Learning the Language of the Land
When Emily Castle ’18 traveled with the Chesapeake Semester to Maya Mountain Research Farm in Belize, she encountered a tropical agroforestry system that seamlessly blended food production into the rainforest, blurring the boundary between nature and human settlement. Now she’s helping create a similar system in Washington College’s campus garden, using the principles of permaculture.
“I think most people, if they have heard of the word permaculture, think of it as a kind of organic gardening,” says Castle, an environmental studies major. “But permaculture is far more than organic gardening. It’s a design philosophy that calls us to observe and identify patterns of our local landscapes and then work with those patterns, rather than against them, to create ecologically resilient and food-secure places.”
Since her return to campus, Castle has led permaculture projects in the campus garden and joined the first cohort of students studying permaculture ethics and methods in a new academic internship. Guided by Shane Brill ’03 M’11, a permaculturist who manages a small homestead near campus with bees, chickens, and over 200 plant species, the permaculture internship helps students look closely at how ecosystems work and decide how they want to position themselves at the intersection of nature and culture.
“With permaculture, we have the potential to grow more nutritious food that improves the land instead of damaging it,” says permaculture intern Julia Portmann ’19, a biology and environmental science double major. Callie McMaster ’21 says the internship has directed her focus to a landscape’s functionality, rather than aesthetics.
“I ask myself questions such as ‘Is that plant native to this area, will it attract wildlife, how does it interact with other species, how does it contribute to the surrounding?’ I now see landscapes on a larger picture, and how each location has a variety of purposes.”
Permaculture theory is grounded in — well, the ground. Students literally create the soil in which they implement their designed foodscapes on campus. They propagate edible houseplants and start seeds in worm castings in the Toll Science Center greenhouse. And true to the vision of the Eastern Shore Food Lab, they learn to how cook and preserve the harvest.
They began the spring semester with a superabundant harvest of sunchokes — a nutritious tuber from a plant related to sunflowers, once a staple food of Native Americans.
“We took over 25 gallons of tubers from a land area maybe twelve square feet in total,” says Kailani Clarke ’20, an environmental science major whose work as the campus garden ethnobotanist goes hand-in-hand with the permaculture efforts. “That kind of yield is rewarding.”
Clarke correlates ethnographic accounts of plant uses with scientific studies. Much of the information she finds “is the product of hundreds or thousands of years’ worth of the observations and utilizations of different peoples. Everywhere I look now it seems there is something that could quench thirst or sterilize a cut. And that’s a great feeling too, learning the language of the land.”
The sunchoke is an iconic permaculture plant for its many functions: its tall fibrous stalks act as a visual screen, compost aerator, and fuel for the campus garden’s earth oven; its flowers offer a late autumnal source of nectar for pollinators; and it’s perennial — so students don’t have to replant it each year. Sunchokes also stand tall among foraging enthusiasts, including Euell Gibbons, the wild food revivalist and celebrated author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus.
As an homage to Gibbons, the student permaculturists prepared a sunchoke chiffon pie. And where his recipe called for a graham cracker crust, they made one from freshly milled wheat berries, another crop they might grow on campus. They also made apple cider vinegar — by juicing apples — and lacto-fermented sunchokes.
“I love the idea of making as many products from scratch as we can, and I am especially excited for all the work that we are doing as an extension of the Eastern Shore Food Lab,” says Portmann.
“With modern large-scale agriculture leading to so many public health and ecological problems, learning historical foodways and different methods of sustenance is extremely important,” Clarke says.
An early principle taught in permaculture is “observe and interact,” a guideline that Clarke believes can heal the disconnect between people and nature. She describes “the simple, powerful act of getting out there. You can learn a lot from books and classes, but to truly care about something and gain a deeper understanding of it, you have to experience it with all of your senses. Experience can lead to the love of a place and its residents, and the desire to protect them.”
McMaster agrees. “I’ve been lucky to learn a variety of different skills including propagating plants, extracting honey, tapping trees, and identifying some of this region’s native plants,” she says. “But the most valuable skill I have taken away from this internship is how to watch and use all my senses to take in a landscape. Learning to observe a surrounding has had a profound impact.”
The students also are beginning to see permaculture as a way to look at the world and examine broader issues from that interconnected perspective.
“Permaculture, most simply, is a way of thinking,” says Castle. “This way of thinking is about creating beneficial connections among ideas, disciplines, populations, individuals, and natural elements.” It lends itself perfectly to a liberal arts education, she says. “It asks one to think critically about one’s local landscape and to have the moral courage to create something beautiful and eco-functional in harmony with natural forces. By studying permaculture, we can all become more knowledgeable advocates for the design philosophy at Washington College, the Chesapeake watershed, and future landscapes and communities we will inhabit.”