A Permaculture for Plants and People

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Elizabeth at Shanti Permaculture Farm by Vinnie the Guy

I took a drive with Elizabeth one of my first days at Shanti Permaculture Farm. We hopped in her grey GMC truck, with raccoon prints on the front window and her two field spaniels curled up in the back and headed for the farm supply store. We wove through the idyllic vineyards and redwoods of Northern California, windows down, tires barely matching the road’s edge. It was one of those rare occurrences in which someone says, “great weather we’re having,” and you can feel, deep in your bones, like wind brushing through pores, that they really mean it. My heart opened. Here was Elizabeth, saying to me the same phrase I’d heard all my life, a phrase which had become nothing more than the white noise of a suburban leaf blower, and returning it to the wind– returning the words to their purpose: to mean what they say.

I’d noticed this about Elizabeth from the moment I met her: they way in which she allows things to breathe their own essence into life. As the owner of a juvenile (3 or 4 years in the making) permaculture/sheep/duck/chicken/singular llama, farm, you’d think she’d have a more set structure to things: a plan for getting from point a to point b, a road set in concrete. And undoubtedly, Elizabeth does have a plan. She’s a woman with a will as stiff as the soil she’s rehabilitating: a woman with a purpose.

Yet the way in which she manifests this purpose is far from the black and white, step one to step two, brick by brick, path to success defined by a system overrun with way points: graduate high school, graduate college, maybe professional school, get a job, find a partner, have children, and so on. It’s a way as different as a weather man, speaking of the weather forecast with the same intonation he would use for a school shooting, is from Elizabeth, sticking her arm outside her truck’s window, looking over fields of sunshine made form, uttering “great weather we’re having,” with a way as simple and strong as the breeze.

This difference is certainly rooted in many things beyond my grasp, but certainly one factor I’ve been shown is this open-ended, unattached way in which Elizabeth carries herself and thus her land. Elizabeth wasn’t raised as a farmer; out of college she worked as an engineer, a travel guide in the U.S. and in Southeast Asia, a massage therapist, and a nurse before she began the pursuit of farming just four or so years ago. As an avid traveller, spending time in over forty different countries, Elizabeth was far from settling her roots in any one location. She spent most of her life carrying her home on her back, cultivating her garden in her heart; in fact, the first couch she ever owned is the one sitting in living room at her farm. For all intents and purposes, a sense of a formulaic structure, in both her external life, and in her own understanding of herself, hasn’t had the slightest grip on Elizabeth. So, you might be wondering, as I first did upon my arrival, how does such a free-spirit, open-ended, go with the flow, type person like Elizabeth run a farm, something which demands a large amount of arrangement and design?

Shanti Permaculture Farm by Sebastian Heyer

I think in part, it comes down to Elizabeth’s knowledge of her end goal and her dedication to creating a sustainable life for herself and her loved ones, doing her best to do right by the Earth, while never once allowing herself to believe she knows the way to getting there better than the amalgam of intelligences of life itself– whether it be the plants, her animals, her workers, or a random stranger at a farm stand. Her willingness to be open, paired with her courage to walk a path “blind,” so to speak, and her incredible trust in others and the Universe, has allowed for the making of a space which is self-determining as opposed to subjected to the whims of any distinctly separate mind or soul.

Elizabeth attributes most of the success of her farm to the creative contributions made by those who come to stay on her land by way of work exchange. She insists the space be a place for inventive minds to come and dive into the mystery of a structureless system. Beyond feeding the animals every morning and evening, collecting eggs, making meals, and doing dishes, those on work exchange have the freedom contribute to the farm, “in whatever way satisfies them, brings them a sense of accomplishment, and hopefully, also helps the farm out.” I was skeptical of this methodology upon first arriving at Shanti, so much so that I insisted we make a spreadsheet for people to sign up for daily tasks. Of course, as I would learn is typical of Elizabeth, she didn’t make an overt objection to my plan, open to any contribution I felt I could share with the farm, all until I plainly asked her if a spreadsheet would be useful; she just looked at me and said, “things here seem to come together a bit more organically,” as if to say, “just wait and see.”

Sure enough, I let go, compromised with a long term task list as opposed to a daily one, and tasks managed to get themselves done between everyone on the farm. If someone forgot to unload the truck filled with hay, someone else, as if by magic, without even being told to do so, would go ahead and take care of the task for them. Seamlessly, volunteers would begin cooking dinner while others were preoccupied with tasks around the land. I remember one morning in which everyone was getting ready to go their separate ways and perform their individual jobs for the day when one worker came in and corralled the group calling an impromptu meeting. He said he needed help digging some dirt out of a ditch he’d made for some electrical wire and that he couldn’t get it done before the hottest part of the day without all of us. Thanks to the dynamic at Shanti, none of us had to think twice; we all chipped in and got the job done before lunchtime.

By working in such a settling, I learned (at least in part) to let go of my desire to pave a specific path to a certain goal, to try to direct the currents of the wind, rather than let them carry me. I learned the value of walking into a day, listening to the need of the moment, and answering accordingly; all of my life I’d had a planner, an agenda, a set schedule to fall back upon. Here at Shanti, I was given no such thing; only the mystery of a day uncharted and the fullness of being in relationship with the spirit of life beyond my own musings. And while this type of structure, formless and fluid hasn’t necessarily the same security as is provided by a desk job; all that it lacks in the ease found in stability it makes up for in what I can only call, fullness of life.

I think of a story Elizabeth shared with me about the time her llama, Cosmo, escaped the farm’s grounds and subsequently led the entire flock of sheep down the very center of the road just beyond the farm. Traffic stopped. Nobody knew what to do– there’s no real protocol for a six foot llama and a whole herd of sheep marching down your route home from work. Elizabeth hopped in her car, pulled up right next to Cosmo, looked him dead in the eyes and ordered him, “Cosmo! You get back in that fence!” And sure enough, Cosmo turned himself around, and all the sheep with him, and made his way back to Shanti. How much richness of life in one story! The comedy of a llama marching down the road and stopping traffic with his army of sheep; the suspense of a worried mama wrangling her animal companions back into their homestead; the beauty of direct interspecies communication, spoken and recieved. Surely this isn’t the type of lifestyle one can plan for, but my G-d, is it beautiful!

I believe that as a culture we have largely forgotten about the beauty of delving into the unknown; the sustenance that is the sun rising after a moonless night. It is only in the letting go of our need to shine light upon and understand and organize everything that we can begin to experience the wisdom, novelty, and resonance of a life lived as it is, always has been, and alway will be: beyond our control. So often, we try to construct a narrative around things; we try to fix things a certain way so that we can make sense of it. We haven’t the courage to let life speak its truth to its fullest capacity: the truth that life is beyond our control.

If we wish to truly engage with the mysteries and the dormant wisdom waiting to be revealed– the wisdom which just might give us a shot at returning to such an integral part of why we are here, which just might help us to realign our words with their meanings and our actions with our hearts– we absolutely must trust in nature’s plan, let go of our obsession with control, and give ourselves to the wind.

Now, this doesn’t mean we all ought to go ahead and quit our day jobs or up and leave and begin trekking through foreign jungles; I believe this shift is much more nuanced. Truly, it is a shift of mind and a shift of heart. Just as Elizabeth and the weatherman can report the same message by words, there is a fundamental difference in the execution. This is the subtle change of heart we need to embody in all of our actions. We can still fill out our agendas, go into work at eight a.m. and sit at our desk for however long; but all the while we can still keep a spontaneous light in our hearts, deeply aware that any and all of life is nothing but a gust of wind and we are naturally far more like the trees than we are the buildings in which we work. We mustn’t continue to fool ourselves into believing that we are not likewise riding the currents of the unknown; we must remember that when we have the courage to truly live this changeability known to formlessness, innate to our being, things begin to fill out, life becomes richer, and in some ways all the more real, all the more satisfying. No longer are we living in the fantasy world of our own psychosis, thinking we are massive concrete shelters impervious to any and all forms of chaos, forgetting that the winds of the universe have come time and time again and brought humankind to our knees, shattering what we thought to be our indestructible destiny, our absolutely determined legacy; instead, we are bowing before those winds and letting them carry us by the Intelligence which harvested and planted seeds far, far before any of us human figured out how to do so.

Hannah Arinis an intern at Tikkun as well as a rising senior at Pitzer College studying Religious Studies and Philosophy. She is particularly interested in the sanctity of language and rehabilitating her own, as well as our collective relationship to the written and spoken word.