Archive for the ‘community & culture’ Category

Food Revolution

I wrote this poem three years ago for my partner Marc’s birthday. I penned it inside the front cover of Gaia’s Garden, one of the classic introductory permaculture books by Toby Hemenway. I was giving him the book in advance of our upcoming permaculture design course at O.U.R. Ecovillage. Yep, the one that sent me on this whole trajectory of gardening in Hawai’i and exploring permaculture at universities from coast to coast. Since Spring has sprung, I figured it’d be a good time to share it and nurture some inspiration to get out there in the sunshine!

Grab your shovel, your rake and your gumboots

And join me as we build this movement from the grassroots

Its not just about links between the bees, trees and birds,

But also the friendships, love, dreams, and words

 

Building earthships and finding sustainable means

To grow delicious and healthy beans and greens

To nourish our bodies as well as our souls

While working for the integrity of the greater whole

 

Acting with purpose with each seed we plant

And finding new friends among the worms and the ants

Learning how to work with, not against, the garden grubs

By designing for synergy between the critters and the shrubs

 

Giving thanks for these beautiful systems on which we rely

From the biosphere down to the tiniest little fly

Making meaning among the rows of corn and peas

And always stopping to enjoy the freshness of the breeze

 

With this intentional practice, by example we can lead

And show that all would-be organic gardeners can succeed

It’s true there will be long and difficult days of toil

But nothing beats the feeling of hands in the soil

 

And the payoff is well worth the work in this exchange

Dining on tasty delights as we grow social change

Free range eggs, crunchy carrots, and potatoes

Hearty squash soups and juicy plump tomatoes

Home-preserved berries, and trees dripping with fruits

So let’s build this community and put down some roots!

 

Let’s care for our surroundings and make friends with the earth

And nurture in our systems a radical rebirth

Growing not just plants but a whole consciousness evolution

By sowing the seeds of this food revolution!

 

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Festival culture: Building Pacific community

I’m very proud to work with Pacific Peoples’ Partnership, a local non-profit dedicated to supporting the aspirations of South Pacific islanders and helping build Indigenous linkages across the Pacific. This year, we celebrated our 40th anniversary! To mark the occasion we held our 22nd Pacific Networking Conference and 8th One Wave Festival.

I wrote this article about One Wave Festival for a special edition of Tok Blong Pasifik, our journal of news and views on the Pacific. One Wave is coming up again on Sept. 10-11th, 2016! Stay tuned and follow us on Facebook!

All photos credited to Mark Gauti (see more photos of One Wave at his Facebook page)

warless dancing

Warless getting the crowd worked up!

I’m a big enthusiast of festival culture, which is why I love being part of One Wave: I get to co-create a festival that inspires people to get involved in making change.

I first became acquainted with PPP when I was hired to coordinate the second One Wave Festival six years ago. Since that time, the Festival has seen an incredible array of arts mediums, from slam poetry and storytelling to South and North Pacific dance and drumming, reggae shows, hip hop jams, art exhibitions, participatory art projects, theatre, chalk art, live painting, and traditional carving. It’s been a place for emerging artisans to sell their natural and locally-made products.

We’ve showcased an eclectic mix of artists—traditional and contemporary, professional and emerging, North and South—sharing thought-provoking performances. We’ve opened up space for dialogue about colonial histories, cultural appropriation, social justice, climate change, and our shared oceans. We’ve developed a diverse network of followers and our youth-driven committee has learned much from our mentors, our Executive Director April Ingham foremost among them.

One Wave aims to build Pacific identity and community, nurture changemakers, and engage youth. We utilize the power of the arts to inspire action on shared concerns and issues that affect the peoples of the Pacific because we recognize our communities are interdependent. We do this by creating a celebratory and inclusive atmosphere and modeling a positive vision for change.

What makes this festival unique is that it’s about sharing cultures: honouring diverse voices while creating unity in celebration of what we all share. As visitors and settlers, we have a responsibility to care for the land, the water, and our communities with the leadership of our Indigenous friends and neighbours. PPP and our partners are part of a solidarity movement—one wave—connecting the North and South Pacific.

This was never more clear to me than this year at our 8th annual festival, our largest production yet as we combined it with our Pacific Networking Conference. A major theme was Indigenous cultural resurgence, with inspiring speakers, artists, and filmmakers. A boundary-pushing performance by Anneda Loup and Coast Salish artist Francis Dick showed how artistic collaborations between Indigenous people and settlers can be a powerful community-level approach to reconciliation.

One highlight that really captivated the audience was 14 year old Ta’Kaiya Blaney of the Sliammon Nation and Kalilah Rampanen, of Cree heritage. The girls sung and spoke passionately about climate change and the importance of keeping cultures alive.

This year we were particularly honoured to have the blessing of Elder Joan Morris of the Songhees Nation, in addition to our friends Augie Thomas and the Esquimalt Singers and Dancers who regularly open our main stage as the event is held with gratitude on their territories.

Interactive installations, an arts station, and roaming human-sized puppets invited community members of all ages to be participants rather than simply observers. Centennial Square has become an important venue for One Wave because it’s very open and accessible—it’s a way for PPP to raise our profile with members of the public who wouldn’t have necessarily known about us. Over the years, we’ve engaged thousands of people and also raised our profile in the non-profit community by providing an important platform for social, environmental, and Indigenous organizations and local artisans to connect with the public too. This encourages a needed spirit of cooperation among our interconnected areas of work at a time when limited funding can drive competition.

Through it all, we’ve been committed to a goal of Zero Waste, showing that festivals don’t have to leave a negative environmental footprint. In fact, they are perfect places to model ecological citizenship (while having a blast!)

This festival would not continue to happen without immense contributions from our volunteers, staff, contributing artists, funders, partners, and supporters who keep showing up year after year. I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved, and I’m excited for what we will create together in 2016 and beyond.

volunteer team at VEC

 

 

An interview with me.

Though most of my posts have been about my travels, I’m expanding this to a few stories closer to home. Why? Well, this summer I’ve been working hard with my team at Pacific Peoples’ Partnership on some incredible programming: our Pacific Networking Conference and 8th One Wave Festival. So the next few posts are going to be about some of the work I’m doing locally.

This article was written by Kirk Schwartz, a fellow board member. Kirk is also part of MediaNet, a local media arts collective, and is helping me create a mini-video series about my research on permaculture in higher education. The article was published in PPP’s 40th anniversary edition of Tok Blong Pasifik, our journal of news and views on the Pacific.

kat at one wave

“What I really appreciate about Pacific Peoples’ Partnership is that it brings together so many aspects, it really aligns with a lot of different values that I have. … the reason I stayed involved is because it kind of became my family. I’ve built so many strong relationships with people in this organization that I feel I am really part of it.”

Originally from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Kat Zimmer and grew up in southeast British Columbia, then moved to Victoria to study Political Science and Environmental Studies. She is currently completing her masters degree in Environmental Studies, looking at permaculture in higher education.

Zimmer says that there is currently a lot of “eco-despair” and for her, permaculture has been a powerful antidote. She would like to share the feeling of empowerment that permaculture has given her with others in the field and with those working positively for the environment. As well as finishing her thesis, Zimmer is also creating a series of short films about permaculture and the teaching of permaculture methods.

Zimmer first came to the Pacific Peoples’ Partnership when she answered an ad for a job as Cultural Events Co-ordinator. She describes it as “her first ‘real’ job.” Her responsibility was to organize the second-ever One Wave Festival. She enjoyed the work and the festival to such a degree that she became a board member of PPP. In 2015 she managed the eighth One Wave Festival, truly a success story for Zimmer and the festival.

Zimmer has become one of PPP’s hardest working board members. She is the main driver behind the current One Wave Festival, is involved with fundraising, with the newsletter and has her finger on the pulse of the organization.

Zimmer says she appreciates the way PPP reflects its name: the organization is always in partnership with others. Relationships are built over a long period of time and PPP really asks the community “How can we help?” and asks the people in the community to take the lead and work on what is important to them.

“I particularly appreciated how PPP works to build relationships with Indigenous communities across the Pacific,” she says. “The organization’s values are important to me…Indigenous rights, cultural sovereignty, gender equality, health and environmental sustainability are just some of those values.”

I would like to do something around community engagement because it’s enriched my life so much to be involved with such initiatives and has brought a lot of joy to my life,” she continues. “I would like to be in a position where I can help to facilitate those kinds of experiences for other people. I don’t know if there is a job out there with that particular description. Maybe I’ll have to create that!”

Zimmer says that she used to think she wanted to work in the non profit sector but she is no longer sure of that. “It surprises me actually that I have become more interested in enterprise and small business as a way to meet some of the challenges that we need to address and that it provides a little more independence and creativity to pursue things that are part of my passion.”

She is inspired by the networks that small food producers have been creating to provide healthy food to people who need it the most. She would like to work on a sustainable business plan that would link small food producers affordably to a variety of people in the community. Zimmer believes that we need to have global and national issues in mind but that we need to focus on the local. “I think that the community level is really where so many important things happen, the things that affect us most on a day-to-day basis. It is the grass roots level where relationships are built that really excites people, including me!”

Photo credit: Kirk Schwartz 

 

 

Protecting the old, for the young

It’s not often enough that we hear about happy endings when it comes to old-growth forest campaigning. That’s why I just have to share my excitement that the Forest Trust for the Children of Cortes Island has been formed to purchase Island Timberland forest land holdings on Cortes Island and protect it in perpetuity for the children of Cortes. Here’s a great video about the project and an article my partner and I wrote to raise awareness about the campaign back in 2012. Keep up to date on Cortes forest campaigning with WildStands on Facebook.

 

Cortes Island: a West Coast Wildland Under Threat

By Marc deMontigny and Kat Zimmer

Published in The Martlet, March 2012

We recently had the great fortune of touring Cortes Island’s breathtaking stands of old growth forest. The island is truly one of the most remarkable wild places on the West Coast. Part of the last 1% of original Coastal Douglas Fir zone in the endangered “Dry Maritime” forests along BC’s southern coast, its majestic stands are in danger of being clear-cut on an industrial scale.

Island Timberlands (IT) recently announced they would begin logging their privately owned parcels, which consist of 2700 acres bisecting the island. According to WildStands, an alliance of concerned residents, these lands hold the deepest soils, the biggest trees, and the island’s central water recharge area. They are also home to 10 species listed as threatened, endangered, or of special concern, including the great blue heron and the northern pygmy owl. The same number of ecological communities are also in jeopardy.

Due to parasitic mistletoe on many of the old trees, they are no longer “ripe for the picking” in IT’s eyes, and will not make for good timber. However, they would likely be cut down regardless for ease of working conditions. This would threaten the habitat of several species of birds and other animals. The tape marking the cut line was well within wetlands in several spots, posing a severe risk to these sensitive ecosystems.

Our guides included three individuals who had been involved in the forestry industry for many years. One told us about a single parcel of land in the Maritimes that has been logged selectively and sustainably by his family for several generations.

The perspective of our guides was highly balanced: they explained that many in the community are not against logging in the area. They just want to ensure the integrity of the ecosystem and the watershed is not threatened when trees are harvested from an area. A balance must be maintained so that trees can continue to be harvested sustainably long into the future. Old growth stands provide habitat for threatened species, support for new generations of trees, and carbon capture.

The plans have been stalled by the community of 1,000 year-round residents, who have been battling industrial scale logging on the island for two decades. In the face of an outpouring of resistance, IT has postponed the logging until at least September. Though the company has agreed to further discussions with the community, there is no guarantee that it will adapt its plans. There is a chance, however, that IT might consider selling the land in the future.

If it does, the community plans to be ready. A Forest Trust has been formed to purchase IT holdings, which would provide the opportunity for youth to practice stewardship of forest lands and watersheds. A grassroots organization comprised of a large portion of island residents is seeking community tenure, ideally in collaboration with the Klahoose First Nation, over the forest reserve lands for the creation of an Ecosystem-Based Community Forest. This would provide long-term stability, rather than an explosion of jobs followed by high unemployment and environmental degradation long after IT is gone.

Their success in slowing the process is due in part to a support network that extends far beyond the island to people who have been touched by the beauty of Cortes. In January, a petition with over 6,200 signatures was hand delivered to the offices of IT and its parent company, Brookfield Asset Management, in seven cities around the world. If the name Brookfield sounds familiar, it’s because this is the same company that owns Zucotti Park in New York, from which Occupy Wall Street was evicted. Occupy London delivered the petition to Brookfield’s UK office, an interesting example of how the Occupy movement continues to have an impact on movements for change.

Under Brookfield, a number of BC mills have been closed, and the rates of timber harvest and export of raw logs to China have sharply increased. Brookfield Infrastructure Partners, which holds IT, avoids certain Canadian taxes and civil liabilities by keeping its headquarters in the Bahamas. Brookfield’s directors are also involved in run-of-river energy projects in BC, tar sands development, and the building of a massive private prison in Surrey for the BC government.

BC’s Auditor General John Doyle recently released a report showing that the government is badly mismanaging our forests, lacking reliable information on the state of BC forests and failing to replant trees at an adequate rate. The truth is that even if the Cortes campaign is successful, issues like this will continue to appear. We need stronger private managed forest land regulations in BC, and structural change that puts future generations and our critically important ecosystems first.

How can you support the Cortes Island community?

·      Sign the WildStands petition, send a letter, and pledge your support to the Cortes Forest Trust Project at wildstands.org

·      Sign the Ancient Forest Alliance’s petition to protect old-growth forests and ban raw log exports at: http://www.AncientForestPetition.com

Village culture in Portland and beyond

Portland

I just love that my research is the kind that necessitates a road trip to Portland. I’d take any excuse to visit, really. But although Portland carries a particular allure in the Pacific Northwest psyche, there are few tangible tourist attractions. The most interesting stuff going on in Portland is the kind of stuff you need to know someone in order to find out about. So that’s what I did.

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Foster Village (straw bale house on the left)

With the Couchsurfing network, tapping into that community seemed almost effortless. The moment I arrived, my host, Christy, took me to a fundraiser at Foster Village, an 11-person urban intentional community in the Foster neighbourhood of Southeast Portland. There are two century-old houses, one natural strawbale house, and two tiny homes on two adjacent lots. The lots have been combined into one big shared garden, and the side doors of the original houses have been reworked as the front doors facing the garden. This public place has been transformed from pavement into a diverse, multistory forest garden with fruit trees, berries, medicinal herbs, other perennials, and veggies. There’s a happy flock of egg-laying ducks and a huge covered bike zone. The houses are common space, so all residents have access to the craft room, the workshop, the deep freeze, the soaker tub, and all the other perks of a big home, while keeping their individual footprints very small. The main bathrooms have even been remodeled with composting toilets.

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Auctioning baby chicks at Foster Village

The fundraiser was to support the community’s long-term aspirations for common ownership of all three homes. It was a “top dollar” auction: everyone could only bid a dollar at a time. Stacks of dollar bills would pile up as people competed to win each item by being the last person to throw a dollar on the table. It’s an ingenious idea for a fundraiser when you have a few key ingredients: loud and costumed auctioneers, a human bank machine with an endless supply of dollar bills, a close and supportive community beyond the official residents, and really fantastic auction items. Here’s where the fruits of Portland are sweetest: everyone is a maker. The auction was a showcase of homebaked pie, fruit liqueurs and specialty preserves from the Foster Village garden, mead and raw honey, and homemade gift certificates for massages, house cleaning, landscaping, garden design, and hand-knit mittens, all offered by friends of the village. Someone even brought two baby chicks to auction off! But hands-down, the hottest competition was for the Lite Brite. It was definitely a successful fundraiser: I had loads of fun drinking $1 drinks and meeting the community, and even though I didn’t walk away with any wins, I sure dropped a lot of dollar bills.

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Classic Lite Brite, the top auction item of the night

That sense of inclusive, engaged community was present at Christy’s house too. Her many roommates included Trip, a filmmaker and producer of SPOIL – a eco-documentary about the Great Bear Rainforest. Trip is working on starting a new cooperative homestead in the countryside outside of Portland. And there was Iain, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, who is facilitating weekly gatherings to share personal defense skills. Christy runs a forest preschool where the children are outside nearly all the time. Except on very rare snow days, one of which I happened to experience. It was like a snow day in Victoria – there isn’t really any snow on the ground, but the entire city shuts down.

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The ducks of Foster Village

The Willamette Valley

Needless to say, it’s a funny time of year to be visiting permaculture sites. But the season hasn’t fazed me. My first stop was in Forest Grove, where Fine Arts Professor Terry O’Day gave me a tour Pacific University’s B-Street Project. I first read about the project a few years ago, so it was neat to finally see it in person. Terry teaches permaculture at the university with focus on arts and design, and B-Street was developed as a 3-acre permaculture demonstration site. Students in a variety of programs use the site for experiential and community-based learning. Over time, the site has transitioned towards organic food production, supplying the campus dining hall. It also serves as an education and experimentation site for a local migrant women’s group aiming to generate sustainable livelihoods through food production. A local charter school started by Terry brings the children there regularly, where they learn how to weave living shelters with willow shoots.

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The Willamette Valley is one of the nation’s leading regions for local and organic agriculture. I’ve been told that it’s where the modern organic food movement really began to take hold. So it’s no wonder there are a number of Oregon universities integrating permaculture into education. Heading south to Corvallis, I visited Andrew Millison, a permaculture designer and teacher at Oregon State University. Andrew took me for a walk around his neighbourhood. Virtually every yard had been transformed into a big garden. He’s been working on a design with a new cohousing development down the block, and they are now in the early stages of implementation. The pathways between the front doors are lined with bamboo and edible perennials. Across the nearby floodplain grows a line of willows, which will eventually be woven together into a living bridge for traversing during the wet months.

Down the street, we landed at a front yard berry maze Andrew had helped to construct. The maze was at street level, with deep ditches for water recharge surrounding the pathways. Andrew invited me to try finding my way to the bamboo island in the middle. Even in November, it was really hard! I suspect it would take much longer if one were getting distracted by eating fresh berries along the way. These fanciful yet functional designs are a good reminder that getting prepared for a low-energy future can be fun, joyful and creative.

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My last permaculture stop was Wilson Creek Gardens, the home of Jude Hobbs. Jude’s name is known by many in my neck of the woods; she regularly offers permaculture teacher trainings at O.U.R. Ecovillage. The brains behind Cascadia Permaculture Institute and Agro-Ecology Northwest, she works with farmers to ensure their operations near creeks don’t harm salmon habitat and to design “multi-functional hedgerows.” These are cropland borders that can provide a huge variety of yields: wildlife habitat, nectar for pollinators, biodiversity, food for humans and farm animals, timber and firewood, erosion control, wind protection, and much more. Jude walks the talk at her home with a large edible landscape, including an orchard lined with berry canes and many vertical layers of perennials thriving amidst the forest canopy. It’s no wonder that creek restoration is an issue close to Jude’s heart: the day I visited, the creek beside her house was literally bursting from the November rains and had taken down some of the streambed with it.

Foster Village and Beyond

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Robin and I

My next couchsurf host, Robin, lives in a 9-person cooperative house with chickens in the garden and a slew of interesting roommates. The “Jungle People” have various skills and aspirations including Traditional Chinese medicine, naturopathy, medicinal herb CSAs, urban farming and homesteading education for children. Robin is working at a farm-to-table restaurant, hoping to transition toward food growing and creating an intentional community. I happened to land there on Robin’s birthday, so I invited him along to visit some new friends I had met at Foster Village.

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Bamboo grove in Robin’s garden

After stopping for shiatsu massage treatments from Alpha, an intuitive bodyworker, we headed to Foster Village where I’d been invited to return for dinner. After a delightful vegetarian meal from the Foster garden, I pulled out a locally baked marionberry pie to celebrate Robin’s birthday. Robin and the “Foster Villains” hit it off instantly, of course, and they already have plans to connect their two communities.

I had been invited back by a new friend named Jas, a fascinating individual who gave me the full tour of Foster Village. We went for a soak at Common Ground, a wellness cooperative with a mineral bath and sauna in one of the buildings he owns. We also spent a hilarious night at HUMP! Tour, a sex-positive film festival hosted by one of my favourite podcasters, relationship/love/sex advice columnist Dan Savage. Jas was a perfect companion for this: he’s the founder of Love Tribe, a network that celebrates and includes people of all orientations and is “committed to creating heart-conscious, touch-positive culture by fostering communal opportunities to share authentic connection, affection and play.”

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Having tea with Jas

With several new friendships and community connections sparked, Christy, Robin, Jas, me, and some other village friends joined forces to hear a talk at Portland State University by Jon Young. The founder of Art of Mentoring and the most recognized expert in Bird Language, Jon gave an inspiring talk about cultivating our ability to understand the language of birds. A master storyteller, he painted a picture of an emerging mass movement in North America founded on the recognition of the power of deep nature connection – one with the power to turn the tide on a disturbing downward trend in conservation engagement.

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Taking a tour of Foster Village with Jas

Jon was joined by Mark Lakeman, who is well-known in Victoria as the initiator behind City Repair. City Repair is an organized group action that began in Portland and has spread to communities across North America. Based on the premise that localization is a necessary foundation of sustainability, its focus is placemaking and empowerment through reclaiming urban space and connecting neighbourhoods. City Repair hosts the Village Building Convergence (VBC), where community members take part in natural building workshops and ecologically-oriented artistic projects to transform urban spaces and intersections into community-oriented, welcoming places. One of Jas’s properties, a holistic health centre, has been a major VBC site. In fact, a few of the Foster Villains have been intimately involved with the event. I’ve wanted to attend the VBC for a few years, and now I’ve been invited back to stay and join in the fun with the Foster Villains. Now that I have a community in Portland, I’m already planning my return trip!

Kat photo by Corey Hodge

Photo Credit: Corey Hodge

And that’s where I’m going to leave this series. Thanks for sticking with me through to the end! I hope you enjoyed following along as much as I enjoyed my travels… These past five weeks have been exploding with inspiration and have stoked up my energy and passion, and I hope some of this got passed along. I promise there will be more in 2015 (especially if I’m going to the Village Building Convergence!) and I’ll be posting up my video about permaculture in higher education when it’s ready.

Till next time ~

Permaculture in the Pioneer Valley

Greenfield

My final few days in the Northeast were a permaculture grand finale. I was in the Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts. Agriculture and post-secondary education are the two main industries there, so it’s no surprise that this region is a hub for permaculture in higher education.

I2014-10-29 12.09.06 began at Greenfield Community College. Abrah Dresdale teaches a two-year degree in Farm and Food Systems that she helped to develop at GCC. The permaculture design course is an elective for this program. Abrah leads a weekly permaculture club, where students help to tend the permaculture demonstration garden. They grow vegetables for the campus dining hall and the food bank. Their next stage will be to restore a large lawn adjacent to the garden with native plants. Colleges seem to have much more freedom to experiment with things like permaculture, probably because they are smaller and don’t have the same research pressures as universities.

Joining the permaculture club under an unseasonably warm October sun, I struggled to tidy up the grass pathways with the push mower. I swapped for a job planting garlic in neat rows, and chatted with the students. A few explained that the Farm and Food Systems program was their second shot at higher education: they’d started in more traditional disciplines or had even acquired a conventional degree, but had since discovered their passion for growing food while regenerating landscapes. In one gal’s program, the college students and inmates from the local prison share courses together in sustainability. She appreciated the chance to learn and connect with people who brought very different life experiences to the table.2014-10-29 12.11.45

Stopping at the co-op market, the produce section was virtually completely local. There was even local ginger and turmeric root! I loaded up on fresh veggies and locally made seitan to make a stir fry for my next hosts. Seitan is a fermented soy product that Mónica told me about in Boston, and I wanted to try it. It turned out to have a very strange spongy, slimy texture and it didn’t really taste like food, but it was worth a shot. My hosts seemed grateful for the meal regardless.

2014-10-30 13.40.55My hosts, Isabel, Jenna, and Fiona, were all in their early twenties.  Isabel has spent time on a few farms and is thinking about taking the Farm and Food Systems program. Jenna’s interest is holistic health and Fiona is a conventional horticulture student at UMass. Fiona asked me what permaculture was and I got really excited, geeking out on what I know and sharing some resources so they could learn more. They listened with interest about where I’d been and what I’d seen on my trip. Being at the end of it, I felt like I was coming full circle. After learning from so many teachers and communities who’ve been at this for a long time, I was able to share my modest knowledge and my passion with some folks who are just starting out. They invited me for lunch at UMass, and we ate at a student-run, nonprofit café that prepares meals with seasonal ingredients from local farms. Afterward, we took a journey up to the 26th floor of the looming library tower, where we looked down over UMass and the community beyond.

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UMass Amherst, looking west

UMass Amherst

I had finally made it to the “it” university of permaculture: the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a huge sprawling land grant institution. The students have put it on the national map with their precedent-setting work. Several years ago, they convinced the administration to allow them to transform a quarter-acre lawn beside one of the dining halls into a garden. 2014-10-30 13.35.19Sheet mulching over the grass, they installed vegetable beds, an orchard, pollinator habitat, a cornucopia of medicinal herbs, and many perennial edibles like Malabar spinach, Chinese yam, and Sylvetta arugula. The garden is a place for learning and connection with nature right smack in the middle of campus, where food is grown for the dining hall and the university restaurant.

The initiative now includes five different gardens, including one at the Chancellor’s house. The fact that the Chancellor of the largest public university in New England invited these undergrads to transform his yard, which is frequented by top administration and international bigwigs, is pretty huge! The students have won numerous awards, including President Obama’s national Campus Champions of Change Award. In 2012, they started an annual student sustainability conference called Permaculture Your Campus – and students across North America converged to talk about how to use permaculture ideas and practice to transform the education and landscapes of their own institutions.

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Photo credit: UMass Permaculture Initiative

UMass students can receive credit for taking care of the gardens, including harvesting and delivering food, as part of the UMass Permaculture Committee. I got a detailed tour of the garden from Lilly Israel and Nathan Aldrich, former students who are now employed managing the gardens. The dining halls are run by Auxiliary Services with a revenue stream separate from the university’s academic budget. They’ve chosen to put this money toward the UMass Permaculture Initiative, hiring students like Lilly and Nathan. Lilly leads the permaculture committee, showing students how to maintain the garden and teaching them about the uses of different plants. I wandered around with my camera, filming the students and asking them about their degrees and their interest in permaculture. They were mostly weeding the woodchip paths, which is a bit ironic: permaculture gardens tend to be more wild and embracing of weeds, as they have many uses too. But like at GCC, the students are required to keep the garden looking tidy and presentable. Good permaculture design must, above all, reflect the unique needs of the site and the community.  

franklin garden 2

Photo credit: UMass Permaculture Initiative

I was invited to sit in on an Introduction to Permaculture course by Lisa DePiano. It just happened to be a guest lecture from Jonathan Bates, co-owner with Eric Toensmeier of the famous backyard called Paradise Lot. The story of their transformation of this 1/10th acre lot into a highly productive, diverse, and interconnected system of plants and animals is told in their book, also called Paradise Lot. I’d been really hoping to visit this permaculture site. I was probably scribbling notes faster than anyone in the room as Jonathan talked about bioshelters, micro-livestock, and aquaponics, with examples from Paradise Lot. Like a starstruck fan, I approached him timidly after the talk to ask about stopping by. He graciously agreed.

Paradise Lot

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Inside the bioshelter

I drove down to Holyoke. In this little town directly south of Amherst, I first visited Lisa’s home, ogling their tiny house in the backyard with natural plaster finishes. They’ve ripped up the cement walkway to create a permeable pathway for water to recharge into the ground, upcycling the slabs into a retaining wall for a berry bed around the perimeter. There’s lead in the soil from the bygone days of lead paint, so tall raised beds are the food growing medium of choice. 

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American persimmon tree

At Jonathan’s, I tasted an American persimmon, a crabapple-sized sweet and fleshy orange fruit that is native to North America and so much tastier than the Asian persimmons in the grocery store. It’s a popular species for food forest design along with the pawpaw, the native tree with the largest fruit in this temperate climate. Pawpaws have yellow flesh and large pits, their flavour is like a delicious combination between mango and banana and they boast lots of healthy fats like avocados. Paradise Lot is truly a lush paradise – with a bamboo grove and a multistory community of berries, vines, and fruit trees, it feels like an abundant tropical forest, even at the end of October. I spotted a tiny purple flower and Jonathan identified it as saffron – as in the most expensive spice in the world. We also geeked out on the ground potato: it’s a native starch crop with a vine that was a staple food of the Indigenous peoples of the region. It’s also a perennial that makes nitrogen available to other plants. There are over 40 species of fruit and 70 species of perennials in a complex web of relationships at Paradise Lot.

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Jonathan’s aquaponics system

Jonathan’s bioshelter was definitely the coolest part. Using recycled billboard vinyl and nearly all recycled materials, Jonathan had built a south-facing greenhouse filled with tropical plants like turmeric, ginger, and even an avocado tree! Catfish darted around inside huge recycled water containers, working in a closed loop system of mutual nourishment with the plants. To my surprise, Jonathan lifted up the floor under our feet to reveal an ingeniously designed worm bin, where they throw food scraps for their “micro-livestock” to turn into high quality compost. Their other composting system simply involves spreading spent plant stalks and other fibrous garden material in the chicken coop, and feeding them kitchen scraps. The chickens naturally scratch, mixing the material with their manure. Every once in a while, the guys will shovel out the coop with ready made compost. I’m definitely going to try this at home with our ducks!

Coming Full Circle

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Worm composting in the bioshelter

It was almost time to return to Boston for my flight home. But I had one last stop to make. I was to meet an individual whose work was a direct inspiration for my own research. I first encountered Ryan Harb in a video produced about the UMass Permaculture Initiative. There was a whole ecology of students, volunteers and administrators who helped to make the permaculture stuff possible at UMass. But Ryan was a key driver and spokesperson. His bright eyes and excited energy as he talked of the transformation of a bare lawn into a productive and diverse garden immediately drew my interest. Watching what was happening at UMass and the fact that they were being recognized as the premier student sustainability initiative in the US was, in part, what made me realize that permaculture seems to be at a tipping point. My research has only reinforced this feeling and my fascination with what I see as permaculture growing into a new successional stage of widespread acceptance.

There are interesting parallels between Ryan’s story and mine. He was a grad student at UMass who took a permaculture design course for university credit at Sirius Ecovillage and became hooked. He decided to tailor his master’s research around the design and transformation of his cooperatively-owned suburban home into a lush landscape yielding food, fibre, medicine, habitat, and community connection. Building on his huge success at UMass, Ryan now works as a sustainability consultant. He poured me a blend of herbal tea that he had grown and prepared, and gave me a tour of his garden. His house was covered in solar panels; his garden rife with berry patches, fuzzy chamomile groundcover, and monstrous kale mountains.

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Ryan in his garden

Spreading in all directions was the Sylvetta arugula I’d become acquainted with at UMass. I can’t eat enough arugula. I simply had to find this perennial variety back home and plant it in my garden, and I said as much to Ryan. Then Ryan offered me a gift that was more meaningful than anything I could have purchased at a nursery: a one-gallon pot containing a beautiful leafy arugula plant. He assured me this hardy specimen would make it back on the plane alive. I’ve since planted it between an apple tree and a patch of strawberries, and I can’t wait to harvest some of the tender, spicy leaves next season. Just as Ryan had helped to plant the seed in my mind about researching the growing trend of permaculture in higher education, he was helping to plant a new seed of abundance in my garden.

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Ryan’s cooperative house

With my arugula safely tucked into my carry-on, I watched the sunrise pierce through a landscape of clouds as my plane lifted off over Boston. Thinking back over my trip, if anything stood out to me most about this enriching adventure in community, it was the sense of that abundance that rose to the top. Too often amid the gloomy headlines, the storyline of fear and scarcity dominates, instilling paralysis and eco-despair. What has drawn me to permaculture from the beginning is its recognition of the incredible abundance all around us and our ability to make a big impact by cultivating that abundance. This abundance is cultivated every day by people like Ryan and all those who opened their homes and hearts to me on this trip, sharing their gifts, talents, insights, food, and cozy beds. I have one last post to write about my time in Oregon, and I can tell you already that the story there is the same: people using the practical tools of permaculture to shift radically into a community-centred vision of sustainability.

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Sunrise on the flight home

Community living at its finest

New Hampshire

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In the tiny, unassuming town of New London, NH, Colby-Sawyer College is on the leading edge when it comes to permaculture on campus. A few students gave me a tour of the installation and design work that’s happened there in just a few short years. There are multiple permaculture gardens where the PDC students’ design projects have been turned into reality. Every time students go for a meal at the dining hall, they pass by these gardens, contributing on a huge scale to the visibility of permaculture in the mainstream. I marveled at the SunShack, a new strawbale natural building designed to maximize passive solar gain. Cob benches encircle the post and beam interior of this functioning classroom. The building was collaboratively designed with the input of students, permaculture teachers and professors.

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The Davis Farm at Cold Pond

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The Davis Farm

Leaving the college and winding over bumpy hairpin turns through sheets of rain in the dark rural countryside, I was relieved to make it to my next home in rural Acworth. Liv is a young artist and environmental educator with an interest in permaculture and farming. She’s living at the farm of Barb, who welcomed me warmly into her longtime home, which, as it turns out, is intended for just such things. I took a day to relax in her beautiful log home with stone floor and a wood-burning antique cooking stove. Barb is a potter, and I spent the afternoon warming myself by the fire, entranced by the perfect shapes that seemed to appear out of nothingness in her steady, barely moving hands. I listened to stories of how she bought the land three decades ago and began farming organically when it was considered a weird hippie thing. They formed an intentional community and land trust, growing the protected area to over 200 acres.

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Greeting the turkeys

I wandered the farm during a brief pause in the rain, passing rows of blueberries and saying hello to the turkeys. A young newlywed couple is helping to tend the land in exchange for affordable rent while they look for places to start a homestead. She showed us how to milk their goats, an adorable pint-sized variety. I began to realize how much of a lesson in patience this is. She was completely unfazed when the ewes kicked up into her face. She explained that she’d never dreamed she’d be a homesteader, but once she met her now-husband, a farmer, she got the goats as a way to learn about managing a farm. Excitedly showing us pictures of the kids when they were babies, she was clearly hooked.

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Tiny goats!

My last stop before heading to back to Massachusetts was the Orchard School. Liv leads an after-school kids’ program there with a fellow named Marty. Orchard Hill is an intentional community with a non-profit and also several independent businesses. There’s the kindergarten and daycare, an organic orchard producing apples for hard cider, a famous bakery where I tried a delectable slice of focaccia, and Village Roots, Marty’s farm business selling veggies, grains, and pasture raised meat. This structure seems to be working really well – Marty thinks it’s because each business is its own separate entity with autonomy and responsibility for generating revenue. Very little is actually shared communally, except for the laying hens. But they do many trades and sponsorships. For example, when a PDC is offered through the permaculture business, the school and the orchard sponsor it with meeting and accommodation space, while the bakery and Marty’s farm provide the food. Talk about a productive business ecology!

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Marty’s homestead at Orchard Hill

Their homestead is a light clay fill natural home with a beautiful clay paint exterior. It’s surrounded by a young forest garden and a series of paddocks where various animals are rotationally grazed in sequence. Like the pigs at D Acres, each of the animals performs a different function, helping to build and replenish the soil before planting crops like rye. Integrating animals is a smart thing to do, because it means a lot less work for the farmer!

Royalston, MA

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Kyra and Will’s country driveway

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Walking home from the Magical Wintergreen Forest with Safi

I am eternally grateful to my new friend Will for connecting me with Liv, Marty, and my next hosts. Kyra is a powerhouse of inspiration, and so is her partner Will. Kyra has a background in information technology systems with no less than twelve tech startups. She’s been working on a new application that would allow restaurant chefs and farmers to connect and create synergies together in unprecedented ways. The idea is to build a security net for farmers to experiment with new crops – enhancing biological diversity, community economic development, and local flavours – without the risk of financial ruin if the crop fails. She’s also working on a radical model for a cooperative in which members can contribute and receive a variety of goods and services, like cropland, food, or landscape design services, without paying into what they refer to as the “old economy.”

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Kyra and Will’s 1790 schoolhouse home

Will, who is involved in the Slow Money movement is working on a “new economy” gifting model. Under this structure, an asset – like a piece of farmland – could be gifted to another person who can utilize its productive capacity to generate a livelihood for as long as they need it. When they’re done with it, the person would gift it on to someone else. I should mention here that economics not my strong suit and my explanation is probably butchering the particularities of their visions. But the general idea is there, and it’s inspiring as hell.

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Will moving the sheep

We went for a late afternoon wander with Kyra’s delightful seven year old daughter Safia. In the so-called “Magical Wintergreen Forest,” we ate minty wintergreen berries and explored the ruins of old stone homesteads. The properties are lined with crumbling stone walls from the days of sheep farming centuries ago. Their home is actually an old one-room schoolhouse built in 1790, somehow still functioning as a warm and welcoming place to live. There’s a sense in these tiny towns that time just decided it was in everyone’s best interest if it just stood still. Everyone I have met outside the cities heats their home with a woodstove.

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Lightning the Llama

The diet here is post-vegan and local to the core. The local general store is owned, interestingly, by a land trust. It’s a hub where community folk linger over tea, offering access to many of the region’s foods and other locally made products in one place. Nearby farms supplied all the ingredients for our nourishing meals – pork belly with roasted turnips, spiced pumpkin soup, raw yogurt and artisan bread – even the corn tortillas we ate with our eggs and greens at breakfast were made nearby with local cornflour. We garnished these with herbs from Kyra and Will’s garden, where the grapes were still sweetening with the cold. Will brought home a few local microbrews and we alternated these with chaga milk – raw milk with extract of medicinal chaga mushroom foraged from the forest near their home.  It actually kind of tastes like chocolate milk! In return for their generosity, I brought home some fresh picked orchard apples, local honey, apple butter, and raw cheese. Western Mass is truly a foodie’s paradise!

The icing on that cake was visiting Will’s family friends – his former elementary school principal, to be exact. Rise is now Safia’s principal at the Village School, a cooperative school with a focus on connecting children to nature. Rise cooked up her famous fluffy buttermilk pancakes, topped with to-die-for maple syrup from their own sugar house! She described how they tap the maples every year, boiling 95% of it off over the woodfire the same day it’s collected. Each tree will provide about a quart of finished syrup – and to be called “syrup,” it has to meet a very exact percentage of sugar content.

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Taking Lightning for a walk

Rise’s ulterior motive in feeding us pancakes was to get our (mostly Will’s) assistance moving their sheep. Safia and I looked on, wide-eyed, while they cleared the wool out of the sheeps’ eyes with the shears, and attached a tag to the ear of a little one. The sheep were separated into those that would be bred, and those that would be, well, converted into local happy meat. The wool is given to a local spinning cooperative that washes, cards and spins it.  My favourite part was Lightning the Llama. He’s an excellent protector of the flock, and they all seem to enjoy each other’s company.

Sirius Ecovillage

One of the most important aspects of this trip for me has been speaking with people who are trying out different ways of living close to the land, and making a livelihood in cooperation with others outside the conventional system. So I had to visit Sirius Ecovillage, a short country drive from Kyra’s in Shutesbury, MA. Sirius has beaten the odds, having been in existence for 36 years. There’s a beautiful cob house, a large food forest with berries and fruit trees galore, and some very established permaculture gardens buzzing with pollinators and lined with comfrey and sunchokes.

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I wandered into the garden where harvesting and firewood chopping was in full swing. I was immediately welcomed by Devin, who invited me to join in for their weekly planetary healing meditation. In a circle, we offered up the names of individual people and groups for whom we wished the group to send healing energy towards. Meditation is core to the Sirius community, and I got the sense that this grounding in a shared spiritual practice is a key means of keeping the community strong.

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Lunch was a feast of potato and corn chowder, an artful display of salad greens, and buttered Brussels sprouts, all from the garden. Before eating, we held a gratitude circle reminiscent of many I have shared at O.U.R. Ecovillage. Several of the villagers joined me for lunch, patiently humouring my questions about how the community functions. They each take turns cooking and paying for meals, and can opt in for an affordable monthly share of the garden’s bounty.

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Like O.U.R. Ecovillage, there are many ways that people are involved, including apprenticeships, internships, residential programs, and PDCs. The villagers were very curious to hear about my experiences at O.U.R. Ecovillage as well as my permaculture research and travels. After lunch, I was invited to join a group discussing education and how to engage more youth and children at Sirius.

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In just a few short hours, I’d made genuine connections with new friends and felt a part of the community. Such is life in places like this – it’s why intentional communities draw my interest so deeply. Learning to live and work with one another is, I think, the hardest part of trying to create a more sustainable existence. But as Sirius shows, the payoffs are well worth the effort: a deepened sense of place, genuine relationships, and a stronger connection with the living systems that we all depend on.

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Silent retreat house in the Sirius forest

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