Closure from Cornell: Soul found in design….

by Hufton + Crow / Seed Cathedral, Heatherwick

by Hufton + Crow / Seed Cathedral, Heatherwick

In 1987 I had a major life-changing event which moved me away from a twelve year career in law enforcement and into emergency and disaster management. After writing several major plans, I was approached by the local district coordinator for the USDA, NRCS to coordinate a 36-agency program to restore two major anadromous fisheries watersheds on the Northern California Coast. Five years later I was hired to include a third watershed damaged by leakage from a Browning-Ferris Industries landfill near Half Moon Bay California. So began my immersion in natural resource management. I found stream restoration was amazingly clear to me, and I worked with hydrologists to design repairs, riparian habitat restorations, fisheries habitat installation, bank stabilization, restoration and conservation of agricultural and forest-product lands. That work was the most rewarding, satisfying time of my life.

After a few moves I found myself in Casper Wyoming in 2000, and although this is in no way a place in which I ever expected to be living, the property I have here would be far out of reach financially in many places I would prefer to live. By the time I found myself alone with a cabin and a livestock loafing shed and 18 acres of abused, over-worked ground I had also lost most of my sense of self. I was exhausted from a period of challenges, and my confidence in what I knew had vanished.

I began slowly to make improvements on the property – within budget and under my own labor. I started the nursery in small ways in 2003, began selling plants in 2005, continued with small improvements, and then was blessed with a cost-share situation from which I was able to have an underground irrigation delivery system installed. Up to that point I had used ditches and dams to move my irrigation water from a quarter mile away to the fields on the property. I think it is important to add that I was always employed full time – first as district manager for the domestic water system, then as business manager for the Federal irrigation district, and in the last seven years as a clerk at the local municipal court. Salaries and wages in Wyoming are a small portion of what those types of positions would pay in higher-cost-of-living states. I have always lived on a budget and that ability served me extremely well during these years since.

I do not even remember the first time I saw or heard the word permaculture but I found Rosemary Morrow’s manual in a local bookstore. So much of what she wrote was exactly what I had been doing. She gave me a language to describe things I had been doing by instinct – the old instinct that had created nurseries for rainbow trout to become silver salmon to return and rest in the gravels under the redwoods. And I do not remember the first time, after all the Internet searches and books and videos, that I realized that the nursery and large installations I had developed on my property were what I wanted to do as a livelihood. I do remember finding out that I could still draw plans, structure projects, develop materials lists and budgets, when I completed the Oregon State University Permaculture course work online.

And, I do remember the exact moment that I was writing one of the Reflective assignments for the Cornell Course when reality shifted, and I realized that I already knew all of the basics. They were inside me, inside my experience, and outside in the nursery, and the pasture, and the gardens and the hedges and windbreaks I had installed. When I described this moment to a good friend, her only comment was “I told you this was your Gift.” She is a devout, born-again Christian (I, a life-long Buddhist), and when she used the word “Gift” I knew exactly what she meant. What I love about her use and understanding of that word is that it is a divine gift, something that an individual cannot avoid or deny, and which is not only something that lifts others up, but which also can be a burden for the holder. Never enough, never doing quite enough.

I remember realizing in an exchange with Steve Gabriel that he felt that weight as well. That the weight of doing what we do, living as a natural element in the environment, can be so frustrating sometimes. So much we want to achieve. The point being: I found my footing again and a language with which to share the vision.

The second most amazing thing that has happened as a result of this pursuit of an intentional life was my moment of enlightenment about design. I had no problem planning an installation or project. I saw beauty and function in the things I was doing. But it was the Pattern Language topic that shoved me outside my oh-so-practical paradigm. My irritation with the article we were asked to read drove me to a deeper research into the father of Pattern Language. In fact he had been interviewed for an article in a Buddhist journal to which I subscribe (and which published my first attempt at non-fiction some 16 years ago). And off I went. I spent hours on tangents, following names and history of design, and ended up back in my childhood. Many, many weekends, when I was a child, my family would drive to the Napa Wine Country, north of San Francisco. There on the east side of the freeway, just north of the city of Marin, was the Marin County building. My mother would roll her window down, insisting that my father slow down so we could see the building designed by “Frank Lloyd Wright”. She was fascinated. And I realized that she referred to her childhood home as a “Craftsman”. As a child I could identify the “Craftsman” style. Somehow she had developed an interest in architecture, and somehow, through all the “brown” in which she tried to bury me, the “green” was there as well. Here in my design tangent I came back to Taliesin, Falling Waters, Prairie and organic design. I watched hours of architectural design talks on the TED site. I called up scanned images of hand drawn plans by Wright, Giorgini, Fujimori, Church, and Gaudi, and so many others. In the photos of the Warka Water towers it completely came together. I had found the soul of design, and these great, great people had given me permission to believe in the divine approaches to practicality. Two of my favorites: Falling Waters by Wright and the Seed Cathedral by Heatherwick. And this quest came about because the article by Salingaros was so nominal, so arithmetic, so frustrating.

Permaculture provides a language with which we can describe for others a way to apply information, to create well-being, resilience, growth. It can be as simple as a list of best management practices, of techniques. And unlike the “hard” sciences, the goal of seeking balance in this life is held up before us by the institutions that embody and profess permaculture: Care for the Earth; Care for People; Fair Share. The constant debate about permaculture lacking “proof” is a distraction. The key parts, on the most basic levels ARE “hard” science: soil science, meteorology, physics, organic chemistry, biology, botany. But the proofs of hard science are completely useless unless they can be applied, unless they are proven in the very air we breathe and water we drink. Permaculture is the applied science. It is a practice, a methodology, a dynamic, learning community. It is motivated, as any practice is, by ideals, by justice, by a search for a sense of peace wherever we can find it. Let those who find worth in the dialectic continue to argue, while the rest of us learn from their debate. But only after contemplation with a critical mind, with our bruised, cracked hands deep in the soil, or covered with calf slime, or carefully cleaning mushrooms, or quietly watching the steam rise from mugs of hot, herb tea. Only after dreaming and designing clean water and sanitation systems for Nepalese villages, or donating fresh food to elementary school children in Detroit, or quietly creating a web of barter and trade to rival any monetary economy.

So, tomorrow after I return home from my “grown up responsible” job for the City of Casper I hope to have the energy to get outside and set some fence posts, which will lead to fencing out the five Black Angus and one Scottish Highlander, so that the new pasture grass can grow up, so that I can spray some exotic invasive nasty knapweed, and next year have hay to sell and trade. And I will sleep very soundly from good, hard physical labor. Real sleep: one of the simplest benefits of this life. My most sincere thanks to the Cornell staff, and Steve Gabriel, and my classmates, and to you for offering me this opportunity. Three hundred new plants coming the end of May; lots of work to do.