Archive for the ‘ecology & restoration’ 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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Letter of Comment on Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion

Flickr: Mark Koltz

Flickr: Mark Koltz

17 August 2015

Attention: Sheri Young, Secretary of the Board

Re: Application for the Trans Mountain Expansion Project (OH-001-2014) Letter of Comment

Dear Ms. Young,

I have lived in BC for 20 years. I chose to move to Victoria BC 8 years ago because of its beauty and the quality of life here, and I am an active user of Vancouver Island beaches and coastal areas.

I’m very concerned about the increase in shipping traffic and risk of an oil spill that would be caused by this pipeline expansion; in particular, impacts to water quality, fish populations, marine mammals, migratory birds, and the sensitive Coastal Bluff ecosystems of Victoria. Trans Mountain has acknowledged in its application that the increase in tanker traffic would have significant sensory disturbance effects on resident killer whales—an endangered species whose critical habitat includes the area that would be affected by a spill. In my region, there are 1,147km of marine shoreline directly along the proposed shipping route, and over 1,200 species that could be impacted.[1] A spill could have devastating effects on this region’s economy, and the movement of toxic compounds from bitumen through local foodwebs and ecosystems would put my community’s health at risk. It became very clear in April 2015, with the spill of bunker fuel from the MV Marathassa in English Bay, that the current capacity for response to even minor oil spills along BC’s coast is woefully inadequate.

We know Kinder Morgan believes there are positive effects of oil spills and would financially profit from a spill. Its subsidiary Trans Mountain Pipeline owns 50.9% of the Western Canadian Marine Response Corporation, the corporation that would respond to a spill in BC and benefit from related business and revenue.[2] In its application, Kinder Morgan stated:

Marine spills can have both positive and negative effects on local and regional economies over the short- and long-term. Spill response and clean-up creates business and employment opportunities for affected communities, regions, and clean-up service providers, particularly in those communities where spill response equipment is, or would be, staged (Section 5.6.1.1).[3]

Given the City of Burnaby’s opposition to Kinder Morgan’s survey work and test drilling on Burnaby Mountain, it appears the community itself disagrees with Kinder Morgan’s analysis of what would be good for them. Kinder Morgan has already demonstrated how it will respond to the concerns of affected communities. It has used the courts to overrule this opposition, filing a $5.6 million SLAPP suit against Burnaby citizens for speaking out against it.

We cannot expect this Texas-based multinational firm to care about the interests of communities. That’s why your job exists: to protect and serve the interests of Canadians.

Instead, the NEB has shown itself to be acting in the interest of Kinder Morgan and unable to assess the public interest. It appears that, for all intents and purposes, the decision has already been made. If it is the Board’s position that this is untrue, perhaps you might review your own actions and decisions in the process thus far, and consider whether, as reasonable independent citizens, you would come to the same conclusion as myself and others. Since I am convinced that regardless of whether I continue to restrict my comments to the “12 approved issues,” it will not make a difference to the final decision, I will use this opportunity to bear witness to these concerns on the public record.

There are many people who would be directly affected by this proposed pipeline expansion that were barred from having a chance to comment in the first place when their applications were rejected. Over 900 people and groups had their applications downgraded or rejected. Furthermore, the Board failed to provide adequate funding to facilitate the meaningful participation of parties that were approved.

The Board should not have the power to decide in advance who is directly affected “enough” to listen to. There are implications for the lives of all who live directly in the path of the proposed pipeline and tanker route, and all those who will be affected by its broader long term consequences for the climate and the health of our environment and economy. In a legitimate public process, all people who wish to comment on any impacts they are concerned about should have the right to be included. If they are not included, then the Board is unable to properly fulfill its self-stated function of serving the public and determining what projects are truly in the public interest.

The Board is also unable to provide a full and fair review because it has chosen to exclude the effects of the upstream and downstream activities of tar sands exploitation. The NEB does not consider that such effects, “including those of GHG emissions, are relevant.”[4] This is ironic since the NEB considers upstream and downstream economic benefits to be relevant. I don’t have to be a climate expert to know these social and environmental effects are highly relevant to the proposed project and to my community. The Board should be ashamed at its ludicrous error in judgment on this matter—or, perhaps more accurately, its intentional disregard for legitimate concerns of the public. The people, not the Board, should have the power to decide what issues matter to this decision.

Furthermore, the unexplained decision to allow Kinder Morgan to evade oral cross-examination serves Kinder Morgan’s interests. This is a critical part of oil pipeline hearings that is designed to increase the accountability of the Proponent in responding to important questions from the public. Canada’s Department of Justice has pointed out to the Board that “Canada’s position is that cross-examination is necessary to ensure a proper evidentiary record” and that evidence given without cross-examination should be rejected.

The Board stated that elimination of cross-examination could be addressed through written Information Requests from Intervenors. However, the Board is clearly not compelling Kinder Morgan to answer these important questions. When Kinder Morgan was unwilling to address approximately 2000 questions from Intervenors—including 80 questions from the Province of BC—the Board endorsed this decision, rejecting 95% of the questions. The Province stated that this failure to provide requested evidence “denies the Board, the Province and other Intervenors access to the information required to fully understand the risk posed by the Project, how Trans Mountain proposes to mitigate such risk and Trans Mountain’s ability to effectively respond to a spill related to the Project.”[5]

The Province also took issue with Kinder Morgan’s redactions to its emergency response plan, which were made without sufficient justification. The Board responded by endorsing Kinder Morgan’s decision to keep these details secret.[6] The Board has essentially said that it, and the public, do not need to know the full details of Trans Mountain’s emergency response plan in order for it to be approved.

This represents a new level of hubris and arrogant disregard by the NEB for the role of a democratically-elected government in representing its citizens. It puts citizens at risk, and undermines the Board’s basic credibility in the eyes of the public.

This lack of transparency and withholding of information also affects the ability of groups to provide free, prior and informed consent. Twelve First Nations whose unceded territories would be affected by the project have questioned the constitutionality of the approach, stating that the NEB and the Crown have failed in their duty to adequately consult First Nations. As a result, they argue that the NEB’s assessment “will fail to fully consider or assess potential adverse impacts on Aboriginal title, rights, including Treaty rights or interests and will not, therefore, provide the Crown with the information it requires.”[7]

In accordance with its own responsibility and inherent jurisdiction and laws, which exist independently of, and predate the assertion of sovereignty by Canada, the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation conducted a thorough review of the project. Because the project fails the first lens test of their Stewardship Policy, the Nation does not consent to the project, will not grant Kinder Morgan the legal authority to proceed in its territory, and will “take all lawful means necessary to ensure that Tsleil-Waututh’s decision in relation to the TMEX Proposal is recognized, respected, and enforced.”[8] An NEB decision in favour of the project would ignore the interests and authority of the First Peoples of this land.

With regard to the many other problems with this process, I refer to and concur with the comments of former BC Hydro CEO Marc Eliesen[9] and former president and CEO of ICBC Robyn Allan[10] in their letters of withdrawal as Intervenors. A few of the many instances they found in which the restricted scope of review was inappropriate included:

  • Not requesting assistance from Interveners to determine the issues to be included in the review, and denying their requests to expand the list of issues
  • Not holding Trans Mountain accountable for a known lack of source verification, references, or full disclosure in its studies
  • Restricting review to the applied-for pipeline capacity, not what it is designed to carry—thus allowing Kinder Morgan to receive future NEB approval to increase throughput by nearly 50% without the same level of review
  • Restricting assessment of marine shipping activities to 12 nautical miles offshore
  • Excluding from review the impact and risk of the existing 60-year old legacy line, terminals and storage tanks

Eliesen concluded that the Board is “engaged in a public deception” and that “this Board has a predetermined course of action to recommend approval of the Project and a strong bias in favour of the Proponent. In effect, this so-called public hearing process has become a farce, and this Board a truly industry captured regulator.”

In the past 3 weeks, the NEB’s actions have only served to reinforce public perceptions that it serves the interests of Kinder Morgan, not the public. On July 31st, 2015, Steven Kelly was appointed as a full-time NEB board member. In 2013, Mr. Kelly authored and submitted the 203-page Kinder Morgan report to the NEB providing an economic justification for the pipeline expansion.[11] The fact that Mr. Kelly will soon sit in a position of power in close proximity to those who will make the final ruling on this project is a major conflict of interest. Unfortunately it also seems to be par for the course for the NEB: the majority of NEB board members are now oil industry professionals.

The NEB has also shown disregard for the process by making multiple last minute changes to the deadline for commenters, and finally setting the deadline to be just 6 days after it released its Draft Conditions. This does not give commenters sufficient time to thoroughly review and provide feedback on the conditions, and certainly does not give Kinder Morgan enough time to meaningfully review and respond to the hundreds of Commenter letters—a mere 48 hours.

At least 35 Commenters and Intervenors have withdrawn from the process due to some of the same concerns I have mentioned.[12] It is clear that the NEB has already lost its credibility in the eyes of the public.

Under no circumstances should the Board approve Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, because it no longer has a social license to make a legitimate decision on this matter. It has failed in its key function of providing an independent, fair and thorough review. It has shown that it is completely inadequate to assess the health and safety risks of this proposed pipeline. This process is based on incomplete information and is not in the public interest. My participation in this process should not be considered as my endorsement of it.

I recommend that the entire process be put on hold, and I call on the Province of British Columbia to initiate its own environmental assessment of the process. In the meantime, I urge the NEB to review its own statements as to why it exists:

In order for the Board to effectively serve the Canadian public, we know they need to have confidence in the regulatory regime…We are here to serve the Public. We want to make certain that Canadians know they have a regulator they can rely on, because the Canadian Public interest is at the heart of everything we do.[13]

With all due respect, please do not forget who you really work for.

Sincerely,

Kat Zimmer

[1] https://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/ll-eng/llisapi.dll/fetch/2000/90464/90552/548311/956726/2392873/2450810/2478756/2797364/Letter_of_Comment_-_A4R1T4.pdf?nodeid=2796675&vernum=-2

[2] https://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/ll-eng/llisapi.dll/fetch/2000/90464/90552/548311/956726/2392873/2451003/2478117/B40-1_-_Trans_Mountain_Response_to_Allan_R_IR_No._1_-_A3X5V9.pdf?nodeid=2480550&vernum=-2

[3] https://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/ll-eng/llisapi.dll/fetch/2000/90464/90552/548311/956726/2392873/2451003/2393783/V8A_5.5.2_F5.5.2_TO_5.6.2.2_MAR_TRANS_ASSESS_-_A3S5Q3.pdf?nodeid=2393564&vernum=-2

[4] https://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/ll-eng/llisapi.dll/fetch/2000/90464/90552/548311/956726/2392873/2449981/2487600/A63-1_-_Ruling_No._25_-_A3Z5I4.pdf?nodeid=2487522&vernum=-2

[5] https://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/ll-eng/llisapi.dll/fetch/2000/90464/90552/548311/956726/2392873/2449925/2451398/2485159/C289-3-2_-_Province_of_BC_Notice_of_Motion_%231_-_A3Y8R3.pdf?nodeid=2484869&vernum=-2

[6] https://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/ll-eng/llisapi.dll/fetch/2000/90464/90552/548311/956726/2392873/2449981/2586924/A129-1_-_Ruling_No._50_-_A4G5I9.pdf?nodeid=2586142&vernum=1

[7] http://twnsacredtrust.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/2014-11-28-FN-Open-Let-Rickford.pdf

[8] http://twnsacredtrust.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/2015-05-21-TWN-BCR-re-TMEX.pdf

[9] https://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/ll-eng/llisapi.dll/fetch/2000/90464/90552/548311/956726/2392873/2449925/2451033/2543157/C118-6-1_-_Marc_Eliesen_Letter_of_Withdrawal_-_A4E1Q6.pdf?nodeid=2543843&vernum=-2

[10] https://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/ll-eng/llisapi.dll?func=ll&objId=2776410&objAction=browse&viewType=1

[11] https://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/ll-eng/llisapi.dll/fetch/2000/90464/90552/548311/956726/2392873/2451003/2385938/B1-5_-_V2_4of4_PROJ_OVERVIEW_-_A3S0R1.pdf?nodeid=2392869&vernum=-2

[12] https://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/ll-eng/llisapi.dll/fetch/2000/90464/90552/548311/956726/2392873/2449925/2452085/2810545/C387-2-1_-_Withdrawal_Letter_-_A4S1L8.pdf?nodeid=2810924&vernum=-2

[13] https://www.neb-one.gc.ca/bts/index-eng.html

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.

2014-11-15 13.29.38

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.

2014-11-15 13.29.23

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 ~

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

Vermont and… Omega-dness – a wee detour to New York!

Burlington, Vermont

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The Basin

On Kate’s urging, I headed north to Vermont through scenic Franconia Notch. This mountain pass, an entrancepoint to the 3,500km Appalachian Trail, has historically drawn visitors to its natural rugged beauty.   Thoreau wrote about the storied landmarks around Franconia Notch, probably contributing to their oversized fame.   But that day the clouds were sunk low; pelting rain and harsh winds whipped through the valley. I briefly visited the Flume and the Basin, unique canyons carved by the path of water over millennia.

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The Pemigewasset River in Franconia Notch

I pulled over to see if I could glimpse the famous Old Man of the Mountain, a distinct profile of an old man’s face jutting out of the rock high on the peak. But I learned that even on a clear day, I wouldn’t be able to see the Man – years ago, his face broke suddenly due to erosion, the official symbol of New Hampshire crumbling down the hill. All that’s left is the lonely decaying infrastructure of a cheesy tourist stop.

Driving across Vermont was a pure delight, twisting through the rolling hills dotted with dairy farms and rusted silos from a bygone era. Roadside sugarhouses lured me in to buy maple cream and taste test various syrups from the nearby maples. In these sleepy New England towns, the original brick buildings and stately white clapboard homes with black shutters have remained for a century or sometimes two. Pumpkins and dried cornstalks decorated the entranceways.

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1200 pound pumpkin

I was still struggling my way through Walden, and I have to admit that I absorbed only a small fraction of his careful words. Our patterns of speech and word choices have changed so much. Thoreau would be horrified to know that I was attempting to listen to Walden rather than read it. One section of the book that stood out was a longwinded explanation of his disdain for the spoken form. Reading seems to be one of the few things he approved of. He spent most of his free time engaged in reading the ancient Greek and Roman classics, or writing about the importance of reading them.

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Gnarnia, my Burlington home

I arrived at my Burlington couchsurf destination to find a cooperative household of nine people around their twenties, with chickens in the garden and a stocked bike repair shop in the backyard. This intentional community is decidedly urban. Will, Alex, Elora, Amalia, Nick, Jakob, Hannah, Chris, and Noelle share the space with a constant flow of couchsurfers curling up in the cozy attic nook. They have weekly meetings and a complex system of rotating chores, including things like baking bread for the household, and buying shared groceries at the co-op. Homebrew beers, fermented krauts, and homemade herbal preparations stock the shelves.

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Lake Champlain sunset

I pinpointed their home by searching the word “permaculture” on the Couchsurfing site. It turned out that most housemates had taken their permaculture design course through the University of Vermont – exactly the kind of students I’d been hoping to connect with! It was interesting to see what kinds of goals and choices they were making in their lives. Several were involved in local food initiatives like establishing public orchards, doing garden education with kids, or work trading with local farms for a truckload of cider apples or a quart of kimchi.

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Megan and I, reunited at last!

Burlington is renowned for being dripping with cyclists, locavores, outdoor adventurists, and a bustling arts and culture scene. It didn’t disappoint. Immediately after my arrival, I was dancing up a storm with my housemates to the funky R&B of local sensation Kat Wright and the Indomitable Blues Band. I was excited to visit my friend Megan, who lived in Victoria for many years and had just recently returned to New England. We swallowed some strong local brews on the shores of Lake Champlain, watching the sun set into the streaky clouds before gobbling Vietnamese pho and wandering pedestrian-only Church Street, where it seemed every second building was a bustling pub.

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Painting Will’s wall mural

The last night, I stayed in to get to know Will’s story while we painted a community mural on his wall. Will linked me with several folks to visit and stay with, and I’m grateful for the connection.

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Edible landscaping at University of Vermont (yep, that’s dinosaur kale!)

Right. About the permaculture stuff. I had the fortune of joining a University of Vermont PDC class as they practiced site analysis at Rock Point School. After walking the grounds – a mix of maple forest, conference and education buildings, community gardens, and rocky coastline – a design charette ensued. Groups created base maps of the land outlining the permaculture zones, sectors, flows, microclimates, infrastructure, and the vibe or sense of place in various points on the landscape. I shot footage for my video and watched their presentations with excited nostalgia, remembering my own PDC. I could tell they were already starting to read landscapes differently.

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Greenhouse on wheels

One highlight was visiting Keith Morris, a permaculture designer who is well-known in the region (ie. everyone I met in Burlington seemed to know him). The founder of Prospect Rock Permaculture, Keith toured me around Willow Crossing Farm. He’s been doing a lot of tree research with hazelnuts, chestnuts, pine nuts, walnuts, pecans – and some new-to-me hybrids: butternuts, “buartnuts,” “butter-buarts,” and “hicans.” Oh the joys of genetic diversity!

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Geodesic dome greenhouse at Willow Crossing Farm

His farm also seeks, as he says, to make an example of profitable reforestation of river corridors while creating wetland habitat and stabilizing riverbanks with native and multipurpose trees. At least 10 feet of earth disappeared from the crumbling riverbank bordering his land during a serious flood last year. It’s just steps away from the yurt classroom, the composting toilets, and the solar outdoor showers used by his PDC students. Keith has a lot at stake in this experimentation, using vegetation to hold down the riverbank over time with their roots. But there’s also a focus on the other uses of the trees like coppicing for firewood, or structural poles for building materials. It’s a great example of how permaculture design can help to solve real-world land management challenges while producing a yield of food, fibre and energy.

The Omega Institute

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The Omega Institute

Keith imparted to me another gift: an invitation to the Northeast Permaculture Retreat at the Omega Institute! I’d already had great success with my interviews, capturing good film footage, and having a ball with my new couchsurfing buds. But this last-minute trip to New York state really blew my expectations for this trip out of the water. I got to spend three days living in a rustic cabin, eating three tantalizing mostly-vegetarian, mostly-local and mostly-organic buffet meals a day, steaming in the sauna, and learning Tai Chi at dawn. And instead of trying to cram in visits to folks all over the region, they all came to one spot, allowing me to connect with over thirty permies from Pennsylvania to Maine! There were CSA farmers, mushroom cultivators, environmental educators, horticulturalists, community organizers, leaders of successful permaculture design businesses, and some folks who actually teach permaculture in the academic world. I was in heaven.

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The Center for Sustainable Living

The highly regarded Omega Institute is an intentional community that hosts workshops on the beautiful site of an old Jewish summer camp near Rhinebeck NY, and is a frequent destination for retreats from New York City. Unlike the very white, homogenous towns and intentional communities I visited elsewhere in New England, the attendees were ethnically and culturally diverse. The gathering was held in Omega’s Center for Sustainable Living. This building meets LEED Platinum designation and the Living Building Challenge requirements, which are much tougher than LEED – a building must demonstrate that it can actually help to restore the environment.  Shifting from being “less bad” and the concept of sustainability to being regenerative is a key idea in permaculture.  Included in twenty imperatives relating to a healthy environment and habitat protection are requirements that virtually all waste from construction and operations must be eliminated, that the building must generate all of its own energy with renewable sources, and that it must capture and treat all of its own water.  This follows the permaculture philosophy that there’s no such thing as waste – only stuff in the wrong place.

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The Lagoon – part meeting space, part sewage treatment facility!

The building’s water cycling system is the most fascinating part. It was designed around Omega’s desire for an educational – and aesthetically pleasing – example of ecological water recycling onsite. Grey and black water are piped down to holding tanks where a complex web of microbial agents voraciously devour the nutrients. The water enters the “Lagoon,” a beautiful indoor paradise, where it feeds the roots of tropical plants along with another set of microorganisms and insects. By this time, the water doesn’t have the faintest odour. It is then released into a rocky constructed wetland, where the water will continue to be purified as it sinks into the ground, recharging the aquifer and ultimately being re-pumped by the well to rejoin the cycle of use. Can you imagine if all infrastructure operated like this?

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The Lagoon’s constructed wetland

Our gathering was designed to reflect how the most valuable moments at retreats often don’t occur in the sessions at all, but over evening tea, or on walks together in the woods. I was inspired by the collaborative approach to facilitation, consensus-building, active listening, and negotiation that characterized its organization. Actually, very little had been organized: we held two days of open space sessions, in which the agenda and topics for the day were generated each morning by anyone who wanted to convene a session, and attended by anyone who felt like showing up. We talked about the nuts and bolts of the design biz, the future of the Permaculture Design Certificate, decolonizing permaculture, and including diverse and marginalized communities. I soaked it up, hoping to bring back my learnings and renewed energy to fuel creative projects back home.

Feeling supported to rub up against my comfort zone, I decided to convene a session on permaculture in higher education. There were a lot of people interested in this subject! We shared an engaging discussion on the challenges and opportunities of bringing permaculture into the academic realm, and what it might mean for the teachers and students involved. My sense was that people in the group generally supported the idea of integrating academia and permaculture. I made key connections during this retreat with folks like Abrah Dresdale at Greenfield Community College, and Steve Gabriel at Cornell University, who is working to connect people involved in permaculture research and education at universities.

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The Omega garden

Being there really reinforced my sense that this kind of network building is a need and perhaps a niche looking to be filled further. I’ve been thinking a lot about how my research can be utilized for its highest use in the permaculture world. As you can imagine, I’ve been feeling pretty grateful lately. I’ve had many folks thank me for doing this research and for articulating to me that it is important and needed. It’s not to toot my own horn (the usefulness of the results is yet to be determined!) but rather a noticing that not every Master’s student gets to hear things like this regularly, and to combine their passion so closely with their research. And have some pretty sweet travel adventures to boot!

To Plymouth in the Plymouth

Boston

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Harvard University

Early Sunday morning, I stumbled sleepily off the plane in Boston not knowing where I’d go next. Thankfully, I found a last-minute couch with a gal named Mónica, who looked very close to the airport on Google maps. Slow and sweating, I shuffled with my two heavy backpacks to her house in East Boston. Mónica welcomed this exhausted couchsurfer with a wide, infectious smile. We went straight to Harvard Square’s Oktoberfest, where I wandered around the grand old buildings of Harvard University and joined the massive street party. Several cordoned-off blocks were lined with jam-packed beer gardens and kiosks of mouthwatering foods from around the world.

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HONK Festival + Oktoberfest

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Les Muses Tanguent, an all-female Parisian marching band at HONK Festival + Oktoberfest.

Strangely, the streets were also filled with brass marching bands. Sprawling troupes of mostly aging white people in outrageous costumes belted out big band renditions of jazz hits, rock oldies and Nirvana. They generated spontaneous dancing crowds reveling in the chaos. This was part of HONK Festival, combined for one day only with Oktoberfest! I learned this from an all-girls’ band from Paris, France uniformed in zebra and leopard print (smoking profusely, with a large contingent on the French horn).

I enjoyed a local brew with a wonderful couchsurfer named Aden, who also took me to the Museum of Fine Arts for their free admission day. I wandered a section of the Freedom Trail that glorifyingly presents key sites where the American Revolution began. Being a history geek, it was actually pretty cool to see all the grandiose buildings with delicate stonework and the cobblestone streets. It just happened to be Columbus Day (a.k.a. colonial genocide day), so there were extra tour guide performers clad in period attire walking around pretending it was 1775.

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Street performer festival

Having reached my intake limit of Indigenous history-erasing US patriotism for the day, I checked out a street performer festival at Quincy Market and the historic Faneuil Hall. There, I watched a guy do a front flip over the backs of a line of eight terrified bystanders. I think I landed in Boston on the best two days humanly possible!

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Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market

Spending time at Mónica’s was a highlight. Her home and her whole philosophy is about community – even though she just moved into her place, it was filled with couchsurfers, AirBnB-ers, and co-workers painting whimsical pictures and eating Mónica’s mouthwatering meals.  She’s about to launch a new café in East Boston – a worker-owned co-operative – with a friend she met through Couchsurfing. La Sanghita Café is based on the principles of food as medicine and empowerment through community and education. It aims to make nutritious meals available to low-income residents of the neighbourhood. I was so inspired by what they’re co-creating – and the fact that it was Canadian Thanksgiving – that I roasted a pumpkin and made small-batch pumpkin pudding with silken tofu, yogurt, maple syrup, and cardamom. It was a big hit!

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Mónica, me, Haroldo from Brazil, and Adryn, couchsurfer-turned-business partner.

Plymouth

I picked up my next rental, a rusty 1998 Plymouth Breeze, and headed for Plymouth, New Hampshire. On the outskirts of Boston, I had to stop at Walden Pond where transcendentalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau famously built his cabin on the land of Ralph Waldo Emerson. His two years there is recorded in Walden, first published in 1854. It’s considered one of the founding pieces of literature sparking the American conservation movement. His memoir reflects on the virtue of living simply in nature, practicing self-reliance, and spiritual self-discovery.

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Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts

It was truly a serene scene, with golden fall hues dotting the woods. Swimmers basked on tiny strips of beach in the remarkably warm mid-October sun. I sat and reflected awhile. My new couchsurf friend Aram was a student of a Thoreau scholar, and he had carefully explained to me some essential ideas in Walden, urging me to visit the pond. I’d encountered bits and pieces of Thoreau as an Environmental Studies student. A while back, I had downloaded an audiobook of Walden without necessarily thinking I’d get around to listening to it. Now, it was clearly time. So I hopped in the car, hit play, and began my New England road trip.

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I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.

And see if I could not learn what it had to teach

And not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

– Thoreau (from Walden, 1864, at the site of Thoreau’s cabin near the pond)

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The Pemigewasset River beside Plymouth’s main street.

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Plymouth State University knows how to enjoy the fall colours.

I did honestly feel like I was driving back in time. Tiny Plymouth, with its Victorian houses and pillared colonial style brick buildings, looked like it had barely changed in two hundred years. I headed straight to the EcoHouse, which greets town visitors at the roundabout on the historic main street. It’s an old clapboard house that has undergone an eco-efficiency makeover and now acts as a hub for Plymouth State University’s sustainability initiatives. Green-minded students reside at this “living laboratory” which features a solar hot water system, permaculture gardens, and a toolshed built completely with local wood and recycled materials.

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The EcoHouse at Plymouth State University

Next, I visited the beautiful homestead of permaculture teacher Steve Whitman. His home has been refinished with natural clay paints, upcycled and local building materials, and solar hot water. Outside, his “bioshelter” is like a glorified greenhouse, with hopvines curling upward enveloping the south-facing structure. It’s designed to regulate its own temperature: the sun warms water, which heats the ground underneath its raised beds. These rows of baby greens will feed Steve’s family all winter. He’s also experimenting with rice in colourful terraced paddies. Steve’s property shows how permaculture design can make a space as aesthetically pleasing as it is functional.

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Raised beds inside the bioshelter

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Multicolour rice paddies

Steve waxed poetic about the many uses of the black locust trees onsite. The tree improves soil by fixing nitrogen, accumulating nutrients, controlling erosion, and reestablishing degraded landscapes. It provides edible flowers for humans and nectar for honeybees. It’s a source of high quality hardwood timber that is very quick-growing and resistant to rot and water. The wood burns very hot and slow, making it excellent firewood. It’s pretty much a superstar!   Too bad the tree is considered an invasive pest in this region. Rather than labelling plants as being “bad,” why not cooperate with those that grow well in your climate and utilize what they have to offer?

This moralizing perspective has grown out of a historical tendency in the conservation movement to uphold a myth of nature as pristine wilderness in need of preservation, rather than a dynamic system in flux. I wonder what Thoreau would think if he knew what kinds of thought and policy his book would lay the foundations for.

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Steve’s house on the right, with the glassed-in bioshelter on the left.

D Acres

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Pigs clearing the land for new plantings

When I recounted my day over red wine by the woodstove, my lovely couchsurf host Kate – who grew up in the area – insisted that I visit D Acres Permaculture Farm. Kate’s home was full of housemates and couchsurfers and one of them, Mike, tagged along. The farm’s been in the family for a few generations, and is now being managed by a fellow named Josh. Josh greeted us with an invitation to help him load his truck with buckets of gravel. Pretty soon we were unloading the buckets at his destination down the road and receiving our next invitation to help him haul sand.

Bracing ourselves on the back of the pickup, we got a “driving tour” of the farm. We wound our way through several huge sloped fields with terraced fruit and nut orchards, greenhouses, annual beds and grain crops. Pigs were being utilized to clear new sections of land. They rooted around devouring the existing vegetation, leaving the soil manured and broken up, ready for planting.

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Mike checking out the gardens from the truck

To our mild chagrin, we proceeded to spend the next hour hauling 5 gallon pails of sand from a pit in the woods. Water squished around in my tiny Toms slippers as they disappeared under the thick carpet of leaves. The one day I didn’t think to wear my leather boots. My arms and shoulders would ache for days. On the bright side, we had lots of time to ask Josh about the farm and his perspective on bringing permaculture into higher education. Though many school groups visit D Acres, there was a distinct air of skepticism in Josh’s voice about institutionalizing permaculture in these formal academic spaces, predicated as they are on bureaucracy, authoritative structures, and profit making.

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Josh in front of one of the many treehouses at D Acres.

I sympathize with the many permies who’ve decided that working with universities is not a good use of their time.  What’s the point of reinforcing the very institutions that are part of the problem? Is it worth it – for permaculturalists, for students, for schools – to engage at this glacial pace of change, when we’re in the midst of a planetary emergency? That question is at the core of my research.

As we munched on juicy orchard pears, I questioned Josh about the ownership and governance of D Acres. I have a particular interest in how intentional communities function at the human and social organizational level. Planting fruit trees and designing landscapes is relatively easy – it’s the human element that always gets in the way of cooperative working and living, it seems. They say that 9 out of 10 intentional communities fail.

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Directions to everywhere.

Josh explained some of the broader challenges, a common story. A huge responsibility largely falls on the one or two people who actually invested in the land, while a revolving door of newbies leave after a season or a few years. This reinforces the main steward’s role in carrying through the knowledge and memory of the land. This can leave the founder without a clear exit strategy and result in little room for others to take ownership of their work.  “Founders’ syndrome” plagues many organizations and communities.

Design for succession is a key permaculture principle. In the same way meadows give way to herbs and shrubs, which are ultimately shaded out under climax canopy trees, groups need to engage in succession planning to ensure healthy evolution and transition over time. But it’s much easier said than done, often leading “sustainable living” to become, in reality, not very sustainable. I’m still looking for a community that has successfully cracked this nut. I’ll be posting about my visits to more intentional communities, so stay tuned as I finally reveal all the ultimate juicy secrets to success… 😉

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Mike in the kitchen garden.

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