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.


Poop: A Love Story

Upon reminiscing on our week on Cortes I noticed a rather smelly theme. Many of the times that our esteemed speakers spoke the most passionately  was when it had to do (do) with POO!

First, there was the ever elusive Poo Palace. Elusive because it had efficiently composted. It was a special pet project of Adam’s: a palace of hay infilled with the manure of half a dozen cows, it made for an excellent compost system. Manure is an integral soil amendment, connecting the animal system with other areas of the working farm. Using the waste of animals in this way exemplifies the permaculture principles of recycling energy and using biological resources.

Manure Machines

Then, of course, there was the most perfect composting toilet ever at Chanel Rock, built by Mark Lombard (insert link here). A poo palace in its own right if you will. I had previously shied away from any intensive humanure exploits, but this toilet made me burst (with joy that is). Mark’s ingenuity allowed for the efficient creation of a usable end product from our excrement, with little to no need to interact with the waste during the composting process.

Prettiest Potties


And we can’t forget about that cheese workshop. David the artisanal cheese guy with the food network voice (insert link here). He focused on natural cheese making in which raw milk and kefir is used, ingredients that are good for our guts, soothing our digestive woes. You know where I’m going with this by now right?

Cheese Chats


By the end of the week, we were one with the digestive system. Poo didn’t faze us city folk anymore. We went from urban poo stigma, flushing away a precious resource, to embracing the natural farm odours. It was a good feeling when someone returned from milking the cows, jar of milk in hand, having not quite dodged a fecal splatter, a look of pride across their face. Getting comfy with poo is one potent part of reengaging with natural systems.


Bottom’s up. Here’s to loving poop!


Ladies of Linnaea, Queens of Cortes

Tamara and Liz laying down some knowledge. Kat our TA in the back and a fellow student taking it all in!

It wasn’t long after I was introduced to the term permaculture, a couple of years back, that I heard uttered: SPERMACULTURE. We all know by now that the term permaculture was coined by two white men, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, and my feminist gardening role models were quick to tell me that permaculture isn’t free from patriarchy. Spermaculture is a critique of male domination in the movement; a term created by women/queers who see middle class, white males inhabiting the majority of permaculture leadership roles (authors, leaders of PDCs, permaculture “rockstars”). Furthermore, it has been observed that while the men are in teaching positions, the majority of participants tend to be women.

When we stepped into our first tour of Linnaea I felt some sense of relief from the above phenomenon. The executive director and one of several stewards of the land is a woman. Tamara’s strength, knowledge and leadership inspires me. The feminist strength of the land didn’t end there though. A quick history of the farm depicts a passing down of the lands through women’s hands. From Flo McKay who inherited the land in 1928 and purchased 120 extra acres, to her daughter Hazel Hansen who took the reins in 1950. Then there are the amazing women currently stewarding the land all over Cortes: Liz, Kirsten, Jodi, Steph, Sabina, Kathy, just to name a few. Oh, and I can’t forget Quill the boss cow and all the lamb ladies. Although, these folks might not have been directly preaching permaculture, they were integral to our permaculture design course. I also want to thank the men and other folks in my course and those who shared their knowledge. These folks were some of the most generous, thoughtful and supportive people to work with. Never once did I feel that there was a fight for space in discussion or domination by male knowledge holders.

This was just one of a host of social dynamics I observed. Many other questions and critiques came up for me. For example, there was a lack of cultural/ethnic diversity between teachers and learners alike which raises some questions around knowledge appropriation, cooptation and more. Who did we leave out of our conversations? How might permaculture be inaccessible and to whom? Questions I am keen to engage further with as I move forward in my work and life. Click here for an article that  I recently took a gander at that can help to get the wheels turning around these types of questions, pertaining more specifically to homesteading but definitely applicable.

5 Ways to Relate to Zone 5

The classroom portion of this course had us focusing on creating a permaculture design for a specific site. Some of these sites may have been places we had not had any connection with before, we therefore lacked familiarity with  their surrounding communities and ecologies. Studying on Cortes Island, we had the opportunity to learn from a variety of stewards who had forged deep connections with their specific sites and with the Island as a whole. We were able to see with fresh eyes a ‘care for the land’ ethic that extended beyond property boundaries. There are many protected “wilderness” areas around Cortes, preserved by private landowners or stewarded under covenants. Each steward we met had a unique perspective on these spaces.

According to Practical Permaculture our assigned textbook penned by Bloom and Boehnlein, Zone 5 “requires little, if any, attention other than proper conservation efforts and occasional foraging, recreation or hunting”. It’s often a place of observation of patterns and rhythms of the local ecology. Throughout the course we also learned that different people adhere to the concept of zones differently. The following is an overview of some of the ways the folks we met interact with ‘Zone 5’:

1)Community Forestry

The Klahoose First Nation and the non-indigenous community of Cortes co-manage the Cortes Community Forest. The vision of this forestry project is to steward the land in such a way that allows for biodiversity and regeneration while fulfilling social, economic and ecological needs. They value an ecosystem based approach that is good for the community, balanced and cooperative. 

2)Traditional Land Management

At first, Zone 5 was considered “wilderness”, but traditional land management practices are becoming more understood and respected by settlers as an important aspect of what has formed the ecologies we see today. It is important to recognize the traditional uses of the unsurrendered lands that we are practicing permaculture on. Much of the ingenuity of permaculture comes from traditional practices, we must give recognition and thanks where it is due.

3)Meat Punk Max’s Mecca

Then there is our friend Max. He titled his lecture “Zone 5: Nutritious, delicious and more productive than you’ll ever be”.  This title reflects his decision to focus his energy in the forest where he hunts and forages. It could be argued that his zone 5 is his zone 1 or 2. You’ll have to  track him down to understand his philosophies on conservation law and the commons, it’ll likely be an interesting chat.


The Linnaean’s value the health of “wild” spaces beyond their site. A mycoremediation installation is filtering water that runs through the site into the surrounding lakes and wetland ecosystems. The hope is that this will prevent recurring algal blooms likely caused by manure runoff.

5)Playing with Nature

Oliver Kelhammer reminds us to think outside the preservation of natural ecosystems box. He considers the importance of ideas like assisted migration in the face of climate change. For him, there may room for human intervention and the introduction non-natives in Zone 5.


How do you interact with Zone 5? Would you consider a community forest Zone 5?  Are zones always applicable/helpful in design?