The permaculture course at ojai

By Susan Newcomer

The land occupied by the Happy Valley School, and the Ojai Foundation, has a beauty that comes from its unique location in isolated mountains near the relentless urban sprawl of Los Angeles. The beauty of the upper Ojai valley made it a logical selection as the site of the fictional Valley of Shangrila in the 1939 film, The Lost Horizon. As I arrived in Ojai's upper valley on a late afternoon in June, hawks soared overhead and wisps of fog slipped over the mountains in the gathering twilight. In the quiet of a Sunday night, its was apparent that the next two weeks of permaculture study would take place in an ideal location.

With a site on the top of a scenic ridge, the Ojai Foundation land is covered with California live oak trees. Dotting the landscape are small shrines, kivas, tiny gardens and the comfortable yurts that sheltered many of the course participants. With the rustic ambiance of a summer camp, the Ojai Foundation is an ideal place to retreat from everyday life and to focus on the study of permaculture. Walking each morning down the hill to a large tent, where the permaculture lectures were held, was an invigorating start for each day. The evening hikes back up the hill to the Ojai Foundation featured the nightly roll call of coyotes and skies filled with stars.

Beginning with the first day of class, it was clear that a permaculture design course teaches more than a set syllabus of material. One of the first lessons we learned was that one hundred people, taken from their familiar surroundings could coalesce into a community. When someone suggested the idea of composting the food waste from the group's meals, a crew immediately assembled to dig a compost pit. Buffet meals, eaten under ancient walnut trees became the focal point for fascinating conversations. A realization quickly dawned on us that we had all been independently thinking many of the same things regarding the need for sustainable community, appropriate technology and alternative solutions to many of the world's thornier problems. Mealtime conversations became one of the best aspects of the permaculture design course experience.

The organizers of the course utilized a variety of appropriate technologies to provide services for the course participants. There was an innovative form of air conditioning that included a large tube, plus fans, pumping cooler air out of a hole dug in the ground. For heating dish water there was a solar water heater placed in a strategic location. There was also a shower set up, erected for use by the students who camped in tents. The shower stalls were made out of bales of straw. After a few days of the course, it was easy to conclude that one could live comfortably under rustic conditions with appropriate but minimal amounts of equipment.

The founder of permaculture, Bill Mollison, (seated lower right) lectured on many days of the course. Along with his humorous stories, and iconoclastic tall tales, Bill Mollison included many pearls of wisdom on the subjects of trees, forests, water usage, domesticated animals and the perception of patterns in landscapes. Bill's co-instructor, Scott Pittman, (below second from the left) brought a dry wit and years of experience in the design and construction of adobe, cob and straw bale buildings. Scott also taught the class how to did the water-catching trenches known as "swales." Even though much has been written, including several textbooks, on the subject of permaculture, there was great benefit in learning about these topics directly from teachers with years of experience in implementing the permaculture design principles.

In addition to the formal classroom lectures, course participants received the additional benefit of learning from our peers during evening presentations. Each evening, our fellow students shared video tapes, and other materials, with any interested classmates. Included in the evening programs were lectures on community supported agriculture, architectural applications of fractal geometry, eco-feminism, sustainable forestry, inner city gardening projects, and a humorous, but serious, video that depicted a cross-country car trip using discarded frying oil instead of diesel fuel. The various evening programs were informative and they complemented the material covered in the permaculture course curriculum.

After a week of lectures we moved out onto a ridge at the Ojai Foundation. Armed with shovels, we learned the art of digging swales. The somewhat archaic word, "swale," refers to the terracing of the hillsides for the purpose of capturing water run-off and avoiding damaging erosion. With the use of simple leveling tools, made from bamboo and a "plumb" line that used a rock as a weight, it was possible to dig the swales while following the contours of the hillside slope. Before we ventured out to dig swales, we learned that the U.S. government, during the WPA projects of the 1930s put in many large swales in the arid regions of the Western United States. These landforms may be seen today, still working correctly after nearly six decades.

The culmination of the permaculture design course came when the students were divided into design teams with the intention of creating a landscape design for use by the organization that owns the land of the Happy Valley School and Ojai Foundation. The land was divided in two sections, with four design teams focusing on each section of the property. The design teams studied aspects of gardening/agriculture, water, physical structures, and the invisible structures of administration that make the other aspects of the design possible.

As individuals, and as groups of design teammates, we walked the land. In the course of our study we observed signs of water flow, noted the slope of hillsides and looked for potential that could be worked into the completed permaculture design. After the preliminary observations were completed, each design team met to produce maps and reports on their area of study. The result of all of this labor was a meeting for the entire class in which design teams presented their completed designs to the land's governing board.

After the lectures, design meetings and other activities, the permaculture course came to a close with a talent show. On the last two nights of the course, there were mandatory talent presentations by all of the course participants. These talent shows included diverse performances such as the singing of Robbie Barley and the Swalers, as well as a dramatic peeling of an orange by an organic cotton farmer from Texas. The talent shows demonstrated the evolution of a community that came together for two weeks with a common interest in permaculture's ethics of care of the earth and care of people. Attending a permaculture design course can be a great opportunity to learn useful skills, to acquire interesting information and to renew a commitment to integrate life and work in the service of permaculture's ideals.

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