Back to School

Around here it’s the first day of the new school year and I feel queasy.

On social media, proud parents are posting messages wishing their little darlings and little darling’s friends well at their new school/in their new class. There are photographs of slightly embarrassed children in new school uniforms and comments saying how excited the children are. And I feel even more queasy.

In all honesty I can tell you that there are still nights I wake up terrified from a dream about trying to memorise a complex school timetable or being forced to play volleyball. Even entering a school building makes me go cold inside. The fact that our local swimming pool is on school grounds put me off going for ages.

So, on this day, I am thinking of all those children who hate school. Who, like me, will be educated despite rather than because of school. Who will wake up every weekday morning for years dreading the day ahead. Who, more than 30 years after they last walked out of their school gate, are still adversely affected by their experiences.


Even at the age of 5 I didn’t seem to be enjoying myself (fourth from the left seated, on the second row)

I don’t have children and I’m not a teacher, but if you are I urge you to remember that school days are not always the happiest days of our lives. I know that home education is not possible for everyone, but if your children have to go to school, please support them if they find it a difficult experience. And if you are a teacher, please remember that there may be children in your class who are terrified or stressed or simply unhappy; that bullying can be very subtle; that not being good at sports can be incredibly isolating; that being different can make you a victim. Children who feel this way almost certainly can’t tell you, for fear of the response of their classmates or because they simply daren’t speak to you.

We all learn in different ways, and a classroom is not the ideal place for everyone… a bit more flexibility in our education system would help. However, I doubt this is something that we will see soon in the UK. Anyway, for the moment I just want to highlight the issue and say to any children reading this who feel this way, there are people who understand… and life is SO much better once you don’t have to go to school any more.

Ecology… again

I have spent the past few days teaching; this time is was an introduction to ecology. This is a course that I have been running for   years now, so I’m anxious that I don’t become bored with it beciase I’m sure the participants would notice. As a result, every time, I try to incorporate something different, whilst still retaining the activities that seem to work best. Even after all these years, we are still playing the predator-prey game that involves sandpaper and blindfolds (you’ll have to come on the course if you want to find out more)! And learners always enjoy going out and looking at habitats in the field – thinking about why they are there and what might influence them. However, there were two new aspects to this offering of the course.

First, I made use of my recently purchased pH metre. We measured the acidity of soil from three habitats – two different woodland areas and two different grassland areas. Trying to work out how the pH values might differ and why turned out to be a really engaging exercise. Next time, I think we’ll dig soil pits too.

Second, I had a new prop: the Loch Ness Monster. I knitted her specially for the course. Again, though, if you want to find out why she appears on an ecology course, you’ll have to come along!

Nessie making her debut on my Introduction to Ecology course

Teaching at Karuna Permaculture Project

I spent last weekend teaching an Introduction to Permaculture course at a forest garden project near Church Stretton in Shropshire called Karuna. I arrived on Thursday afternoon to get settled in and set up the teaching area and the course started on Friday morning. Janta and Merav, who own the place, made me very welcome and we enjoyed damson wine beside a camp fire on Thursday evening.

An outdoor session in the sunshine

When the course started I was delighted to find that, as well as folks from England, Scotland and Wales, we had one person from Holland, one from Mexico (although she now lives in the UK), one from the US (currently living in London), one from Russia (via Berlin) and one who had been living in New Zealand for five years… not bad out of 11 participants. The best courses are those where people come from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of experiences and we certainly had that. We were able to discuss attitudes towards food, growing, the land, communities and chocolate in a range of countries and from various perspectives. On a course like this I feel that I go away having learnt as much as the participants. Although I am referred to as the teacher, I really just facilitate, providing a framework for everyone to build up knowledge together.

Janta showing off one of his almond trees to the group

Karuna itself provides a marvellous location to teach about sustainability and growing, with a series of forest gardens containing trees, shrubs and perennial vegetables, annual vegetable growing areas, open rides, apple grafting, a pond, a large poly-tunnel, solar panels, compost toilets… and more. The range of fruits and nuts grown is staggering, including apples, pears, plums, soft fruits (loads of black currants this year), apricots, grapes, cobbs and almonds (actually fruiting this year). Then there are the perennial vegetables : artichokes, cardoons and kales. Plus the annual vegetables that we ate every day: they are still eating potatoes from last year, when they grew 20 varieties.

There is so much going on and Janta and Merav and their two boys work hard to maintain the site. After a long battle over planning permission, they have recently been granted permission to construct a low impact dwelling from straw bales… can you believe that it could take five years to get permission for a small, low-impact house, when there are huge ‘executive’ homes being built everywhere you look across Britain (well, at least where we live)? I can’t wait to see how they get on with it – the detailed plans have not been drawn up yet, but I know that it will be circular with an external diameter of 12m. Still, in some ways they have been lucky, it took Tony Wrench 10 years to get permission for his tiny low-impact round house in Wales!

All-in-all, it was a great course at a great location. Although we were only together for three days, the group had really bonded and I was extremely sad to say goodbye to them on Sunday afternoon.

Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves!

I have a cunning plan…

… a plan so cunning you could stick a tail on it and call it a weasel (thanks Blackadder)… at least I don’t have it yet, but I will one day.

And what is my plan for? Well, everything really – I am hoping to have a mosaic of permaculture designs to apply to various aspects of my (sustainable) life and, together they will constitute my PLAN.

I told a friend this a while ago and the response was ‘permaculture is gardening fascism’! Well, not the variety that I have encountered. To me permaculture is whole systems design – emulating patterns from nature in human systems to make them efficient and self-sustaining. This appeals to me because, by training, I’m an ecologist – I have a PhD in land reclamation, which involved studying the re-creation of vegetation systems on restored open cast coal sites. I am fascinated by looking at natural relationships and seeing how these can be applied to physical and social systems created by people. For me, the easiest way to think about this sort of design is in my garden, because I understand the value and function of things like soil structure, micro-organisms, micro-climate, water, pollinators, decomposers and vegetation. But I am increasingly intrigued about how I can apply systems-level thinking to other aspects of my life: starting a new business, working with other people, designing a course for adult learners…

Now, I have to confess that I work best when there are targets and deadlines and a ‘reward’ at the end. All of my working life these days involves relatively short tasks that I am paid for. So when I edit a scientific paper, I know that the ‘reward’ will be a payment of £XX and that the work will be completed in just a few days. Perfect for me. However, planning my life doesn’t involve specific deadlines and prompt payback (well, it might, but only in certain circumstances) so I needed to find an approach that would help me to get on and make plans. I have, therefore, taken the plunge and registered to do a Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design… this requires me to produce 10 permaculture-based designs over the next two years. I have a tutor to guide me, but I can choose whatever designs I like; so, I’m going to take the opportunity to focus on various aspects of my life and actually come up with some real plans… rather than just vaguely thinking about ‘stuff’ as I seem to have been doing over recent years. This may not be the way forward for lots of people, but it’s ideal for me – a structure, with a reward at the end (I love qualifications… I have loads of them!) and some support along the way.

I had my first tutorial last week – it was great – and I drafted the first version of my first design over the weekend – that was fun too. I think that I am probably a learning junkie!

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