So what is permaculture exactly? Permaculture stands for permanent agriculture. I guess the simplest way to describe it is that it’s a form of design that strives to create sustainable human settlements. In other words, it focuses on using resources so that there’s something left for your grandkids, and their grandkids and so on… very different to our current ways of doing things.
During the first two weeks of December I signed up for a Permaculture Design Course put on by the Permaculture Research Institute of Kenya (PRI Kenya). Held at the village, which is a partner organization of PRI Kenya, it was most convenient that this course was at my doorstep and I looked forward to learning about agriculture especially in an African context.
We had forty-seven students attend the course; more than half of the students were from countries across Africa and the rest were from all over the world. My classmates were a truly inspiring and humbling group of people. Some were ex-civil war soldiers from Liberia who were brought by the NGO Everyday Ghandis in order to learn ways to help and re-integrate into their community. There were African farmers and NGO workers from Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia, a tree planter from Canada and an American architect from Washington D.C. who wanted to start to a new career. We pretty much maxed out on diversity.
Our teacher, Warren Brush, came over from California to do the course and in the words of previous fellow Chris Courtin, he’s pretty much the ultimate hippie. Trained as an animal tracker, he has dedicated his life to teaching Permaculture across the world, starting from his own back yard at Quail Springs CA, where he proudly used his agriculture knowledge and experience to rehabilitate the land.We also had John Sheffy, a consultant for Nyumbani’s Forestry program and in my own words the ultimate handy man, help out with parts of the course. Nicholas (program manager at Nyumbani) and Joseph (head of sustainability program in Nyumbani) also taught some lectures in the course as they’re hoping to one day teach permaculture in Africa.
It was quite an intensive course with classes all day, everyday, including practicals. There’s so much to talk about it would take forever for me to describe everything so I thought I would highlight a few of the interesting lessons and ideas that stood out to me in the course.
- The most important element that can stop human civilization in its tracks is the loss of soil. In the words of Franklin Roosevelt, “The history of every nation will eventually be written in the way we care for our soil”. Right now our history doesn’t look too good as we’re losing topsoil, with current agricultural methods, at a rate of 10 to 40 times faster than is being replenished. Some scientists say this problem is second only to population growth as the biggest environmental problem. In all my sustainability classes in Princeton we never really touched on this issue, which is surprising to me considering our food supply depends on it. In western civilizations dirt is usually something to be avoided not valued. This may be part of the reason why it hasn’t been a hot topic for discussion and there’s no convention to save our soil. Who gets excited about dirt these days? No one. Well, in the words of Ghandi, “To forget how to dig the soil and tend the earth is to forget ourselves”. Well said Ghandi! After this lecture my work in the village has included a lot more digging in the soil and I have to admit, it’s quite fun.
- Permaculture design seeks to find patterns in nature and harmonize with these patterns in order to conserve energy. Very different to what we do now, which is to steamroll nature out of the way and build and grow whatever we want. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from an energy perspective.
- Look to indigenous cultures on how to survive and value the wealth of knowledge from our ancestors. These people lived in a totally different way to the way we live today which shaped their culture. Through my experiences thus far I’ve come to realize that culture is influenced much more from landscape than people. As we continue to reduce our landscapes to look like typical western civilizations, are we quickly throwing away our culture?
- Trees are ridiculously awesome! They are climate moderators, natural grey water systems, micro ponds on a landscape, they bring rain, provide habitats, I can go on but I’ll stop there. I have a totally new appreciation and respect for trees and I’m so happy to be in the village where I can plant as many trees as I want! Interesting fact about the melia trees we plant in the village for our Trees for Children project – they are natural rainfall detectors. One week before the rains begin the tops of their bare, dead-looking trunks sprout an umbrella of bright green leaves in anticipation of the rain. Last October they sprouted their canopies and like clockwork, one week later we got our first rainfall.
- Cheap, easy, dry land agricultural techniques that I can readily apply. With all this knowledge I now have I’m collaborating with the agriculture teacher of the Lawson secondary school to work on practicals with the students to teach these techniques to them. I get the experience and they learn about dry land sustainable agriculture; it’s a win-win situation. You’ll hear and see more about these projects in the future.
We also learned a few permaculture techniques for temperate and tropical climates, converted a diesel engine to run on vegetable oil, built a rocket stove, designed a food forest and figured out how to keep elephants out of your garden!
I really enjoyed how practically oriented this course was, which was something my courses at Princeton generally lacked. At Princeton I completed the program in Sustainable Energy where I learned lots of facts, read lots of research and debated climate change endlessly. The question that kept popping up was pretty much, “How could we continue to maintain our lifestyle as our environment continues to be destroyed?” The destruction of our environment was just such an annoying inconvenience. In my permaculture course that addressed many climate change issues as well, the questions that kept popping up were, “How can we bring back our environment? How can protect something that has given us so much? How can we change what we do and adapt to help each other and our land?” There was no inconvenience implied, rather, there was a refreshing selflessness behind every lesson, a selflessness that is so much more common in Africa than in the US. And this is what really inspired me to re-think what I want to do in my life and how I was going to go about it. Humans before us have worked so hard to make our lives today so comfortable, the least we can do is pay it forward to our future generations. For me this means working to rehabilitate our environment and change the current way we use our resources.
I would highly recommend this course to anyone who’s even remotely interested. It’s done around the world and there are many varieties that cater to specific interests such as earthworks, tropical climates, food forest design, urban agriculture etc.