I love this question because you will get as many different answers as times or people whom you ask. Defining permaculture is not the best way to understand what permaculture means. Permaculture is a design science - an art form, a set of principles, a tool kit of wonderful strategies, and an overwhelming variety of applications. Permaculture is about using principles of nature to inform the choices you make. It's a bit like combining the common sense that your grandparents probably had with a good understanding of history and a love for efficient and practical technology. I've witnessed permaculture gardens, businesses, homes, and lifestyles. I can't wait until I see a whole permaculture town - apparently they exist in Australia. The best answer I have for the "What is permaculture?" question is this: Permaculture IS something you played around with before you ever went to school, that indigenous people still practice, that everyone would benefit by understanding, and can have an enormous impact on the future of humans on this planet. Here's me and a bunch of other people talking about permaculture. Hopefully it will inspire your curiosity even if it doesn't completely answer the question.
Skills and Background
My experience with permaculture started many years ago when a family I knew in Big Bear introduced it to me. They were committed to living more lightly on the land and showed me many things. When their eldest son took a permaculture course, his description roused my interest. I talked my way into taking a teacher training led by Jude Hobbs and Tom Ward in Santa Cruz where Larry Santoyo was a guest lecturer. His charisma and clarity inspired me to take his 72 hour permaculture design course (the essential entry level to understanding permaculture) in 2002. I've been taking courses ever since.
I did a second permaculture teacher training with Michael Kramer and Christopher Peck at Ocean Song Farm in Occidental California in 2004. Besides learning great pedagogy strategies I also got to meet an incredible bunch of dedicated and brilliant permaculture practitioners from the Bay area. I've continued to work with Larry as an intern. I sit in, help out, and occassionally guest lecture for his courses in Los Angeles. In working with Larry, I have had the great privilege to work with many fine experienced teachers and to hear all variety of stories about the history of the movement. After hearing about the Bullock brothers for years I was finally able to participate in their 3 week design course in 2008 on Orcas Island. Wow! The hassle of getting to Orcas Island is well worth it just to see their 25 year permaculture site. I'll never forget the snack fruit guilds that line the paths! Understanding the permaculture curriculum requires hands-on experience with the strategies discussed. As a renter in an urban area I always found that part the most challenging. As a homeowner I set up for future rainwater catchment and gray water systems as well as cob oven construction. Food forestry landscaping is well under way and now has had almost ten years to grow! I developed infrastructure and planted a food forest outside of the high school classroom where I taught. The garden was a valuable part of my biology and environmental science curriculum. Much of my application of permaculture concepts has been in organizing events and workshops. I was one of the co-founders of the Los Angeles permaculture guild. I helped create the first ever West Coast Women's Permaculture gathering in April of 09. I was one of the coordinators for the next Southern California Permaculture Convergence. I've led plant walks and taught botany basics for design courses and helped many people understand the wisdom of sheet mulching to build soil and conserve water. One of my favorite things about permaculture in Los Angeles right now are the incredibly talented people who are part of our larger guild. I am continually amazed and impressed with how this vision grows. Here's to Los Angeles as the next permaculture city!