Human Guilds: Cultivating Inclusion and Adaptivity


Composite image to illustrate the diversity of...

In his last post, Will asked whether there were any ecological examples of an “enabling environment.”

Pondering this, I remembered something I’d read in books on Permaculture long ago: the concept of “guilds.”

A guild, in an ecological sense, is a group of animals and plants that co-evolve in a mutually beneficial (or “symbiotic“) manner. Such examples of guilds can be found in nature, but also can be developed intentionally by humans. A traditional example is the Three Sisters, squash, maize, and beans, cultivated successfully in Mesoamerica for thousands of years.

Such interdependency suggests that nature is not so easily reduced to the hoary notion that “only the fittest survive.” It might be more accurate to reframe this as “only the most adaptive and interconnected thrive.”

Let’s look at Toby Hemenway‘s explanation in Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture:

“. . . Ecosystems are fundamentally cooperative places. Yes there is plenty of competition, but the underlying dynamic is one of mutual aid. In an ecosystem, microbes build soil, soil nourishes plants, plants feed animals, and animals disperse seed and leave their waste and corpses to be transformed by microbes into soil. Here spins a cycle of mutual interdependence, rich with many specific partnerships. . .

Nature . . . binds plants into interdependent communities and associations. Indigenous people, too, have crafted plant combinations that weave synergies among species. In the past two decades, ecological designers also have blended plants into communities that contain partnerships. Permaculturists call these imitations of natural associations guilds. Formally defined, a guild is a group of plants and animals harmoniously interwoven into a pattern of mutual support, often centered around one major species, that benefits humans while creating habitat. . . 

Guilds are one way to bridge the broad gap between conventional vegetable gardens and wildlife gardens by creating plant communities that act and feel like natural landscapes but that include humans in their webwork. Vegetable gardens benefit only humans, while wildlife or natural gardens specifically exclude people from their ecological patterns.” (bold added, p. 120)

When we speak of people with “disabilities,” we tend to speak in the manner of exclusion, even when we speak with our best intentions. Under the model of inclusion—which most special education systems are thankfully adopting—the question shifts from “How can we accommodate disabled students to prepare them for general education curriculum and classrooms?” to “How can we include students with varying levels of ability, knowledge, and skill in one classroom?”

But perhaps the better question suggested by the concept of guilds is: “How can students of varying levels of ability, knowledge, and skill aid one another in accomplishing shared objectives?”

And we can keep pushing this further by adding: “How can people of varying levels of ability, knowledge, and skill aid one another in accomplishing shared objectives that will benefit their community?”

Integrated and inclusive schools that engage with their communities to promote an adaptive and interconnected society. Now there’s an idea that I can get behind.

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