Since senior exhibitions ended last Wednesday, Putney’s famous Project Week has been under way. This is a time where, twice a year, students spend time (usually around 10 days) working on two projects. Many students choose to design their own projects but some group projects are designed by either teachers, students, or both. As PEL fellows, one of our projects at Putney was to design one of these group projects.
I don’t think I could have dreamed up a better way to end my first year of PEL. I have been captivated by the promise of Project-Based Learning (PBL) since we saw the documentary Most Likely to Succeed during our time at Unquowa, and was further inspired when we read An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger. Needless to say, I have been looking forward to Project Week. When faced with the question of what the focus of my group project should be, the answer was clear. Visiting a permaculture farm during my senior year of college was paradigm shifting for me; it challenged me to think about how I wanted to live my life. I now had the opportunity to develop a project that would, hopefully, allow me to create a similar experience for high school students.
So what is permaculture? It is said that there are as many definitions of permaculture as there are people practicing it, but the basic idea is to design holistic systems that imitate nature and natural processes in order to create a (more) “permanent agriculture.” The term permaculture was coined in 1978 by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, but it features practices and ethics that have been utilized by indigenous people for thousands of years. Many of those practices and ethics are considered by many scientists and agriculturalists to lack “hard data” backing their validity, or to be valid but “impractical” at large scales and overly “idealistic.” Still, the results from groups of people on particular sites are hard to ignore.
Why teach permaculture? It is a subject that can be highly theoretical, but has clear, practical applications. Like food studies more generally, it is interdisciplinary. Over the past week we’ve talked about design, biology, botany, philosophy, ecology, history, anthropology, sociology, ethics, and much more. We’ve asked questions such as: Are humans, at best, only capable of doing “less harm” to the Earth, or can we actually do good? How can we apply principles like “observe and interact,” “apply self-regulation and accept feedback,”and “integrate rather than segregate” to human-made systems, whether it’s a food forest, a bank, or a school. The prospect of teaching students in this interdisciplinary, project-based way inspires me, and permaculture/regenerative agriculture is wonderful vehicle through which to achieve that goal.
Since 1978 (as well as before), many books have been written; design courses have been developed; and experimental sites, homesteads, and backyard food forests have been established–all according to the principles of permaculture, and with the added mission of teaching and sharing with others. We had the privilege to go on two site visits during this project week: Wildside Cottage and Gardens and the Franklin Permaculture Garden at UMass Amherst, both of which had wonderful teachers and provided a great learning experience for all of us. The site visits were crucial to me from the inception of my group project idea. We can sit in class and watch videos and talk all we want, but it’s something entirely different to talk with someone who is living these systems; to see, hear, and smell the living things; to both interact with and gaze out with wonder at the landscape. As I did when I first visited Whole Systems Design in Moretown, VT, many students began to question their notion of what their backyard might look like in 20 years, and how they interact with the natural world more broadly. It also got them wondering what some of the systems at Putney look like, and what opportunities exist to implement some permaculture-based systems here.
The students in my group project ended up deciding to design a permaculture orchard, which they presented today during the school-wide project week presentation. Here’s what they came up with:
I am proud of the work they did and, more importantly, the students seem proud of their work. Still, their design is not perfect; they were largely figuring things out on their own, and there was certainly a lot to figure out in a short span of time. They also thought they might be able to start implementing, and fell way short of that aspiration, but they seem committed to following this project through to the end (and have future Project Weeks to do so). More than anything, my goal for this project was for them to start seeing the world through the lens of permaculture ethics and principles, and to engage with big questions about how we as humans interact with the natural world. By the end of our second site visit on Tuesday, they had already achieved that goal. Everything else was an extra yield.