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Transforming Landscapes, While Transforming Ourselves – Our Story in Jordan

This is a story of how permaculture transformed the lives of two young Canadians…

At the beginning of November 2006, my partner Jesse left our home in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada on a three month journey to the homeland of permaculture – Australia. Inspired by the teaching styles of Geoff Lawton and Bill Mollison, Jesse returned home determined to make permaculture our full time occupation.

During the next year we implemented permaculture design and dug up lawns for any friend or neighbor brave enough to set us loose in their yard. Encouraged with the results, we were always on the lookout for possible long-term land access, as feeding ourselves from our own garden became ever more important.

Little did we know where this search would take us? One of the many connections Jesse had made in Australia invited us to come and be part of their permaculture project in Liston NSW. What an opportunity!!! We would have access to land and to the permaculture community that has been built in Australia over the last 30 years. After long months of being thrifty and saving pennies we conserved enough money to get to Australia. We gave away most of our possessions to friends and family and in September 2007 we left on that long flight not knowing when we would return.

Immediately, upon our arrival I attended a PDC with Geoff Lawton at the Channon in NSW. It was not until then, that I too became terminally infected by permaculture design. The education that I gained from being around Geoff and Nadia was so much more than practical land design. I learned about how I could put my knowledge and energy to productive and positive use. I was able to work with cows, chickens and sheep, something I had never done before. It was an incredible and productive learning experience.

Over the next six months we balanced our time between the project in Liston and the Permaculture Research Institute, working to build confidence in the practical application of permaculture design and soaking up knowledge from those around us. It was challenging, intense and deeply rewarding. The knowledge sharing and positive environment of the permaculture community was one of the most enriching times of my life. The amount of meaningful cooperative connections we are now part of demonstrates that the world is a positive and creative place.

What would we do, though, after our six months in Australia ended? It was during one of my musings of this situation that Nadia Lawton suggested a project in her home village, al Joufah, Jordan. Contributing to global permaculture movement was always our intent, and Jordan was our new direction. At the time of our involvement the project was still very young, but we had space to learn and the support of Nadia’s family during our stay. We could not pass up the opportunity to spend time with a new land, people and culture.

Again we collected our pennies purchased tickets and arranged a budget to stay in Jordan for six months – living, working and contributing as much as we could.

Our home, in Vancouver, is in a part of the world that often receives more than 1,500mm of rain in a year and rarely sees temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius. It is a force of habit to complain about the rain. Going to Jordan was important to us because we wanted the challenge of being somewhere so completely different from our home and daily experiences. We did not want it to be easy – a holiday or tourist adventure. We were looking to put our abilities to the test.

We left Brisbane, Australia February 26th, 2008 and arrived with no trouble in al Joufah, Jordan on the evening of February 27th, 2008. We spoke no Arabic and Nadia’s family little English. After a week or two of adjustment time we began working with the land. At the end of our first month had a brief trip to Palestine where we taught a 5-day workshop on Permaculture. The trip into occupied Palestine is a whole other story.


On-contour swales filled with soil

When we returned we hand dug earth works for water harvesting and harmonized the landscape with on contour rock wall swales that had been put up by Nadia earlier on in the year. After many hours of digging and intensive soil preparation we planted 87 hardy pioneer trees above and below the three rock wall swales. Initially, we watered by hand making sure that each tree received proper care and attention. We redesigned the existing gravity fed drip irrigation system to ensure that all the trees could be watered easily and efficiently. All of this sounds so simple on paper but none of our efforts went perfectly and it was a steep learning curve but rewarding.

We made many mistakes and learned something new on a daily basis. Everyday life was teaching us heaps about the land, people and culture in the Dead Sea Valley. The challenges of this particular situation came in all forms. Not only were the practical aspects of design in such an arid climate difficult, the culture shock, completely altered living conditions, and acute health issues caused us to lose pace. All of this is standard issue when traveling.

We planned to spend a total of 6 months in Jordan, regrettably our health and finances exhausted rapidly. So the trip was cut short by two months in order to recharge back in Australia before heading home to Canada. The decision was hard on us but we had to look after ourselves and do what was best for the community. Had we stayed on in Al Joufah, beyond our means, we would have become a burden more than help!

In Jordan, like all places, the importance of locals becoming involved is primary to the success of a project. One switched on Jordanian equals magnitudes more than 20 well-intentioned foreigners. Only locals can truly understand the complicated dynamics of culture, protocol and poverty in the Dead Sea Valley. Having lived there during some of the hottest months of the year, Jesse and I can empathize, but never truly understand what it is like to be a permanent resident of the Valley. We were often accompanied by locals and had the honor of being at the dinner plate with them daily. This is where we discussed life and family as well as permaculture in a little English and our inadequate Arabic. We experienced the complex and completely different living environment of a traditional Bedouin/Arab community – learning about traditional medicine, Islam and the daily struggles of the people who live here. During our stay we earned a lifetime worth of practical experience.

The most important thing I learned about was the false and prevailing idea that people need to be ‘educated’. The education many receive is different than ours. It fits their situation and immediate needs. In the absence of long term formalized western style education the people of the Dead Sea have an abundance of everyday ingenuity. A very lean economy has forced creativity on the slimmest of resource bases. What is missing is empowerment.

The wave of western culture collides with the traditional communities and results in a disempowered people that do not feel capable of change. The reality is that they are fully capable of change, when the skills and knowledge that have helped them to survive in the past are reestablished. The wisdom contained in a traditional culture needs to be looked upon as valuable, not backwards or outdated. Working in a foreign land can often be frustrating, but one can never assume that local people do not wish to see change. No matter where Jesse and I have traveled in the world there is always room for better design. Whether we were in Vancouver, Liston, Al Joufah or Palestine, building relationships was the most difficult and important part. Our success as teachers and designers was dependent upon our ability to understand peoples needs, their comfort level and how we could help demonstrate the number of options people have at their disposal.

It was a journey that pushed us to the edge of our experience level in every aspect. We can only hope that we left behind half as much as we took away.

We now have our own permaculture education centre in Canada, called Pacific Permaculture. We are teaching others everything we have learned and work to inspire others in the way that we have been inspired. We keep in touch with all of our friends in Australia and the Middle East family and hope to return some time in the future. Until that day we fan the flame of action from a distance.

A big ‘thank you’ to all who have offered support, encouragement and a place to rest our heads along the way!:

  • Geoff and Nadia Lawton
  • The Abu Yahia Family, Al Joufah
  • The Gemmell Family of Noosa
  • Kelenik Pty Limited
  • Milkwood Permaculture

Tanya and her partner Jesse presently reside on Denman Island, British Columbia, Canada where they divide their time between orchard work, fishing, mushroom hunting and Pacific Permaculture. Pacific Permaculture is a service which focuses on education and design in both urban and rural settings.

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4 Comments

  1. Thank you Tanya for sharing your wonderful experience.
    It is just what I need to hear… to keep me going and keep me inspired…

  2. Tanya and Jesse, what a wonderful story! I didn’t realize what sacrifices you two were making in order to travel to development sites. Your commitment is an inspiration. I’m honored to have been one of your first students back on Canadian soil. Thank you!

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