Community living at its finest

New Hampshire

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

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The Davis Farm at Cold Pond

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The Davis Farm

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

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Greeting the turkeys

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

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Tiny goats!

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

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Marty’s homestead at Orchard Hill

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

Royalston, MA

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Kyra and Will’s country driveway

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Walking home from the Magical Wintergreen Forest with Safi

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

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Kyra and Will’s 1790 schoolhouse home

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

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Will moving the sheep

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

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Lightning the Llama

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

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

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Taking Lightning for a walk

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

Sirius Ecovillage

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

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

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

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

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

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Silent retreat house in the Sirius forest

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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.

Speaking tour gets the facts straight on GMOs

There’s a lot of misinformation on the internet and in the mainstream media about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Some science associations and companies like Monsanto would have us believe that genetically modified (GM) foods are perfectly safe, and necessary to “feed the world.” A growing number of organizations and scientists are telling a different story: that GM foods pose significant risks to human health and the environment. Who am I, the average eater concerned about my health, supposed to believe?

In my attempt to set the record straight, I joined over 200 people at UVic Monday evening to listen to Dr. Thierry Vrain, who is beginning a cross-Canada speaking tour on GMOs. He’s the former Head of Biotechnology at Agriculture Canada’s Summerland Research Station, and he used to be a supporter of GMOs. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one with worries and questions.  As the crowd continued to swell, the whole group had to move en masse to a bigger room.

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I could sense high emotions: it seemed that most people (and I’ll admit, myself included) had already made up their minds about GMOs, and were burning to let forth into charged rants about the corporate control of food. But our quirky facilitator, an Aussie pharmacist with a Movember-style stache, shook up our preconceived notions right away. He invited us to try out a different stance: as scientists, with a critical eye for validity and reasoned examination of claims about GMOs. Dr. Vrain’s goal was to counter four common myths about GMOs with facts.  I still have my science goggles on, so bear with me as I share these myths and facts with you along with more sources, so that you can investigate for yourself and come to your own conclusions about GMOs.

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MYTH: GMOs reduce the use of pesticides.

FACT: GMOs are causing farmers to spray crops more, not less. 

Dr. Vrain began by pointing out one of the most important facts about GMOs: over 90% of GM plants are engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s RoundUp pesticide. Herbicide spray rates are rising as a result of GMOs, not falling. Biotech giants Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, and Syngenta are, first and foremost, chemical companies. This isn’t about feeding the world: it’s about a really ingenious way to sell more pesticides. As Dr. Vrain pointed out, it’s a great long-term business strategy. Resistant weeds are creating a constant demand for new pesticide products – and major concerns for farmers. There are now at least 24 weeds resistant to RoundUp, affecting perhaps a million acres of Canadian farmland. Even research backed by the pesticide industry states that the number of resistant weeds is increasing “at an alarming rate.”

The industry is using this as justification for introducing other chemicals to the mix.  RoundUp is now being teamed up with 2,4-D: one of two chemicals in the infamous Agent Orange (produced by Monsanto) that shriveled entire landscapes during the Vietnam War, with disastrous human health effects. 2,4-D is a hormone disruptor that is detectable in the urine of children and has been linked with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This chemical is approved for use in Canada and we will begin to see residues of it on conventionally grown food in the future.

MYTH: GMOs increase crop yields.

FACT: Increases in yields are a result of traditional breeding and improved agricultural practices, not genetic engineering.

Have you ever noticed how proponents of GMOs always use the same line about “feeding the future”? The independent Union of Concerned Scientists set out to test this claim.  Their downloadable report “Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of GE Crops,” looked at two dozen peer-reviewed studies. They found that in 20 years of industry effort, herbicide-tolerant corn and soy haven’t resulted in crop yield increases. Only insect-resistant corn might be responsible for an increase of 0.2-0.3% per year. Impressive? No.  Especially when you consider that corn production in the U.S. is not about “feeding the world.” Most corn in the U.S. is grown as feed for factory farms, a highly inefficient way to feed people. The rest is used to produce environmentally disastrous biofuels and high-fructose corn syrup for processed junk food.

According to Dr. Vrain, the genetic engineering process is physiologically hard on the plant, causing it to be less productive and resulting in lower yields. This view is supported by a large-scale academic review and a USDA report cited in “GMOs: Myths and Truths,” another downloadable resource with a wealth of information on GMO myths not covered in this article. “At best,” the authors write, “GM crops have performed no better than their non-GM counterparts, with GM soybeans giving consistently lower yields.” (P. 72).

MYTH: GMOs don’t impact the environment.

FACT: GM crops have many negative effects on the environment.

One of the biggest threats GM crops pose to their environments is contamination. The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) asserts that GM alfalfa threatens the future of organic food and farming in North America. Alfalfa is unique because many organic farmers grow it to feed livestock and build soil. It grows year-round and is pollinated by bees, so contamination of organic alfalfa will be certain. Japan and the EU won’t buy crops from Canada if there’s any risk of contamination by GMOs. According to Dr. Vrain, Canada risks losing hundreds of millions of dollars in exports if GM Alfalfa is allowed, and this will hurt conventional growers too. Canada has already lost its Japanese and European markets for canola due to GM contamination.

Insect resistant crops are engineered using Bt, a bacteria that produces a protein toxic to insects. Every cell of the GM plant is toxic to insects. These plants are literally registered as pesticides. Bt crops have adverse effects on a range of different organisms, including humans – not just the insects they’re supposed to target (GMOs: Myths and truths, p. 51-52.) Monsanto’s use of Bt genes is also causing the evolution of Bt-resistant “superbugs,” posing serious risks to food production. But what if you want to eat real food, not pesticides? Bt sprays are a biological pest control method widely used by certified organic farmers and backyard gardeners. With the rise of superbugs, organic farmers risk losing their ability to use Bt. Farmers across North America will have no choice but to buy the next Monsanto product just to be able to grow a crop.

MYTH: GM foods are safe to eat.

FACT: GM foods are more toxic or allergenic than their non-GM counterparts.

My note-taking couldn’t keep pace as Dr. Vrain cited a dizzying number of studies showing harmful effects of GM foods on human health.  If there are so many studies, I wondered, how is it even possible that the industry can continue to make this claim of safety?  The various ways this information is masked by Monsanto and other biotech companies is explained in detail in “GMOs: Myths and Truths,” (p. 72) which cites an even more dizzying number of studies about health impacts on humans and animals.  Here’s a taster: stomach sores and ulcers; allergic-type responses; disturbances of the immune and digestive systems; disturbed function of testes, uterus, ovaries, and pancreas; consistent toxic effects on the liver and kidneys; intestinal damage leading to pre-cancerous-type conditions; enzyme function disturbances in kidney and heart; slower bodily growth; and changes to blood biochemistry and gut bacteria. Whoah.

What is it about GMOs that causes this harm?  One reason being examined is the issue of “rogue proteins.”  Only 5% of the genome actually codes for genes; the other 95% are non-coding genes.  They used to be called “junk DNA” in the genetics world.  But in the past decade, scientists have discovered that this 95% is not junk at all: it’s where genes collaborate to create around 100,000 proteins for all sorts of needs.  When it comes to GM plants, you don’t only get the “pest-fighting” protein, you get new and unexpected proteins altogether. According to Dr. Vrain, expert toxicologists at the FDA predicted these “rogue” proteins produced by GMOs could cause toxicity, allergies, or nutritional deficiencies.  This prediction has been backed with evidence from the Institute of Public Health (Belgium), the Journal of Proteome Research, and the journal Biotechnology.

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By now, you’ve probably seen the revolting photos of the now-famous Seralini study, which showed massive tumours in rats fed GE maize. Seralini was criticized by some scientists for his methods, and France has invested in a follow-up research study.  However, the issue prompted the European Food Safety Authority to review and change its guidelines for research, and the updated version validates Seralini’s methods. The tumours in his study showed up after two years. Most studies by the industry only involve a three-month time period, because longer term trials correlated with the human life cycle (required for pesticides and pharmaceuticals) aren’t required for GE foods by regulators anywhere else in the world.

That’s a big problem, because it’s upon such dubious 3-month studies that Canada’s health regulations rely. In Dr. Vrain’s words, biotech companies operate under two different paradigms based on what suits their profit margins. When they’re pursuing a patent for a GMO, they argue that it’s a unique and unprecedented new product. When they’re jumping through the regulatory hoops, their policy is the following: it looks like corn, it grows like corn, it tastes like corn, so it must be no different from…corn. This principle is called “substantial equivalence.”  There’s been no FDA testing to come to the conclusion that GM and non-GM corn are substantially equivalent.  Substantial equivalence is also the reason why GMOs have been allowed in Canada, with absolutely no federal testing.

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RoundUp: the toxic bedfellow of GMOs 

It’s important to remember that 90% of GM crops are designed to be used with glyphosate, the main chemical in RoundUp. Even if it’s not genetically modified, says Dr. Vrain, all conventional grain in Canada and the US is sprayed with RoundUp 3-4 days before harvest to make the harvesting process easier. Glyphosate is widely considered to be a relatively safe pesticide. There are, Dr. Vrain pointed out, other chemicals in RoundUp that are considered more toxic than glyphosate. But is glyphosate itself really that safe? “GMOs: Myths and Truths” (p. 68) cites several studies showing otherwise: humans are widely exposed to glyphosate in air, rain, and waterways, and it poses serious health risks at the low doses approved for use, including DNA damage, cancer, neurological disorders, premature birth, birth defects, and miscarriage. Glyphosate harms beneficial gut bacteria and inhibits an enzyme called cytochrome P-450, causing diabetes, heart disease, cancer, infertility, Alzheimer’s, depression, autism, obesity, and gastrointestinal disorders like IBS and leaky gut syndrome. There’s increasing consensus that gut bacteria powerfully influences brain chemistry and function, and can exacerbate anxiety and depression through conditions like leaky gut syndrome.

According to Dr. Vrain, 90% of the cells and 99% of the DNA in your body are not yours: they’re bacteria. We are symbiotic organisms that depend on bacteria for our existence.  When you read about studies like the ones I’ve just mentioned, it begins to make sense why so many people have digestive problems these days. Dr. Vrain showed that human incidences of conditions like celiac disease and autism have risen sharply in a curve that directly matches the rising rate of pesticide use since the mid-1990s. He was quick to point out that this shows correlation, not cause and effect, and that the glyphosate studies were done on rodents and poultry, not humans. Research ethics simply wouldn’t allow a study to be run on humans if it could potentially lead to such harm. But the reality is that by eating conventionally produced food, we’re all participating in a science experiment on a massive scale.

Antibiotic resistance and GMOs

Scientists and physicians are sounding the alarm about the global rise of antibiotic resistance, which threatens humans’ ability to use them for medical treatment. GMOs will only contribute to this increase. In genetic engineering, a gene gun shoots millions of microscopic gold pellets painted with DNA into the plant’s cells (microscopic violence?).  This is a terribly inefficient process – far from the elegant and highly specialized process biotech companies claim. To find the spots where the DNA has been transferred, an antibiotic resistant “marker gene” is also painted onto the pellet.  When different bacteria rub up against each other, they can transfer genes. Because of this gene transfer, says Dr. Vrain, bacteria from GM crops have the potential to alter the soil and human gut bacteria in unexpected ways, by creating “superbugs.” Antibiotic resistant marker genes enter the soil and waterways, and may well contribute to the global rise in antibiotic resistance. 

While the jury’s still out on whether marker genes will have a significant impact on antibiotic resistance, there’s no doubt that the industrial food system – in which GMOs play a central role – is having an impact. Glyphosate is classified as an antibiotic. Bacteria like salmonella and the bacteria that causes botulism have already become resistant to it. And don’t forget that the vast majority of GM crops are grown to feed livestock.  The industrial meat production industry uses 80% of all antibiotics produced in the US (75% in Canada). Why are we allowing one of the most important treatments in conventional medicine to be piddled away on factory farms?

What’s happening in Canada?

GM canola, corn, soy, and sugar beet are grown in Canada, and several other crops and foods are being proposed for approval.  Canadian farmers are currently losing the battle against GM Alfalfa, despite significant organized opposition.  The Canadian Wheat Board successfully opposed the introduction of GM wheat in Canada, but now that fundamental changes have been made to the Wheat Board by the Harper government, Monsanto could push GM wheat in Canada again, risking similar losses for farmers.

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Canada is the only place where GM sweet corn has been allowed, giving us the dubious honour of the world’s guinea pig for the past two years.  When you buy corn at harvest time, Dr. Vrain recommends asking if it’s genetically modified.

Developments on GM salmon are being closely followed by CBAN.  The US-based company AquaBounty is close to approval of GM salmon for sale in the US, and may have already asked Health Canada for approval in Canada.

To find the most up to date news and download resources on GMOs in Canada, go to http://www.cban.ca/

The BC battle and the “Arctic Apple”

In a Q&A session after Dr. Vrain’s talk, panelists included Nicholas Simons, BC NDP Agriculture Critic and MLA for Powell River.  Powell River was the first BC jurisdiction to go GMO-free nine (nine!!) years ago.  Since then, over sixty communities have followed suit.  In September, the Union of BC Municipalities passed a motion asking the BC government to prohibit the importing, exporting, and growing of plants and seeds containing genetically engineered DNA, and raising GM animals within BC.  When informed of the situation, Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm said he would pass on the information to the federal minister responsible.  Despite Mr. Pimm’s copout, this is an important victory for BC. 

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Simons surprised us with a new issue emerging in BC: the fight over the “Arctic Apple.” Okanagan Specialty Fruits, a BC company, has applied for government approval of this GM apple, designed not to become brown for 15 days or more after being cut. Simons made his point by asking if anyone in the crowd cuts their apples 15 days before eating them. This apple is a sign that we’re going to increasingly see GMOs grown not to “feed the world,” but to feed a questionable desire for cosmetically attractive foods. There’s significant opposition to the apple among growers, but no public comment will be allowed before the government makes its decision.

No public comment??

All of these issues bring up a big question: why is the public being ignored?

Co-panelist Carolyn Herriot, writer of “The Zero Mile Cookbook,” believes it’s because there’s a media blackout in Canada and the U.S. We need to ask why very few of the studies I’ve cited have actually been taken up by the press. Certainly, the multimillion dollar advertising campaigns launched by biotech and food industry giants to kill GM food labeling bills in California and Washington is evidence of their influence.

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But despite these losses on labeling in the U.S., another of the Q&A panelists is staunchly hopeful. Gurdeep Stephens, of Nature’s Path Organic Foods, reminded us that two or three years ago there was very little public awareness about GMOs. Now, she says, it’s growing exponentially.

So what can we do to keep this awareness growing?  I propose we listen to the mustachioed Aussie, and take a scientific stance. Yes, I know, scientists in this country aren’t getting much respect these days. But no matter how much a person is opposed to Monsanto on a visceral, emotional level, using science to make our arguments is key. We need to reframe the debate entirely – away from whether it would be nice if our apples didn’t brown, and toward whether this whole system of industrial food production makes any sense at all, scientifically or socially. To do this, we need to be able to debunk the myths propagated by the industry, while constantly asking questions like “who funded this study?” We need to stop letting the biotech industry choose which science gets heard, and assert our right to make informed choices about what’s in our food.

Even if you don’t care about having a choice as to what’s in your food, we must allow future generations the choice about what’s in theirs.

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How to avoid GMOs: the quick and dirty

  • Buy local food from farmers you can trust, and ask them about their farm practices.  Better yet, grow your own!
  • Buy certified organic or “Non-GMO Project Verified” foods when you have to buy them from far away.  Certified organic food in Canada cannot contain GMOs, contrary to what some (including myself) have heard.  Labels like “Natural” are meaningless.  If the label is unclear, the food probably contains GMOs: 90% of corn, 93% of soy, 100% of sugar beet crops in North America and 43% of cotton crops in the world are genetically modified.
  • At the grocery store, avoid canola and cottonseed oil, and certain squashes and papaya imported from the U.S.
  • Avoid processed foods with ingredients like “High fructose corn syrup,” glucose or fructose – corn products can hide under many different names.
  • Buy 100% cane sugar (not beet sugar).
  • Buy certified organic dairy, meat and eggs: animals bioaccumulate and concentrate toxins present in their food, and this gets passed to humans.

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What you can do to take action:

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