much more than gardening

As anyone who has spoken to me in the past week knows, it is difficult to describe the past couple of weeks.  It became clear the moment I stepped out of my car at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC) for a 2-week permaculture design course that what was ahead promised to be life changing.  And it was, though I am not yet able to articulate how.

OAEC is an idyllic place just outside the village of Occidental in western Sonoma County, a beautiful slice of our country.  The two gardens, one of which has been cultivated for forty years, teem with life and variety.  There are ~300 varieties of tomatoes grown here, kale plants that have produced for a decade or more, and heirloom food and medicinal plants from all over the world. We lived in this place for a short time.  We ate the food that we picked.  We had deep discussions and shared our passions.  The only thing we lacked sleep and enough time to cover all that we wanted to discuss and learn.


The word permaculture comes from the words “permanent” and “agriculture.” The most common association with permaculture is its relation to gardening. Yes, it is a method of land management and includes such topics as planting guilds, soil building, water harvesting, and composting.  We learned a lot about these things.  Having read up on the topic over the past few years, I knew that the principles of permaculture were also applied to other systems, such as social and economic ones.  Just how much all of this can apply to other systems is where it becomes difficult to communicate.

JDavidsonBlog130930-10Brock Dolman, course instructor and one of OAEC’s community members, shows us one of the many rainwater catchments on site.

According to the folks at OAEC, permaculture is a design method for creating regenerative human settlement based on natural patterns and processes.  It is about creating conditions conducive to life, wherever that may be.  It is not about striving for sustainable solutions, but for regenerative ones.

There are many principles to permaculture, but here are a few that resonated with me during the course.

  • PATO (Protracted And Thoughtful Observation) – This one word was spoken by all more than any other.  It is long deep study using intuition and our other senses to paint a truer picture of what is present and is the basis for all other actions.
  • Compose with rather than impose upon…requires us to make impact with humility.
  • Stacking functions, where every element performs many functions.
  • Planned redundancy, where every function is supported by many elements. This, along with stacked functions builds a system modeled for resiliency.
  • Make the least change for the greatest effect.
  • The problem is the solution. Whether it is turning waste into food or lemons into lemonade, changing our perspective to make opportunities out of problems is key.

Two of the primary reasons I signed up for this course were because of my desire to one day live a life of low impact on land that feeds me as I feed it and because of my interest in nutrition.  It has become clear to me that much of the dis-ease we see in our society is because we have lost connection with our food, which has stemmed from and caused a loss of connection to the land and to our homes.  For many, food no longer comes from the kitchen but from a drive through window or frozen box.  Even for those who cook from scratch, there is a loss of connection with where food comes from before it lands on a grocery store shelf.  As our lives have become busier, we’ve become less tied to the land that, when healthy, provides nourishment for the plants and animals that in turn provide nourishment to us.  This busyness has also taken us out of the kitchen and away from the dining room table, places where families for generations have bonded deeply and shared gratitude for the provisions before them.

JDavidsonBlog131001-08Scarlett runner beans bring hidden color, shade, food and nitrogen to the garden.

We harvested various greens and flowers, which we later ate in salads and other creative ways.

What I hadn’t given credit to until viewing this idea through the lens of permaculture design is the gravity of our loss of connection with our communities in this equation. During our garden tour at the beginning of the workshop, the lead gardener explained that organic gardening sets a stage for relationship. With these relationships, between plants, animals, the earth, and us, resilience is the result.  Up to now, a desire to be “self-sufficient” has been a driving force in my picture of an ideal life.  However, just as it is in a garden, a monoculture is far from any picture of health.  It is only in coming together with the greater community in our midst…those with common greater goals, but with different ideas, strengths, weaknesses, and methodologies to bring to the table, where a condition of vitality can thrive.

Sheet mulching a yard doesn’t take much time with 30 pairs of hands on deck.

JDavidsonBlog131001-11Neither does swale digging to prepare roads for the winter rains.

JDavidsonBlog131008-101JDavidsonBlog131008-20We all got our feet and hands dirty during the session on natural building.

All of this is a bigger topic of discussion than is allowed for here or in the fourteen jam-packed days that I spent at OAEC.  Regardless of what you call it or where it is applied, it is a conversation worth having and one that plan to chew on for quiet some time.

JDavidsonBlog131004-200Yurts overlooking the north garden were home for us.  Quite a beautiful view from our porches!

JDavidsonBlog130930-17Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden, discusses patterns in nature.

JDavidsonBlog131007-18Erosion control and the removal of invasive species were facets of tending the wild we covered.

JDavidsonBlog131009-02Darren Doherty, who we were fortunate to meet during his speaking schedule in the US, spoke to us about regenerative agriculture.

JDavidsonBlog131009-21JDavidsonBlog131009-22JDavidsonBlog131009-23Tamara Wilder specializes in paleotechnology and taught us how to make string (and in turn ropes) from grass, beads from stones and nuts, and fire through friction.

JDavidsonBlog131004-12JDavidsonBlog131004-14A field trip to the Permaculture Skills Center in Sebastopol showed us what a place can look like after only 18 months of existence, as well as creative use of a discarded boat trailer.

JDavidsonBlog131007-06The catchment pond at OAEC provides 100% of its irrigation water, and also serves as a nice swimming hole.




Some friends near San Diego have one of four falconry schools in the US, West Coast Sky Falconry. They are also avid paragliders.  Hang around with Kirk and Denise for long and they will have you handling birds and flying over the coastline.


One of Kirk’s passions is parahawking.  Yesterday, we took three hawks with us to Torrey Pines in San Deigo, a bluff where people come to step off the cliff, into the air over the Pacific Ocean.  Shanti, Kirk’s oldest hawk went for a ride as well.  What a sight to see this beautiful bird soar alongside and land on his glove as Kirk yells, “Om Shanti” to call her to him.


In the moments before Kirk and I left the ground and he was telling me to keep moving forward, toward the edge of the cliff, I wondered if this was the smartest idea after all.  But that moment that we took flight, all those concerns faded away as serenity and awe took over.  Each time we caught wind and gained elevation, my breath was taken away.  The silence, the grace, the peacefulness of soaring effortlessly through the sky is something that I hope I can recall when life is less than serene.


Back at home base, we wandered from the moutaintop converted barn that is home for the week to a few of many beautiful vistas on a “hawk walk.”  We leapfrogged around the area with gloved hands smeared with raw chicken and called the hawks to us, from one to another along the trail.  An incredible way to watch the last bits of light kiss the landscape and disappear beyond the coastal mountains ~40 miles away.