[permaculture] Thoughts on PDCs - Was US National Permaculture Conference (lengthy post)

Mitch Triplett mtriplett at bctonline.com
Fri Dec 11 15:15:04 EST 2009

I reacted to the proposition of an 'advanced/beginner' delineation in much
the same way as Tripp, but I wasn't quite sure why.  Toby's post and a
little time to marinate the topic has (I think) helped me flush out my
reactions.  So although my thoughts may not be as eloquent as those already
presented, I'd like to offer them in the hopes that they might re-energize
this discussion.

My first attempt at attending a PDC was a course offered about 50 miles away
from where I lived and upward of $1500 at a time in life when all I had was
a mountain bike and less than $1000 in the bank.  Convinced I could make it
work, I made several attempts to work out a way to take the class which
involved biking the 50+ miles to a nearby campground, bike the 10+ miles
from campsite to PC site each morning & evening, working for a week prior to
the course, working in the kitchen during mealtimes while the course was in
session, and working for a week after the course had ended.  The organizers
were willing to shave a few hundred bucks off the price, but no more.  So I
didn't go.

About a year later I came across a local PDC and signed up with high hopes.
It was a 10-week course that met 2 (maybe 3?) times a week for a few hours
each day.  To the best of my recollection, the first several sessions
consisted of the following:

- An introductory, ice-breaking session typical (in my experience) of most
class beginnings.

- A session on Pc principles, ethics, etc.

- Writing summaries of the first couple chapters of the text for the course,
a well-written book called "Gaia's Garden" by some guy named... oh, what was
it?... Hemingway?

- A break-out session where small groups were given landscape elements and
tasked to come up with a design for our site.

- A morning spent touring an edible landscape and discussing the design and
the individual elements.

So far so good.  It seemed like a lot of this could have been taught &
processed in less time, but I was engaged and learning.  But then things
started to go sour for me and a few others:

- A session sowing seeds in flats.  OK, that took 10 minutes.  Now what?

- A session using markers and puff paint to decorate 12 X 12 pieces of cloth
that were going to be made into a larger flag.

- A 'Zone 0' session that involved sitting around in a circle singing a
child-like song of gibberish words while clapping and touching your
neighbors noses, knees, etc.

At this point, myself and a few others met with the instructor and asked
(I'm paraphrasing here) "what gives?"  The response was that the curriculum
was set, it wasn't going to change and that if we didn't feel we were
getting enough out of it, we were welcome to take on extra-curricular
activities to enrich what was being taught.  I thought about that when I got
home that evening and came to the conclusion that that's what I'd been doing
without the PDC, so why go back?  So I didn't go back.  

For someone who was as fired up to learn about Pc as I was, it was an
enormous let-down. On the other hand, if this is what PDC are all about, I
was grateful that I hadn't spent all the money, time & energy biking and
working in order to take the first PDC I mentioned.

So if this is what PDCs consist of, then what about the sessions described
above would give someone a better grasp of Pc than anyone who studies Pc on
their own?  To be fair, it's entirely possible that the sessions that
followed after I stopped going could have been enlightening, empowering and
the 'genius-level pedagogy' Toby described, but there was nothing pointing
to that being true.  I'm not the hungriest duck in the garden, but if I'd
gotten the slightest whiff of an intellectual slug, I'd have hunkered down
and started gobbling.  It just wasn't there.

I learn more reading a few posts on this and other lists (and many, many
thanks to all who contribute by the way) than I learned in the 2+ weeks of
the PDC sessions I described.  Add to that all I learn by reading, working,
making mistakes, having successes, etc. and I gotta wonder why I should ever
consider paying someone thousands of dollars to do their work and learn how
to use puff-paint when I can do my own work and learn from something like
"Gaia's Garden" for free.


Mitch Triplett
Tri-Pearl Family Forest
Associate Member - FSC

-----Original Message-----
From: permaculture-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org
[mailto:permaculture-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org] On Behalf Of Toby Hemenway
Sent: Wednesday, December 09, 2009 4:19 PM
To: permaculture
Subject: Re: [permaculture] US National Permaculture Conference

I get what Tripp is saying, and sympathize, but  . . .

My experience has been that, with some notable exceptions, PDC grads on 
average grasp permaculture better than people who have not taken one (it 
sure helped me!). I've seen that most people without a PDC are more 
likely to believe that permaculture is a set of gardening techniques, or 
at best, land use techniques with some elegant strategic ideas guiding 
them. (I repeat, there are exceptions.) I've seen people make errors 
like applying deep mulches in a Mediterranean climate because "mulching 
is an essential permaculture technique," or placing keyhole beds on 
steep slopes where they are much harder to use than linear raised beds, 
because that's a permaculture technique. And then they gripe that 
"permaculture doesn't work here." Grrr! Even the super-gardener that 
Tripp describes, coming from an academic ag and gardening background, 
could easily miss that Pc is far more than a land-use program. They've 
got a set of ag tools broadened by their ecology courses, but it's still 
totally land-use oriented. They need a systems piece, and invisible 
structures, and energy and building and . . . . The PDC tells you you 
need to learn all that. It does not make you an expert in it, but it 
points you to the path better than anything I've seen, and shows you how 
highly branched that path is.

It's genius-level pedagogy. And the most innovative applications of Pc 
to the non-garden world seem to have come from PDC grads. I see few 
non-PDC people applying Pc to economics, education, or even energy 
systems. That seems to be the hardest part for anyone, even PDC grads, 
to get: Permaculture is a design approach applicable to everything, and 
the land use part is only the most obvious and rudimentary element. As a 
student once said to me, "So the garden is just a metaphor for 
understanding what Pc is really about. Permaculture isn't about growing 
food." That's right. When people limit it to the garden (as the guy who 
wrote "Gaia's Garden" may have done), it makes me grind my teeth.

I think Fukuoka would probably have said that the PDC is not formal 
education. It's as different from my "schooling" as anything I've ever done.

That said, taking a PDC doesn't make you a permaculturist; it just means 
you share a body of introductory knowledge with tens of thousands of 
others. And you have earned the right to use the word in a business, 
since Mollison wants it that way. But really you get to be a 
permaculturist after years of work. And although I share some chagrin 
about Ellen Page, her mentioning the word on daytime TV is a huge gift 
to us. No small accomplishment there. She's thinking permaculturally as 
a celebrity, not as a gardener, and it was a deliberate, strategic move. 
Her teacher, Jude Hobbs, tells me she's way, way smart.

There are no real barriers to taking a PDC, not if you want one. I've 
seen honorary certificates, and all the instructors I know offer 
scholarships and trades, and are willing to travel anywhere in the world 
to where people want a course. Want a certificate? I might answer, with 
a sorta snarky but friendly smile, then think permaculturally about the 
problem (it's not about land use).  Organize a course in your area. 
Bring in different teachers on the weekends. Help out at a PDC. Show an 
instructor that your work is cool and ask if it qualifies. There's no 
caste system except in the mind.

Sometimes my posts remind that Voltaire (I think) wrote, "sorry this 
letter is so long but I didn't have time to write a shorter one." 
Apologies for verbosity. And thanks to Tripp for his stimulating, 
thoughtful posts.


Tripp Tibbetts wrote:
> >From a devil's advocate perspective, what's the difference between a
newbie with a PDC, and someone who has relentlessly studied and implemented
permaculture theory and on-the-ground practice for a couple of seasons?
Sort of like a qualifications requirement of a Masters or 3 years of
appropriate experience in the field.  
> For argument's sake, let's say you have a degree in biology from a major
land-grant university, 5 years of experience in watershed and estuarine
ecology, botany, and soil science, 4 years of organic gardening experience,
and a year of intense permaculture study and practice under your belt.  (You
know, for argument's sake;)  Would that make you less of a permie than say,
a movie star like Ellen Page who has a PDC from last summer?
> As much as I respect the time, effort, and expense it takes to earn a PDC,
I can't help but feel a potentially inappropriate caste system evolving from
some of the discussion I've heard here.  Fukuoka believed that formal
education was only necessary because of a culture that made it so.  In line
with his idea of a fire, a pinch of salt, and real ingredients being all
that was required for a healthy, world-class meal, I think that a humble
spirit before Nature, an open and investigating mind, and time, is what
makes one a true asset to the world that permaculture is trying to create.
> If that means I can't call myself a "permaculturist," then so be it.  But
that's what I do, what I study, what I dream about, and what I am.  I'm not
trying to certify students or instructors, or call my garden a Permaculture
University, but I bet I can heal a landscape as effectively as a lot of
certificate holders out there.  
> I have a feeling that the permaculture plot is on the verge of a mass
immigration.  Will the world hold its breath while the waves of newcomers
all save up their not-insignificant tuition from the smoldering embers of a
dying economy, and locate an agreeable course to satisfy accreditation?  I
can't go to the Orcas Island PDC next year because our baby is due just
then.  Should I fly to Hawaii or Georgia, spend a month away from my family
who needs me, to study in a bioregion unrelated to my own?  Would that be a
more appropriate use of my time than watching the shadows move across my
garden, teaching my daughter about the world, and studying the resident soil
biota under the microscope?
> If an advanced permaculture discussion/presentation group is a desirable
thing, and I agree that it would be, could we come up with a less
enculturated way to delineate the groups?  Or would a better way to conduct
such a convergence be to have the most experienced practitioners teaching us
> I certainly don't need Ellen Page to teach me about fertilizing with
urine...hell, I don't need the NRCS to teach me about capillary fringe
> Tear down the wall.
> Tripp out.
> The best fertilizer is the gardener's shadow.
> -Chinese proverb
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