by Tamara Griffiths, Ali Ma and Delvin Solkinson
Final Chapter: David Holmgren
Walking into Melliodora was like entering a legend. Here was the landscape where inspiration has proved itself over time with principles and ethics core to a chosen life path.
David and Sue had lived here since 1985 and focused on their land and the Spring Creek Community Forest neighboring the property. Sue started the Hepburn Relocalization Network, a transition movement inspiring local change and helping land people at their home and in their communities. They grow most of their own food and part of their ethic is to feed all staff lunch – which is why the veggie garden has been recently modified. After a beautiful breakfast of congee, toast and preserved fruit we walk the short distance to the primary school where we are using the hall to have classes in.
David is joined by co-facilitator Steve Burns for the course – Steve is well known in Victoria and helped start all the awesome things happening in the nearby Ballarat area. David noted that a large part of the magic of PDCs are what the students bring. The participant-centered learning experience was a great balance of David’s talks illustrated by well organized and dynamic PowerPoint slides and broken up by student comments, questions and illustrative examples of the principles in action.
David’s intention for the course is to break the paralysis in society resulting from the feeling that we need to learn things by being told, reading books and seeing media. He feels that we can learn experientially, directly and quickly from the natural environment around us. For David, nature is our textbook, we just need to relearn how to read it. He highlights map literacy as a key part of our learning and teaching toolkit.
We explore the ethics which are foundations for the principles, then the principles upon which the design methods are anchored, which create the strategies upon which the techniques can be gleaned and finally to specific design solutions built on the foundations of all the other processes. David uses PowerPoint in an interesting and dynamic way, including charts that are built up piece by piece as he talks.
After the welcome introduction, David delved into explaining his 12 permaculture principles. He began by explaining applications. Can we see this principle working in nature? Can we see these principles working in indigenous and traditional places of culture? David and Steve used a brainstorm to find applications for the principles.
The contributions from the group was monitored by a ‘4 blue cards’ system, whereby all participants received 4 chances to contribute, encouraging fair participation opportunity for all. There were certainly some who felt they were exempt from the concept, throwing away a card every second comment or so. Tamara used hers up quite quickly! It was useful to see that there is room for any group to have dominant speakers. This interesting technique limited the input from those who talked more and inspired those who did not talk as much to contribute. A good way to create space for the quieter people.
There was a magical moment when we could see how to use a permaculture principles checklist in relation to any subject or theme, evaluating the presence of permaculture principles to feel the worth of the considered endeavour or project. The principles are a creative way to think about these things.
We then broke up into small groups to discuss which principles we understand the most, and which seems the most overlapping or confusing. As a synthesis we also looked at the application of the principles to particular contexts (eg. keeping goats; clothing yourself; starting a business; raising kids and designing a water supply).
David emphasized limits of permaculture and human development while Bill Mollison emphasized the potentials of permaculture and human development. He notes that each principle is a door into whole systems thinking — it’s really about trying to break things down into compartments, which then get put all back together. It is useful to see some of the elements that make up a whole system. Indeed, David tells us that the real strength of human culture is its capacity to think forward.
Delvin asks David “In light of the relocalization of the world community, what do you see is the future of permaculture education in relation to getting it out to areas that don’t already have existing permaculture teachers?”
There are different ways to extend surplus capacity. Clearly there is a long lineage in permaculture in the sense of it being really useful in poor and underdeveloped places. Permaculture has been part of this whole extension process. I think this issue is really important and a lot of people have been doing great work but it’s fraught with problems. Sometimes in the permaculture world there is this sense that things have been done badly in the past because people have come into it from a difficult point of view. In a global interlinked world any action has ripples.
When we make a purchasing decision, it has effects through the global economy. The whole thing of acting locally is still effecting globally. When we act locally we are having a global impact. When we do something on a local scale we are giving the most powerful message that we can in a positive way to the world. The future of education is having permaculture teachers and designers going to actually join other communities and become local instead of just popping in to give a course.
Interestingly, to keep focus and utilize the break, Steve announces a set of dynamic questions for consideration and exploration during morning tea break.
- What are the ethical traps we find ourselves trapped in?
- Are we actually caught in the same ethical processes as the rest of the world, but have just changed the content and framework?
- Has the permaculture paradigm really allowed us to escape the karma of the world?
- When we think of the grounding of these ethics in our everyday life, are we really still part of consumerism and attachment in the same way the rest of the world is?
Next we do an activity in groups to show examples of how principles relate to biological husbandry (gardening, animal husbandry, farming, forestry, and aquaculture), built environments (tools and technology) as well as human behavior and organization.
In a poignant moment, David comments that the idea that permaculture is common sense is somewhat right, because it is sense but is not so common any more! Another of his wonderful one liners is “nature is an equal opportunity employer, it does not discriminate between species.”
After an outstanding meal of local food, fresh cheese and salad, we met again and went into breakout groups to discuss the principles in light of understandings, challenges and points of confusion. Our group had some interesting discussions as we found that the principles some found the easiest to understand were the most opaque and challenging for others. The group came back together and some of the confusions were brought to David who addressed them. A wonderful exercise in participant directed learning.
We did another group breakout session where groups of 6 were each given a topic — ours was sustainable business — and we were asked to apply all 12 principles to that topic. Our group did a creative mandala process, all contributing individually, then collectively, to create many ideas linking this together. We found the process helpful in learning more about the principles and thinking about how we could evolve a business with permaculture.
The day ended with a wonderful and comprehensive tour of Melliodora including its history and present challenges as well as countless permaculture methods, strategies and techniques. We toured around David’s property, Melliodora, named after the Yellow Box trees (Eucalyptus melliodora), famous for its honey, which grow around the fringe of his land. David explained permaculture in action, climax action, over 20 years of evolution. Integrating zones, sectors, corridors, utilising slopes, harvesting water, designing for disaster and for the needs of extended family.
David’s compost was smoking! The nutrient rich plant additions were the perfect balance to keep the soil fertile and productive. There was noticeably a lack of ‘food forest’ type structures. We were looking for stacked diversity, and were surprised to find what seemed to be the same plant in a long row — e.g. raspberries, strawberries and kitchen garden vegetables. Perhaps they were easier to harvest, all produced a good yield and were staunchly resistant to insects! The property felt loved over time, like a fairy tale, nestled in the town suburbia, with all anyone could wish for permaculturally.
The day began at 6:30 am with a hot breakfast that warmed us up to the very cold day. We reviewed the group evaluation. Most people in the western world have been disabled through media scrambling their pattern language.
David introduced reading the landscape and to observe using as many senses as possible. Listen for bird songs, smell plants, feel dampness and be aware of our feelings and emotions while we are on the land. He is careful to say we must avoid moral judgments about what is good or bad during our reading as these are disabling and distracting for our flow. He instructs us to take lots of samples and photographs, and look for signs of natural and seasonal cycles that might tell us about hidden, subtle or past processes.
David notes the indigenous understanding that the whole past is visible from the present perspective; that ‘everything that has ever been is here now’. We watched a slide show showing examples of reading the landscape and had our eyes opened towards signs in the landscape that tell us something of its past use, biology, weather patterns and history. History can be recent as within one year, ten years, one hundred years, or one million years. We saw how trees were indicators of wind pruning and direction, coastal rock indicators of high storm tides and wave erosion, tree ring counting to indicate age and the amount of growth in each year, leaf color indicating nutrient deficiency and plants indicating soil types. Signs could take the form of volcanic and tectonic movement exposed and eroding along road sides indicating soil types, or the flush of a certain species of Eucalypt that only grows on that kind of soil. Fire impact can be seen through specific species growing as a response, re-establishing the climax community. Their exact species, growth rate and growth forms all tell stories. A flush of lush green leaves, pods or fruits, tell of sustained moist conditions in the past months, while trees curved over and losing foliage and branches on one side may strongly indicate strong winds that may prove damaging over time.
Four walking trails were marked out for groups to walk, photograph, and collect any kind of evidence that verifies elements of the landscape that spoke to individuals and the group. We were encouraged to keep chatter to a minimum and really feel into the exercise, observing elements in nature and in ourselves. We did a ‘reading the landscape’ walk for an hour through a dry grassy ‘Doctor’s Gully’ and had a few experts to help us identify the communications of nature. We did observation, identification and evaluation of indicators suggested by our integration of the observations. The gully we walked through had signs of fire, flooding, mining and wind damage. It was fascinating to combine our powers of integral observation to see what we could read from the landscape. The groups returned together and presented their findings along with observations of the process. This was done by each group showing their photos via the projector and speaking to what they observed. Our group used the speaker that had requested the photo to be taken. We tried to get through quickly as it was a very large group but we’d found so much! David even thinks wombats have returned to the gully judging by the scat we picked up!
David teaches us that paper and reading is so linear, and it is maps that add dimensionality and give the whole system perspective. We can illuminate the maps by building them with photos. From maps you can see patterns of forest, clearing, soil, watersheds, human activity, settlement, and roads.
All meals were wholesome, local and nutritious, enhanced by wonderful preserves including feijoas, berries and black walnut. A warm cup of ground acacia seeds or mixed herb tea infusions kept us perpetually in a state of being unstimulated or under stimulated, which we later found out was by design! However there was talk whether putting students in a learning environment where evolutionary growth was the goal, not discovering how much you miss your favourite caffeine beverage, and to what extent subsequent withdrawals would effect us (especially given we had driven from Crystal Waters the day before the course, then flown and drove further to get there — with only 5 hrs sleep!!!).
In the afternoon we do a map reading exercise reviewing aerial photos to get a sense of Hepburn Springs, reviewing where all the groups went in the morning and seeing where we would be walking on our 4 km afternoon landscape reading hike.
After lunch we walked a loop trail from Melliodora up to the top of a ridge overlooking the diverse surrounding landscape. David explained the story of reading the landscape, pointing out indicators, and encouraging us to see with our own eyes the landscape talking to us.
When on the ground, reading the landscape is like looking at the trees, one stacked behind the next, behind the next, behind the next. It’s like a line, with elements along it. Somehow, it’s observed to be a natural thing that indigenous peoples have an overview perspective when reading the landscape. This line, is turned from horizontal to vertical, and they can overview the landscape from above, taking in the bigger picture, placing themselves relative to all elements in the landscape accordingly.
Much indigenous art demonstrates this with what is essentially pattern mapping, and then overlaying important elements onto this artistic landscape, such as bush foods from the local area — grubs, animals, plants and flowers, depending on the country and the importance of these elements to the people.
Witnessing David provide such wisdom and share such perspective was deeply moving. Here was a man, who was so intrinsically connected to the landscape that he could link the science with the community, the indigenous to the visitor and the heart with the mind, the senses with the innocence and magnificence of life. Up on the mountain, this became unforgettable.
Leaving the hilltop we continued down through mining archaeology and along a path that had been a water race, we were encouraged to gather information through our senses, assimilating them internally. What smells can you sense? Which way is that breeze coming from, does the landscape reflect the same wind direction? Does your periphery vision tell you anything? What birds are around in this season and no other?
Our memory has been stimulated by taking and holding wisdom in our bodies and experience in the senses, not just the literal, verbal or lecture form, but something deeper, something ancient. With this we noticed that we have remembered far more than we first could imagine.
The day ends with a feedback session where David and Steve embrace people’s response to the course. We were given written forms to fill out to anchor this in. We sat in a large circle that mirrored how the course began.
The two power-packed days at Melliodora with David Holmgren will always be remembered. His depth and breadth of knowledge was stunning, coupled with his organizational thinking and way of synthesizing complex concepts into simple digestible chunks. He did well balancing between talking himself, inspiring students to learn and share information and giving a voice to the land itself. The group was a bit bigger than could really be facilitated, an astounding 30 people, so some people missed a lot of the fascinating information on the tour of Melliodora and the main reading the landscape hike. It also meant that the reporting back of the landscape walk was a bit long.
The food was utterly amazing, almost entirely from the property itself, but due to the large class size a lot of the special condiments were eaten long before the last in the line hit the food table, however the food was so good people did not at all seem to mind.
The combination of David and Steve’s facilitation was excellent. We learned an incredible amount during this short full power course, understanding that at the heart of David’s practice was an applied ethical understanding of permaculture principles and reading the landscape. Through a comprehensive inner knowledge of the principles David could talk about any aspect of permaculture. In many ways these were the threads that wove it all together. Similarly by walking around nature, David has access to endless information that was hidden in the sights, sounds, smells and feelings that nature conveyed about not only the present but the entire past as well. This transformative experience was a touchstone in our permaculture practice and we highly recommend anyone interested in evolving as permaculturalists to take this class next time it is offered.
Tamara’s blog is here. She is teaching two free PDCs over 12 weeks for her community starting in January.