"Observation is a form of intervention" says Chris Dixon, writer and permaculture practitioner. The warm June air breezed through the surrounding trees as we sat outside discussing regeneration, planning permission, and all things permaculture.
"Everything you see was planted, apart from the big oak. The year we got it, it was just a sheep lawn. Everything was grazed right down to the stub."
In 1986 Chris, and his wife Lyn, bought 7 acres of land in Coed Y Brenin in Snowdonia National Park, Wales.
Their home Tir Penrhos Isaf was composed of a dilapidated barn surrounded by an over grazed meadow with little biodiversity and a scattering of mature trees. Exposed to the pressure of grazing, the land’s yield from a permaculture perspective, was limited.
For six years Lyn and Chris commuted from the nearby village to their future home as they applied for planning permission to live on the land. One of the very first steps they took was to exclude the grazing sheep. The six years of commuting were a training in looking at the land and hearing its needs.
"We started a wilderness regeneration project in 1986. I thought I was fencing off a piece of land to plant trees on. I thought I’d leave it for a year to see what happened. There was so much stuff coming through that it was obvious there was no need for me to plant anything.”
The land their classroom, Chris reflects on the wisdom gleaned from listening to the land.
“Six years of daily observation of natural regeneration was the mainspring of all my strategy and my knowledge of permaculture design. It was a fantastic period of observation, every day, watching the change. It continuously boggles me, this phase of transition. You think everything stops and stabilises. But for me that was a big clue really. Land – like people in communities – is dynamic.”
He continued: “‘Look here! this is what happened here!’ the trees and land tell. Its like a brilliant classroom. For me to learn in that wilderness patch for six years was like going to University every day.”
(Above, a photo showing the land before regeneration.)
This kind of patience is a rare quality. As humans we have a habit of wading in knowing what’s what. Hubris often disguised as knowledge. As Chris handed us the ‘before’ pictures we replayed coming through the gate, trees on either side as we passed over a running stream. The photograph and what we saw now with our own eyes both the same piece of land but completely different scenes.
"Fifteen years ago I went back onto the regeneration patch," Chris recalls, "and walked a completely different route so I came at it from a different angle. It was like being in a different place. I didn’t recognise it at first. As I was standing there, looking at these 40-50ft trees, I rolled back time, like a film, in my mind, going back down to the gorse that supported the tree, peering out of the gorse and then going back down in the ground and replayed it all in my head."
As Chris had told us most of Britain was forested in the past. That is the natural inclination of the land and left to its own devices that is the way most land wills itself.
While Chris and Lyn were going about their lives and growing food Chris heard of permaculture in the early 1980s from an old friend who brought him trees and used to do chainsaw work for Robert Hart (forest garden pioneer in the temperate world and author of many books). Studying permaculture in 1991 Chris convened a design course with Andy Langford and went on to teach alongside Peter Harper, Mike Feingould and many others. Today he receives students and wandering permaculturists as well as being a senior tutor on the permaculture diploma pathway.
Kindly giving us his time during a family visit Chris spoke frankly about the challenge of living on the land and gaining the right of permanent settlement. After years of struggle in 2006 Chris and Lyn were offered, as a compromise solution by the Welsh Assembly, to convert the barn. The barn conversion has been a double edged sword as Chris explained it gives them permission to be on the land without any ties to agriculture but it has been an arduous journey, with the trauma of cancer and the threat of eviction along the way, the barn has had to receive a lot of work to comply with building regulations, and, although cheap by conventional standards, came to a larger costing then their desired, and cheaper, low impact timber dwelling.
(An old photo shows the dramatic changes over the years of regeneration.)
Chris has detailed the planning history on his website which makes for an instructive and informative read: www.konsk.co.uk/planning/plan1.htm
But before all that, before the land, before the barn, we were interested in how they came to arrive at permaculture as it were. Nuclear armament and cold war were the dominant narratives during the 70s. At that time although there was talk of global warming but it wasn’t a certainty. The future, as we were told by mainstream society, looked bleak. Questioning the existing system and looking for answers Chris and Lyn turned toward John Seymour’s book Self-Sufficiency and the search for their own land as a way “to get out of this trap.”
I was reminded of our conversation with Kate and Anthony, a young couple who having chanced upon Rod Everett at Middlewood Trust were themselves reaching similar conclusions to Lyn and Chris with their questioning the trappings of debt, mortgages, and unsatisfying work.
So we asked what advice could Chris give two budding permaculturists galavanting across the UK on a research trip. He wisely responded that he didn’t give advice — a lesson learnt from experience. Rather he told us what he would do if he was us. And again we were told of the benefits of finding like-minded people and going at it with a group who share the same ideals. A sentiment that we’ve heard often and one which we are still undecided about.
And hindsight is a wonderful thing. But in the process of living foresight is needed. Not to say that mistakes aren’t inevitable. Its just a question of how you use them. Like the homes we live in and the cars we drive when a mistake happens it’s hidden and our culture is not geared toward giving individuals the time or space to learn from mistakes as we inexorably rush into the next thing. Incorporating the mistakes not as faults but as learnings has been an invaluable lesson for Chris.
"Some of those lessons are dead simple that could be passed on in one sentence. But also not hiding mistakes. Its great for me to go around and point out what i thought at the time was "oh, i’ve done that wrong" but realise now ‘bloody hell i’m so glad i did this wrong’ because i’ve learnt so much. To be able to point out the mistakes and have a laugh."
We left buoyed by our meeting with Chris and Lyn. Walking back along the drive and onto the road through the national park we marvelled at nature’s tenacity.
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