Permaculture Intensive at Quail Springs

By Cyrus Sutton
Reblogged from regressingforward.com

Highway 33 snaked through crenulations on the Nordhoff Ridge. It was autumn and golden aspen dotted the evergreen landscape of the Sespe Wilderness.

“This place could easily pass for a canyon in the Eastern Sierra,” I said to Lex who was riding shotgun.

Permaculture_Cyrus Sutton  Permaculture_Cyrus Sutton Permaculture_Cyrus Sutton

I met Lex on a Reef photo shoot in Tahiti a few months back. She’s a stylist and fashion blogger. A few weeks earlier we’d caught up at a coffee shop in LA and talked about our complicated relationship with social media. I suggested she come take a Permaculture Course with me to clear her head.

Permaculture was founded in the 70’s by Australians Bill Mollison and Dave Holmgren. It is one of those simple concepts that’s hard to explain simply. It’s essentially a bunch of people all over the world seeking to solve humanity’s problems through ancient approaches to growing food and building shelters, combined with a respect for modern technologies like photovoltaics and heavy earth moving machinery.

Permaculture_Cyrus Sutton

Permaculture_Cyrus Sutton

I was skeptical at first, the word “Permaculture” sounded esoteric and cultish. Last spring, however, I had the opportunity to interview Geoff Lawton in Australia, who trained under co-founder Mollison for decades and has since become the foremost Permaculture teacher in the world. I was amazed by his ability to articulate an alternative view of the future which side-stepped much of the grim environmental prophecies cautioned by scientists and the mainstream media.

Permaculture is taught in two-week intensives called PDC’s (Permaculture Design Courses). I’d promised myself long ago I’d take one, and after three years of signing up and canceling, I was finally on my way.

Permaculture_Cyrus Sutton

Permaculture_Cyrus Sutton

Permaculture_Cyrus Sutton

We got our first glimpse of the dry Cuyama Valley nestled in a rain shadow behind Santa Barbara’s coastal mountain range. After a windy decent we were surrounded by tractor-groomed dirt. The landscape was brittle. Sparse patches of green offered the only evidence that the fields were still in production.  A nearby Pistachio farm served as the rendezvous point for our group of drop-outs, documentarians, preppers, self-help gurus, retirees and students. Together we drove single file through a series of locked gates to a high desert valley. Beyond a kink in the canyon, the white canvas yurts of “Quail Springs Learning Oasis” were visible amongst the chaparral.

Filtering into the compound past a humble sunken garden, we congregated into a large circle of chairs. There were probably ten to fifteen people who worked here full time mixing with the forty of us who had come to learn how to live closer to the land.

The Quail Springs permaculture school was really a fledgling off-the-grid  town. All of the dwellings were either yurt tents or earthen structures made of clay and straw. Mornings started early with a breakfast bell ringing across the canyon to my van and the frost covered student tents. Everyone wrestled into the layers of clothing they would shed as the temperature rose throughout the day. After breakfasts of eggs, potatoes and veggies, some of us practiced handstands before entering the classroom yurt. The next eight hours were spent listening to lectures and taking notes as teachers tried to explain a mix of anthropology, environmentalism, landscape design, agriculture and philosophy.

Permaculture_Cyrus Sutton

Permaculture_Cyrus Sutton

We learned about trees and how they act as ponds on the earth, pumping and catching water above and below to hold at the surface for all of life to thrive. We learned about mushrooms and their ability to bio-remediate the nastiest of man’s pollution. We learned about soils and their bacteria’s ability to transform all death into life. We learned that our poop is actually valuable. We learned about weeds and their deep roots which pull nutrients from the depths to repair damaged landscapes.

It became painfully obvious that the very things which elegantly provide the miracles of life have systematically been villainized by our culture. Their bounty deemed dirty in the face of more civilized solutions. The flawless order-forming out of what once seemed like chaos was overwhelming. Like a father and mother I’d never had, holding my hand whispering “I’m here, I’ve always been here. You are not alone.”

Permaculture_Cyrus Sutton

Permaculture_Cyrus Sutton

Permaculture_Cyrus Sutton

Everything perplexing about life up until that point began to make sense. The trappings of our collective delusion became painfully obvious. Author Don Miguel Ruiz likens our current state to a dream-world adrift, unconnected to our true reality. We’ve created surrogate risks of failure and shame to replace the lions, tigers and bears we’ve long since hunted into submission. Abundance is now paper instead of fertility, strength is now muscle instead of resiliency and power is now ownership instead of wisdom.

After eight hours of class, the dinner bell rang. We filed into the large mess tent and took turns sharing what we learned that day. Over a home-cooked meal prepared by Edith and her family, the students conversed and listened to music by the sun-baked inhabitants. Those who lived at Quail Springs exuded a purposeful satisfaction that was magnetic. Most of them were 20-somethings from various backgrounds looking to connect with something that felt real. While we sat in yurts all day, they tended the chickens, walked the goats, chopped the wood, harvested the veggies and slowly erected their mud and straw homes. As much as I enjoyed learning, I couldn’t help but feel envious. I hoped to soon participate more in the goings-on of the community and learn with my hands instead of my brain.

The days rolled by and classroom study was eventually broken up with short hands-on workshops. I grew increasingly at ease.

Permaculture_Cyrus Sutton

Permaculture_Cyrus Sutton

Truthfully, I’ve always disliked being around large groups of people. School yards, sporting events and rock concerts have always made me uneasy. At 21, I started spending large chunks of time by myself in the wilderness, not because I wanted to but because it was the only therapy that I could believe in. Now was the first time I’d ever felt clarity and joy without being alone in nature. In some ways, I’d given up hope of ever being able to live a normal life. I half expected to follow my dad and rely solely on solitary sips of wilderness to pacify my societal angst.

On the last day, we formed back together in the same large circle we did when we first arrived. As our summer-camp-for-adults drew to a close, we shared what we’d learned during our two weeks without cell phone service, regular showers or flushing toilets. The permaculture movement is made of a bunch of dreamers bent on waking themselves, and eventually their communities from this parallel universe we’ve created. I was filled with a new hope not only for myself but for society in general; that one day we can do a huge cutback and pull back into womb of life where we are using the gifts that surround us to create a culture that a sustains us. As evidenced by the scorched landscape around me, the transition will not be an easy one. Many generations of wisdom have been lost to “progress,” and it will take many generations to re-instate that reality.