Hope Springs in the Darkest Hour

Maddy Harland
Saturday, 14th December 2013

In the darkest days in the Northern hemisphere you can be forgiven for grieving about the state of the world. Maddy Harland, editor of Permaculture magazine, counsels us to live our permaculture lives to the full and take hope from all the good people and projects in this world-wide movement.

At Permaculture magazine, we believe that the best way to demonstrate that a better world is possible is to live it, regardless of whether governments and politicians are listening, and it seems that the majority are not.

This is an intensely frustrating and anxious time for those who are worried about climate change. Earlier this year we hit 400 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere for the first time in human existence. CO2 levels haven't been this high for 4.5 million years and it looks like we may have a rise in global temperature of 6ºC by 2100. I am not going to describe what this means in detail but this is a world with no polar ice caps and sea levels 40 metres higher. The sane response would be to do everything to curb atmospheric CO2. I am frankly afraid of how insane our current behaviour is.

Bert Harvey recently told me an African proverb: 'Calm seas do not make skilled sailors'. We will, by the power of nature, be forced to become more skilled not only as 'mariners' but also in our articulation of these coming changes and methods of adaptation. I pray that we will also change our ways and I have spent years thinking about how that process of change is initiated.

Beyond publishing this magazine and our catalogue of books at Permanent Publications, our work touches other spheres and allows us to explore change. We are lucky to be part of a community at a recycled naval base that has been transformed into The Sustainability Centre. The centre is an educational charity founded in 1995 and I am currently the Chair of the Board of Trustees. My voluntary work here brings even greater engagement with others and balance into my life. It is an instructive process.

Maddy with a PDC group in her forest garden

Many wonderful things happen at The Sustainability Centre. We run a campsite and eco-lodge, and welcome around 20,000 adult visitors here a year, whether they drop in for a cup of tea, take a course or stay here. We also run The South Downs Natural Burial Site which this year was voted the best site in the UK by families who have used these services. This is a big accolade and the guys who do this work are deeply dedicated. They help people in difficult circumstances whilst running the site to the highest ecological standards; people feel a connection and sense of investment in the centre. Some return and volunteer on projects and form tight-knit groups which regularly work together. Working here, I get to watch an overstood conifer plantation transforming into a biodiverse broadleaf woodland, and scrubland returning to chalk downland, alive with insects, reptiles, mammals and birds. From grief springs new hope.

Three thousand school children also visit the centre every year: residential schools attending our South Downs Experience week, children coming to day events or courses, plus a special six week programme for children who are 'failing' at school. They may have special needs and find the conventional academic curriculum irrelevant, or they may have experienced a trauma in the family and are desperately unhappy. They spend time outside doing practical work and learning new skills rather than being confined in a room, segregated from their peers. Our education team teach them bushcraft, food growing and outdoor cooking, forestry and forest school skills. You could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow when the unruly are taught how to sharpen blades or to make fire from a spark, but what is really cultivated here is trust, respect, hope and a real love of the outdoors. From feeling academically useless, some of these kids go on to college and take practical courses. Others simply start smiling again. One girl told me that her desperation was so great she didn't want to live anymore. Her time at the centre literally saved her life. All of these stories move me deeply.

Some of our schools are from desperately poor areas and struggle to find funds to come here. A recent inner city school gave us an insightful experience. Whilst out in the woods, one child asked, "Am I in a rainforest, miss?" The only frame of reference she had was from a lesson about the Amazon Rainforest. The class had no concept of their own local ecology, something that should be every child's heritage. We believe that "We will not fight to save what we do not love and we cannot love what we do not know." (Stephen Jay Gould)

Our aim is to teach and inspire through 'immersion'. We want our visitors, young and old, to be immersed in the values, ecology, technology and society of our centre and leave refreshed and enlivened by it. I recently taught a session at a Permaculture Design Course here. My parting words were: "Never think it is all over and that adaptation is our only route. Choose a life that is creative and responsive to change. Be practical and realistic but never give up. Standing behind you is an entire global network of people who are supporting you." From grief may hope spring anew.

More from Maddy

Why permaculture motivates and inspires me

A greenhouse that thinks it's a forest garden

What is permaculture - part 1: Ethics

What is permaculture - part 2: Principles

The Sustainability Centre has a great website that describes all of its activities and is full of beauitufl photographs of the place, many taken by Penny Rose who is part of the educational team here.