If a Chumash Indian from a few centuries ago was to leap through time to our day, I’m sure he’d break down in tears to see what we’ve done to his world… and demand to be taken back. Actually, I’m confident he’d even make Iron Eyes Cody look apathetic.
We’re nestled in a high valley near New Cuyama (Highway 166), about three hours north of Los Angeles, California. This is Chumash country. Well, at least it used to be…. Years of (highly inappropriate) cattle ranching, amongst other stupidities, in this arid, high desert region has destroyed what was once a wide ranging forest and a rich ecology. The Chumash are believed to have lived sustainably here for more than 15,000 years, followed by Spanish and then European settlement that whittled, trampled and overgrazed the land down to a bare skeleton of what it once was. A trickle-fed pool of water behind me, above a bone-dry creek bed, is all that is left of a stream and river system that once saw pacific ocean steelhead trout making it all the way up here to spawn. The soils in arid climates are slow to build fertility, and sensitive to misuse.
But a vision of restoration has returned to this region. Enter: Quail Springs Learning Oasis and Permaculture Farm. We are here for yet another of Geoff Lawton’s world renowned Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) courses. As a clear sign of the times, the course was quickly fully booked – we’ve had 47 eager students descend upon the project, carrying notebooks and palpable anticipation. They have not been disappointed.
For myself, I wasn’t sure what to expect from two weeks camping under the stars in bear and cougar country. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve camped for two weeks anywhere. It’s been a week now, and I haven’t been eaten – er, obviously. Indeed, all 47 students are in one piece, and the enthusiasm for what we’re doing here seems to be still on the incline – despite landing in an already excited state.
From my perspective, doing a PDC in such a location has many benefits: 1) you’re seperated from the multitude of distractions that normally battle for your attention; 2) significantly, you get to examine the practical application of your course instruction through the progression of development happening on the land and buildings around you, and; 3) taking a course here is half study, half physical and mental regeneration. The environment, the excellent and abundant organic food, and the stimulating lectures and post-lesson discussions all work together so that even as we’re learning how to put the earth back together, we’re also, as individuals, getting somewhat ‘put back together again’ ourselves.
In regards to point #2 – amongst other things, this site is ‘recreating’ the ancient water system, with a vision of one day seeing the steelhead return. It’s an ambitious target, but all the evidence of permaculture efforts worldwide points to this being – with some persistent application of permaculture principles – entirely doable. Indeed, the work has already begun. This year the flow has grown from a normal 4-5 gallons per minute mid-summer flow to 9 gallons per minute – despite the last two years being especially dry. A start has been made in carefully regreening this region, and it’s wonderful to behold. I am sure that the modern day Chumash, who are conducting stewardship endeavours of their own, would appreciate this planet-healing work.
If you live Stateside, and are considering a PDC course, do put Quail Springs on your short-list.
The photos and captions below will give you a few more insights into life and study here:
Geoff Lawton teaching an attentive class in the strawbale classroom
One of Geoff’s famous slideshows
Outside class – studying earthworks. Two students from Liberia came all the way to learn, and will take the knowledge back to benefit their home community
Learning how to use a laser level
Geoff is standing on one of several gabions installed on the property
Mike on the A-Frame Level
Leeann using the site level
Geoff painting earthworks into the sand
Surveying a proposed swale to divert water from the creek-to-come
Don’t worry – it’s not loaded
A mini dam, swale and overflow in the making
Now it’s their turn
These guys are just plain cute
The awesome kitchen staff always impress – I think it’ll be a standing ovation by the end of the course. People are wondering how they’re going to cope when they return home to their standard fare
Seating with a view
Cooling off between classes
It really is an Oasis
Photography: © Craig Mackintosh