Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Guest Blog: As I said in my last blog, we’ve had guests for a week, fellow blogger Kristen (l’ arpent nourricier) (lit: “the nourishing small plot of ground”) and his wife, Christine. Kristen is an engineer by trade and very analytical by nature. His project is to devise how to produce food to feed his family while still working four days a week as an engineer. Secondly, as a fluent speaker of English, he wants to transfer to the French-speaking Internet as much material he can from the vast corpus of information for small-scale, organic farming published on the English-speaking Internet. Thirdly, he hopes to get to know like-minded people and participate in projects involving local, small-scale, organic farming. I invited him to write a guest blog, over to you Kristen …

For me, there are four steps one may follow to learn a new trade:
- read everything available in books or on the internet
- view videos that show how it is done
- practise under the guidance of someone more experienced
- improvise alone and learn from one's mistakes

Learning from one’s own mistakes can be disheartening, even dangerous, sometimes leading to giving up, which is sad. Learning from other people's big and small mistakes is very valuable. While most books and videos will generally show you only the right way to do something, so that you may be completely unaware of all the mistakes that can be done, Stuart's blog shamelessly documents the mishaps along the learning path, which is why I have found it a fantastic source of inspiration. I love a “master” who remembers about where a pupil can trip or err.

Teaching takes time. Especially when the apprentice starts from zero. This is why steps 1 and 2 are so important: by learning first everything that can be learnt without a teacher, not only does one save a lot of that teacher’s precious time, but also one completely changes the learning process. Instead of a dull accumulation of seemingly neutral information (remember math at school?) it becomes a series of eureka moments, because now every new learning fits like a new piece in a nearly finished jigsaw puzzle. And the work of the teacher reduces to a succession of “did you know this?” “have you seen that?” or the occasional “you'd rather do this that way”.

The common practice with permaculture courses is for students to pay a monetary fee. While this makes perfect sense, it makes me uneasy because not all students can afford this (to say nothing of travel costs). Indeed I am convinced that permaculture is not a wealthy westerner's utopia, but a true hope for the world, including people in impoverished peoples in our own and less-developed countries. Perhaps, then, a solution could be the medieval master-apprentice system, with the master teaching and providing basic food and shelter, while the apprentice contributes to the completion of the master's projects. Maybe I am just being miserly, but I do believe this is a very sensible way to envisage permaculture teaching (or any other discipline, for that matter).

This is why I am so supercalifragilistically grateful to Stuart & Gabrielle for accepting my bold proposal of coming over for one week while on holidays in Brittany to give a hand in return for everything I was sure I was going to learn. They took a risk when they accepted, all the more so as Stuart had pictured me as fortyish, bearded, and American: apparently because my writing is full of Americanisms. The week was an extremely enriching mix of work and observation: weeding the small-scale edible garden at their holiday gite, learning to slaughter and butcher a pig (not hands on, though - such things should not be rushed) sorting the compost piles, trimming the low branches in a pine-tree plantation (photo shows L-R, Stuart, me then Gérémie) watching the ballet of chainsaws while Stuart and Gérémie felled pines for the first thinning, understanding how the composting toilet directly feeds the gigantic oak-tree, clambering through the willow collection, perusing the extensive permaculture and eco-construction library, watching permaculture films, discussing permaculture from the grand design to the little tricks … and, most importantly, becoming friends.

I hereby offer return the same favor to all candidates eager to spend a week or two on my arpent nourricier. Stuart and Gabrielle are first on the list.