked off by David’s involvement with the Yandoit Farm project. It also involved Dan in helping Su and David to create their own ‘Holistic Life Context’.
Another relationship that was progressing within the Regrarians network was Dan’s with Canadian permaculture designer Javan K. Bernakevitch. Over 2017 and 2018 Javan delivered the ‘Holistic Context Development’ sessions on the first of our two online REX® farm planning courses. Dan had watched the recordings, and reached out to Javan, forming a close friendship and working conversation very much as ‘peas in a pod’—collaborating on their similar approaches to ‘Holistic Decision Making’ and its incorporation into their consulting work and training programs—adding to the work that Allan Savory and the Holistic Management® community had been doing over the last 4 decades. Speaking to Javan last week, like so many, he is devastated by Dan’s passing, not only for the loss of a friend and colleague, but also for not being able to deliver the courses they were planning to run together this year. Following Dan’s death, Javan has spoken beautifully and from the heart of his own experiences with extreme depression—salutary reading for any and all.
“…Maybe I’ll pester a few senior colleagues for their two-cents worth. And from there we’ll just have to see what happens, won’t we!…”,
Dan Palmer (2016), Making Permaculture Stronger, ‘The First Post’
Again in looking back over the digital memories Dan never did mind a photo bomb. At his height and with an often luxuriant bouffant, he would be more of a smiling tree next to or behind those bombed. It was another part of his outward displays of playfulness and the infectious and disarming glee that came with it. Though behind this was a person more than capable of riffing with the best of them—the many ‘Making Permaculture Stronger’ interviews and articles making this abundantly clear. He was particularly proud of his wonderful interview with Holistic Management® founder Allan Savory, and this week Allan shared with me how much he “…deeply appreciated his amazing open friendly attitude and knowledge…”. Personally I would never have thought to have strung such a very long bow between my own work processes and that of a luminary like the late Christopher Alexander. What an honour, just as it was to be interviewed in the field, on jobs and in our home. He was as good at the interview as he was at putting words on a page and thrashing things right out.
Photo: Dan Palmer interviewing Darren Doherty – Regrarians (2017)
My darling wife Lisa Heenan also enjoyed a strong friendship with Dan and he would oven seek her out for advice on managing family life and living. This is a role that Lisa has found herself in with many people, especially those juggling the effective running of an enterprise and that of being an even more effective and involved spouse and parent. Recognising some of the discussions around the time, in 2015 Lisa instigated and filmed the ‘The 3D’s (David, Daniel & Darren) to ‘Swale or not to Swale’ + ‘Cooperation NOT Competition‘ video at Yandoit Farm. She poignantly lamented yesterday of her last seeing Dan at the Castlemaine Farmers Market when he invited us around for pizza and that we all never got around to it…
Dan and my last formal collaboration was in 2019 when out of blue he contacted me about helping with a commercial farming client he had on board and felt that I could help. He recorded that consultancy and always looking to ‘making permaculture stronger’, he did an edit of the recording and made yet another podcast and article out of it.
In 2020 we were home full-time for the first year since 2001. By that stage Amanda and Dan had decided to leave Castlemaine and move to Aotearoa to be closer to Dan’s parents and sister and build a home and life over there. With that our contact reduced and I figured that we’d catch up again when the whole pandemic hangover was over. The last time I saw Dan was when he and our mutual friend Graeme Jennings came to our family’s restaurant/café/gallery (‘Cream Town’) for a lunch meeting early last year. After working with Graeme and his family since 1994, I introduced him to Dan as an earthmover to work with, and they have gone onto do quite a few projects and become good mates. Never did I think that that this would be the last time I got to see one of the finest people I have ever come across, let alone call a friend and colleague.
On a personal note, being in a space where I could write this has taken longer than I thought. This is in spite of the fact that the deaths of those close to me has in large part defined me from my earliest days and, like my Mother Esme, made me a stoic of sorts. That doesn’t make me or anyone else less vulnerable, and if there is to be anything good that has come from Dan’s death it is that it has many of us inquire more deeply than ‘…are you OK?…’. And that those who have the appearance of always being OK are vulnerable too.
I will conclude as I began in consideration of Amanda, Robin and Nikka, Dan’s parents and sister and those closest to them. And to Dan I give thanks for your purpose, your enthusiasm, your love and your care. To everyone else please don’t hold back and gain the support you need lest you leave before you should.
Sail on dear friend and thanks for all that you gave us…
- There is a funding campaign that is to help Amanda and her children manage the period immediately ahead—please consider contributing to this
- * The story that Amanda’s (South African) father told in his speech at their wedding is one that I often repeat and it goes something like this,
“…I came up to the immigration desk upon arrival in Perth and the officer asked me, ‘have you ever been arrested or in prison?’, to which I replied,
‘I didn’t know it was still a prerequisite!’…”
- There is a wonderful public Facebook group that Brenna Quinlan set up as a space for ‘Memories and Tributes’ of Dan