Friday, January 30, 2009

Day 12 - Community

Today we capped our Permaculture module with a discussion of community. This will be a short post for now as I need more time to absorb this information and formulate my response. However, I see this as the great mission of learning.. How do you then pass on the knowledge? How do you apply these concepts that move you into your daily life? How do you bring the edible forest garden into your city lifestyle? How to you help people to open their hearts to a more beneficial life?

Quotes/ideas from today to capture here:
Growing through schisms and 'isms'
love to do it (what you are doing)
bioregionalism - everything working together in harmony with the natural region/climate (c'mon, we all love our tomatoes in January and our bananas in NYC, trade is still possible, but without the reliance on the huge corporate movers).

Day 11 - Agroforestry/aquaponics

Every day we build a little onto the previous lessons. This post is to cover what we studied on Thursday, 1/29.

Today we talked about two different types of permaculture systems, agroforestry and aquaponics.

Agroforestry is a practice that takes the ideas of permaculture and creates edible forest gardens. This uses the forest as a teacher, how nature organizes itself should be a model, should it not? We have been fighting the natural cycle since we started monocropping agriculture. Pesticides, herbicides, the need for constant tilling, shouldn't that show us that we are on the wrong track? Agroforestry systems are built in the layers of a natural forest to be self-maintaining, self-renewing, and self-fertilizing by using beneficial plant relationships. They also are delicious, stocked with fruits, nuts, berries, herbs, and all the good stuff.

After discussing how trees are they key to any true permaculture system, we went to visit the Univeristy of the Virgin Islands aggricultural research laboratory. Here they are doing some really amaing things with aquaponics. They are farming tilapia and creating a truly closed system recycling the water and fish waste to feed the various plants they are growing. It's called aquaponics because it combines aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil). It is a bit technology-laden and requires a LOT of energy input, but it was informative none-the-less.

Personally, while I very much understand the need for farm-raised fish as a way to feed an ever-growing population. Tilapia is easy to grow, high in healthy fats, and a good source of protein. However, after visiting the farm, looking at they tiny tanks sometimes packed with as many as 1200 fish into each tank, I had no stomach for it. I am not vegetarian anymore, I believe that people are omnivores and that the best way to maintain a healthy diet is by eating local, fresh produce and naturally raised or hunted meats and fish. Those fish have no life to speak of and the chemicals that they pump in to change their sex to all-male to manage the population turn me off. I wonder if in all their studies they have determined the effect that those chemicals have on people? I also wonder who funded those studies..

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Day 10 - Permaculture III

Life's a garden, dig it.

This unit on permaculture is making me itch to design systems for people to live more in harmony with their surroundings. Coming from a city girl who is on her way to live in NYC when this program completes, you would think that's no easy task. We watched the rest of the Global Gardiner movie with Bill Mollison tonight. In this movie he highlights how permaculture design can impact different climates and landforms. Tonight we watched the section on designing functional green spaces in NYC. How appropriate!

I keep thinking about the unused rainforest land my mom owns out in Washington State.. it would be so amazing to use the knowledge I'm gaining here to build a functional, sustainable living space there. It's always been a dream of mine to build something out there, but never did I feel like I could actually do it.

Give someone the tools and they will find their own confidence.

Some great lines from today, 'get comfortable with your ignorance' and 'learning is remembering what you are interested in.' I am definitely interested.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Day 9 - How to dig a Swale

Permaculture Continued.

This is such an important topic I think I should spend another day discussing the key aspects.

Val asked me last night about'buzzwords' like sustainable. Sustainable just means to go on, it doesn't mean anything positive except when applied properly. As my mother wrote to me after reading my last post on permaculture, "folks are putting together many disparate aspects to create thoughtful human habitats. Robert Rodale would be proud and preaching practices, if he'd lived (but he'd still be dead of old age!). He created Organic Gardening mag. My hero. I'd love to build on those principles, too. Water and compost are keystones, if you could have two." I decided to quote her here because that is the same reaction I had to learning about this type of agriculture and development. It's better than sustainable, the yield can be better than regular organic gardening because of the beneficial relationships between the plants and the animals they attract, and the soil can be improved instead of stripped from cropping. It's pretty amazing stuff.

The activity for Day 9 was to build a swale. Now, first of all, a swale is
used in permaculture design to slow and capture runoff by spreading it horizontally across the landscape along a contour line. On contour means that it is all at the same elevation so it doesn't flow through the trench. This captures water, holds it, and allows it to absorb into the soil. Later in the program we will be building a permanent structure, so in preparation for that we want to design that land for what we want it to look like when we are done. We analyzed the site for where would be the best place for a swale to fulfill our specific restrictions. Then we needed to learn to survey the landscape using a transit and grade rod (we also practiced using an A-Frame and a Locklevel to try different methods). Then it was time to actually get in and DIG!

We were worried about time, it was already 3:50 by the time we even got out the pick-axes. However with 9 of us we were able to dig the 50-foot ditch in an hour! The design called for the ditch to be dug about 4 feet wide, on contour, pulling the rich topsoil out and then piling the dirt on the downstream side of the ditch, topped with the better topsoil, to create a berm. To rebuild this soil that we had just disturbed we quickly planted it with legumes (innoculated with a natural bacteria to increase their nitrogen-fixing capabilities) and a few morenga seeds to grow into larger trees.

All in all, the process helped us understand what would go into designing and then actually executing the construction of a home site.

The awesome home-made pizza, coconut icecream, and vegan cookies were definitely appreciated after a long and fulfilling day of work. I'm curious to see where this takes us next!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Day 8 - Permaculture

This week our focus is to lay the foundation for our education in permaculture. I will discuss this a lot in the coming weeks, I'm sure, but I was very excited with the ideas presented to us. If you have never heard the term, google it. This is something that I wish more people were taking the time to understand. We can create agriculture that is truly sustainable and permanent. Bill Mollison is definitely worth checking out for anyone who is concerned with the state of agriculture today and desertification due to till-based agriculture and the resulting topsoil erosion.

The spark for me was the humanitarian applications. Mollison has gone to various third world countries to show them this type of sustainable agriculture to re-green areas of the middle-east and provide a source of food for villages. I know that I want to find a way to synthesize what I'm doing here, either through education or through development work.. I'm starting to see pathways.

Thank you to the people who have read my words and offered their thoughts through these first few stages in the process I'm undertaking here. I have a long way to go and I appreciate the company.

The photo is from our hike down the Caladonia Gut. It was a great rock to jump off into the clear pool of springwater.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Day 6-7 - Farm-Based Education Wrap-up

I won't backdate this entry.. I didn't post Thursday or Friday of this week. I was really happy to have people email me and ask me what had happened and why I wasn't keeping up with it. Thanks for being curious about what the heck I'm doing out here in the forest! I'll try to keep it interesting. The next module, Permaculture, is going to make that task VERY easy for me. It's going to be exciting stuff.

Why I haven't written..

Dan (one of the founders of the farm) said it best when he said, 'you all came for a reason and every decision you made in the past (good and bad) are what got you here.' We do a lot of talking about how each step in this process effects us in our learning and our personal growth. This week my talking with my advisers involved tears and a lot of unanswered questions. But I know that is why I am here. I am here to stop looking for the 'what I am supposed' to do, and start asking the right question, 'what do I want to do?'

This is part of *my* Farm-Based education. This is what I am on the farm to do and I am putting myself to the task of asking some good questions, maybe the answers are not really the quarry anyway.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Day 5 - Making Fire

Thank you to everyone who subscribed to this blog and took the time to read some of it, it really means a lot to me. I'm in an interesting transitional period in my life here and all of the support from friends and family really helps.

Today marks one week living in the rainforest. Time is going so quickly. Despite our differences everyone respects each other and we get along well. we incorporated primitive skills into our education module. Survival skills make up a lot of the teaching that they do on the farm here as a value-added product. The lesson really began last night when we went on a hike in the dark up to the ridge. From there we watched the stars and built a fire using a bow drill. Today we built on that by making our own bows from different wood found in the forest.

I will make fire before I leave here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Day 4 - Farm Based Education II

Since today was "Obamaday" and the students were off school we were not able to teach the lesson we painstakingly prepared. In exchange we had the opportunity to watch the inaugural address live on streaming internet TV. We may be living in the rainforest in the Virgin Islands, but this is still technically America. Thank you for coming through for us, CNN totally fell down on its duty.

I could get into my analysis of the speech, the messy and halting swearing-in ceremony, or other political babble, but that is not what I'm *here* to accomplish. Instead, I'd like to talk about our method of lesson planning that I didn't get into in the Day 3 write-up.

As a group we approached the task of planning a class to teach the following day with apprehension. Can I teach what I am only just learning? I am terrible with children and they can smell fear. As someone who attempted to teach kids before, I understand the process that I went through to haphazardly plan English Language classes with little or no training. I know how stressful it can be. Our instructor, Nate, began by tempering our irrational fears with the idea of the 50/50 rule, expect 50% of your planning to work and have back-ups and alternatives to cover the rest.

Nate began with the analysis of the natural cycle, and ancient way of relaying information as described by the directions, seasons, and the cycles of seeds and growth. When we started to understand each of the positions on the circle we could see the roles that each of us would fill in the lesson. We played a game that we decided to rework for the students and came back to plan our class.

It was amazing the transformation that the group underwent through this activity. We returned to the planning area and each had clear ideas and impressions about how best to relay the information to the kids. The run-through wasn't perfect, but armed with the proper tools I think we can handle a group of 8-12 year-olds.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Day 3 - Farm Based Education I

Today we began our first unit of study: Farm-Based Education

This program is broken up into modules that everyone studies together and completes group projects and tasks in each particular area. On top of that, each student chooses a specific aspect of the farm activity to specialize in and complete a final project of his or her own choosing.

Farm-Based education is a very broad topic because it includes many different aspects of the farm, how we teach these subjects, and how to create a value-added product to the farm to off-set the expense of training educators and other associated costs. This unit is very interesting to me and I am pretty sure I'm going to use this as my final project.

We are just beginning to work out our learning contracts so we have time to learn more about each area of study. They are all so interesting! I hate to give you all of this information up front, but you can be excited with me for the upcoming adventure.

1. Farm-Based Education
2. Permaculture
3. Sustainable Building
4. Renewable Energy Systems
5. Organic Gardening/Agroecology
6. Animal Husbandry
7. Slow Food
8. Agrotourism/Marketing - Bush Skills Weekend!

I lean toward focusing on Farm-Based Education because it is the most applicable to my current vocation and skill-set, but there also is a lot to learn. I am excited for the projects associated with each focus area and for what each individual will explore in their personal project.

As part of the Farm-Based Education module we learned about the natural cycle in learning and teaching roles. I have never thought about teaching like that nor observed these subtle stages in the process of acquiring knowledge.

The holistic method of teaching that they do here is to inspire someone to learn, give them the tools to learn, and achieve learning through action.

"Seeding beneficial relationships to inspire abundance, creativity, and joy."

I will explain the process that we went through to learn to teach a lesson in the Day 4 post.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Weekend Reprise

After being away for the weekend I returned to the farm on Sunday night. The weekend was nice as it was an opportunity to see my best friend Lexi, his girlfriend Amanda, my sister and her boyfriend Mark, and some of the friends I have made on the island.

While the farm is isolated in the beautiful rainforest, the island of St. Croix is more than a host. As Nate said you can either live "on" the island or "in" St. Croix. We try to be a part of the community.

Much like the days here, the weekend was full of activity. Some people chose to stay on the farm and others adventured into Christiansted or Frederiksted. The highlights for me were the Saturday hike to the tide pools in Annaly bay, an excellent dinner at Savant Restaurant, quality time with Lex, and the Sunday Haiti benefit pig roast and auction.

Back to work!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Day 2 - Water`

Obviously, a fundamental part of the Ridge to Reef program is the understanding of watersheds. We discussed and then experienced the flow of water from the high points, through farmland and over road networks, down to the confluence of these streams at the ocean and how it effects the health of the coral reef. We are lucky to be situated just a few miles from the ocean. Today we explored the Caladona Gut, the beautiful watershed that surrounds us. I have always associated water with emotion. Today's hike and discussion helped me to visualize the role of water in our lives.

We followed the flow of water from the farm and interacted with the many species of plants and animals who must live with our run-off. Like the fresh water I wash my face with at my cabana in the morning, I followed the path that my wastewater, facewash, and toothpaste take. The "beneficial" aspect of this farmer training course is to understand that the goal of sustainable farming should not only be to continue to exist, but to leave the soil, the water, the air a little better off. Better than sustainable.

Would the ginger flower bloom drinking your run-off? Would the soursop taste as tangy sweet if it were fed your facewash? Do your pestisides make the sandbox trees grow tall and strong and spiky? Do the horses want to drink your toothpaste?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Day 1 - Introduction

After spending a few fun-filled days in Christiansted it was time to break away and head into the rainforest.

Creque Dam Farm (it's pronounced "creaky") is amazing. Living in a truly diversified sustainable environment has been both eye opening and inspiring. It's only the end of the first full-day and I already am vibrating with excitement. Today we started out with simple getting to know you activities to introduce each other and our various backgrounds. Each of the instructors bring some interesting skills from agriculture, animal husbandry, to primitive survival. As for the students, we come from some different backgrounds. Some have lived on farms or worked on farms at some point and am looking to expand on that experience while some, like me, are a little older and are mostly looking for knowledge and education to make life changes. Some of us have spent years doing what was expected of us and some were encouraged to take their own paths.

I am going to try to keep my posts up to each day of the program so that each post will build on the one before. I will start with some background and color.

Creque Dam Farm is a 200 acre farm in the rainforest near Frederiksted, St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands. It has been in the works for over 6 years and before that the land was used for horses and in the distant past, sugar cane production. The farm is built with the ideas of permaculture and sustainability. The water is produced through the well and roof gathering. The water system is run by a solar-powered pump as are all of the other electric systems.

I'm living in a cabana on the hill overlooking the rest of the farm. It's open air (with screens doors and walls). It's not entirely sealed off from bugs but the lizards are always hungry. It is surrounded by nothing but dark and the sounds of the forest at night. It is truly something to behold. 9 weeks in here.. There is more that I want to learn than I feel I will have time for.

Check my flickr page for photos! Here are a taste from the first farm tour.

Off to bed, big day tomorrow. I have many more entries to write.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Pre-VISFI Reprise 2

7 days as of today. It's 8am on Saturday 1/3.. 8am on Saturday 1/10 I will get on that plane and start this next adventure. I have a lot to do to get ready, but the excitement, nerves, and determination are building.

Just a few more days..