Tiny Homes in a Capitalist System

The recent rise in popularity of tiny homes coupled with our visit to Blue Jay Lake Farm on Cortez Island has brought up some questions for me regarding the reasons more and more people are choosing this route when it comes to housing. At first glance, tiny homes make a lot of sense. Land and houses are expensive so if you don’t own land and don’t have much money, building a relatively cheap home that is moveable makes a lot of sense. It makes having a place to call home a realistic possibility while also allowing the ability to move the home if the time comes when the land you are living on is no longer made available to you. The homes we were shown were also designed to be very energy efficient using passive solar systems in their design that allowed for reduced energy consumption.

tiny home 1

It does make a lot of sense. Having a place to call your own that is energy efficient, affordable, made with repurposed building materials and is movable IS a realistic, more sustainable and environmentally responsible option. The trouble I have with the tiny home concept arises from larger societal issues regarding the costs of land and living and unequal distribution of wealth.

The question is if access to land and homes wasn’t so limited, would you choose to live in a home that is a mere 300 square feet. Perhaps some of you would but I know I wouldn’t. I certainly don’t ever picture myself living in a mansion but I do feel that living in a home where there is space to move freely, work on large projects and have friends over for a gathering without feeling squished is a pretty important part of having a home.

tiny home 2

In a sense I feel that the rising popularity of tiny homes really demonstrates the concept of the ‘individualisation of responsibility’. People get caught up in thinking that they as an individual through their personal choices and how they live their lives can change the world. In a lot of important ways this is true but it also deflects responsibility away from established social and political institutions that rely on inequalities, oppression and exploitation.

People make the choice to build and live in a tiny home for all the right reasons but my concern is that the idea gets kind of romanticized and the underlying reasons and larger societal problems aren’t considered. In my opinion, people are choosing to live in tiny homes because it is what they can afford. They are building homes that are movable because they can’t afford to buy land and don’t have long term stability on the land that they do have access to. This points to a much larger problem, one that will not be fixed one tiny home at a time.



There was that light beyond all lights

By Mike Graeme

A pollen heaven in the rhododendrons of the Channel Rock garden growing on Klahoose traditional territory. “…[T]he bees are still busy and the honey scent of the flowers on which they feast drifts in my window at dusk. Not very far away are the shaman’s cave and pictographs. Here, it seems, he practised his magic and taught it to novices. Here in this Protected Place, this Plain of Honey, this Fairyland.” -Gilean Douglas, from The Protected Place

I remember first seeing a picture of the clam-shaped house of the permaculture educational conservancy at Channel Rock during Hannah Roessler’s guest lecture in Environment Studies 200 class and being awed by the ingenuity of such a design. Its arguable whether this might be considered an example of permaculture principle Mimicking Nature, for in truth clams have evolved their specific shape for the purposes of movement, allowing it an ideal form for rocking in back-and-forth motion. Nonetheless, the clam-like shape of the house at Channel Rock allows for the back (north) side of the house to keep cool and dank, providing an ideal location (i.e., Using Relative Location) for a root cellar and pantry, while the yawning south-facing side of the house allows light to penetrate and heat the house. In a perfect example of passive solar heating, the angle of the clam-house allows light to fully penetrate through the windows in the winter when the sun is low on the horizon, while the shade produced by the lofty summer sun provides natural cooling.

Behind this honey suckle is the door to the root cellar on the north end of the clam house, presumably filled with jewel-coloured jars of preserves. “The prime example [of the first homestead food storages on Cortes Island] was Gilean Douglas’ root cellar at Channel Rock, which was built in the 1930s and was in use until 1993. With its brightly painted white shelves holding an array of jewel-coloured jars of preserves, and the wooden bins underneath full of root vegetables and apples, it was the very picture of abundance & self-sufficiency.
Of the total floor area in the house, the designers have ensured the floor space that falls directly behind the glass windows is in the decisive self-regulating range of 7-13% to prevent over heating in the summer. Further, the precise accuracy of the two roof angles allows only the winter sun to glare its full radiance on the back wall, where it is absorbed into the naturally sourced thermal mass of cob: a synergy of permaculture principles Catch and Store Energy and Use the Biological Resources Available.

Steph Asbeck standing on the first level of the clam house’s living roof, performing a proper permaculture sun sector salutation with Mollison’s “Introduction to Permaculture” in hand.

The building materials for the house also include local sawdust, clay and wood. The breathable clay walls provide self-regulation of moisture as well as an inhospitable environment for bugs, while the wood, by being sourced from the property, serves the multiple functions of providing the house with a sturdy structure as well as thinning out the nearby forest, thereby protecting the place from fire hazard. Moreover, the “living roof” held up by the wood beams contributes to curtailing the recent unprecedented flooding of the garden by fostering a “slow it, spread it, sink it” function.

Inside the house permaculture apprentices actively learn about passive solar.

In another example of catch and store energy, Mark shows us the solar panels atop the Channel Rock bluffs. He stresses that solar panels aren’t a completely sustainable solution. Indeed, they harness solar energy from the sun in a greenhouse gas-free fashion, yet they require batteries, which are toxic, and, Mark remarks, their material lifespan is a mere 20-25 years. If solar energy is relied on excessively, then the system required would be a colossal contraption cycling into the mounds of non-biological resource crap that Oliver Kellhammer and his troops of permaculture-blitz guerillas are trying to clean up from the environment—and this isn’t to mention their embodied energy (i.e., the energy that goes into producing such material technologies).

“[And] what is waste? …nature, the nourisher and spacemaker, knows nothing of waste. A thousand seeds, a million insects too many? Too many for what or whom? only for us, on our humanherded earth.” -Gilean Douglas, from The Protected Place
One day, perhaps, biomimicry will become so correspondent to nature that it reaches a stage of Producing No Waste. One can hope a long-lasting, nontoxic solar cell of the perma-future is on the horizon. Biomimicry innovation expert Janine Benyus recounts recent studies into a leaf’s capacity for capturing energy in order to create a molecular-sized cell, a “light-sensitive “pentad” [that] mimics a photosynthetic reaction center, creating a tiny, sun-powered battery.” And, recalling the previous clam mimicry, solar power innovators are also finding inspiration in the Giant clam, which engages in a symbiotic relationship with photosynthesizing algae. Not only are carbohydrates received by clams in exchange for nitrogen-rich clam waste they return to the algae, but biomimickers have noticed that the lighting effect of the iridescent cells produced within clamshells actually enhances photosynthesis in the algae, and, therefore, emulating this quality might make a manifold increase in the catch and store potential of solar cells.

In the front yard of Gilean Douglas’s house on Channel Rock a wooden sculpture sits in gratitude of the world’s loveliness, seashells piled at its feet. “Perhaps solitude is a shell, protecting sensitivity against the cruelty of the world…[while] all loveliness is a reflection of the life illumination and our straining towards it is an acknowledgment of the source.” -Gilean Douglas, from The Protected Place
This goes to show that nature’s solutions are rampant and are being discovered at a breakneck (or littleneck?) pace. They are found even in the subtle treasure chest of a clamshell, yet there is likely no panacea. Mark says that first and foremost we must learn to use less. The permaculture principle Use and Value Diversity points to the varying advantages of using both passive solar and solar cells as we work towards a better world that is alight with loveliness and in which we are sufficed with what we have. “Slowly, surely, [the light] will come back a little bit more each day,” wrote Gilean Douglas on the winter solstice, “As slowly and surely as it is coming to the human world, even though here and there are dark minds—as there are dark places in the forest to which light barely penetrates.”

Hannah and Paige outside Gilean Douglas’s old homestead on Channel Rock. “Now…there are those bursts of light through billowing black clouds, showering the sea with silver sparks.” -Gilean Douglas, from The Protected Place
“Above all, there was that light beyond all lights which seems to shine right through you when you have done your best and joyed in the doing.” -Gilean Douglas, from The Protected Place


An Ode to Humble Generalists, Experts and Risk Takers

Look at this, a bunch of young generalists sharing knowledge and reflections online. What a beautiful extension of the type of learning we have been engaging in all week long. Throughout our field course we learned from a variety of growers/philosophizers who had their own unique take-on and practice-of “permaculture”. Many of the “permaculturalists” we were learning from had dropped out of post-secondary, and yet here we were, in a university accredited course, absorbing valuable information and inspiration from these folks. In academia we are encouraged to specialize in order to succeed, we are told to follow a certain safe path to success. Let us question safety, authority, expertise!

Learning from a UVic drop out

So what makes an expert anyways? Why are we told to gather information from certain knowledge holders and not others? Is it the amount of degrees one has racked up? The number of peer reviewed publications their name is attached to? Is it how long you have spent honing a skill? The humble folks we met considered themselves non-experts yet had immense knowledge to share. There is something really admirable about that.

Here’s to those who have learned from experience! Here’s to those who have failed and have something to share about it! Here’s to those with many passions! Experts can be generalists, they are just simply expert-generalists. Permaculturalists tend to be generalists. One could spend a lifetime devoted to just one topic we covered in the PDC, however that isn’t necessarily going to be conducive to supporting a whole system, or a whole heart.

There is a certain anxiety that comes with being a perma-newbie-non-expert-generalist. Am I doing this right? Should I prune this? Will this make me sick? My education thus far hasn’t encouraged me to take risks. However, the folks we learned from throughout this course were experts and inspirations in the art of risk taking. Jump in with both feet they say! It’s okay to not be great for a while they say!

Our friend Meat Punk Max, is one of those self-described non-experts and feels like he’s doin’ a-okay! He’s content in his generalism, and he’s critical of the idea of people who don’t try because they don’t know everything. Then there is Oliver Kelhammer, and artist who happens to be an ecology master. He reminded us of the change making power that is in each of us, if we just let it out.

Learning from these non-expert experts over the past week has inspired me to be less caught up in needing to know everything before I can be proud of myself for knowing and doing some things, before I can confidently share the knowledge I do have, before I can try my hand at a new skill. I do however want to take a quick moment check my privilege; to honour the fact that not everyone can take risks in the same way, not everyone has the same social safety nets to fall back on, or the opportunity, support, time and money to get started.

The Intellectual Drop Outs

IMG_1416The idea of going to university was never really my idea, it was to an extent. I knew that eventually I would like to go to school so that I could develop my knowledge base on a subject that (hopefully) I found interesting and willing to spend my life and career exploring. But I was never big on the idea of going to University at such a young age. However the all encompassing parental overlords said what they needed to say and off I went away to University at the age of 19. I would grumble to all my friends that spend their late teens and early twenties exploring the globe or developing new attributes, about how unfair my education was treating me. How I should be jetting off to Malaysia or Chile instead of dragging myself out of bed every morning to 830 labs and lectures I didn’t really want to be a part of. I’d constantly threaten and dream up scenarios in my head of walking out mid-class, throwing my notebooks in the recycling bin ( (; ), and leaving, never to return to the academic lifestyle I seemed to loath so much.

Our Cortes retreat exposed us to so many different, cool people explaining their lives, as well as their life choices and I was smug (maybe even giddy) to find out, most of these interesting, imaginative and intelligent individuals had done exactly what I wanted to do! They dropped out! They up and left the academic system and from the sounds of it, they haven’t seem to have looked back once! I couldn’t wait to tell my parents I was right all along. I didn’t have to go to university to be smart or capable; I just needed…

Oh wait. I still needed something I didn’t have. And that was direction. It occurred to me then that I hadn’t a single clue what I’d do if I dropped out of school. Well I did, but nothing that I could consider a ‘life goal’. These interesting characters we had the opportunity of meeting all seemed to have a direction, to know what they were doing, and do it with passion and commitment. I was envious of that. Where do I find this mythical direction, passion, life calling. It occurred to me that I wanted to be like these people, to be like these various drop outs, not because they were drop outs but because they followed their passions. And then I made an even bigger realization. I hadn’t found a passionate cause yet. How could I possibly drop out of school to follow my dreams if I didn’t have any dreams to follow!

It’s easy to complain about the education system. There’s A LOT to complain about, ask any student you come across. But it’s also easy to think about all that an education can provide. If it wasn’t for university I wouldn’t even know who these intellectual drop outs were, never mind permaculture, ecology, geomorphology or entomology. School provides you with knowledge but more importantly (in my opinion) in can open provide you with direction, opportunity, relationships and passion. The intellectual drop outs left the education system because they felt blocked from pursing the goals and passions that they were drawn to. But as much as I hate to admit, for me, school has opened more opportunities than it’s blocked, and I think that’s good enough reason to ride it out and see what else it can open for me. Besides, if I feel like I’ve exhausted all the resources the education system can provide me, I can always drop out.

Catalyst Podcast Ep. 1: Performance Farming with Adam McPhail

I’ve wanted to start a podcast for a while. I love talking to people and hearing their stories, and often learn so much about life and myself in the process. The PDC course brought me a lot of firsts: first field school, first time sharing my own music and hooping for an audience, and first time interviewing someone with the intent of making a podcast.

The start:
I initially approached Tamara McPhail about doing an interview, which never materialized. I was very interested in the story of how a team of women battled with the courts for years to win the deed to Linnaea Farm. This woman is so inspiring, confident, and wise. I wanted to get to know her but also felt hugely intimidated, and I also got the feeling I was asking questions that were not really my place to ask. During our brief chat we talked about some things that I was very curious about, namely the parts of farm life that we were not immediately privy to. The hard times, the personal conflicts, the realities of living in what, in a purely economic view, is poverty. Me, ever the journalist, wanted the ‘real deal’, the ‘true story’ of farm life. I knew the breezy picture we got in the beginning of our stay could not be the whole picture.

Tamara succinctly called it ‘Farm Porn’. Seductive images and storylines of farm life that we valorize, but when the lights turn back on the gritty reality is unmasked. Farm life is physically and mentally extremely hard work with little to show in economic payoff. Although living deeply in connection with the land has a magnificent intangible value, it is the little things that start to chip away at that veneer, such as affording to retire, go to the dentist, and send children to university. Perhaps with more student groups and a revamped educational centre we can build more successional stages into the ongoing growth of Linnaea Farm.

With no sign of Tamara I approached Adam after his final lecture and asked if he would like to chat. Luckily Adam agreed to spend some time with me and shared his story. I am so happy I got a chance to get to know this incredibly wise, intelligent, and funny person. I hope you enjoy this candid interview!

Some quotes from Adam:

“Somewhere between science and our own will there are solutions.”

“We have to be strong and vulnerable all at the same bloody time. Keep that spirit up, like I CAN DO IT!”

“Living is performance is art is beautiful”

Personal Reflection:
Adam brought up a point that brought into question the agricultural programs now offered by universities- before this was common a small farm like Linnaea didn’t have to compete with flashy new educational programs. Now the market for ‘farm knowledge’ is being taken over by well-funded educational programs that have been developed in a classroom rather than by the farmers themselves. Coming to Linnaea from exactly a university run program definitely took on a different hue after that piece of insight was offered- why do the little guys always lose??

If I had a say in the matter I would wholeheartedly support these world-wise and hardworking people to spread their deep knowledge and support their endeavours. I hope this podcast can shed a little light and bring a little wealth to Linnaea Farms and her Stewards. In particular Adam highlighted the history and traditions of Linnaea as something newer educational farm sites do not have. A rich culture of land stewardship, community, and conflict is often something I feel disconnected from as a ‘terrible white person’, but while at Linnaea I learned that traditional knowledge is something everyone has access too. It is borne not solely from ancestry, but can also come from developing an ongoing relationship with the land.

Further Info:
Check out Adams zany, intelligent, and informative farming videos on his FARMOUT broadcast.




Organizing the organic oligarchy

As we toured the Production Garden with Adam Shaikh the Market Gardener of Linnaea Farm, we were treated to exemplary permaculture designs in action. With meticulous records to back him up, Adam walked us through the garden from veggie starts in the greenhouse to the full crop rotation system occurring throughout the acre already buzzing with bees, humans, and birds of all kinds.

Adam spoke to us of the ups and downs of making your living off the land… then we helped him weed the garden, of course!

But something lurked beneath this idyllic scene. Adam spoke of the difficulties with obtaining and maintaining organic certification recognized through a governing body, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

The CFIA operates legislation enacted in 2009 to monitor and enforce Organic Products Regulations. The CFIA accredits (for-profit) certification bodies who have the power to classify products as organic or otherwise.

No longer a trust-based agreement, the organic certification grew to be overseen by higher governing bodies, while the gap between farmer and consumer has also grown steadily.

Supply and demand means even massive retailers such as Walmart have brought in organic produce. Customers are willing to pay more for organic groceries, meaning this is big business in action. Agriculture is a massive industry, but organic sales in Canada alone were almost $3 billion dollars in 2012, reaching almost $US 63 billion globally in 2011. Consumer demands are growing, and some predict the desire for an organic industry may overpower what certified organic growers can produce. People generally believe, often without merit, that organic food is higher in safety, nutrition, and health benefits. Of course there are many real benefits to eating organic, but on a multinational scale is when things go awry. This can lead to profitable corporations manipulating consumers through the lobbying the regulatory process and taking advantage of legal loopholes (such as when tap water was certified organic by the USDA).

What does this mean for small-scale farmers? To certify your farm as organic necessitates an increase in annual expenses, paperwork and all the bureaucracy involved with a third-party determining you’re worthy of an organic designation. And yet often organic certification lacks robust testing to ensure complete lack of pesticides in products that have paid the hefty premium to be included in the exclusive organic club.

Market gardeners such as Adam have resorted to relying on their unique name brand rather than following an overarching governing body who determines the qualifications across a massive industry in an even larger country. “People know Linnaea Farm produce” says Adam. Linnaea Farm has a well-deserved reputation which helps sell their products throughout the year at both local markets and through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, valuable sources of income for the resident stewards of the land. This method of growing local economies works to strengthen food security and engage relationships between farmers and consumers that can be lost in the growing demands for year-round produce regardless of season.

Where is my wilderness?

Is this a forest or an old strip mall? By the end of this you might question the difference. (Or be like: “Zach, that is clearly a forest. What are you talking about?”)

By Zach Cameron

In permaculture design, the concept of zones is fundamental to planning out a space. Zones are numbered 1 to 5, where zone 1 areas are daily used spaces and zone 5 areas are unmanaged wilderness.  But as Bloom and Boehnlein describe in their book Practical Permaculture for Home Landscapes, Your Community, and the Whole Earth, the idea of wilderness as unmanaged is false. Especially within the coastal regions of British Columbia like Cortes, indigenous people have intensely managed forests and other areas in order to maintain productive lands. Settlers also change the landscape constantly through activities such as logging, clearing land for agriculture and development, and many other transformative activities. So what is wilderness?

While walking through the forested area at Hank’s Beach Forest Conservation Park, we were stopped at a point in the forest and asked to look around. It took a few minutes, but eventually we saw the abrupt line in the forest. On one side of the line there was dense forest with many different ages and species of trees, on the other side there were fewer trees and a dense undergrowth of ferns and bushes. What we were looking at was the cut off between older forest and the regrowth after logging. This land had been changed by human activity whether we recognize it or not.

Another example of unseen human development was at an abandoned homestead next to the property of Oliver Kellhammer, a guest lecturer during our stay at Linnaea Farm. After a trek through dense bushes and sword ferns, we found ourselves in a relatively flat, open space of young grand fir and moss. Oliver explained that this area was actually an old tennis court. To prove it, he casually pushed aside the layers of moss to reveal an underlying layer of concrete, the white lines of the tennis court still visible, while we all stood in vague disbelief. Once again, the landscape had been completely changed by human action and we had no idea.

In retrospect we probably should have questioned the flat open space after all of the branches our faces walked through to get there.

It is amazing how easily landscapes change due to human activities and are just as easily forgotten. When so much of nature has been influenced by human activity either directly or indirectly, it starts to be questionable whether true wilderness devoid of human influence really exists. Parks meant to conserve nature are inherently fabricated due to our attempts to keep them static in history. If areas are not conserved, they become corrupted by human impacts nobody tried to prevent from degrading them. Whether an area is protected or not, our influence as a species is so large that the chances are human influence will reach it eventually. Oliver described the reclamation of old industrial sites by nature as a sort of rewilding, but with this example the circumstances are heavily influenced by the context of human development. Could this be true wilderness?

No, there is no true wilderness, at least not the popular definition of wilderness that defines land as untouched by human hands, pristine and something to revere. We constantly try to remove ourselves from nature even though we are an integral part of it. This limits our interactions with nature, usually this means we either abuse it because we believe there to be no consequences or we don’t do anything to it for fear we will destroy it. Neither view is particularly good. Indigenous peoples around the world have found ways to survive without destroying nature, you would think the rest of the world would be able to as well. As we change, nature changes and there is nothing we can do to change that.

Thinking beyond sustainability (let’s focus on that thinking part)

I think I think too much about thinking. BUT IT IS SO COOL. There is this guy, Glenn Aparicio Parry, who wrote a book called ‘Original Thinking’ and I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between his thoughts and Tamara’s actions. As Tamara walked us through the pastures, she spoke of a deep-rooted connection between herself and the land she was on. Like Parry suggests, Tamara (at least from what I gathered) thinks in sync with nature and integrates head, hand and heart into all she does (what up ecofeminism!!). She described having this “energy exchange with the farm,” whereby everything is interconnected and functions based on the health of all parts of the system. Tamara may not label herself or her actions as permaculty, but as an eager student it is easy to see the similarities.

Look at all that energy exchanging between Tamara, the cows, the trees, the weeds, the air, the earth… Okay, but seriously, look at it!

Let’s get back to Perry for a second. I understand he’s not the only person who thinks along these lines, but it was the last book I read (okay maybe it was skimmed), so hear me out. Perry describes “original thinking” as thinking that is “reconnected with a deep place of origin,” essentially it is place based. Now along with this he talks about thinking in a non-linear fashion (funny thing is the way he writes about this is super boring and linear… hypocrite much?). Anyway, his bottom line is that rather than suppressing intuitive thoughts, we must act on them and encourage that visceral feeling that comes with observation and interaction with the natural world. Perry says that by practicing that sense of belonging in our thought processes, we can connect with and feel a part of nature. Now I’ll be the first person to point out the issues that come with being too absorbed by academic theory, but there are moments when you can apply theory with practice and it is like the fireworks go off and the jigsaw puzzle is complete. I felt a little like that when Tamara was touring us through the farm.

What I appreciate about permaculture is that it is a method of putting all we have learnt in environmental studies into a place-based practice. From ecological restoration to political ecology to systems theory and beyond, all of those ideas must be intimately considered when designing with the land for maximum efficiency. This application needs both theory and experience for it to work, and it all begins in our complex and beautiful minds. Not minds that have been trained to come in a box set, but minds that are wild and running on the energy found beneath our feet.

Let’s ruminate on this for a moment longer. In nature, straight lines are the chaotic ones. Why must we walk from A to B, when there are herbs to pick, cow patties to jump over, and lakes to paddle on? No doubt, there are places for linear thinking. Adam’s market garden is one example, though even then you can integrate system thinking in terms of rotating crops and phenology. A lot of energy is expelled to keep things like carrot rows in order, but there is reason to it. By reflecting nature’s own symmetry, we can embrace the complexity of all living things all while conserving energy. So why doesn’t our society encourage “original thinking”? Are we scared? Or is that we have simply been trained to think that certain way in the last couple hundred of years and need to be reminded of other options? Whatever it is, I think it is high time we begin retraining how we think! So how can we allow our thoughts to root in the dirt under our feet and eventually sprout through our ears in all its weird n weedy complexity? Hmmm. Guess we better think on it.


Invasive or Oportunistic -Whose Home is it Anyways?

Hey invasive species, you’re not that bad. I mean, I’m sorry for pulling you out and stuff but you can just get really overbearing sometimes. Maybe we can talk things through, I mean Ivy,  you’ve got a lot of weaving potential. And thistle, you’re hella medicinal. So whadda ya say? Truce?

Ps. You’re still not allowed in the Garry Oak Meadows…

Some potentially invasive species sitting under an exotic Hawthorne tree- a prime plant for living fences and grafting.

Travelling species wreaking havoc are an inevitable side effect of the hyper connected world we now live in. As part of the Ecological Restoration club at UVic, a question I am constantly contemplating is that of ethics and invasive species removal. On one hand, humans are ( a large part of) the reason why so many species have been introduced into sensitive ecosystems, leading my opinions to think that we should claim responsibility for our screw-ups and restore. On the other hand, recent attempts at environmental management- or mismanagement- have lead to seemingly more harm than good. Is it our place to interfere with ecosystems?

Click the photo for more morbid chuckles

“It is only our limited time frame that creates the whole “natives versus exotics” controversy. Wind animals, sea currents, and continental drift have always dispersed species into new environments… The planet has been awash in surging , swarming species movement since life began. The fact that it is not one great homogeneous tangled weed lot is persuasive testimony to the fact that intact ecosystems are very difficult to invade.”

― Toby Hemenway

I love to walk, particularly anywhere non-paved. For a while I was walking fifteen minutes a day to practice breath and ease of mind. One morning it was particularly quiet- I could here small branches giving into the wind and hitting the ground, joining the debris there. I could here the birds that were most incessant, and the ones who saved their called for seemingly important matters. And I could also hear the crunchy echo of my footsteps along the path- the footsteps that compacted the soil, shifted little rocks around, carried seeds. Our impact on the planet is inevitable. Even in meditation the exchange of oxygen never stops- we are always interacting with the planet. There is a quote by activist Julia Butterfly-Hill “ The question is not ‘can you make a difference’. You already do make a difference. It’s just a matter of what kind of difference you want to make, during your life on this planet.” I began to formulate that care towards how humans interact with the planet looks a lot difference depending on space and cultural place. Humans are not separate from nature, no matter how many concrete walls we build between us. The plants will always persevere through the pavement.

Pondering succession on a walk with Oliver Kellhammer.

So many questions about ecological restoration still arise for me, and I took the opportunity to ponder some out loud while walking with Oliver Kellhammer (Ecological Artist! Activist! Writer! Educator! A star member of punk band the Enemas !). Oliver’s approach to how we view degraded ecosystems and invasive species tied together a lot of loose strings in my eco-philosophy. As humans, we have always manipulated ecosystems. From early agriculture in the fertile crescent, to indigenous land management practices such as clam gardens and camas beds- our species has created cultural niches in ecosystems that benefit us and sometimes the biodiversity of the entire system as well. Instead of viewing nature and wilderness as “pristine” or “untouched” we must instead turn our questioning to how we impact the natural world. Oliver’s work in urban areas using exotic species to show the perseverance of the natural world was extremely inspiring. I began to accept that some areas are meant to be novel ecosystems, and not restored to a historical state. The idea of historical restoration also brings up a plethora of ponderings- when do we restore to? With the changing climate Oliver suggested that we look to the past, at a more similar climate model in order to mitigate. This echoes the need to observe and adapt that was expressed by Adam and Tamara at Linnaea. Flooded cypress forests may be the closest climate model in our trajectory, so might might have to buckle up and head to the Eocene!

Many of the invasive species we now find here have medicinal properties , or are just plain yummy( Dandelion root tea?) I was amazed by how much more I learnt about the benefits of urban “weeds” not only for a source a food, but a source of beauty and ecological art. By painting exotic species in a different light, Oliver challenges the perspectives we have towards species and what is deemed “worthy” to be in our garden. By creating spaces for people to interact and notice urban biology, Oliver opens up a different view of the species that exist all around us- and can be an aid to food security in agricultural deserts.

A delicious exotic kiwi thriving at Linnaea Farm.

So Finally, word of sympathy for the weeds. We really should be giving invasive species mad props. I mean, they’re just great at what they do. With their nitrogen fixing properties, ability to hold soil and wildlife provisioning skills, maybe we all need to say a little thanks to the weeds persevering against all odds and adding a little green to a grey landscape.


If It Looks Like Permaculture and Walks Like Permaculture…

Permaculture simply means “permanent agriculture”, but another definition might read that it is a system of agricultural and social design principles centered on simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems.
There are three permaculture ethics: care for the earth, care for the people, and return the surplus. These ethics were demonstrated time and again during our stay at Linnaea Farm, where even those who claimed ignorance of permaculture in general were employing these ethics and the 12 principles that accompany them.
Collective agreements made by the students for our time at the farm.
Tamara McPhail, executive director of Linnaea Farm operations, told our group during a tour of the farm that she has never studied permaculture, though her actions speak much louder than her words. During her routine movement of the cow herd from one carefully laid out plot to the next, she explained that she observes how much grass the cows eat during their 24 hours in that section, and then uses that to gauge how large the next section will be. Optimal foraging that allows the cattle to put on weight while not just cherry picking the most tender grass enables her to maximize the productivity of their pasture land.
Tamara staking out a new plot for the cows to graze.
One lucky cow getting the green grass from the other side!
This intuitively makes sense, and while Tamara might not know the language of permaculture, she is clearly practicing it. Principle 1: observe. Principle 2: catch and store energy (harvest while it is abundant). Principle 3: obtain a yield (make sure you’re getting valuable results). Principle 4: self-regulate and listen to feedback. Just in this one example alone, Tamara has employed the first four principles. This shows that permaculture is not just a set of rules or theory that cannot be applied, it is intuitive and pragmatic at its core.
Caring for people was also demonstrated by not only the farm stewards but the course students as well. Never have I seen such a diverse group of strangers cement friendships so quickly. The care, concern and genuine openness were evident from the first day. It was clear to see that we not only wanted to learn about permaculture from the farm, but we wanted to see how far it could go within ourselves as well. The so-called “zone zero” that encourages us to reflect and build ourselves up from the inside, so that we may better inhabit our space with others.


Learning a secret handshake that ends with the “eagle flying to the sky”.
Another way that Tamara paid tribute to permaculture principles is when she explained how necessary redundancy is for the farm to function. When one of the stewards fell ill, and their duties were obviously neglected as a result, things began to fall apart. Tamara noted that if they had set things up properly, that wouldn’t have happened. So they learned. They adapted. They made sure they had multiple people covering the same task.
They experienced and taught permaculture, without knowing the language.