Starting down the permaculture path: Thoughts from a PDC student
I feel immensely lucky to have participated in Verge's Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) in Nelson this year. A few weeks later, I am still trying to process all the wealth of information I learned, and am realizing that it will be a continual process. There is more to know about permaculture than could ever be taught in one PDC course, even in one lifetime, so I’ve come to see the PDC as just the beginning of a long journey. I hope to share at least some of this beginning with you, in particular what I learned about two very important aspects of permaculture: connections and community.
People come to permaculture for all different reasons, but all through some shared understanding that we live in a world full of disconnects. Many of us feel disconnected from the sources of our food, water and energy, and equally as disconnected from our neighbors, our communities, and our government. We know about the problems and we think there must be solutions. But what draws people to permaculture (as opposed to other approaches) is that its solutions fit together. In a world full of disconnects, permaculture shows us how to make connections.
So this June, at the beautiful Mountain Waters Retreat Centre in Nelson, BC, a very diverse group of individuals from all over Canada (and beyond) gathered to learn about permaculture. We all had different backgrounds – business, physical therapy, carpentry, art, bartending, traveling, motherhood – but we were all there, in one sense or another, to make connections.
As a group all too aware of the disconnects, it seemed appropriate to address them at the outset. And so our first PDC class began with a group brainstorm of all the world's problems. The list went on and on. But rather than let negativity take hold of the conversation, Rob made us a promise, "for every problem we present in this class, we will give a solution.” And I believe he kept his promise, which is no small feat.
Over the course of the two weeks, we learned how to use the permaculture approach to create connected solutions. Through observation, an understanding of basic biological, chemical and physical principles, and a variety of design methods, we became generalists – able to look for the needs and yields of any system in order to integrate each element in a productive and functional way.
Of course, we did get more specific. We discussed water – how to harvest it, recycle and reuse it, how to leave it cleaner than we found it, and how to replenish ecosystems by appropriately directing and storing it. And we didn’t just discuss water solutions, we implemented them. We dug a dam and swale system that would catch and store water for the garden, as well as prevent erosion on the steep mountain property. While the very informative notes, lectures, and demonstrations were a helpful introduction to water principles, it was actually surveying the land, digging the ground and watching the water move across the swale that generated true understanding for me.
We also learned about soil – the connection between the health of our soil and the health of our bodies, about soil classification and restoration, and how to use mulch and compost to bolster nutrients and store moisture. Even more importantly, we made soil. Taking turns with the pitchforks and rake, everyone helped build a giant compost pile. And everyone watched daily as food scraps, manure, grass clippings and leaves were slowly transformed into healthy, nutrient-rich earth that would eventually support the growth of more organisms. Participating in the cycle, making more connections, and getting our hands and clothes dirty – this is what the PDC was all about.
Permablitz day was especially exciting because it gave us the opportunity to apply our knowledge toward the transformation of the Mountain Waters property. In one day, sixteen people laid soil, planted seeds and trees, dug a swale system, built stairs, and chopped nitrogen-rich mulch plants to be returned to the earth. Regardless of skills or experience, everyone contributed and helped each other. A real sense of community emerged as our group worked together in a supportive way – taking turns, taking pictures, taking breaks, and asking lots of questions. It was greatly satisfying to be physically active, outside in the sun, and to experience the tangible results of our labours.
In between talking about earth repair and actually repairing the earth, we had relaxing evenings. We watched films – a lecture about the inspiring City Repair Collective of Portland, an animated feature about The Man Who Planted Trees, a documentary about Sepp Holzer, an Austrian farmer whose simple, integrative techniques demonstrate the strength and resiliency of a human system that works with nature. And occasionally, when our minds were too full of ideas and inspiration, we watched the Lord of the Rings. But before long, even the Lord of the Rings began to evoke permaculture references...
Delicious food was shared around the table (scraps from which were added to the compost pile) along with stories and laughing. The view of the surrounding mountains and forests was spectacular, and there were plenty of opportunities to enjoy it with hikes and an outdoor hot tub.
Another highlight was visiting three unique permaculture sites in the gorgeous Nelson area. Each one was totally different than the last, helping me to realize that permaculture principles can be applied by anyone, anywhere, and can be as diverse and unique as the people using them. Again, what struck me most from the tour was how it demonstrated community. Everyone had different strengths, different interests and different projects, but each contributed to their community, which met many of its own needs internally.
The course finished, as all of Verge's PDC courses do, with a Show & Tell. At the start of the course when students first learned about the “talent show”, many were intimated, thinking they don’t have a valuable talent worth sharing. But everyone stepped up to the challenge and shared something - a skill, a story, or a bit of knowledge with the group. Whether videography, baking, music, dancing, unicycling, talking about the importance of balancing acid and alkaline foods in one's diet, again, everyone had something to contribute.
It seems simple, but sharing our own talents and stories not only brought us closer as a group, it also dispelled a fundamental perception that entertainment has to come from outside sources. As permaculturists, we learn that a resilient system is one that meets its needs from within. Most of us are eager to apply this philosophy when it comes to food or energy production, but still look to the outside for entertainment. When we shy away from sharing our own stories and creating our own fun, we miss out on the most personal and arguably the most rewarding human necessity – meaningful relationships. Perhaps it is from these relationships that we are most disconnected.
Through Show & Tell and permablitzing, we started to repair that disconnect. Maybe not on a sweeping scale, but at least for the small group of us who’d ventured to Nelson to learn about connective design and would take our knowledge back to our own communities. Our tour, class projects, and dinnertime talks demonstrated the potential we have for unique, genuine and resilient relationships.
Permaculture is not new, it is based in age-old natural principles that we humans evolved with. Therefore, the PDC was not so much about learning new things as it was about making connections between those things in the natural world that have always been around. There are so many of these connections to understand that applying permaculture design in one's own life can seem like a long journey. But taking my PDC meant connecting with a whole community of people on the same journey. Good company for the road ahead.
There’s a quote we keep hearing in the permaculture world that says “all the world’s problems can be solved in a garden”. The practical knowledge and skills I took from my PDC reinforced this concept. But after the experiences I had, I would have to add one thing: “all the world’s problems can be solved in a garden, by a community.” I am thrilled to be part of that community.
Alex Judd is the newest member of the Verge Permaculture Team. She completed her PDC, taught by Rob Avis, at Mountain Waters in Nelson, British Columbia in June 2011.