Archive for the ‘permaculture’ 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!

 

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.  

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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

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.

Permaculture and dark horses in Colorado

Welcome to my latest attempt to share my writings on this blog! Big gaps of time seem to elapse with this space acting as little more than a holding pen for the articles I’ve written this past year for SocialCoast. But that era has come to an end (thanks to the SocialCoast team for all the wonderful work they did in the community!). So I need a new impetus to write. And I figured spending five weeks visiting permaculture teachers and demonstration sites, intentional communities, organic farms and cooperatives was a darn good reason to fire it up again. If for no other reason than to remember this stuff when I’m 64!

Kat Zimmer picBut if you’re reading this too, thanks for following me on my latest journey. I hope you will find some intriguing threads weaving through my permaculture tour of the USA. A bit of backstory: I’m doing my MA research about permaculture in higher education. So this fall I’m interviewing professors and permaculture teachers who have offered permaculture design courses (henceforth called the PDC) at universities and colleges, and students who have taken those courses. It was really important to me to meet the people and connect with the places in person, because permaculture is very much about the relationships, the connections to place and community, and the sensual/experiential dimension of one’s presence in nature, garden and landscape.

I feel like I hit the jackpot, because I get to spend two years learning and researching about one of my big passions – permaculture. And I get to connect with people who are doing things that inspire me and that create big yields in their communities. Oh, and I’m also shooting footage to produce a mini-video about permaculture in higher education! But beyond that, my ulterior motives are to see what “permies” (permaculture folk) are up to in different bioregions across North America. How do they live? What choices do they make and how do they design their own spaces? There is much here for me to learn and apply at my own urban micro-homestead and in my life. So this blog series – which will be shared in several parts – is not about what I find in my research (stay tuned for that!) but about the experiences I encounter in my travels.

So without further ado, here’s Part I: Colorado.

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Boulder sunset

Boulder

My flight into Denver set the tone. All it took was an awkward shuffle into my window seat and a quick “So, are you guys from Denver?” They were. Well, actually he was from Guinea in West Africa, a master teacher of African dance and drumming. She was a young charter school teacher from Phoenix. It didn’t matter that we didn’t know each other at all. Two hours of hysterical laughing and breathless storytelling later, we were best friends. This was followed by the Boulder taxi driver, who engaged me in a heartfelt conversation about the possibilities of migration to Greenland, and the folks who jumped in the cab and paid for my ride. But they were one-upped by the Boulder bus drivers. One stocked me up with bonus transfers; another pulled over his bus full of passengers who sat waiting while he called in to make sure there were still buses running where I wanted to go, and another who got off and walked me to my transfer stop to make sure I didn’t get lost. Everyone was startlingly friendly.

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Pearl Street, downtown Boulder

So it wasn’t a surprise when my couchsurfing host, Corey, turned out to be dripping with hospitality. We (mostly he) practiced Spanish over strong Boulder microbrew and homemade grape and pear pizza. A videographer, he primed me for my first experience filming interviews. We went on an epic cycling tour along the city’s marvelous bike paths beside Boulder Creek (yes, it is quite bouldery). It’s a very bike-friendly city, but it still felt weird not to be wearing a helmet for once!   I also accompanied Corey to one of his favourite stores, a shop that sells medicinal herbs the way only a Colorado store can. It was a surreal experience for the first five seconds – until I got kicked out for not having my passport. I felt like I was getting busted for underage drinking, even though I wasn’t there to buy anything.

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Starbuds dispensary

The first schools on my itinerary were University of Colorado Boulder and Naropa University. While CU Boulder is only just starting to offer permaculture education, Naropa has apparently been at it for a few decades. This is pretty unusual. Then again, Naropa is a tiny private university with flagship programs like the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and the BA in Traditional Eastern Arts. So fitting the mold doesn’t seem to be their thing.

It’s also the only school I’ve found that makes Introduction to Permaculture a requirement for all Environmental Studies majors. In my conversations at the school’s geodesic dome greenhouse, I wondered whether requiring students to learn about permaculture – or any environmental topic, for that matter – is a good idea. The idea of making any kind of education mandatory seems a bit draconian. Then again, compared to a lot of other “mandatory graduation requirements”, it’s my very biased opinion that permaculture and sustainability would rank higher in importance.

Salida

It was time for a little excursion to the mountains. I rented a Honda Accord through RelayRides, a peer-to-peer car rental network in the US. Canada is so far behind in this realm!  It’s a lot more affordable and flexible than renting from a company, and I love that it involves a connection with another human being through the share economy – like Couchsurfing or AirBnB.

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The river in downtown Salida

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Public art created by Sandy’s friend

From the flat sprawl of Denver, the highway cuts briefly through steep foothills cut with jagged edges, then abruptly twists upward into the Rockies leading toward high plateau farm and ranchland. At 7,000 feet, Salida is a tiny town with startling taste. It’s a historical mining town that has seen a surge in cultural and artistic regeneration in the past decade. Street after street downtown, refurbished buildings painted in bright, funky hues are filled end to end with art galleries, bookstores, cafes, curiosity shops, and stores selling local and handmade products. There are public works of art on every block. The experience reminded me of driving into the Rockies from Alberta and making a B-line to Nelson.

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But of course, I was mainly there to talk about permaculture. I was visiting Sandy Cruz and her gracious host of a husband, Gene, who moved to Salida a few years ago and started a high altitude food forest just outside of town. Sandy was practicing and teaching about high altitude permaculture long before its popularity began to spread. Though the winters are long and cold and frosts are frequent even in the warmer months, the sun is persistent in Salida and Sandy is growing a wide variety of useful perennials including peaches, apples, berries, asparagus, sunchokes, comfrey and other medicinal herbs.

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Sandy in her garden

We visited her good friend across the road who is growing similar polycultures in the forest gardens surrounding her beautiful straw bale house. Even though it was late in the season, her greenhouse was in full production with little winter seedlings. There is so much more you can do in cold climates than people generally believe is possible!

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High altitude forest gardening

Denver

Back in Denver, I visited the GrowHaus, an urban farm in the northeast corner of the city. The neighbourhood is a forgotten area of decaying infrastructure surrounded by meat packing plants, factories, and freeways. A lot of undocumented workers live there, and the poverty is starkly apparent. The GrowHaus provides fresh organic produce at affordable sliding scale prices. They distribute low-cost weekly food boxes of local produce with a goal of providing 150 local residents access to 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. They also offer cooking classes where residents can learn how to prepare the food box veggies and share in a community meal. The space is a hub for permaculture design courses, youth leadership programs and farm education internships.

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Aquaponics at the GrowHaus

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Hydroponic greenhouse production

Adam Brock, the operations manager, gave me a tour. The GrowHaus was converted from a crumbling flower greenhouse into a welcoming space with the financial help of a developer interested in local food production.   The massive aquaponics facility grows thousands of food plants at a time in a closed loop system with freshwater fish. Tilapia and bass eat the waste greens, and the fish poo fertilizes the veggies. It’s a no-waste system that uses only 10% of the water used in regular farming. Solar thermal equipment and gravity-fed water systems radically reduce the energy footprint. The newest growing edge of the facility is a mushroom cultivation enterprise. There are multiple independent businesses onsite but the spirit is all about collaboration and a focus on social justice and food access. It’s a really successful example of what can happen when people with a permaculture background set their intentions toward responding to the unique needs and yields of their own community.

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New curbside fruit tree guilds at the GrowHaus

My last Colorado stop was couchsurfing with Aram, a marvelously skilled woodworker and student of philosophy. Over local brews, margaritas and delicious Mexican ceviche, Aram and I shared about the books that have shaped our ways of thinking, talking at length about the opposing forces of apathy/cynicism and solutions-oriented action, and the prospects and problems of trying to create a more sustainable existence. We spent the day wandering downtown Denver, a vibrant city that reminds me of Vancouver with its cycling paths and riverside parks surrounded by hardcore gentrification.

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Aram by the river

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Pallet Fest

We visited Pallet Fest, a new free festival celebrating upcycling and the many uses of, well, pallets. There was a pallet parkour course, a giant pallet maze, even a pallet pirate ship under construction. On the pallet fashion runway, local artisans showcased quirky clothing and creative wares made from recycled materials. I love that this is a cause for celebration these days!

Aram was kind enough to drive me to the airport for my late night red-eye flight. I said goodbye to Colorado in the dark, just as I had arrived. Perhaps appropriately, my last glimpse was of Blucifer, the famous red-eyed horse of the Denver airport, maniacally waving farewell.

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Blucifer

O.U.R. Ecovillage in transition

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After twenty-five years of dreaming the impossible and fifteen years of precedent-setting work to reimagine living and land use in BC, people are still surprised to hear that a living, breathing ecovillage exists a scant 45 minutes from downtown. And it all started right here in Victoria.

O.U.R. Ecovillage is the result of a landmark cooperative effort spanning the community, organizations, government, and business. This effort to take on zoning led to the creation of a place that is at once a farm, a school, a protected park, a campground/B&B, a space where independent businesses can thrive, and a neighbourhood of affordable homes. It’s a test site with far-reaching implications for Canadians, even those who don’t necessarily intend to live in an ecovillage themselves. This alternative model offers vast potential for communities, businesses and landowners alike.

The village is a place where people engage in creative experimentation every day. In this laboratory for sustainable living, permaculture, and natural building, there are many lessons and mistakes to be embraced. Intergenerational living and working in community is an art that has largely been lost in this day and age. The struggles of learning this again can be challenging and so enriching at the same time. Throughout all this, there runs a deep questioning of the idea of sustainability, and what it would mean to truly achieve such a thing.

Stepping into the village, one can feel the depth of intention that has nurtured its creation. I’ve never felt so close to where my food comes from than when I lived at the village. Children climb trees and pick berries. Whimsical dreams are etched into colourful earthen walls made from sand, clay and straw. I remember the feeling of these materials squishing softly beneath my toes as I mixed it to the perfect consistency during the construction of a new home. Once, I learned to build a microclimate heat wall from this “cob” mixture to encourage succulent sweet fruits from a peach tree. Telling stories around the campfire. Walking meditatively through the labyrinth. Showering in the greenhouse with rainwater warmed by the sun. Breaking down old values and patterns of thought through the truth and healing of council circles. Upcycling everything. That’s the village.

But those who have experienced O.U.R. Ecovillage understand that it is so much more than a place. It’s a feeling. It’s a vision and an idea. It’s an open invitation to be part of something that is unpredictable and challenges what we deem possible as a society. We need the village because it’s an example of the courage to do things differently. The village is often described as a square peg in a round hole. It’s precisely because it presents such a radical challenge to the capitalistic modes of relationship and conventional ways of defining value that we’re used to that the village has inspired so many, but also had so much difficulty over the years securing co-operative ownership.

As I write this, the co-founder of O.U.R. Ecovillage, Brandy Gallagher, is critically ill and recovering from recent high-risk surgery for cancer. Brandy and her family are in need of the community’s support now and into the future so that they can be together during her recovery without added stress. The village is in need of the broader support of the region to assist in its transition toward full co-operative ownership, a new Executive Director, and a sustainable social food and education enterprise. To support this transition, they have a critical need to raise $150,000 through mortgage and community RRSP investments, sustaining monthly donors, and special events and courses.

At the village, I’ve had the opportunity to learn from world-class teachers like Starhawk and Mark Lakeman, as well as a host of local experts in sustainable living and regenerative design. But the value of courses offered by this educational non-profit goes far beyond the cost. Creating access to co-learning is the overarching principle. Those with limited ability to pay are routinely invited to find another way to redefine value. There are many ways to contribute, through work trades and other kinds of service, that add value to the village. It’s a chance to discover or hone skills and talents often lying just below the surface of our abilities. Time and again, I have observed Brandy weaving a web of relationship, aiming to make connections that would be beneficial and fruitful beyond the life of the village. In this community, I have been shown a different way of being – one of relationship. It’s about paying it forward, and also giving back.

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O.U.R. stands for One United Resource – it’s a statement that we’re stronger when we work together. I’ve lived, worked, and volunteered at the village, and I’m hooked. Throughout all this, Brandy and the community have offered me an unfathomable amount of support for my continued learning at and beyond the village. I can truly say that the life I am currently living is the direct result of a path carved from my relationship with the village. Anyone who has shared a gratitude circle with me before a meal can attest to this.

There’s a way for everyone to be a villager, and you don’t have to live onsite. The opportunity to be part of a new movement for cooperative land ownership, sustainable community investing through RRSPs, and even a regional option for green burial are all exciting ways to join. But you can also become a monthly sustainer, take a course, join the CSA, spend a weekend at the B&B, take a tour, or simply start with a meal at the Zero Mile Eatery. You never know who you’ll sit with at your next meal – a CEO, a writer, a documentary filmmaker, an academic, a child, a long-haired young farmer, a high school student, an elder with a word of wisdom. Strike up a conversation. And don’t forget to wash your dishes.

Times of crisis are times of growth, renewal, and regeneration. They’re opportunities for the community to come together. This is an opportunity to take responsibility for O.U.R. community, to protect this special place and what it represents, and to launch it into the next stage of creation together. Join us in the transformation.

Living the New Economy

An industrial landscape has dominated the part of Songhees territory known to most people as Vic West for at least a century. In its heart, there’s an unassuming and drafty brick building called the Roundhouse. Now surrounded by high-rise condos, it’s slated for redesign as a marketplace to serve the swelling crowd of urban dwellers. Over seven days in December, where railway workers tinkered with the train cars of a century ago, a new economy was being midwifed into existence. “Living the New Economy” was an exuberant convergence of visionaries and idea jammers who are working together to create and articulate this new economy.

Living the New Economy

The old economy is crumbling: globally, this has been obvious since at least 2008. The old models just aren’t working anymore, and many have started to realize they probably weren’t worth saving in the first place.

What does the new economy look like? This city’s dilapidated heavy industrial base is being transformed into a burgeoning knowledge economy of tech firms and services. In Victoria, at least, the trend isn’t toward globalized chains and big box stores: it’s small-scale entrepreneurs producing high quality goods for a niche market. It’s local renewable energy projects like the Art Turbine that are not only functional, but are truly pieces of art. It’s an explosion in DIY culture, with creative startups like the Makehouse and the MakerSpace, where makers of all sorts will share tools, resources, and knowledge. Or Remove and Reuse, an online hub where upcyclers and artisans can share salvaged building materials and reduce the need for consuming new. It’s people realizing that together, we can achieve so much more:Raven Wireless, a proposed nationwide co-operative telecom company, hopes to provide an alternative to the “Big Three.”

The new economy tastes like dark and thick microbrews handcrafted locally. It smells like locally cured and smoked meats, crisp vegetables harvested within a hundred miles, and specialty baked goods prepared in Victoria’s proposed new food hub, a shared kitchen space for local food producers. I took part in a collaborative session to redesign the downtown core with hubs for enjoying these delights together, in community. The vision is to create a vital space where people “live out loud.” In the new economy, shopping isn’t a substitute for this kind of creativity. The new economy feels like community being built in a thousand different ways. The Fernwood Urban Village cohousing project and O.U.R. Ecovillage are reclaiming what it is to be in community, while creating options for community to invest in community. It’s individuals moving their money to credit unions, which in turn reinvest it locally: Vancity’s support of “social purpose real estate” is a great example. It’s people stepping up to lend to each other through the Victoria Community Micro-Lending Society. A new Community Investment Fund being launched in 2014 by the Community Social Planning Council (CSPC) will finally give people an option for local retirement savings investments.

This is the power of raising local forms of capital: putting our money where our homes are. CSPC’s Sarah Amyot says that redirecting even 2 percent of the investment money that flows out of this region every year would allow us to reinvest 7.5 million locally.

But why does this seem so revolutionary? In the past few decades, we’ve made it virtually impossible to invest locally. People who are interested in doing so (apparently a very high proportion of investors) are discouraged by their advisors, who say there’s no money in it. Not so, says Stephen Whipp, a specialist in socially responsible investment. By grabbing the reins of large capital and redirecting it into local projects, Whipp says we can generate good income and make good local projects happen at the same time.

Yes, the cost of living is high, and most of us don’t have much extra cash lying around for making big investments. But we need to understand the incredible privilege we have in this region – despite the struggles – and recognize that we have a responsibility to use this privilege to make changes in how we act in the world.

Critically, it’s acknowledging that many of the struggles we’re facing – and the privilege we have – are a result of living in a colonial system. Without a radical shift in the Indigenous-settler relationship, colonialism can simply be re-entrenched by such new forms of ownership and economy. So asking for and supporting Indigenous leadership amid these rapid changes is going to be essential. This recognition was embodied at a session called “Indigenomics,” where we learned from Indigenous women that have modeled leadership in redefining what economy is. As Carol-Ann Hilton of the Indigenous business group Transformation pointed out, a new economy questions the pathway by which we came here: who was left out? Who’s included in the new economy? And will it be a decolonized economy?

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Ana Maria Peredo, Director of UVic’s Centre for Cooperative and Community-Based Economy, pointed out that the new economy is the OLD economy – and the REAL economy. It needs to be reclaimed from its brief sojourn into global market capitalism. There are many kinds of economy – green, sharing, collaborative, gift, social – that can bring value to society.

Peredo shared a story of a visit she made to an Andean village in Peru. Arriving hungry, she went to try to purchase some food to eat. Although she could see plenty of people with food, nobody could sell to her: for them, money wasn’t worth using because nobody needed it to meet their daily needs. People would ask how it was that, in their poor country, everyone had a home – yet in our rich nation, so many are homeless.

In most of the Western world, the economy is framed by those in power as the overarching structure of existence. As Peredo pointed out, the “modernization theory” of development says there’s only one way to approach economic development – and that’s to submit to the global forces of the market. This ethnocentric model perpetuates a narrative about developing an “entrepreneurial spirit” among Indigenous people that assumes they have none.

Meghan Champion of Cowichan Tribes debunked such mainstream myths. In her culture, Indigenous people have always had a very strong entrepreneurial spirit. Trade and forms of currency have been a feature of life on this coast for thousands of years. The potlatch ceremony was, in her words, a form of investment through a system of debt obligation and relationship building. The way people earned prestige was not by accumulating wealth, but by giving it away. As Champion points out, it’s pretty hard to practice your culture if you don’t have an economy to sustain it. But one thing that makes this new economy distinct from the old one is that reputation is key: in the age of social networking, it’s a lot harder to hide when you rip someone off. It’s about building relationships.

It’s with this in mind that Champion created the Cowichan Tribes’ Tetla Dollar. Community currencies keep value circulating within the community, rather than flowing out. Lately, the’ve been springing up all over the region: SeedStock in Vancouver, Salt Spring Dollars, and the Comox Vally Community Way. The fully digital Vancouver Island Dollar is in the process of being launched.

“Living the New Economy” aimed to be a living example of an economy that encourages us to redefine value locally and build inclusive community. After each session, people could receive 100% of their money back with no questions asked; they could hold with the original ticket price, or they could add an extra donation if they felt the event had particular value. Or, they could exchange the full dollar amount for the same number of Vancouver Island Dollars.

As permaculture designer Ethan Roland told us, we need to reclaim the real meaning of the word “entrepreneurship,” which is simply “to take on a project.” In the Andean community-based economies, Peredo says, the community acts collectively as both entrepreneur and enterprise. In this regard, it’s about every single one of us considering ourselves entrepreneurs.

One part of this involves changing our unhealthy relationship with money. And I don’t just mean becoming less driven by it. I’m also talking about the revulsion to money that many “do-gooder” types have: the way that when the word “economics” is used, many of us plug our ears. I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with economics. I don’t really understand it, and I know it causes a lot of harm these days. I also know that some kind of economy is essential.

We’ve forgotten that money is simply a tool – a very useful one. At “Permanomics,” a session linking permaculture and economics, Roland showed how redefining “capital” can allow us to meet human needs while increasing the health of ecosystems. Roland identified eight forms of capital: living, material, social, experiential, intellectual, spiritual, cultural, and – of course – financial. Understanding these many forms of capital can help us see how the system functions as a whole, and where the leverage points for creating society-level changes are. Roland says we need not abandon financial capital: we can use it to cultivate other forms of capital that it has been decimating of late. Financial capital can grow or decrease, as long as shared cultural capital and living capital (Earth’s life systems) are being regenerated.

Regeneration, as opposed to the much-abused word “sustainability,” was an overriding theme throughout the week. Through new kinds of enterprise, we can not simply sustain, but regenerate our communities and the natural world. It’s a tangible shift in what the economy looks like – social finance, green buildings, cooperatives, and cohousing projects.

But what’s going to truly make the difference is a shift in the interior dimensions that what we can’t always see: the stories, the culture, and the values. It’s the community.

Kat gratefully acknowledges a prize from SFU’s Certificate Program for Community Economic Development, which allowed her to attend the week of events.

Closing the loop at O.U.R. Ecovillage

Closing the Loop at O.U.R. Ecovillage

Our fresh group of learners stared wide-eyed as the ecovillage gardeners heaped layer upon layer in the compost pile. Nutrient-dense stalks of comfrey and nettle, soggy spoiled hay, kitchen scraps, and six brimming buckets of liquid cow manure each waited their turn to join a steaming process of organic fertilizer production. Renegade chickweed and miner’s lettuce stretched out in all directions from cracks in the split wooden bins. The buzzing and chirping of pollinators signaled health in the community.

“Our community is about building a different kind of culture,” our tour guide, Patrick, explained. A bushy ponytail poked out from under his rainbow-streaked knit hat, bobbing with the smirking little girl who clung to his shoulders. “At O.U.R. Ecovillage, we’re intentional about the relationships we want to create, and being in community helps us learn how to live sustainably.”

Community – one of those nebulous concepts open to infinite interpretations that my gut nevertheless roars for. The concept of being “in community” was a new one for me, and yet I would find it offered by many residents when prodded about what brought them to the village. I began to suspect this was why we were really there, although the premise of our stay was a permaculture design course. I was thrilled when Marc, my partner, signed on too. Two weeks of early summer camping at an ecovillage while learning about sustainability sounded way too tempting to pass up. As I would come to realize in the weeks and months to follow, it was a good thing we chose to encounter permaculture together. It shifted both of us onto new paths, leaving behind our identities as green environmentally-minded folks, and uncovering an entirely new layer of ecological consciousness.

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Permaculture is another slippery concept whose founders even proclaim not to know exactly what it is. Out of many definitions I have heard, one of the few that has really stuck with me is “learning how to take care of your own shit.” This can take on multiple meanings. It can mean learning how to build your own house using materials from the landscape in which you live. It can mean setting up systems to take care of your own energy and water needs, or growing your own food and medicine. It can mean learning how to “take care” of your natural and human community by taking care of yourself and taking responsibility for your actions. And it can mean taking care of your own shit. Literally.

I quickly learned this lesson in action at the Credit Union, the ecovillage’s composting toilet. With unlimited deposits per day, and only one withdrawal per year, the entire community profits from the value generated by the Credit Union. Our individual investments are returned in the form of a safe, rich fertilizer that helps to create the food we eat. It’s called closing the loop, and it’s a perpetual cycle that humans have been a part of since time immemorial. Coincidentally, it’s how all other animals participate in the ecosystem too. Somewhere along the line, we forgot about this fact. We started building sewage systems that conveniently flush our unmentionables away, so that we don’t have to worry about dealing with the shit we create.

“One of the main problems with how our dominant culture operates is the false notion that there is an ‘away,’” remarked Brandy, a radiant earth mother in long flowing purple and co-founder of the ecovillage. “We don’t want our half-eaten dinner so we throw it ‘away’ into a black bag whose contents are hidden. The garbage truck removes it from our sight. But the reality is that it doesn’t go away, it always ends up somewhere, in somebody’s backyard. And in the process, we turn a valuable resource into pollution.” She described how the conventional sewage system uses one valuable resource, energy, to turn two valuable resources, water and excrement, into a biohazard that pollutes our waterways and oceans. The added effect of removing organic nutrients from the cycle is that we need to find other inputs to replace them in our food-growing areas. Without compost, these inputs become fossil fuel-based fertilizers, which – you guessed it – create more pollution and energy use. Seems crazy, doesn’t it?

I pondered this as we gathered with the ecovillage residents for our first meal together. People of all shapes and sizes converged from different directions on the outdoor kitchen. Marc and I followed suit as the group “circled up”: before each meal, the community holds hands in a circle. One by one, all the people announce their names, and share one thing they are grateful for. Reflecting the spin cycle my brain was still on, I offered, ”My name is Kat, and I’m grateful for finally being able to close the loop.”

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After a shared cheer of “Ho!” with raised hands, we lined up for one of the delectable dinners that O.U.R. Ecovillage prides itself on. “Mostly organic, mostly vegetarian, and mostly from O.U.R. garden,” as the community describes them, the meals reflect the non-dogmatic, common sense approach at the heart of permaculture practice. Tonight, we were havinga special treat: heritage chicken raised and slaughtered onsite, slowly simmered with onions and garlic from the garden. Roasted carrots and purple potatoes still on hand from last autumn’s harvest, sprinkled with freshly picked rosemary and thyme. Homemade kimchi for digestive health. And for dessert, blackberry crumble. Even though I was swimming in locavore bliss, I was still envious watching the resident cow-share members enjoy their crumble with freshly whipped cream supplied by Bossy, the ecovillage’s stately dairy cow.

My plate glowed. The dominant colour was green – the biggest assortment of greens I had ever seen in my food. Bright greens, light greens, yellow-greens, and blue-greens, set off by a smattering of edible flowers in hues of red, orange, purple and pink. Picked only an hour earlier from the garden, the leaves gifted me with an equally big range of textures and flavours – nutty, bold, peppery, crunchy, crisp and sweet. The chickweed and miner’s lettuce I had noticed earlier in the garden – maligned weeds in most landscapes – played a tasty role. In permaculture, unexpected plants are not thrown away as useless matter, but recognized for a role they can play in ecosystems that we often don’t understand. In a system designed with intention, it is possible to have no waste.

Admiring my dinner, I was truly grateful not to be wasting these nutrients. When I was done with them, I vowed, I would put them back in the cycle, so that future eaters could enjoy them too.

Special thanks to O.U.R. ecovillage. Photos supplied from their website athttp://ourecovillage.org/about/photos/

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