A couple weekends ago, I kicked off the Permaculture Design Course I’ve been looking forward to (and fundraising for) since June.  I went, with almost 40 other course participants, to an ecological retreat center and former Christian summer camp in the foothills south of Denver for an introductory weekend.  It was wonderful.  There were a few actual class sessions, introducing us to basic Permaculture concepts such as the ethics and principles of Permaculture.  Mostly, though, the weekend was focused on story.

This was not exactly what I thought I was getting into.  I’d thought I was going to be taking, essentially, an agricultural/landscape design course- one that would teach me more holistic methods of growing food and plants than I’d learned so far as an organic farmer.  And while there is that aspect to it, there’s going to be a lot more as well.  During the first introductory session, one of my instructors said, “Our goal is to change how you think.”  It turns out I’m going to be learning how to think more holistically, more mindfully, and how to see the world through a new, whole-systems viewpoint.  Which is exciting me even more now.

We went through a number of exercises of this type of thinking – observing several different small ecosystems on the land around the center, looking at permaculture project case studies – but most of the weekend we spent in community with each other, sharing meals and stories.  Each one of us had the opportunity (and each one took it) to get up in front of everyone, with a visual aide each drew with a small group, and tell their story – where they came from, why they’re here, what they value, and anything else.  Our instructors did the same.  And each one had a compelling story, and we were all united by the feeling that we didn’t quite fit in with how American culture and society have been set up.

In addition to our smaller stories, we also paid a lot of attention to big-picture stories.  We heard the story of the Permaculture movement, the story of the land the retreat center occupied, and in a 15 minute power-point presentation the origin myth, all the way back to the formation of the universe, of Western society.  And Western society (capitalism most significantly) tells a very linear story – much of the way we think can be summarized in the A+B=C way.  It’s also very individualistic, especially in the US with our history of personal freedom, Manifesting Destiny, dominating the land, and so forth.

The story that Permaculture tells is much different, and much closer to (and very much informed by) indigenous ways of thinking.  The cultures who were here before us thought of the world not in a linear fashion, but in a networked, holistic way.  The world is a web, and everything affects everything else.  There is no A+B=C, and I can’t even type the Permaculture alternative, because I’m typing in a straight line.  It’s a story that is much closer to the way things actually work in the real world.

This is what my instructor meant when he said his goal is to change the way we think.  I, for one, am welcoming it – I’ve generally been one to see things differently than the way they’re at first presented, and to look for the hidden connections.  This is what led me to organic farming at first, and now to Permaculture.  But as I’m learning Permaculture, I won’t be learning a better way of farming.  I’ll instead be learning a better way to think about farming, and a better way to tell the story of farming.

I have the feeling, too, that I’ll be learning a better way of telling, and living, my own story… but that will have to wait for a later time.  I have to go work on my first project for the class: the design of a small-scale project, like the corner of a garden, an empty side yard, etc.  More on that later too.

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