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We stretch in the mornings: lazy lunges that are started spontaneously in the middle of a sentence, the conversation carrying on unbroken; looping arm rotations that summon a dull click from my right shoulder; a standing half lotus, one foot in the air, this performed more quietly as we all chucklingly concentrate on our balance.
We’re out by the fenceline at Tiny Tree Herb Farm, at a gap in the hedge that wears a tangle of tree limbs for a hat and looks onto a thin ribbon of a road just opposite. The movements and the conversations change, but over the five weeks of our Natural Building class this stretching becomes important routine, an anchor for the day.
Natural building employs systems and materials that are less energy-intensive, better regionally adapted, and – as the name suggests – generally simpler and less yoked to industrial processing than those used in conventional construction. Fossil fuels, which replaced low-energy firewood and helped propel the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution, have been intrinsic to modern construction, which consumes them thirstily and continues to rely heavily on logging and mining (in particular limestone, gypsum, and iron ore) as the source for its base materials.
Combatting pollution, deforestation, and energy use: these are ideas that we’ve taken up before, on field trips and in our Energy Systems class. But this isn’t the whole of it. As the venerable Welsh builder Ianto Evans says, “We need to do more than avoid toxic materials. When we take on construction in a natural way, we will assume a whole range of new activities and ways of interacting with a building […] doing less, buying less, building less, but thinking, feeling, and observing more. It’s what you don’t do that makes natural building easy.”
For us in the class, all novices, the jury’s still out on the easy part. Our plan is to build a farm stand at this spot beside the road, employing a range of different natural building techniques and, as much as possible, using materials found here on site. It helps that our instructors are savvy, creative, and relaxed: Bryce, a founder of the Dreamweavers Collective, apprenticed under Patrick Hennebery at Cobworks. Stephanie, a coordinator at the UVic Campus Community Garden and Vic West Food Security Collective, studied at the Cob Cottage Company and has been teaching cob workshops for years.
Even in the prep stages, there’s an element of resourcefulness and serendipity that lends a pleasantly chaotic feeling to the project. Tarps are sourced from the throwaway heap at a lumber store. Windows and bits of timber sitting disused under the stairs will be repurposed for the framing. There’s a pile of good-looking clay sitting in a lot down the road, but we ask around and nobody seems to know who it belongs to. Sometimes these efforts are fruitful, and sometimes they aren’t, but wherever possible our instructors seek to close waste streams by noticing where resources are being wasted or misused and then redirecting them.
On the first day, we dig holes that will be filled up with rocks from the site to form rubble footings for the pad-and-pier foundation. I push a wheelbarrow over to a strand of trees across the farm, whistling, a piece of grass in my mouth. The ground slopes gently and I relax my grip, letting the front wheel carry the momentum. We’re going to build a dry stack stone half-wall as a base for the cob, and there are some rugged-looking boulders here that will be good candidates for the bottom of it. I muscle a couple of them into the wheelbarrow, and start back – and then, panting, sweating, have to stop a few short paces later. These rocks might be low in embodied energy (a good thing), but they’re durable and lasting, and I can feel every ounce of it.
Over the next few days, we build a deck using conventional stick framing, and then frame the door with driftwood salvaged from a beach in town. The stonework is pieced together after a few more trips huffing and puffing with the wheelbarrow. Rafters are raised and a roof tacked on. And then it’s cob time. Cob, which has ancient roots as a building material, has enjoyed something of a resurgence in North America starting in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Assembling it is a bit like baking, in the full-body Sendakian sense: we combine clay and sand on a tarp, add water, and then knead the mixture with our bare feet. (The “Canadian method”, used on cold days, involves flipping half the tarp over to sandwich the cob, and then mixing with your shoes on.)
Cob-making has been called a “peaceful, meditative, and rhythmic exercise,” and while it definitely can be, we discovered that depending on the volume and type of music playing on the radio, it can also be a recipe for a dance party. Whatever your approach, it’s a profoundly inclusive undertaking – and a therapeutic one, as I can well attest after a couple of days with my feet in the clay.
On the front and back walls, we opt to insulate with “straw clay”, a mixture of chopped straw and clay “slip” that is packed between forms and then left to dry. June brought some cool days, and so we’ll leave the cob and straw clay for a couple of weeks to make sure they dry out completely. Eventually we’ll finish the walls with a coat of sand, clay, and a fibrous mixture of cattail down and finely sifted chopped straw.
Ianto Evans has said that “we respond at a deep level to unprocessed materials, to idiosyncrasy, and to the personal thought and care expressed in craftsmanship”. There’s undoubtedly something to this: in using materials that are close at hand and are cheap or freely available; in expressing shifting moods and emotions and creativity by engaging your hands and feet with the material; in dispensing with “experts” in favour of building with friends. All of this serves to break down preconceived ideas about what’s “right” – say, a square box with drywall – and instead opens up new ideas about what’s possible.
Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.
A few months ago, in spring, we delved into medicine-making as part of our Herbal Production and Processing class: a day spent pulsing dried herbs in the coffee grinder, taking tinctures on the tongue, and thinking about plants as medicine. Now on the cusp of midsummer, the class reconvened for three days at Ravenhill Herb Farm with the grander aims of the season in mind, surrounded this time by a tumbling pastiche of blooms that spilled down the pathways and stood thick in the garden beds. We were here to harvest.
Herbal medicine traditions reflect the distinct cultures and geographies of their places of origin around the world. Ayurveda, “the knowledge of life”, is the traditional medicine system of the Indian subcontinent. Thought to have been passed down at first by auditory tradition, Ayurveda was refined during the Vedic age, and it is believed that hallucinogenic experience inspired important parts of this later development. Commonly, three energies (called doṣhas) are believed to circulate in the body and to govern human health; Ayurvedic treatment seeks to balance these energies, sometimes in part by way of amphoteric herbs like ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), taken together with a “delivery agent”.
In Europe, the dominant historical theory of herbal medicine has been humoralism. Centered on four bodily fluids, the ‘humours’ – blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm – humoralism linked each to a temperament (sanguine, melancholic, choleric, and phlegmatic), and posited that ill health arises when the four are imbalanced. Treatment aimed to restore balance, and to nourish a person’s vital force. Greek thinkers Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen are credited with developing and advancing important parts of this medicine system, yielding a regionally-specific perspective with close links to the Greek seasons.
Elsewhere, Celtic and Druid spiritualities and systems of medicine have traditionally included animism, and in particular a reverence for parts of the natural world such as the land, sea, and sky. The European witch hunts, which rippled across the continent in waves and peaked in 16th and 17th century Germany, often targeted female practitioners of herbalism and midwifery; the show trials and killings that resulted in part the product of an attempt to centralize power within the academic, political, religious, and medical establishments of the day (a history which was examined in more detail by herbalist Sean Donahue a few weeks ago).
A common theme across these and other indigenous systems of medicine is often the general notion that a weakened spirit or identity can bring contact with unfriendly forces – and that plants can play a crucial role in restoring balance and immunity. Lindsay, our instructor, talked about the idea of “diasporic animism” – that we should be conscious of the regional specificities of the systems and adjust our energetic approach depending on our location and context.
But exoticness can be alluring: with a burgeoning sea trade in 17th century England, wealthy city-dwellers increasingly bought foreign herbs while the rural peasant class carried on with traditional native species. More recently, reliance on traditional knowledge has waned with the rise of scientific rationalism and Western instrumental thought as the basis of modern medical approaches.
We wind our way along a path at the farm, hemmed in on the high side by a rock wall swelling with blossoms and trailing herbs, some with tendrils grasping at the air like the top of a sloshing bucket. In a few strides we’ve passed sage (Salvia officinalis, used to strengthen the nervous system and for treatment of rheumatism and kidney problems), thyme (Thymus vulgaris, an expectorant and gastrointestinal carminative that also has antimicrobial properties), chamomile (Chamomilla recutita, an anti-inflammatory and sleep aid that has long been used in the treatment of fevers, colds, and stomach ailments), oregano (Origanum vulgare, an immunity booster that can be used topically to treat parasitic and fungal infections), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis, used to alleviate muscle pain and improve memory), and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia, an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory with gentle sedative properties, often used to help with anxiety, stress, and insomnia).
In round planters that line the other side of the path are a range of mints – lemon (Monarda citriodora), apple (Mentha suaveolens), chocolate (Mentha × piperita ‘Chocolate Mint’), and grapefruit (Mentha x piperita ‘Grapefruit’), medicinally interchangeable but with their own personalities, some all elbows and jutting leaves; others softer, with downy foliage and stout stems.
Arriving at the garden, we come to a patch of cleavers (Galium aparine), an excellent nervine tonic with sticky, grasping stalks. Herbalist Matthew Wood points out that these long, slender stems with Velcro-like seed heads on the end look a lot like the nervous system with its terminal bulbs – an example of the Doctrine of Signatures that we talked about in our Wild Harvesting class earlier in the year.
Another candidate for the Doctrine of Signatures analysis sits solemn and squat in the garden’s periphery. Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), with its distinctively variegated leaves – light on one side, strikingly darker on the other – is considered a “middle domain” herb, used to bring about balance in mental and emotional energy, both for those who are flitting and airy, overwrought, and for those who are excessively grounded and in need of a creative spark.
Long spikes of bright, elegantly drooping flowers vie for attention nearby: foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), a plant traditionally used in the folk treatment of heart arrhythmia, but now illegal for herbalists to prescribe because of the dangers of those same toxic compounds (called cardiac glycosides). Further down the garden bed, Lindsay points out marshmallow (Althaea officinalis), an exceptionally demulcent herb that is moistening, soothing, and anti-inflammatory.
Nearby is valerian (Valeriana officinalis), which boasts a medicinally popular root that is best fork-harvested. But we won’t be harvesting it today, as it’s the wrong season: Lindsay reminds us that the appropriate time to harvest is when the plant’s vitality is centered in the part desired. The majority of wildcrafted species at risk in the world today are plants that are harvested for their roots (recall the echinacea craze during the “herbal renaissance” of the mid-‘90s, when the prairie perennial – finicky and hard to germinate in controlled cultivation – topped the best-selling list and was badly overharvested), and so it’s important to be conscious of ethical harvesting considerations and grow at home where one can.
I harvest some flowers from the borage plant (Borago officinalis), and deposit them near other baskets now brimming with summer colours. Once we’re finished harvesting, we’ll take the plants inside, setting some on drying racks and tincturing others fresh. It feels a bit funny, having talked as a class earlier about the traditional cultural and class dimensions of relying on either native plants or exotics as herbal medicine, that we’re now sitting among baskets with a hodgepodge of both.
Lindsay marvels at the fact that these plants contain things that our brains have specific receptors for – some experts believe that humans and plants have coevolved such that while plants evolved to mimic human neurotransmitters, humans simultaneously evolved to use plant chemicals. In the traditional medicine systems we talked about to start the day, these links were clearly also culturally embedded, and substantial. These days, with knowledge and practice more fragmented, this communing between humans and plants takes on a different character – diasporic animism, scattered and energetic, a coevolution happening on the margins and with a winding path ahead.
Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.
Permaculture teaches us to value the marginal: to value that vibrancy and thrum that animates a garden’s edge; the sometimes dancing, sometimes writhing give-and-take that plays with easy reciprocity along a streambank. As practitioners we try to observe these edges, to toy with them, to harness them, and to expand them. It’s a principle that’s etched into each curving swale and meandering boundary – for at the margins there exists more diversity, more dynamism, and more abundance.
But the permaculture movement today is a bigger tent than it used to be. No longer the preserve of homesteaders, its approach is being stretched and challenged, and also applied – at least as a kind of analytical lens – to macro-level problems like food security and climate change. And so the terrain of the “marginal” has coevolved with it.
We spent this past weekend discussing this transformation with Oliver Kellhammer, an activist and artist who, for the past three decades, has trafficked in what might best be described as permaculture agitprop.
Oliver cut his teeth in the working-class Toronto of the 1980s. An early project was a sort of “weed sanctuary” in the city, hemmed in by wire fence and floodlights – a botanical Supermax without the visitor’s hours. But, in what was to become a kind of motif for his life and work, the squeeze of gentrification pushed Oliver out of town, and he landed in East Vancouver in 1990.
East Van at that time was – as it remains today – one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country, a sizeable portion of its residents living with a drug dependence or substance use disorder, and with the attendant political decision-making enveloped in a fog of neoliberalism. An early development push meant that houses scheduled for the wrecker’s ball sat empty while a housing shortage raged; the Frances Street Squats, one of the largest and most notable public squats in Canadian history, had kicked off months earlier.
Inspired by guerilla gardening that sprang up after the squatters’ eventual removal by Vancouver police, Oliver decided to squat a piece of land adjacent to a highway right-of-way in what is now False Creek. Signs reading “City of Vancouver Soil Testing Plot” were surreptitiously erected – half-true, if one was willing to interpret it either charitably or else too-literally – and local residents trickled over to the site as word spread and garden beds were scratched out.
The East Van neighbourhood was also home to a large Chinese population, many from the Pearl River Delta, and it was from their shared knowledge that Oliver learned his earliest permaculture practices. A nearby tofu factory became a source of free mulch, in the form of discarded tofu curd; water was brought in by hand from the public washrooms in a nearby park.
The garden became what Oliver calls an “open-source landscape”: residents gardening together, the land mirroring the messy diversity of the neighbourhood. There was no singular authority, no overseers, and because of this the whole undertaking possessed a stout resilience. Fierce neighbourhood support meant that attempts to raze the gardens for development were repeatedly thwarted. Water mains were eventually installed by the city, and the Cottonwood Community Garden still remains today.
“Permaculture demands that we advance, not retreat,” Oliver told us, and to him this means going to the most blighted and disturbed land to garden, rather than seeking the pristine. There’s the eye of the artist, and the eye of the ecologist, and not always much to separate the two: buildings in the city, secure in their primacy in the built environment, are transformed at a glance into slow-release fertilizer. (I should add, too, in Oliver’s case, the eye of the mad scientist – he’s proudly grafted Pyrus communis ‘Williams’, the Bartlett pear, to hawthorn rootstock, creating a Frankenstein-like pear tree with a built-in barbed wire fence to guard against deer.)
Our valuable margins, then, can look unfamiliar to us in a post-industrial landscape. In the UK, many red-listed species now exist only in brownfield ecosystems, those tracts of previously industrial land thought to be too badly degraded for easy remediation. When a bitterly cold Michigan winter killed off the pheasants in its rural game reserves, the state’s Department of Natural Resources caught and exported wild city pheasants that had adapted to life in the hollowed-out downtown of Detroit to improve the rural gene pool.
And of course there are the socially and culturally entrenched human “margins”: what different people are allowed to do in an urban landscape varies, with policing and urban design both used as instruments to enforce class privilege. Those who harvest food in public parks and from public trees are simultaneously criminalized and invisibilized, not likely to warrant much consideration from a city department that sprays the grass for “weeds”. But of course we have much to learn from them, as we have much to learn from those houseless residents who close waste cycles by repurposing other peoples’ discards.
And so here the elephant in the room – and a stubborn tension within efforts to “re-green” more generally – is the issue of housing. What is the value of green space if people can’t live there? In Vancouver, and increasingly in Victoria, the use value of a house has been outstripped by its exchange value: the house re-cast as commodity.
Here on the West Coast, people take rightful pride in our progressive building codes and use of green building materials; but we lag badly in terms of recognizing housing as a human right and addressing housing precarity and the runaway affordability crisis. Oliver called the community gardens a “holiday from capitalism” – liberating precisely because their early architects never got permission. And for this the gardens thrive joyfully on the margins.
Is there a way to harness this same subversive freedom-making for housing? Does permaculture offer a strategic direction? Poet Hakim Bey has written about “temporary autonomous zones”, those spaces that elude formal structures of control – for a permaculturalist, think of the familiar ephemeral garden started without permission. A lesson might be to shake off some of the purity-mindedness that can grip us all, the better to find new margins in the messiness of contemporary life. If we can make beautiful what we have now, engaging with the synthetic and the chemical and the unsightly, we might be closer to achieving what Bey gestures at when he writes that “art tells gorgeous lies that come true”.
Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.
I remember traveling around the green north of the United Kingdom as a teenager, and braving a damp German winter some years later, afflicted with an eternal chill. “Doesn’t anybody heat their houses here?” I groused. But it was always tea and a blanket around the shoulders instead.
In our Energy Systems class a couple of months ago we talked about transitioning away from an oil-centric economy, to a future where there’s likely to be less conventional energy sources available. Permaculture co-founder David Holmgren has written about his indebtedness to American systems theorist Howard Odum, who pioneered thinking about embodied energy (he called it eMergy) – a way of accounting for the amount of energy it takes to make something.
In the context of something like house construction, embodied energy is the energy used by all the systems associated with the building’s production: from the mining and processing of natural resources used in the building materials; to their manufacture and transport; to the industrial processes that ultimately see the building erected.
My chilly evenings in the U.K. and Germany probably had something to do with old, thinly-insulated housing stock and a reliance on electric heat (and even here in Victoria I sometimes think wistfully of winters spent in Winnipeg apartments, lulled to sleep by the knocking water hammer of the hot-water radiators that kept the place toasty warm and dried a wet pair of socks laid on top in two minutes flat).
It was accepted wisdom until recently that the embodied energy content of a building is minute when compared with the energy required to operate that building over its life. And so efforts have focused on reducing operating energy by improving the energy efficiency of the building envelope. But this isn’t necessarily the case – and a recent field trip for our Natural Building class shed some light on a trailblazing alternative.
Arriving at Ann and Gord Baird’s Eco-Sense homestead in the highlands just north of Victoria, we were met in a gravelled clearing abutting a hill by the couple themselves: spry and eager-looking, clad in matching t-shirts. I noticed at once that the air felt much warmer here than it had in the city.
“We live in a mud house and shit in a bucket,” said Gord, by way of greeting.
They explained that they had met each other thirteen and a half years earlier, in their mid-30s, both newly at the end of prior marriages. “We wanted to recreate our lives, challenge building codes, and grow food,” explained Ann. “A reasonable life.”
Sounds good to me.
Except that to hear them tell it, neither one had any experience working with the earth, or with architecture and design. With help from Ann’s parents they were able to purchase the parcel of land we were standing on – eight acres draped over a forbiddingly rocky hill – and the four of them moved into a 27-foot trailer on the site along with Gord’s two kids.
The previous landowner had been a junk dealer, and amid the swaths of invasive Himalayan blackberry that sprouted from the badly compacted soil were various odds and ends: the detritus that would soon come to be so creatively repurposed in their building projects.
But this was still early days. “We had to figure out how to grow food on a rock,” said Gord. Their first Christmas together, the couple bought each other books about cob building, with the dream of building a home and garden that were regenerative to the land. Gord explained that his background wasn’t in permaculture, but rather in integrated systems. His decision-making is guided by considering different forms of capital – financial, social, cultural, intellectual – and thinking about how a change in one form of capital effects the “currency” of the others.
This approach seems to have yielded permaculture-like design strategies: in figuring out how best to grow food on their rocky new outpost, he and Ann tried to observe and imitate what nature was already doing there. Their planting focused on edible native perennials, with an eye to an edible food forest emerging in the future. Chickens were set to graze the hillside to improve soil fertility and munch on undesirable weeds.
Pipes from a half-built, disused septic system abandoned by a previous owner were repurposed to send grey water from the house down to feed the chickens and water the fruit trees, comprising one of four different grey water systems that service the house. The living roof on the chicken coop has a solar panel that powers an LED light in winter and a fan in summer, which makes the birds more productive (“we’re ‘conscientious opportunivores’”, says Gord). A hazelnut tree in the food forest has started to bear nuts in recent years; the chickens chase off skulking squirrels and rats, and Ann and Gord watch for migrating jays as an indicator that it’s time for harvest.
Further into the food forest, we examine a walnut guild, planted thick with elderberry, plum, rhubarb, peas, and comfrey. The hillside has been terraced here, the swales packed with inoculated woodchips to provide mushroom growth among the plants.
Winding further up the hillside, we arrive at an “Eco-hut” which serves as an office for the plant business. Built as a tiny home, it’s comprised of a stick frame covered in burlap and stucco wire, and insulated with blown cellulose. Gord tells us that the entirety of the construction materials are recycled. The building is off-grid solar with a power inverter, and a copper tube that snakes around the wood stove chimney services the hot water heater during the winter.
The Eco-hut is built to code: one sticking point during construction was the provincially mandated number of “air changes per hour” required inside the structure – this was achieved by way of a small fan which is set into the composting toilet, itself cleverly hidden in a bench in the living room. Gord tells us that the total labour and material costs for the building were around $38 000.
I’m struck by the careful attention paid to the finishing details – the earthen countertops and floors smooth and precise, curving gently beneath a coat of boiled linseed oil – but we have to keep moving. Sounding like a permaculturist again, Gord expounds: “nature isn’t predominantly efficient, it’s resilient and redundant.”
We pass the woodworking shop, built entirely with foot-mixed cob. The living roof on top is populated by rescued plants from a nearby Garry oak meadow that was lost to a new development; in addition to serving as a biological footprint replacement, it slows down storm water flows, is fireproof, and increases the efficiency of the building’s solar panels by reducing its “heat island effect”. Resilience and redundancy well-achieved.
Nearer the house, we pass a solar dehydrator and come into the main vegetable gardens. After some deliberation, Ann and Gord guess that there are probably around sixty-five nut trees, ninety-five fruit trees, and some three hundred different kinds of plants in these gardens. I gravitate towards a keyhole garden that looks to be planted with sea kale, Good-King-Henry, and walking onion.
Arriving to the house itself, Gord tells us that help was hired to mix the cob with a rototiller and to perform other construction tasks, predominantly with reclaimed material – bad for the consumption economy, but good for the local skills economy. According to his calculations, a total of thirty-six litres of gas was used for the entire build. The house is built to high seismic standards: geotextile material runs horizontally through the cob walls, knitted together with aircraft cable. Gord jokes that after its first major earthquake, the house will be transformed into adobe construction.
The house has “net zero” electricity consumption – excess solar produced in the sunny summer months is sold back onto the grid, offsetting any winter use (the couple uses ninety percent less electricity than the average British Columbian). Overlapping systems are in evidence everywhere: excess hot water generated in the summer is used for the dehydrator; well water is run through pipes in the upstairs floor during the summer to cool the house before emerging, now pre-warmed, to water the outside gardens without shocking them. Evacuated solar tubes on the roof make hot water and run into a wood gasifier, warming the floors and acting as a space heater in the cooler months.
The finishings inside here are equally impressive. Light tubes in the ceiling allow soft natural light to fill the kitchen, reflecting off cabinets made from reclaimed wood from a nearby school and bits of the packing crate one of the heaters arrived in. The bathroom sink and shower are finished in tadelakt, with sand sourced from nearby Gabriola Island. Ann, who has done most of this finishing work herself, talks about how it has allowed her to discover her artistic creativity, and says that being in the house is like “living in a hug”.
At the end of the tour, we stop outside the root cellar, now mostly empty after providing a winter’s worth of eating. Gord points to a tree frog sculpted into the cob above the door. Tree frogs are an indicator species, among the first to disappear when there’s environmental disturbance in an area. Its placement above the door to the food is symbolic: “we want to live in a way that it can continue to live here,” he says. It seems to me that they’re succeeding.
Join us on Saturday, June 16th, for an Open House at our downtown Victoria Campus!
Explore the campus. Learn about our programs, workshops and clinical services.
Meet admissions coordinators, program deans, staff and alumni.
We hope to see you there!
PRC Open House
Saturday, June 16th, 2018
11am to 1pm
229-560 Johnson St.
The idea of health – human health – runs like a thread through permaculture design, at once implicit and fundamental: in the linking of food production with ecosystem health; in the holistic, measured approach towards observing changes in other living things; in the need for compassion that underpins the core permaculture ethics of “people care” and “fair share”.
But as a student of permaculture I hadn’t yet bored down into the metaphorical substrate of my own “Zone 0” to think about health at an individual level. At least, I hadn’t much done so using the new analytical lenses afforded me in the permaculture program this year. But one of the unique things about Pacific Rim College is the access one has to various different modalities under a single educational umbrella: I’ve attended student clinics and participated in discussions that touch on aspects of acupuncture and Oriental medicine, holistic nutrition, and Western herbal medicine over these past months, but save for our Herbal Production and Processing class, never in a classroom setting. And so it was with eagerness that I attended a workshop at the college this weekend entitled “Introduction to Somatic Herbalism” with Sean Donahue.
Sean is a member of the faculty at Pacific Rim, though he now lives in the State of Washington and was returning for the event as a guest lecturer. He’s a herbalist and a priest in the BlackHeart line of Feri witchcraft, and while a fuller accounting of his exploits and accomplishments can be found in his bio, I can report with confidence after this weekend that he is also a riveting and indefatigable speaker.
The word “herbalist” doesn’t appear in recorded English until the seventeenth century – before that time, as most people used plants routinely as medicine, it wasn’t considered a concept remarkable enough to warrant the designation. But together with the emergence of the word came the tangling up of its practice with the jealous gatekeeping and political pretensions of the day. An example: early English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper angered physician guilds of the mid-seventeenth century by translating medical guides from the Latin in order to make information and treatments more accessible to the poor; he was ultimately imprisoned for his trouble.
The word “somatic” is derived from the Greek sōmatikós, meaning “relating to the body”. Its early Christian use was mostly derogatory: the Gnostics, who believed that our physical world was the invention of a false god, sought the divine directly through ecstatic experience and eschewed any attachment to the physical realm. To be a “somatic”, then, was to be doubly heretical, condemned both by the Gnostics and by church authorities.
Sean suggested that the idea is similarly stigmatized today, albeit through slightly different mechanisms that reflect attendant cultural shifts over time. First with the advent of enclosure laws, and now the private property regimes of contemporary capitalism, people are increasingly separated from the land and from those living things that surround them. Residue of this puritanism exists even in strains of New Age and Ayurvedic thought that deny the centrality of the body and of bodily pleasures.
Silvia Federici traces these shifts in her essay, “In Praise of the Dancing Body”: “in the 16 and 17th centuries (the time of manufacture) the body was imagined and disciplined according to the model of simple machines, like the pump and the lever […] With the 19th century we have, instead, a conception of the body and disciplinary techniques modeled on the steam engine, its productivity calculated in terms of input and output, and efficiency becoming the key word […] In our time, models for the body are the computer and the genetic code, crafting a dematerialized, dis-aggregated body, imagined as a conglomerate of cells and genes each with her own program, indifferent to the rest and to the good of the body as a whole.”
At the core of Sean’s somatic herbalism is a conviction that this disconnection is profoundly traumatic – and that human consciousness, through which trauma is mediated, is more varied and more widely distributed than we tend to acknowledge. Sean argued that if one is exposed to prolonged trauma or violence without a sense of support, it causes physical changes in the body. Disconnectedness and a cultural imperative towards individualism mean that one will have less innate sense to react to perceived danger by seeking cooperative solutions or help through collective action.
High stress levels and a lack of embodiment mean that many people alternate between hypo- and hypersensitivity, with the particular psychoactive effects of cortisol giving rise to a kind of detached pessimism. For Sean, the past lives on in our bodies – because continuous trauma spurs changes in the human genome, we are all carrying memories of trauma across generations as a kind of oft-ignored inheritance. Similarly, the theory of psychoneuroendocrinology, which holds that our hormones instruct our immune response about a perceived level of threat, suggests that if one is not sufficiently well-embodied, one can misidentify the situation they’re in and won’t produce the appropriate hormones. In turn, this underlies many chronic health conditions present today.
The good news, as Sean put it, is that we can change our genomes again, to move forward and pass down something different. Medical orthodoxy, which today in some ways is guilty of Federici’s charge of assuming the body to be a machine, is not always adequate in its response here. Sean’s preference is to work at sub-pharmacological doses of herbs, in an invitation to the body to tap into its somatic memory and sustain an authentic embodied connection – what Sean called “the touch of the world upon our own heart”.
For those who have experienced significant relational trauma, the body may associate other people generally with danger. In this case, plants – with whom we are engaged in a sort of constant conversation, trading our inhalations with their exhalations – can be asked to provide this connection. Sean’s therapy, then, is a gentle one, centered on small interventions to bring a feeling of safety, and trusting in the body’s capacity to reorganize itself.
I was conscious of many parallels between Sean’s perspective, together with the practical clinical approach he discussed with the class, and permaculture concepts we’ve studied this year. Most prominent, I think, was the core centrality of holistic connection (a concept Mark Lakeman discussed at length in a permaculture context earlier this year). Also valuable was the discussion of how the body copes with trauma (through physical tension, for instance), which bore similarities to the behaviour of irritating plants we’ve studied – poison ivy, poison oak, devil’s club – that grow in disturbed and damaged places and set a kind of boundary, effectively telling people, “don’t set foot here”.
Beyond this was the sense that healing and health are fundamentally ecological in nature. When we, as humans, are in ecological balance, we can better connect with and promote external ecological balance. This suggests, I think, the need to integrate with the diversity around us, rather than trying to mechanistically segregate ourselves as if we are wholly independent beings. If, as Sean urged, we work to engage this embodied experience, will move organically towards a connection with all living things.
The month of May is PENÁW̱EṈ for the W̱SÁNEĆ (Saanich) and Lekwungen (Songhees and Esquimalt) people – the month for the camas harvest; the month of the camas moon. Camas bulbs, ḰȽO,EL, were a traditional staple food, carefully grown in plots that were passed down within families and across generations. It was the day after the new moon, the camas moon, and we were gathered at the parking lot at Beacon Hill park in downtown Victoria staring at the back of a peacock.
(The first peacock at Beacon Hill arrived in 1891, shortly after the establishment of a zoo there. Today about thirty of the birds roam freely at the park, sometimes traipsing into neighbouring James Bay, at other times huddling together near the current iteration of the zoo on especially cold winter days. Male peacocks raise and shake their trains in a spring mating ritual meant to entice the female; this particular bird seemed to have mistaken our group for such a peahen and was vigorously shaking his hindquarters at us, feathers aloft. I wondered for a moment about the deeper significance of this: that during the Indigenous month of the camas moon we were experiencing a colonial peacock mooning.)
Really, it was a fitting bit of symbolism to start the day. We were at Beacon Hill for our Wild Harvesting class, to observe the blooming camas fields – but also to think and talk about an undercurrent of tension in permaculture between imported perennial plants and native ecology.
We meandered south through the park, towards the water, stopping here and there to examine new growth. In the scrub of a bush stood a single wild rose, the first of the year – a nice bit of class phenology. Common camas (Camassia quamash) can begin to flower here as early as March, with great camas (Camassia leichtlinii) coming later; mixed in among these graceful spikes of blue flowers were the creamy white bells of meadow death camas (Toxicoscordion venenosum), a highly poisonous plant whose bulbs are indistinguishable from those of the edible camas. Great care is needed to make a correct identification, as camas bulbs are harvested only after the colourful flower heads have died back and gone to seed.
A breeze dappled the stalks of meadowgrass as we moved through the camas fields and reached the fringe of a Garry oak savannah. We sat. A jogger plodded by on the path. Spittlebugs dripped foam from sanicle leaves next to my knees. Hannah, our instructor, gestured around expansively and pointed out that we were actually sitting in the middle of a highly managed landscape. Indigenous peoples – the Lekwungen here at present-day Beacon Hill – had carefully planted and propagated these camas fields, fertilizing them with seaweed and then burning them over after harvest to kill back brush and seedling trees, leaving the remaining dormant bulbs unharmed.
And it was true: to my settler’s eye, these meadows looked “wild”. Early Europeans likewise wrongly assumed this land, unfenced, untilled and unseeded, was unused and languishing, ripe for agriculture. Cattle and pigs were loosed to graze, and controlled burns were prohibited. Today, invasive grasses and exotic trees continue to choke out native species and acidify the soil, and place-based reminders of this once-bountiful food system are increasingly tenuous.
Of course, one of the most critical components of foraging is restoration – to build the land, even as one takes; to ask “What do the plants need?” as much as “What do I need?” In another context, picking plants for the garden, I’ve tried to ask myself “Is there a native plant that can do this job?” But this can sometimes be an uneasy dance: for although there are abundant cultural and ecological imperatives for the preservation and restoration of native ecosystems, a pragmatic permaculturalist might rightly point to the effects of anthropogenic climate change and suggest that answering “what do the plants need?” today demands an equally urgent and interventionist approach.
Plants have shifted across the landscape in response to climatic changes for millennia. But as contemporary climate change accelerates, there is concern among plant scientists that plant populations may now need to migrate faster than their natural ability permits.
This has prompted a push, in some circles, for what is termed “assisted migration”: the movement of species and populations to facilitate natural range expansion in direct response to the effects of anthropogenic climate change. In Victoria, where the impact of a changing climate is expected to result in generally more volatile and extreme temperature swings, this favours a two-pronged approach: aiming to trial imported species on both ends of the climate spectrum. For a local permaculturalist taking a long-term view when planning a food forest, this might mean growing warm-weather loquats alongside cold-hardy apples. If it gets significantly hotter in future years, the loquats will fruit; if it doesn’t, the loquat will still bear medicinally valuable leaves and the apples may thrive.
Of course, this strategy presents a host of thorny ethical, legal, political, and ecological challenges. Our ability to predict the full impact of imported species on native ecosystems is badly imperfect, as the dense throngs of invasive scotch broom and English ivy that blanket the forest understorey and highway’s edge in southern Vancouver Island well attest.
Proponents of assisted migration argue that instead of using resources and energy to try to sustain native species that are losing their ecological foothold to the effects of climate change, careful selection of new imported species can actually better help to preserve biodiversity. By this logic, taking climate change into consideration when considering introduced cultivated and wild species plantings – particularly for long-term perennials and trees – is common-sense permaculture.
In the meantime, as an ethical wild harvester, the best one can sometimes aim to do is simply to pull up invasives and use them for something good. Back in Vic West for the afternoon, we harvested some lilac from a laden bough that hung over the top of a fence along the sidewalk. For this class, we’re currently working on a project to choose local invasive species to harvest and make into medicine, food, tools, or art – sitting at the kitchen table at Hannah’s place, we tossed some ideas around while picking off the individual lilac blossoms to mix into a cordial.
We tried to recall the plants we’ve encountered in our wild harvesting class so far this year, and in fifteen minutes we’d come up with a good list: lomatium, lemon balm, ocean spray, cleavers, skunk cabbage, miner’s lettuce, dogwood, dandelion, spring gold, cattail, horsetail, chickweed, sorrel, lovage, licorice fern, saskatoon, silverweed, salmonberry, mugwort, stinging nettle, plantain, scotch broom, Labrador tea, usnea, Oregon grape. I’ve probably forgotten as many again.
As the day wound down, we sipped on some spruce tip lemonade and talked more about the camas meadows at Beacon Hill, introduced species, and our responsibility as wild harvesters. Sitting amid mason jars containing both native and imported plants simultaneously releasing their colours and aromas into the mix, I didn’t feel any closer to an answer; but it all felt appropriately and pleasantly messy.
Something we’ve done consistently through the year as a class is to visit and learn from growers who produce at varying scales, employ different operational focuses, and use distinctly individual methods to steer their farming. There’s value in seeing first-hand the points of commonality – in practice and philosophy – that guide the farm businesses, and to tie these back to permaculture concepts we learn in the classroom and apply to our own hands-on practical work.
We paid another visit to Mason Street City Farm in downtown Victoria recently (I wrote back in February about the farm’s history and role in the community), this time for a hang-out with J.J., the nursery manager there.
The tiny farm manages to feel frenetic and relaxed at the same time: J.J. looking laid back and cheery, but with eyes roving the plots, walking with practiced steps through a snarl of plant pots and baling twine; jackhammers and shouts sounding from the construction site across the road, steel toes and soupy grey cement water contrasting with the undulating rows of green starts waving gently on our side of the fence.
The sale season for a small nursery is short here in Victoria: really just April, May, and June, and so to run one, you have to be intuitive and on the ball. We’re standing facing a pair of greenhouses, their shoulders sagging slightly in that comfortably rickety way that suggests a history of hockey tape and bubblegum repairs. It turns out that they’re actually salvaged, repurposed carports – J.J. tells us later that they’re named Thelma and Louise – one oriented East-West and the other North-South to take advantage of specific shade patterns and microclimates on the site. We take a look inside the grand old dames now in the thick of nursery season.
DIY heat mats are rigged up inside: beds of sand with Canadian Tire de-icing cables running through them. J.J., who is juggling some 84 different crops for nursery sale this year, has cycled hot crops like peppers and tomatoes through a germination room in the basement of the neighbouring house and is now hardening them off by gradually moving them from the greenhouse to cloches outside for a few hours each day. This is a labour intensive step that’s not often practiced by larger nurseries, but it makes for hardier and better-adjusted starts.
Another advantage of the nursery’s small size is that J.J. can select and curate for regionally adapted plant varieties, dealing directly with small seed producers and taking into account the quirks of neighbourhood microclimates (a customer from the breezy, water-hugging James Bay neighbourhood might do well to select a different tomato variety than someone in hot and sunny North Park).
J.J., who lived and trained in permaculture on nearby Orcas Island, confesses to engaging in a certain amount of balancing and sawing-off: between what she’d like to grow versus what people want to buy; between the market pressure to grow ever-earlier in the year versus the attendant increase in plant disease susceptibility. Regionally adapted open pollinated varieties may provide better habitat and make for happier pollinators, but people have grown to expect hybrid vigour as a matter of course.
Knowing that she’s talking to a gang of permaculture kids, J.J. is forthright: we tend to put a lot of effort and resources into growing conventional annual food crops because it’s what we’re used to eating, but if we put the same kind of energy into acquainting ourselves (and our palates) with native perennials we’d have better ecological flow. But still, the productivity of this urban quarter-acre is undeniable – and the material benefit to people in the neighbourhood is immense. Life is a balancing act.
Later we visit another farm just outside of town, on the Haliburton Community Organic Farm site. At the turn of the millennium, Haliburton was scheduled for a date with the developer’s buzzsaw. The topsoil had already been stripped in some areas when a group of small-scale organic farmers stepped in and instead brokered the sale of the land to the District of Saanich, which now leases it as a specially-designated Rural Demonstration Farm zone within the Agricultural Land Reserve to the Haliburton Community Organic Farm Society.
At the moment there are six farms operating here (as well as Saanich Native Plants, the nursery business operated by our botany instructor Kristen); we’re here today to visit Erin Bett of Fierce Love Farm. Erin, who’s around my age, took over this farm site back in January. Because of Haliburton’s unique designation, the plots can be leased by a grower for four years before they need to change hands to a new lessee – a sort of incubator startup model of farming.
Erin has inherited the largest farm on the site, at nearly nine acres. It’s a beautiful piece of land, but has its own challenges: the previous farmer had grown only potatoes, and so there is a fair bit of pest pressure lurking. And it’s a solo operation, with Erin as the only farmer (with an extra set of hands helping after work in the evenings where they can). She tells us that for the moment, her focus is on sorting out weed and pest management, and irrigation.
Pests and weeds can pose a delicate challenge for small-scale organic farmers, as the aesthetics of one’s produce matter more for market sale than they might for one’s own table. Erin doesn’t till, but instead broadforks and flameweeds the rows, and plans to plant clover around the edges of the site and undersow it amongst some crops in order to attract beneficial insects. On the way into the farm, I’d noticed a patch of sea blush thick with bees – the farm’s proximity to Saanich Native Plants and to the Haliburton biodiversity wetland and meadow helps bring a diversity of natural pest predators to the area.
In this first year, she’s growing around fifteen or twenty crops, both for market and for the farm’s collaborative CSA box. Having grown for and worked the Moss Street Market in Victoria in past years, Erin says that she has a pretty good sense of what will sell, and what her capacity is. Fierce Love is stacked towards annuals – about ninety percent – save for some berries and rhubarb growing thick in a corner of the farmsite.
A science-minded farmer, Erin’s first order of business on taking over the lease was to have the soil tested. Results showed sandy, quick-draining soil with high organic matter content – ideal for growing. The greenhouse soil, however, showed higher readings for electrical conductivity, a sign of elevated salt levels. This isn’t uncommon in greenhouses, which don’t have rainwater to leach salt away; the chlorine in municipal water can exacerbate the problem.
To remedy it, Erin is planning to leave one greenhouse open each year, rotating until they’ve all been through the cycle so that the soil can remediated. It’s a hard commitment to make, especially for a farmer on a fixed four-year term (“It’s like a political cycle,” jokes Erin, “you want to get the most out of it”) – but the cooperative spirit of the place runs deep and there’s a sense of stewardship of the land that is palpable here, stretching further into the future than short-term individual profit imperatives. It’s another instance of a commonality we’re discovering between disparate farms, one a venerable old jewel wedged into a city plot and the other newly begun in the countryside: that of a permaculture land ethic.
Permaculture’s third ethical principle instructs us to “share the surplus”. This can feel like a tricky ask in the sometimes precarious day-to-day of small-scale farming: what is properly considered a surplus? How much can be sensibly shared now if future production is uncertain?
The question takes an epistemic form as well. Critiques of permaculture have at times centered on a perceived vein of exclusivity in the movement – a focus on perennial plants that yield food unfamiliar to many people; and workshops and literature that are inaccessible to farmers in the Global South and folks with limited incomes here in North America because of their cost, for example.
This week we made a pair of visits in an attempt to lend some practical context to these issues. On a sunny midweek morning we visit Angela Moran, coordinator with BC Housing’s People, Plants & Homes program in Victoria. Angela cut her teeth at Linnaea Farm on Cortes Island, as well as WWOOFing through Latin America, the U.K., and Canada, before settling at Mason Street Farm in downtown Victoria in the mid-2000s – where she quickly ramped up production and helped to imbue the place with a distinct permaculture ethos that persists to the present day.
We meet Angela at a BC Housing complex near the Panama Flats flood plain in Saanich. She gives some background on the program: People, Plants & Homes has been around since the ‘70s, and today operates community gardens, gardening and food literacy programs, and workshops throughout the province. The community garden we’re standing next to has been around for six years, but at the moment the site is flagging. The nearby Panama Flats was farmed intensively for decades, and when this ceased in 2011 after purchase by the government, the area was left to grow and revegetate as part of a land preservation and flood protection strategy. So while the land in and around these gardens is fertile, the weed pressure is immense, and the beds we’re looking at now in the soft morning sun are overgrown and knotted with morning glory and dandelion.
Because the community garden model isn’t working here, Angela is overseeing a transition to a market farm strategy, with a handful of tenants from the complex and a few outsiders to work the beds; residents will be able to trade three hours of time in the garden for a box of food. The program has launched just the week before, and Angela is aiming to harvest a hundred boxes’ worth of food in this first season, with a target to have the first ones ready in July.
Angela says the program is partly “horticultural therapy”, as the social and meditative qualities of gardening and being outdoors are deeply restorative – a truth I can certainly attest to. But of course beyond the hard work of building community engagement, there are layers of practical and strategic considerations, as well. Angela walks us through some of the main ones in her world: in food literacy projects, the food often gets grown successfully but then isn’t substantially harvested or cooked. It’s important to know at the outset, then, whether one plans for a demonstration site or a production site. If it’s the latter (and this is also true more generally in social enterprise projects), it often proves challenging to both produce a meaningful amount of food and to pay one’s self. But these considerations are essential if one wishes to build something enduring and resilient. As our instructor, Jesse, notes, “projects are good when they succeed”.
In this case, Angela’s hope is that the market garden model can be implemented successfully under the People, Plants & Homes umbrella. And if anyone has the chops to make it work, it’s her – these days, Mason Street is a stellar example of an urban farm that is not only self-sustaining, but that also performs important social justice work and is deeply embedded in the fabric of the community.
Angela tells us that at the intersection of small-scale farming and the non-profit world of grant- and proposal-writing, it also becomes important to account for and articulate things like growing seasons in funding applications. The need for an influx of cash in the spring, for example – for buying seed, for tool repair, for wages – might not always mesh neatly with bureaucratic prerogatives like the end of the fiscal year.
Angela’s considerations when crop planning are noteworthy, too: today we’re seeding in potatoes and carrots, chosen because they’re relatively low-maintenance but also because they’re likely to be familiar to the tenants. They’re also relatively heavy food – something that is significant if one buses to the grocery store and has an incentive to choose items based on carried weight.
After lunch, we head west towards Metchosin, near the site of our mushroom walk earlier this year with Andy MacKinnon. After a few winding turns and glimpses of the water, we come to the end of a country road, a few hundred yards from the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
A sign at the road reads “Sea Bluff Farm”. Assembling at the farm stand out front, we’re met by Robin Tunnicliffe, the farm manager, co-owner of Saanich Organics, and co-author of All The Dirt, a how-to book about small-scale organic farming. The organization maintains farm stands, supplies local restaurants and farmers markets, and runs a regional CSA box program. All its produce is supplied by small local farms like Sea Bluff, who operate co-operatively through Saanich Organics in order to diffuse the administrative burden and combine production power.
Robin tells us that she’s been farming for twenty-three years, six of them at Sea Bluff – as a disenchanted ag student in Ontario years ago, she was inspired by a talk given by the former owner of Saanich Organics, followed her out to Vancouver Island, and eventually bought out her stake in the company.
After years of farming on rented land in Saanich, real estate pressure forced Robin out of the area. A timely call from a man named Bob resulted in her winding up here at Sea Bluff.
As if on cue, a spry-looking octogenarian with strikingly wide suspenders – Bob – appears around the corner of the farm stand. After he greets us and heads off towards the fields, Robin explains that he is the owner of the farm and had made the phone call years ago to offer her a position as farm manager.
Six years ago, Robin says, Sea Bluff was basically devoid of infrastructure and lacked organic certification (although Bob employed a number of smart growing practices, including harvesting seaweed from the beach down the road to use as organic mulch). Upon taking over the farm manager role, Robin scaled up operations significantly, undertook some major infrastructure projects – including a new washing station and greenhouse – and gained organic certification for the farm.
Metchosin is an interesting case: as with much of the region, land and property values are generally high. But unlike more densely developed surrounding areas, properties here tend to be large and well-suited to agriculture. Robin tells us that the average age of farmers in Metchosin is almost 80, and many farms are operating at reduced capacity or not at all. And so Metchosin has a significant land bank – and an opportunity for young growers to hash out agreements with farmers and property owners, many of whom might wish for an infusion of young energy, to “share the surplus” of land. Permaculture principles can be applied very differently across different local contexts, and it seems on our visits today that this principle is being employed both creatively and appropriately.