Our First Class

Our first class of the 12-weekend intensive Sub/Urban Permaculture Design Course (PDC) focused on Intention, Presence and Community Building.  We were welcomed into a rectangular room with yellow painted walls and windows opening to the East, which invited the morning sunshine in—excellent feng shui! There, along with about 30 others, I learned to Slow Down, Go with the Flow and Establish Connections as Slav, Sage, Jay, Helen & Jonathan led a series of exercises, in which we formed circles, linked hands, expressed gratitude, established common ground, swayed our bodies like Elm Trees, took in the presence of each other in silence with prolonged eye contact (with optional embracing) and by touching hands with eyes closed, etc.

In Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream symposium, the most memorable statement was about the privileged who feel they have a right not to know the ramifications of our affluence (Americans make up 5% of the world’s population yet consume 25% of its resources).  It’s so unreal that people choose to be so clueless to avoid responsibility so the status quo remains.  In the follow-up exercise, I played the role of Elder speaking to the listening Future about my views on the current state of affairs, my actions in response and how I maintain hope in this crazy world that we live in.  At this point, I remembered the Jehovah’s Witnesses that I met outside the Berkeley BART station in the morning; referencing the Bible, they pointed to prophecies that foretell these “last days” of worsening world conditions—characterized by wars, famines, pestilences, lawlessness, ruining the earth, inordinate love of money, etc.—and hope for restoring Earth to its original Paradise Garden where the righteous live forever in harmony with nature as God intended.  I shared some of this information and talked about my intention to apply permaculture principles for a more sustainable lifestyle.

Our 12-hour day included 1-1/2 hour each for lunch and dinner, plus 1 hour optional yoga during these meal breaks.  For lunch, I joined a few classmates at Berkeley Farmers’ Market and then visited Half-Price Books (“waste not, read a lot”).  For dinner, another classmate joined me for a quick bite before I ran off to yoga class.

What did I learn from our first class that can be applied to a garden? After all, permaculture principles can be applied to our social, not just garden, environment.

  1. Interconnections can empower us with resiliency:  Slav explained that Joanna Macy, who doesn’t speak Russian, introduced the Elm Dance as a healing exercise to help Russian-speaking people process their trauma following the Chernobyl disaster; the linking hands and swaying emphasize solidarity and then letting go to raise our hands to call out what we want healed can be cathartic.  It’s empowering to know we’re all together to work things out.  Similarly, Toby Hemenway says “an ecological garden looks and works the way nature does, by building strong connections among plants, soil life, beneficial insects and other animals, and the gardener, to weave a resilient, natural webwork.”
  2. Learn to get along with “enemies,” which may be real or imagined:  In Bowing to the Opponent exercise, we bowed in “gratitude” & “compassion” to the Opponent who has destroyed Earth for profit because this caused us to realize how much we value and seek to restore what’s lost.  Rather than stoop to the level of the opponent, we rise to the occasion when we counter this evil opponent with good actions.  We can follow the Biblical injunction to hate what is bad (action), but continue to love enemies—who can turn into allies if they change their behavior or we use them in a beneficial way.  For example, it’s helpful to understand allelopathy, or the biochemical effects of some plants.  Peas and beans are stunted by chives (their “enemy”), but roses thrive in the company of chives, which make the flowers more fragrant and help repel aphids.
  3. Yoga is good, but not after rushed meal:  Our natural movement involves bending forward a lot so bending backward during yoga class should help flex our spine after gardening exercises.  But I won’t try do it all again as I would have preferred a slow dinner instead of a rushed one!

While the trainers introduced themselves earlier in the day, my PDC colleagues and I did not have an opportunity to formally introduce ourselves until the 9 pm Closing Session when we finally stated our names, where we were from and our intention.  I was impressed that several came as far as Palo Alto, Sacramento and Bolinas to participate 12 hours on a Saturday in addition to their commute time.  The next day, I read Nicholas Kristoff’s NY Times Op-Ed piece about “The Happiness Hypothesis,” by Jonathan Haidt, who stated, “one thing that can make a lasting difference to your contentment is to work with others on a cause larger than yourself.”  It’s an awesome feeling to share in the work of my PDC colleagues to create a more sustainable future.

– Carmen L.

Class 1: Milling

Milling around person-to-person is all well and good but the answers don’t really come until you’re forced to sit and take that person’s hands in your own and recognize the power in that person. There is an infinite amount of wisdom and experience in each person, behind the facade of socially-constructed solitude and closedness. When it’s a matter of finding kindred spirits who are just as motivated and energized to change things in the current system.

The current system is, of course, one of a broken feedback mechanism. Living systems theory is based on the assumption that each and every interaction and relationship occurs within a self-regulating system of inputs and their associated outputs. In a normally-performing living system, there are two individual feedback mechanisms which serve to regulate and stabilize the system. These two feedback cycles are either “balancing” or “reinforcing.”

A balancing feedback loop is one that will recognize when some aspect is above and beyond its productive level. Some outside factor will intervene and insert itself to lower the level of the outperforming variable, to re-stabilize the levels of system inputs. The second feedback is a reinforcing one, that utilizes certain inputs that best benefit the system when continuously above their normal levels. In this case, some input will be introduced to stimulate the beneficial one.

After learning the difference between these two feedback mechanisms, it’s easy to understand why the significant absence in today’s culture and profit-driving society is that of the balancing feedback regulation. There is solely a reinforcing one, that keeps the incessant need for consumption and overconsumption alive and well.

The hope is that there are enough concerned people in the world who are dismayed about the current state of things to change and inform those around them. The best thing is to work cooperatively, realizing the inherent strength and power within each individual – sometimes by stopping the milling around to hold someone’s hands in your own…

– Trisha C.

Class 1: Expectation

Expectation and assumption can formulate and change our experiences based upon positive or negative influences from the outside, sometimes with positive or negative results.  I entered this course with few expectations or assumptions.  Focusing more on my excitement for the unknown and exposure to new ideas and teachings, I arrived Saturday with an open heart and open mind.

At first glance, the building holding the Common Ground courses blends in with the rest of Center street with many college-aged students strolling and hurrying to and from the UC Berkeley campus.  Past construction outside and upon entrance into the “office” portion of the school, the welcoming sound of a bamboo fountain and calming yellow hues help dissipate the hustle bustle feelings felt via transport by BART from San Francisco to downtown Berkeley.

Chaco’s removed and notebook in hand, I tip-toed across the wooden floor to join my new course-mates already engrossed in Awakening the Dreamer.  Looking around, I was pleased with the warmth and overall energy felt in the room and ready to take part in a new and awaited experience.

Arriving late, my day began with the final half of the Awakening the Dreamer Symposium, leading into a multitude of facilitated activities and presentations.  A few that stick out the most at the moment include a video on city repair, the Elm Dance, the stretching time activity, milling exercises, and the bowl of tears.

The intersection intervention video segment was engaging and gave me hope of the future state of some of our more liberal cities.  That it began in Portland, OR does not surprise me and I look forward to learning more about it through outside research.  It seems like a great way to reconnect our severed communities through artistic expression and an actual physical space set aside to achieve a supportive community.

It wasn’t until the Elm Dance that I began to feel a connection and sense of community with everyone in the PDC course.  What were presented as simple movements at first, turned into a fluid transmission of energy and emotion.   Introduced as a practice used by Joanna Macy, it is a beautiful dance that I look forward to taking part in every week with my fellow classmates.

The stretching of time exercise was one of my favorites.  Sitting across from an “ancestor” I, the “future generation”, listened as profound questions were asked then answered.  Such questions as, how humanity ended up in such a mess and “what did you do” in response to the state of humanity were the general ideas behind some of the questions.  Some of the answers I heard deeply resonated with my beliefs of what needs to be done now and also in things that I could be doing myself in the near future.  Once it was my turn to speak as a representative of the future generation, it almost felt like I was giving hope to the “ancestors” on the outside circle.  Through our descriptions and visualizations of what could be, we are hopefully transcribing what will be and what can be actualized in our future as humans and a part of Gaia.

In order for some of us to remember and realize that we are all connected with Gaia and are a part of it, we must also realize that we are all connected with one another.  The portion of the milling exercise where each of us chose two people which to maintain equal distance between was a great example of the connectedness of all our movements and actions.  The movement of one affected the movement of us all.  This was especially noticed once an elimination round was experienced.  The removal of one person from our system led to the eventual exponential removal of us all, or the demise of the entire system.  It is a great way of showing the cause and effect of all our actions whether small or big in all we do everyday, regardless of the context.

Finishing the evening with the Bowl of Tears was a great way to wrap up an amazing day, continuing with the theme of connectedness and visualizations.  The simple notion of repeating the words “we hear you” after each person’s turn solidified our unity as a group and was a way of demonstrating active listening.

Thank you to everyone who was there this Saturday.  I have learned much from you all.  I look forward to spending more time with you and the coming weeks.  Thank you all for being present and giving me the opportunity to feel comfortable and be myself.


– Amy N.