Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Permaculture Army: Belize Boot Camp

"We could share ideas with the millions of other permaculturists around the world, in the common language of the 'permaculture army'"

We’ve been receiving memoirs of our recent Permaculture Course at Maya Mountain Research Center and would like to share some of those with a wider audience now. Forgive the 5000 word length of this compendium, but we think you will agree it is worth it.

Into the Jungle

From Michael:
(original at EYESLIKESAUCERS, Wednesday, April 22, 2009)

We are crouched in the dory, a traditional canoe carved from a solid tree trunk, being punted upstream through the darkening jungle. The vine covered rafters reach over us, blackening into the night sky. Jorge struggles valiently but weighed low with passengers we frequently grind to a halt and have to jump out barefoot and push. It starts to drizzle, only adding to the atmosphere.

Eventually we arrive, slipping precariously up the bank with our lumps of luggage, climbing a stepped slope until we arrive at a covered courtyard and calls of welcome from our fellow students. We've reached the Maya Mountain Research Farm (MMRF) ready to begin a two week Permaculture Design Course.

MMRF

MMRF is the life's work of Christopher Nesbitt, a forty-something New Yorker who in the eighties swapped the furious pace of a Manhattan cycle courier for a seventy acre damaged citrus farm in Southern Belize. From his early days living in a wooden shack, beholden to the sun for wake-up calls and lights-out, he has observed, studied, planted and nurtured his land into a lush and productive agroforestry system. Papaya, pineapple, breadnut, corn, beans, coconuts, eggs, vanilla, cacao, coffee... the list goes on and on. Solar panel by solar panel, stone by stone he has built a comfortable, light-filled home - complete with kitchen, book-lined study and panoramic vista'd bedroom - fit for the cover of glossy magazine.

Although the dreadlocks went decades ago he's not shaved since eighteen and Chris could now be credited with creating the 'Jungle Rabbinic' look: cropped hair and vast beard, baggy Carhartt pants betraying his urban roots, wellingtons, army surplus rucksack slung over one shoulder and rifle or machete over the other. His face is open and kind but his large, sad eyes hint at the tough graft and personal tragedies that he's overcome building his home in the jungle of this sparsely populated river valley.

Chris was the perfect host and his farm the perfect location to study something that I hoped desperately could offer a last minute reprieve to a world on life-support.

'Permanent Agriculture'


Permaculture is short for 'permanent agriculture'. It sums up the ambitious hopes of its founders, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, who in 1978 launched it with the publication of Permaculture One. In 1988 the hefty Permaculture: A Designers' Manual was published, one percent ethics and ninety percent practical design instruction, where the definition given is "the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive and healthy ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems." Still not clear? I wasn't either.

Most of my fellow students weren't entirely sure, but our anticipation grew during the introduction: we were to be learning a whole new vocabulary that included the mysterious 'swales', the principle of 'stacking functions' and the crucial tool of 'needs and yields analysis'. With it we could share ideas with the millions of other permaculturists around the world, in the common language of the 'permaculture army'.

There were sixteen students, of all ages and backgrounds. Many were from the U.S. but there was a Canadian, some Mexicans, a Trinidadian and some Belizian Mopan Mayans on scholarship. Three teachers joined Chris — Albert Bates, Maria Antoinetta Martinez Ros and and Andrew 'Goodheart' Brown - making an eclectic and experienced team who each brought their own angle. Initially teaching was theory-heavy as we learnt key principles of ecology and of permaculture design. Later in the week we practiced mapping out an area of the farm, using our bodies as rulers - our result was 2,000 square 'Erles' - and learnt how to use a simple A-frame to measure along the contours of a slope to dig a swale - simply a shallow ditch that catches and holds water, but a key tool to build healthy soil.

Piece by piece it started to make sense.

Erle:

We were starting to get a feel for the weather patterns. It had moved from rain most of the day to sun in the morning, rain in the afternoon. The days were beginning to get a little drier and the farm paths were becoming less swamp-like! Practical work that had to be postponed due to the unusual weather was now foremost on our minds. It was time to start putting in place some of the plans Chris had as well as some of the simple designs we had come up with over the last few days.

The morning started with us rebuilding Chris’s graywater system that handles water from all the kitchen sinks. His initial barrel of charcoal and gravel was getting clogged up and smelly from food particles that made it past the sink strainer. He wanted us to install a new barrel next to the one he had so that he could rotate between the two, letting one dry out every so often which would help it stop clogging. We had come up with the idea that if we put a fine mesh over the barrels, most of the food particles would get trapped on it and we could use the chickens to hop onto the barrel and peck the food particles off. One smelly unpleasant task happily carried out by the resident animals with a little bit of thought and design!

We had all the components for the new system. The gravel came from the river, the charcoal from the left over coals from the fireplace and the barrel Chris had found about a year ago dumped by the side of the road. Within an hour the new system was in place. Once the gray water went through the charcoal (to trap most of the chemical within the detergents and soaps) and gravel it was piped into a second barrel that was just filled with gravel. The gravel allowed for a huge surface area over which a bacterial biofilm would grow that would further break down any dissolved organic compounds coming with the water. The water then flowed into and was absorbed by a swale uphill from a row of pineapples planted on contour. One potential waste harvested and recycled. We were closing a loop.

A Deficit of Ducks

Michael:

There's a story that one day a student was lamenting to permaculture's founder, Bill Mollison, about loosing her lettuces to an onslaught of slugs. "You don't have a surplus of slugs problem." he replied. "You have a deficit of ducks". It neatly illustrates the goal of permaculture - to think like an ecosystem and strive always to 'close the loop'.

The carefully fostered illusion of consumer culture is that things magically appear and disappear to satisfy our needs. Yet every bit of matter passing through our hands comes from and returns to the earth's ecosystem and is part of its cycles. (A point made brilliantly in The Story of Stuff). Extraction and disposal have consequences and these can only be ignored for so long before they return to bite us. Simply put, our waste is wasting us - most prominently, our waste carbon, which we thought we could walk away from. Surprise, surprise, we can't. 'Up in smoke' should not be a synonym for disappeared.

Nature works in cycles and so permaculture rejects the whole concept of 'waste'. Waste is a resource that we've not been smart enough to put to good use yet. No good use at all - spent nuclear fuel rods, for example - is a warning that whatever system is producing it has no sustainable place in the world. There's no waste in nature as such.

So one of the key tools we learnt was 'Needs and Yields Analysis'. Each element of a design has needs and yields and the aim is to match them up - to close the loop. The chickens on Chris's farm are my favorite example. They need food, water, space to roam, a safe place for the night. They yield products and useful services: kitchen scraps disappear greedily, turned into tasty eggs and nutrient rich droppings. A big problem for tropical farmers are Leafcutter Ants, or 'Wee Wees'. The fossil fuel solution: put poison in the system, pesticides bought from outside - a complex external industrial product. The permaculture solution: Wee Wees as chicken food. Having been chased from my bed by Soldier Ants I gained a new found respect for the chicken as I watched them gobble up huge-pincered ants streaming from an aggravated nest.

Erle:

My initial exposure to permaculture was an old photocopy of Permaculture 1 handed to me in Trinidad twelve years ago. I had grown up in Kenya, moved to Canada for university and was now looking to go into aquaculture in the Caribbean with my wife who was Trinidadian. We were coming straight out of university with plenty of ideas and information but very little experience. I read Permaculture 1 cover to cover a few times and eventually bought the ‘bible’, the Designers Manual. Those two books kept me busy for the next 8 years as I quietly went about drawing plans, observing, experimenting and slowly watching my drawings come to life on our farm.

We had two young children, were exporting tropical fish to pet stores in Canada, growing flowers for the local market and reforesting whatever space we had no immediate use for. There was hardly anyone else in Trinidad practicing permaculture and no one had heard of the word whenever I brought it up. I had no idea of the permaculture community globally and the only reason I kept going was that it made absolute sense. I had no time for much else.

As the children got a little older, I got into adventure racing, a sport that puts you out in the bush to run, ride and kayak while trying to find markers with only a map and coordinates. Adventure racing and permaculture went well — you’ve got to respect nature, you have to observe and you have to do everything using only the effort your body can put out. I did really well and I also ran into Johnny Stollmeyer, this fifty something year old self described ex-hippy, anarchist, deep ecologist and bioregionalist (none of the words which I knew the meanings of) who had a mohawk, composting toilet, made his living as an artist selling natural jewelry, only wore cotton, made his own natural version of Gatorade that would be fermented by the end of a race and whose knees were not going to take another season of adventure racing. And he knew all about Permaculture. To cut the story short, we eventually hosted the first PDC in Trinidad in 2007 with Peter Bane, which really enlightened me on concepts that I had merely read about as well as opened my eyes to the vast permaculture community globally. Over the next 2 years we started up our own permaculture consulting company and taught our first PDC together. Now I was in Belize taking another PDC to fill in some of my teaching gaps. All of which brings me to the next class.

Our second class for the morning took place in the ‘official’ classroom overlooking the valley. Albert introduced us to the bigger picture. It was time to begin looking past our immediate farms and gardens to the wider picture of communities, ecovillages and cities. We went over the dynamics and logistics of growth, going over the various orders and hierarchies associated with groups of different sizes and the pros and cons of different systems. The pinnacle of the session was Albert’s own experiences of the Farm in Tennessee, one of the oldest intentional communities in the world. To describe what Albert showed us in his presentation would take a whole other article but I will just describe the emotions that most people felt ranging from laughter as he described artists trying to wrap their brains around engineering difficulties in the early years of the community, to tears as he talked about the last bus load of volunteers from Plenty leaving Guatemala (leaving behind locals that eventually died at the hands of the military governments supported by the US), to awe at what was achieved in the Farm over the last 40 years. More than that, the presentation finally filled in many of the gaps I had about the hippie movement, bioregionalism and permaculture on an American scale and gave me a clearer picture of where my teaching partner in Trinidad was coming from. The second loop closed for the day and we hadn’t had lunch yet!

Ben:

Having taken part in two PDC's before, the real reason I came to Central America was to find out if the wet/dry tropics of Belize is a suitable place for a gringo to easily grow food, drink water and start a community -- fun post-peak oil needs that few places on Earth can provide.

Going [on field trip] to Saul's agroforestry farm near the village of San Pedro Columbia, I got an idea of what tropical agriculture could look like. Experimenting for 48 years, Saul, a 71-year old man with strong arms and wise smile, has taught himself how to turn 6 acres of forest into enough food for his family, friends and some for market. His is the classic tale of a man whose community gave him what was thought to be some of the worst land, and he made a little paradise of it.

He cultivates 50-60 species, staying far away from the dangers that monoculture can bring -- not only does monocropping deplete your soil and make growing on the same land more difficult as it erodes away your nutrients, but monocropping also provides no backup crop were a disease to knock out your mainstay crop, and economic relief where demand for a farmer's particular crop of choice could drop, making worthless an entire year or more of work. The high bird diversity is a sign that his polycultural design is working well.

Apart from the work of designing the guilds which determine the plants that best grow together on his land, his days are mostly filled with cleaning out brush and spreading mulch. I wrote notes quickly and his English was hard for me to decipher, but from what I understood he grows mangoes, mahogany, cacao, coffee, sugar cane, avocado, coconuts and more.

At the end of our tour, we broke open some coconuts and drank right out of the fruit. It tasted a bit like Fresca, sans aspartame, carbonation and preservatives. When we had all had enough of the elixir, we crushed some cane juice with a hand-made, hand-cranked double-roller squeezer contraption. The sweet juice dripped from the cane into a tub, from which we all drank. It tasted like Sprite, sans high fructose corn syrup, plastic, and Coca Cola union crushing. I made sure to take a left over cane and chew it on the ride back.

The Source

We walked to "The Source" today, a powerful spring that is the main source of the large creek/small river that lines Christopher's property and provides the bathing, swimming, washing and (sometimes) drinking water for the village a few miles downstream.

I got in the river and stood next to this 3' wide spring, letting it wash up to my chest. Not much of a spiritual person nor a religious one, I still felt a sense of awe. This is the water that came from all parts of the world, evaporated into the sky, formed into clouds, travelled, dropped into this watershed, flowed continuously through the cleansing soil, and burst out to this tiny spot.

Some day, I thought, I will be desperately thirsty, longing for the dream of fresh water exploding right in front of me. I bowed my head completely into the burst of the spring, drinking as I up drenched. Truly a time to live in the moment.

Erle:

Maria, with her beautiful cloth posters, had our attention as we slowly digested yet another meal of corn, beans and freshly picked organic greens! She got us thinking about animals and their uses in permaculture. We tried to focus on the smaller animals that are easier to house and handle in an urban setting. We did needs and yields analyses for many of them and we eventually had to come up with novel uses for animals throughout the household, from frogs and turtles to chickens and goats. We also looked at stacking functions where wastes from one animal could be effectively channeled into resources for another, creating intensive vertical systems in small spaces. We reinforced many of the ideas we were learning and experimenting with earlier in the course with new examples and different situations. Redundancy is an important tool, both in permaculture and teaching!

The rain held off and the afternoon finished with a physical session of A-frame usage (to mark contours), hammering down stakes as markers and a lot of digging as we created swales along some of the swampy paths leading to and from the kitchen and dining area. The swales (drains dug on contour) would prevent water from running directly onto the paths but would hold it long enough to soak into the ground. The freshly exposed earth was then carefully mulched with coconut leaves and whatever other litter we could get to prevent the chickens from scattering it all over the place. We had overlooked this process in the morning resulting in our greywater swales disappearing under a horde of chickens scratching the newly disturbed soils. Guess that’s where the term chicken tractor came from!

Another intensive day ended with our ritual first, second or third swim in the river, a new variation of corn (or maybe we had rice) and beans for dinner and a group ginger peeling and grating session to begin the fermentation process for the ginger beer for the closing party. Yes, we did cover a lot today!

Nature Resplendent
Michael:

So we are part of the loop, but everyday life constantly hides this from us. For me the beauty of studying at MMRF was that you couldn't forget this basic fact: from the bug bites yelling "you're part of the food chain" to the tasty meals cooked from ingredients plucked straight from nearby trees. For the first week I recoiled: used to a more sterile environment I was faintly flustered by it all, by bugs and bites and slippy pathways. Then I relaxed, the unseasonal showers passed, and I felt wonderfully and peacefully at home.

My favorite moments were stolen between classes: swinging gently on the hammock, cool after a swim in the river, just soaking in the sounds; cheeps, flutters, rustles, whistles, pulsing bug rubbings, the high pitched whine and zoom of passing flies; the jungle community going about its daily business, from soil to canopy top. There was a rhythm and intimacy with nature that brought a deep sense of calm.

"Normal": Discuss

As the exotic became more familiar what struck me was that this 'exotic' was nothing of the sort. This is how it has been, day after day, for millions of years. My normal (our normal) everyday life is a freakish aberration: we drive complex machines over fields of asphalt, stopping at filling stations to pay pittance for fossilized sunlight, and then carelessly burn up this rich energy resource (equivalent to thousands of hours of human labor) on activities that we could often happily do without. All civilizations are temporary, perhaps as temporary as their foundations, and we have thrown in our lot with a dwindling treasure trove of inherited energy, egged on by blind faith in free-market capitalism whose priests insist that the mighty market will provide - "We'll cross that bridge..."; "Don't plan ahead (Communist!), believe"; don't save for a rainy day...

The 'normal' has a way of lulling us into a false sense of security and permanence. For hundreds of years life was very 'normal' in this now jungle-filled river valley, when it was part of a bustling Mayan metropolis. One evening we climbed the ridge in the gold of the setting sun and through a clearing in the undergrowth looked at a beautifully set Mayan wall, 1200 years old. Chris told us that there are literally hundreds of house mounds dotted around the farm (his house is in fact built on one). At their zenith the Maya ruled an area from Southern Mexico to Northern Honduras for over 600 years before their civilization declined and came to an end. But we're smarter than them, right? We have Google and ATM machines. And cars. And toilet paper made from ancient forests. The Mayans might beg to differ and challenge us to last a little longer than the century and a half since industrialization began.

Just not seeing it

When I first walked through Chris's farm I saw trees. Just lots of trees. But walk through with Chris as translator and you start to see complex systems, carefully designed and incredibly productive: coffee and cacao shaded under breadnut trees and coconut palms, pineapple crescents catching water and building soil around saplings. My illiteracy was shared by the 'conquerors' five hundred years ago, who lamented the ignorant slash and burn agriculture while missing the carefully managed agroforestry system of the 'fallow' land (see 'Beyond Wilderness: Seeing the Garden in the Jungle').

Yes, we know more than the Mayans. Our scientific method is qualitatively different from what went before. It has given us great power. But perhaps we're all the more stupid for it.

The fertile middle ground

For me the genius of permaculture is that it recognises this stupidity but refuses to fall into the opposite trap of romanticizing past cultures. It respects both the natural systems that ultimately support all life and also the scientific method that has given us so much power to understand and influence them. My interpretation of permaculture as that it is a science-based design system. Ultimately we are completely reliant on nature, but if we approach it with respect we can understand and learn from the systems that keep our world alive. Then we can apply our intelligence and creativity to tweak and mould them to provide generously for human life. It is a middle ground between domination (destined to fail) and subservience (destructive of our humanity), aimed at creating a humane space within the natural world. A garden.

Spades out for the revolution

So that's what it boils down to: permaculture is gardening. And to think as a boy I saw my Grandfather as such an anachronism, with his rows of raspberries and inability to operate a video recorder. If engineers ruled in the 20th Century then perhaps the 21st belongs to the gardeners: scientifically literate, socially influential and operating in their millions. We hope.

'Everything gardens' is a permaculture principle and it was illustrated every night as we carefully stepped over the torch lit highway of Leafcutter Ants, ferrying green chunks in their millions back to their nest. They use the leaves to grow mould that will feed the whole colony. They hardly ever kill a tree, Chris explained, but strip only some branches before moving on. They do not destroy that which they depend upon. The heart of permaculture is learning from nature, and we could take a leaf from their book.

Short Design Project


Ben:

We were all assigned an area around the compost toilet to come up with a little Permacultural paradise. My group comprised of a musician in his early 20's from the Adirondacks, a 47-year-old man from Cancun, and a 19-year-old Mayan agricultural student from the area and me, an optimistic doomer.

While we were tempted to offer our dreams and hopes right off the bat, but as someone who's studied Permaculture design for a while now, I knew we should instead focus on our observations of the area. What were the needs of the site? What were the factors with which we needed to work (sectors) -- where would fire, rain and wind come from? Where was the countour? How do we keep people away from the smell of the toilets?

We quickly designed a dream layout of what it could be like to have a little resort over the acre of land we were given. A pond with stacked functions of water storage, aquaculture, swimming, relaxation, heat relief. Ducks around the pond to eat bugs, mosquito larvae, add biodiversity to the pond and offer us eggs. Swales to slow the water down from the steep slope, spread it, sink it, so it could slowly percolate into the river. We wanted to use trees and vines from the area to design swings and a playground for the kids.

Half the idea was to have a place that would look good in pictures on the website, so as to say, "Hey, come down to tropical paradise!" Maybe the toilets would be cropped out of the shot.

Jon:

The final day of the PDC started with a fantastic breakfast by Gomier and the noticeable absence of the morning circle and our daily reflection on the highlights from the previous day. The mornings contemplation was replaced by the earnest discussion, debate and laughter of each Clan/group continuing to prepare their presentations on the different design elements we had been given. Each clan working feverishly to prepare a presentation that would demonstrate the permaculture principals that that had provided us with so much inspiration throughout the course. The pressure of an afternoon deadline focused attention and chased away any melancholy that might have been caused by the conclusion of the course.

Shortly after lunch the time for the first presentation was upon us. Each group gave confident presentations displaying the permaculture designs that ranged from the small short term solutions to longer term and more ambitious and inventive design solutions. A special mention must be given to the group that Mike and Earl were in and their long term plan to raise a goat army to aid in the [clearing of the old Mayan ruins from jungle and] expansion of MMRF!

Before eating we came together for a final group reflection to share words of encouragement with one another. For me this was a particularly special time and I was moved by the strength of the friendships forged though the sharing of knowledge, food and laughter.

With the finishing touches made to peoples performance pieces we came together for our final meal together and commenced the “No talent show”. What followed was a wonderful mix of performances that ranged from the absolutely hilarious to deeply touching. The show was kicked off with a fantastic skit from Victor who displayed definite acting talent and set the tone for the rest of the show. Musical performances ranged from a comedy permaculture version of Gloria Gainers “I will survive” to the hauntingly beautiful vocal talents of Meadow Eliz. Other performances included poetry readings of peoples favourite peaces and original works, local folklore and touching personal testimony from Mariah. When the show finally wound down and concluded all were left with that pleasant tired feeling that you only get when you have laughed so much that your sides hurt! With this closing act, goodbyes and good nights were said as slowly people drifted off to bed. Festivities continued in the kitchen for a few people who were reluctant to let this magical experience come to end. After a mix of machete juggling, a martial arts display by Chris, a little more singing and a lot more chatting, all were forced to concede to the encroaching sleepiness.

It is difficult for me to find the words to accurately describe just how much my life has been enriched by my time at MMRF and the PDC, but just thinking back on it puts a smile on face and hope in my heart. I would like to thank all involved for making it such an unforgettable experience.

I Will Survive: Permaculture Remix

Michael:

It was a fun-filled night tinged with sadness, as everyone pitched in for the 'No Talent' show that rounded off the two week course. I'll spare you the full version, but my group had 're-designed' Gloria Gaynor's classic 'I will survive' to include lines such as: "At first I was afraid, I was petrified. Kept thinking I could never live without these pesticides" and "But no, not us, we will survive. For as long as we know how to swale I know we'll stay alive." After two weeks we had all become quite fond of each other. I wondered where this group of radical gardeners would get to, and what difference we would make. And why the course was only two thirds full when the 'normal' world is so clearly starting to unravel.

Still, we left inspired, determined to plant and compost to a better future.

Back to Civilization

The bus was pretty swish - air conditioned, reclining chairs, video screens - but I felt uncomfortable. A growing sense of agitation was making me desperate for the journey to end.

We stopped at Gautemala's version of a service station. As I looked round at a forest of plastic, tin cylinders behind glass and bulging humans poking at synthetic food on polyester plates, I realized what I was suffering - culture shock. I was trying to place it all in the natural cycles I'd become used to and so little of it would fit.

It showed the change my fortnight at MMRF had brought. In my five years of 'environmentalism', first of study then work, I've heard lots of theory about living within the earth's limits. Now for the first time I really felt it, in my guts. Permaculture might not be 'the answer' - there's no such thing - but it taught me to see the fundamental logic of our place in the natural order.

More than this, perhaps it might allow me the audacity of hope for a reconciliation between humanity and the world we're currently beating the crap out of. Perhaps environmentalism does not equal atavism. Perhaps MMRF hints at a way forward, rather than a retreat, as the interns check their emails under locally grown bananas: the Apple Mac sitting with the permaculture pineapple.

I don't know yet, but I firmly believe that Bill Mollison was right in 1988 when he wrote that "in the near future we will see the end of wasted energy or the end of civilization as we know it". I just hope that, over two decades later, another of his assertions still holds true: "What we have done, we can undo."

Photos by Albert Bates, A. Goodheart Brown, Colin Dehond, Michael and Jon Buick.

We are offering the course at Maya Mountain again next March, and in the meantime, we will be a participating instructor in three full Permaculture Design Courses that are still open for enrollment. The first is part of our Transition Town effort for our county seat in Tennessee — the whole 72-hour curriculum on Saturdays through the summer from June 13 to August 29, that is mostly intended for local residents, although others are welcome to come and spend the summer. The second is in County Limerick, Ireland, as part of creating Transition Cloughjordon and The Village, from August 24 to September 5, and will have a go at transitioning First World lifestyles to something more closely approximating sustainability. The third is in Puerto Morelos, Mexico in November, and will be applying the principles discussed in Belize to urbanized living in what used to be rural Mexico.

Contact us for additional information, or click through to the Ecovillage Training Center website.
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