Teaching currently takes up about half of my year and involves a significant amount of travelling, albeit mostly in Britain. The average number of participants on my courses is twelve. Some might study this behaviour and suggest I could be more efficient. Economic logic recommends that I book a large seater venue, forget about providing food or accommodation and market that one course intensively. That would give me plenty of time to spend at home and involve the least amount of my time in sharing what I have learned, Such a strategy would keep the costs down for participants too. So why don't I choose to do that? Why teach so many courses to smaller groups of people in so many places? Well I can answer that question with just one word - Diversity.
Those of you already familiar with the principles of permaculture will know the word well. Life succeeds for a number of reasons, one of them being its ability to adapt to a wide range of niches. No opportunity goes untaken for long. By applying the secrets of life's success to the things we do, we can create better, more resilient systems. Let's start there. A monoculture might seem like an efficient way of growing a lot of one thing, but it's actually a very fragile approach. We have to input a lot of energy and resources to grow crops in such a way. Permaculture systems are much more diverse, if one thing doesn't do so well in any given year there are others that will. Running one course a year only sounds like a good idea until something goes wrong, then it becomes a disaster. An 'all your eggs in one dropped basket' situation.
How else does diversity apply to teaching? An obvious one is availability - the more days I teach, the easier it is for potential participants to fit a course into their own schedule. I can run courses in different formats, the permaculture design course (PDC) for instance as either a two week residential, or over a longer period at weekends. I can offer more specialised courses like forest gardening or 'designing your permaculture livelihood'. Teaching so often also gives me plenty of opportunities to teach with others, offering extra benefits not just to the participants, but to myself too. I learn a lot every time I teach, but especially when I teach with my peers. Teaching with those with different skill sets also provides the opportunity for different 'flavours' or themes of courses. Teaching at different venues can enhance this even further, let me use the three two-week PDCs that I'm teaching over the next two months as a perfect example.
My next course starts this coming weekend at George's Woodland in South Wales. The site is home to Tony Martin who has been developing it as a permaculture project over the last decade or so. It's part established woodland and part low-grade former sheep pasture, now filling in with trees. The key challenges on the land are an excess of water, the slope, and a bit of a north-westerly facing aspect. A long way from ideal - which is actually the reality for most of us, if we get access to land at all. Tony has done it all, almost entirely on his own, with a very limited budget and a very creative mind. If you've read my first book, he is the creator of the 'veg tank' (on page 114), an integrated system where plants are grown on top of water containers (where they are easier to tend and above many of the pests), watered by capilliary action and nurtured by the thermal mass of the water. The plastic of the tank is in turn protected from the full UV of the sun. Very smart! Tony also has the only properly working (i.e. hot - over 40◦C) compost showers I have ever come across.
After Wales I travel across the country to Norwich. Immediately you may appreciate a change of theme - for those of you less familiar with the geography of Britain, Norfolk is a much drier, lower lying region. Park House, the venue, sits among a few acres of grounds on the outskirts of Norwich, giving the course a more urban theme, while still having a some land to develop. The house itself hosts a live-in community so this also gives a flavour to this PDC. They grow a significant amount of their own food but are also involved in local urban projects. Dee (who looks after the house) shares his knowledge on ecological systems and a local tree expert teaches a day on trees and woodlands.
My third PDC is at Landmatters, an intentional community in the south west, near to Totnes. The 42 acre site sits astride a sheltered hill and is home to a number of families in eight low-impact dwellings of various styles. They are off-grid (for power and water) and grow a significant amount of food on-site. Throughout the course different members of the community share their expertise on different topics from off-grid electrics to community structures. The course has a strong theme around living in community and how we might learn to do that better wherever we live.
So as you can see, each of these courses has a distinct flavour, no doubt you would have your own preference depending on your interests. That's only possible if I keep on moving (that's another of nature's secrets by the way, but I'll save that for another post). So, is there a place for 'lecture theatre' style mass permaculture trainings? Of course. I feel however that such an experience lacks the personal touch, any serious diversity of teaching methods and quite likely, as greater retention for the material as the more diverse approach.
All my upcoming courses can be found here.