25 August 2009
Relating to Nature
My internship with the Regenerative Design Institute (RDI) has been an enriched learning experience. I have gained an expanded skill set, as well as a gamut of personal and academic realizations. The primary components of my learning consisted of day-to-day site maintenance at Commonweal Garden (RDI’s main site), participation in RDI’s Ecology of Leadership Program, and independent academic studies. All of these aspects have deepened my understanding of what it means to live, and be Ecological. I use the word Ecological, because my interests in sustainability are not fully encapsulated in the word sustainable. Sustainability, I have come to realize, is only a shallow component of a much larger socio-ecological transformation.
I have come to see that ecology is essentially the study of relationship in nature. Once the artificial barrier between the natural world and the human world is removed, it becomes apparent that ecology can be applied to many—if not all—aspects of human existence. Our current ‘unsustainable’ human society is ecologically illogical. This is from my observation a result of a cultural mind frame that puts a disproportionate emphasis on the recognized parts of our environment, while deemphasizing the importance of studying the relationships between those parts. Consequently, much of our civilization operates with the underlying falsehood that there are true separations in the universe. With this concept in mind, how does one apply it practically in order to re-design our communities, our economies, and our internal physiological processes? The RDI internship has given me a glimpse into what an ecological civilization could look like.
The ‘human’ community at Commonweal Garden is not a separate entity from the surrounding ecological community. Only the subtle line of a deer fence defines the boundaries between the Garden and a wild national park that skirts its edges. Weeds are referred to as ‘volunteers’- in true Permaculture spirit – and pulled only in areas where they impede food production, or human settlement. Local wildlife benefits from the presence of Commonweal Garden in many ways. Finding ways to deter gophers, quail, rabbits, scrub jays, deer, and raccoons – just to name a few – from eating our juicy domesticates, is a constant challenge. Thanks to Ecology, predators such as bobcats, coyotes, foxes, and cougars help maintain this balance. Commonweal Garden is doing its best to be as integrated into its surrounding ecology as possible.
Perhaps Commonweal garden’s most important integration is its water source, which comes directly out of an on site spring at the top of the property. Maintaining this water system helps me remember that our hydrological cycle does not begin and end in a linear path between the faucet and the drain. Water is scarce in August, and a designated intern must check the water system twice daily to ensure that it is fully functional. The number of problems that arise within this small system cannot help but make me wonder how a larger metropolitan hydro system manages to provide so much water with only the occasional blip in supply. Having a clear understanding of where your water comes from is essential for an ecological community. Water access as we know, but often forget, is one of our most fundamental needs.
From water we gain the ability to grow food. Planting vegetable crops at RDI has given me an immense appreciation for the amount of knowledge and energy needed to grow healthy organic food. An ecological civilization would require many citizens to be dedicated to local food production. I’m glad to have gained experience in Permaculture gardening practices. The crop beds here are built not in straight lines, but on curvy swales that are formed to fit the contour of the land, and allow for numerous ecological, agricultural, and hydrological benefits. At first glance the organization of crops appears quite chaotic, but in reality much of it is intentional. There are many planting strategies that allow for you to get the highest yield out of the smallest piece of land. For example, shade tolerant crops can be planted under orchard trees, and sun-loving crops, such as squash, should be planted away from the orchard. At Commonweal Garden the squash is planted at the top of a south-facing slope so it receives maximum exposure to sunlight. Knowing your food as a living organism which holds a unique relationship to its surroundings is a powerfully grounding experience.
Finding ways to most effectively change what we currently call ‘waste’ into nutrients is a key component of ecology. Organic crops are fertilized with compost, and building this organic fertilizer requires a significant amount of skill to perfect. It must be kept in aerobic – as opposed to anaerobic – decomposition. This is accomplished by making sure each compost pile contains the right carbon nitrogen ratio, and has sufficient internal air flow. Compost allows us to increase the value of food waste. Other human wastes can also gain value through decomposition. The toilets here contribute to the nutrient cycle of the land. All the biological human waste on site is buried in the field of a future fruit orchard. Using a Commonweal Garden on-site composting toilet is an act of contribution to the land. If we as humans relate to our waste appropriately we can turn it into important food -growing nutrients.
If you are designing a community that is integrated into local ecology, it is important to know how to build a natural home. Natural Building has a long way to go before it is ecologically perfected. Building with natural or recycled materials and applying appropriate technologies, while maintaining the standards of modern living, is a challenge. During this internship, I had the opportunity to gain some knowledge building with both conventional and natural materials. My experience building with plaster, for example, showed me that while natural clay or wheat paste-based plaster is easier on the environment, and on one’s skin, conventional plasters such as stuctolite maintain a higher ‘stick factor’ needed to form more challenging surfaces such as ceilings and walls that have an angle that is sharper than 90 degrees. However in most cases natural plaster is a highly underutilized material, and deserves much more credit than it currently receives from the conventional world.
All of the above aspects of creating an ecological community become irrelevant without an axis of creating an ecological culture. At its heart, this is RDI’s intention. Commonweal Garden holds a diverse range of events and workshops to promote the different aspects of ecological living. I participated in RDI’s Ecology of Leadership program (EOL). EOL focuses on helping people bio-remediate their ‘internal soil.’ The idea is firstly, to help participants release their personal grief, and negative thought processes that inhibit them from leading an enriching life that they love. Secondly, EOL gives participants the support and tools needed to manifest new possibilities in their lives. In conjunction with these intentions it helps facilitate a deepened connection between participants and the natural ecological world. The underlying premise is that external ecology helps us understand our internal ecology. They have evolved from the same source, and both possess similar underlying characteristics.
The most valuable aspect of the course for me was its ‘Life Wheel’ and ‘Creative Scene’ Technology. This is essentially an organizational tool to help you consciously frame your life’s intentions, and it is helping me to focus on consciously creating the ecological life I want to live. This technology can also be applied to creating organizations; it will improve my leadership capacity as a prospective entrepreneur. What grief must society overcome to become a powerful and nurturing structure that holds humanity in the larger ecological environment? How can I become a leader that can help to facilitate this process?
My role as a leader, I am beginning to realize, lies in the world of connecting ecological philosophies with the world of economics and business. The economy is a structure that holds enormous weight over the actions of humanity. Can economics be modeled to mimic, and relate effectively to the ecological processes of planet Earth? The only hope I have in shaping the answers to these questions is by being in relationship with the natural world, and the human world. RDI has helped me better understand how I relate to both of these worlds, as well as how to relate to myself. Only through relationship with my environment can I hope to understand who I am.