The university itself had opened some time earlier, to a somewhat mixed and anticlimactic reception, but already upon that first day, there was a rustle of something new through the halls there. Things were shifting, and it was clear that this place was undergoing change to becoming a source of change itself: soon to be reborn as Maldhan Ngurr Ngurra - the Lithgow Transformation Hub - if what I had heard was correct.
Arriving in the classroom, set just off the main street of Lithgow where the winter sunlight filtered through wide windows with a kaleidoscopic effect, I felt yet more weight added to the sense of apprehension which I had already been feeling. New faces, new ideas, and over all I wasn't certain as to what I should be expecting from something so entirely new to me. Would it be complicated, would it be little more a study in agriculture, or on the complete other hand would it be a complicated skill that had no hope of learning in such a short period of time? What even was Permaculture? Where to look? What to expect? Why was I here in the first place?
This last was not such a difficult question to answer. I had been invited by Lis Bastian, whom I had met some months earlier through Create Lithgow - a writing workshop that had immediately captivated my interest to no end. When I had heard that she was teaching a PDC – or Permaculture Design Course – I couldn't resist but to be drawn in once more to the pilot session I was attending presently. And, indeed, this first day ended with what felt like so many more new questions than any answers. Information and ideas ran free, and, rather excitingly, I had learnt that later we would be heading to Lithgow's Police Youth center, the PCYC, and practicing what we were studying there, which sounded far more engaging than what I had expected.
Unsurprisingly, I was more than eager to return the next day, and the next, so that by the dawn of the second week I was slipping to call the people with whom I was learning my friends. Curious, given the fact that we had all come to the course expecting to learn entirely different things, and yet had come together nevertheless, even as the differences among us were pleasantly obvious.
From outside, we were intermittently visited by many veterans in that we studied, some of which were among the mothers and fathers of modern permaculture, and others of which were simply using its principles to foster success in their own lives. Those that were kind enough to share their individual experiences included the Lithgow Environment Group's Julie Favell - a photographer with Destination Pagoda - soil analyst Robin Shannon and, perhaps most notably, Rowe Morrow; author of some of the most prominent publications in the study of Permaculture to date.
Between conversations with these individuals, some took to study and thought, while others preferred to learn with their eyes and hands - getting in touch with nature itself. Thankfully for the latter, it wasn't among one another alone that we sought and received inspiration, nor were we confined to our classroom. During our time together, we often took up and left the Hub for excursions - an exciting change from brainstorming and listening - beginning with the Hartley property of former non-violent nonconformism activist Matt Anslow, where he had built a life from scratch for himself and his family from scratch upon several glorious acres. Secondly, we came to Kevin McClusker's Killinbinbin Nursery in the slopes of Dargan, where he told us his story of surviving the 2019 bushfires, and thirdly our eyes widened in the company of the unbelievably inspiring and heartwarming Andy Stevenson at Vanam Retreat on the Darling Causeway.
Additionally, after a long week of respite from bitter weather, we visited community-run sites where what we were learning had been in practice for many years such as the Katoomba and Blackheath Community Gardens, and Eskbank House. We even attended the Gang Gang gallery in Lithgow itself to learn about the resident exhibition there, Destination Pagoda, which focused upon the more ancient natural aspects of our region, namely the 'pagodas' themselves; a series of unique rock formations in what is called the Gardens of Stone.
By this time we had spent quite a while on the road, however, and before long most of us were itching for action and to get our hands dirty - testing what we had learnt on the real earth beneath our feet. Thankfully for this urge, it was about time that we finally headed off for the PCYC itself to get our first glimpses of the place that we would be helping to transform. We had been specially given creative lease upon the grounds of the property to conduct a 'Perma blitz' - changing what had once been little more than a mess of hard-to-maintain grass and wood into something so much more enrapturing and entertaining for the after-school children the club cared for.
On what would be our final outing, we came to Terrie Wallace's massive 'From the Paddock' property in the Capertee Valley, where it became clear exactly how true permaculture’s principles were even on a very large scale. Wallace and her husband had maintained an ethos of environmentally aware livestock farming since they had bought the property, running against the traditions of automatic and chemical-laden agriculture strongly, and had remained successful even throughout the rodent plague at the time, 2019’s fires, and the droughts of recent years.
To achieve this, we would be finding as many remedies and giving as much aid to the land as we could in the little time we had, and later would be forming teams to plan into the future. While we still had to run our decisions by the management, it was a great responsibility knowing that we had their trust to work on something that had been the way it was for such a long time, and such a privilege also. Each visit we made felt as though we were coming closer and closer to the land we had been granted; conducting tests on the soil, and forming our own detailed maps of the premises that made us somewhat think of each part of the block as some friend or individual entity. There was something incredibly special about seeing these things we have been reading about and learning in theory really, truly working, and knowing exactly how what we were doing was affecting the land.
Toward our final week, we were to be found either hands on with the land, or working together in huddled silence, enraptured by our own ideas and ambitions for what was to come. The last few days were spent cleaning and polishing that which we had already achieved both on the grounds, and with our designs. Work was rapidly completed, papers were written up, and there was a sense of building excitement when we set down our shovels and pens for one last time to welcome the PCYC's management to the Transformation Hub, and give speeches about our designs in an intense, proud moment that felt as though it would stick with us for the rest of our lives.
The sense of teamwork we had formed in such a short period was felt by all present as the ideas were presented, and tears were even shed by the speechless management when everything was at long last over. But the benefit had not been entirely theirs in the slightest. Twelve days over six weeks is not a long time, but in those hours, our number had bloomed entirely with new experiences; taking inspiration from the pure spirit of working in tandem with nature, society, and their own ambitions alike to form true, real communities and enterprises amongst one another just like the property had found a new life. And there, as we parted ways for the final time - under the name of this course, at the very least - it was more clear than ever. The true principles of Permaculture cannot be written on paper, but are simply thoughtful observances of the world around oneself and common sense; all that paving a way to a better, more sustainable society requires.
Do you see things in the world around you that you have always wanted to change, but have never understood how you could? Do you spend time thinking about that which could be better, yet never seem to improve? If you do, Permaculture might just be for you. It isn't farming, it isn't science, nor chemistry, it is about changing the world; one broken habit and permaculturist at a time.