From Adam Mitchell, PDC March 2010
Pre and Post Course
Just a few weeks ago, if you asked me, “So Adam, what’s permaculture?” I might have cocked my head to the side and given you a confused, “Huh?”, or possibly a bumbling, broken response similar to this: “Well, umm, it’s the study of sustainable development so people can live more sustainable lives wherever they are…sustainably.” Who knew that an off-hand mention to a farm in northern Thailand could lead me from one end of Southeast-Asia to the other to seek the answer to that question? Of course it was more than just a simple remark that led me to the steamy jungle plot of Embun Pagi set forty kilometers north of Kuala Lumpur. Over the course of the past two years, starting with my decision to return to mystical Southeast-Asia to create a life for myself and try my hand at teaching English, I have naturally gravitated towards people, stories, publications and documentaries that instill a sense of an alternative to the status-quo. The fact of the matter is I don’t want to return to a monotonous nine-to-five job wasting my life away while supporting a system that I have completely lost trust in for perpetuating greed, dishonesty, jealousy and self-centeredness. My lack of trust in established modes of thought and action are as strong as my beliefs that there must be something more: something more fulfilling, something more engaging, and something that breeds a stronger feeling of connectedness, compassion and love.
So I figured I would check out this new (new for me; the idea has actually been around for thirty some-odd years) thing called permaculture. I didn’t really know what to expect, but the allusions to farming and agriculture (permanent + agriculture = permaculture) left me, at best, skeptical. Growing up in the New England, specifically the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, dairy farming abounds and I am no stranger to the rough and tough lifestyle it entails. The first picture that comes to mind when I think of a traditional farmer is of a hillbilly-esque equivalent, or the not uncommon sight of seeing the farmer’s kids driving to school on the family tractor. This unfashionable view surely had clouded my understanding of what it truly means to be a farmer, but I was driven to embrace my stereotypical views and release any preconceived notions of the world if I was truly to understand and harmonize with it. Besides, permaculture promised to be more than sustainable farming, extending out to all facets of life and living, to which I was excited to delve into.
Welcome day was a blast. Everyone was riding in on that pre-course high, excited to share with others, settle into the space and to get started. It was amazing to see people from all walks of life: established architects, authors and chefs, wandering teachers and those seeking spiritual higher grounds, couples educating themselves before starting their life together, all of which were open-minded and willing to learn. Most of us came from the same approach: that being, we had recognized some problems and were looking for answers.
The course flew by like a whirlwind, but one could feel a growing sense of righteousness enveloping the group day by day. I was amazed at how simple and straightforward the information was, yet how empowering it felt. I remember one day being introduced to a revolutionary idea as it aligned so much of what I was thinking and feeling, and it all boiled down to one simple, yet powerful connection: growing your own food is a revolutionary act! By growing your own food you are not contributing to the system that requires people to submit themselves as slaves, not contributing to destroying the environment, not contributing to the exploitation of the worker, not contributing to the continuation of an unsustainable economy, and not contributing to the perpetuation of greed, dishonesty, jealousy and self-centeredness.
It was also eye opening to see the different ideas in permaculture literature: food not lawns; reuse and recycle; bottom up empowerment; cultivating food, love and community; local resilience; and integration of ideas to see that ‘waste’ isn’t waste, ‘weeds’ aren’t weeds, ‘bad people’ aren’t bad people –we are just lacking the creativity to utilize, include and encourage a more enlightened approach.
After two weeks of listening to the principles, furiously scribbling notes, hands-on work in the gardens and surrounding areas, insightful and interesting conversations, thoughtful and inspirational presentations, all mixed in with delicious food and open-minded company, a growing sense of empowerment started to emerge and a will to move forward. I quickly realize that embodying the principles of permaculture is an act that anyone can do right now. No need to point fingers at others; the change starts with you. Through this lens, we learned a way to funnel and hone our energy –not into fighting the system, blaming the government or corporations for their misdeeds, lamenting of doomsday scenarios stemming from the credit crunch or planet crunch, or otherwise wallowing in our own sad state of affairs, but more importantly, into cultivating a more profound understanding with the realization that the power is all around us—in nature, in our communities and within ourselves. I’ve learned that with our own hands and minds we can create a more conducive environment intertwining our inner and outer needs with nature.
For me it has been a complete 180-degree turn: rather than planning a continuation of my hiatus abroad –living, working and traveling –I have been reinvigorated to return home and start putting my energy into developing my mother’s land. Observing and interacting with the land by using my newly trained eye to assess the landscape. Sustainably using the natural resources to catch and store energy, especially from the unutilized free-flowing stream that passes through our property. Set an example of how to thrive off the land with very little waste. I also hope to connect with my local community, rather than cut myself off; farmer’s markets, co-ops, and local barter are potential ideas I can already see myself taking part in, as well as investigating what else is continuing the movement. It’s amazing and exhilarating how little I knew about my neck of the woods nestled up in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and how lucky I am to have this opportunity. I, also, now have a slightly better idea of what permaculture is, as well as path to move forward. While I see it is fogged in and I don’t know where it will take me, the bricks have been laid and I have decided that this is the path that I am going to embark on. Who knows if it is the right one to take, but I’ve got a feeling it is—I’d say Mother Earth would have to agree with me.
From Sarah Bulckens, PDC March 2010
We are One
During the first two weeks of March 2010 I probably had the most intense and profound learning experience of my life: a permaculture design course. I registered for the course wanting to learn all the practical and technical details of permaculture. I have an exciting plan for the future: when I go back home to Belgium I’m not going back to being a corporate slave. Instead I’m going to buy a piece of land or an old farm so that I can live in harmony with nature and grow my own food!
After having done office work for about 10 years, the idea of starting my own farm is daunting though. I have no farming background, and even after volunteering on different farms on and off for about a year now, I felt like I still didn’t have enough experience. What became clear after this year of helping out on organic farms is that I don’t want to go back to the vicious circle of being a corporate slave. To me, working on the land is doing something real and tangible, it’s meaningful and really satisfying when you can actually eat something that you’ve grown yourself. Most of all though, it makes sense in a world where almost everything you eat is shipped in from faraway places and on top of that it’s covered in herbicides, pesticides and who knows what else.
My insecurities about not knowing how to grow stuff, live self-sustainable and in harmony with nature have faded after this 2 week permaculture course.
My head got stuffed with an incredible amount of information, ranging from how to design and plan a piece of land so that it can be lived on in a harmonious, sustainable and efficient way, all the way to how to create healthy soil full of helpful micro-organisms. We went from the basic principles of permaculture into a lot of detail. Of course you can’t learn everything there is to learn about permaculture and organic farming in just two weeks, but I feel like I understand the basics. Probably the most important learnings for me were the most simple ones: observe and learn from nature and use your common sense based on those learnings. I can learn all the details as and when I will need them: when to plant this seed and that; which vegetable to plant next to which other vegetable so that they can benefit each other; how do I keep bees and collect honey; how do I build a tank to collect rainwater; the list goes on and on. So I’m not too worried about the details, they will come with time.
But I actually want to write about the other things that I’ve learned during these two intense weeks, the less agricultural stuff. Permaculture is not only about plants, soil, water, energy and animals, it’s also about people and living in a harmonious world. I expected two weeks with like-minded (read green-minded) people would result in an interesting and energising experience, and it was, very much so. Despite long days of classes, everyone was up late watching environmental movies or discussing related and less-related topics. Both during these off-times and during the classes I learned a lot about what it is to be truly human and connecting with others.
Every day of class started with sharing our emotional state of mind of that moment: one by one we talked shortly about how we felt on that moment, and everyone listened. If outsiders would have walked into the room they might have thought that they walked into some sort of group therapy session: people sitting in a circle, talking about their emotions, about insights they’d had about themselves or about a situation, about what sort of effect the previous day had had on them, what dreams they’d had in their sleep, or simply sharing their enthusiasm for the day itself. This wasn’t group therapy though, this was our normal routine at the start of the day. I kept on thinking to myself that this should be a normal part of any day, of any conversation.
Too often we stick to the superficial formalities or random nothingness that we’ve gotten so used to. We greet each other, we answer “good” to the question “how are you?” and we chat about this and that. We’re stuck in our own little world, protecting ourselves from the outside world, keeping other people out with the walls that we build around ourselves, afraid of being vulnerable, of admitting our weaknesses. Only when talking to our closest friends do we share some of what is inside of us. I think that sometimes we forget that other people, the ones that are not our friends, are human too. We pass them on the street, staring right through them, especially in cities. We stand right next to them on the bus or MRT, trying to maintain our personal space as much as possible, lost in a book, playing around with our mobile phone or mini game console, trying to get away from the current reality. But all those other people are all humans too.
After those intense two weeks of the permaculture course, surrounded by a group of lovely people, city life shocked me. I felt disconnected, I missed the open-heartedness, the feeling of connection with the people around me, and I was desperately looking for some nature. I tried smiling at strangers on the street, it took most people a little while to realise that someone was trying to interact with them. Luckily most of them also smiled back, they even seemed relieved and happy.
When did we all become so disconnected from the world around us, and from nature? How come we’re rarely ‘present’ in reality until someone asks us to be? Why do we always need to escape reality, by watching TV, playing computer games or some other distracting occupation? What happened with just talking with people, enjoying nature, or just enjoying our own thoughts?
Maybe the answer “I’m doing fine” is so short because we don’t have any time to talk because we’re on our way to work to earn money that we’ll spend on products that won’t make us truly happy.
Sharing how I felt during those morning sessions was liberating, and it encouraged me to reflect on what was really inside of me and try to be true to whatever I found. Am I too naïve in thinking that we’re all human and that we should all just open up to each other? I wait for the day that we can all be a little bit more human.
I’m waiting for something else too: the day that we’ll all stop waiting for someone to tell us what to do to save the planet, and actually do something that will make a change. After I left Embun Pagi, and was no longer surrounded by people who really care, I agonized over what could make the other almost 7 billion people on this planet care.
I went to some bookshops and I was astonished at the amount of environmental books there are out there: 100 things you can do to save the planet; 365 days to a better environment; a greener world; and so on. Two problems: the first problem is that I was the only person in the “earth science” book section; the second problem is that the reason for me being the only one there was not because everyone else already got their copy of the environmental book of their choosing. I can’t help but think “Come on people what are we waiting for?!?!?!???”. We all know that we’re using up nature’s resources (or we should know). If we think about it, we all know that basically everything we do has a negative impact on the environment, and yet everyone just keeps on over-consuming and over-polluting as if there’s no tomorrow. But there is a tomorrow! There is a future! And it could be really beautiful if everyone would start caring enough to make it happen.
To me, the question “So what can I do?” is in itself one of the problems the world is facing: people have lost their connection with nature and don’t have a clue what to do. Maybe the first question should be “How do I reconnect with nature?”.
During one of our lessons we were asked to go outside and find some patterns in nature. After 15 minutes we came back to the classroom and we all shared what we had found: leaves; little rocks; twigs and so on. The beauty of this exercise was that everyone was amazed at the wonders of nature: the wonderful shape of certain leaves, the efficient nerves running through the leaves, the symmetry or asymmetry of certain plants, the structure of stone, the colours, … Nature is stunningly beautiful.
Maybe we need to simply and truly recognize this beauty, realize that we are also part of it and base all our actions on the knowledge that we get from nature, and the love we feel for it.