As a long-time educator, I’ve never had a student whom I’d never met ask if he or she can join in on my student’s hands-on project and then stay all day long… until March 30, 2012. That’s the date when our Ithaca College permaculture research team hosted a workday to install the infrastructure for a permaculture garden near Williams Hall. It was a big day for us, because I’d worked with several students on projects and independent studies over four years to design the garden, and we were finally breaking ground!
The welcome “crasher” had been studying in the 5th floor of the library, and saw us working in the garden. After completing his homework, he came down to help and ended up being one of our most dedicated laborers. Indeed, several other students spontaneously joined us that day, citing their longing to “do something meaningful,” to be physically as well as mentally engaged, to work in the dirt, and to fulfill their search for reasons to be hopeful. They became enthusiastic supporters of our vision of transforming this small, formerly underutilized student garden into a diverse perennial garden and gateway for reflection, education, and food production. We aim for it to model alternatives to conventional approaches to landscaping and use of public space.
Back in the 1970s, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren of Australia questioned the industrial “agri-culture” paradigm that degrades ecosystems. Instead, they continued the legacy of J. Russell Smith who, in 1929, started asking, “What would ‘permanent agriculture’ look like?”—agriculture that works with ecological realities (that make ecosystems resilient and productive, cycles nutrients, etc.) to enhance ecosystem functions while providing yields in human-influenced landscapes. “Permanent agriculture” became an approach to ecological design called permaculture.
Mollison and Holmgren greatly value the knowledge of indigenous cultures, which see humans as part of the nested local, regional, and planetary ecosystems. They saw that the health and functioning of our cultural systems are also key to long-term development. Thus, the “culture” aspect is amplified in the three ethics that form the core of permaculture: Care of the Earth, Care of the People, and Fair Share.
These ethics and principles of permaculture are integrated with strategies and techniques through a design process that matches the possibilities of the physical site with the needs of the people who will use it or be influenced by it. At IC, we gathered such information to articulate goals that inform our design, plantings, and the evolution of the space. I’m also including a link to a sketch of the garden, because these visuals will provide a fuller picture of the audacity of our endeavor; but let me conclude by hearkening back to the student “crashers.”
As a person who has worked on this project for a long time as a volunteer mentor, the enthusiasm of students and passersby makes it all worthwhile. They see that this is something different. In this time of mounting ecological degradation, young people know in their bones that we, as a planetary society, have to transform our industrial growth culture to one that works with nature. They need to understand systems thinking and how our planet and its ecosystems work. They also need to be able to envision a new future that regenerates ecosystems, individuals, and societies. They need to have the skills to design that audaciously hopeful future, and to make it happen. The students, staff, and faculty that I have worked with on the permaculture garden offer it as a humble stepping stone in service to the planet, and to humanity as we journey together on this transformative path.
And we’re not alone. The University of Massachusetts Amherst Permaculture Initiative was named one of the Champions of Change and enjoyed a warm reception at the White house this spring. They are hosting a “Permaculture Your Campus” conference from June 20-22 of 2012. As Ryan Harb says in the White House article on their group, “The most exciting fact in all of this is that we are just getting started.”
If you’d like more information about how to get involved, you can “like” the Ithaca College Permaculture Garden page on Facebook.
You can also visit our blog in its entirety at http://icpermaculture.wordpress.com/