I feel very honoured to have been a student in Powell River’s second permaculture design course in 2013. Now, as we move into 2014, and prepare for another season of permaculture activities, I’d like to do a recap of last year’s course. Last Summer, Erin Pickell and Alyssa Stapleton wrote articles for this blog that did not get posted. I apologize for that, and I will be including their articles in this one. Many thanks to both of them for so beautifully describing our process.
The focus of the course seems to be gardening, but it is so much more. We studied natural building, wise use of water (that should prove very useful after such a dry Winter), and other techniques that foster sustainability and resilience. Besides all of the great techniques, we learned the philosophy and approach of permaculture, a tool that will last us the rest of our lives.
In learning permaculture design, we continued the work of the previous class, growing the garden at Sycamore Commons.
It’s been really exciting to be a student with the opportunity to put our ideas into practice for the community. As the second succession of students to be learning and practicing Permaculture on the site, we were endowed with the great vision and work of the first group. With the project goals and a good relationship with the congregation already established, the students of 2013 got started in March, benefiting from the great yield produced the first year (a yield of learning, relationships AND honeyberries!).
Permaculture is a big subject with infinite potential, but Rin and Ron have done an expert job of introducing us to it. Before any talk of ecological design, we collectively decided how to create a safe learning environment. We made commitments as a group; for example, using ‘I’ statements, listening to each other, and being honest with each other and ourselves. We also wrote down in groups our biggest fears about the project, our ultimate nightmares, and shared them in order to shine a light on what might otherwise be lurking in the shadows. This effort to create safety paid off and everyone’s voice is heard in a collaborative learning environment.
It’s been so great getting together with this group of people who, while all being unique, have in common a desire to care for the Earth (creating the conditions for regeneration where harm has been done), to care for other people (weaving human needs into the functioning and health of the wider ecosystem), and to share the surplus (not denying other people or species their needs through our own over-consumption). These are the Permaculture ethics and its important and exciting to be working on this.
In the first weekend, we talked about Permaculture foundations: the ethics and principles, elements in an ecosystem, patterns in nature, and design concepts and methodologies. We practiced the essential skill of observation at the old golf course, suspending our need to know or control and simply noticing what’s around us, using all of our senses. We were introduced to the idea of forest gardening – creating a perennial food system following nature’s own efficient and elegant design. We got a LOT of information in the first weekend but were assured that it would be repeated and we left with lots to think about. We were given the assignment to observe the places we live, practicing this essential first step of Permaculture design, and bringing our notes to share at the next weekend.
We came back together in April for the second weekend of the course. Ron was away doing good work in Cuba but Rin called in some friends so she had a few breaks (not many!!) Along with furthering the design process on site, we talked about water. How does it cycle through an ecosystem; where does it come from and where does it go? We talked about the importance of wetlands and the danger they’re in. Life needs water! So how do we keep it in the ecosystem? We also talked about soil. We were lucky to have Rob and Julia, students from last year, come in to talk to us about building and maintaining soil life. There is no bare soil in nature and we must model this to foster a habitat for the countless creatures that live in soil. They break down organic matter, and make food available for plants to grow. We made compost from Rin’s menagerie of collected materials: coffee grounds from local shops, shavings from her chicken run, manure, brewer’s yeast and grass clippings. This site has a lot of good compost! We got to visit Edward’s yard, where he’s applied a lot of what we’re learning already: filtering water, building soil, and working with the local ecology; and we explored the forest ecology on Valentine Mountain and once again practiced our skill of observation. We hosted a meeting at Sycamore Commons to connect with the broader community and find out their thoughts about the space. We ended the weekend by dividing into small groups that would focus on different parts of the design.
When we came back in June for the third weekend, we got to see what everyone had been working on over the break and it was great!! There were so many good design ideas already and then, over the weekend, we got into way more detail. We let ourselves dream big and put down all of our ideas. We thought about what functions and features of the site that would reflect the project’s vision of creating a space for the community that is also regenerating the ecology that we live with. We went through many phases of observation, brainstorming, drawing and mapping and eventually a clear design unfolded. There will be a bus shelter and a book/seed exchange, a terraced garden, a play area, forest garden paths, living willow structures, a meditative space and other places to sit and enjoy the garden with friends. We completed the design on paper on Sunday to show the congregation and community, and asked for their feedback. It was very positive and we were able to talk to some neighbours about their questions and concerns, which we appreciated. Arriving on the first day, I didn’t know how the design would happen, but it did! And we were all part of it. Many thanks to our great teachers.
Gratitude – the feeling that swept over me after viewing the completed installation. Gratitude for the supportive community members, for the caring congregation members, and for the inspiring mentors. To see the completed project was an unexpected joy that evolved from the blank canvas of Sycamore Commons on Sunday August 11th. Equipped with tools, and a clear vision, individuals embarked on what would be transformative experience for both people and place. And at the close of the first day this objective had already been obtained.
The second work party brought with it a whole slew of community members ready to toil in the soil. Plants were installed; a stream bed completed, and bonds between this site and its shapers strengthened. Now that the final pieces have been set in place, Sycamore Commons will be a place for everyone to enjoy. It’s beautiful knowing that though this is just one small piece of the design plan for this area, it is already enriching this community. The direct effects being traffic calming, soliciting thanks and visits from its neighbours, and by acting as a harvesting ground for community resilience. Excitement grows from within for future work to be done on this site, but until then, the gratitude for what has already been started will flow freely.