One of the best ways to start creating a deeper connection with the land is through the learning and application of Permaculture. A Permaculture Design Course (PDC) is a sure fire way to learn to engage and build sustainable ecosystems while nurturing a relationship with the natural world.
Being a simple system that works alongside nature to create productive and vibrant ecosystems; Permaculture has a universal appeal and applicability. Indeed, many of its defining principles have been a part of traditions worldwide. After the term was coined in Australia in the 80’s, the concept has spread to be practised all over the world.
Every PDC is specific to local conditions of climate, biodiversity and social culture. It is therefore beneficial to learn Permaculture in conditions similar to those you plan to work in. In order to bring out the importance of this fact, Indian Permaculture pioneer Mr. Narsanna Koppula always uses the term Applied Permaculture.
Having worked for decades with local communities to empower peasant women in Andhra Pradesh and other parts of the country, Mr. Koppula comes with an in depth understanding of India’s agricultural-social landscape. This combined with his direct learning from Permaculture founder Bill Mollison puts Narsanna in a unique position as a teacher and researcher in this field in India.
Leveraging AES’s own expertise in the sustainability space, the PDC in 2015 was conducted with Mr. Narsanna on a farm at Karjat. One of the ongoing land development projects under AES, this piece of land is a budding site for sustainable agriculture as well as community outreach and development. Situated on a gentle slope, the land is lined with hills on the east. As a primarily uncultivated space, there was ample room to implement various projects on ecological restoration, eco-friendly farming and water conservation here. The PDC itself being based on such concepts was perfectly suited to the needs of the land.
Throughout the course, the students implemented a series of initiatives from the ground up. Water availability being the major requisite, many harvesting structures such as contour trenches, bunds, percolation ponds and earthen dams were created. The next important step was building of the soil – a highly undervalued yet irreplaceable and non-renewable resource in our world. Students created compost piles and trenches at selected locations to balance the need of the soil and the availability of the raw material.
Planting was then started in a carefully planned manner. Perennials play a major role in establishing and maintaining an ecosystem. Starting with those, many plants were transplanted onto locations that would best meet their own needs as well as allow them to give the most benefit to the rest of the ecosystem.
Designing with Nature – Bio mimicry of patterns
A reliable way to create a functioning system is to mimic Nature in its patterns and designs. Evolved over millions of years, Natural systems have attained levels of efficiency and all-roundedness which is far beyond even modern technology. Starting with the structure of bio-molecules and cells to that of organisms, ecosystems and the whole planet – Nature gives us clues on how to go about a process with the highest benefit to all involved.
So every organism always plays multiple roles in an ecosystem. Specific physical shapes and spatial arrangements of these various organisms allow for most effective flows of heat and light, water and nutrients. By observing these patterns and applying them to our designs, we can save energy and resources while maximizing biodiversity and food yield. The Mandala garden made by the students is a good example of this.
The fractal design has several small keyhole gardens arranged around a central circle – thus forming one large garden, called a Gangamma Mandala. Each keyhole is a point from where one can tend to several plants at once. This saves on human effort and makes watering easy. Various sized plants are planted in a staggered fashion to optimise sunlight penetration and accessibility. The central circle provides compost for all the plants. The space between two keyholes is again used to plant something different, optimising space.
To make the garden, raised beds were created using silty soil from the stream bed and lined with rocks to keep the structure intact. Here it is shown while being made and after sprouting.
Nurturing the Land – Nurturing yourself
We are an inseparable part of the ecosystem and taking care of people is an integral part of taking care of the Earth. Each day on the farm began with early morning yoga ( yo-g ) sessions with AES’s very own yoga expert Amol Ghag. The word Yog itself means connection. The physical asanas are designed to bring the body to a healthy state so that the mind may be focussed without disturbance from the body. As such, the asanas like cat, dog, lion, tree, mountain and others may be seen as examples of bio-mimicry; personifying the connection that these entities share with Nature.
After an energetic yoga session followed a breakfast of hardy local recipes and fresh fruits before the students would start farm work for the day.
Combining these dual aspects of Care for the Earth and Care for People is crucial in Permaculture practice. Imbibing yogic principles of meditation, exercise and nutrition in day to day life can thus be a powerful tool for a well rounded Permaculturist.
Imbibing Diversity in Learning
From water harvesting, soil regeneration and appropriate technology to composting, seed saving, sustainable design and companion planting techniques – a vast array of subject areas were studied and practised.
Planting, sowing, harvesting and even something as seemingly simple as digging the earth, can be done more efficiently by applying certain rules and methods. Conservation of human energy where possible is an important part of creating and sustaining a bountiful ecosystem of which we are a part. The older more experienced students at the farm guided the newer ones in developing such skills.
Everyday was an interactive learning experience where many of the students led and contributed to the sessions alongside Narsanna. Many valuable insights were shared on natural construction, local farming practices and low tech energy solutions.
Creating Real Impact
The ongoing development of the farm received a boost as the students put their backs to work tending and slowly making changes to the land. The gully-plug technique shown below demonstrates a simple way of using local materials to create an effective barrier to water that would otherwise gush down the stream. The plug, which is a rudimentary dam, provides a whole range of benefits. Once the speed of the water is restrained, it can be channelled into a small pond and allowed to percolate into the soil. This drastically reduces the amount of soil being washed away and also conserves water. The silt deposited in the reservoir formed, is a rich source of minerals which would have otherwise flown away.
Come rainfall, both the contour trenches and the gully plugs will kick into action, silently building up resource reserves and adding fertility to the land for a long time.
As the roots of the trees planted on the bunds along the contour trenches start to take hold, the bunds will be strengthened. Here also the water seeps into the soil through the trenches and deposits silt exactly where the trees require it. It is an example of mimicking a lake-shore or river-bank ecosystem with its very own microhabitats – a source of rich biodiversity for the whole farm.
Adventure, Creativity and Community!
Various wild species were identified and documented during hikes to the nearby forested areas. The importance of so called weeds was revised to understand their myriad uses to us as well as their contribution to soil fertility. So many such wild plants such as Purslane are not only edible but highly nutritious and easy to grow in poor soil and less water. This particular plant is packed with minerals, vitamins and more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable. Yet it is absent from our markets! Here it is shown growing along side spinach in a vegetable bed.
Evening time at the farm was spent sharing stories over dinner, followed by a thought provoking documentary or a stargazing session. We slept out in the open under a shed or under the stars in this peaceful place unpolluted by noise or artificial light. The cool night breeze was punctuated by gusts of warm air – the result of heat stored in the deforested rocky slopes of the east hills. Maybe we shall plant some trees there next time.
In a journey filled with adventure, creativity and much learning, perhaps the greatest takeaway from a course such as this is the forming of a community of like minded people. As the youngest participant of the group put it, “The most amazing realization was that we are not alone in this journey toward conscious living”.