it’s all good at milkwood

Why should a high school English teacher care about land contours?

That’s exactly what I asked myself as I worked on my Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) at Milkwood over the past two weeks. I filled pages with doodles as the teacher mapped out swales and sketched aquaponic systems at the front of the class. The truth is, I don’t care much about land contours at the moment.

What I care about as a teacher – and now a certified Permie – is what permaculture can do for education. In order think about those big ideas, I decided to dedicate some time to studying the technical details of permaculture design. Two weeks later, along with a notebook full of gorgeous doodles, I also have a head full of knowledge. The things I’ve learned in the last couple of weeks might not be directly relevant to my professional life but are fascinating nonetheless. And more – this new insight is shaping the way I look at the landscape around me and at the people who act within and upon it.

The PDC involved more frontal classroom teaching than I had expected. I signed up thinking there would be more time spent outdoors learning through doing. While we did have sessions walking around the property observing, for example, how the swales and dams collect water throughout the property, most of our time (8:30-4:30 daily) was spent in the Woolshed – our classroom/dining hall/social space.  The lessons were engaging and sometimes interactive, and the final design projects challenged us to synthesize our understanding and apply it to workable model of permaculture design.

If you’re going to spend 8 hours a day listening to someone talk, you’d be hard pressed to find a better candidate than Nick Ritar. Dude knows a LOT. He peppers his lessons with entertaining and instructive anecdotes, drawing from his experience in permaculture design but also from his background in the arts and in the corporate world. Nick and his co-teacher Floyd Constable taught us about the principles of permaculture, the design process, and the various elements that make up this holistic system (energy, trees, water, soil etc.).

Nick teaching us about hot compost: onion, donut, lasagne

I got to spend two weeks as part of a diverse community of learners. I’m a newbie in more than one sense of the word – new to Australia, new to country living, new to ecological systems thinking – and I learned heaps from conversations over meals and campfires with my classmates. They come from places like Tasmania, Barcelona, and Canberra! They are market gadeners, cattle farmers, festival coordinators, and chook fanciers!

Studying, eating, camping and working together through morning chores, hailstorms, and late-night design sessions, we created a strong community. It’s amazing how close you get to 28 people when you’re sharing two composting toilets.

So while I might not care about land contours, I care about the power inherent in activated, intelligent people, creating communities and working together to bring about positive solutions to some of the planet’s most pressing issues. And this is where permaculture can be so hugely beneficial to our crippled education system.

It’s about making connections between fractured knowledge bases and segregated disciplines. Valuing long-term thinking and accepting failure and feedback on the road to growth. Recognizing and nurturing symbiotic relationships between parts of the big picture.

Nelson Lebo, a doctoral candidate at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, is eons ahead of me in his application of permaculture ideas to education. This is someone I’d like to talk to. He talks about teachers needing “more nuanced approaches…for them to want to embrace some of the ideas surrounding permaculture. Those ideas include ethical decision making, applied science, sustainable living, and systems thinking. One strategy is to use permaculture design as the process for engaging teachers and students, not as a desired outcome.”

This is exactly what I’ve been talking about all year. It’s more than growing veggies at school. For one, school gardens have been successful around Australia, but  are a bit harder to do back home where the ground is frozen for most of the school year. Also, permaculture needs to be an overarching framework, not an add-on, in order for it to be adopted by teachers.

Learning permaculturally, not learning about permculture. Make sense?

After learning so much at the Milkwood PDC, it makes sense to me. The PDC is over but the grand permaculture design for my life is just beginning…

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Oh yeah…and I rapped at the talent show on the last night:

I’m a break it down like fungus on a stump
While Billions of bacteria do the humpty hump
Thermal mass like a dinosaur
10 tonnes, maybe more
I’m a heavy hitter
like a dark painted concrete floor
And, no, I ain’t quitting
my rhymes are hard hitting
Dropping bombs in your wheelie bin
It’s like real sh*ting

I’m a big city girl 
rockin’ lipstick heels and pearls
climbing fake plastic trees 
in a styrofoam world
Day after day 
I’m up up & away
Drop a quarter in the meter
Half an hour to play 
I’ve been racing ’round like Flo Jo 
People to see, places to go
Restaurant opening art show,
Who are you and who do you know?

Had bourgeois issues
Grab a box of tissues
Crying from the pain
But you can’t explain what bit you
Tried psychoanalysis
Emotional paralysis
I would sing along 
but I don’t know what this ballad is
And it don’t make a sound
Stress builds underground
Take a fifty ton machine
To excavate this mental mound

What I need are some solutions
Left the urban the noise pollution
I have an attraction to action
Came to join the revolution
Feel the sun on my face
my pulse pumping the bass
Spreading knowledge like organic mulch
All over the place
We got ideas brewing like compost tea
Only one life to live before they compost me
We’re in each other’s business like OPP
It’s all good at Milkwood, rock the PDC

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