On a mountain ridge in Tennessee, one and half hours south of Nashville, Cliff Davis and his wife Jen, and their three children are living in a two room Amish cabin. Half of their porch is made with bamboo trellises that are covered with kiwi vines for shade, privacy and food. With the exception of some solar panels for charging their cell phones and laptops, one feels catapulted back into time but with a slight twist — Cliff and Jen are permaculture teachers and designers who have taken a piece of cleared land that had been heavily logged and have transformed it into a permaculture homestead and teaching site.
Cliff and Jen have Spiral Ridge Permaculture, Summertown, Tennessee. They specialize in teaching permaculture, regenerative agriculture, small farming systems and homesteading, which gives their PDC students a unique experience. I came to Tennessee to see what they were about after Dave Jacke recommended them to me last year. Being a firm believer that one can always gain new knowledge, and being a permaculture teacher and trainer myself in other countries, I wanted to see how other people who practice permaculture and other alternative methods teach and live. I was not disappointed.
Two thirds of Spiral Ridge’s PDCs are hands-on with the feeling of being in an internship, which gives the entire course much more relevance to our own lives, especially those people interested in having a homestead or small farm.
Jen, and Jessie, one of their assistants, and Nathaniel, a professional organic chef, filled our tummies with some of the most innovative and delicious food I have ever had anywhere. Most of the food comes from their homestead. Jen makes her own kefir drink that tastes like a sparkling soda. Part of the experience was the incredible food, learning how to grow a rich diversity of healthy food on your own land and innovative ways to prepare it. This is as about as “down home” as you can get.
Cliff teaches how to build resilient systems. “Water is everything, especially on a ridge”, said Cliff as he guided us through one of many observation walks on the property. “By the design of water, how and where water moves dictates the zones of use”, Cliff announced. “There’s a lot going on here that you don’t see immediately.” Bench swales, wide enough to walk on, pocket ponds, check dams, different types of pond systems were integrated in such a way throughout their food forests, their surrounding home and zones of use, that we were in awe of what they had accomplished in just four years.
Dynamic ecosystems were in place. Ducks, chickens, rabbits, pigs, goats — all had multiple roles to play. A food forest rich with biodiversity, a closed system, a redundant system, a healthy alive ecosystem that was evolving in front of our eyes. It was an incredible experience. Different species of bamboo, coffee trees, chestnut trees, black locust trees, Russian hawthorn, dwarf cherry, apricots, smooth sumac, osage orange and more mixed with medicinal plants of comfrey, nettle, yarrow, aronia, mixed with berry bushes, mixed with Chinese dates, mixed with buckwheat and clover, and on and on. One of the students named Cliff, “Cliffipedia”, because of his extensive knowledge of so many different species of plants and trees.
Another aspect of Spiral Ridge’s PDC course is how Cliff and Jen approach the course material. Students learn systems for building soil fertility, how to produce healthy agro-ecosystems on a small farm and homestead, bamboo production, a full-on nursery system and holistic management of one’s own life and how to integrate permaculture principles and design into one’s life and our vision of what we wanted for our land. It was all priceless. The course was full on, yet had a very relaxed atmosphere even for some of us type A Northerners. I drove all the way from northern Wisconsin and I will be going back in the fall to take Cliff’s earthworks and food forest design course. Who knows, maybe I will take up banjo or the fiddle and get some of my Irish blood dancing again!