Permaculture Design Course – High Heathercombe. November 2015

I had no idea what to expect. The drive down, sharing a car with a fellow PDC (Permaculture design certificate), course attendee was pleasant enough, and we’d made pretty good time down the long, winding coast road from the rainy and windy South East into the surprisingly sunny West, but now as we approached High Heathercombe, our training centre on Dartmoor, I began to worry that two weeks might be too long to be tucked away with 15 others who’d signed up for 72 hours of Permaculture; you’d have to be mad, right?

This is not an essay about gardening. I won’t try and tell you exactly what Permaculture is; you’ll find explanations as numerous as the pages of any old growing guide. In fact, the subject stretches itself across many disciplines so broadly that a quick attempt would probably fail. And besides, you no doubt already clued up. And maybe you’ve already breezily dismissed those commentators using short-cut-to-thinking soundbites about the ‘muesli eating, hair-shirt brigade’ types who are supposedly into this type of thing. Unfortunately, and despite myself, my expectations couldn’t help but be tainted by those sorts of tatty innuendos – even my Dad, admittedly a bit of a Thatcherite in his 70’s, dismissed the idea of it as ‘hippy nonsense’. Sometimes it’s hard not to succumb to preconceptions, even if they are someone else’s.

So it looked like I’d be arriving at there on Dartmoor that winter Saturday afternoon with a guitar, two weeks’ worth of clothes, a laptop, and all my metropolitan anxieties about being stuck in close proximity with ‘hippy trippy’ folks fully stoked. I didn’t want evangelism, therapy or dogs on strings. I wanted to learn something multi-faceted that could maybe be applied to any number of areas – not just my veg patch. I hoped Permaculture was it. And, with any luck, I’d meet some like minds.

I mentioned Metropolitan. I’d lived in London for 19 years, working various media, office based roles but had recently moved to rural West Sussex and resolved to push my life in a different, perhaps more meaningful direction. Undertaking the design course was part of that statement. A way to get into another mode that’s not all about what you have. When you’re living in a city it’s easy to see plenty of examples of how poorly we conduct our relationships with the natural environment but now I wanted to do more than just put up with it. I’d become fed up with the dreary consumerism and the grinding wheel of work, buy, work, buy that seems to have swallowed most us whole with its insatiable appetite for compliance. One life: has to be other way – and there has to be some way to put something back.

I took this mixed bag of hopes, niggles and neurosis straight to the front door of the centre.  Now, if you’ve done a residential course, you probably already know that sharing your space with people you’ve never met before can be tricky. If you haven’t, you might even find the idea a little off putting. Me? I couldn’t believe I’d been such a sissy about it all. As soon as I got inside and started shaking hands with everyone all of my presumptions looked not just a little pathetic. Everyone was friendly, interesting and just as eager as I was to get onto something new.

I don’t need to give a rundown of the timetable of the course – sign up for one and you’ll find out more than you think – let me just say that for every day of those two weeks, for twelve hours a day, we seemed to absorb more ideas than the moor did rain.  Seemingly, all the travails and trials of all those permaculture pioneers was handed to us in the neatest of packages by our tutors, Aranya and Klaudia – they bestowed on each of us a pair of permaculture goggles; a new way to look at the world; practical insights that might mitigate our crazy messes; we took it together and it was all the more potent for it. What I’m trying to say is that it was the people, tutors and students alike,  that smashed my shaky little doubts about being there. They were honest, friendly and curious. We were all there for what, at first looked like different reasons. Some wanted to improve growing techniques for plots already worked, some wanted to learn from others on the course and some wanted to apply permaculture to their already established businesses. But beyond all that there was something else, something a little deeper.

I don’t know about most, but what struck me about that this group, who’d chosen to break with routine and come here – and anyone who chooses to go to Dartmoor in November surely knows they’ll get no holiday – didn’t seem to be getting what they needed from the usual day-to-day routines, weren’t satisfied merely to consume. They were aching for something else. Maybe they didn’t all buy the common narrative where your life’s just a line that rises from childhood and ‘progresses’ through education, on into work and develops into an all-encompassing career satiating your every desire – and all the time as if the world around us was merely a backdrop to our desires. Apparently, this is an ideal ostensibly suited to all.

Leaving aside whether or not you’ve ever met anyone whose life is actually like this do you think that this could, or should, fulfil everyone? Of course not, but one way our culture herds us to play this game is by applying binaries (hard worker/ slacker, all/ nothing, dreamer/ realist), that pressure our thoughts and emotions whilst leaving out large chunks of all the other inconvenient bits of reality human beings actually need. Why am I grossly over-simplifying this sticky little paradigm – one that I’ve already shown I can be drawn into? Only that I think it’s fair to say that our collective ‘ache’ stemmed from the realisation that there was more to life than what we’re ordinarily fed. We wanted a taste of it – leaving out the bit where you trash nature.

You didn’t have to dig deep to expose this yearning; we were cooked some amazing organic food during our time there and the mealtime conversations were just as tasty. People talked openly of their frustrations and failures and passionately of their hopes and plans. There was plenty to learn and opportunities to share. All in all, it was a brilliant learning experience in an idyllic setting but I don’t think anyone there thought they’d find answers to everything they were seeking. Yet for me, the chance of meeting people on the same wavelength was an important part of what I wanted to achieve. I had lost, buried beneath city years of quotidian scepticism, the reasons why it’s always worth it to push your boat out into unfamiliar water; the joy of different perspective.

Permaculture is no panacea to our problems, people are. It’s in places like this where you’ll find the ones willing to start the change.