Feb/ March 2017: 2 Week PDC: Suryalila Permaculture, VillaMartin, Spain

When the acceleration of succession occurs, there comes that keypoint in the bell curve when growth is explosive.  Working here at Suryalila has shown me once again how the ramping up of a big project is a slow and arduous process at times.  However having been leading TreeYo Permaculture for eight years, that keypoint seems to have occurred.  I continue to emerge as more of the canopy species holding space for others to flourish through mentorship and the amazing journey known as the PDC.  It is a hallowed art to take people deep and high in this winding marathon of two weeks.  A bit like walking through the forest in a rambling way but with a guide that knows the next step, the next twist and turn.  It is truly an honor and I feel blessed to have been one of this group with 27 students, one part-time student who is the lead chef at Suryalila, and flanked by my current running mates Jacob Evans and Itai Goldman.

Students enjoying plant propagation demonstration and the exponentialness of nature

I witnessed, ironically enough, people come from all walks of life and again four continents with all the cardinal directions of Europe represented as well.  It was truly a cultural sharing once more and the group was all the rest of layers of the forest composing a beautiful architecture full of interconnections.  And with the backdrop of the wonderful host site Suryalila Yoga retreat center opening its doors to a cast of characters, the place was changed forever for sure.  While yoga has been the main focus of the retreat center over the last five years, the staff, volunteers, and management team all thoroughly enjoyed having this group here to bring a bit of diversity and a pumped up atmosphere.

Thus like all courses we went step by step through the pattern laid out by Bill Mollison who has passed away since my last time I taught the PDC.  We owe so much to him, that fast growing prickly pioneer for his brash bravado and systematic approach to synthesizing a plethora of disciplines into the wonderful design science and ethical approach to development.  His brilliance of creating such a holistic framework for the 14 chapters guides us always in these courses with the space to add our own flair.  And to cap it off the design project with its apply now part of the learning pyramid sealing the deal of the learning agreement between teacher and pupils.  As he said eloquently the forest is our greatest teacher and we must ensure their preservation and creatively design their inception back into the world.  With this guiding force we studied the principles both in the classroom and in the field whilst also working to the sites reforestation aims.

One highlight of that was the Wizard, Jacob Evans taking the students on the farm tour.  Jacob is the farm manager and right hand man when I am at the site and gives a similar tour often to the retreat guests when the center requests.  We have worked hard over the many months since we joined up in June of 2016.  I laid out the pattern in my first consulting/design trip when I arrived in March 2016 and we have been diligently manifesting it ever since.  It’s a simple pattern after all, harvest the rain water, set up perennial growing systems, redevelop the soil food web, rotate and mange animals holistically and plant for biodiversity.  And the students helped to do many of these things as well in our hands of terracing, tree and hedge planting, and building hot compost piles.  And the feedback loops are coming back for me and Jacob on our successes and failures both with nature and the people involved in the project.  Management is happy as guests are giving good feedback of the sites transformation and beauty.

With that, we started hands-on with fermentation since this was the subject of one of Bill’s books and a passion of his.  Itai Goldman, the other course assistant, jumped in on this one as well as his passion for microbes is contagious for sure.  From there we went into our revolving once a day over three days for two hours at a time hands on sessions with terracing and hedging with myself and Itai, hot compost with Jacob, and natural building on the straw bale project with Somesh, another community member of the site.  I can’t comment on the other projects so much but we received good feedback as it is so nice to be able to break down in smaller groups so we can give more one on one teaching in the field.  I throughly enjoyed working with Itai on this one as we made quite a big push with the terraces down to the moonshala, another straw bale building at the site.  We were looking for a north facing garden in relative location and found just the right spot amongst a periphery spot of the larger olive grove.  The olives frame the design and give much-needed shade and wind protection to start as the soil rebuild.

So we worked with nature as we dug to infiltrate water and setup perennial food growing spaces, planted biodiverse hedges to compliment the olives and protect from the north wind sector, planted deciduous trees to give some east and west protection of the intense summer sun, and added lots of organic matter.  We did earthen mound terraces with slightly sunken beds beneath this as we marched up the hill with two or three terraces between the rows of trees added earlier.  Students learned through the body and got a chance to get active and sweaty on some extremely warm weather for this time of the year in Southern Spain.  We had good fun along the way picking the soil, using hoes and rakes to drag it back, marching back and forth to form the stabilized mound and to broadfork the beds for a looser soil underneath.  As we were doing this Itai and crew were digging individual tree planting terraces and their associated guilds along the northern edge.  The combination of the two extended the edge of where we were working thus allowing more people to be engaged since it was a bit of a tight space with 11 people.  People got to rotate through different jobs and I feel really learned the earthworks and planting process depending on what they really plugged into.  As a side note we did finish the terraces after the course with some of the students staying on and combining with other volunteers to complete this vital growing space.

Again, meanwhile we were terracing with these revolving groups, Jacob was teaching others the hot compost pile technique that I taught him and he of course adapted for his style.  So we got three 1 + cubic meter sized hot compost piles built through the course, which is a huge boon to the site.  We were flipping consistently throughout the course again with volunteer support led by Jacob when he wasn’t in the classroom. Furthermore Somesh made some progress with the students also on the new straw bale building.  There was some cob mixes made and earthen plasters applied.  It was more of a tester and teaser for the students of natural building as it always is in the PDC.

Beyond these hands-on all done in the first week, the second week featured an intense and fun communal experience. After the hands-on demonstration of plant propagation we had around 1.5 hours to plant 150 trees in our keyline alley cropping system of the old wheat field.  In June of 2016 with the design of Jesus Ruiz, the first permanent lines of the keyline system were installed under his guidance.  In November 2016 we did the first subsoiling to match the keyline design and just before we did it again in March of 2017 we planted the first trees; the drought hardy nitrogen fixers that precede tree crop planting in drylands degraded systems.  Thus I ran around like a general shouting out orders to coordinate nearly 30 people digging, planting, watering, putting compost down, and mulching.  It went smooth for the most part and we even finished 15 minutes early, thus nearly 2 trees per minute.  It was quite easy with the lines already marked by the keyline, the lines having been subsoiled ripped previously, and the soil moisture perfect for this operation.  It was a warm morning but people worked really hard in the mid day sun to get it done.  With that many hands and feet running around, it truly was a communal experience to once again give back to the host site.

Furthermore throughout the 14 days the group really came together and formed one of the most supportive groups towards each other and their teachers that I have experienced from a group.  One example is when Itai jumped in as a guest teacher in a PDC for the first time in his second language, they really supported him to get over the nerves and do a download of his passion for soil and microbes.  The feedback was great to hear from the students and I am thankful for Itai’s continued support on many levels and the incredible feeling of collaboration.

The final design project really embodied this as well as we were able to create a ecovillage in the old wheat field (currently under key line cultivation/ alley cropping) through creating six parcels in the 5.5 ha field.  We didn’t have to force the collaboration part rather simply express the intent for groups to do so and the underlining message of collaboration not competition was evident.  Thus each group was to create a housing unit and design around the other functions assigned like cottage industry, food production, water, soil fertility, and fire protection to name a few.  Overall the groups functioned well, and yeah there was some storming like always, some nerves when presenting, and a lot of integrated knowledge.  I felt really proud as their teacher as the TreeYo holistic Pattern of Development came through in the designs, both as a group, individually, and as a collated whole of 6 properties making an ecovillage.

Again I give so much tanks to the host site Suryalila, to my teaching partners, and to the students who made this possible.  We laughed a lot and a general great vibe was abounding.  People learned, people transformed, and we all went through the journey of seeing with new eyes.  The host site was diversified, and diversity brings resilience.  It’s just a drop of water in bucket of industrial agriculture in Andalusia but the seed is sowed, the water has been planted, and creative human interaction is in place.  And once again thanks Bill and all the ancestors of this movement, I have it easy.  And thanks once more to the students for being an inspiration in the design project to give new ideas to the conversion of the wheat field, the cornerstone of our regenerative agriculture operation at Suryalila Retreat Center, which has now morphed into the Danyadara Permaculture Association.



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