On the 8th October 2011, Dinky (Flossie’s son) and I, embarked upon an adventure we would have never been able to foresee. Yes, I knew I was going on a Permaculture Design Course at Treflach Farm, yes I knew we were going to be staying in a yurt (…more about that later) and yes I knew we’d be in the middle of nowhere. What I didn’t know was how wonderful the people would be, the amazing things I’d experience and learn (I kid you not) and last but by no means least, I had no idea of the impact the course would have on me (and indeed on Dinky!).

I imagine all of this might sound a bit hippyish, or at least fluffy but I will start by saying you have to do it in order to have an inckling of the “Wow!” factor this experience can have. In truth, I am still processing the experience now and I imagine I’ll be “chewing the cud” on this one yet for quite some time…

Get on with it! … Ok! Ok! But just before I start I will have to make it quite clear, that for me to write up the solid goings on of 2 weeks of permaculture play and pondering… well it ain’t gonna happen! 😉

I think we can start with the welcome! We arrived at a calm and leisurely pace on the Saturday and had plenty of time to settle ourselves down into our various styles and modus’s’s’s’s’ of accommodation. For Dinky and myself and a friend, we’d opted for the yurt. For those of you unfamiliar with this type of shelter, a yurt, is a very nice looking, wooden framed and canvas covered tent. It is round in shape with a pointed/ rounded roof. Ample space inside for sleeping bags, cushions, mattress, luggage, dog and oh,… a stove too! Yup, a stove.

Other’s stayed in caravans, vans, tents and the other yurt in the field. It was quite a mish mash of shelters. Dare I forget the teepee. This was however, our “social” shelter, where every evening various combinations of individuals from our group would congregate to make music, laughter, song and general merriment and conversation. In fact it very quickly became apparent that in our midst, we were honoured with the presence of some extraordinarily talented and creative souls – folk musicians, woodworkers, craftsmen and women, chefs and “chicken whisperers”. Richie, who frankly is one of if not the most amazingly talented individual I have met, can make instruments (the real kind, not something that makes a sound, but a classic and traditional harp for example!) AND play them and he makes a meeeaaannnn squash vegetable hotpot thingy!

The Treflach crew kept us well fed over the entire duration of the course, to the extent that I put on 2.5lb (thankyou very much……) but not once did I feel lacking in energy and I knew instinctively that not only was my stomach and body being nourished but also my soul.

What did we learn though! Wow… where to begin. Peak Oil held a big theme throughout the course and society’s dependence upon oil was very much highlighted and explored. It is astonishing how relatively recently we have discovered, accessed, used, abused and completely exploited this natural resource. I suppose in a way, the repercusions of using oil and other fossil fuels are nature’s way of karmicly dishing out our just deserts…  We watched the film “Food Inc” which really highlighted for me just how far our world has been injected (to an almost subconscious degree) with oil and fossil fuels and how we simply do not realise just how dependent we are on it. I didn’t know that oil is used in the production of charcoal… It’s almost likely those magical mathematically tricks where you start “Think of a number…” and the chances are I’ll be able to guess the number you’re thinking of – only in this case, it’s “Think of a product…” and you can bet your bottom sterling, that oil was involved in its production. Scary and sobering to say the least.

But what about permaculture? What is it? The Permaculture Association states that:

it combines three key aspects:

  1.                   an ethical framework
  2.                   and understanding of how nature works
  3.                   a design approach.

The word ‘permaculture’ comes from ‘permanent agriculture‘ and ‘permanent culture‘ – it is about living lightly on the planet, and making sure that we can sustain human activities for many generations to come, in harmony with nature. Permanence is not about everything staying the same. Its about stability, about deepening soils and cleaner water, thriving communities in self-reliant regions, biodiverse agriculture and social justice, peace and abundance.”

In essence, in permaculture we are trying to discover ways of benchmarking, applying and working in harmony with nature’s natural systems. In practice though, this might involve NOT digging up the soil (giving it a chance to establish, settle, enrich itself and thus turn into the “black gold” it’s meant to be!), creating “swales” (little parallel mounds on hillsides which slow down soil erosion and help keep water in the soil) or planting a “forest garden” – these really take my breath away, as they truly show the potential of permaculture in action. If you put plants with deep roots, together with plants that have medium and shallow roots they will work together bringing each other the chemicals the others need e.g. nitrogen. Natural harmony at its best. The video below gives a good intro into forest gardening.

The practical side of things was amazing. Whilst I’m more than happy to get a numb posterior in a lecture hall or similar, getting out and about on this course really did help us put the theory into practice and see permaculture in action. We made several visits – one to the grounds of a gentleman, Mr Chris Dixon, who purchased 7 acres of land back in the early 1980’s. Back then the land had been thoroughly devastated by grazing sheep and was stripped bare of anything that might be green or grow. Employing permaculture principles to the land and encouraging biodiversity and wildlife through positive conservation management means that now the place is a veritable Welsh rainforest of a place! Wetland, forest garden, food forest and forest aswell as land which is being grazed by a very small number of sheep and some horses. I would recommend everyone visit Tir Penrhos to see the result.

Other visits involved picking grapes from a vineyard and apples for cider. My “Yurt Buddy” keenly decided to give Bachus a run for his money and promptly hopped into the trug to try out squishing the grapes per pedes (by foot). Whilst I applaud him for his willingness to try out new things, I didn’t jump quite so keenly at the chance to try out the foot squished grape juice… Yummy!

Practical sessions on the course included woodworking with Richie, who taught us how to use a number of traditional woodworking craft tools. This was an incredible experience and certainly gave me a very healthy respect for the craftsmen and women who take painstaking time and dedication to create some of the most beautiful things known to us. Richie himself is amazingly talented and I was astonished when upon passing his caravan, to see the stunning silhouette of his own harp. Difficult not to be nosy when you see something like that flickering in the candlelight. It is quite evident that handmade items such as (perhaps especially) musical instruments and things like chairs have their own soul and perhaps even a smattering of the soul of their creator. Richie had each of us working on parts of what was to become a Windsor Chair. Each of us spent alot of focus and attention trying to best create our own little piece of the “Treflach Permaculture Throne” – some of us a little clumsier than others but everybody enjoyed the sessions greatly and the immense sense of satisfaction you can get from making what looks just like a smooth stick (that you know will become a chair leg!) is brilliant!

My own enthusiasm was stoked when Kevin taught me how to use a traditional peg loom. Dinky even decided to help… Making the wool rug, from twisted and dyed sheep’s wool was very easy and great fun and best of all you saw the result instantly. I got so into it, that I ended up asking Richie to help me make my own peg loom using the tools we had. It still needs some tweaking but essentially I now have my own peg loom. Just need some sheep now…. for their wool… That said, I have been promised some wool by Treflach’s very owner farmer Ian. The resulting wool rugs are SO warm and soft and comfy!! It was exactly what we needed on the cold nights by the fire in the teepee and I temporarily borrowed one at night for Dink to sleep on. The nights were very cold despite the sleeping bag, stove, second sleeping bag, borrowed duvet, thermal pj’s, playsuit and woollen socks! Still I survived to tell the tale so I must have been doing something right!

Before I make this post too long, I will quit while I’m ahead and leave you kind people to digest the first dose of our permaculture adventures. Meanwhile, I will further digest my thoughts on the experience to hopefully come up with an AS exciting follow up to this post! Keep your eyes peeled for the next installment!