On Becoming a Permaculturist

I often think about all the things I don’t know. Or maybe it’s better to say, I often think about not knowing, envisioning a kind of huge space next to whatever I call “what I know”. And then, sometimes, I try to stretch it out and make it a collective thing – all that we know, all that we don’t, and the nature of the space in between.

The end of my bike ride to the first day of class at Ravenhill Herb Farm.

I’m a student at the School of Permaculture Design at Pacific Rim College, in Victoria, Canada. I, and presumably my classmates, are here to learn about what permaculturist Penny Livingston-Stark has called “the regeneration of people and place”. I want to understand better what she means by this, and to write and share my experiences along the way.

“We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.”
-Wendell Berry, The Long-Legged House

Outwardly, maybe it seems like a weird fit for me. Or at least a roundabout road that brought me here. I’m a city kid. I grew up in Winnipeg, on the Canadian prairies; the agriculture I knew about, distant as it always seemed, was the large-scale industrial stuff of TV commercials, all sweeping overhead shots and gleaming machinery. Expanses of yellows and blues seen on drives in the countryside: uniform rows of wheat standing opposite fields of linum lewisii, the purple-blue flax flower, our own small Aegean seas flashing from the car window.

Growing up downtown, I remember watching those manual push mowers hacking away at overgrown patches in neighbours’ yards, behind rusting wrought iron fences. Later, this memory grew to include neat expanses of green grass in suburban lots.

In the winter, I recall seeing a sign addressed to dog owners, too near the road and made crooked by an overzealous plow driver, the ridge of snow left behind mooring the treeline and looking like a piece of art. They’re not bad memories at all, but they’re notably few, and distinct – my own specific relationship with the natural ecological world that has stayed at arm’s length for many years.

I grew up thinking about inequality a lot, spreading the front section of the newspaper out on the kitchen table, biting my fingernails, elbows on the corners of the broadsheet. I studied politics at school and learned theory about the links between resources and wealth and labour – although it always felt like a bit of a peripheral reality. People were centered in this story; the earth was passive.

I think that’s part of what appeals to me about this year-long experience at Pacific Rim College: it’s an applied program. We are training in theory from expert practitioners, but we’re also practicing hands-on skills and will take part in a two-month practicum in the unique biome that is Vancouver Island. The idea of this work, to me, feels closer to something like positive action than much else.

Terraced beds at Ravenhill Herb Farm. Straw works as organic mulch during the winter, retaining moisture in the soil, preventing evaporation, and minimizing weed growth. Beyond are views of the Saanich Inlet.

The idea of “permaculture” has its roots in 1970s Australia, where David Holmgren and Bill Mollison coined the term to refer to their notion of “permanent agriculture”, later broadened to absorb ideas about “permanent culture”. This was a time when environmentalism was gaining momentum: Rachel Carson had written Silent Spring in the early ‘60s, and the twin oil crises of 1973 and 1979 were prompting more people to think about our earth’s resources as a finite thing.

I see strong links between the principles of permaculture (as much as I understand them so far, anyway), and these big ideas in our lives that seem somehow both immediate and hidden at the same time – social justice, environmentalism. Kindness. And some links that aren’t as direct but that feel like they’re there, lurking: slowing down, pausing, observing. Gentle deliberateness. Figuring out how to live in this world.

Cycling up the Saanich Peninsula from my place in Victoria to Ravenhill Herb Farm for the first day of class, I wonder for a second what I’m doing. This part of Vancouver Island has wet, mild winters and I’m still adjusting to seeing the surge of life that springs up in December and January, everywhere a thousand shades of green. I feel excited but also apprehensive – worried that I haven’t put my time in, haven’t had my hands in the soil, that my classmates will possess a kind of easy connection with the earth that I lack. But it’s hard to feel too anxious when you’re riding your bike through this place. The sun is just edging over the horizon and I can glimpse the Salish Sea to the east through a strand of trees.

Starting the day in our Community Development, Planning and Facilitation class.

When I arrive at the farm – one of two main learning sites for the program – I join my classmates in a large-windowed, cob-walled classroom heated by a wood stove with a kettle perched on top. We all glance around and share a laugh as it seems almost impossibly idyllic. In this first week, we’re beginning our Community Development, Planning and Facilitation class.  Taught by a director at the Redfish School of Change, the focus during these first days is to get to know one another, to engage in self-reflection and to develop a set of common working principles.

We spend most of the day outside.  Ever a city boy, I notice those small, perpetual features of the farm made exotic to me by my unfamiliarity: the loud rhythm of a bird’s wings as she passes overhead; the low strains of traditional Chinese guoyue played on CD for the chickens’ benefit; rainbow colours of the sun refracted through droplets of water on a crimson leaf of kale. I’m half-surprised to learn that the goats are all named and can be easily identified (save for the twins, apparently), but my surprise lessens as the day wears on and I begin to hear the different pitches of their bleats and detect personality in their movements.

We are challenged to create a representation of our “personal ecosystem” using things found around us in the gardens. Who and what is important to us, and how does it relate to us? I look around and pick some rosemary, a piece of bark, a thorny blackberry cane: our immediate surroundings touched and examined, and quickly made metaphor. Do these thorns represent trauma, or resilience? I know, of course, that permaculture isn’t just about choosing the right things – it’s about how best to connect them together. This is a challenge, but thinking with cuttings in hand about how to build these connections, in this case to represent something that’s intrinsically me, I can see how the reward is immense: a self-sustaining system. Something that can function to bring people and place together.

The rear of our classroom at Ravenhill Herb Farm. The walls are built using cob: the round cavity beside the door shows straw used in the cob mixture. We will learn cob building techniques as part of the Natural Building Techniques class later this year.

But this first step, pausing to observe these natural connections and behaviours, can feel a lot like not-doing, and so it seems unfamiliar. I think of a quote from the philosopher Lao Tzu: “In doing nothing, I see that everything is done”. Or something like that. Easy for me to say, but harder to do – working on my design, my mind jumps to grand plans for a herb garden back home, remembering snippets of information I’ve gleaned from phytotherapy students at Pacific Rim and mentally installing rows of uncommon plants for supply to local practices. I know I need to work on cultivating patience, on internalizing the lessons of permaculture and not just the knowledge.

Petting the farm mastiffs while the goats look on.

Later, during our second day, we work together to develop a common set of guiding principles for learning and being together as a class. We toss ideas back and forth, thinking about how words – humility, reverence, reciprocity, inclusivity, respect – can become lived practice, and can be embodied in our studies and our work this year. I suggest “silliness” as an important core principle, and it’s well received.

Working together through this process makes me feel like the result can be something that approaches praxis, and it stirs my political soul. We end the day with a hike, and I feel happy and open – I’ve been struck all week by my classmates’ wisdom and integrity, and by the clarifying effect of communing with the natural world.

Sporangia on the underside of a polypodium glycyrrhiza (liquorice fern) leaf, as seen on a hike during Community Development, Planning and Facilitation class. The fern spores in this capsule are forcefully ejected on reaching maturity, allowing the fern to reproduce.

With this blog, I’m hoping there might be something here for everyone: for those who are just arrived this place from thinking on other sister themes like health and social justice; and also for those more practiced and knowledgeable than me in the principles of permaculture. I want this to be a place for discussion: self-interestedly, so that I can learn from your expertise; but also that we can learn together, and find and celebrate those sparks of energy and life that emerge whenever we think collectively about our world and our place in it.

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