Beginner’s Mind

Here I am: hunched over the classroom table, squinting intently through a hand lens like some rubber-booted horologist. Feeling vaguely aristocratic with this new implement, I test my eye muscles to see whether I can hold the lens hands-free, like a monocle. In my imagination, I wear both personas at once: an aristocrat watchmaker, an antiquarian horologist, John B. Macklemore muttering in his Alabama cabin over the guts of an eighteenth-century clock.

Sunrise over Blenkinsop Lake, on the bike ride to class at Ravenhill Herb Farm.

But instead of bezels and hairsprings and balance wheels, I’m looking at pistils and anthers and ovary positions (is the ovary epigynous, perigynous, or hypogynous?). This is our first botany class. These are the names of plant parts, and working to absorb this flood of terminology is like learning a new language.

Biologist Kristen Miskelly is teaching the course at Ravenhill Herb Farm, and later in the day we hike up the side of ȽÁU,WELṈEW̱ (meaning “place of refuge” in the indigenous Sencoten language, and called Mount Newton in English), she points out native plants and grasses along our path. I’m struck by how she identifies them all with an easy glance: deciphering this verdant landscape thick with vegetation, indigenous plants cheek-and-jowl with introduced species in a vast tangle of life. She lists their scientific names in a rhythmic beat of Latin syllables.

From left to right: Achillea millefolium (yarrow); yarrow root; Symphyotrichum subspicatum (Douglas’ aster). Yarrow has a long history of food and medicinal use among Indigenous nations including the Nlaka’pamux, Tsimshian, Ulkatcho First Nation, and Nuxalk Nation.

We pass fire-scarred Douglas fir trees, whose thick insulating bark protects the living inner cambium from heat injury. Miskelly explains that traditionally, tracts of this land were set afire in controlled burns to renew growth and clear brush. Tough, fire-resistant Douglas firs could withstand these burns, while competing trees could not. The open forest canopy allowed firs and other sun-loving trees like the Garry oak to flourish. In recent decades, fire monitoring and provincial bans on controlled fires have led to increased forest density, and skinny, shade tolerant competition has dimmed the canopy and begun to choke out firs and oaks. These and other cascading ecological changes are deeply felt: fully 20% of plants listed in the federal Species At Risk Act are found in the Victoria area.

I think about how much different a landscape must look to the eyes of someone who can confidently identify its flora – the attitudes and relationships of these plants, a story etched into every latent bud and every crooked branch searching upwards for a slanting ray of sunlight. It is a constant, subtle dance, and it must offer a compelling story for an engaged botanist.

Miskelly, though, reading my mind, notes that there are differing strains of thought in botany about teaching by naming and categorizing. Some argue that doing so can serve to reduce a plant to its name: a glimpse of a craggy bough allows identification as Quercus garryana, the Garry oak, but the practiced efficiency of such an eye can bring with it a host of assumptions and miss the singular personality of the specimen. I’m reminded of the Zen Buddhist notion of Shoshin (“beginner’s mind”), and, since my botanical mind is entirely a beginner’s, I try to feel grateful for my childlike ignorance and enjoy the magic of wonder and curiosity untethered from expectation.

Curious goats, employing “beginner’s mind”, take their vantage point to examine a student interloper.

Curious observation makes up the core of another ongoing exercise that we’re doing in our Introduction to Permaculture course: a daily sit. We’ve all picked an individual spot at the farm for close and gentle examination whenever we have class. That the program is a year in length means we’ll monitor seasonal shifts as well as the minutiae of daily change.

Permaculture teachings suggest people wait and observe for a year, if possible, before beginning to make adjustments to a new landscape. Part of the reason is straightforward prudence – the better one understands the land, the less likely one is to waste energy and effort when working with it. There is a meditative quality to this idea, too, that trying to better align one’s internal rhythms with the rhythms of the earth can be a contemporary act. It’s possible. And so that’s the goal here, in a small way: to come to know this spot, in a way that functions almost below the level of thought.

Nikki getting tea going in the classroom.

Of course, this might not always be a realistic practice. And its insistence on stretching time past its short-term horizons sits uneasily with the imperatives of modern capitalism. But it is worth thinking on. In class we picked through a deck of “core concept cards” which detail some of the primary principles and ethics of permaculture. One card listed redundancy – clearly an important thing from a practical point of view, as using multiple methods to “back up” core functions in your project ensures that an isolated failure won’t disrupt the whole system (ie. rain barrels are good, but you’re wise to also have a long hose).

This card indicates a different way though: “The goal of permaculture is to make yourself redundant. To share everything and help mentor others to share in the work with you, and continue it after you are gone.” Self-redundancy – there are echoes here of the Iroquois philosophy of seven generation stewardship, that we should think and work with an eye seven generations into the future. That we should cast the net wide, doing that tricky work of centering others in our approach to life. Patient, curious observation would seem to make a good ally in this project.

Elegant decay: moss covers the roof of an outbuilding at Ravenhill Herb Farm.

Anyway, I’ll close with a few simple observations about my sit spot. This will no doubt change as the year goes on and I find the vocabulary to better describe what I see. But in the meantime, indulge my beginner’s mind.

I’m on a furrow in front of a bent sapling, spindly needles in laurel green and brown giving way suddenly to long, wild needles nearer the top. The ground is sloped and pockmarked with dull, jutting stalks like a post-harvest stubble. Two thick bunches of grass flank the sapling, and clover and moss are abundant, tiny and intricate, sat straight on top of the soil. Thirteen rocks in a rough line sit just to the east, impassive.

I’ll keep watching.

Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student of the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College