Here is the long awaited digested version of my permaculture design course experience. I actually wrote this for somewhere else, but thought I’d share it here with you as well.
I recently spent some time at Laya Point, observing and experiencing changes in myself in rhythm with the changing colours of the leaves of the majestic oak trees of the Duddon valley. I just happened upon this hidden gem of a place, surprisingly vibrant and full with life in what first seems like a very quiet and subdued part of the world. But first impressions could not be more wrong, and I soon found Tom and Lala (who run Laya Point) welcoming whoever crossed their path with open doors, open hearts, and open minds, in what could only be described as an inspiringly infectious manner.
Through a series of coincidences I signed up to do a two-week Permaculture Design Course (a PDC as people in the know tend to call it) at Laya Point, which I thought I would tell you a bit about.
But first a bit of context:
A few weeks after the course I returned to Laya Point, wwoofing, taking the time to digest all that I had learnt and unlearnt during those two intense weeks of permaculture. Over lunch during one of those days, (the food was as delicious as always – freshly lain ducks eggs, tomatoes and greens from the polytunnel, beautiful burgundy beetroot soup) I asked Lala what the story is behind the name Laya Point. She explained that it is a Sanskrit term referring to the state of tranquillity from which action springs, where experiences and learning can come together and interact, and out emerges something fresh and new. It is a place of equilibrium where forces grind to a halt in perfect stillness, all differentiation ceases, and there is no manifestation of objectivity or individuality. But just as a flower goes to seed in order to bloom again, this Laya state is also refreshing and empowering, enabling action and stimulating creation.
Now, imagine 19 different individuals from near and far, South Africa, France, Germany, Sweden, the villages down the road. All coming with our own experiences and ideas of permaculture, life, and what it is all supposed to be about, coming to spend two weeks of uninterrupted time together at this Laya point. Something amazing was bound to happen.
In many ways I feel like I learnt more in those two weeks than from four years of university studies.
Our main teacher was John Champagne, an “elder” of Australian permaculture. He was accompanied by more local teaching talent consisting of Alan Charlton, Tierney Woods, and Jennifer Burtt Lauruol. According to John, the intention behind the design of the PDC is to, in Bill Mollison’s words, teach people how to live on this earth. Fancy that – a 72-hour course to learn something that important. John also said, quite self-assertively, during the first day that this was a course that would change our lives. “Yeah right – I think I have life pretty well sussed out already,” was a thought most of us probably entertained at that point.
But learning how to live on this earth – that covers quite a few topics. We learnt, debated, reflected on, and argued about all kinds of things;
We discussed ethics – what does it mean to, and how do we, and how should we, care for the earth? care for people? practice fair shares?,
Does sustainability have to mean self-sufficiency?,
What is good soil and how can you tell?,
How can you use your water several times over without it being contaminated?,
How do you keep people inspired and energised in community projects?,
What is actually the best way to make a compost (that will, we realized through seeing it in action, turn a full-grown dead otter into soil in 10 days)?,
Where is the best place to build a pond?
How do you get to know a tree using all your senses?,
Why do we need to get to know that tree, or any system in nature for that matter?,
What is our relationship with nature anyway?
What is our relationship with each other?
How do you do anything without exploiting something or somebody else?
How do you keep yourself sane, happy, and healthy in the face of all of this?
Permaculture does not necessarily have the definite answers to these and many more questions, but at least it provides a framework in which we can approach them. It can systematise our way of thinking about all the very complex and interrelated issues we face in the world without our limited human brain being completely overwhelmed.
In between our discussion sessions in the bright airy school building, and our exploration of the landscape around us, we also had the opportunity to pile into a bus, career around the bends of the winding Cumbrian stonewall lined roads and visit different sites in the area where permaculture design was being applied to different degrees. Thus we also learnt about woodland management, making a living out of willow harvesting and weaving, keeping sheep and poultry when living on the edge of a larger town, building houses out of local materials, making solar de-hydrators, planting nut-trees, cooking with thistles, building and using rocket stoves, where to find the time to do all these things, just how tasty a perfect Victoria sponge cake can be… The list could go on.
But most of all, we were prompted, prodded, and provoked to ponder our relationship to these styles of living, to ourselves, and to the world around us. What is actually important in life and how to we go about achieving it in a manner that we can trust and be proud of, even when looking back from seven generations in the future?
I felt like there was learning happening on many different levels. Not only were we instructed in the basics of building swales (a permaculture practice consisting of, in a simplified explanation, slowing down and storing water in the ground by digging ditches on the contour), we were also tuning into our bodies and relaxing them through yoga nidra, gentle walks, and encouraged to open up and share how we were feeling.
Not only were we trampling around the nearby bog using a-frames (another permaculture classic) and laser levels to identify contours and key lines (where the slope of a hill gets steeper, concave to convex slopes if you will) – we were also learning and using many group processes, from silly name-remembering games to singing together, zapping energy at each other, or just squeezing each others hands.
And not only did we do our own designs for life-supporting plots of land on extensive sheets of flipchart paper and colourful expeditions, we also manhandled each other through the spaces in a vertical net of rope, tied ourselves into a knot that took hours to undo, and demonstrated incredible creativity in a no-talent show that certainly deserved its name.
Most of all, we had the space to express ourselves and our gratitude for one another. That is one of the most profound insights I take away from Laya Point – it is so much easier to feel understanding, compassion, and appreciation for ourselves and for others if we are somewhere where there consciously is the space and time to do just that.
The PDC certainly changed my life. I still don’t feel like I know how to live on this earth, but I know why I don’t know, and I feel a little closer to having a well thought through answer, rather than preconceived beliefs and habitual assumptions.
And, I think I can say this for all the participants of the course, some form of magic happened at Laya Point, and we all experienced the meaning of that name on a very profound and personal level. Never was a place more aptly named.